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

09 October 2018

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected

by Barb Goffman

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes.

Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.
There are all kinds of rejection.

And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

07 July 2018

Unsung Heroes


by John M. Floyd



Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.

The first is Jack Ritchie (born John George Reitci, in 1922, the son of a Milwaukee tailor). Over a period of 35 years Ritchie wrote and published almost 500 short stories, almost all of them mystery/crime/suspense tales, and--like O. Henry--his endings often had a diabolical twist. His fiction appeared regularly in Manhunt, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The New York Daily News, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. (He once had two stories in the same issue of AHMM.)

The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.

One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.

I actually have a connection, of sorts, to Jack Ritchie. His longtime agent, Larry Sternig, was also my agent for several years, until Larry's death in the late 90s. He was one of that rare breed of literary agents who represented short stories, and was in many ways a mentor to me back when I was just getting started in all this. (Larry once told me he talked Robert Bloch, another Milwaukee native, into writing Psycho.) Soon after agreeing to represent my stories, Larry said to me, "One of the things you should do to become a better writer is to read the stories of a guy named Jack Ritchie," and he mailed me two of Ritchie's collections, with an additional note telling me to send them back to him when I was done. I binge-read them both and returned them as requested, and it was only years later that I located a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment on Amazon and snapped it up. Ritchie's collections--and his only novel, Tiger Island--are mostly out of print and hard to find.

The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.

Fredric Brown was born in Cincinnati in 1906, the son of a newspaperman, and worked as a journalist himself for most of his career. He wrote many novels and hundreds of short stories, and--oddly enough--his work was almost equally divided between mystery and science fiction. (His first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award in 1948.) I own several collections of his, including Miss Darkness (31 mystery/suspense stories), From These Ashes (116 science fiction and fantasy stories), and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (47 short-short stories, which Stephen King called a "particularly important work"). Interesting note: Brown seemed fond of punnish titles, like "Nothing Sirius," "A Little White Lye," and "Pi in the Sky."

Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.

These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.

If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:

Jack Ritchie:

Shatter Proof
Traveler's Check
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Memory Test
Number Eight

Fredric Brown:

Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
Rebound
The Arena
Voodoo
Answer
Placet Is a Crazy Place

I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.




21 May 2018

Sticking It Out

Guest starring Brendan DuBois
Jan Grape invited a guest whom we are honored to have with us today. Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and nearly 160 short stories. His latest mystery novel, HARD AGROUND, was published this past April by Pegasus Books. His next novel, THE NEGOTIATOR, is set to be published this August by Midnight Ink. He's currently working on a series of works with bestselling novelist James Patterson, with publications set for early 2019.

Brendan's short fiction has appeared in Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies including THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE CENTURY, published in 2000, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, published in 2010.
His stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, a Derringer Award, and have also earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Brendan is also a Jeopardy! game show champion.
— Jan Grape and Rob Lopresti


Sticking It Out
by Brendan DuBois


Last month I had the fun and privilege of going to Manhattan for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ---- or as we call them in our house, Passover (hah-hah-hah) --- and had a fabulous time. The best part of Edgars week is catching up with old friends and making new ones, hobnobbing with agents and editors and other writers, and reinvigorating ones sense of being part a great writing community.

On one afternoon, I attended a wonderful reception at Dell Magazines --- publishers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine --- and among the attendees were two old friends of mine, writers Doug Allyn and S.J. Rozan.

As we talked, laughed and gossiped with editors Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, assistant editor Jackie Sherbow, and authors Jeffrey Deaver and Peter Lovesey, it was a just reminder of how far I’ve come in publishing. When I was just a kid, writing short fiction at the age of twelve, I dreamed about coming to Manhattan and hanging out in publishing offices.

At some point, some of us realized that three of us --- Doug, S.J., and myself --- had all gotten published by either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock within a year or so of each other back in 1986. I think the three of us looked at each other and all thought the same thing: thirty years! And look how good we all looked! And we are still getting published in both magazines, as well as novels and other works.

Later that week, I joined up with S.J. and Doug at the Dell Magazines table during the Edgars banquet, and as part of the ceremony, there’s a slide show depicting past Edgar winners, and when it came to the 1980s and 1990s, the three of us commented on fellow short story authors who had won Edgars, had published for a few years, and then… disappeared.


What happened?

The three of us discussed this a bit, talking about these past friends and co-authors, and while a couple of them had died over this time period, what of the others?

I don’t know about Doug or S.J., but I felt a slight shudder pass through me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and to be a published author back in 1986 was one of my greatest accomplishments. How could someone just… stop? Give up? Never return again to writing?

And what could someone do to prevent this from happening?

What are the keys to having a lengthy writing career?

Some thoughts:

You have to possess something more than just talent. You need drive. Something inside of you pushing you. Many years ago, when I was in college, a good friend of mine had submitted a short story to The New Yorker magazine. It was rejected, but it was a personal rejection, a typewritten note from an editor, encouraging her to submit again. And what did she do? Nothing! She just shrugged and went on with her life, finding joy and satisfaction in something else.

I’m still gobsmacked that she had done that. But you know what? Her life, her decision.

You have to have a thick skin. Rhinoceros skin? Try two rhino skins. Writing is a hard, tough, and lonely business. Here’s a news flash: nobody cares if you write or not. Nobody. It’s all up to you… and you have to realize that in the outset, you’re going to get rejected. Lots of times. Rejected in creative ways you never knew possible.

And some of those rejections will be harsh and deeply personal. And you have to smile, shrug it off, and keep on writing.

Then… you get published! Yay!

And then you really need a thick skin… maybe three rhino skins. The reviews will come in, and some will be great, and some will be awful. And as humans do, you’ll tend to ignore the good reviews and obsess on the negative ones.

Don’t.

