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

06 November 2019

How to Kill Your Story



I have been reading a novel by an author I much admire and have run into a roadblock.  About a third of the way through the main character began acting like an A.S.S.

I refer to a person with Amateur Sleuth Syndrome.

I will not name the author or title (I only review things I like) so forgive my vagueness in what follows.  X is in jail, accused of murdering Y.  Our main character, Hero, is trying to prove him innocent.  Hero gets a call from a Mysterious Stranger, offering to provide the evidence he needs, but when he goes to meet good 'ol Mysterious he is locked in a building and almost killed by the same M.O. that took out Y.

Okay, so far, so good.

But why didn't Hero have a cell phone when he got locked in?  This book was written well within the age of ubiquitous cells, so where the heck was it?

It gets worse.  Having escaped with his life Hero now has a compelling bit of evidence that X is innocent - specifically an attempted second murder.  Does he inform the cops?

Heaven forbid.  Instead, amateur that he is, he is determined to get at the truth himself.  His flimsy, off-the-cuff defense for this is that the cops have already made up their minds about X and wouldn't be interested.

So he is definitely acting the A.S.S.  But I  diagnose another illness complicating the case of this suffering piece of prose.  Namely, E.A.T.S.  Editor Asleep at The Switch.  Because any editor worthy of his two hour lunch should have spotted these issues, which the writer could have solved in a few minutes.

Dang, said Hero. I left my cell phone on the breakfast table.  Or forgot to charge it. Or there's no signal in this building.  How inconvenient, seeing as how I am about to die and everything.

And later:

I don't dare go to the cops, Hero explained.  They'll just think I faked the crime to try to get X out of jail.

Not a very good argument, that, but better than a whole heap of nothing.


As long as I'm complaining, let me tell you about two other plot-killers I have encountered. One was a short story featuring a woman suffering from U.G.  By this I mean Unnecessary Guile.  This private eye needed to know who owned a car so she contacted a cop friend and used all her Feminine Wiles to persuade him to look up the information for her.

Fair enough, I suppose.  Except that the car had just committed multiple traffic violations, endangering the public.  If you wanted to get police attention wouldn't you lead with that?  Or at least mention it?

And then there was a story in which a police officer was guilty of Cop Rejecting Accepted Procedure, or C.R.A.P.  He chose to get information in a way he knew would make it unusable in court.  Okay, there are lots of fictional fuzz who bust the rules left and right, but this guy was supposedly before (and after) a straight arrow.  So what were we supposed to make of this weird aberration?  Methinks somebody got lazy, and I don't think it was the character.

I hope you find these tips useful.  Follow them and it will be less likely that your reader will engage in something T.A.B.U. (Tossing Away Book Unfinished).

03 August 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Very Long Titles



by John M. Floyd



I've always been fascinated by titles. It's usually a case of Whoa, what a great title, and then Why couldn't I have thought of one like that? And, thankfully less often, What was the author thinking?--I could've done better than that. The truth is, the titles of movies, novels, and stories come in all categories--good, bad, and ugly.

The good

I think some are so well done they're worth mentioning: The Guns of Navarone, Atlas Shrugged, The Eagle Has Landed, The High and the Mighty, The Caine Mutiny, Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Tin Star," Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jurassic Park, Lonesome Dove, The Grapes of Wrath, The Silence of the Lambs, Blazing Saddles, The Princess Bride, The Maltese Falcon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, "The Gift of the Magi," Ben-Hur, Sands of the Kalahari, Dances With Wolves, East of Eden, Back to the Future, A Fish Called Wanda, The Seven-Year Itch, Our Man Flint, The Usual Suspects, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Gypsy Moths, No Country for Old Men, The Sand Pebbles, Fail-Safe, Gone With the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and so on. The one thing all these have in common is that they are unique--each is one of a kind.

An aside, here. I also love the way some authors of fiction have used their titles almost as marketing trademarks: Janet Evanovich's numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly; James Patterson's nursery rhymes: Jack and Jill, Three Blind Mice, Along Came a Spider; Sue Grafton's alphabet: A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse; Martha Grimes's English pubs: The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, Jerusalem Inn; John D. MacDonald's colors: The Green Ripper, The Deep Blue Good-by, A Purple Place for Dying; Robert Ludlum's three-word titles: The Bourne Identity, The Matarese Circle, The Rhinemann Exchange; James Michener's one-word titles: Centennial, Chesapeake, Hawaii; John Sandford's "prey" titles: Night Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey; etc.

Does length matter?

