07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?


by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
Hw-shakespeare2
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.



Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg

06 April 2015

Book Trailers: Friend or Foe?


by Melissa Yi

When I first saw a few book trailers, I wasn’t impressed.
My writing friends jumped up and down, crowing over their short movie-ish ads for their books, while everyone else gathered ’round to praise them, I thought, You know who makes good movies? Hollywood. Bollywood. Nollywood (Nigerian film-making.) And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hollywood North (Canada), but there’s a whole international list here.
You know who didn’t make the list? Writers.
And anyway, I’m not a huge TV or movie person. I like to read. I put my head down and continued to hone my writing skills.
But when Vuze approached me this year and suggested a book bundle, they specifically asked for book trailers.
I could’ve gone the easy route. On Fiverr, you can get one for $5. Some of them are not bad.
But I’m picky about how my work gets represented. I want better than not bad. So I started Googling, and this is what jumped out at me: you can make your own book trailer on iMovie for the Mac or Windows MovieMaker.
Artistic control, right at my fingertips. Right on. I already had images from my book covers and from poking around on morguefile.com. I researched free music for commercial use and particularly liked FreeMusicArchive.org. You can even tick off that you want commercial use. I wanted something upbeat, to contrast with the darker medical images, so I chose The Freak Fandango Orchestra’s "Requiem for a Fish."
Et voila!


Then I realized that, on iMovie, they have pre-made trailers, complete with pulse-pounding music and template suggestions. Of course, you run the risk of everyone else making the same trailers, but I chose unique images off of FreeStock.ca, DeviantArt.com, and well as my own photos. Just like I have an unusual writing voice, I have a (strange, deviant) eye, so I wasn’t worried that anyone else would copy me.
That way, I got the book trailer I love best of all, Notorious D.O.C Blogger can't handle movies larger than a gig, though, so BOO. You'll have to click on the link.
Finally, I wanted a fast and furious trailer for Terminally Ill (click to view). For the first time, I incorporated video instead of stills, and paid for some stock. Even better, though, a slackwire artist named Pierre Carrillo gave me permission to use footage of him starring as the escape artist in the book.
Making book trailers made me exercise a whole different part of my brain. I’m not going to lie, it took me hours, and may not be worth it to other writers/publishers with precious little time, but I seriously enjoyed it. One of my book club members said, “That was sick! Can’t wait to see the movie.”
But one of the other book clubbers said, “I don’t like movies. I like to imagine the characters in my head as I’m reading. I don’t want the movie to interfere with that.”
And of course, many serious readers think the book is better than the movie. You get more interior viewpoints, more complicated plots, more setting.
Here’s what I think: like most things in life, it’s a Venn diagram.


Since I want the world to discover my stories, ideally before I die, I’m going for as big a piece of the pie as possible. That means that, time permitting, I’ll make more movie trailers. And whatever else it takes. People who don’t like them can ignore them. The ones who like them? Maybe they’ll pick up my books. I got a different audience “liking” my trailers on Facebook.
And my eight-year-old son, Max, suddenly got interested in my books and asked to read them. I told them they were R-rated, but he was still curious, asking questions like, “Who is Hope Sze going to marry?”
Minister and author Kate Braestrup theorized that church is designed to stimulate the temporal lobe, using all the best tactics the 18th century had to offer—the beauty of architecture and stained glass and organ music—releasing hormones and making people want to come back to church…
I was like, Huh. I want to stimulate the temporal lobe and make them want to buy my stories. I’d better use the best tactics the 21st century has to offer.
I notice it working on me, too. My absolute favourite song of 2012 was Call Me Maybe, not because I’d heard it a billion times on the radio, but because of Steve Kardynal, the Chatroulette guy (if crossdressing doesn’t offend you). A visual component made all the difference. More recently, I hadn’t paid attention to Taylor Swift’s Blank Space until her video.
So what do you think? Yea or nay on book trailers?

