Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

02 October 2019

The Long Treason


Approximately 1979
This month is a special anniversary for me.  Forty years ago I became a published author.

After three years of submitting to various markets I sold a story to the late, and not particularly lamented, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I learned this fact when an envelope arrived in the mail with a check for $30 and a slip of paper with the title of my story on it. No contract, no letter of acceptance.

To say I was pleased would be a distinct understatement.

I was not the only person affected by the tale.  My wife brought a copy into the office where she worked and the next time I visited her co-worker Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened afterwards?"  I assured her that I had no idea.  I got so tired of her asking every time she saw me that I finally told her that the day after the story ended the main character won the lottery and lived happily ever after.  Oddly enough, this did not satisfy her.

By the way, the story was inspired by the title, which popped into my head one day.  Where that came from is anybody's guess.

I just reread the story and can honestly say that in the forty years that followed I have been paid more for worse.  So, just in case your complete set of MSMM's is in storage, I am reprinting it here.  I have changed nothing, although it was physically painful to leave that horrible adverb: "suddenly."  Ick.

I hope you enjoy the other words.  And thanks to Leigh for catching a few typos.


THE LONG TREASON
by Robert Lopresti

The old man had lived on the hill beyond the village for as long as Pablo could remember.  When Pablo was learning to walk he had seen the foreigner, already old, walking alone through the jungle.  Three years before, the old man had stood outside of his shack, watching when the soldiers came to take off anyone old enough to carry a gun.

Pablo's brother, Felipe, had been sixteen and had cried as they led him off to fight some war for El Presidente.  He hadn't returned.  Pablo's father died two years later, and at the age of twelve Pablo had become the man of the family.

To help his mother feed the younger children, Pablo went to work for the old man.  In that South american country it was widely believed that all foreigners were rich, except the missionaries.  The old man was a foreigner, but he was neither rich nor religious.

The work was easy: odd jobs and chores, repairs to keep the old shack livable.  The old man was too weak to do them himself.  He didn't pay Pablo much, but who else in the village could afford to pay him at all, still too young to do a man's work?  The job would keep Pablo's family alive till he grew up.

Pablo was running an errand for the old man when he first heard about the visitor.  The visitor was a foreigner who drove up into the hills in a rented car, dressing too warmly, bribing too richly.  Most foreigners, especially wealthy ones, would have been robbed and killed on their first night out of the city.  However, there was something about this man that made even the hungriest ladrones put their knives away and keep their distance.

On his third day in the mountains he reached Pablo's village.  That night, while they made stew for the old man's dinner, Pablo told the old man about the stranger who was asking questions.  The old man just shrugged and went on cutting carrots.

When the stew was ready, the old man invited the boy to join him, as he often did.  He always accepted, because it meant one less meal his mother had to stretch out of their meager food supply.

Although they ate in silence, neither of them heard the approaching footsteps.  Suddenly the door burst open, almost torn off the hinges by a powerful kick.  The visitor walked in, holding a pistol.

Pablo had jumped up, ready to run, but the old man touched his shoulder and gestured for him to sit down again.  The old man had shown no other reaction to the stranger's sudden entrance.

The visitor spoke a name which Pablo had never heard before.  The old man nodded. "So you have found me at last.  It's good to see you again.  You have grown older."

The visitor glanced quickly around the one-room shack before closing the door and approaching the small table.  He was about fifteen years younger than the old man, just leaving middle age.  His voice was so gentle that it surprised the boy.

"You have gotten older, too.  I can hardly believe that you are still alive."  They spoke in their own language, but Pablo had been exposed to many languages, and could follow most of what they said in that one.

The old man gestured, like a host to a guest.  "Sit down and talk for a while."

The visitor's lips compressed into a thin line.  "You know why I am here."

The old man shrugged and for the first time in several minutes he noticed Pablo.  "Let the boy go."

The stranger's eyes ran over him and the boy shivered.  "Go where?  To tell who?"

"He'll go home to bed, and tell no one.  Don't worry, old friend; there's no one here who would rush to my rescue."

The visitor's lips turned up in a tiny smile.  "That doesn't sound like my old teacher.  Do you really care what happens to the boy?"

The old man got angry.  "I don't care about him, or anyone else. And no here cares whether I live or die. I've made sure of that.  But why does the boy have to see it?"

The foreigner looked hard at Pablo.  "Will you go straight home, and say nothing to anyone?"

Pablo nodded.  "All right.  Go."

The boy ran out.  Once outside, he stopped and looked in all directions.  Then he crept around the outside of the shack.  At the rear was a spot where the wall was so low that by standing on a barrel he could climb silently onto the roof.  He had tried once to do some thatching up there for the old man, but the roof was in such bad shape that the patchwork was useless.

He crawled up slowly.  Some spots were so rotten that he almost fell through.  The rain must have poured through the cracks, but the old man never complained about it.  He seldom complained about anything.

Finally he reached the center of the roof.  Peering through a crack he saw both men, directly beneath him, seated at the table.

Straining, he could her the old man speaking. "...so many years I thought that I had been forgotten.  I'm almost glad to see you."

"Many others have looked for you.  Am I really the first to succeed?"

"Oh, there were others, years ago.  I suppose the trail has become colder with time, and it takes someone with your persistance to follow it now."

"Where are those early searchers now?  Buried in the jungle beyond the village?"

Pablo saw the old man's face twist into a smile, or perhaps it was just a baring of teeth.

"This is a dangerous part of the world, old friend.  Death comes suddenly here."

The visitor gestured with his gun.  "I do not intend to die in this hellhole of a country."

"Suit yourself.  It's good enough for me.  I'm not as particular about things as I once was."

"I have some questions I'd like to ask you."

"Feel free.  If you become tedious, I'll stop answering and you'll shoot me.  So ask away."

"We know that your new friends lost track of you, and that they are angry with you.  Why?"

"After I changed sides I lived in my new country for three months.  I saw nothing but the inside of two bare rooms and did nothing except tell their top spies about our top spies. After three months I decided it was time to leave."

"Because of the accommodations."

"Not that.  I wanted to leave before they discovered that they had paid me for false information."

The visitor stiffened.  "False?  You mean you didn't betray us?"

