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

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


by Steve Liskow

When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.

If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


06 July 2020

Second Best


Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...


01 July 2020

Steal This Vote


STEAL THIS VOTE

by Leopold Longshanks

I'm honored to be your guest blogger today.  I understand that this would usually be Robert Lopresti's turn, but he is apparently too busy to write something.

Don't ask me what he's filling his hours with.  He somehow managed to write while carrying on a day job, but now that he's retired he seems to be too busy to do his duty.

But enough about him.  As I said, I am happy to talk to you about my latest adventure, which appears in Low Down Dirty Vote 2, a new anthology of crime stories.  It will be published this Saturday, the Fourth of July.

Of course, the date is no coincidence. Voting is basic to what this country is supposed to be about, part of what we celebrate with dangerous fireworks, rowdy parades, and suspiciously undercooked hamburgers every Independence Day.

Each story in this book involves a violation of that most precious right.  And Mysti Berry, who conceived and edited this book, is putting her money where her mouth is.  The first volume raised more than five thousand dollars to help the American Civil Liberties Union fight voter fraud.  Funds from the second book go to the Southern Poverty Law Center for the same purpose.  I am proud to be involved in such a good cause.

And I am not alone. Among the authors contributing are Gary Phillips, Travis Richardson, Sara Chen, and James McCrone, to name a few.

You may notice I am not on the author's list.  Make no mistake: I am a distinguished author of crime fiction, in my world.  But in your universe I exist only through the work of that other guy, lazy Lopresti.  My story in the book is his 17th effort at recording my adventures, and I admit he got the details right this time.  Most of them, anyway.  That makes a nice change.

"Shanks Gets Out The Vote" concerns an election for the board of the nonprofit that runs the World Theatre, a beautiful depression-era opera house in my New Jersey town. My wife, Cora Neal (award-winning author of women's fiction), ran for president and, as you no doubt guessed, dastardly deeds were afoot.


This may seem like small potatoes compared to other crimes in the book.  I haven't read all the stories yet, but I assume some are about elections to government offices.  I am perfectly okay with being on the trivial end of the scale.

First of all, the subtitle of this book is "Every stolen vote is a crime," so my story fits in beautifully.  Second, I firmly believe that amateur sleuths should stick to the small stuff.  I can modestly admit to helping the police with a couple of murders, but I much prefer the tales in which I solve puzzles too minor for our noble law officers to deal with.  I have explained my preferences to Lopresti, but does he listen to me?

Seldom.

Well, I need to get back to my own work.  I am told writers at SleuthSayers are not supposed to give the hard sell, so I will merely say that if the second volume of Low Down Dirty Vote is as good as the first you will enjoy it a lot. And it's for a good cause.

If you see Lopresti before I do, tell him to put his butt down and write me something to do.

LEOPOLD LONGSHANKS is the award-winning author of the Inspector Cadogan series, as well as standalone novels such as A MAN OF YOUR AGE.  His books are available in the imagination of Robert Lopresti.

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths


by Steve Liskow

That's the anthology coming out June 18 with one of my stories in it. John Floyd has one in it, too, along with several other people I know. Kate Flora, who founded Level Best Books, accepted my first short story for publication fifteen years ago. K.M. Rockwood suggested the name of a band that appears in one of my novels. Crime writing is a small world.

The back cover copy gives you a good sense of what's in store:

Lovers and losers. Whether it's 1950s Hollywood, a scientific experiment, or a yard sale in suburbia, the twenty-two authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "heartbreaks and half-truths" in their own inimitable style, where only one thing is certain: Behind every broken heart lies a half-truth. And behind every half-truth lies a secret.

According to my spreadsheet, "Ugly Fat" received fourteen rejections between the end of 2008 and early this year when Judy Penz Sheluk selected it for the anthology. One market told me to re-submit it--and rejected it again. That did wonders for my self-esteem. I assume another market rejected it because I sent it in April 2018 and haven't heard from them yet. That's not unusual, though. I still have seventeen unanswered queries from agents to whom I sent The Whammer Jammers in 2011. That's a major reason I started self-publishing my novels.

