18 November 2013

Pigs, Horses & Bulls

Back on October 8, 2013, Dale Andrews shared some British phrases, what they mean to the English, and the very different way that listeners sometimes interpret them.  More recently, Dixon Hill wrote about speaking in languages other than American English.
Dale and Dixon set me to thinking about differences in meaning and understanding of expressions right here in the USA.

SleuthSayer readers and writers are spread far and wide.  I was born fewer than thirty miles from where I live now in South Carolina, and today I want to have a few words with you about the language of Southernese.

Anyone who's ever attended a little country church in the South knows that regional preachers often introduce their sermons with an anecdote or joke.  Don't get worried.  I don't preach, but I do want to share a quick story about Southernese with you.

                That's Nice

Two elderly southern ladies are sitting on the front porch rocking.  The first one looks at the second one and says, "See this beautiful silk dress I'm wearing.  My husband bought it for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady holds up her hand in front of the other lady's face and says, "See this gorgeous diamond ring. My husband bought it for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady points to her shoes.  "See these expensive shoes I'm wearing.  My husband bought them for me to show how much he loves me."

Second lady says, "That's nice," and keeps rocking.

First lady says, "And what did your husband do for you to show how much he loves you?"

Second lady says, "He sent me to a fancy finishing school in Virginia so they could teach me to be a southern lady."

First lady says, "And what did you learn?"

The reply:  "They taught me to say, 'That's nice,' instead of 
'bulls_ _t.'"

Bless Your Heart

Right in line with "That's nice" is "Bless your heart," which some people think is a sweet statement that southerners say all the time. They don't understand that it actually has nothing to do with religion or blessings or being sweet.  It's a passive-aggressive way of calling the other person an idiot and frequently follows a negative comment.

Living in High Cotton

Cotton was a key crop in the South for many years.  The most successful harvest came from tall bushes loaded with fluffy white balls because the taller the bush, the greater the returns and the easier it is to pick.  "Living in high cotton" indicates a person is doing well--successful and wealthy. 

Rode Hard and Put Up Wet

"That gal looks like she's been rode hard and put up wet."
Don't think this is a sexual innuendo; it's not.  It means a person looks like they may have had too much to drink or stayed up too long the night before.  It's based on horse grooming. If a horse runs fast, it works up a sweat, especially under the saddle. After running, a horse should be walked around to dry off before going back to the stable.  If this isn't done, the horse will look sick, tired, and worn out, which is rode hard and put up wet.

Madder Than a Wet Hen

Someone who looks madder than a wet hen is being compared to a female chicken who gets irritated at the farmer when eggs are gathered because she wants to sit on them and hatch biddies.  This is called "broodiness," and the cure is to dunk the hen in cold water.  Does a hormonal hen who has had a cold water bath sound like anyone you know?

Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine

I confess that this one isn't as popular as the other examples, but it brings up thoughts of Patricia Cornwell's The Body Farm. I need to connect this column to mystery and/or writing, so I'll share it. Pigs that die outside in the sty, become dried out by the sun. The skin pulls back around the lips giving the dead pig a grin. Hence, a dead pig in the sunshine looks happy.

One More

"That's about as useful as boobs on a bull."

If I have to explain that one, there's no hope for you to learn to speak Southernese.

Until we meet again, take care of . . .you!

17 November 2013

Sex and Sensibility

I don't know a single crime writer in the Orlando area, not one. In my early days of writing, Criminal Brief readers may recall I worked with romance writers. I'm no Travis Erwin, but romancers found me useful for a couple of reasons. Obviously, I could offer a male's point of view and point out passages where the author had unintentionally feminized male characters. (To wit: guys don't 'dish' and they don't gossip about Angie's boyfriend's sister getting pregnant.) Further, a Rollins College writing professor discovered I had a knack for getting inside the head of women characters.

I confess I don't care much for the genre of 'romance with mystery elements,' but I don't mind 'mystery with romantic elements.' The difference is that in the latter, the crimes and solutions come first and follow the rules of mystery writing. The former might turn out 'a caper' or some other variation and not follow the rules, which wouldn't satisfy a mystery enthusiast.

Mystery fans are familiar with writing partnerships, most notably Ellery Queen, but also the team called Michael Stanley, and Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. Romance writers team up too, including at least one mother-daughter combination and, if rumors are true, one or more husband-wife teams. My friend Sharon has collaborated with others.

And so it came to pass a member of a writing partnership asked me a few days ago to mention their book, Diary of a Bad Housewife, on SleuthSayers. She and her writing partner happen to be loyal followers of SleuthSayers. One looks in often and the other is a constant reader. How could I say no?
Diary of a Bad Housewife
Mystery elements?
Not really.
A crime?
Er, not exactly.
Anybody killed?
No, definitely not.
What genre?
Um, erotica.
Erotica with a capital E?
It can be lower case.
So we're talking 50 Shades?
Of pink. Or blush. But it's better, much better, if reviews are to be believed.
So it's published?
Not yet, that's why we need readers' help.
We want them to sign onto the Harper-Collins Authonomy web site and back Diary of a Bad Housewife,.
So the title character fools around?
That's just it; she doesn't. Reviewers call it 'moral erotica', classy even, literary. And it has humor and stuff.
You know… stuff, like sexy stuff.
Why now?
Because among the thousands of books on the Harper-Collins Authonomy web site, this at the moment is number 1. And if it stays in the top 5 through month end, we might– just might– win a publishing contract.

Authonomy, as mentioned above, is sponsored by the British publisher Harper-Collins and is a favorite site of writers wishing to air their work and collect critiques and criticism. Authors can upload any part of a book from 10 000 words upward, ten chapters or a hundred, up to an entire book. It retains author formatting (even when it's bad formatting!) and allows the reader to resize the text as needed.

I've tried Zoetrope, GoodReads, RedRoom, YouWriteOn, and others, but my ADD finds it hard to stay focused when presented with a huge smorgasbord of great writing sites. I found on those rare occasions when I wanted to discuss a book, I preferred Authonomy. Best of all, writers might earn a professional Harper-Collins critique and possibly a publishing contract.

So back to my friend and colleague's request. It's about good writing, I reasoned. It's about author web sites, I said. It's about support. And we've occasionally discussed music publishing and other odd topics of interest to our writers, I rationalized. That said, I also need to disclose I've worked on the book. And it will be a crime if you don't check it out.