"I changed sides for money.  Isn't that betrayal enough?  I simply chose not to give them the information they wanted, so I had to get away before they found out."

The visitor scratched his head with the hand that didn't hold the gun.  "If we could be sure that that was true, that the secrets you held are still secret--"

"It would change a lot of plans, perhaps a national policy or two.  Agents you thought were known would be usable.  Codes, programs, and operations that were cancelled when I left could be dusted off."

"But--"

"But you can't be sure, can you?  I might be lying to you.  Once a traitor, always a traitor.  I taught you that."

The visitor nodded.  "But it would be just lie you to sell out and then double-cross the buyers.  After you left we tracked down all the little betrayals you made along the way to the big one.  Have you always had a price?"

The old man smiled and said nothing.

"It was very interesting, you know, this hunt for my old teacher.  All the time I wondered whether natural causes had already finished you off.  Or someone from the other side.  You know there are several countries that put a bounty on you, alive or dead?"

"Who are you working for, by the way?"

Pablo watched the visitor's face go white.  "You know who I work for.  Just because you're for sale doesn't mean that everyone is."

"A patriot, are you?  You don't sound like a student of mine."

"But I am -- they never let me forget that.  Do you know what your selling out cost those of us you trained?  A black mark on our records forever.  Every time our name comes up for assignment or promotion, they remember our teacher and feel a touch of suspicion.  When you betrayed your country you betrayed each of us."

"When I had influence you were willing to ride on my coattails.  You should know by now that there are free rides are always expensive in the end."

The visitor was trembling with fury.  "It wasn't like that.  You know it wasn't."

The old man sat in silence for a moment.  "Is this interrogation over?"

"One more question.  You mist have been noticed around here, as a foreign on the run.  How come the beloved Presidente of this country didn't turn you in?  It would be just like him."

"The fool thinks that I'm a Nazi.  There's a lot of them down here and they've poured gold into his Swiss bank.  So, accidentally, I fall under their protection."

"In that case, why aren't the Israelis hunting you?"

"They were.  When they found me I convinced them of the obvious fact that I wasn't a Nazi, and won their silence about who I really was."

"How?"

"I sold them the location of a few real Nazis/"

The visitor shook his head "You sell them out while their bribes are protecting you.  You really are amazing.  I think that betrayal is compulsive with you.  It comes as naturally to you was breathing."

Pablo had never seen the old man look so ancent.  "Breathing isn't as natural as you might think.  Sometimes I have to force myself to take the next breath."

"Look at me, teacher.  Look at me!  I s there one thing which you have not betrayed?"

The old man struggled to his feet. "I have always been loyal to my own interest."

The visitor's laugh was cracked and angry.  Pablo hadn't realized how tense the visitor really was.

"Your own interest? Look at you!  Dressed in  rags, waiting in the jungle to be hunted down and killed, living in this hole with no one who cares enough about you to bury you when you die.  You've done very well for yourself."

The old man leaned against a wall, trying to stand straight.  The foreigner got to his feet.

The old man spoke, and his voice was cold and hollow.  "Do what you came to do."

"You betrayed us all."  The foreigner raised his gun.  Remember that."

As fast as a jungle snake, Pablo turned over and hit the weakest spot on the roof.  The wood gave, then cracked, and he fell through with a crash.  The wood didn't hit the visitor, but as he darted aside in confusion he lost his balance.  As he fell to the ground he fired one shot.  When Pablo was able to get up he found the visitor lying unconscious, and the old man bleeding from a bullet hole in his leg.

****

The old man groaned as Pablo tightened the rags around his leg.  The wound had started bleeding again while they were burying the visitor.  The body was deep in the jungle with its neck broke, all identification and money taken.  When someone came looking for him they would assume that he had been killed by robbers.

Pablo had been surprised at how easily the old man had recovered once there was a specific job that needed doing.  He had tied up his leg, and then killed the unconscious man, showing none of the exhaustion that had weighed him down a few minutes before.

But now that the work was done he lay on his cot in the shack and moaned.  "I'm going to die."  He tried to sit up and the effort sent tears down his cheeks.

Pablo pushed him back with an gentle hand on the shoulder.  "You will not die, old man."

The old man looked at him, and finally  asked the question that had hung between them for hours.  "Why did you do all this?  You mist have heard what he said about me.  What makes you think that I'm worth saving?"

Pablo smiled.  "I will take care of you.  You will get well."

The old man closed his eyes.  For hours he lay there he lay there trembling, and Pablo never left his side.  At one point, late in the night he began muttering: "Loyalty... a second chance... loyalty."

Three years, thought Pablo.  He must live for three more years.  Then I will be sixteen, old enough to be taken by the army, like my brother Felipe.  Old enough to be treated like a man.  I will go to the city then and sell the old man to the highest bidder, and Mama and the children will never be hungry again.

"You will not die, old man," he said softly.

26 September 2019

"Miss Evelyn Nesbit Testifies 'Me Too'"


I'm happy to introduce Ana Brazil as our guest blogger for the day.  Ana and I are both appearing in Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology (edited by our own Liz Zelvin). Ana is the author of the historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER (published by Sand Hill Review Press) and the winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association 2018 Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal for Historical Fiction.  Take it away Ana!  Ana's story in the anthology is "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents", and if you haven't heard of Miss Nesbit - well, she was the nexus of one of the trials of the century - the very early 20th century.  Take it away, Ana! -Eve Fisher

by Ana Brazil

It might seem like a no-brainer.

When I—an author of American historical crime fiction—wanted to write a Me Too-themed short story, a story about crimes against women, retribution, and even, possibly, healing, Miss Evelyn Nesbit was the obvious choice.

You probably know something about Evelyn. Artist Charles Dana Gibson used young Evelyn as the model for one of his most-famous Gibson Girl illustrations. She was the star defense witness in the 1907 “Trial of the Century”, where her exploitation as “the girl on the red velvet swing” was publicly revealed. You might also remember Evelyn from her saucy escapades in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime or the movie or Broadway musical based on his novel.

But although Evelyn was clearly a victim of sexual and emotional abuse by multiple wealthy and powerful men, she wasn’t my first choice for a historical Me Too-themed short story.

My first choice was Mr. H. H. Holmes.