As someone once said, opinions (and reviews) are like certain bodily orifices. Everybody has one. There are a number of fine, dedicated and thoughtful reviewers out there, but alas, it’s the mean ones that stick in your mind.


My trick is this: good reviews come from reviewers who know exactly what I was trying to do in a piece of writing. And bad reviews come from ignoramuses who missed the whole point of my story.

Still, again, you need a thick skin. Maybe even four rhino skins!

You have to be willing to stretch yourself, try different things, different approaches. My first published short stories were of a kind, following certain tropes and approaches. But as months and years went by, I decided to experiment.

You can’t keep plowing and re-plowing the old fictional fields. Editors and readers then get bored. So I wrote first person. Third person. Even a couple of second persons. Then I wrote from the point of a view of a woman. A young boy. A… dog! Yes, a dog.

You need to be trying new things, new ways of telling a story. Sure, there’ll be rejections, but in the end, you’ll be your stretching your talent.

You have to seek out new markets, new opportunities. Back in the days when I first started writing short stories, I used a typewriter. Found my markets via Writer’s Digest Guide to Markets. Sent out my stories in a nine-by-twelve manila envelope, with an SASE contained within. And I’d walk up to my mailbox, shooing away the baby dinosaurs as I did so.

Now it’s all electronic. And there are lots of new markets out there, lots of new publishing opportunities. When I first started out, self-publishing was considered icky, the sign of a loser. Now? I self publish novels that I’ve retained the rights to, and have self-published a number of original anthologies of my own short fiction.

Opportunities had changed, and so had I.

And, lastly, you still have to love it.

Not to mention that there aren’t setbacks, or disappointments, or career plans that founder on the shoals of reality and publishing.

But still, I can’t go without a day without writing.

More than it’s what I do, it’s what I am.

My friend Doug mentioned this at another ceremony during Edgars Week, where Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine gave out the Reader’s Choice Award. He said something to the effect that decades later, he still loved being in the writing game, that he still loved it.

And so do I.

17 March 2018

25 Years in Shorts


by John M. Floyd



No, this isn't a post about Jimmy Buffett. But I'll tell you this: the topics of my SleuthSayers columns come from everywhere--books or stories I've read, movies I've seen, music or news I've heard, other writers I've talked with, etc.--and they're sometimes inspired by the columns written by my fellow bloggers at this site (probably because their ideas are better than mine). I was especially intrigued by some of the recent posts by Michael Bracken, Robert Lopresti, O'Neil De Noux, and others who've been reminiscing about their writing careers, their published works, and the way they'd marketed them. So, piggybacking on that subject, here's a quick look into the past . . .

I've been submitting short stories for publication for almost 25 years--longer than some of my colleagues but not nearly as long as others. Most of my stories have been mysteries, and while my so-called writing career is nothing remarkable, I've been able to reach a few of my goals: several awards, an Edgar nomination, two inclusions in Best American Mystery Stories, an appearance in Akashik Books' "noir" series, and the publication of half a dozen short-story collections.

I've also had some pretty crazy experiences with regard to submissions, sales, dealing with editors, etc,--but more about that in a minute.

Bio-statistics

As for frequency of publication, my hat's off to several of my fellow SleuthSayers for their many, many short stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm especially impressed with Robert Lopresti's back-to-back stories in the three most recent issues of Hitchcock. I'm not yet up there with my heroes regarding the two Dell magazines: I've so far sold 16 stories to AH and two to EQ. And only once have I had stories in back-to-back issues of AHMM: May and June 1999, with a story in their March 1999 issue as well. I did, however, have stories in four consecutive issues of The Strand Magazine (from June 2016 to Sep 2017)--the Strand's published 16 of my stories--and after the upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine I will have placed stories in the first three issues of BCMM. I've also been in the past six issues of Flash Bang Mysteries, I've had stories chosen for three consecutive Bouchercon anthologies, I've made Otto Penzler's top-50-mysteries list for the past four years, and between 2013 and 2015 I had five stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Though not primarily a mystery market, Woman's World has been kind to me as well--last week I sold them my 96th story there--and I've appeared in back-to-back issues of WW five different times. This is ancient history, but to those of you who remember the pubications, I had 17 stories and 20 poems in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 8 stories and 17 poems in Mystery Time, 19 stories at Amazon Shorts, and 7 stories in Reader's Break. Other long-defunct markets that featured my stories include Murderous IntentOrchard Press Mysteries, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker CasebookEnigmaDetective Mystery StoriesHeist MagazineThe Rex Stout Journal, Desert Voices, Ancient PathsCrime & SuspenseAnterior Fiction QuarterlyDogwood Tales, and The Atlantean Press Review. (We won't talk about how many rejections I've received from the above publications, because I honestly don't know the number--but it's a big one. A lot higher than my number of acceptances.)

One last statistic: my collections of short fiction--Rainbow's End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2015), Dreamland (2016), and The Barrens (coming in 2018)--contain a total of 240 different stories. As for novels, I've written four of them, all of which I like and two of which are out with an agent, but all of them, alas, remain unpublished. My heart's really in the short stuff.
Welcome surprises

In the icing-on-the-cake department, my story "Molly's Plan," which first appeared in the Strand, was chosen to be part of The New York Public Library's permanent digital collection, and another of my stories, "The Tenth Floor," was recently included in a 600-page book with 108 different authors from 11 countries, which is up for a Guinnesss World Record for the largest short-story anthology ever published. Several stories of mine have also been published in Braille and on audiotape, taught in high schools and colleges, and translated (last month) in Russia's leading literary journal, although I can't say any of those accomplishments were on my wish list. They were what we at IBM used to call "bluebirds": they just happened to fly in through the open window.

Okay, enough tooting of my own horn. The following is the goofy part of all this:

Weird tales

- Twice I've had stories appear in Woman's World under someone else's byline. Thankfully WW paid me and not the other writer, but it's strange to look at one of your own stories in print and see an unfamiliar name beside it. I never did find out whether the dastardly impostor liked my stories or not. Lesson #1: Once you sell a story and it's out of your hands, anything can happen.

