Showing posts sorted by relevance for query free range books. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query free range books. Sort by date Show all posts

19 November 2013

Free Range Books


       Several weeks ago I was walking down Connecticut Avenue in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I had a little spare time on my hands and, on a whim, I decided to stop by the Cleveland Park branch of the D.C. Public Library. During law school I lived two blocks from the library and had spent a lot of time there, but I hadn't been inside in over 35 years.

The Cleveland Park Library, Washington, D.C.
       The library had changed a bit from the way I remembered it -- computer stations, some re-configurations. But all in all there was also a lot that was the same. The mystery section, for example, was right where it was when I had last visited it, and it was to those shelves that I headed. I remembered checking out and reading Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil back in the mid 1970s, and there it was on the shelf. I pulled the volume and opened to the back page, where the check-out list was affixed to the back cover. To my surprise, there was the date that I had checked out the volume -- back in February of 1974. But even more surprising was the fact that in the intervening years there were only 7 other checkout dates stamped in the book. Had this volume really been on loan only 8 times in the past 39 years? 

       Perhaps library checkouts are handled differently nowadays, and maybe that stamped sheet at the back of the book was just a relic (resident librarian Rob -- help me here!). But regardless, the experience got me to thinking: What happens to all of those books that people stop checking out from libraries? Are they all sold at used books fairs? And what happens to purchased books when they have been read by everyone in the family?  Do all of them sit around on private bookshelves forever? I, for example, keep every book I have purchased and was very happy when e-books came along -- I was almost out of shelving space.  But what are the options for the non-hoarder?

A Micro Library in Capitol Hill, D.C.
       Actually there are a number of ways (beyond re-gifting) that second hand books move around. Sharing books on an informal basis is not new -- most of us have seen “take a book, leave a book” bins in resorts, ships, hotels or community centers.

       A newer take on this is the “micro library.” While it is sometimes difficult to trace the origins of new cultural waves one of the earliest organized deployments of micro libraries reportedly began in the U.K. From there the idea spread, including to the U.S. Here in Washington, D.C. you likely will not walk very far in any urban neighborhood without encountering a street-side micro library. These run the gamut from crude crates affixed to a post to carefully crafted dollhouse-like structures, each offering several shelves of books and a sign inviting passers-by to take a book and leave a book.

       In New York City you may stumble upon something a bit more elegant. There a project that is the brain-child of urban architect John Locke involves the re-use of telephone booths, as he explained in a July, 2012 interview in World Literature Today. 
Typical NYC Micro Library sharing a phone booth
I was . . . drawn to the technological, and maybe even psychological, symmetry between physical books and phone booths. I think there is an innate feeling of loss toward both, in that one has already been rendered obsolete by a new technology—cellular phones—and the other is seemingly on the cusp of obsolescence as well, both through the proliferation of e-book readers and the general waning of literature as being part of the wider cultural discussion. And I think there is always a sense of hesitation, maybe even nostalgia, when something that once seemed so prominent and important begins to disappear.
       Locke’s reaction to all of this, as shown in the picture, above, was to populate under utilized or even abandoned New York City phone booths with shelves of books. A similar approach has been used in England, where micro libraries have been established in iconic U.K. phonebooths.  Once established, each micro library is largely free of supervision -- books are taken, books are left. Locke notes that each location predictably takes on characteristics of the community in which it is located -- the range of books that is available evolves and the overall character of the offerings changes in a manner that reflects the reading habits of the neighborhood. 

A phone booth micro library in the U.K.
    Micro libraries are by no means restricted to the Big Apple and London, however. As noted, they are on lots of corners in Washington, D.C. and in other cities all over the world.  One of the overseers of the national (and international) deployment of street corner libraries (insofar as an anarchic movement such as this can be overseen at all) is Little Free Library, a Wisconsin organization that began with a mission to build 2,510 micro libraries -- the same as the number of “real” libraries built by Andrew Carnegie after he was done with his Robber Baron days. Little Free Library and its followers reached their numeric goal in 2012. Their website notes that “the original models [for libraries] had all been built with recycled materials. Each was unique but all shared the theme of exchanging good books and bringing people together for something positive.” The website estimates that there are currently between 10,000 and 12,000 micro libraries, many of which are registered and appear by location on the Little Free Libraries map.