You probably know something about H. H. Holmes also. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he owned the “Murder Castle” hotel where women and men could check in, but—as the newspapers reported—they could never leave.

I wanted to explore how Holmes preyed upon his female victims and then I wanted to show how one of those exploited women got the better of him. In the final paragraph, she would heroically clamber out of the “Murder Castle” hotel. But characters, crimes, and motivations just didn’t click in my head, and I couldn’t make that story work.

When I finally put H. H. Holmes aside, I returned to Miss Evelyn Nesbit. And she did not disappoint me.

I knew the bones of Evelyn’s story—she worked as a teenage model and chorus girl to support her mother and younger brother, she was raped by New York architect Stanford White, she married the brutal and off-balanced millionaire Harry K. Thaw, and she witnessed the crime that launched the “Trial of the Century”—on June 25, 1906, her husband shot her rapist to death on the rooftop of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

I went to Wikipedia for details about Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. Amongst the sensuous photos of Evelyn, the "masterful" and “burly yet boyish” description of White, and the revelation of mentally instable Thaw’s interest in “the cult of virgin martyrdom”, I found this information about Evelyn’s trial testimony:

her examination on the witness stand was an emotionally tortuous ordeal. In open court, she was forced to expose her relationship with White, and to describe the intimate details of the night she was raped by Stanford White.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Evelyn sitting stiffly on the witness stand, answering questions about the night in her teens when (as she wrote in her 1934 autobiography) she "entered that room a virgin, but did not come out as one”.

My heart broke a little, imagining how painful her testimony must have been. Her rape had been her private pain—until the murder, known only by White and Thaw—and within minutes, it became known to every newspaper reporter sitting in court. Which meant that it was headline news around the country.

In that sorrowful moment of my imagination, I embraced Miss Evelyn Nesbit as my Me Too short story protagonist. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to shield and defend her. I wanted to escort her out of court, into a waiting motorcar, and drive her as far away as I possibly could.


In my short story “Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents” (included in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology) I transport Evelyn all the way to 1914. I invite her into New York City’s posh Hotel Astor where, in a very private dining room, I leave her to lunch with the very unscrupulous moving picture producer H. H. Samson. (Yes, I did get an “H. H.” into my story!)

What’s the worst that could happen?

During their luncheon Evelyn desperately fights to reframe her “girl on the red velvet swing” past and reclaim her future. Will she be successful? Or will she once again fall victim to a man’s manipulation and power? Or will she find that retribution can be just as sweet as revenge?

As Miss Evelyn Nesbit presents her final demands to H. H. Samson, the results seem like a no-brainer to me.

***

Many thanks to fellow Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology contributor and SleuthSayer Eve Fisher for inviting me to guest post. Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (Link Here)

My other stories of historic heroines include “Kate Chopin Tussles with a Novel Ending” in Fault Lines (Sisters in Crime Northern California) and my debut novel—set in 1889 New Orleans—FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER.   (Link Here)

www.anabrazil.com

17 September 2019

Pithy and Thought-Provoking...or Not


by Michael Bracken

I’ve been so busy the past month that I’ve not had time to draft something pithy and thought-provoking. In August, I traveled to Colorado to attend the debut of a play written and directed by my youngest son. Then Temple and I traveled to Indiana to visit my daughter—whom I’ve not seen in eight years—and her family, which includes grandchildren we met for the first time. Before, between, and after the trips, I’ve been reading through submissions to a special issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and working on Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (due out in 2020) and Mickey Finn 2 (due out in 2021).

So, I dove into the files and found the following, a presentation I gave to the Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter at their September 2018 luncheon in Houston.


SHORT STORIES: FROM CONCEPT TO SALE, HOW THIS FORM CAN SATISFY

I write short stories. A lot of them.

In a publishing environment where many writers bemoan the lack of markets for short fiction, I’ve placed more than 1,200 short stories. That’s 4.2 million words, give or take, or the equivalent of 70 short novels.

When I began writing as a teenager in the 1970s, short story publication was considered the first step to becoming a genre novelist. Writers learned their craft by publishing short fiction in the popular magazines of the day before grappling with the complexity and length of novels. They established writing credentials, providing heft to their query and cover letters, and developed a readership before their first novel ever hit the wire racks at the grocery store.

That doesn’t seem to happen much today, and many writers, perhaps encouraged by the ease of publication offered by low-cost self-publishing, leap directly into novel writing without first establishing their writing skills and publishing credentials. Among those who succeed as novelists, some write short stories as an afterthought and some established novelists write short fiction only at the invitation of anthology editors. Whether they succeed or fail as novelists, few writers make a sincere effort to write short stories and fewer still earn a significant portion of their income from short fiction.

That’s a mistake.

Writing short fiction has several advantages over writing novels. A writer who devotes time and attention to short fiction can explore different genres, can experiment with different styles, and can develop a familiarity with several genres faster than most novelists. Additionally, short story writers quickly discover which genres play to their strengths and can avoid, or at least mitigate, the career damage caused by spending too much time dabbling in inappropriate genres.

As high school students, my best friend and I were determined to become the next Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. For several years I kept science fiction short stories circulating among all the professional and semi-professional science fiction magazines, but I achieved only modest success. On the other hand, after encouragement from the editor of a men’s magazine, I sold the first three mystery short stories I wrote. I have since sold short fiction in nearly every genre—with particular success in crime fiction and women’s fiction—and I continue to try new things.

Markets for short fiction no longer assault you at every magazine rack the way they did during the heyday of the pulp magazines or even during the 1970s when I began my career. Back then I could easily locate several dozen magazines devoted to short fiction—mystery, science fiction, and women’s fiction the most prevalent.

While some genre magazines remain—Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s among them—and new genre magazines come and go, the best markets for short stories may be publications not known for publishing fiction. The weekly publication Woman’s World, for example, publishes 104 short stories each year, one romance and one mystery each issue.

Finding markets for short fiction, therefore, becomes a literary treasure hunt, one that only the truly dedicated attempt. I regularly stand at magazine racks and thumb through magazines I don’t normally read, looking for evidence of short fiction. I also search for on-line publications and print publications that maintain an on-line presence, looking for publications I can’t find at local newsstands. Sometimes what I find is clearly identified as fiction; sometimes it isn’t. For example, the short stories I used to write for True Story were presented as if they are, in fact, true.