A question I've often heard writers ask is, "Does my title need to be short?" Or, in other words, "Is a long title a disadvantage?" I don't know the answer. Looking back at my own short stories, I've found that almost all my titles are short--between one and three words. But I don't remember making a conscious effort to keep them short. I just try to come up with something appropriate and--if possible--intriguing. I'm not always successful at that, but I try. And I love titles that turn out to have double meanings, or meanings that are revealed only in the course of the story. Like my one-to-three-word titles, I have far too many four-word titles to list, but here are some of mine that are five words or more: ""On the Road With Mary Jo," "The Red-Eye to Boston," "A Nice Little Place in the Country," "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," "The Moon and Marcie Wade," "Take the Money and Ron," "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," "Turn Right at the Light," "A Message for Private Kirby," "Can You Hear Me Now?" "The Browns and the Grays," "A Surprise for Digger Wade."

One thing that I find interesting is that there are a LOT of movie and novel titles that are long--some of them extremely long. And some of those titles are surprisingly good. Another thing that's interesting, at least to me, is that some of the longest titles aren't that hard to remember; they're just long. In fact I can recall some titles that aren't very long but are hard to remember, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.

Title contenders

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some very long movie titles. They're in no particular order, but my favorites are at the top of the list. As you also might've expected, some of the titles farther down the line are bad and some are ugly. I'll leave it to you to decide which are which.

Note: Only titles of eight words or more are included. (I hated to leave out It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, yes, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I had to draw the line somewhere.) I also didn't include any documentary titles or any titles containing colons, parentheses, or "or." Examples:
- Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do With It)
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes

Here, then, after my lame disclaimers, is my lineup:



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012)

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forgive Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967)

Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God . . . Be Back by Five (1998)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)

To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)

The Ranger, the Cook, and the Hole in the Sky (1995)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (2002)

A Quiet Little Neighborhood, a Perfect Little Murder (1990)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2011)

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

It's Better to Be Wanted for Murder Than Not to Be Wanted at All (2003)

I Could Never Have Sex With a Man Who Had Such Little Regard for My Husband (1973)

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013)

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973)

What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013)

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charente Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1967)

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916)

What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1972)

The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Super Bad About It (2010)

I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (1993)

You Gotta Walk It If You Like to Talk It or You'll Lost That Beat (1971)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space (1965)

The Heart of a Lady as Pure as a Full Moon Over the Place of Medical Salvation (1955)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)



Since I've neglected them so far, here are some long-titled novels and children's books:


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell

Grab Onto Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, Bryan Charles

The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, Charles Bukowski

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, Lisa Shanahan

The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, Edgardo Vega Yunque

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won Off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, David Forrest

Sheila Devine Is Dead and Living in New York, Gail Parent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List, Janette Rallison

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judie Viorst

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente


Okay, back to the movies

The best (in my opinion) one-word movie titles: Vertigo, Giant, Shane, Fargo, Goldfinger, Tombstone, M*A*S*H, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Psycho, Nashville, Crash, Rocky, Papillon, Casino, Platoon, Holes, Ghostbusters, Splash, Memento, Twister, Witness, Deliverance, Seabiscuit, Chinatown, Sideways, Titanic, Hondo, Flashdance, Poltergeist, Network, Spartacus, Jaws, Signs, Aliens, Misery, Casablanca.

And, last AND least, some two-letter and one-letter titles: Pi, Go, RV, It, Up, If . . ., F/X, I. Q., Da, E.T., M, G, W., Z, O, $.




Had enough of this? Good, because those are all I can think of. As always, please let me know of any I've missed, and maybe some of the titles of your own stories and novels. Do your titles tend to be long or short--or does it matter? Do you have any that are very long or very short?

I'll close with the longest movie title of them all (I think). Brace yourself:

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh-Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead, Part 2 (1991).


Don't you wish you'd thought of that one?






02 February 2019

Southernisms



by John M. Floyd



For all of us, there are certain things we don't like to read in stories and novels, and things we don't like to see or hear in movies. One of those, for me, is southern dialogue that just doesn't sound right. Part of it's the accent, which is almost never believable (unless spoken by Billy Bob Thornton, who sounds exactly like my next-door neighbor)--and part of it's the writing.


Here are some examples of the way people speak in my area, which is pretty much the middle of the Deep South. I'm not saying this holds true for, say, San Antonio or Virginia Beach or Boca Raton--but it's true for Mississippi, and if you write a story or novel or screenplay set in these parts, well, here's the skinny:



- A large stream is a creek. We don't say crick, even though Hollywood thinks we do.

- A carbonated beverage is not a soda or a soft drink or a pop. It's a Coke. Even if it's really a Pepsi or a Sprite. ("Let's go get a Coke.")

- Most people, especially old folks, don't press buttons or push buttons, they mash buttons. ("Mash zero to get the operator.")

- The noon meal is dinner, not lunch. The evening meal is supper. This rule, like some of the others, gets diluted a bit the closer you get to a city.

- You don't run in sneakers, or even in running shoes or jogging shoes. They're tennis shoes.

- When you pray together before a meal, you "say the blessing."

- If you're fixin' to do something, you're getting ready to do it. ("I'm fixin' to go to town.")

- A fellow is not a fell-o. He's a fella. Also, yellow is yella and an arrow's an arra and a window's a winda.