Instructions for Authonomy
Diary of a Bad Housewife
  1. You have to register with Authonomy.com
  2. Fill in your profile (you don't have to use your real name) and add a photo, any picture. For some reason, they take profiles with photos much more seriously.
  3. Read the book called Diary of a Bad Housewife by elle. If you like it, back it. This is the key to everything. And give it lots of stars.
  4. If you want to give an extra boost and establish your street creds: Read and rate a couple of books you like over a day or two until you establish a numerical rating. This establishes your bona fides.

Thank you all, whether you participate or not.

A Few Author Community Web Sites

16 November 2013

The Death of Posthumous Fame

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I suspect that more and more libraries will refuse donations of papers, especially if the writer isn't unassailably famous. My guess is that thanks to the information explosion in the Internet age (not to mention the fact that more and more documents are electronic rather than actual paper), it will become uncreasingly unlikely for even the most talented and successful writer's reputation to outlive him or her.
Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 (64 years), Hemingway in 1961 (52 years), Steinbeck in 1968 (45 years), Truman Capote in 1984 (29 years). What author under 50, if any, do you think will still be a household word, at least among the educated, that long after his or her death?

How much even of these memorable authors’ lasting fame is due not to their books, but to the movies made of their work? I know Gone with the Wind was based on Margaret Mitchell’s book and The Wizard of Oz on L. Frank Baum’s; To Kill A Mockingbird came from Harper Lee’s novel and The Help from Kathryn Stockett’s. How many movie adaptations of novels have you seen in the last twenty years for which you can name the novelist? How many of these will you be able to name twenty years from now? How many do your children know?

The first voluminous volume (760 pages) of Mark Twain’s autobiography came out in 2010. An author whose reputation has proven extremely durable, he deliberately stipulated that it would not be published until a hundred years after his death. so that he would be free to write whatever he wanted without fear of reproach or litigation. Having a sneaky taste for gossip served up cold, I went out and bought the book, making it a birthday present for my husband as a good excuse. Although the prose and some of the anecdotes were delightful, the hundred-years-cold tittle-tattle had gone tepid and congealed.

It’s not that Samuel Clemens did not have an interesting life. According to Biography.com, “When he was 9 years old he saw a local man murder a cattle rancher, and at 10 he watched a slave die after a white overseer struck him with a piece of iron.” He worked as a printer, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and a prospector for gold and silver, the latter endeavor leaving him flat broke. So he became a writer—some things never change! He was a celebrated public speaker and humorist as well as an author for much of his career.

Twain chose to avoid the tedium of a chronological record (“Chapter One: I was born...”) and jumped in wherever his fancy took him. His style, both literate and anecdotal, is so good that I was moved to read some delicious passages out loud. But what even an iconoclast like Twain found shocking a hundred years ago produces no more than a yawn from today’s reader. It’s not a matter of sex or obscenity, with which it’s getting harder and harder to shock the 21st-century reader. It’s not even overt atheism. (You can find some lively debate by googling, “Was Mark Twain an atheist?”) Most of the so-called scandal consisted of his exercising his satiric wit on various popular preachers of the day whose names are otherwise long forgotten.

My prediction: In 2113, no one will remember a single writer who’s alive today, not even JK Rowling, and certainly not James Patterson, who last time I heard had written or cowritten one of every 17 books sold in the USA. Will people still read? I'd like to think so, but Americans will be lucky if reality TV has not driven life to imitate the art of The Hunger Games and if entertainment doesn’t consist of teenagers fighting to the death on the 22nd-century equivalent of public television.

15 November 2013

The Secrets to Writing?

 As many of you know, I’ve worked in a cigar store from time to time. What may surprise you, however, is that during my years of employment, I discovered there are large numbers of “secret smokers” in this world.

 These folks would duck into the shop only after looking over both shoulders, to be sure none of their friends were watching. Even inside the store, most of them would constantly scan the street outside, watching through the shop windows, keeping their voices low, as if to defeat eavesdroppers. 

They acted a lot like prairie dogs who think a hawk might be nearby.

 In fact, the first time I was confronted by a secret smoker, in the mid-1990’s, his furtive behavior—combined with the fact that I couldn’t hear what he was asking for, because he wouldn’t speak up— finally led me to say, “If you’re looking for drug paraphernalia, you need to go somewhere else. We’re not that kind of smoke shop, buddy.” The shop owner at the time, Larry Pollicove, came up front, at that moment, saw the guy and quickly sold him a carton of high-end imported cigarettes. (Not a pack, mind you. A carton!)

 After the guy left, Larry explained, “That’s (whatever his name was). He’s a good customer, buys a carton a week, but he doesn’t want his wife to know he smokes.”

 “How can his wife not know he smokes? He smokes a carton a week; can’t she smell it on him?”

 He shook his head. “I don’t think so. She smokes Marlboros.”

 “Wait! His wife smokes, but he has to hide the fact that he smokes? Why?” 

 “Because, he doesn’t know she smokes.” When he saw the look on my face, Larry burst into laughter and slapped me on the back. “Look, she buys her Marlboros from that place on the reservation. I saw her there, and asked why she didn’t buy from me, and she said she was worried her husband would find out she was still smoking. They both agreed to quit, cold turkey, and they both think the other one did. But, actually they both started smoking secretly instead.”

 By this time, you’re probably beginning to doubt the veracity of my story. But, it’s absolutely true. Those two people each thought they were married to a non-smoker, but each smoked in secret. And, they smoked a lot.

 In fact, there are many reasons people become secret smokers. We used to know when the shift changed at the local fire station, because the fire truck would park out back and all the firefighters would pour in to buy cigars for their opening-shift poker game. When the city switched health insurance companies, though, the firefighters were no longer permitted to smoke. So, they’d take turns coming in for cigars, in civilian clothing, the day before the shift changed, and they started holding “barbeques” in the fenced yard behind the station. Eventually, the health coverage changed again, which we realized when they again began parking the truck out back.

 The ranks of secret smokers are also comprised of people who take up teaching jobs, or work in Boys and Girls Clubs, or lead Scout troops. Many of these folks, who smoke, hide their habit out of fear that they’ll lose their position, working with kids, if parents or administrations find out they smoke.