- On three different occasions editors have contacted me asking to buy stories I sent them more than two years earlier. On two of those occasions I happily sold them the stories in question; on the third I had already given up and sold it someplace else. None of those editors ever explained why those submissions were still lingering in their records, and I didn't ask. My wife suspects they just fell behind the piano or the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, as some of our important papers at home tend to do.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories that I didn't write. In both cases I contacted the editors and said I wish this were me but it's not.

- I once published a short fantasy story, "Chain Reaction," in Star Magazine, and proudly appeared alongside accounts of alien kidnappings, Bigfoot sightings, and three-headed chickens. Lesson #2: If you've been paid, don't worry about it.

- I've had at least a dozen stories accepted by magazines that then promptly (before my stories could be published), went out of business.  See Lesson #1.

- Most of my stories seem to be in the 1000- to 4000-word (short story) range, but my three Derringer Awards were in the short-short, long story, and novelette categories. Yes, I know that doesn't make sense.

- I was once told by an editor that the 12-page story I'd submitted "should have ended on page 7."

- I've published poems in better-known markets like EQMMWriter's DigestGrit, The Lyric, Mobius, Capper's, Byline, Writers' JournalFarm & Ranch Living, etc.--BUT I've also published poems in Volcano QuarterlyThe Pipe Smoker's EpheremisBarbaric YawpHard Row to Hoe, Feh!, The Aardvark AdventurerBootsCreative JuicesAppalling Limericks, Tales of the Talisman, Nutrition Health ReviewMythic Delirium, SmileHadrosaur TalesOuter DarknessThe Shantytown AnomalyDecompositionsStarLineFirm NoncommittalACafeBreakThe Church Musician Today, The Pegasus ReviewBlind Man's RainbowKraxSophomore Jinx, And many other wild and crazy places. For the record, 31 of my poems appeared in Rural Heritage, 34 in Rhyme Time, 47 in Tucumcari Literary Review, 33 in Laughter Loaf, and 55 in Nuthouse. (Did I mention that my poetry is more lighthearted than profound? Bet you would've never guessed.) Anyhow, I challenge you to come up with more creative magazine names than some of those above.

- My short fiction has also appeared in publications with strange (and clever) names: Champagne ShiversMouth Full of BulletsShort Attention Span MysteriesAntipodean SF, Ethereal Gazette, Illya's HoneySimulacrumGathering StormMeet CuteScifantasticFireflies in Fruit Jars, Cenotaph, Thou Shalt Not, Dream International QuarterlySniplitsT-ZeroAfter DeathThe Norwegian AmericanLost WorldsFicta FabulaJust a MomentThirteenLines in the Sand, Phoebe, We've Been TrumpedHorror LibraryMatilda Ziegler Magazine for the BlindPebbles, Spring Fantasy, Eureka Literary MagazineSpinetinglerTrust & TreacheryPenny DreadfulSweet Tea and Afternoon TalesWriter's Block MagazineQuakes & StormsReadWriteLearn, Scavenger's Newsletter, NefariousShort Stuff for GrownupsListenThe Taj Mahal Review, Mindprints, Inostrannaya LiteraturaMad Dogs and Moonshine, and Yellow Sticky Notes.

- Years ago I was about to submit a story to AHMM, and at the last minute I asked my wife to read it first. She did, and said she thought I should change the ending. I changed it completely, sent it in, and it sold, Later, editor Linda Landrigan told me she bought it because of the ending. Lesson #3: When your spouse speaks, listen. Especially if she's smarter than you are.

- While most of my short stories are mystery/crime, I've also published 57 westerns, 20 romances, 103 SF/fantasy stories, and 23 "literary"/mainstream stories.

- The second story I sold to AHMM ("Careers") was less than 1000 words; the third story I sold to them ("Hardison Park") was more than 10,000 words.

- I have twice been paid in advance for short stories not yet written. (That doesn't happen often--at least not to me.)

- One of my stories, "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," came within two weeks of being filmed. The cast and crew were on board, the screenplay was polished and ready, locations had been arranged, I was told to invite friends to the set, original music had been written for it (I still have the CD), and suddenly everything stopped and everyone went home. Sad but true. Lesson #4: Don't trust the movie business.

- I once won a $30 gift certificate to Amazon in a contest for 26-word stories whose words had to begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. My story, called "Misson: Ambushable" was Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP. (Hey, what did you expect, in 26 words? Fine literature?)

- I've never published a story written in present tense. I don't mind reading them, but when it comes to my own writing, I guess I prefer the old "once upon a time" approach.

- One of my stories, "A Thousand Words" (Pleiades), has been reprinted seven times; two other stories, "Newton's Law" (Reader's Break) and "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" (Dogwood Tales Magazine), have been reprinted six times each; and at least four of my stories have been reprinted five times each. Lesson #5: Recycle.

- I once sent the same story to two different publications at the same time, then sent another story to two other publications as the same time. As it turned out, one of the two places I'd sent the first story accepted it, and one of the two places I'd sent the second story accepted that one. So all was well; I just sent withdrawal letters to the two markets that hadn't yet responded. BUT it made me think: What if both those first two places had wanted that first story, or if both the second two places had wanted the second one? I would've had to withdraw an already accepted story, which isn't the best way to get on an editor's good side. This is not really a lesson because everyone's mileage will vary, but ever since that time, I've been reluctant to simultaneously submit my work.

- My payment for one of my early story sales was a lifetime subscription to the magazine.

- When my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and I were having trouble coming up with a title for my fourth collection of short fiction (Joe has usually given those books the same title as one of the included stories), we solved the problem this way: we changed the name of an as-yet-unpublished story to "Deception," included it in the collection, and made that the title of the book as well. Lesson #6: Think outside the book-box.