05 April 2015

SleuthSayers Easter Eggs


by Leigh Lundin

This season of Passover and Easter Sunday made me think of ‘easter eggs’, lower case, not bird ovum but hidden goodies Apple famously hid in the Macintoshes (although Atari is credited as the first to conceal little secrets in their machines).

I asked my colleagues what ‘easter eggs’ they deployed in their stories and identify those of their favorite authors, hidden gems for readers to find. Some responded with actual cloaked tidbits while others took a different tack and described disguising real persons and places in a circumspect manner. I touched upon the latter in an article two weeks ago where Alistair MacLean and David Morrell obliquely refer to Sir Edmund Hillary and James Dean respectively.

Academics have argued and disputed whether or not nursery rhymes have hidden meanings. They debate whether ‘Jack be Nimble’ and ‘Four-and-twenty’ Blackbirds may or may not refer to politically sensitively controversies worded with a veil of deniability. But certainly, many classical authors deftly hid meanings to some degree. Chaucer, Voltaire, and Dante for example, touched upon people and events that educated readers were expected to recognize.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV)

Shakespeare was noted for his word play. One of his most famous easter eggs is the eponymous Hamlet, an anagram of the Danish prince Amleth.

Jan Grape points out that mystery conferences sometimes auction off the opportunity to appear as characters in novels. The proceeds typically go to a literary or library charity. Some fans have paid big bucks to be in a very well known author’s book. I believe Frederick Forsyth was one of the first authors to offer to drag a fan into one of his novels. A writer can use a person's name as a character, place or thing. Jan says:
    I’ve auctioned a character name a couple of times, didn’t get much money but I’m not a bestseller either. I asked that person if they wanted to be a good guy or a bad guy. Most want to be a bad guy, then I ask, if you want to be a bad guy… a murderer or a rapist? I don't want to make them horrible unless they agree.

In a recent David Edgerley Gates story, A Crown of Thorns, which takes place at the UNM campus in the late 1960s during the Viet Nam war protests, he gave Tony Hillerman a cameo, slightly disguised, but if you knew his local resume, you’d snap to it. Sea thriller author Clive Cussler often inserts himself as an unnamed character. One of his novels includes a cameo of an unnamed but famous British spy.

Rob reminded me that Elmore Leonard’s Up in Honey’s Room features a Nazi soldier named Otto Penzler, also the name of a famous editor and mystery bookstore owner in New York City.

I’ve set a scene in Lutz, Florida, an acknowledgement of one of my favorite writers, John Lutz.

John Floyd said John Grisham in his first novel, A Time to Kill, used a fictional setting of Clanton, Mississippi… but there is a real Canton with similar features!

Rob Lopresti lives in Bellingham, Washington as does Jo Dereske, who sets her Miss Zukas books in the college town of Bellehaven. The southwest corner of Bellingham is Fairhaven. (Our friend ABA asks if Miss Zukas might be a Polish play on words.)

Eve Fisher switches around names of South Dakota towns in some of her writing, making it obvious to locals where the action takes place.

Melodie Campbell does something similar, writing a comic caper about the Cannot Hotel.
    Anyone who lives in industrial Hamilton (The Hammer, to the locals) will know that I really mean The Connaught Hotel. The White Chapel cemetery becomes the Black Chapel cemetery.

David Edgerley Gates advised me that Dennis Lehane is known for using the names of his friends. So are our colleague, Jan Grape and John Floyd. John sometimes uses the name of a mutual friend, Billy Fenwick. Recently, John named a character in his Woman’s World series of stories Teresa Garver, the name of an East Coast fan.

Like the others, I often name characters based on people I know. I modeled and named a character in ‘Swamped’ after a high school classmate, Max. I hadn’t spoken to Max in years but once I knew that issue of Ellery Queen was in print, I phoned Max.
    Although never one to complain, he’d been having a rough time: His health was failing, his finances were in freefall, his wife had left him, and he’d downsized from a sprawling farm to a tiny apartment.
    I told Max about using him as a rascally character and he was delighted, a shiny bauble in a dark moment of time. I promised to get him a copy if he couldn’t get one at his newsstand, but within days, he died. I can imagine things going wrong when using friends’ names in stories, but in this case, those few words brought a bit of happiness.