 The old Music Teacher at my kids’ elementary school, who’s now retired, used to be a secret smoker. She’d shopped at the store for years, and I’d sold her cigars and cigarettes several times. But, the day I asked how the upcoming school musical production was coming along, her head snapped up and she gave me a “deer in the headlights” look.

 When I explained that my daughter was in the play, her face paled. “Oh, so you’re one of our parents at (the school).” She was clearly trying to play it cool, but failing miserably. If she worked as a spy, she’d have been shot dead in about ten seconds.

 I quickly explained that her secret was safe with me; I wasn’t going to tell anyone she smoked. Her relief was nearly palpable—even from where I stood, across the counter from her. From then on, whenever I sold her tobacco, she’d lift one finger across her lips and remind me, “Mums the word.” I’d nod and pretend to lock my lips shut.

 At the shop, she was very friendly, constantly seeking my advice about different cigars, because she was the cigar smoker; her husband was the one who smoked cigarettes. He taught at a different school, but was too afraid to be seen in the shop, so she did the tobacco buying. When I saw her at school, however, she’d act as if she didn’t know me—even pretending not to know my name. I never even knew who her husband was, until he came in after having retired. That was when I discovered he’d been the Assistant Principal at my son’s middle school.

 People have other secrets, too, of course. One customer at the cigar store believed he had secretly managed to purchase an entire barrel of whiskey, at a famous distillery, without his wife knowing, while he and she were on vacation in Scotland.

 After his purchase matured, he naturally wanted to drink some of it. However, the only way to export it to the U.S. was to bottle it. Evidently, regulations prohibit importation by the barrel, at least for private persons. Consequently, this guy spent incredible amounts of time trying to figure out how to get it bottled in Scotland, then shipped to Arizona—all without his wife finding out. He was also quite parsimonious, so part of his problem was finding the cheapest way to do all this.

 The kicker is: She knew all about it. When he went outside to take a call on his cell phone, one day, while the pair were in the shop, she chuckled and announced: “He’s gone outside, because that call’s about his whiskey. He thinks I don’t know he bought a barrel of it while we were in Scotland, ten years ago. Don’t tell him I know, because, whenever he thinks I’m getting suspicious, he buys me gifts to lead me away from the clues. And that skin-flint almost never buys me anything nice!” Everybody roared with laughter, and when the guy came back in, asking what he’d missed, we laughed even harder.

 We had a young lady who liked to smoke cigarettes while chatting-up the younger male customers. A good customer once told me he didn’t think she was pretty, which surprised me because everyone else thought she was.

 I’ll never forget his words, when I asked why he didn’t think she was pretty. “She’s got ugly feet, man. Big hammer toes! She’s got ugly feet, and she’s an ugly girl.”

 Now the cigar store is a place where we give each other a good-natured hard time. So, shortly after that, when a woman walked past the window in sandals, I asked him, “What about her feet? Does she have pretty feet? Or ugly feet?” We were pretty good friends, but he wouldn’t answer me, and I could tell he was getting upset. So, I knocked it off.

 Later, I got him alone, and discovered that he was embarrassed because he had a “foot fetish” and didn’t want anyone to know. He hadn’t meant to let the cat out of the bag, earlier. “You—you stupid idiot—you just had to figure it out!” He shook his head. “I should have known.”

 I didn’t mention that it hardly took an egghead to figure it out, when he said what he’d said. Instead, I just assured him his secret was safe with me.

 The next time he came in with his wife, whom I’d never found even remotely attractive, I noticed that she wore toe rings and a thin silver anklet. Her feet were carefully pedicured, long and thin with glossy polish on her nails. For the first time, I realized why this guy thought his wife was so attractive that he often bragged about her beauty—something no one in the shop could understand.

 It was all because of the secret way he looked at her. To him, I think, she was a woman with beautiful feet. Ergo, she was a beautiful woman, which should be glaringly obvious to everyone.

 Here was a guy with a secret so important to him, that it deeply influenced his life choices, as well as the way he saw people. Yet, he was afraid to let almost anyone know about that secret.

  What must that be like? I wondered. To care so deeply about something, yet be afraid to admit it to anyone. We often hear talk of “closeted” gay people. But, here was a heterosexual person who was just as deep in the proverbial closet as any gay person could possibly get.

 He moved away several years ago, and most of the guys who knew him have gone to the four winds since then, which is why I feel safe posting this now. I don’t believe anyone could possibly figure out who it was.

The title of this post, however, is The Secrets to Writing.

 What are the secrets to writing? I have no idea, except to say I think you have to figure it out for yourself—because everyone’s secrets are different.

 One suggestion I would make, however, is that you might consider giving your characters some secrets of their own.

 See you in two weeks!

14 November 2013

A NaNoWriMo Reality Check

by Brian Thornton

For those of you who in the writing community who have been living under a rock, November is "National Write a Novel Month." Who declared it such? I have no idea. Someone did, and it stuck.

So every year tens of thousands of people- including several friends of mine sharpen up their metaphorical pencils and go to work, writing furiously, in an attempt to get an entire novel down in the days between November 1st and 31st.

My response to this notion?

Have fun with that.

Maybe it works for some people, but the idea of writing a complete first draft during a month with not one, but two big holidays (sorry folks, I'm a veteran, from a family of veterans, it's a big deal in my house), a full-time day gig, a marriage/mortgage/one year-old to spend time/effort on, holds zero appeal whatever to me. What's more, it held the same level of appeal back when I wasa kidless, single apartment dweller.

The irony of this is if you asked my wife about my work habits, she'd likely tell you I work better under a deadline. She's seen time and again how, when faced with a due date on one of my writing projects, I will pump out content at a rate that she finds truly impressive.

There's a difference, though. One BIG difference.

Put bluntly, my deadlines invariably involve dollar signs.

To be honest, it all comes down to time. I have a finite amount of it. Now moreso than ever. As a result, it's tough to sit down and bang away at something for the hours on end over a month's time required to turn out a draft of a novel. This is not say I can't turn out product, when it comes to fiction, I have a rough time doing it in assembly line fashion. Some folks can do that, and God bless them. For me it's a short-coming. When I'm writing fiction, I have to put a ridiculous amount of thought into it before I even pick up my (metaphorical) pen.