- One of my stories in the Strand ("Bennigan's Key," 5000 words) featured only one character and had no dialogue.

- My longest published short story ("Denny's Mountain," Amazon Shorts) was 18,000 words. My shortest ("Mum's the Word," Flashshots) was 55 words.

- At our local Kroger store, I once went through the checkout line with three copies of a magazine that contained one of my mystery stories. The checker said, around a wad of chewing gum, "You got three of these." I told her I knew that. "But they're three of the same issue," she said. "I know," I replied. "Actually"--I stood up a little straighter and lifted my chin--"I have a story in this issue." She gave me a long, blank look and said, "That'll be $4.80." Lesson #7: You're probably not as big a deal as you think you are.

- One of my stories, "The Garden Club," was written start-to-finish between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, after I woke up sick and feverish and couldn't get back to sleep. I submitted it as soon as I got home from the trip, and the first editor I sent it to bought it. In the acceptance letter she said it had the best ending she and her staff had read in twenty years.

- A producer who was planning to film one of my stories called me and said he needed a logline for it, for marketing purposes. I said I didn't know what a logline was. He told me to find and read an old copy of TV Guide, and hung up. I found a copy in a back closet, and one of the entries said something like "Little Joe confesses to Hoss and Adam that he's fallen in love with an Indian girl." Understanding dawned, and I came up with what I thought was an effective logline. The producer even liked it. But the movie never got made. See Lesson #4.

- I once sold a story called "Wheels of Fortune" to an Australian magazine that published only on CD-ROM, and was required to read my story aloud and send it to them as a recording. I still have the magazine-on-CD that they later mailed to me, but I have never listened to my story.

- After my first submission to the Strand (the story was "The Proposal," the first one I ever sold them), editor Andrew Gulli phoned me and said he liked the story, but his staff was unfamiliar with the kind of poison I had used. I told him that was because it wasn't real--I made it up. He paused just long enough to really scare me, then said, "Okay." Lesson #8: If something in your story just won't work, invent something that will.

- More than 90% of my published stories were written in third-person POV.

- I appeared in every issue of the magazine Mystery Time from 1994 until its demise in 2002 (17 issues).

- One of my short stories was rejected almost two dozen times. I later heard that a national magazine was looking for Christmas stories, so I changed the setting of my oft-rejected story from summer to winter, included gloves and icicles and Christmas lights and gifts and carols, and sold it for much more than I would've made at any of the previously-attempted markets. Lesson #9: Don't give up.


And that's that. If you would, let me know about some of your own strange experiences, in dealing with editors or writing stories or novels or marketing them. What are some of the most unusual or notable things you've had happen to you, as a writer?

Lesson #10 (to myself): Don't write such a long column, next time . . .






07 March 2018

Write in Haste, Publish at Leisure

by Robert Lopresti

There were so many killings that year I had to look up his name.  It was Philando Castile.

He was a Black man in Minnesota, killed by a Latino cop moments after telling the man that he had a licensed handgun in the car.  The police officer was acquitted.

The shooting happened on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.  The next day someone put up a link to this (already existing) video in which a jolly cop and cheerful civilian explain how to safely inform a police officer that you are carrying a weapon.  Someone had added in the comments, approximately: "For best results, be White."

The next day I went to synagogue and the rabbi's sermon was about the killing. As I biked home I remembered that video.  The plot of a story burst into my brain.

I am usually  a slow writer.  Very slow.  It takes me months to write a first draft and then a couple of years to turn it into something publishable.

But I wrote the very short "Nobody Gets Killed" in two hours that Friday night.  I revised it the next day and sent it to a friend for editing.  By Monday it was on its way to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and you can find it in their current, March/April, issue.


I have said before that every piece of fiction involves two sides of the brain, the Miner, and the Jeweler.  Some people talk about conscious/unconscious mind, or left and right brain, but this metaphor is what works for me.  The Miner digs out the raw material and may do some of the work, but eventually he hands it off to the Jeweler who polishes it into something that is hopefully publishable.  Often when the Miner is running the show the writer has little conscious memory of the process.  "It's like I wasn't even there.  The words just flowed out."

A lot of the time my Miner comes up with only the bare idea and leaves the Jeweler to do everything else.  But "Nobody Gets Killed" was 90% Miner.  Doesn't mean it's a better or worse story for that, by the way.  You will have to read it and see what you think.

One more thing...  I have just had stories in three issues of Hitchcock in a row.  "The Chair Thief" was a short comic tale  of office politics, with an unexpected sting in its tail.   "Train Tracks" was a long historic semi-Western story of revenge and redemption.  And now "Nobody Gets Killed" is a brief ripped-from-the-headlines slice-of-life anecdote.  Hitchcock has purchased one more  but it is not yet scheduled; "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests" is a comic crime caper.

It would appear that I am having some difficulty establishing a consistent brand for myself.   But as long as Hitchcock keeps buying (I am up to thirty sales there) I guess I shouldn't complain.

By the way, I wrote another piece about writing "Nobody Gets Killed," and it appears on Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.



30 December 2017

Non-Vital Statistics: 2017 in Review



by John M. Floyd



Can't believe this year's almost done. All things considered, I thought it was a good year for novels (The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith, Artemis by Andy Weir, among many others) and also for TV (Longmire's final season, Stranger Things's second season, and a FANTASTIC series called Godless), and a so-so year for movies (I liked Wonder Woman and The Last Jedi, and haven't yet seen Dunkirk or Three Billboards O. E. M.). Surrounded by all this external fiction, I continued to pound away at some of my own. And since short stories are the only thing I know much about, I've put together some writing stats for 2017.