Literary and small press publications—both on-line and in print—also publish fiction. Unfortunately, they often pay little or nothing. Prior to submitting to small press publications, I examine them carefully to determine if the stories they publish are well written and presented in a professional manner, if the contributors include writers well-known in their genre, and if any stories they have published have later been nominated for awards or been included in best-of-year anthologies.

General interest magazines are increasingly hard to find as publishers target narrower and narrower demographics. So, one of the most important things to remember in today’s publishing environment is the need to write to market.

While many writers prefer to write first and seek appropriate publications later, I’ve found it beneficial to target my markets before I begin writing. Targeting markets is a two-step process that involves understanding the conventions of the genre or sub-genre in which I write and then understanding the publications for which I wish to write.

Many of today’s publications seek to address a particular audience. A close examination of any magazine will reveal a great deal of information about the publication’s readers or, at least, the readers the publication is attempting to reach. Often the fiction contained within these publications presents characters the readers see as “just like me” or an idealized “just like me,” so the more I know about the readers, the better I am able to develop appropriate characters and plots when I write for these publications.

On a more practical level, I determine how many short stories the magazine publishes each issue, the length of the stories, what genre or genres are represented, and any stylistic requirements the magazine may have. Once I’ve done all that, it’s time to write.

The keys to successfully placing short stories—presuming basic literacy and some minimum level of talent—are high productivity and dogged determination. Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more—sometimes as many as nine!—stories published each and every month. That’s 178 consecutive months. And beginning in July I’m three months into a new streak. That doesn’t happen without producing a lot of material.

While I don’t write fiction every day and don’t set daily page count or word count goals the way other writers do, I do set goals. I determine how many sales I’d like to achieve in a given year, and then I determine how many short stories I must complete to reach that goal. When I first began pounding the keyboard as a teenager, my goal was to sell one story. To anybody. After I achieved that, my goal was to sell a second story. Back then I completed dozens of short stories for each one that finally reached publication. My odds have improved since then and I now complete approximately eleven stories for every ten that sell.

I also keep manuscripts circulating on the firm belief that my work will be published eventually. These days some of my stories are written on assignment and many others are accepted by the first or second editor to read them—in part because I’m a more experienced writer and in part because I have a better understanding of the markets—but a few of my published stories were seen by dozens of editors before acceptance and one story—“I Can’t Touch the Clouds for You” (Sun, July 25, 2005)—spent thirty years visiting slush piles before reaching print.

Writing short fiction has allowed me to entertain many readers, to work with editors across multiple genres, and to generate steady income from writing while developing my craft.

And, if I ever decide to write another novel, I’m going to have one hell of a cover letter.

My story “Love, Or Something Like It” appears in the forthcoming Crime Travel (Wildside Press), an anthology of time travel mysteries, edited by fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman. Learn more and preorder here.

31 August 2019

A Guide in a Strange Land



by John M. Floyd



That's what a good agent can be. And if you don't believe publishing is a strange land, you probably haven't been wandering around in it very long.

I'll start this discussion with four questions and answers:

1. What kind of writing do I do more than any other?
    Short stories.

2. Do I have a literary agent? 
    Yes.

3. Has my agent sold any short stories for me? 
    Yes.

4. Do most short-story writers need an agent?
    No.

Number four doesn't make sense, right? If an agent can help you market your short stories, why shouldn't you try to find one to represent you?

The answer has two parts: First, very few agents (including my own) specialize in short stories. There's not a lot of money to be made writing shorts--and 15% of not a lot is even less. Second, most short-story writers can easily find and approach story publishers (magazines, anthologies, etc.) on their own. There's no need for a middleman.

Getting there from a different direction

So why do I have an agent? That's pretty simple. I acquired an agent to try to market my novels. I've written three novels, two of which are out with my agent now; I think they're pretty good and he does too--but they haven't sold. I suspect that's more my fault than his, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, my current novel agent wound up selling some of my short stories to places that I would've had trouble finding and approaching, and that's been a good thing--but, again, I wouldn't have had those stories represented at all if I hadn't already had that agent for my novels.

Bottom line is, I've wound up making some money for my agent from my shorts, and he's wound up making some for me--but I have a feeling those short-story successes wouldn't have been enough to entice him to take me on as a client. We already had a relationship, he saw some potential places to send my stories that I didn't know about, and as a result I've sold stories that helped both of us (me more than him).


My background

I've actually had three agents in the 25 years I've been writing. The first was one of those rare folks who DID represent mostly short-story writers. I found out about him from a fellow writer back in the late '90s, queried the agent, got a response that he'd like to see some of my work, and he eventually signed me on. Over the next several years he sold some stories for me and I learned a LOT from him--about writing, editing, and publishing--so I considered our relationship a positive experience all the way around. He was an elderly gentleman and died in 1999, and I then inherited agent #2 because he had been the junior partner of agent #1.

That second agent I kept for a few years, but he made it clear that he specialized in novels only. He helped me to make my first novel better and was truly excited about it, but alas, it never sold and we eventually parted company. I'm the one who asked to end our relationship, but I also suspect he wasn't sorry to see me go. After a certain point we both knew we were probably wasting each other's time.

My current situation

My third and present agent was also suggested to me via another writer, several years ago. This agent too represents mostly novels, and despite his enthusiasm for the two novels I have with him now, both of us know my passion is short stories. Like many of my writer friends, I tend to write more shorts than anything else, and like a very few of my writer friends (R.T. Lawton is one) I write almost ONLY shorts. I simply love 'em.

So, you might be asking yourself, are those few short story sales that my agent handles enough for me to want to stay on at that agency, and for him to want to keep me on? Until recently, yes, that was enough, for me and for him--and then something else happened, early this year, to make me even happier that I'm still under his tent. I was contacted by a producer in L.A. who had seen one of my published stories and was interested in optioning it for film. I referred him immediately to my agent, who handled all the negotiations--some of them complicated--and we finally signed the contracts in June. He was so helpful I will always be confident that I received a much better deal by not trying to handle everything on my own. He didn't find the project, but he efficiently steered the ship on my behalf once the project presented itself.