       While the micro library movement began as a sort of guerrilla “occupy the streets” approach to sharing books, as noted above it now has at least the semblance of order, with organized locations and world-wide location maps. If you are interested in sharing books but find that all of this is still a little too organized for your own guerrilla soul there is yet another avenue for each of us to send forth our books after we have read them. 

     Back in 2001 Ron Hornbaker, software business owner and book lover, came up with an idea to share books in a slightly less organized and more individual way. As explained in his BookCrossings.com website, his flash of genius was to send each book out on its own. Hornbaker’s idea was that it would be both useful and fun to surreptitiously abandon a book in a public place -- coffee shop, restaurant, bus stop, what-have-you -- and then sit back and watch what happens. 

       How does this work in practice? Well, first the book is registered in advance at the BookCrossings web site. This is a simple process, easily accomplished on a home computer. Once the book is registered the site assigns it an individual tracking number. Before “planting” the book for adoption, the owner affixes an identification tag like the following one: (available for download either for free or for a nominal price from the BookCrossing web site) prior to release. 


       Then the now former owner of the book sits back, relaxes, and waits to see how far the book goes. Each recipient, as explained on the identification tags, is encouraged to report in and, if all goes well, each book can then be traced on its travels through various owners on the BookCrossing web site using the individual assigned tracking number. How is all of this working so far, almost thirteen years later? According to the Bookcrossing website “[t]here are currently 2,263,401 BookCrossers and 10,021,193 books travelling throughout 132 countries. Our community is changing the world and touching lives one book at a time.” 

       That copy of Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil has been sitting sedately on the shelf of the Cleveland Park library for almost 40 years. I've got books some on my own shelves that have been there even longer. Think where they could have traveled!

       Books set all of us free. There are some interesting ways that we can return that favor.

24 June 2019

The Times, They Are A-changing


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

More change...More adjustments...

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

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

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

What are you doing differently now?

27 May 2016

Update: Raymond Queneau


As I've mentioned a few times before, I often start a writing session with a little bit of reading—most frequently from a writing guide of some kind, to ease me into thinking about craft. In a column earlier this year, near the start of the semester, I talked briefly about Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I had begun delving into a page or two a day. Here's what I wrote then:
Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

That page or two every day or so has continued intermittently over the semester—as has my writing, I'm sad to say (too intermittently)—and there's still a good chunk of Exercises in Style left to go. But I've finally decided to put the book away without reading it in full.

As even a quick glimpse at the book's cover reveals, Exercises in Style has its champions. Italo Calvino said that the book "gives rise to a whole range of wildly diverse literary texts," for example, and Umberto Eco compared it to "inventing the wheel."And while that back cover quotes the original Washington Post review, the Post review of this new edition declares the book simply a "revolution."

I'll agree. There's something exciting about the variety of approaches Queneau employs in telling the story, the range of storytelling techniques and tones, the way that all of it opens up a little wider the world or writing, our understanding of that world. "Apotrophe" begins "O platinum-nibbed stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibusilistic cause." A few pages later, "Telegraphic" offers something drastically different: "BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP...." In between are brief exercises in the senses, among them "Olfactory" ("In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego, of effrontery, of jeering, of H-bombs, of a high jakes, of cakes and ale, of emanations, of opium, of...."), "Gustatory" ("This particular bus had a certain taste. Curious, but undeniable."),  and "Auditory" ("Quacking and letting off, the S came rasping to a halt alongside the silent pavement").

All these are terrific and provocative. But then I hit several sections of "Permutations" including "Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters," which begins "Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an...." And I'll admit I'm not sure what to do with it—or more to the point, how reading such passages might help boost my own writing, though I'm sure even these specific passages might well have sparked other writers' imaginations.

After hitting that section, I found myself browsing ahead rather than reading straight through. And now I've found myself putting the book aside.