- Garden beans that grow close to the ground (rather than on poles) are bunch beans, not bush beans, no matter what the label says. And pole beans are pole beans.

- Vegetable gardens aren't called vegetable gardens. They're just gardens.

- Flower gardens aren't called flower gardens, or gardens. They're just flowers.

- You don't say or write "Ms." with a lady's first name. It's Miss Mary, never Ms. Mary, even if she's married and has ten kids. It's a familiarity, like Miss Ellie in Dallas.

- When you say you'll be there "directly," it means you'll be there soon.

- "Don't be ugly," doesn't mean what it sounds like. It means "Be nice."

- "Once in a blue moon" means almost never.

- "Bless your heart" is used in a lot of ways, mostly to soften an insult. ("Bless his heart, he probably couldn't find his butt with both hands and a map.")

- You don't chuck something out the window. You chunk it out.

- "Hey" is used more than hello or hi or any other greeting, even when relayed: "Say hey to your mama for me."

- When you hug someone, you "hug her neck." This can also be a relayed greeting: "Hug her neck for me."

- When someone passes out, usually from the heat, he "done fell out." There's even a shortened version: "I heard Miss Sally DFOed."

- If you clear a field of briars and bushes and underbrush, you bush-hog it. You don't brush-hog it. This comes from the name of the rotary mower you use to do it.

- If something's really good it makes you want to "slap ya mama." (I have no idea where that came from.)

- Pajamas are pa-JOMMas (rhymes with Bahamas), not pa-JAMMas.

- "Carry me" means "take me" or "transport me." ("Can you carry me to work tomorrow?")

- Pecans are pronounced pa-CONNs, not PEE-canns. Though in some parts of the south (the Carolinas, maybe?) this doesn't hold true.

- Dogs are dawgs, not dahhgs; on is own, not ahhn; route is rowt, not root; either is EE-ther, not EYE-ther; oil is AW-ul (two syllables), not AW-ee-ul (three syllables); and school is SKOOL (one syllable), not SKOO-wul (two syllables). We try to cut back on those unhealthy syllables whenever possible.

- Yankees are folks who live north of the Mason-Dixon--and sometimes folks who live anywhere north of where you live, no matter where you live.

- "Y'all" is always used to address more than one person--never a single person--except in certain parts of the south and in all movies made by Yankees.

- If you look really tired, you've been "rode hard and put up wet."

- Other common southern expressions: slow as molasses, just fine and dandy, happy as a dead hog in the sunshine, gimme some sugar (kiss me), hissy fit, conniption fit, and Little Miss Priss (a young lady acting too big for her britches).

The only other things I can think of are the pronunciations of place names. Biloxi is bi-LUCK-see, not bi-LOCK-see; Grenada (city and county) is gra-NAY-da, not gra-NAH-da; Kosciusko (where I went to high school) is kozzy-ESS-ko, not the Polish koz-SHOOS-ko; Amite is a-MITT, not a-MIGHT; and Yazoo (city, county, and river) is YAZZ-oo, not YOZZ-oo; Pass Christian is Pass kris-chee-ANN, not Pass KRIS-chee-un; Shuqualak is SHOO-ka-lock; and Gautier is go-SHAY. The mispronunciation of these, especially by new TV weathercasters, is a mortal sin, and might get you transferred to Point Barrow, Alaska.

As for places outside my state but still nearby, New Orleans is new-WOLL-uns, not new-or-LEENS; Thibodaux, Louisiana, is TIB-a-doe; Natchitoches, Louisiana, is NACK-a-tosh; Kissimmee, Florida, is ka-SIM-mee, not KISS-a-mee (or gimme some sugar); Nacogdoches, Texas, is nack-a-DOE-chez; Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas is WASH-i-tah; Arab, Alabama, is AY-rab; Dacula, Georgia, is dah-KEW-lah; and Milan, Tennessee, is MY-lin. At least that's the way I've always heard them pronounced.



NOTE 1: Please inform me of any corrections to my above rules of southern speech, because--once again--I know some of them vary depending on where you live. Seriously, though, if you asked the owner of a grocery store here for pee-cans, he'd probably point and say "Down the hall to the left."

NOTE 2: I have my own views about which states make up the south, and in mine, the area's a lot smaller than the one shown here:



A question for those of you from other parts of the country: Do you have pet peeves involving accents and pronunciations and expressions? What are some of your "regionalisms?" Does it bother you when, in the movies, somebody who lives in Minnesota talks like a Georgia hillbilly, or an Indian scout in the 1880s has a Brooklyn accent, or a native of Boston says he's going to park the car instead of pahhk the cah? Let me know.

Meanwhile, I do declare, I'm finally through. We done plowed this field and it's time to rest the mule. Y'all say hey to your families for me and hug their necks. I'll be back directly.