More questions

As you can see from all the above, I'm not the best person to try to discuss whether most writers should seek out literary agents. I've seen only one end of things, from the POV of a short-story writer and a so-far-unsuccessful novel writer. Do any of you other shorts writers have agents? For those of you who write novels, what's your opinion? Must you have an agent to get the best deal? Should you try to secure an agent before ever looking for a publisher? Should you forget the whole traditional-publishing thing and self-publish via Amazon? Have any of you used an agent to option stories or novels for film? Does anyone out there have an agent who deals only in shorts? Bermudas? Boxers?

I welcome all your comments and insights. And whether you choose to comment or not, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep publishing, whatever route you take to get there.

See you again in one week.




21 August 2019

Made in the Decade



by Robert Lopresti

Back in January, when I produced my yearly thing I wrote: "I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is my tenth annual list of the best short mysteries of the year, as determined by me. I will have to do something to celebrate that in a month or two."

Well, more than a month has passed, but here we are. My first thought was to pick out the Best of the Best from the 151 stories that made my original list, but that seemed like a fool's errand for various reasons. Below you will find 15 categories, subgenres if you will, and in each I have listed five stories that made my best of lists in the last decade. They aren't the Best of the Best, just excellent examples of their subgenre.   Of course, some of these could have easily fit into several categories.

And by the way, there is a hidden category tucked away here: stories with twist endings.  There are many examples below but to point them out would be counterproductive.

As a lagniappe I have added a Classic story in each category. "Classic" here is defined as a great story that was published before I started reviewing.

Availability! In each case I have listed the original publication unless I thought there was a more available site. I provided links to a few stories that are available for free on the web. You may find others elsewhere on the web but I suspected those sites might be copyright-violators or malicious, so I skipped 'em.



AMATEUR SLEUTH
Palumbo, Dennis. "A Theory of Murder," available free at Kings River Lite.
Perks, Micah. "Treasure island," in Santa Cruz Noir, edited by Susie Bright, Akashic Press, 2018.
Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "The Wedding Ring," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2018.
Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015.
Classic: Kemelman, Harry. “The Nine Mile Walk” in The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories.

COZY
Cajoleas, Jimmy. "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.
Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.
Page, Anita. “Isaac’s Daughters,” in Malice Domestic Presents: Murder Most Geographical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons, Wildside Press, 2018.
Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," available free at B.K. Stevens's website.
Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.
Classic: Asimov, Isaac. “The Acquisitive Chuckle,” in Tales of the Black Widowers.

CRIMINAL’S POINT OF VIEW
Block, Lawrence. “Who Knows Where It Goes,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Howard, Clark. “White Wolves” in The Crooked Road, Volume 3.
Paul, Bryan. "The Ice Cream Snatcher," in Thuglit, issue 13, 2014.
Sareini, Ali. F. "A Message In The Breath Of Allah," in Prison Noir, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2014.
Warthman, Dan. "Pansy Place," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2012.
Classic: Francis, Dick. "A Carrot for a Chestnut," in Field of Thirteen.


ESPIONAGE
Child, Lee. “Section 7 (a) (Operational),” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.
Faherty, Terence. "Margo and the Silver Cane," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2013.
Lawton, John. “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” in Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime, 2010.
Rabb, Jonathan. "A Game Played," in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.
Classic: Household, Geoffrey. “Keep Walking,” in Days of Your Fathers.


FANTASY
Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.
Goree, Raymond. "A Change of Heart," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2012.
Law, Janice. "The Crucial Game," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2018.
Powell, James. “The Black Whatever.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 2010.
Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,September-October 2017.
Classic: Ellison, Harlan. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” in Deathbird Stories.

HISTORICAL
Levinson, Robert S. “Regarding Certain Occurrences In A Cottage At The Garden Of Allah,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November 2009.
Law, Janice. “Madame Selina,” free podcast.
Rutter, Eric. “Runaway” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2009.
Thornton, Brian.“Paper Son,” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Williams, Jim. "The Hotel des Mutilées," on Williams's website.
Classic: Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Collected Fictions.

HUMOROUS
Gould, Heywood. "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.
Maron, Margaret. "We On The Train!" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Schofield, Neil. "It'll Cost You," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2014.
Wiley, Michael. "Making It," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.
Classic: Thurber, James. “The Catbird Seat,” in Thurber on Crime.

NOIR
Crouch, Blake. “The Pain of Others,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2011.
Gaylin, Alison. "Restraint" in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.
Neville, Stuart. "Faith," in Blood Work: Remembering Gary Shulze: Once Upon A Crime, edited by Rick Ollerman, Down and Out Books, 2018.
Pluck, Thomas. "The Uncleared," available free at A Twist of Noir.
Stodghill, Dick. “Deathtown,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November. 2009.
Classic: Kinsella, W.P. "Dance Me Outside," in Dance Me Outside.

PASTICHE
Faherty, Terence. "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 2015.
Lewis, Evan. "The Continental Opposite," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.
Warren, James Lincoln. "Shikari," in The 1% Solution.
Warren, James Lincoln. “Shanghaied” in The 1% Solution.
Zeltserman, Dave. “Julius Katz,” in The Julius Katz Collection.
Classic: Powell, James. “The Tamerlane Crutch,” in Christmas Forever.
POLICE
Alcalá, Kathleen. “Blue Sunday” in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Press.
Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in Montalbano's First Case and Other Stories.
Estleman, Loren D. “Death Without Parole.” in Detroit is Our Beat: Tales of the Four Horsemen.
Phelan, Twist. "Footprints in Water," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 2013.
Powell, James.  “The Teapot Mountie Ball,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2011.
Classic: Westlake, Donald E. “Come Back, Come Back,” in Levine.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE
Crowther, Brad.  “Politics Makes Dead Bedfellows,” in  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2011.
Gates, David Edgerley.  "Slip Knot," by David Edgerley Gates, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November 2011.
Helms, Richard.  "Busting Red Heads,"  in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014.
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance," available for free on Moran's website.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “The Case of the Vanishing Boy.” The Case of the Vanishing Boy.
Classic: Grafton, Sue. “A Poison That Leaves No Trace,” in Kinsey and Me.