Back before I got married, I entered into a devil's bargain with a nonfiction publisher that had already published several of my books. These guys always wanted the turnaround on their content yesterday, and they didn't want to have to shell out a whole lot for it. I knew this going in.

At the time I was also wrapping up an editing project, where I'd collected and edited some inspiring nonfiction stories. I was working for the same press, with the same editor I'd worked with on my previous books. She knew how I worked, and that she didn't need to micromanage me or hold my hand while I generated content for her. We worked well together.

This new project involved working with a brand-new editor, who had no idea how I worked, and wasn't especially interested in just having the end result of my efforts just miraculously appear on her desk by deadline date. As I said, she was new, and eager to prove herself.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, so I'll just cut to the chase.

The long and the short of it was that after this new editor started up a pissing match with my original editor over my 25%/50%/75% due dates, I wound up completing the first book exactly eight weeks before the TWO new books I had agreed to write for the difficult-to-work-with new editor were due.

These were children's books, with an intended length of 40,000 words apiece. That's 10,000 words per week, folks.

Oh, and by the way, my day gig is teaching. And this eight week period started on September 1.

In other words, eight weeks of every waking moment not working my day gig pretty much consumed in NaNoWriMo on steroids.


Somehow I managed to complete the contract. Miraculously both books are still in print to this day, years later. The in-over-her-head editor who caused me so many headaches during this initial back-and-forth was eventually directed by her boss to cc her on all further communication with me about this matter. I won't go into it any further than that, other than to say she is no longer with that publisher, and hasn't been for some time.

So, NaNoWriMo? No thanks. Been there, done that.

And at least I got paid for my trouble!

13 November 2013

Hour of the Gun

by David Edgerley Gates

John Sturges made a fair number of pictures in the course of a thirty-year career as a director. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them are dogs. The best-known are probably BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE GREAT ESCAPE. He made Westerns, and war stories, and thrillers. He wasn't celebrated for a light touch, and didn't have much luck with the occasional comedy. His full list of credits is here: 


In 1967, he made HOUR OF THE GUN, a sequel to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, ten years earlier. He uses a different cast, and the tone is more somber, the biggest change being character. The manic Doc Holliday played by Kirk Douglas is taken over by a saturnine Jason Robards, and the upright Burt Lancaster as Earp is instead imagined by James Garner as far more morally ambiguous. They're still, of course, the heroes, and the Clanton gang the villains, but the movie comes a lot closer to the actual events in Tombstone, in October of 1881.

The real story is about politics, and business rivalries. Wyatt and his brothers were town-tamers, but in return they got a major piece of the action, primarily gambling. They were opportunists, and if not criminal, they were certainly corrupt, and in it for the money. (The best source I've come across is
AND DIE IN THE WEST, University of Oklahoma, 1989, by Paul Mitchell Marks.)

In the movies, though, the Earps are never shown this way. Wyatt himself helped shape his legend, in later years, with Stuart Lake's hagiographic FRONTIER MARSHAL, and John Ford claimed to have gotten the details of the gunfight straight from the horse's mouth. Wyatt was a blowhard and a bully, and a shameless self-promoter, and most of what he told people was snake oil, but you don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. The end result is that you get Henry Fonda or Burt Lancaster or Hugh O'Brian, to name a few, and almost invariably they're pushed reluctantly to act, moved beyond patience by the evil Walter Brennan or his ilk. The less said about Earp as a cold-blooded killer, the better.

This is where HOUR OF THE GUN gets interesting. The arc of the story, yes, is similar to others, and after Morgan and Virgil are backshot, Morgan dead and Virgil crippled, Wyatt has good reason to go after the guys who did it. But in this telling, Wyatt gives only lip service to making formal arrests. He simply guns the men down.

The best example of this is the death of Andy Warshaw. Earp and his small posse find Warshaw in a back corner of the Clanton spread. Wyatt sits his horse, Warshaw with his back to him, straddling a split-rail fence, smoking.

How much did Clanton pay you? Wyatt asks.
Warshaw, head down, tells him it was fifty dollars.
Fifty dollars. To see a man shot.
I only watched, Warshaw says. I wasn't with the guns.
Wyatt gets off his horse. I'm going to give you the chance to earn another fifty dollars, he says.
I don't want such a chance, Warshaw says.
I'll count to three, Wyatt says. You can draw on two, I'll wait until three.
Warshaw climbs down off the fence and drops his cigarette.
An empty moment.
Warshaw draws on him.

Two things about the scene. First, you feel Warshaw's fear. He's facing a known man-killer. In fact, your sympathy is with Andy, because the outcome is foregone. He feels a grievance. He wasn't with the guns. He only watched. The second thing, Wyatt's thrown away the badge. He's become the kind of man he hunts, a man without remorse, beyond the law.

Doc Holliday hands Wyatt a flask. "Here," Doc tells him. "Have a drink. You need it to make this morning stay down, same as I do."

12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 
When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  


11 November 2013

Comedy, Strange & Weird Thoughts

by Jan Grape

The comedy part is the whole plagiarism by one of our country's high profile politicians. Don't know if any of you are a Rand Paul fan but this man obviously does NOT understand plagiarism. If I had written all the words in Wickipedia or the web sites or his books, I would have been upset.

Some news media have suggested that perhaps the author was thrilled that someone in national office would use their words in everything he writes and speaks. Maybe so, and we all know that politicians don't write their own speeches, but still. The funny thing is that the man got mad at everyone who pointed out this plagiarism. Instead of saying, "I've got to check into this, someone in my office needs to go back to school." That probably would have been the end of it. He tries to act as if nothing is his fault. He's ready to fight a duel if dueling was still legal. He talks about references and footnotes and how he can't do that in a speech.  What was wrong was saying, "This reminds me of a scene in a movie and I quote?" The more he's vented his rage, the more all his previous work has been checked and more and more plagiarism has been found.

The strange is how CBS's Sixty Minutes was duped by a guy claiming to have been present in Benghazi when our Ambassador was killed. He said he was there watching it all, and how the enemies didn't see him because he hid in the dark. He gave strong details. I haven't read his book but looks like it might be a complete work of fiction. Seems it didn't take much to disprove his story and yet the powers that be at Sixty Minutes didn't do their due diligence. I've heard the reporter and CBS has apologized and I'm waiting for the airing tonight to see if they retract the story on their time on air. I'm also wondering if anyone from that program will be fired.