01 December 2018

Two Strand Stories: Behind the Scenes



by John M. Floyd



I always find something to like about SleuthSayers posts, whether they stick to the subjects of mysteries and writing or veer off into something else--but some of those I've enjoyed the most are the ones where an author talks in detail about specific stories or novels he or she has written. Sort of an insider's view.

With that in mind--and hoping others might feel the same--I'd like to look at two of my recent stories, one of them in the previous issue of The Strand Magazine and the other in the current issue.

A quick peek

The first story, "Foreverglow" (original title "The Foreverglow Case"), appeared in The Strand's June-Oct issue. It's the story of a regular and not-overly-bright guy who meets and falls for a young lady who, as it turns out, has what she feels is a brilliant plan to steal a fortune in diamond jewelry from the store where she's employed. They manage to work together to pull off the heist--but what happens next was not in their original plan.

The second story, "Lucian's Cadillac," appears in the current (Oct-Jan) issue, which they're calling the Twentieth Anniversary Collector's Issue. It's a tale about three lifelong but unlikely friends--a genius, a "little person," and an ex-football player--who happen to witness a double murder. They testify against the killer, and later wind up on his payback list when he escapes from the state prison. It's sort of a High Noon/Cape Fear kind of story, with three over-the-hill seniors as the targets of revenge.

What's interesting, to me, about these two stories is what I found when I started comparing them. At first glance, they have a lot in common. Here are a few of the

Similarities:

- Both stories have protagonists with common, everyday lives and jobs. I find myself doing this a lot. Heroes don't have to be superheroes.

- Both are about 2500 words in length. This is actually a little short for Strand stories; I think the guidelines still say between 2K and 6K.

- Both are mysteries. This just means a crime is central to the plot.

- Both have characters who are romantically attracted to each other. The two thieves in the first story, and the viewpoint character and a female sheriff in the second. A romantic element, even if minor, can add a level of interest and/or conflict.

- Both are told in past tense. (I probably shouldn't have listed this, since all my stories are past tense. But it is a similarity.)

- Both are standalone stories. One of the two could conceivably become a series, but I have no plans in that direction.

- Both, except for some violence, have family-friendly content. Hell no, the priest and the Republican senator are NOT having an affair.

- Both are set in the present day, and in fairly small and unnamed towns. In one of the stories I mentioned that Atlanta was nearby, but otherwise I didn't see a need to use real, it's-on-the-map locations.

Both have only a few named characters but a LOT of dialogue. (One story has two speaking roles, the other has three.)

- Both include major plot reversals. I find this hard to resist when I write, because it's the kind of thing I like to encounter myself in the stories and novels I read.


But . . . here are some things about those stories that aren't alike at all.


Differences:

- In one story, the protagonists willfully break the law; in the other they don't. Asking the reader to root for the bad guys doesn't always work--but sometimes it does (Get Shorty, The Godfather, Butch Cassidy, etc.).

- One is written in third person, the other in first person. This wasn't even a conscious decision on my part--it just seemed the right way to tell these particular stories.

- One has several different scenes; the other has no scene breaks at all. A factor here is that in one story the action includes different places at different times, and in the other story everything happens at the same location--a neighborhood bar owned by the protagonist--in the space of only an hour or so.

- In one, the romantic element drives the story; in the other it's incidental. What can I say?--Love is mysterious.

One's a heist story; the other's a tale of revenge and survival. As a result, one of the stories has no specific named antagonist, while the other does.

- In one story, the characters are fairly "average"; in the other there'a a lot of diversity. The group of close friends in the second story includes a brilliant scholar, a dwarf, and an overweight former linebacker. Plus a lady sheriff.

- One contains no violence; the other does. This makes sense because one's a try-to-escape-without-getting-caught story, and the other's life-or-death, do-whatever-you-must-to-stay-alive.

- In one, the main characters are young; in the other they're old. The ages, here, are appropriate to the plot: the jewelry thieves are confident but inexperienced, and the three old men facing a deadly enemy are experienced enough not to be confident--besides being physically challenged.

- One has a surprise ending; the other does not. Although I hope both endings are satisfying.


So the two stories have many things in common, including some style/structure elements, but they're vastly different. I think that's to be expected with my stories, and probably with yours as well. If they're too much alike--even those that are "series" installments--they'll be boring to write and boring to read. This applies to novels as well as shorts.

Advice and opinions

For you writers out there, how different from each other are the stories you create? Are most told in the same viewpoint? Do most have the same kind of geographical setting? The same time period? The same tense? The same length? Complex plots? Happy endings? Surprise endings? How about the amount of dialogue? Violence? Sex? Profanity? Humor? Is there any one thing that you find yourself always including, or always avoiding?

Here's some sage advice from Elmore Leonard, and supposedly from Alfred Hitchcock as well: Leave out the parts that people skip.

Easier said than done.








07 November 2018

Snow Job


by Robert Lopresti

In September I mentioned one of the rare snowstorms my city receives.  Today I am going to talk about a different, more recent, one.