PSYCHOLOGICAL
Brackmann, Lisa. "Don't Feed The Bums," in San Diego Noir, Akashic Press, 2011.
Cody, Liza. "I Am Not Fluffy," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, December 2013.
Itell, Jennifer. “Inevitable.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, November 2010.
Merchant, Judith. “Monopoly.” Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2009.
Pronzini, Bill and Barry N. Malzberg. "Night Walker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,, March-April 2018.
Classic: Bradbury, Ray. "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl," in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

SUI GENERIS
Armstrong, Jason. "Man Changes Mind," available free at  Thrillers, Killers, 'n Chillers.
Muir, Brian. “Dummy,” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2009.
Rogers, Cheryl. "The Ballad of Maggie Carson," in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May 2016.
Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.” in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.
Weikart, Jim, "The Samsa File," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.
Classic: Faulkner William. “A Rose For Emily,” in A Rose For Emily and Other Stories.

SUSPENSE
Buck, Craig Faustus. "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.
Day, Russell. "The Icing on the Cake," in Noirville, Fahrenheit Press, 2018.
Estleman, Loren D. “Rumble Strip” in Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection.
Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018.
Tippee, Robert. "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.
Classic: Cail, Carol. “Sinkhole,” in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Presents Fifty Years of Crime and Suspense.

VICTIM’S POINT OF VIEW
DuBois, Brendan. "The Final Ballot," in Mystery Writers of America presents Vengeance, edited by Lee Child, Mulholland Books, 2012.
Hallman, Tom, Jr. "Kindness," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, April 2018.
Law, Janice, "The Double," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 7.
Opperman, Meg. "The Discovery," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18.
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit," in The Best American Mystery Stories 2016.
Classic: Ellin, Stanley. "You Can't Be a Little Girl all Your Life," in The Specialty of the House and Other Stories.

20 July 2019

A Saturday Post About The Saturday Evening Post



by John M. Floyd





A few years ago I discovered a new market for my stories--or, more accurately, I was told about it. It wasn't a mystery market (those are the ones I usually look for), but one that is occasionally receptive to mysteries as well. It was a magazine whose name I recognized, but I had never considered submitting a story there.

When I think of The Saturday Evening Post, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Norman Rockwell's covers. But they do publish one short story in every bi-monthly print edition, and the one in the current issue is mine. (I would prefer they make things easier by just using one of my stories in every issue, but they might not agree with that idea.)

A little Post history

Like me, the SEP has been around awhile. It began in the 1820s, and I'm told it did pretty well until the 1890s, and then sank to a circulation of around two thousand. Then--under new leadership--it rose to around 250,000 in 1900 and a million in 1908. Apparently it continued to flourish until the 1960s, reaching a circulation of around seven million. In the late sixties, though, the Post had another downturn, and by 1982 it had become, according to its website, a non-profit entity focusing on health, medicine, volunteerism, etc. In 2013 it underwent a do-over, returning to its original policy of celebrating the storytelling, art, and history of America. I am now a subscriber and I truly enjoy the magazine.

One thing of interest to folks like me is that the Post--as I said earlier--features one piece of fiction in every print edition, and then makes those stories available online about two weeks after their appearance in print. My story in their current (July/Aug 2019) issue became available online this past week. I understand the SEP is also a market for strictly online stories, where a new story is featured every week. I have not investigated or sent anything to that venue, but I know several fellow SleuthSayers who have submitted and have been published there, and I would welcome their comments and information on that piece of the market.

What does all this have to do with mystery writing? Not much. Only three of the eight stories I've had published by the SEP are mysteries--or at least mysteries in the sense that a crime is central to their plots. (That remains the criteria by which Otto Penzler selects the content for his annual Best American Mystery Stories anthologies.) That of course means that more than half of my SEP stories are not mysteries. But most writers like to dabble now and then in other genres anyway.

My Post history

Looking back at the past several years, here are the short stories I've been fortunate enough to sell to the SEP, along with a mini-synopsis of each:


1. "The Outside World" -- 2600 words -- March/April 2013 issue. A mysterious old woman helps a
young man who's been blinded in an accident regain his hope for the future. I remember that I wrote this non-mystery story really fast, after the idea first entered my head.

2. "The First of October" -- 1600 words -- Nov/Dec 2013. Fate brings two college sweethearts back together after many years of hardship and separation. This was sort of a romance story with a twist, and one that I was surprised (but happy) that the Post accepted.

3. "Margaret's Hero" -- 5300 words -- May/June 2014. A white child, her beloved horse, and an African American foreman create an unlikely and strong alliance. This was fun to write because it was done in a familiar southern setting and about the kind of folks I grew up around.

4. "Saving Grace" -- 4500 words -- July/Aug 2015. A grown son estranged from his mother returns to his hometown to find that an unfortunate (and illegal) incident in his past has miraculously affected later events. The plot for this story, which includes some fantasy elements, came to mind after one of my many viewings of It's a Wonderful Life.

5. "Business Class" -- 1500 words -- Nov/Dec 2015. A confrontation between an executive and an employee shows a planeful of office workers what's really important in life. No crime in this story, just issues of professionalism and power and corporate ethics. A few memories of my IBM career in this one.

6. "The Music of Angels" -- 2000 words -- Sep/Oct 2018. A home-healthcare nurse visiting an elderly patient in a rural area makes a discovery that will change the lives of two people. A lot of this story was based on real events, both at the college I attended and in my hometown. Also, not that it matters, I gave the three main characters the first names of our oldest son's three children.

7. "Calculus 1" -- 4000 words -- March/April 2019. A wealthy engineering student convinces his cash-poor roommate to help him cheat on a college exam. Again, no crimes committed here, just dishonesty and deception.

8. "The A Team" -- 2300 words -- July/Aug 2019. A drugstore employee and her five-year-old daughter find themselves in the middle of an armed-robbery attempt. This is one of those "framed" narratives, where everything starts in the present, goes into the past to tell the story, and ends in the present again.


If anyone's interested in this kind of thing, six of those stories were written in third-person, two in first-person, all of them feature very few named characters, and all were written in past tense.