I've always loved short stories but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writer's Conference in summer of 2004. Alex Chee, Roxanna Robinson and Chris Offutt were all excellent teachers. Chris also gave me helpful feedback on an early version of what eventually became Blood on the Tracks (Interestingly enough, so did Kate Flora at Crime Bake a year or two later, on a very different draft). I wrote eight or ten short stories in the months after that one-week workshop, and four stories that have seen print came from writing prompts or other suggestions I picked up there.

"Ugly Fat" is different from many of my stories, but similar to a lot of them, too.

Like many of my stories, it has a female protagonist. I worked theater with strong, organized, creative stage managers for thirty years, and most of them were women. My wife is smarter than I am, too (Yes, I grant you, that's no big deal). My novels feature strong women like Valerie Karr, Megan Traine, "Shoobie" Dube, and Svetlana Melanova. Weak or dumb women don't do it for me, and that bias shows up in my writing.

Connie, the protagonist in "Ugly Fat," has been dumped by her cop boyfriend and is now visiting the gym to get back in fighting trim. She stops at a tag sale and finds that her problems are nothing compared to the woman running the sale. Molly's husband dumped her for his secretary and they eloped to Mexico. Now Molly is selling all the guy's clothes, books, and sports gear. She divorced his sorry ass and refers to it as a great diet, in which she lost 170 pounds of ugly fat in one day. Connie sympathizes, but figures out there's more to the story than meets the eye.

The story has dark humor, which I like, and a few music references, also a staple. Telling more would spoil it.

Now, you ask, how is it different from my other stories?

If you don't ask that, you missed your cue.

Well, it's only 2400 words long, one of my shortest published stories. My comfort zone seems to be about 3500--or, if you include my two novellas--about 4300. Excluding the novellas, my two longest stories are roughly 6000 words.

I've always been a process kind of guy, maybe because I taught for so long. More often than not, I know when, where, why, and how I got the idea for a story. I've discussed that before. I try to help people in my workshops realize that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, sometimes several places and ideas at once.

I remember nothing about when or where this story came to me. The draft I sent for the anthology is "Version S," which would be the 19th version. That's far more than usual, and I don't know why there were so many. I usually do five or six drafts over a span of three or four months. Since I sent the story out the first time around Thanksgiving 2008, I probably wrote the first draft in July, most likely after seeing a tag sale or ten within walking distance of my condo any given weekend.

Who knows? Who cares?

Connie's found a home. And she's in good company.

03 June 2020

Time Share


I have a story in the June issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, and for that I must thank Barb Goffman, who was my inspiration.  Sort of.

I came up with the idea and the title for the story decades ago but I couldn't see a market for it so I never bothered to write it.  Then, last year, Barb announced that she was going to edit an anthology called Crime Travel, featuring crime-related tales of time travel.

And I realized my old idea fit. Sort of. It was about a physicist who hoped to invent time travel, only to discover that that is impossible - however, it turned out that he could travel through an apparently infinite number of universes.

I asked Barb if that concept might fit in her book, and she said it might.  So I wrote the story.  And Barb rejected it, as she had every right to do.

But heck, I had my story now.  Might as well look for a market.  Mystery Weekly Magazine had published one of my stories last year, a tale with a science fiction bent.  So I sent it to them and voila.  Decades after it was first dreamed up, "In Praise of my Assassin" is available now for your reading pleasure.

It's about time.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks



As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM





Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.


A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):


SPENCER
E SPENCER

1 MILE


For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.


Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.


Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:


If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .




The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?


In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.


Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!

21 March 2020

Super-Short Stories


Note the hyphen in the title: this post is not about short stories that are super. It's about stories that are super-short. And it's a result of the many responses I've received about a creation of mine that was published last week at a market called 50-Word Stories.

Besides being fun to write, these mini-stories--I've heard them called "sudden" fiction--are good practice. If you set out to write something short, especially something with a predetermined wordcount, you know you can't waste any words. It's a concept we writers need to keep in mind for longer stories as well, but with very short stories it's vital.

What do some of these tiny stories look like? Here are some examples.


50 words

My recent effort at 50-Word Stories is titled "Mum's the Word"--which they misspelled as "Mom's the Word," not that it matters; that title might be better than my own. It's a dialogue-only piece that was originally published years ago at a place called Flashshot.