The weird to me seems that lying has become the normal for politicians and the media. What the heck? We're the ones who tell lies for fun and profit, aren't we? How dare they try to take our jobs away from us. Look, folks it's hard enough to sell our fiction nowadays without everyone and his dog claiming their story is important. And they get national attention for it. I know, I know, politicians and news reporters have been lying for years but suddenly it's become rampant. Well, I for one am sick of these Johnny-come-latelys horning in on our turf. I think we should organize a sit-in demonstration. Any takers? Just spread the news, set the time and place and I'll be there with my sign of protest. I'll bring my goggles in case the fuzz tries to pepper-spray us.

That's all I can write tonight. I have a few things I need to plagiarize for a media outlet or a politician, I can't remember which.

10 November 2013

Professional Tips– P. D. James

P D James
P. D. James © The Times
One of the grand dames of mystery, a mistress of the post-Golden Age following Agatha Christie, P.D. James, has given us her tips for effective writing. A student of putting words on paper, I've shared tips from great authors.

As it turns out, the Baroness James has written at least two sets of tips, as noted by one of our readers, which we've gathered in one place. Important: Click the links in the headings for the full articles and explanations.

Writing Tips I, Mystery

  1. Center your mystery
  2. Study reality
  3. Create compelling characters
  4. Research, research, research
  5. Follow the 'fair-play rule'
  6. Read!
  7. … and write
  8. Follow a schedule

When working on a story, I daydream a lot, but it's creative daydreaming about the plot, as opposed to dawdling, which the grand dame refers to. There's a story about an actress wannabee who said she wanted to be a famous movie star. "Tell me," said the career counselor. "Do you want to be famous or want to be an actress?" James is saying the same thing: The goal in the front of your mind must be writing the best you can, not fantasizing about fame.

Here again is the Baroness, the inimitable Phyllis Dorothy James, with an update.

Writing Tips II, General
  1. You must be born to write
  2. Write about what you know
  3. Find your own routine
  4. Be aware that the business is changing
  5. Read, write, and don't daydream!
  6. Enjoy your own company
  7. Choose a good setting
  8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
  9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
  10. Know when to stop

And so I shall.

P D James
P. D. James © The Telegraph

09 November 2013

Sorry, I Need to See Some I.D.

I was fortunate enough to be invited a few months ago to give a keynote address at a writers' conference, and when the time came I found that my audience included not just writers but a number of readers and publishers and literary agents. And as I stood there at the podium, I realized that I felt a little like the guy in that Hanks/DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can. I was an impostor.

Seriously, of all the folks in the room that day, and of all my colleagues at SleuthSayers, and of all the (two or three) people who might be reading this column right now, I am probably the least likely person to have become a writer. I was not an English major in college; I do not have an MFA degree; I've never had any formal training in writing; I am not, as so many authors are, a former journalist; I did not, as so many authors did, begin writing at an early age. I didn't even like English in school, or the lit classes. I liked math.

My course of study in college was, of all things, engineering. Afterward I was hired by IBM and then spent four years on a leave-of-absence to the Air Force, during which time the only writing I did was filling out performance evaluations (which, I admit, got a little creative at times) for the airmen and sergeants and junior officers in my group. When I completed my stint in the military I returned to IBM and spent my entire career there, as both a systems engineer and a marketing rep. I specialized in finance, and did actually write a technical manual once, about a remote check-processing system that I helped develop, but those words were--believe me--not a lot of fun to put on paper. I suspect that they were even less fun to read.

But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Much later (I think it was 2009) I did a booksigning and a reading in the town where I had attended college, and during the Q&A session one of my long-lost classmates in the back row--I hadn't seen him in years--raised his hand and said, "I have a question." He then asked me, looking truly puzzled, "How in the world can someone who graduated in Electrical Engineering wind up writing fiction for magazines?" With a straight face I said, "It makes perfect sense: you have to be crazy to do either one."

I was trying to be funny, but I still remember thinking, as I sidestepped that question, that my old friend had made a good point. What qualified me to be doing what I was doing? The real answer is that I had no idea. I still don't. Here I am, writing short stories left and right, and posting columns every other Saturday at this blog alongside folks with real literary credentials, when all my training is in a completely different field. I ran into one of my former IBM clients recently who said, "Hey, I hear you're teaching night courses in computers." I replied that she was half right: I've been teaching them for twelve years now, but they aren't computer courses, they're writing courses. I left her scratching her head, and probably wondering if I was disguising myself as somebody she once knew. Who WAS that masked man?

How did I end up with this unlikely second career? Beats me. All I know is, I've always been addicted to reading fiction and watching movies--and then one day I just started dreaming up stories of my own and writing them down and submitting them to editors, and lo and behold, I found I couldn't stop. Yet another addiction. Not long ago I sat down with my records and a calculator and discovered that I have published more than a million words of short fiction, the equivalent of a dozen or so novels. But the truth is, if I were spotlighted today by a beam from Heaven and heard a James Earl Jones voice telling me that from this day forward, nothing that I write would ever again be published . . . it wouldn't change a thing. I would still continue to write stories every day. It's relaxing, it's challenging, it's fun, and it's therapy.

I realize that there are and were other, and far more notable, authors who took unusual paths to publication. I'm comforted by the fact that writers like Michael Crichton, John Grisham, O. Henry, Tom Clancy, Raymond Chandler, and J. K. Rowling wandered down the road in the wrong direction a bit before homing in on the literary life. I also like to think that their experiences in those other areas (medicine, law, banking, insurance, the oil business, education) might have contributed new perspectives to the fiction they were later able to create. But I also sometimes find myself wishing that I had discovered this intense love for storytelling when I was a kid, rather than as a grown man involved in an nonliterary career.

I'd be interested to hear from those of you (or those who know of others) with unrelated backgrounds who now write for a living--or even as a hobby. How did you, or they, get from there to here? Was it a logical, planned transition, or did it just happen?