Rob Lopresti also uses last names of friends for characters. One of his Alfred Hitchcock stories, 'Shanks Commences', uses the names of our Criminal Brief colleagues. (I've done something similar in a story I’m working on and the names are key to the solution.) The stories are clearly set in New Jersey, although he makes a point of not revealing the state.

Speaking of Jersey, Liz Zelvin slips in an actual 1990s case in this clever bit of dialogue in her latest Bruce Kohler novel, Dead Broke:
“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” Cindy said, “a rabbi having an adulterous affair with his sister-in-law, much less murdering her. What about the Ten Commandments?”
“What about them?” Natali said. “Human nature is what it is. By the time you make detective, your mind will have left boggling far behind. He wouldn’t even be the first. There was a rabbi in New Jersey who hired hit men to kill his wife.”
“Oh, New Jersey,” she said.
“It’s no excuse.”

Fran Rizer tells us a lot of what happens in the Callie books is based on real events. (I love these ‘writer uncovered’ stories.)
    At lunch today with an old friend I haven’t seen in years, the subject of a particular concrete block nightclub out in the country and its highly unusual proprietor was mentioned. We continued to chat, and then the lady sitting at a table across the aisle from us asked me point-blank.

“Did you know the place you're talking about is just like a club called June Bug’s in one of the Callie Parrish books?”
“Do you read Callie Parrish books?” I asked.
“I’ve read them all,” she said. “I’ve heard the lady who writes them lives in this area.”

    I had to confess that I’m Fran and that June Bug and his nightclub were based heavily on the place she named.

Rob relates the following.
   Donald Westlake and Joe Gores wrote the same scene into each of their books. Twice. For example, in 32 Cadillacs a DKA detective traces a car that Dortmunder’s pal Stan Murch stole. In Drowned Hopes, Dortmunder and Murch watch in amazement as the stolen car is repossessed. In Dancing Aztecs, a character stops at Coe’s garage, where she meets a mechanic named Tucker. This is Westlake’s way of explaining what his pseudonym Tucker Coe did after Westlake stopped writing about him.

Author Carolyn Jenkins hadn’t named a radio station set to appear in her recent novel Scout Out Denial. Brainstorming came up with the call letters ‘KRLN’, her name sounded out and, shy as she is, it stuck.

If anyone’s written more about easter eggs than I have, it’s Dale Andrews and I wrap this up with him.
    Ellery Queen was noted for hidden references that tied the series together in strange ways that were basically irrelevant as to individual plots. The references to Easter, for example are both rampant and unexplained anywhere. Remi Schulze, a French "Queen scholar" has devoted entire websites to numerological and other hidden references in the Queen mysteries, including Queen's repeated use of characters named either "Andrews" or a derivative of "Andrews." (I never saw that until it was pointed out to me which, given the circumstances, says something about my eye for detail!) In And on the Eighth Day, Queen's most direct mystery dealing with Easter, there is a character whose name is an anagram for a historical character. (The fact that this is an anagram is never revealed in the course of the novel.)

    From my own (limited!) works, in 'The Book Case' there are clues from which the reader can deduce that the murder in fact took place on Easter Sunday, something never mentioned in the story. This, of course, was done as an homage to Queen's bizarre fixation on that holiday. And in my most recent Queen pastiche, 'Literally Dead,' there is a way to determine (roughly) when the story occurred. When I try to breathe life back into EQ I imagine that he was born in 1905 (consistent with the 1905 birth dates of Dannay and Lee, and also consistent with what we are told in The Finishing Stroke). So that means, sadly, that Ellery is no longer with us. In 'Literally Dead', which otherwise is a contemporaneous mystery with an elderly Ellery, one character is identified as running the local Amoco station. As of 1998, all Amoco stations became BP stations. So we know, if we spend the time thinking about it, that the story is set pre-1998 when Ellery has yet to turn 100! He is 102 at the time 'The Book Case' was published, and that is likely as old as I (at least) will ever let him become!