Here's a link to my story, and since it's so short I've reprinted it here:


"A 50-word story? Impossible."
"You're wrong."
"Try it."
"Okay: Honey, I'm pregnant."
"What?"
"Just kidding."
"Not funny."
"How about: I'm pregnant, and it's not yours."
"What!?"
"Kidding again. How many words, so far?"
"34."
"Let's stop. I'm hungry."
"For what?"
"Pickles."
"Pickles?"
"How many words now?"
"47."
"And ice cream."


(Thanks again, by the way, to those kind folks who posted comments at the bottom of that story.)


45 words

Here's another short-short-short, this one not quite fifty words, written by my friend Kate Fellowes. She informed me that it recently won the San Diego Public Library's annual Matchbook Short Story Contest (!). Notice how much information she managed to pack into so few words:


Who stole my youth? The detective I hired uncovered the truth. "They were in it together," he said, passing me photos. Father Time showed no remorse, his face kind and gentle. Mother Nature was unrepentant. "Honestly, darling," she said when questioned, "what did you expect?"


I really, really like that story. Thank you, Kate, for giving me permission to reprint it here.


26 words

Still counting down, I want to mention a story I included in a SleuthSayers post several years ago. I wrote it for a contest--the instructions said to compose a 26-word story such that each word begins with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. (Contestants were allowed some wiggle-room in that we could use words like Xcept and Xtended and Xterminated for the letter X.) All this struck me as a challenge, which it was, and it turned out to be even more fun than I'd thought. I wrote eight or nine Xperimental stories before picking the one I wanted to send in--here are a few of those I considered submitting:


A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

American Broadcasting Company department executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

Since you're probably rolling your eyes by now and searching for a Tylenol or a barf-bag, let me assure you that I agree: none of those seemed to hit the spot. (I have some more near-misses, but I'll spare you.) I finally wrote and submitted this one instead, which I titled "Mission Ambushable."


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.


That story, which I realize is still a groaner, wound up winning second place in the contest, which resulted in a $30 Amazon gift card that got used about ten seconds after it hit my inbox. (I don't recall what the first-place story was, but I remember consoling myself that it wasn't as good as mine. What were those judges thinking . . . ?)


12 words

And here's another of my masterpieces, called "The Pain in Spain":

She ran with the bulls at Pamplona;
One stuck her, another steptona.

(Okay, that's a poem, not a story. But you'll have to admit, it's profound literature.)


8 words

I read someplace--I think it was in a how-to-write book by English novelist E. M. Forster, though I can't remember its title--that a story can be defined as a series of related events. An example of this, he said, is the following eight-word sentence:

The king died and then the queen died.

Nor much of a story, you say? Maybe not. But since it involves two events that are related to each other, it meets the requirements. And in case you're interested, I recall that Forster went on to illustrate the difference between a story and a plot. He said that while those eight words make it a story, adding two more words can make it a PLOT:

The king died and then the queen died of grief.

Interesting, I thought.


6 words

One of the shortest stories I've seen, again and again over the years--you probably have, too--is the following six-worder:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Some say its author was Ernest Hemingway, but that's never been proven. I still love it. In fact, if I think about it too long it brings a tear to my eye--and I admire any story, poem, novel, or movie that can do that.


Not to be outdone, here is my own six-word story, called "Radio Silence."

"Entering Bermuda Triangle. No problems whatsoev--"

That one was submitted also, to a six-word flash-fiction contest. It not only didn't win, it never even got a response. (Not that I let rejection bother me; I choose to believe it fell behind the piano and the judges never saw it.)


A final word

I'm afraid I don't know of any story examples of fewer than six words. If you do--or if you know of other shorties under fifty words, especially those you've written yourself, please let me know in the comments. And for those of you who have done this kind of thing, did you find micro-writing interesting? Challenging? Fun? Hard? More trouble than it's worth?



By the way, that SleuthSayers post I mentioned, about the alphabet-soup contest? I remember closing it with the following thought. It seems to apply here too:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.



See you in two weeks.

14 March 2020

How It All Happened For Me


After work and dinner one night, I sat down in my bedroom, door closed, and wrote in longhand for one hour on a novel I’d begun years earlier. Several months later, when I wrote “the end,” it came out to 105,000 words. I transcribed it onto a computer, and then did nothing for a couple of years.

Finally, I decided to try writing some more, this time directly onto the computer. I also decided to write short stories because they were short. And for me, a lot easier and more fun to write. I also thought it would be a good way to try out different types of stories, using male protagonists as well as female, occasionally even stepping away from mystery to write a speculative story, or even something “literary.”