The story board

According to my little three-ring binder, I've had 34 stories published this year. I've listed them below, and since we at this blog have been talking a lot about mystery markets lately, I've also listed the publications they appeared in:

"Unsigned, Sealed, and Delivered" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Winter/Jan 2017 issue
"A Green Thumb" -- The Texas Gardener, Jan 4, 2017 issue
"Relative Strangers" -- Woman's World, Jan 16, 2017 issue
"Merrill's Run" -- Mystery Weekly, Jan 17, 2017 issue
"Gun Work" -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes (Down & Out Books), Jan 30, 2017
"Elevator Music" -- Meet Cute, Feb 2017
"No Strings Attached" -- Woman's World, Feb 27, 2017 issue
"Movie Night" -- Woman's World, Mar 20, 2017 issue
"Flag Day" -- The Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2017 issue
"Doctor in the House" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring/April 2017 issue
"Sand Hill" -- Gathering Storm Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 2, April 2017
"The Red-Eye to Boston" -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Cutting Block Books), April 2017
"Special Delivery" -- Woman's World, May 29, 2017 issue
"Vanity Case" -- Mysterical-E, Spring 2017 issue
"A Thousand Words" -- Kings River Life, May 27, 2017 issue
"Witness Protection" -- Woman's World, June 19, 2017 issue
"Crow Mountain" -- The Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2017 issue
"The Rare Book Case" -- Woman's World, July 3, 2017
"Ace in the Hole" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer/July 2017 issue
"The Sandman" -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books), July 18, 2017
"Trail's End" -- Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/Aug 2017 issue
"Mr. Unlucky" -- Woman's World, Aug 7, 2017 issue
"False Testimony" -- Woman's World, Sep 4, 2017 issue
"Rooster Creek" -- Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sep 2017 issue
"High Anxiety" -- Kings River Life, Sep 9, 2017
"An Act of Deception" -- Woman's World, Sep 18, 2017 issue
"Travelers" -- Visions VII: Universe, Oct 2017
"Life Is Good" -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), Oct 2017
"Knight Vision" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Fall/Oct 2017 issue
"Charlotte in Charge" -- Woman's World, Oct 7, 2017 issue
"The Tenth Floor" -- CEA Greatest Anthology (Celenic Earth Publications), Oct 14, 2017
"Teacher's Pet," -- Woman's World, Oct 30, 2017 issue
"Three Suspects and a Murder" -- Woman's World, Nov 27, 2017 issue
"A Christmas Card" -- Woman's World, Dec 11, 2017 issue

NOTE: I didn't count the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which appeared in December, because the date of that issue is Jan/Feb 2018. (It contains my story, "Scavenger Hunt," the second installment of a series I began with "Trail's End" in AHMM's July/Aug 2017 issue.)

More numbers

Of my stories that were published in 2017, 18 appeared in print magazines, 7 in print anthologies, and 9 in online publications. 30 of the 34 went to paying markets, 25 to repeat markets, and 9 to new markets. 28 of these stories were unsolicited submissions, and 6 were by invitation. Genrewise, one was a romance, one was humor, one was science fiction, and 31 were mysteries (although some were cross-genre--mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, etc.). 29 of these were original stories and 5 were reprints. As for settings, 21 took place in my home state of Mississippi, and 13 were set elsewhere. It surprised me a little that only 2 were first-person POV; 32 were third-person. 20 of the 34 were installments in a series (four different series, actually), and 14 were standalone stories. Lengthwise, 17 of the stories were less than 1000 words, 8 were between 1000 and 5000, and 9 were more than 5000.

At this moment, 13 more of my stories have been accepted and will be published shortly, 22 more have been submitted but have not yet received a response, and 30 have been selected by my publisher for a seventh collection of my short mystery stories, scheduled for release in hardcover next summer.

On the downside, I've also received 20 rejections this year, from 12 different markets. That's a lot of misfires, and yes, that means multiple rejections from some places. What can I say? Many of my friends assume that because I've been fortunate enough to sell regularly to certain publications, those places probably just accept everything I send them. I wish.


More wishful thinking

One would also suspect that I could digest all this information and make some kind of informed decision about which stories work and which don't, and where I should submit stories and where I shouldn't. But if one suspected that, one would be wrong. For the life of me I sometimes cannot seem to determine which stories should go where--the square peg doesn't always want to fit in the square slot--and even though I've come to know some of these editors well, I can't predict which stories I send them will be successful and which won't. I also don't seem to be able to foresee which markets will survive for generations and which will put all four feet in the air after a year or so. As the old saying goes, you spends your dollar (or, in this case, your time) and you takes your chances. Maybe I'll get smarter next year.

Questions

To all my writer friends out there, how was 2017 for you? Did you sell a novel or a collection or a story, or have one (or more) published? What great stories/novels did you read? What good movies/TV shows did you watch? Do you write an ongoing series, in either novels or stories? If so, do those seem to sell better than standalone works? Do you have specific writing projects in progress, or upcoming in 2018? If you're a short-story writer, did you try to target only paying markets?

Final question: Are the years passing faster now, or is it just because I'm getting old?

I think I know the answer to that one.












17 November 2017

Moderating a Short Story Panel

James, Alan, Janet, Travis, Angel, and Barb
At the Bouchercon in Toronto a few weeks ago, one of the highlights was a panel on the short story moderated by my friend James Lincoln Warren. He wrote a long piece on FaceBook about it and graciously gave me permission to edit it and put it up here.

James says he feels like the Godfather of SleuthSayers, and he's right about that. He founded a website called Criminal Brief in which seven writers took turns talking (mostly) about short mystery fiction. When he decided to shut it down several of us grizzled survivors started SleuthSayers.


James is the author of many short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. Perhaps his best known works are ahe tales of 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe but he won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a contemporary private eye story. His "Shikari" is, in my opinion, the best Sherlock Holmes story ever written that does not include Sherlock Holmes.

Without further ado, here we go. Any mistakes below can be blamed on me.