The storm was harsh enough to give both my wife and I the day off and so we decided to walk the half-mile to our closest grocery store for a look around and some lunch.

My back yard
As we trudged off through the beautiful whiteness I had a sudden thought: With our ski masks and scarves and gloves we were dressed exactly the way banks tell us not to.  You've seen the signs: "For your safety and ours remove hats, glasses, and scarves before entering." Or words to that effect.

Because I suffer from CWB (Crime Writer's Brain) an idea immediately appeared in my skull.  What if some bank robbers decided to take advantage of a blizzard to stroll into a bank unnoticed? 

Hmm.  How would they make their getaway?  Obviously they would have to steal some snowmobiles!

When you get right down to it, that was a pretty stupid idea.  But the great thing about writing fiction is that even a stupid idea can make a smart story.

And speaking of stupid, I realized instantly that this was a case for Officer Kite.  This peace officer has appeared in two of my previous stories, "A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts," and "A Bad Day for Bargain Hunters."

Kite is not a very competent cop.  In his first appearance he got run over by his own police car..  That made him seem like the perfect foil for my snowmobiling bandits.

All the "Bad Day" stories are set in fictional Brune County, and involve strangers getting involved in a tangled mess of bad intentions and worse planning.  So far each story is longer and more convoluted than the last.

If you pick up the current (November/December 2018) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine you will discover "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests."  I hope you enjoy it.  And bundle up.

05 May 2018

Manuscript Mechanics



by John M. Floyd



I don't like change. I'm sure part of that's because of my age, but also it's just inconvenient. I have certain ways I like to do things, and I'm reluctant to budge from my comfort zone.

One of the things I have changed, though--because I felt I had to--is the way I format the submissions of my short stories.

Old-school

First, a bit of background. When I started sending my work off to editors, back in the mid-nineties, I obeyed the following rules, for my manuscripts:


- Use Courier font
- Double space
- Underline text that needs emphasis
- Use two hyphens for a dash
- Space twice after a period


Those were the marching orders for almost everyone, with minor variations, because computers were still new enough that a lot of manuscripts were being created on typewriters, and all the above tasks could be performed without a word-processing program.

New-school


Now, I do the following:


- Use 12-point Times New Roman font
- Double space
- Italicize text that needs emphasis
- Use em-dashes
- Space once after a period


Alternative-school

Sometimes there are exceptions. Several places to which I regularly submit manucrtipts specify in their guidelines that they still prefer underlining instead of italics. Why? I'm not certain, but I suspect they find underlined text easier to spot than italics when they prepare the manuscript for publication. Whatever the reason, if they want it, I'll do it.

Some places, believe it or not, still prefer Courier font. And when I convert a manuscript to Courier before submitting to those markets, I usually also plug in two spaces after every period. That's a personal preference: I think only one space after a period in Courier makes the words look a little too crowded together. Is that just me, or do any of you agree?

I also submit regularly to a market that prefers two hyphens for a dash (rather than the automatically substituted em dash). Their wish is my command. It's easy to go back through a manuscript and change those dashes.

That same market likes submissions single-spaced except for a double-space between paragraphs, and no indentions at the beginnings of paragraphs. Again, it's pretty easy to comply with this. I just "select all," then hit "single-space" and go back through the manuscript adding one extra space between paragraphs and removing the indentions.

Occasionally, of course, there'll be other specific things editors want you to do: put only your name and page number in the header, put only your story title and page number in the header, type three asterisks to indicate a scene break, don't use the tab key to indent paragraphs, use strange fonts, center a special symbol at the end of the story, etc. Some of these can seem a little nitpicking, and I often suspect they put such demands into their guidelines just to make sure the writer has done his/her homework and has taken the trouble to read the guidelines.

Basic training

Other things I always do, with regard to manuscripts (unless guidelines tell me not to):

- I use standard white 8 1/2-by-11 copy paper
- I use one-inch margins all around
- I put name/address/phone/email info at the top left of the first page
- I put an approximate wordcount at the top right of the first page
- I center the title in all caps about a third of the way down the first page
- I double-space once and type my byline (and center it also)
- I double-space twice after the byline and begin typing the story
- I indent all paragraphs and don't have extra spacing between paragraphs
- I suppress widow/orphan control (allowing widows/orphans)
- I turn off grammar-checking
- I put a header at the top right of every page except page one (Last name / TITLE / Page#)
- I use a centered pound sign (#) to indicate scene breaks
- I double-space three times after the final line of the story and center the words THE END


This isn't saying you have to do the above. It's just what I do.