The local newspaper had a short story contest—1,000 words. I wrote one, submitted it, and didn’t win first place, but was one of four other authors out of fifty submissions who won a dinner at a fancy local restaurant. To say I was surprised and pumped is a huge understatement.

Next I decided to look for a critique group. I ended up joining two. One had three short story published writers who had all attended a community college class together and then started the group. I ate up all their knowledge about point of view, adverbs, other good advice, and specific thoughts about my stories.

I ended up placing a few of my stories, all work-shopped by either or both of the groups, and started on another novel. That also went through one of the groups, and within eight years, I had many short stories and three novels written.

I tried getting an agent for each of the novels. No luck. Then my husband retired, and we hit the road in a motorhome to travel to the United States lower 48. In eleven years, we hit all but four.

And I hardly wrote at all.

But in 2004, I decided to submit one of my novels to a new, small publisher. Several people I knew had signed with the press and were raving about it. I was given a contract for three novels. They first published Sara’s Search on time and with a cover I loved.

Sara's Search
When the month of June came around to publish the second novel, though, it didn’t happen. Several months went by. Promises were made to publish it in October. It had a cover (I didn’t love it as much as the first one, though), it had been edited, and the galleys had been proofed. Christmas came and went, and all of January. I found out that several other writers with the same publisher were having problems. Royalty checks stopped. The publisher no longer answered phone calls or emails.

We all, about fifty of us, became quite concerned. And unfortunately, as a group, we decided to pull our books and ask for the rights back to those already published. Of course, the publisher’s reputation was ruined, but he did the right thing and gave us the rights back, and even gave me the rights to the cover for Sara. All but one author left, sadder but wiser.

Some writers went with other small presses, and several had bad luck with them, as well. I wrote some more novels. I sent them to NY agents. Nothing happened. I was reluctant to try another small publisher. (Another one, WriteWay, had shown interest in another of my books before I placed Sara’s Search, but they went bankrupt before any contracts were signed, so I was leery—authors there, as far as I know, never got their rights back. If they ever did, it took years.) By this time, I had the one published novel and over fifty short stories as publication credits. Didn’t matter.

Revelations
Then something unexpected happened. Electronic books, thanks to Amazon, started to become popular. Writers who had no luck with NY publishing decided to strike out on their own and get their books up for ebook readers. This was not too difficult to do. I watched and waited. I saw that some readers were unhappy with the books coming out because they were poorly written, had glaring spelling and grammar mistakes, and were badly formatted. I also noticed that many of the covers did not look very professional, and many were too dark to be able to read the title and/or authors’ names on the tiny thumbnails used online. So I decided to hire a professional cover artist, and between us, this is what we came up with:

I still like it. Next, the authors I read about who were successful hired professional editors and proofreaders to go over their manuscripts. And finally, if they couldn’t do a good job themselves, they hired yet a third person to format the work for them.

Someday I may change the cover for Sara’s Search because it’s too dark to show up well in a thumbnail. I also want a new paperback version, so that would need to have a back cover

Now I have eleven novels published and over seventy short stories (only one of those self-published). Beginning is the hardest part. After that, persistence and patience will do the job.


And that’s how it all started. I’m open to questions, and if they’d need a long-enough answer, that could become another blog post. So, ask away.

My website: www.janchristensen.com and find me on Facebook: https://bit.ly/2QfNNIr

02 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue Part 1


My wife Barbara claims she has acted in about 80 productions, but I'd say it's at least twice that many. Since we met, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, several Shakespearean roles including Feste in 12th Night and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (I directed both of those) and one of the neighbors being spied upon in the Hartford Stage Company's world premiere of the stage adaptation of Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon. She also had a cameo in the remake of that film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Since she also has a reputation for being very good at learning lines, we found ourselves trying to explain what makes dialogue effective...or not.

Last Wednesday, we earned a little extra cash by acting in a training video for caregivers. We've worked with the director and crew before, and they're great: patient, organized, funny, and very good at what they do.

We met the "nurse" in our scene Tuesday for a read-through and shot the six-page, eight-minute scene the next morning. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for make-up (They had to age me ;-))) and finished a little after noon.

People who aren't used to the routine say, "JEEZE, why so long for eight minutes?"