What literary easter eggs can you tell us about?

04 April 2015

Dial D for Dialect



by John M. Floyd



As a native of Mississippi, I confess that most writers south of the Mason-Dixon think they're good at writing dialect, or at least think they should write dialect, because the way southerners talk is so different and so recognizable. (If you don't believe that, you ain't seen the last of Ernest T. Bass.)

The truth is, whether we're good at it or not, we'd be well advised to (as one dominatrix said to the other) use a little restraint now and then. The overuse of dialect of any kind is far more risky than not using it at all. More about that later.

Calling the dialectrician

What exactly is dialect, anyway? Merriam-Webster says it's "a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations."

I prefer a simpler definition: it's the way specific groups (regional, ethnic, social, etc.) talk. And, make no mistake, all of us speak in dialect. It only sounds funny when it's not ours.

From a writing standpoint (which is, after all, where we at this blog should be standing and pointing from), dialect can at times be useful. All writers want their characters to have individual, believable voices. We should make them speak in dialogue that has unique phrases and interesting rhythms. I once heard that the key to fascinating characters is not the words they use but the way they use them. Reference a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: "I was sittin' on the porch, and he come along. There's this old chifforobe in the yard, and I said, 'You come in here, boy, and bust up this chifforobe, and I'll give you a nickel.'" To me, that's good use of dialect. I grew up the same part of the country as Harper Lee's Maycomb County, and I can assure you a lot of folks down here talk that way.

At theeditorsblog.net, Fiction Editor Beth Hill says we should "use contractions--I'd, isn't, weren't, would've, and so on. Then, when you don't use a contraction, the words will take on an emphasis they couldn't have if all words were written without contractions." (As in, I suppose, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Presidential statements should always be emphatic.)

Ms. Hill goes on to say that authors should "select one or two or half a dozen words that'll identify a character's background and accent or dialect. Or use a sentence construction or phrase pattern with recognizable accents." Another example of the proper use of dialect, this one from Huckleberry Finn: ". . . It was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out."

Compare that to this groaner of a line, from Huck's friend Jim: "I got hurt a little, en couldn't swim fas', so I wuz a considable ways behine you towards de las'." Go thou and don't do likewise.

Which brings up the other side of the coin:

Don't touch that dialect

The fact is, an overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare. Despite what we've seen in some of the work of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mitchell, George Eliot, William Faulkner, and many others from long ago, the overuse of dialect these days can be as dangerous as the all-too-familiar overuse of adverbs, adjectives, italics, exclamation points, cliches, ellipses, etc. Any of those things are distractions when used too often, and can pull the reader out of the dream world you've worked so hard to create.

Too much dialect can also transform your characters from realistic and interesting to cartoonish and cliched. Not to mention the fact that it is sometimes--let's face it--politically incorrect.

Besides, most dialect is just plain annoying. In a DailyWritingTips piece called "Showing Dialect in Dialogue," Maeve Maddox says modern readers have little patience with this kind of writing. Detailed punctuation, she says, interferes with the narrative, and "some readers who speak nonstandard dialects find attempts to represent their home dialects--even if they are successful renditions--disrespectful." She then addresses one of my pet peeves: "Sprinkling dialogue with odd spellings is especially pointless when the misspelling conveys the same pronunciation as the standard spelling. For example, sez for says, and shure for sure. The consensus among today's writing coaches is that dialect is best expressed with vocabulary, grammar, and easily understood regional expressions, rather than with apostrophes and made-up spellings."

Screenplays can be a different matter. In the movie Fargo, they overused dialect quite a bit, for the purpose of humor--and it worked. Ya, darn tootin', youbetcha it did.