Everything I've mentioned so far assumes a manuscript that'll be either (1) attached as a file (word.doc, usually) to an emailed cover letter, (2) attached and submitted via a market's website, or (3) printed and snailmailed to an editor. Manuscripts copied/pasted into the body of an email are formatted differently: they'll be plugged in as a .txt file, which--after conversion--is in 10-point Courier font and ignores any special characters, including italicized text. To indicate emphasis in one of these manuscripts, I always type an underscore character just before and just after whatever text I'd like them to italicize in the published version. (Example: I saw it in _The New York Times_.) Most manuscripts pasted into the body of an email should also be single-spaced, with unindented paragraphs and a double space between paragraphs.

Q&A

That's all the information I can think of. How do your submissions differ from these? What are some of the weirdest formatting requirements you've seen, in writers' guidelines? Do you ever submit anything via regular mail anymore? Do you ever use anything except Courier and TNR? Do you use em-dashes or two hyphens? Do you type anything at the very end of your manuscript? How do you indicate a scene break? Do you space once or twice after a period? Main thing is, if what you're doing works, keep doing it.

In two weeks I plan to follow up with several hints and shortcuts to save time when preparing your manuscripts. Meanwhile, keep typing and keep submitting. Best to everyone!

31 January 2018

The Biggest of the Best


by Robert Lopresti

Once again awards time has come around, and I am prepared to list the best short mystery stories of the year. This is my ninth annual wingding and either I am going soft or 2017 was a particularly good year for the field. You will find 18 stories listed below, up five from last year, and one ahead of my previous record. What can I say? May be this was just a year that needed distractions.

The big winners were Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, tied with five stories each. Akashic Press and Mystery Weekly Magazine each scored two.

Four of the authors were women; fifteen were men. Four authors are appearing for the second time on this august list. Two completed the hat trick. More remarkably, one author scored two on the list this year. The only other time that happened it was achieved by Brendan Dubois in 2012.

Six of the stories are funny (says me); four have fantasy elements. Only one is a historical. I think one could be described as fair play.

Enough chatter, let's go down to the red carpet.

Blakey, James. "Do Not Pass Go," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, September 2017.

The narrator has just arrived in a town and quickly discovers that the cops are corrupt, the wealthy run things to suit themselves, and the employers rip off the workers. Just like thousands of other crime stories.

But he gets a job at the Water Works where people get paid in brightly colored scrip. He doesn't earn enough to rent one of the identical houses on New York or Kentucky Avenues. He almost gets sent to jail for not paying the poor tax. And the Parker Brothers run everything. It's like they've got a – What's that word again?

Cohen, Jeff. "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl!" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Elliot runs a movie theatre that shows nothing but comedies, most of them old. That may explain why Sharon, a doctor, divorced him years ago. Harder to explain is that she's about to have Elliot's baby. Like today.

Elliot rushes her to the hospital and promptly bumbles into a supply closet where a man in scrubs seems to be in the act of killing a woman in scrubs with a knife. Awkward. Cohen writes funny.

Coward, Mat. "What Could Possibly Go Boing?" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Meet the staff of Fake Dog Dirt Etc, a rather low-end novelty shop. One of them just killed their boss, almost accidentally.

They hope to keep the dump open for a few more paychecks, if they can hide the body. And find the boss's hidden money. And avoid the cops. Did I mention the blackmailer?

Deaver, Jeffery. "Hard to Get," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2017.

Deaver is making his second appearance in my annual best of list. And by the way, something very unusual happened here: the Edgar judges and I agree on this one. It is a very surprising thing when one of my favorites gets nominated.

Lessing is an analyst for the CIA; a desk jockey. When an agent dies while preparing for a vital mission, Lessing is the only person with the knowledge to fill the gap.

So all of a sudden he is in a small town in Poland trying to attract the attention of the deputy to the Russian spymaster who is running a ring of seditionists in the United States. But he has to attract the man subtly. If he is too obvious they will know it's a trap. Play hard to get, he is told...

Deaver, Jeffery. "A Significant Find," in Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, Pegasus Books, 2017.

And here is Deaver again, with his second appearance in my Best of 2017. Greedy, greedy.

Roger and Della are having a crisis of conscience. They are a married couple, both moderately successful mid-career archaeologists, and they are in France for a conference. Why the crisis? Well, let's put it this way. Suppose Professor A gets a clue to a career-changing discovery but doesn't realize how to use it. If he tells Professors B and C about it and they are more clever at interpreting the puzzle, are B and C required to share the credit with A? An ethical dilemma indeed. Worse dilemmas will follow.

Gates, David Edgerley. "Cabin Fever," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2017.

This is the third appearance in this space by my fellow SleuthSayer David Edgerly Gates.

Montana deputy Hector Moody.is having a bad day. His truck breaks down in the mountains miles from anywhere. No phone reception. A thunderstorm approaching fast. And oh yes, unknown to him, two prisoners have escaped from prison and they have already killed to stay free...

Harlow, Jennifer. "The Bubble," in Atlanta Noir, edited by Tayari Jones, Akashic Press, 2017.

Maddie, a teenager in Peachtree City, is sick to death of her privileged life among snobs, absentee parents, and the self-medicated. She decides to commit murder, just for excitement and power, and, let's face it, because she is evil.