— Robert Lopresti



Moderating a Short Story Panel

by James Lincoln Warren

The panelists and I have received comments from the audience that this was their favorite panel at the convention. People have also mentioned how well attended it was—it was SRO, which is very unusual for a short story panel at a crime fiction fan convention.So I decided I'd explain how I structured it and my theories for its unusual success.

First, I think its success was largely due to the wonderful panelists: Alan S. Orloff, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Travis Richardson, Angel Colón, and Barb Goffman, all of whom are greatly respected in the crime short fiction community. Kudos is also well-deserved by Janet Costello, the Bouchercon Programming Chair, for scheduling such a panel.

But let me begin by explaining why I at first dreaded having it assigned to me.

My working rule as a moderator (and I always prefer to moderate rather than contribute as a panelist) at a fan convention is first and foremost, "Connect the author with the reader." In other words, I want to get at least one person in the audience to read the work of each of the panelists.

The themes for panels at fan conventions usually key on elements relative to a particular subgenre, or things that particular works, in a variety of subgenres, have in common, e.g., a panel about private eyes, a panel about hard-boiled female detectives, a panel on detectives with pets, and so on. Usually on such panels, one of the panelists will be a prominent star writer with a big fan base---those are the folk who are going to come to the panel. In so doing, they will discover lesser known writers whose work is previously unknown to them, but whose stuff they are guaranteed to enjoy. Everybody wins!

Short stories are not a subgenre, like hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, fair play, romantic suspense, etc. The short story is a form, not a thematic genre, and the subgenres represented by it cover the whole spectrum of crime fiction. This means that other than length, short story writers' works may have very little in common with each other. On top of that, writers like me, who work almost exclusively in the form, are not likely to be stars, because crime fiction has been dominated by the novel since the 1930s. Likewise for the panelists---no matter how wonderful their work, it is bound to have less exposure than the works of novelists. The upshot is that it's unlikely that an audience will be drawn to the panel on account of the names assigned to it.

As I said, my goal is usually to connect every writer on the panel to someone in the audience. But I noticed that on every short story panel I've moderated, when we get to the Q&A, the questions are never about the authors whose work I've tried so hard to expose. Instead, the questions are always about "How do I get published? What are your secrets?"

So I proposed to Janet Costello that for this short story panel, we'd go all the way and make it about writing short stories. I proposed that we'd come up with a list of simple concepts the panel could agree upon, or if they disagreed on the concept, at least recognize its importance, and illustrate how that concept worked by reading examples of it from the short fiction written by the panelists, along with other observations and suggestions from short fiction editors.

But then I ran into some trouble, because I couldn't figure out how to structure the panel, or whom to assign to which nugget of advice. And then it hit me.

Aspiring writers have entire libraries of sound advice available to them on how to write: Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Steven King, and divers others, have all written very good books on it. For access to markets, there's the venerable Writer's Market---every writer I know has bought one at sometime or another. So what's different about asking published writers these questions face to face? We're not going to dispense more wisdom in an hour-long panel than you can get from any of those books.

The answer is, of course, that there is personal interaction. The rookie wants to pick the brains of the veterans. And that's when I realized that the way to run the panel was to make it consist of questions from the audience, and not the questions that I thought should be asked. I had the audience members write down their questions on a leaf from a small tear-out notebook, restricted the questions to one or two, and had them collected and given to me. I would then read the questions, pick the most interesting or generally applicable ones, and get the best of both worlds: the audience would get answers to their personal questions, and I would remain in control of the panel.

To open the panel, I listed five pieces of advice everybody agreed on, and read from the works of the panelists to illustrate each one. This also gave the audience time to phrase their questions and turn them in while we were still able to dispense some basic advice, while also establishing the bona fides of the panelists.

That took about fifteen minutes. The rest of the panel consisted of questions from the audience.

Robert states that I dispensed with several questions on my own with the mantra, "There are no magic bullets." This is true. I did this because, well, there are no magic bullets, no perfect formulas, no foolproof techniques, and aspiring writers must understand this. But there were lots of very interesting questions that were directed individually to the panelists, and some directed at more than one panelist. And as I had encouraged the panelists to speak up when they had something to say about a question pitched to someone else, there was a lot of stuff that got covered from more than one angle.

The personal touch is why everybody loved the panel so much. Now, you can't teach someone to write a commercial crime fic short story in an hour, but a frequent comment was, "I learned so much!" The important point here is that they learned not what any of us wanted to teach, BUT WHAT THEY WANTED TO KNOW. Respect your audience!

All right, that explains why the panel was a success, but it doesn't explain why the house was packed.


I think there are two essential reasons: (1) Janet Hutchings, the editor of the world's leading crime fiction magazine, was being honored at Bouchercon, and people from the audience thought that maybe they'd learn how she picked stories for the magazine; and (2) the subject of the panel, "how to construct the short story", was something they had always wanted, but never before had offered to them. Bouchercon is not a writers conference. It's a fan convention. But we sometimes forget that writers usually start as fans of other writers.

(Now, I don't think that Janet told them exactly how she picks a story, although she gave them some very good advice---be in control of your narrative, do not fixate on the opening but on the whole narrative, and that she could use a lot more fair play detective stories featuring a crime and its solution. I should also mention that I gave a shout out to Janet's colleague Linda Landrigan at EQMM's sister mag, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, who once told me she likes stories that seem to be about one thing, but are really about something else.)

I was extremely fortunate to have so much expertise on the panel, and for Janet Costello allowing me to have my own way with it. It was a helluva lot of fun.

01 November 2017

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves

by Robert Lopresti

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde

A few months ago I read a story called "Crow Mountain"  by John Floyd in the latest issue of The Strand.  A good story it was, but what amused me was that it included a plot twist that I had used a decade before.


I am not suggesting anything nefarious.  First of all, John needs to steal ideas from me like  Bryan Bowers needs me to give him autoharp lessons.  (Slow down, Bryan!  Make some mistakes!)  But most important - if he had read my story and instantly said I can use that it would have still been all right.  It would be what Lawrence Block calls "creative plagiarism."  You take the original idea in use it in some new and original way.