More quotes on this subject:

"Dialect is out. Hinting at a character's ethnic background or regional origins by very subtle means is in. The occasional foreign word or y'all will do, and by all means, don't spell funny. Editors hate funny spelling. So do intelligent readers." -- Carolyn Wheat, How to Write Killer Fiction

"Four out of five readers report that reading representations of heavy dialect is extremely bothersome." -- Lori L. Lake, "The Uses and Abuses of Dialect," justaboutwrite.com

"There is no point in spelling phonetically any word as it is ordinarily pronounced; almost all of us say things like 'fur' or for, 'uv' for of, 'wuz' for was, 'an' for and . . . When you misspell these words in dialogue, you indicate that the speaker is ignorant enough to spell them that way when writing." -- Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

"Dialogue that is written in dialect is very tiring to read. If you can do it brilliantly, fine . . . but be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read short stories or novels that are written in dialect." -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

"Some writers try to use misspellings to convey dialect. Yet . . . those who speak differently don't spell differently; the words are the same. So the spelling should be standard." -- Beth Hill, as credited above

"Dialect is annoying to the reader. It takes extra effort to derive the meaning of words on the page . . . [also,] dialect is offensive to some readers." -- Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Have a good dighe, mite

Another aggravation is that many U.S. writers seem to have problems with the English dialogue of characters from other countries. The best tip I've heard regarding foreigners' dialects came from Revision & Self-Editing, by James Scott Bell. He said we should use syntax (the order of the words rather than the words themselves) to indicate that someone's native language is not English. Example: "Please, where is bathroom?"

Anytime this topic comes up, I'm reminded of an e-mail I received years ago from an IBM colleague in the Philippines the week before I traveled to Manila to teach a check-processing class. His note to me (I printed it out and kept it) said, "I am having happy feeling about you come to visit."

Sometimes simple is the best option. In the article "Most Common Writing Mistakes: The Do's and Don'ts of Dialect" at helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, K.M. Weiland says, "Readers are smart. They don't need much encouragement to get the idea that your character talks like Jackie Chan or Helen Mirren. Sometimes just mentioning your character's nationality will be enough to help readers hear the proper accent when reading your dialogue." She continues with: "Let your character's interesting word choices or incorrect sentence constructions carry the burden of conveying the foreignness of his speech." Good advice.

Personal observations

In my own writing, I commit dialect errors often, but I'm trying to cut back to two or three a week. I still leave the occasional "g" out of my writin' and rantin', and I can't seem to resist using "gonna" or "gotta" now and then. But I'm editing out more and more of the sho-nuffs and the scuse-me's and substituting correct spellings.

Finally, here's an example of dialect from one of my favorite movie characters: "Luke, when gone am I . . . the last of the Jedi will you be."

Now, gone am I. Back in two weeks I will be.






03 April 2015

Made the Cover


by R.T. Lawton

The May 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine showed up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. And, just like last year's copy of the May publication, their humor issue, both our John Floyd and I had stories in it. John's story, "Dreamland," was a funny piece about a man who might have watched too many movies. Uh, wait a minute here, John. About this watching too many movies thing, the circumstances are starting to sound pretty familiar. By any chance is your main character patterned after someone we all know?

As for my story, "Groundhog Day," it's the seventh out of eight purchased by AHMM in my Holiday Burglars series. In short, my two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, had the misfortune to be caught red-handed in the midst of opening a man's safe and are now trying to dig their way out of trouble and into another man's mansion in order to steal a treasured item the first guy says really belongs to him. Seems you just can't trust criminals these days. However, if it wasn't for dumb luck, Yarnell and Beaumont would be pushing up daisies. Naturally, The Thin Guy, their protege, usually manages to sneak into the situation, whatever it is. No worries, the main characters have to survive so they can appear in the eighth story, "May Day," to be published in some future issue of AHMM.