Editorial stuff

One odd thing that I've noticed about these stories: the SEP editors like to use numbers instead of spelling them out. My policy's always been to spell out numbers from, say, one to ten--"I'll pay you five dollars at two o'clock"--but when I do that, they always change it to "I'll pay you 5 dollars at 2 o'clock." From an editing standpoint, I think that's the only thing I've differed with them about. (They won.)

Contentwise, I usually try to send stories to the SEP that are family-friendly. Most of those I've seen in the magazine seem to be geared to a wide audience and have sort of a down-home, "all-American" flavor. If I do a crime-related story and it's at all gritty or controversial, I usually target one of the mystery magazines with it instead.

The SEP also tends to publish accepted stories almost immediately, unlike many other markets.

Questions

How many of you have read the Post lately? Have you ever submitted a short story there? A nonfiction piece? How often do you venture away from mysteries and into the other genres? Where do you usually choose to send those other-genre stories? Do you occasionally try the literary journals? Have you had success there? How often are your stories influenced by novels or movies or other shorts you've read?

Whatever the case, keep up the good work! I'll be back in two weeks.







08 July 2019

Why I Write


by Steve Liskow

Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.

Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

24 June 2019

The Times, They Are A-changing


by Steve Liskow

Some time ago, I pointed out that writers have to change with the industry, especially if they're self-pubbed.

About ten years ago, I attended a conference where an agent warned the audience that he and his colleagues wouldn't even look at submissions from writers who had self-published. At that time, prevailing wisdom said writers were self-pubbed because their work couldn't meet industry standards.

Mystery writer Joe Konrath and others disputed that claim, saying they were treated badly by the traditional monopoly and could make more money on their own. That argument gained weight when NYT bestseller Barry Eisler turned down a half-million-dollar advance from his traditional house and began publishing his books himself. It's worth noting that because of his successful track record, Eisler had thousands of followers, an advantage the average writer can't claim.

Everything influences everything else, and sometimes that's not a good thing. Self-publishing continues to grow, and it takes a substantial bite out of traditional sales. Last year, nearly a million self-published books appeared. Even if they each only sold one copy, that's a million books that the Big Five didn't sell, and it affects their bottom line.

Traditional markets have consolidated or disappeared. Since there are fewer paying markets, the remaining ones are swamped, for short stories as well as novels. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine receives over 1000 submissions a week. Even if you read only the first page, 1000 minutes is over 16 hours, which means the slush pile grows more quickly than the rejection letters can go out.

The numbers hamper novelists, too. There are five independent book stores within thirty miles of my condo, and while they all say they support local writers, they do it by charging fees for shelf space and offering consignment splits that range from generous to usurious. They have two reasons for this.



First, self-pubbed authors won't offer the same 60% discount and free shipping and returns for a full refund that traditional publishers do. Bookstores need that break...unless they can stage an event that guarantees lots of sales. If it rains, snows, is too hot, or another event nearby falls on the same day, audience may not show up. a large audience doesn't mean large sales anyway.

Second, traditional publishers take manuscripts that have already been vetted by an agent and will edit them professionally, maybe more than once. It's no longer true that all self-pubbed books are terrible (see Eisler, above), but the only way to find the good ones is to read them. How long would you need to read one million pages to make your choice?

Most libraries follow the same reasoning. I offer a discount and free delivery for libraries that order several of my books, but few accept my offer because their guidelines in the face of annual budget cuts insist they focus on Lee Child and Stephen King because they know the demand is there. It makes sense, but it deprives the patrons of finding new authors to enjoy.

I suggest to those libraries that they buy digital copies of my work because the price is lower and people can borrow several copies simultaneously. That's not making headway either, but I'm trying to offer more options so my work gets read. Besides, if more people read my stuff, I might get more workshop gigs. Those have tapered off because of those same budget cuts.  I'm finding new venues and splitting fees, but nobody is making out like Charlie Sheen here.

If your book is on a shelf somewhere, it needs an eye-catching cover. My cover designer does brilliant work. He's also my largest set expense, and I'm not selling enough books at events to break even.

More change...More adjustments...

My next novel, due out at the end of this year, will probably be my last paper book.

I have four stories at various markets and four more in progress. By the end of the year, I may be releasing the unsold stories in digital format. I'm studying GIMP so I can design my own covers.

When you're a writer, you always live in interesting times.

What are you doing differently now?

20 April 2019

Please Consider the Attached Story . . .



by John M. Floyd




A lot has changed, in the 25 years I've been submitting short fiction for publcation. The best thing, I suppose, is that almost all manuscripts are now sent electronically, and the worst is that it seems there are fewer short-story markets out there to submit to. Everything considered, I think we writers still have it better now than we did in 1994.

One of the things about marketing short stories, though, has remained the same: our need for the submission guidelines--also called writers' guidelines--of whatever publication we target.


The not-so-thrilling days of yesteryear

For those of you who weren't around, or who don't remember, this was the way short-story writers once obtained submission guidelines:

1. Find a publication you want to submit to
2. Write a letter to them, requesting guidelines
3. Snailmail it to them, along with an SASE
4. Wait a couple of weeks
5. Receive the guidelines via return mail

This reply usually contained a list of requirements about story formatting and content. Sometimes the guidelines were short and sweet, maybe a three-fold brochure; others were long and detailed. I remember requesting and receiving the guidelines for Weird Tales (I think I still have them)--and they were four printed pages, single-spaced.

(Oddly enough, the more detailed the guidelines, the better off you usually were, because there were always those who didn't bother to read them. Those who did--and who followed the instructions--had a definite advantage over the competition.)


Fast-forward to (how's that for a cliche?) the Present Day

Now, obviously, we can locate guidelines merely by accessing the publication's website and clicking on the "submissions" page. Here are some typical pieces of info we might find there:

- wordcount requirements
- font requirements (usually TNR, sometimes Courier or others)
- spacing requirements (single or double)
- editor's name (for the cover letter)
- preferred file type (usually .doc or .rtf)
- whether reprints are considered
- submission deadline (if an anthology)
- genre and theme requirements, if any
- submission type (email, snailmail, website submission box, etc.)
- payment information


Occasionally there'll be further requirements:

- the character(s) you should use to indicate a scene break (usually # or ***)
- what you should put in the header of each page
- what you should type at the end of your story (END, THE END, -30-, etc.)
- what you should use for a dash (hyphens, em dash, etc.)
- whether you should underline or italicize to indicate emphasis
- what you should put in the subject line (if email)

Nitpicky, you say? Maybe so. But they're the buyers and we're the sellers, so they have the right to make the rules. (It's good to be da king.)