Here's what I mean by the shared plot twist: If you read John's story and then started mine when you got to a certain point you might say: "Huh.  I bet I know how it ends."  And you'd be right  Same if you read mine first, then John's.

I told John I liked the story and mentioned the coincidence.  I said it reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings: "Great minds run in the same gutter."

John graciously replied: "I’ll share a gutter with you anytime."

I mention this because I have a story in the new November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  (My 27th appearance there, he said modestly.)   And "The Chair Thief" definitely involved creative plagiarism.

I wish I could tell you who I stole from, but I don't know.  A few decades ago I went through all the mystery shorts I could find in the public library.  I fell in love with a tale by Lawrence Block and when his collected stories came out I looked forward to repeating my acquaintance with that one.  But it wasn't there.  

I emailed him, describing the story.  Larry politely replied that it sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't his.  So I'm stuck.

Here is the plot of that original story; A true paranoiac gets ready for his day, putting fresh tin foil in his hat to keep out the mind controllers, and wrapping his torso in plastic wrap to foil the death rays.  Then he goes out for a stroll.  Things happen.

My story, on the other hand, is about two office-mates who get mad at a co-worker.  

You might say "those two plots have nothing in common."  Well, maybe not.  But it comes down to what I said before: If you read them one after another you would probably guess how the second one ends.

But since the first one is lost, we don't have to worry about that.  

I hope you enjoy "The Chair Thief." And if anyone remembers the author and title of the other story, I wish you would let me know.

05 September 2017

Introducing Black Cat Mystery Magazine

by Barb Goffman

It's not everyday you get to blog about the premier issue of a new magazine, especially on the very day it's scheduled to launch. And it's especially exciting when the magazine is coming from a publisher that's been around for nearly thirty years, so you can feel confident that the magazine should have staying power.

Well, this is that day. Welcome to the world, Black Cat Mystery Magazine!

The brainchild of Wildside Press publisher John Betancourt and Wildside editor Carla Coupe, the magazine is expected to come out quarterly. The first issue features new stories from fellow SleuthSayers John Floyd and Art Taylor, as well as one from me. (More on that below.) The other authors with new stories in the issue are Dan Andriacco, Michael Bracken, Kaye George, Meg Opperman, Alan Orloff, and Josh Pachter.

Editor Carla Coupe was kind enough to answer some questions about this new venture.

Why did you decide to start this magazine?
To provide an outlet for great short fiction, which we love. We decided to launch Black Cat when certain other mystery magazines cut their publication schedules in half. 

How do you hope to distinguish BCMM from other mystery magazines?

We're focusing on edgier, noir-tinged, character-based short storieswhich happen to contain a crime of some sort. (A crime is essential, or it isn't mystery fiction.) We don't want fantasy, horror, science fiction, routine revenge stories, or sadism. We do want stories with characters who feel real, in situations that are possible (and plausible), and of course great writing.


 


Do you have a minimum or maximum word count? How about a sweet spot?

We’re looking for contemporary and traditional mysteries, as well as thrillers and suspense stories. We hope to feature stories by established and new authors, and will include a classic reprint or two in each issue. We aren’t looking for flash fiction, and our sweet spot is for stories between 1,000 and 8,000 words. We will look at material up to 15,000 words in length—but it better blow us away to take up that much of an issue!


 

Where will the magazine be available for sale? Bookstores?
It will be for sale at our website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), on Amazon, and hopefully some independent bookstores. US readers can buy a four-issue subscription, so they won't miss any.


You're aiming for it to come out quarterly?
Yes, but as with all our publications, we're not wedded to a strict schedule.
 

When will submission guidelines go up?
Hopefully this week.

When will you open for submissions?
We'll start accepting submissions at the beginning of October.


Do you make the acceptance decisions alone or with John?
We make the decisions together, and so far have agreed on almost every story!


What do you pay?
We pay 3 cents/word, with a maximum of $250.

Is there anything you'd like people to know about the magazine that I haven't asked?
John thinks the response times are often unreasonably long in the short fiction field. Our goal is to respond to most submissions within 2 weeks. (We're going to try for "all submissions"but in rare circumstances we may take longer.) We also will look at poetry ($5 for short poems, more for longer ones) and cartoons.

Thank you, Carla!


So, readers, here's your chance to read some great fiction in this brand new issue, which is already available for sale on the Wildside website (http://wildsidepress.com/magazines/black-cat-mystery-magazine/), and which should show up any moment now on Amazon, if it isn't there already. My story in the issue, "Crazy Cat Lady," is a tale of psychological suspense about a woman who comes home and immediately suspects there's been a break-in, even though everything looks perfectly in order. Go pick up a copy of the magazine. I hope you enjoy it!

Art, John, and all the other authors with stories in this premier issue, I hope you'll comment with information about your tales. I'm so glad to be sharing this moment with you.

29 May 2017

In Memory of Nora

by Jan Grape
Sometimes a writer can't help memorializing a a purrsonal moment. Prolific short story writer and mystery maven Jan Grape is in the throes of rearing kittens: a pair of black felines made for mischief and murder most feline. It seems they claim a kinship to a certain "uncle Louie." (They are so wet behind the ears from Mama lickings that they have not even learned to Capitalize.) Still, they are Chiclets's off the old gumshoe. Seems there's a mystery in the neighborhood that needs the feline touch…
— M.L.
This was the appearance of Nick and Nora in short story form in the anthology Midnight Louie's Pet Detectives. Edited by Midnight Louie and his owner and author, Carole Nelson Douglas.

It was 1997 when I wrote the story, "Kittens Take Detection 101" and the book was published in 1998. That's how I know for sure my cats were born in 1997.