What I really liked about this issue was the cover. "Groundhog Day" made this May cover with artwork depicting two men with shovels in hand. One man is helping the other man out of a hole in the ground. I can't say that the artist's perception of Yarnell and Beaumont is the same as mine, but then like John and I discussed in recent e-mails, he and I tend to follow Elmore Leonard's way of describing story characters when writing. We use minimum description and let the reader form his or her own picture of the characters. So, I'll say nice artwork and I'm really happy to have my story on the cover of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.


Also about the middle of March, my short story, "A Private Matter," came out in a paperback anthology entitled And All Our Yesterdays. For this story think Leo Tolstoi and the Cossacks. Here, a wandering Armenian trader of goods gets pulled into becoming a gentleman's second for one of two Russian officers preparing to fight a duel in the Wild Country south of the Terek River in Chechen territory. Treachery abounds and the trader ends up holding the bag, but he has his own solution to rectify matters.

A couple of years ago, our David Dean mentioned he was writing a short story about a duel. Since I too had a duel story in progress, we exchanged e-mails. (I really like that communication factor in this group.) As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about two stories featuring duels being submitted to the same market in the same time period. David's story, "Her Terrible Beauty," went to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2015 issue and mine came out in the above mentioned anthology.

Nice story in EQMM, David. It'll probably get another place in the next EQMM's Reader Awards.

Side Note: All three of my above mentioned stories were critiqued by our Rob Lopresti prior to submission for publication. Thanks, Rob.

Hey guys, keep on writing.

02 April 2015

More Beginnings


By Brian Thornton

(For my first post in this two-part series about the importance of giving your story a great beginning, please click here.)

Last time out I talked about the importance of a good opening for your novel. In the comments section folks quoted some great openers (Eve Fisher's quote of the opening line from Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice comes to mind. Thanks Eve!)

In the interest of fostering further conversation, I've included a few of my own favorite novel openers, from across a broad spectrum of literature. If you find the opener intriguing, I can guarantee there is a strong payoff for your investment!

More on this in two weeks.

Read on:

"Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emmanuel Lasker."

                                                                             – The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon





"I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion ... no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials ... no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes-no income tax. The climate is the sort that Florida and California claim (and neither has), the land is lovely, the people are friendly and hospitable to strangers, the women are beautiful and amazingly anxious to please-"
                                                                                 – Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein

"I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name.Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for the dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better."

                                                                                  – Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett





"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously."

                                                                                 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

"I want the legs.'
   "That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year0old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no comparison."

                                                                                  – Queenpin by Megan Abbott

"The trouble didn't seem to start so much as it simply landed, like a hunk of blazing debris."

                                                                                  – Dirt by Sean Doolittle

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

                                                                                    – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

"At its northernmost limit, the California coastline suffered a winter of brutal winds pitched against iron-clad fog, and roiling seas whose whiplash could scar a man's cheek as quickly as a cat–o'–nine tails. Since the Gold Rush, mariners had run aground, and those who survived the splintering impact were often pulped when the tides tore them across the terrible strata of the volcanic landscape. For protection, the State had erected a score of lighthouses staffed with teams of three or four families who rotated duties that lasted into the day and into the night. The changing of the guard, as it were, was especially treacherous in some locations, such as Crescent City, accessible only by a tombolo that was flooded in high tide, or Point Bonita, whose wooden walkway, even after the mildest storm, tended to faint dead away from the loose soil of its mountaintop and tumble into the sea."

                                                                                        – Sunnyside by Glen David Gold

"In the shadows of the John F. Kennedy Expressway, surrounded by the warehouses, factories and auto-body shops, stands Villa d'Este, a family-run restaurant that serves generous portions of decidedly untrendy Italian-American food at reasonable prices. The restaurant was there more than thirty years before the expressway slashed the neighborhood in two and I imagine into me there long after the Kennedy collapses under the weight of bureaucratic neglect and political corruption. In Chicago, some things never go out of style."

                                                                                          – Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover

"The heavy red-figured drapes over the courtroom windows were incompletely closed against the sun. Yellow daylight leaked in and dimmed the electric bulbs in the high ceiling. It picked out random details in the room: the glass water cooler standing against the paneled wall opposite the jury box, the court reporter's carmine-tipped fingers playing over her stenotype machine, Mrs. Perrine's experienced eyes watching me across the defense table."