A couple of questions for others here:
  • What craft books (I use that term very loosely) have successfully sparked your writing?
  • And how often do you put aside books—any books, not just writing books—without reading them in full? 
I'm curious particularly on that latter question—since readers tend to have very strong opinions about whether a book once started absolutely needs to be finished.

#

IN OTHER NEWS: I was very pleased that my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti chose my story "Restoration" from Crime Syndicate Magazine's debut issue as the "best mystery story I read this week" over at his blog Little Big Crimes. "Restoration" was a real departure in many ways for me—a quick foray into more speculative fiction—and it struggled for a while to find a home, both in more traditional crime fiction publications (too much science fiction) and in the few science fiction magazines I submitted to (not enough for them). Given all that, I was thrilled when it found a home at the edgy and excellent Crime Syndicate and especially pleased now that it's gotten such a kind reception at Little Big Crimes. Thanks so much, Rob!

And finally, a quick plug for an upcoming event between now and my next column here—a very special one for my wife and me. On Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m., my wife—Tara Laskowski—and I will be giving a joint reading at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Tara will be reading from her new story collection Bystanders and I'll be reading from On the Road with Del & Louise. While it's not entirely uncommon for Tara and I to appear on the same program, what makes this event special is that June 6 is our seventh wedding anniversary! At least we'll be together for the evening, right? Anyone who's in the area, please do come out to help us celebrate. :-)


03 September 2019

Negotiating Writing Contracts


by Paul D. Marks and Jacqueline Seewald

A couple of months ago I read a blog post by Jacqueline Seewald that I really liked and thought contained a lot of good advice. So I asked Jacqueline if I could re-post it here at SleuthSayers as I thought our readers would also find it interesting and useful. She updated it a bit and gave me permission to share it.

A little about Jacqueline:


picture of author, Jacqueline Seewald
Jacqueline Seewald
Multiple award-winning author, Jacqueline Seewald, has taught creative, expository and technical writing at Rutgers University as well as high school English. She also worked as both an academic librarian and an educational media specialist. Nineteen of her books of fiction have been published to critical praise including books for adults, teens and children. Her most recent novels are Death Promise and Witch Wish. Her short stories, poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications and numerous anthologies such as: The Writer, L.A. Times, Reader’s Digest, Pedestal, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Over My Dead Body!, Gumshoe Review, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Her writer’s blog can be found at: http://jacquelineseewald.blogspot.com

Take it away, Jacqueline:


How to Negotiate Writing Contracts

Recently I signed contracts with two different publishers for two separate novels, one a mystery novel in the continuing Kim Reynolds series, the other a stand-alone historical romance set during the American Revolution. Each contract involved negotiations resulting in compromises from both myself and the publishers. I was reminded that I might have some ideas that could be helpful to other authors who also don’t work with agent representation. I hope what I share with you will prove helpful.

Let us say you have written and rewritten until you’ve finally completed the best work of which you are capable. At last, you find a publisher who appears to recognize your accomplishment and achievement. And now you are offered a contract. There are perhaps a few things that you should understand about contracts.

First of all, publishers use contracts to protect their own interests. Writers need to be savvy enough to do the same. Even if you have the benefit of being represented by a literary agent, you should not be ignorant in this regard. Let's say you've been offered a contract for a work of writing you've created. What should you expect to be included?

If you can afford it, I would recommend that you have an attorney look over your contract. But let's assume that the publication is a small one and the amount of money offered is less than impressive. Obviously, it will cost you more than you would earn to have an attorney examine your contract. Also, it’s not likely that an agent will want to bother with it either.

When you need to act as your own attorney and agent, the best thing to do is read up on contracts for writers before you sign. Here's where books like Writer's Market can be helpful. Writer's magazines often carry helpful articles. Writer's organizations like: The Author's Guild (www.authorsguild.org), National Writer's Union (www.nwu.org), American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (http://www.sfwa.org/contracts/) all carry valuable information.

In regard to newspapers and magazines, there are a wide variety of agreements. Some editors work by verbal agreement (the proverbial handshake) while others insist on detailed written contracts. I’ve had both types of contracts work out well--but sometimes not so well. It all depends on the integrity of the publisher.