Well, we had to do five camera set-ups, one on all three of us at a table, one of Barb and me, and one of each of us, which will be edited together later for the best flow. That meant moving the camera and furniture in a small space and tweaking the lights and microphones for each different angle.

Another problem was that because the video is for training caregivers to follow specific guidelines, the nurse's lines had to correspond to the language on a checklist and a training manual. They don't flow trippingly off the tongue and they get repetitive. That means actors can get lost, especially when you start and stop a few times.

I had two speeches that were completely different, but my cue lines were 22 and 20 words, 18 of them the same. For one take, the director wanted to start at one of those cues, and I had to ask, "Is this my first or second response?" because that was the only way I could keep them straight.

If you're writing a short story or novel, that's not a big deal, but if you write for the stage, it becomes crucial. You need to write lines the actors can learn. Remember, we had only one rehearsal and a four-hour shoot to get everything correct five times.

Most of what we say today is geared toward plays, but you can apply it to stories and novels, too.

There are two ways to link (connect) lines so an actor can remember them. When Character A reacts or responds to Character B, it draws the audience into the scene and gets them involved. You can do this with either an ACTION CUE or a LINE CUE.

An ACTION CUE is an event that prompts the character to speak. For example, there's a knock on the door, and the character asks, "Who is it?" If you're writing a story, you can use an action tag here.

When she heard the knock on her locked door, Sarah asked, "Who is it?"

A LINE CUE is the word or sentence the actor talks back to. KIND playwrights (They are rare) often repeat key words in consecutive speeches between two characters. Repetition is best if it's an important verb or noun in the first sentence. If it's not a repeat, a synonym will help.

Sometimes, Character B's speak begins with a sound or letter that was prominent in Character A's speech.Strong Consonants like "P" "T" or "S" are common because they're so audible.

Questions and answers are usually easy to remember. So is cause and effect, where B says something as a response to what Character A did or said. This is a lot like the ACTION CUE.

Chris Knopf uses repetition and synonyms when his series character Sam Acquillo talks with local cop Joe Sullivan. The two paraphrase and mangle each other's previous lines, sometimes turning them into puns or malapropisms. It's funny, but it also adds tension and energy because it shows the two are listening to each other while they butt heads.

American English gains its meaning and nuance from rhythm. In dialogue, the two strong positions are the beginning or the end of a sentence, especially the end. That's where you should put the speech's main point (see what I just did there with the slightly unusual word order?).

I'm afraid the case is past human skill. Prayer is our only resource now, John.

That's weak. The important word (prayer) gets buried in the middle. Try this instead:

I'm afraid the case is past human skill, John. Our only resource now is prayer.

Can you hear and feel the difference?

I saw another such face a year later is weaker than A year later, I saw another such face. 

If you use names--usually direct address--in dialogue, a name at the beginning of a speech tends to make a stronger line, probably because it focuses attention more quickly. It helps indicate the relationship (power) between two characters without the audience being aware of it.  A name at the end tends to be weaker because it creates a falling rhythm.

Henry, please pick up that book      is stronger than      Please pick up that book, Henry. 

If you're writing comedy, put the point or punch at the end. If you want a laugh, you need the joke in a strong position.

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was my wife; that was no lady.                                    (Why aren't you laughing?)

Let's be practical, too. If, in spite of the weak position, the punch gets a laugh early, that laugh will drown out the rest of the line. The audience might miss information. It's also hard on the actor. Think about the action/line cue when you're setting up a joke, too.

Dialogue helps everyone understand what the goal is and how the character tries to achieve it. It also can show the nature and magnitude of the obstacles.
A:  What time is it?
B:  Two thirty.                      
A asks the question to get information. B answers because she has the information and wants to help. There MAY be more going on here– flirting, a power game, whatever. Maybe one character is suggesting that the other one is late...again.
A:  Are you hungry?
B:  Yes.
Is A a nurturing mother, a sadistic torturer, a waiter, or something else?
Is B a child, a captive, a customer, or a potential love conquest?

An indirect answer can add tension.
A:  Can I go in and see him?
B:  Over my dead body. (Or, Not without a warrant, Or, Not until he regains consciousness, Or, Haven't you done enough damage already?
Using specific words and images will make it easier for an actor to learn his lines and develop his or her character, too.

We'll talk more about dialogue and character next time.