Their wish is my command

One quick story, on that subject. I once received guidelines that included this: "Staple your manuscript in the upper righthand corner." That confused me a bit. Guidelines NEVER tell you to staple a manuscript; one of the first things I learned was to always use a paper clip--or if the story was more than 25 pages, a butterfly clip. But I did what they said, and I sold them a story. The obvious question: Why would they put such a strange request in their official guidelines? Was the entire editorial staff left-handed?

I never found out for sure, but I suspect they did it as a test. The writers who complied proved that they could do what they were told. Those who didn't comply proved that they couldn't or wouldn't follow directions, or hadn't even bothered to check the guidelines at all.

I saw an old poster the other day of Mr. T saying, "I pity the fool who doesn't read the submission guidelines." Me too.


Random points

I know what you're thinking. If you submit stories only to large and respectable publications, you don't need to worry much about guidelines for style and formatting. Just do the standard stuff: double-space, Times New Roman, one-inch margins all around, indent every paragraph, etc. Right?

Not necessarily. To use just a couple of examples, AHMM and EQMM still prefer underlining rather than italics, and they also prefer a centered pound-sign to indicate scene breaks. And BJ Bourg at Flash Bang Mysteries likes single-spacing and using two adjacent hyphens instead of an em dash. Small things, yes, but you want to format your manuscript exactly the way the editor wants it.

Another thing: Woman's World has several times changed their maximum wordcount. Romances were once 1500 words and mysteries 1000. Those were lowered years ago to 800 and 700, respectively, and recently the mystery max was lowered again, to 600 or so. Requirements sometimes change when the editors change, so you can't rely on old guidelines.


Resources

This is probably a good place to mention Shunn's Proper Manuscript Format, because in their guidelines many publications still point writers to that site and to the sample manuscript page shown there. I don't follow that model the way I once did--I now always use TNR and em dashes and italics and one space after a period unless told otherwise--but Shunn's is still considered by many to be the industry standard.

Last but not least: I'm not sure I could get by without my friend Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner website. It's a great place to find anthology calls and writers' guidelines for publications in many different genres. I check her site at least several times a week, and as a result I've sold a lot of stories to markets I probably wouldn't even have known about otherwise.

That's my pitch for today. Good luck and good hunting! May the odds be ever in your favor.






18 March 2019

Terra Incognita


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I saw a submission call for "Detective Mysteries" in the 2000 to 4000-word range, and with what now passes for a generous pay rate. Alas, the deadline was only two weeks hence, and I know how I work well enough to know I couldn't produce a salable story in such a short time. My stories rarely go out in less than the sixth draft, and the first one usually takes me about a week.

I went through my colossal file of unsold stories and WIP. Of 23 unsold stories (some of which were heavily revised into something that did sell), several were "crime" stories, but only two or three involved detection and a sleuth. That holds true for my published short stories, too. Two or three feature Trash and Byrne, who star in my roller derby novels and support Zach Barnes in his series. Two others feature Woody Guthrie from my Detroit series. But most of my stories, sold or not, are one-offs, and they tend to focus on people who get away with something...or not.

My novels include six featuring Connecticut PI Zach Barnes, four featuring Woody Guthrie (a fifth is in a complete second draft), two roller derby novels with Trash and Byrne, and two standalones, one a quasi-police procedural and the other a coming-of-age novel that revolves around a crime.

The point was brought home to me strongly this past weekend when I presented my short story workshop, one of my most popular offerings.

In that workshop, I point out that one of the advantages of the form is that it gives writers the chance to experiment with new characters and techniques without committing a huge amount of time or effort. A novel takes me about 15 months in several installments, and with revisions, between 1200 and 1500 pages. That's a major undertaking.

My average short story runs about 4000 words, between 15 and 20 pages. Even with revision, that's several weeks and maybe 100 pages. I seldom print ANYTHING out until the third or fourth draft because it's not worth the paper yet.

That means if you don't want to use the same characters or setting and try something different, this is your chance to do it. Try that unreliable narrator with the odd speech pattern. Try the factory or sports setting you've avoided. Introduce that young, old, or opposite-gendered point of view. Try humor or present tense. Try second person or a new genre.

"Little Things," which eventually won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award, came from a failed story featuring Max and Lowe, two homicide cops from the Woody Guthrie series. The first part was in the point of view of a seven-year-old boy and the rest came through Maxwell. It didn't work, but the kid was a revelation. He was bright, but he lacked the life experience and sophistication to understand what was happening. Not long after that, I overheard two children arguing at a miniature golf course and Brian and Amy, two bright kids who don't understand the significance of Amy's innocent chatter, materialized on the spot.

"Susie Cue" was an experiment that came from meeting a former classmate at my high school reunion. None of the characters is at all like a real person, but the name "Susie Cue" popped into my head after meeting a real Susie. Johnny, a mentally challenged 19-year-old, fought his way to the front of the line, and he had a crush on Susie. It took me a long time to find what made him tick, and eventually I found that all his images were either tactile or edible. A fellow writer praised me for giving him such a limited internal life, and it worked. Nobody seems to notice that the 3600-word story only has ten words that are more than two syllables long, and that four of them are proper names. The story took me over a year because I didn't recognize Johnny's potential at first.

"Teddy Baer's Picnic" is an exercise in low comedy, which you can see from the title. I enjoy irony, but seldom aim at outright humor. Here, puns and rimshots fly like bees in a rose garden. All the characters have names that are puns on different kinds of bears: Bronwyn, Grizelda, Ursula, Kodiak...The story is a comic mass murder. I wrote it for a particular submission call, but the market didn't take it and Mystery Weekly grabbed it last fall. Several readers left positive comments, so maybe I should try something like that again.

Brian, Susie, Johnny and Teddy Baer's daughters and ex-wives couldn't sustain a whole book. Some techniques don't, either. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights Big City" is a novella rather than a full-length novel because you can only sustain second-person POV and present tense for so long.

But in a short story...