Writers are usually asked to sell first serial rights or one time rights. This is preferred by authors. If you sell "all rights" to a specific work then you will be unable to sell reprint rights later. And many smaller publications are quite happy to purchase reprints. At times I’ve sold reprint rights to short fiction and novels for more money than I received for selling first rights. So avoid selling “all rights” if at all possible. Of course, you can request that reprint rights are returned to you at a later date, but be aware that the publisher is not obligated to return them. My suggestion: always negotiate. I have turned down several well-paying publications for both nonfiction and fiction because I refused to sell all rights. I don’t regret it.

Payment should be specified and agreed upon. It shouldn’t be left vague. Request payment on acceptance. You might not get it, but it's best to ask. Getting paid upon publication can lead to all sorts of problems. Not every publisher is honest or has integrity. Remember that contracts are negotiable. There's nothing wrong with asking for changes that benefit you.

Ideally, a kill fee should be specified. This means that if the publication does not use your work, it still has to pay you a percentage of the original fee.

If you do have a written contract—and that’s always best—request that a specific date for publication be included. Some publishers will hold your work indefinitely otherwise. And yes, this has happened to me as well.

Book contracts are much more complicated to negotiate. If possible, once you are offered a book contract, obtain the services of an agent or attorney. True you will be giving away a percentage of your earnings on a contract you have gotten for yourself. However, if a good agent will now agree to represent your future work, then you are doing quite well. An agent can often get concessions from a publisher that you cannot. Here are a few examples: a higher advance, higher percentage of royalties, more free advance review copies and/or final copies of your book. Also, a good agent can deal with the publicity department of the publishing house on your behalf. Well-connected agents can get your work seen by top editors at the major publishing houses. They network and know what particular editors are buying at a given time.

 Assuming you are offered too little of a payment to make this practical and interest a first-rate agent, then you should read up on contracts for authors before you make a decision to sign on the dotted line.

What should you insist be included in your book contract? You ought to insist on an advance. The advance is based on a formula that projects the book's first year profits. Many small or independent publishers claim they do not and cannot offer authors advances against royalties. However, the publisher hopefully can be made to see that an advance, even a small one, is viewed as "good faith" money by the author. If no advance whatever is offered, this is a sign that the publisher does not expect the book to sell well or doesn't plan to put much or any money in marketing and publicizing your work once the book is published. A nonrefundable advance is what the author should be requesting. As to royalties, request that they be based on the retail price or gross and not the net proceeds which often turn out to be quite small. Publishers generally want only to give you a net percentage which ends up as very little, especially when they claim that there are “returns” of your book. Creative accounting by publishers is quite a common practice and hard to prove. Hiring a forensic accountant simply isn’t practical for a majority of writers.

Publishers generally ask for every kind of rights possible. You may want, for instance, to insist that movie and theatrical rights be removed. Publishers often include option clauses in their contracts insisting that they be offered first rights to your next book. This can be a problem if your work is successful but you are still offered the payment terms of the previous contract. Worse still is the publisher's right to last refusal.

A time range for publication should also be included in the contract. Two years is acceptable; past that, all rights should revert to the author.

Another matter of importance: find out in advance if the publisher will be sending your book out for reviews. If possible, have this specified in the contract. Without reviews from major publications the majority of readers will not know your book exists. Your sales will be highly limited.

Above all else, accept no contract in which you are expected to pay for anything. I cannot emphasize this enough! Any request for fees is a clear indication of a disreputable publisher. Alarm bells should go off. Run, don't walk away! Be suspicious, because there are plenty of scam artists around. Check out writing scams via the internet. There are lists of so-called agents and publishers to avoid on many of the legitimate writer's sites. Check out, for instance, SFWA's Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware. This website offers valuable information.

My advice is to be patient. Take your time and consider your options carefully. Respect yourself and the integrity of your hard work. And don’t settle for less from a publisher.

If you disagree on some of what I’ve written or can offer your own helpful advice and information, please do so. Your comments most welcome to be shared!

***

Thanks for joining us at SleuthSayers and for the great advice, Jacqueline.


~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

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

25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction


In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:
Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!