This brings up another question, one that's received a lot of attention these past few days at the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Yahoo forum: when can a person call himself a "professional" writer? The consensus seems to be that pro writers (as opposed, I guess, to amateurs) are those who get paid for what they write. Do you agree with that? Or do you feel, as some do, that a professional writer is one for whom writing is his sole source of income? Or one who has made a profit for three of the past five years? Or should it even be a question of compensation at all? Are there other qualifiers? 

I sincerely admire those who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a writer, professional or not, but I have come to believe that the strange path I took worked out well for me. If I had known many years ago that I would enjoy writing as much as I do now, I would never have wanted to do anything else, and my family would probably have starved. Maybe Fate knows what it's doing, after all.

Now, where'd I put that mask?

08 November 2013

Never Know Who You'll Touch

As you pass through life, you sometimes do things at the turn of a moment, whether the action springs from an emotion, a sudden thought, or maybe even a natural and common occurrence. What you can't know at the time, is what effect your action may have in the future. You never know who you may touch in some way or another......unless they contact you.
During my high school and early college years in Wichita, there were three of us who ran together: me, Steve King (no, not the famous writer) and Tom Whitehead. None of us seriously applied ourselves to our college studies in those days, too much beer, pizza, cards, girls, pool and fun in general, which soon brought us to the attention of our local Selective Service Board.

Tom was the first to go. He signed up for the Army and they gave him a couple months at home before he had to show up for Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, or as many trainees later came to know it, Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery. In the meantime, since he was part native American, the local Ponca and Osage held a pow-wow for him in the local armory one Saturday night in November of '65 in order to give Tom a good sendoff. He was on the train to Kansas City soon after, followed by a long bus ride down to the Missouri Ozarks.

Steve and I got our congratulation letters from Uncle Sam that following January and hopped a train to the induction center in K.C. for our physicals. The next day, they were kind enough to tell us we passed. They sent us home, saying that we'd probably be called up in about sixty days. Before any call up could occur, Steve visited with a sweet talking Army recruiter. Next thing I knew, I'd been talked into enlisting under the three year plan for something called the Buddy System, where you got to go to Basic Training with your buddy. Of course when you're dealing with the government, it helps to pay close attention to details.

After Basic, Steve and I went different directions. He got to Nam in January of '67 and I made the trip across the pond that July. While forted up in the Central Highlands, I got letters from Steve who was down south in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry. Seems he had run into Tom Whitehead, also with the 25th, but stationed outside Cu Chi at a fire base. Tom was working as an armorer, keeping weapons in shape for his unit, and had made the rank of Specialist Fourth Class. Then, I didn't hear anything more until I came back to the World.

Shortly after I stepped off the plane wearing Army greens in Wichita during the summer of '68, some friends of the family who happened to be at the local Pizza Hut for lunch that day, told me Tom didn't make it. He was crossing his fire base when the VC dropped a mortar down the tube. It caught Tom out in the open with no place to go. Nobody wanted to tell me about it while I was still over there. On my way down to Texas later that July to visit my folks, I stopped off in an Oklahoma cemetery to say a few words at Tom's grave.

Bagpiper at the Moving Wall
Decades later in the 90's, the travelling Wall set up in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few days. I found Tom's name on one of the panels, along with those of others I'd known. One of the pamphlets handed out said you could also leave an e-mail memorial comment somehow digitally attached to the full-sized Vietnam Wall in D.C. So I did.

Time passed.

Then, about four years ago, I got an e-mail from a stranger. He had read my memorial to Tom and had a few questions, if I would be kind enough to help him. Seems he was a doctor in Albuquerque and his father was dying. His father had recently told him a story about marriage, divorce and re-marriage. In the end, it turned out that Albuquerque doctor had a half-brother (Tom Whitehead) he'd known nothing about. The father had lost touch with his old family, but now wanted any info he could get about his estranged son who had died in Nam.

I'd always known Tom's father was missing from his family, but they never talked about the situation, so none of us inquired. Now, I dug into past letters and old memories for anything about Tom. Even mentioned the situation to Steve, who then e-mail attached old photos he'd converted over to his computer. Everything I had or ended up with then got e-mailed to the doctor who knew almost nothing about his older half-brother. The doc then shared that information with his dying father in a veteran's hospital down in Houston.

There was a quick flurry of e-mails back and forth. Dad was pleased to know his oldest son had been an enlisted man like he himself had been in World War Two. Doc sent his gratitude for the info. Then the lines went silent. The old man was gone and we had nothing further to talk about. But there, for a brief slice of time, someone had been touched by something I'd written about a man I'd known a long time ago. Someone was touched who I didn't even know was out there. Someone touched to the quick, who then sought me out.

As Eve Fisher quotes from Philo in her e-mails: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  And to that I respond, you never know who you'll reach out and touch.

Ride easy 'til we meet again.

07 November 2013

Enough is Enough

(NOTE:  I'm sorry if I haven't responded to anything this week, but we upgraded computers, e-mail, and everything else.  Cyber-chaos at our place.  Back up and running.  I think...  And now, on with the blog:)
We've all said it:  "Enough is enough!"  And sometimes we've even followed through on it.  The question is, what triggers it?  I'm raising this question primarily because I just changed my email address for the first time in 17 years, but I think it has application for other things, like changing brands, leaving relationships, killing someone, going on a fiery rampage ending in death, doom and destruction...

Here's what happened with the email:  I'd been with Yahoo mail from the get-go, and it was fine, great, etc. - but then things started changing.  They tweaked here, tweaked there, and it seemed like every time I turned around there was a new feature that I had to learn (which I did), or if I wanted a mail without ads, or mail with lots of memory I had to pay for it (which I did), and then they changed the format and I had to get used to it (which I did), and it got slower and slower and froze up a lot, and I had to cope with that (which I did) and then, a member of this respected body and I exchanged a couple of e-mails and Yahoo somehow managed to conflate emails from someone else with ours into a senseless spam-like screed that was, frankly, the last straw.  So I changed my e-mail to g-mail.  I'm having to learn a whole new system - if anyone has a cheat-sheet on keyboard shortcuts for g-mail I'd appreciate it - but it's worth it because I'm done with the old system.  I am loyal through an amazing amount of thick and thin, but when I finally do get fed up and quit, I am not coming back...