Her reluctant partner in crime is Emma, who is not as smart, not as pretty, and desperately in love with Maddie. Is Maddie willing to use her sexuality to manipulate Emma into crime? Oh, yes.

Hayes, Peter W.J."The Black Hand," in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical, edited by Verena Rose, Rita Owen, and Shawn Reilly, Simmons.
Brothers Jake and David fought over a girl named Bridgid and Jake left Pittsburgh for logging work in the midwest. David became a very successful mobster, until his body shows up in a river.

The story begins with Jake coming home to try to discover how his brother died and who is responsible. The first thing he learns is that Bridgid was murdered a few weeks before, and a lot of people think David killed her.

Is there a connection between the deaths? Can Jake stay alive long enough to find out?

Knopf, Chris. "Crossing Harry," in New Haven Noir, edited by Amy Bloom, Akashic Press, 2017.

Our nameless protagonist is a homeless person. One day he encounters a very strange man at Union Station whom no one notices except the homeless man and Harry. No one can see Harry except our narrator, because he's from another dimension. But Harry isn't the problem. It's the elegantly dressed man with a canvas bag full of–

Lawton, R.T. "Black Friday," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, November/December 2017.

This is the second appearance here by R.T. Lawton. My fellow SleuthSayer sent me this story for a critique before sending it to AHMM. I assure you the first version I read would have made this list, even if I never got my grubby hands on it.

Luckless burglar (and series character) Yarnell visits a pawn shop on the day after Thanksgiving to retrieve his wife's pawned wedding ring. Unfortunately there is a robbery going on, with a very nervous thief holding a gun. Eventually Yarnell's crafty partner Beaumont shows up, and finds a hilarious way of settling the issue.

Petrin, Jas. R. "Money Maker," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017.

Petrin's protagonist is an aging loanshark in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this story Skig has done an unnamed favor for a couple of Maine crooks and they send him the agreed upon fee. Unfortunately, half of it turns out to be counterfeit so Skig sets out to figure out who along the line of shipment shorted him. Bad things happen: Under the chairs a sight the media might describe as "distressing to some viewers."

Rozan, S. J. "e-Golem," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.


This is the second appearance here by my old pal S.J. Rozan. Judah Loew runs a used bookstore on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Most similar stores have been killed by the Internet but Loew's specialties - including Judaica and mythology - have kept him holding on. Not much longer, alas.

But then a newly arrived book claims to offer a spell for creating a golem , the clay humunculus that a medieval rabbi, also named Judah Loew, built out of dust to save the Jews of Warsaw. Ah, but the dust in a bookstore is special dust...

Slaughter, Karin and Michael Koryta, "Short Story," in Matchup, edited by Lee Child, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

This is Koryta's second apearance on my best of the year list.

It's 1993 and Jeffrey Tolliver, is a young Birmingham cop. He is in a small town in Georgia on a long weekend that has gone terribly wrong. Before the tale has gotten fairly started he finds himself standing in a hotel parking lot in front of a busload of missionaries and…
"Holy crap,mister. You're in your underwear."
"Running shorts," he said, resisting the urge to cover himself. "Training for a marathon."
"With just one shoe?"
"Half marathon."
Tippee, Robert, "Underground Above Ground," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2017.

The nameless narrator is a young man who has mastered the art of disappearing. He dresses in black, with a stocking cap that hides his face. And as the story begins, it is after ten PM and he is sitting in the darkness near a city tennis court, watching a young man and his beautiful girlfriend as they volley, flirt, and discuss Facebook.

It's clear that there are bad things in our narrator's past, although it is not clear at first whether they were done to him, by him, or both. The last paragraph just slayed me.

Todd, Marilyn. "Slay Belles," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. January/ February 2017.

Sisters Hannah and Lynn have deep roots in British organized crime. They also have a year-round-Christmas store, The North Pole, which cleans up dirty money from various family businesses. But the sisters have a special sideline. The store has Santa's Mailbox where kids can ask the fat man for help. And while Hannah and Lynn can't promise the latest video game or a pony, if the request is desperate they may offer a special solution…

Vardeman, David. "The Last Evil," in Mystery Weekly Magazine, November 2017.

Mrs. Box believes that suffering is good for the soul. She also believes in doing "a lot of good in the world. But there was another tinier but just as important point, and that was to get the leap on people. In her own life she felt a lack of people leaping out at her. In the past forty days and forty nights, not one soul, nothing, had given her a good jolt. Mr. Box certainly had not."

Which is why she keeps a live tarantula in her purse, and pulls it out to shock people. As a good deed.

Wiley, Michael, "Making It," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September-October 2017.

When Skylar Ricks carjacked Gerald Johannson's Ford Taurus on a February morning in Chicago, climbing into the passenger seat at the corner of Granville and Clark, his hand wrapped neatly around a .44 Smith & Wesson, an unlighted Marlboro between his lips, Gerald said, "Oh, now you're in trouble."

