Showing posts with label themes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label themes. Show all posts

15 June 2019

Anthology Psychology



by John M. Floyd



I've often told my writing students that there are three markets for short fiction: magazines, anthologies, and collections. (You can also self-publish stories one at a time, if you need a fourth option.) Most of my shorts are targeted to magazines, but lately I've seen more and more routed toward anthologies, either via invitation or via an open call. And most anthologies are themed in that they feature tales that have something in common.

This common ground can be almost anything, from location to genre to time period. Here are some of the anthologies I've had stories in, along with their themes:



- the seven deadly sins -- Seven by Seven (Wolfmont Publishing, 2006)

- the afterlife -- After Death (Dark Moon Press, 2013)

- Texas -- The Eyes of Texas (Down & Out Books, upcoming)

- New England -- Landfall (Level Best Books, 2018)

- natural disasters -- Quakes and Storms (Lake Fossil Press, 2005)

- travel -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books, 2017)

- the moon -- Under the Full Moon's Light (Owl Hollow Press, 2018)

- the South -- Fireflies in Fruit Jars (Queen's Hill Press, 2007), Mad Dogs and Moonshine (Queen's Hill, 2008), Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales (AWOC Publishing, 2009), Magnolia Blossoms and Afternoon Tales (AWOC, 2010), Rocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales (Doctor's Dreams Publishing, 2012)

- time travel -- Crime Travel (Wildside Press, upcoming)

safe havens -- Sanctuary (Darkhouse Books, 2018)

- private investigators -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books, 2017)

Joni Mitchell songs -- The Beat of Black Wings (upcoming)

- Florida -- Florida Happens (Three Rooms Press, 2018)

- the 1950s -- Pop the Clutch (Dark Moon Books, 2019), Mid-Cantury Murder (Darkhouse Books, upcoming)

flash fiction -- Short Tales (2006)

- politics -- We've Been Trumped (Darkhouse Books, 2016)

Mississippi -- Mississippi Noir (Akashic Books, 2016), What Would Elvis Think? (Clinton Ink-Slingers, 2019)

- horror -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Farolight Publishing, 2017)

- romance -- Meet Cute (Indiegogo, 2017)

- mystery -- Short Attention Span Mysteries (Kerlak Publishing, 2005), Crime and Suspense I (Wolfmont Publishing, 2007), Mouth Full of Bullets (Best of, 2007), Ten for Ten (Wolfmont Publishing, 2008), A Criminal Brief Christmas anthology (Criminal Enterprises Press, 2009), Trust and Treachery (Dark Quest Books, 2014), Flash and Bang (Untreed Reads Publishing, 2015), The Best American Mystery Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015 and 2018)

- science fiction -- Visions VII: Universe (Lillicat Publishers, 2017)

- fantasy -- Children of the Sky (Schreyer Ink Publishing, 2018), Freakshow (Copper Pen Press, upcoming), Voices and Visions (Cyberwit Publishing, upcoming)

- food and drink -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books, 2017)

- Louisiana -- Blood on the Bayou (Down & Out Books, 2016)

- the military -- The Odds Are Against Us (Liberty Island Media, 2019)

- the ten commandments -- Thou Shalt Not (Dark Cloud Press, 2006)



I suspect some of these titles were familiar to you, since I've been lucky enough to share space with many of you in these books. And I hope seeing them might remind you, as it reminds me, of just how you went about satisfying whatever theme each of them required.

Tailor-made

Writing a story to match a theme can be fun, but it can also be hard, at least for me. I know a few writers who love themed anthologies because writing to a particular subject is challenging and inspiring to them. Others find it difficult, and prefer sticking to their own story ideas. Occasionally I've stumbled onto a submission call for an anthology whose theme perfectly matches a story I've already written, which makes the process easier. That doesn't happen a lot.

Marketingwise, one good thing about anthologies is that they're sometimes receptive to reprints (some actually prefer reprints). Another is that--if you do have a story that fits the theme--the usually-short submission window can mean less competition. But there are two downsides to anthologies. One is that the pay can be less than what you might get from a magazine, and the other is that anthologies--unless they're widely-published best-of-the-year anthos--often get limited exposure.

A team effort

Another thing about anthologies. Depending on the project, one can often feel a definite bond with the other contributors. An example of that, for me, was the 49-story anthology Seven by Seven, edited by Tony Burton of Wolfmont Publishing in Georgia. Tony chose seven authors from seven different states to write seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. My participation in 7x7 led to treasured and longtime friendships with the editor and with several of the other writers (Deborah Elliott-Upton, BJ Bourg, Frank Scalise, and Gary Hoffman). Probably because the project happened fairly early in our writing careers and included so many stories by only seven authors, I think all of us had great fun and learned a lot as well.