But some people make other choices.  Like murder.  One of the things that has always interested me is when people decide they've had enough and have to kill someone.  The long slow burn...  which finally explodes.  The classic example is a murder that took place here in Madison a couple of years ago.  An old guy, a farmer in his 70's, came back to the town where he grew up and started knocking on doors.  The first door he knocked on was his brother's, but he was at a basketball game.  The second door he knocked on was a former high school classmate, retired English teacher, and when he answered the door, the old guy shot him in the face and killed him.  The reason?  Fifty-five years before, the teacher and the farmer had had a fight in the locker room of the gym, and the future teacher had thrown a dirty jockstrap at the future farmer and hit him in the face.  Everyone laughed.  The future farmer fumed.  And 55 years later...

But why did it take so long?  I have no idea.  I don't know what sparked it off.  I do know that he came intending to kill someone - he would have killed his brother if he was home, it seems out of pure jealousy and envy.  And if he had managed that, would he have gone on to the teacher's house?  Hard to say.  After he shot the teacher to death, he got in his car and headed out of town, back home, where he holed up until the police came for him.

That one, as I say, is a mystery to me, because it took so long.  Not so adolescent shooters - the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds of the world - they're fairly easy (for me) to understand.  Adolescents live in a world of such terrible urgency:  if they do not have this (whatever or whoever it is), they will die.  If someone laughs at them, the humiliation will last forever.  And, since they know they are bulletproof, invincible, and resurrectible (the Tom Sawyer fantasy of being at his own funeral and surprising everyone afterwards is pretty universal), to take up arms against a sea of troubles - literally - is an tragically unsurprising solution.  I'm waiting to see if the LAX shooter - 23 years old these days can be just as adolescent as 14 - is of that ilk or is one of the militia types who have decided that war has been declared, and is going to fire the first shot.

File:Turnerdiariescover.jpgI've met a lot of militia types, here and elsewhere, thanks to my work in various court systems.  They are very chilling.  As one told me after the Timothy McVeigh bombing, "War has been declared."  When I said the children in the day-care weren't soldiers, he replied, "There are no innocent victims."  Their literature (see "The Turner Diaries") is all about killing everyone who doesn't meet their standards, to the point where you wonder if even in our weapons-rich environment, there really are enough bullets to get that job done.  I've read "The Turner Diaries" and other works, and the basic idea is that you have to arm, arm, arm yourself, and get ready to kill, kill, kill, because - as one survivalist screed said - "who would want to die in such a world"?  The logical fallacy being, of course, that somehow you're never going to die.  Ever.  You'll "win", and live forever, master of all you survey.  Again, adolescent thinking.

And that perhaps is the trouble.  So much of our media - video games, television shows, movies, websites - is all about marketing to teens, and has been for quite a while.  Facebook is in trouble because its teen share is dropping, but Twitter is rising.  Every business has to get that all-important teen audience.  Because they have money, and it burns a hole in their pockets.  (I remember the feeling...)  But if you market to adolescents, if all your entertainment and information is targeted specifically to lure, entertain, and keep adolescents as they are...  isn't what you get, more adolescents?  Perpetual adolescents?  Whose only solutions to life's many problems are those provided by a media that is keeping them perpetually adolescent?

When will we say enough is enough?

06 November 2013

The Story I Said I'd Never Write

I am delighted to report that the January/February 2014 of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is out this week and features my 24th appearance in that fine periodical.  Even better, it marks my third chance to grace the cover (and what a perfect illustration it is!).  "Devil Chased The Wolf Away" is a short story but the history of how it came to exist is a long story, so you might want to fortify yourself with a cup of coffee or something.  I'll wait.

Ready?  Okay, here goes.

About fifteen years ago I attended a concert by a man who had been considered a master musician.  The problem was he was long past his prime, and it showed.  He was confused and his playing was clumsy.

That would have been bad enough, but worse was the fact that his accompanyist, the man who had been driving him from show to show, was clearly fed up, and was rude and disrespectful.  This made the show quite unpleasant.

And as I watched it, being the person I am, I found myself thinking: is there a story here?  A crime story?

By the time the show was over I had invented Cleve Penny, an over-the-hill old-time fiddler from Kentucky.  His tale, "Snake In The Sweetgrass," appeared in the December 2003 issue of Hitchcock's.  

I thought it was my best story and some people seemed to agree.  Several urged me to write about Cleve again, but I didn't want to.  I was afraid that what seemed magical the first time might turn out to be just slight of hand the next time around.  Besides, if I kept dragging my old guy around from stage to stage, wasn't I being like that accompanyist?  So I made up my mind not to write a sequel to "Snake."

Then Bruce Molsky came to town.

Now, I must immediately explain that Molsky is not over the hill.  He is king of the mountain, and can play old-time guitar, banjo or fiddle as well as anybody.  This video should prove my point.  (And he can sing while he plays the fiddle, which is just plain cheating.)

But a few years ago Molsky performed here with a brother and sister act, only one of whom was old enough to drive, and watching him interact with those talented youngsters I had a sudden thought: wouldn't it be fun to have Cleve Penny work with some children?

I thought it would.  Not long before this my family had visited Chicago for the first time, which  included a pilgrimage to the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The School was founded in 1957 and has been offering lessons, concerts, and jams ever since. 

So I invented the Cornheim School of Folk Music, and installed Cleve Penny as guest Artist in Residence.  Then I gave the school a problem and invited Cleve to take his unique approach to solving it.  

But I had another problem.  "Devil" is in some ways a direct result of the events in "Snake."  Cleve's actions in the second story are heavily influenced by what he did in the first.  I can't assume that everyone who reads "Devil" will have read "Snake," much less remember it a decade later.  So how do I slip in the backstory?  I actually got into an interesting discussion on this subject with mystery writer Neil Schofield and wrote about it  at Criminal Brief.

I think I licked that problem, but Linda Landrigan, editor of Hitchcock's, offered an even better solution.  As I said last week, you can download a free podcast of "Snake."  I highly recommend you read/listen to it before you dig into "Devil."  You will enjoy them both more that way.

I think I'm done with Cleve Penny now, and he can settle into a well-deserved retirement.  But I have learned to never say never.