Well, that took an unexpected turn, didn't it? As the story goes on we will learn the reason for Skylar's rash act and a good deal about the personality of Gerald. He is an older man, missing his late lover, and remarkably imperturbable. Even when being carjacked.

06 December 2017

Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers


by Robert Lopresti

Last week I wrote about Bouchercon and said that this time I would provide my favorite quotations from the con.  But here it is holiday shopping season.  So this seemed more appropriate.

I mentioned being on a panel at Bouchercon called "Reader Recommends."  I went there determined to be the champion of short stories.  I even prepared a list of recommendations.  To make the list a book had to be a) a collection (not an anthology), b) by a living author, c) currently in print, and d) contain a story I consider wonderful. 

Apologies to those not included.  I had to stop at two pages.



Some Short Story Collections by Great Living Mystery Writers

The mystery field started with short stories and some of the best work is still being done there.  Here are some single-author collections by current leaders in the field.

Block, Lawrence.  Enough Rope.  The MWA Grand Master can write funny, noir, hardboiled, whatever he sets his mind to.  Try “Hot Eyes, Cold Eyes” and follow the twists.

Dubois, Brendan.  The Hidden.  Award-winner Dubois is one of the most popular authors in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  In this collection, “The Final Ballot” is a brilliant tale about a blue-collar woman seeking justice, or at least vengeance, when her daughter is attacked by the son of a presidential candidate.

Estleman, Loren D.  Detroit is Our Beat.  Estleman is best known for his books about private eye Amos Walker, but try these stories about the Four Horsemen, the only racket squad cops left in Detroit after everyone else has gone off to fight the Nazis.  Try “Death Without Parole,” about a cop killer who walks free on a technicality, but not for long.

Forsyth, Frederick.  No Comebacks.  Known for his thriller novels, Forsyth   explores different worlds in the short form.  “Privilege” is a brilliant legal David-and-Goliath story.

Floyd, John M. Dreamland. Floyd is one of the most-published mystery authors in the short story realm.  Try “Hunters,” which starts out like a standard hitman tale, and takes a surprising direction.

Grafton, Sue.  Kinsey and Me. You know her novels but Grafton is one of the best living authors of PI short stories.  “A Poison That Leaves Not Trace” should convince you.

Hockensmith, Steve. Dear Mr. Holmes.  Hockensmith’s “Holmes on the Range” series is about two cowboy brothers, Old Red who is a brilliant but illiterate detective, and Big Red, his very funny Watson.

Lawton, R.T. 9 Historical Mysteries.  Lawton has five different series running in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  “False Keys” is the first story about a young pickpocket-in-training in the Paris of Louis the Fourteenth.

Lovesey, Peter.  The Sedgemoor Strangler and Other Stories. Master of the historical whodunit, Lovesey has several books of shorts.  This one is highlighted by “The Usual Table,” which keeps its secrets to the very end.

Muller, Marcia. The McCone Files.  Sharon McCone was more or less the first modern female PI character.  But quality, not just primacy, got Muller the Grand Master and Eye Awards.  “The Final Resting Place” won the Shamus Award for best PI story.

Powell, James.  A Dirge for Clowntown. Canadian Powell has an imagination like a machine gun, firing crazy ideas in all directions.  The first three stories, for example, are about Inspector Bozo, protecting the mean streets of Clowntown where residents are killed by being smacked in the face with poisoned pies, and an invasion by mimes is a major threat.

Pronzini, Bill. Small Felonies.  The MWA gave him the Grand Master Award.  The Private Eye Writers gave him the Eye Award for lifetime achievement.  And here he gives you fifty short mysteries.  Try “Incident in a Neighborhood Tavern,” starring his most famous character, the “Nameless” detective.

Rozan, S.J..  A Tale About A Tiger. Rozan has won prizes in both the long and short form.  Enjoy “Hoops,” featuring her NY private eye Bill Smith, which was nominated for an Edgar.
 
Rusch, Kristine Kathryn.  The Early Conundrums.  Rusch writes wonderful  mystery shorts.  Also novels.  Also science fiction.  The stories in this book are about unlikely partners: Spade, an obese software millionaire, and Paladin, a beautiful young private eye.  Together they keep science fiction conferences safe and solvent, while negotiating their own prickly antisocial relationship.

Warren, James Lincoln.  The 1% Solution. Award-winning author Warren is best known for tales of Alan Treviscoe, an 18th century insurance investigator, but his imagination travels broadly.  Each of the four novellas in this book is inspired by a great writer in our field.  “Shikari,” for example, is the best Sherlock Holmes story you will ever read that does not include Sherlock Holmes.


This list was compiled by award-winning mystery writer Robert Lopresti, who is far too modest to include his own Shanks on Crime.  roblopresti.com