                                                                                            – The Chill by Ross MacDonald

And that's it for this week. Make sure to tune in two weeks from now when I add a few more of examples and talk about what they do right to hook the reader. In the meantime feel free to weight in over in the comment section with examples of favorite opening lines and why they work for you!

See you in two weeks!

Brian


01 April 2015

The Man Who Ate Babies: A Parable


This has nothing to do with April Fools' Day, by the way.  

No babies were harmed in the making of this blog.  I  added the subtitle in hopes of not scaring off people who, like me, are squeamish about true crime.  This parable was written by George Harvey, the editor of Harper's Weekly, and appeared in a March 1907 issue.  I discovered it in the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography and was struck by how relevant it seemed in light of certain events of recent years. 

Oddly enough the question that most concerned Harvey seems to have been well settled, but the underlying issue is still very much with us.  After the essay I will come back to explain the circumstances that led to Harvey's essay.  The only editing I have done to the parable is to remove its introduction and split some paragraphs for ease of reading.

-Robert Lopresti



THE MAN WHO ATE BABIES
by George Harvey

Once there was a man who had the incomparable misfortune to be afflicted with a mania for eating babies. He was an extraordinary man, of astonishing vigor, of remarkable talents, of many engaging qualities, and of prodigious industry.
 

He had education and social position; he could earn plenty of money; and the diligent exercise of his intellectual gifts made him valuable to society. There was nothing within reasonable reach of a man of his profession which he could not have, but over what should have been a splendid career hung always the shadow of his remarkable propensity.

The precise dimensions and particulars of it were not definitely known to many persons. A few men who had a mania like his doubtless knew absolutely; a good many other men knew
well enough; and there was practically a public property in the knowledge that he had, and gratified, cannibalistic inclinations of much greater intensity and more curious scope than those that commonly obtained among careless men.

There was an honest prejudice against him. Persons of considerable indulgence to eccentricities of deportment disliked to be in the same room with him. Sensitive stomachs instinctively rose against him. Yet he was tolerated, for, after all, nobody had ever seen him eat a baby.

One day another man—quite a worthless person—knocked him on the head, and let his pitiable spirit escape from its body. It made a great stir, for the man who was killed was very widely known, and his assailant was also notorious. There followed profuse discussion of the dead man’s character, qualities, and achievements. His record was assailed, but it was also warmly extenuated.

When it was averred that he was an ogre, the retort was that he was not a materially worse ogre than a lot of other men, and that we must take men as we find them, and make special allowances for men of talent. When it was whispered that he ate babies the answer was that that was absurd; that whatever his failings, he was the helpfulest, best-natured man in the world, and particularly fond of children, and good to them, and that if he ever did eat babies he was always careful where he got them, avoiding the nurseries of his acquaintances, and selecting common babies of ordinary stock, who were born to be eaten, anyway, and would never be missed, and who, besides, were in any cases not so young as they made out.

So the discussion went on, and waxed and waned as the months passed. But one day there was set up a great white screen, big enough for all the world to see, and over against it was placed a lantern that threw a light of wonderful intensity, and then came a person named Nemesis, with something under her arm, and took charge of the lantern. And then there fluttered forth all day on the great screen the moving picture of the poor monomaniac and a baby—how he found her, enticed her, cajoled her, and finally took her to his lair, prepared her for the table, and ate her up. Well; it was said that the picture was shocking, and that the public ought not to have been allowed to see it.  Oh yes, it was shocking; never picture more so.  But it was terribly well adapted to make it unpopular to eat babies.

Lopresti here again.  In June 1906 the famous and celebrated architect Stanford White was shot to death by millionaire Harry K. Thaw.  (These events were recalled in E.L. Doctorow's novel RAGTIME.) Thaw said he was driven to the crime by his obsession with White's earlier relationship  with Evelyn Nesbit, a model Thaw had also had an affair with, and later married. 