05 November 2013


Amazingly, not a single online dictionary contains a definition of the word “gullible.” 
       Last week many of you may have stumbled onto an online article reporting that, in an interview with Fox, Sarah Palin described at some length how Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples. The article quotes Palin as stating that “[w]e need to return Easter back to the way it was when Jesus was still alive.” According to the article Palin explained this as follows:
When Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples there were no Easter bunnies or egg hunts. There were no Easter sales at department stores or parades in the street. Easter was a special time of prayer and Christian activism. 
       I was on board for all of this. It was absurd but still barely credible. But then I came to the following quote: 
Jesus would gather all the townspeople around and would listen to their stories about the meaning of Easter in their lives. Then he would teach them how to love one another, how to protest Roman abortion clinics and how to properly convert homosexuals.
       Well, heck, I concluded. I had been punked.  But at least I was not alone, and at least I got out early. Piers Morgan of CNN, by contrast, tweeted the story on his Twitter account as . . . err . . . “gospel.” 

       Hoaxes can broadly be divided into two categories. The Palin article, which appeared on the satiric website The Daily Currant, follows a pattern that is typical for the well-crafted satirical hoax: Start with a premise that is just barely credible, and then start ratcheting it up. Make each claim just a bit harder to believe and then watch to see at what stage your audience begins to jump ship. The purpose of the satirical hoax is that the reader will eventually catch on and then laugh at themselves. Or, even better, a reader like Piers Morgan might swallow the whole thing hook, line and sinker, allowing the rest of us to laugh at him. The other broad category of hoaxes are meant to be taken seriously -- they are trying to pull off the scam without ever raising suspicions. They are crafted to sneak by, leaving the reader completely unaware of the hoax that is being perpetrated. 

Illustration of the triumphant balloon from Poe's article
       There have been a wealth of hoaxes of both varieties over the years, and a surprising number arise in the literary world. One of the earliest hoaxes was perpetrated by none other than Edgar Allan Poe who, in 1844 wrote a series of newspaper articles that, in great detail, recounted the first crossing of the Atlantic ocean by balloon. The story ran on the front page of the April 13, 1844 edition of The New York Sun under the following banner headline: 
       The story, however, was an utter fabrication on Poe’s part. It is still debated why Poe wrote the ruse, particularly since it could not be sustained for more than a few days at best before it would unravel under close public inspection. But, at a time when financial matters might have had a more preeminent place at the publishing table, the story sold a record number of copies. And the retraction, published on April 14, did almost as well. 

       Poe was not alone here. In a December 28, 1917 New York Evening Mail article entitled “A Neglected Anniversary” H.L. Mencken offered a detailed, and completely fictitious, history of the bathtub. The article is still, at times, relied upon as authority for the (erroneous) propositions that the bathtub was first invented in 1842 and was first used in the White House by Millard Fillmore. Over thirty years later Mencken still marveled over the lasting power of his hoax: 
The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity ... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions. 
      There have also been numerous examples of literary hoaxes that were never meant to be found out -- usually scams concocted with a dollar sign at the hoped-for finish line. Who can forget The Hitler Diaries, which had their 15 minutes of fame in 1983 when the German magazine Stern paid nine million marks to publish thirty eight volumes of the “autobiography” of Adolf Hitler that turned out to be crude forgeries riddled with historical inaccuracies and copied in large respect from other volumes? And who can forget Clifford Irving’s attempt in the early 1970s to fake an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, based on interviews between Irving and Hughes that never happened?

       But, to my mind, the really great hoaxes are those that are concocted with tongue planted firmly in cheek and with a point to make. My favorite of these is the Atlanta Nights hoax, which centers around what may be the worst book ever written.

       To really savor this hoax a little background is necessary. As any writer knows, there are many publishers out there, some legitimate, some less so. Around fifteen years ago a new one, Publish America, entered the fray Since its beginning Publish America has gone to great lengths arguing that it is not a vanity press. But many authors have nonetheless complained that Publish America operates by publishing any manuscript it receives and then making its profit by enticing the authors to buy large quantities of very expensive volumes of their own work so that the authors can sell these to friends, relatives or (perhaps) friendly bookstores. Throughout all of this Publish America has claimed that it is a legitimate publishing house that only publishes works that it has reviewed and deemed meritorious. It goes so far as to suggest that it has an 80% rejection rate for manuscripts. It’s website proudly makes the following claim to aspiring writers: 
If indeed you have been dreaming of getting published, and you want us to review your work, please fill out the form below and let us know who you are and what you have written. Your manuscript will be reviewed by our Acquisitions staff, who will determine whether your work has what this book publisher is looking for.
        Sometimes you need to be careful when you throw down the gauntlet. A number of writers from the Science Fiction Writers of America, under the general direction of James D. MacDonald, the author of many successful science fiction novels and a long-standing opponent of vanity presses, decided to put Publish America to the test. He gathered a group of fellow SciFi writers and they collectively agreed to write a book. But not just any book. The writers committed to do all they could to produce the worst book imaginable. 

       Following a general outline written by MacDonald each writer was assigned one chapter and asked to write it as horribly as possible. None of these authors was privy to the complete outline, and no one of them knew what the chapters other than their own were to contain. Here is a sample of the prose they produced, taken from the book’s website: 
Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . . 
       Not only is the book consistently clumsy, a clod of words riddled with grammatical and syntax errors, its internal structure is designed to strain credulity well beyond the breaking point. Chapters 13 and 15, written by two different authors, cover identical events in the narrative. Chapter 21 is missing, while chapters 4 and 17 are identical, word for word. Chapter 34 is “written” by computer story generation software that constructs the narrative from a word analysis of previous chapters. Toward the end of the book one chapter reveals that all that preceded was in fact a dream, but then subsequent chapters continue the narrative (such as it is) with no reference to that revelation. The genders of key characters periodically switch and then switch back. The book is, in a word, a mess, contrived to be the worst novel ever written. And finally, with a nod to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the initials of the characters taken together in the order of their appearances spell out the phrase "PublishAmerica is a vanity press."  Take a look at the complete manuscript online -- it is a masterpiece of terrible writing.

       The hoax here is utterly apparent to any objective reader. But that is not the reader for whom Atlanta Nights was written.  It had one, and only one, reader in its sights. You guessed it. Following submission, Publish America promptly accepted Atlanta Nights for publication

       One is left to ponder:  What is the real hoax here? Atlanta Nights or Publish America?