I did let the kittens write and talk and solve the mystery. It was fun to have them in the story and let them be big heroes and win the day for my protagonist, PI  Jenny Gordon.

Nora turned 20 years old on March 30, 2017. As I mentioned in an earlier post my cats were a big part of my life and after Nick passed 2.5 years ago it was just Nora and I around here. Twenty years is fairly old for a cat. However, she and Nick both were indoor cats and never went outside to be in danger from predator animals for automobiles or disease brought by another animal into the yard. All their lives they had vet care. Check-ups and shots. Same vet for ten or eleven years.

On May 2, 2017 I had to have Nora put to sleep. She had developed hyperthyroidism but was really too old to have to be put to sleep to have blood drawn or to even try to poke pills or even get liquid medicine down. Treatment would only have given her a few more weeks and no telling what other things in her body would go wrong. There is no way I would ever let an animal suffer.

The vet gave her a sedative and as she drifted off to sleep, I rubbed her ears and face which she always enjoyed. I thanked her for being such a good kitty and told her I loved her. The vet came in then and gave her the final shot and I left the room. My friend and neighbor had driven me there and back. Which was great so I didn't have to drive while tears rolled down my face.

It's been really hard without Nora. As I laughingly said in my previous post about having pet in your stories. "Nora was with me longer than any of my 3 kids, who went off to college or got married."

I can think about her now over than Rainbow Bridge where I think animals go to wait for us. She's healthy and happy. She's with Nick, her brother, litter mate and they run and play and chase squirrels.
Good bye, little baby gal. You gave me many smiles, purrs snuggles and head bumps. I will always love and miss you.

20 May 2017

Genre-Hopping and Conclusion-Jumping



by John M. Floyd



In one of the forums (fora? fori?) that I regularly read online, members have been reporting their writing goals for 2017, and whether their year-to-date progress is meeting their expectations. After all, we're almost halfway done. As for me, I'm not much of a goal-setter (or goalkeeper), but those discussions have made me, for a change, take a look at my own writing output.

Non-vital statistics

So far this year, I've had 14 short stories published and I have 12 accepted and upcoming. They cover several genres, but it's skewed heavily toward crime stories. Twenty of those twenty-six are mystery stories, two are westerns, two are fantasy, one's horror, and one's romance. The interesting thing is that even those descriptions are misleading, since all six of my non-mystery sales still involve some degree of crime and/or deception. So I suppose they're "mixed-genre" stories: western/mystery, fantasy/mystery, etc.
I don't think that's unusual. Most of the writers I know genre-hop from time to time (it's the only kind of exercise I really enjoy), and I suppose there are pluses and minuses involved. Yes, it helps to be consistent and market your fiction to a specific audience and "establish a brand"--but it's also fun to dabble in more than one kind of writing. Some of my favorite novels, movies, and stories are hybrids. The Princess Bride was a romance/adventure/comedy/fantasy, To Kill a Mockingbird was a mystery/literary/Southern/coming-of-age/courtroom drama, and one reviewer called The Man From Snowy River a romantic Australian western.

What always surprises me is that most readers, and some writers, don't buy into the widely-accepted definition of "mystery" fiction. As has been said many times at this blog, a short story or a novel can be considered a mystery if a crime is central to the plot. That's enough to get you into a mystery magazine or onto the mystery shelves in the bookstore. And some definitions are even broader: it's a mystery if the story contains even the threat or the implication of a crime. Even so, many reviewers of the well-known "best-of" mystery anthologies always complain because an included story was not what they consider to be a mystery. The conclusion to which they have jumped is that it has to be a traditional mystery, and that the identity of the villain must be kept secret until the ending. It doesn't. Mysteries don't have to be whodunits. They can be howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. Or howtheygotawaywithits.

A juggling act

Back to the subject at hand. I recently saw an online piece by author Nathan Bransford, who pointed out that genre-hopping is not always the best move. He says, and rightly so, that switching from one genre to another usually works best after a writer has already achieved a certain level of success and recognition. In another piece, author Kimberley Grabas seems to agree: "Ideally, the 'wise' course of action is to specialize. To conquer your niche first. Then branch out (if you wish) after you've gained some mastery in one area and have developed a sizable following around that genre." Sure, John Grisham wrote A Painted HouseBleachersPlaying for PizzaSkipping Christmas, etc., none of which had anything to do with crime or courtrooms--but he's John Grisham.

I should mention here that some authors are incredibly good at switch-hitting. Who would believe, unless he/she knew already, that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, or Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry? Think about it: "3:10 to Yuma" was Elmore Leonard, Exit to Eden was Anne Rice, and Deliverance was poet James Dickey. And by the way, if you've not read the short story "The Last Rung on the Ladder" by Stephen King, I urge you to search it out (it was included in his collection Night Shift). It contains no horror or any kind of creepiness, and is one of the best "literary" stories I've read. It'll bring tears to your eyes.

Longs and shorts

Here's another point: I think genre-hopping is far easier for short-story writers than for novelists. Maybe the establishment of a brand isn't as important for shorties; we work on a much smaller stage and with a smaller potential audience. Also, we shorts writers obviously produce a lot more individual pieces than novelists do (unless maybe you're Stephen King), so wandering off the beaten path now and then isn't as serious a matter as it might be to a novelist or to a novelists's fan base. In any case, I've found that mixing and/or jumping from one genre to another makes the writing process a lot more fun. At least for me.
What do you think? Do you stick to one genre or pingpong between them? If you haven't tried writing/publishing in more than one genre, do you ever plan to? If you have, do you think it's hurt your sales or your ability to reach and keep readers? Do you think the don't-genre-hop "rule" applies more to novels than to shorts? Do you like to write and read "mixed-genre" fiction that combines one or more in the same story--or do you prefer your drinks undiluted and your colors primary? Again, I don't mind hybrids--which probably makes sense. I'm pretty mixed-up anyway.

To each his own.





13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."