The latest anthology featuring one of my stories is a book called What Would Elvis Think?: Mississippi Stories. The common thread is that each tale must be set in a town in Elvis's birth state. It was edited by a friend and former student of mine, Johnny Lowe, and is being released today, June 15. One reason I'm pleased to have been included in this project is that 16 of the 22 other contributors are also friends of mine. Most of us plan to be at Lemuria Books here in Jackson for the launch signing this afternoon at two o'clock. If you're reading this on your phone and you happen to be down this way today, stop in.

Questions

What percentage of the stories you write are submitted to anthologies, rather than to magazines? What kind of payment do you usually receive (flat rate, royalty, pat on the back)? Do you tend to try anthologies first, or try them only after a magazine has rejected a story? Do you enjoy writing to a particular theme? Do you find it difficult (as I do)? Are most of your antho stories reprints, or originals? Are you often invited to contribute a story, or do you usually submit as a response to an open call?

Meanwhile, whether you're targeting your stories to magazines OR anthologies, I wish you luck. May the submission gods (another name for editors) favor you with hundred-watt smiles, all the way to the bank.

See you in two weeks.




29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive




by Robert Lopresti

When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  

In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

20 January 2018

Movie Music



by John M. Floyd



Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer


This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.

Questions

How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here . . .




31 December 2014

Return to the Theme Park



by Robert Lopresti

Recently a friend told me that Barbara Kingsolver says she begins writing her books by deciding on a theme.

My reply was: "And you believed her?"

Not that I am calling Ms. Kingsolver a big fat liar.  But I always have my doubts about authors who claim their creations comes from what you might call a process of scholarly introspection. 

Prime example: this essay by Edgar Allan Poe explaining how he wrote "The Raven" (which is  the only poem to give its name to a pro football team).  He claimed that he chose the theme and worked out the details carefully, bit by bit, etc.  Personally, I think he woke up from a nightmare and grabbed for an ink well and quill. 

The one person I know who claimed to believe Poe's explanation was Umberto Eco, in the process of explaining how he wrote  The Name of the Rose.  And I don't believe his explanation either.

It all comes down to what D.H. Lawrence said: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

But I am not writing today merely to cast aspersions on my betters (although that's always fun).  The day after my chat about Kingsolver I blundered onto this piece I wrote in 2013 in which I attempted to analyze the themes of my five stories that were published that year.  So since the end of the year is a good time for reflection, I decided to look at my stories published in 2014 and go on a theme-hunt.  This time I will only point out the ones where I found something worth mentioning.

My most recent story is "The Roseville Way" in The Anthology of Cozy-Noir.  It contains one of my favorite themes, and shares it with "Devil Chased the Wolf Away," which appeared in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  "Devil" is about an elderly Kentucky fiddler who, in his previous appearance in one of my stories, did a bad thing.  In the new one he tries to make up for it.  "Roseville" is about a ganglord who retires to a small midwestern town and - contrary to the way such stories usually go - improves the lives of everyone he gets involved with.  The theme of both stories is the possibility of  redemption.

My other appearance in Hitchcock's, "A Bad Day For Bargain Hunters" is a story about an estate sale and it has a simple theme too: everyone is crooked.  Well, that isn't quite true.  The police officer in the story is honest; he's merely incompetent.

As for "The Accessory" which appeared in Ellery Queen,  and "Shanks Holds The Line," which showed up on Hitchcock's website, the only theme I can find is what Jim Thompson called the only plot: "things are not what they seem."

But looking at some of the stories that made their first appearance in my book
Shanks on Crime, I find some more suggestions.  "Shanks' Mare" is about misplaced priorities.  The motive for the theft of the horse is the criminal's bad priorities, and the reason he or she thinks it will be effective, is because of another character's equaly screwed-up ambitions. 

"Shanks At The Bar" and "Shanks' Ghost Story" consist of people sitting around telling tales, and they are both about the power of storytelling.  This theme also came up in "Two Men, One Gun" which appeared in 2013.

As you may know I also write songs and in those I have one overwhelming theme: guilt.  So, here are the lyrics to one of my newest songs on that subject.  And I wish you a guilt-free New Year.

I’m sorry you feel I misled you
I’m sorry you fell for my pose
I’m sorry you ate what I fed you
You have to admit you believe what you chose
  I’m sorry that after you helped dig the pit
  You fell in it unknowingly
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology
 
I’m sorry about my advisors
I’m sorry that I was betrayed
They lied to us through their incisors
I freely admit that mistakes have been made
  I’m sorry you think this is somehow my fault
  Though I take responsibility
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology
 
      How many times must I say that I’m sorry?
      It’s getting a little bit dull
      I’ve bent over backwards to show I respect you.
      When will you get that through your thick skull?
 
I’m sorry you found this offensive
I’m sorry you can’t take a joke
I’m sorry you got so defensive
If I knew you were thin-skinned I never would have spoke
  I’m sorry you feel that your feelings were hurt
  and sorry you blame that on me
  I’m sorriest that you refuse to accept
  My sincere apology
  My sincere apology