In court Nesbit reported that White had given her drugs and seduced her  at age fifteen.  Thaw was eventually found  not guilty by reason of insanity.  A few words from Twain's autobiography:


New York has known for years that the highly educated and elaborately accomplished Stanford Whtie was a shameless and pitiless wild beast disguised as a human being...  He had a very hearty and breezy way with him, and he had the reputation of being limitlessly generous - toward men - and kindly, accommodating, and free-handed with his money -- toward men; but he was never charged with having in his composition a single rag of pity for an unfriended woman… [Congressman] Tom Reed said, "He ranks as a good fellow, but I feel the dank air of the charnel-house when he goes by."]

And here is how George Harvey introduced his parable in Harper's:

The President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] thinks that the papers that give "the full, disgusting particulars of the Thaw case" ought not to be admitted to the mails. Perhaps not. Perhaps the country at large does not need all the particulars, but in our judgment New York does need most of them, and it would be not a gain, but an injury, to morals if the newspapers were restrained from printing them.

We will try to explain.

31 March 2015

Does Your City Cut It?


by Jim Winter

In the before time, in the long, long ago, I decided I would never write a story set in Los Angeles or New York. (I've since broken that rule with New York City.) No, I was going to be different. I was going to be unique. I was going to set my crime fiction in Cleveland.


OK, so Les Roberts had been doing it for about twelve years at that point. So his series was going to run out of steam soon. Right?

Er... No. He's still writing about Cleveland-based PI Milan Jackovich. But that's one series set on the North Coast. How many does New York have? Cleveland? Boston is lousy with crime fiction. Even Detroit, Cleveland's fellow declining Rust Belt city, has Loren Estleman and Elmore Leonard, and those are just the most notable Motor City authors.

Cleveland proved to be good fodder. My Cleveland is not Les's Cleveland is not Michael Koryta's. Cleveland. And that's pretty cool. Some have asked me why I haven't written in Cincinnati.

Well...

The city never really grabbed me the way Cleveland did. Ditto for Ohio's other big C, Columbus. I'm sure I could go nuts with Cincinnati, particularly with the West Side's well-defined culture that even they make fun of. I've taken stabs at it, but Cincinnati was always a place to live for me, not a place to tell stories. And I know that's not fair. Jonathan Valin spent the eighties writing about Harry Stoner's adventures in the Queen City.

So what is it that draws us to write about certain cities? LA and New York get a large share of stories simply because they are the two largest cities in the US. But what about the smaller cities? Why Cleveland for me and Les and Michael? What makes Stuart MacBride have his cops prowl the streets of Aberdeen, one of Scotland's lesser known cities, instead of, say, London or across the sea in Dublin?

A lot of it has to do with where the author is from. When we travel and pass through a city, we see a collection of tall buildings in the middle of urban sprawl. Every town has a McDonald's and carpet stores and the same gas station chains. I remember when one author came to Cincinnati for a signing, I suggested a place to eat simply because I liked eating there.

"Naw, that's a bit too chainy."

So it was. We hit the neighborhood bar across the parking lot from the bookstore. But these are the things that make cities interesting. Nick Kepler's favorite deli really exists on St. Clair. And while Milan Jackovich's Vuk's doesn't exist, it wasn't that long ago you could find two or three bars in Slavic Village similar to it.

As with fictional cities, it's that lived-in feel that makes even real-life cities come alive for the readers.

Cleveland

30 March 2015

My Father and Cousin Clyde


Jan Grape

by Jan Barrow Grape


At the end of this article, you'll find a poem written by Bonnie Parker. Someone posted this poem on Facebook and it reminded me of my father, Thomas Lee Barrow.  My father often told of how we were probably related to Clyde Barrow. I'm done a little bit of genealogy but never attempted to prove our connection to the notorious Mr, Clyde Barrow. It seemed more fun to just "say" we are related and leave it at that. But is it possible the criminal gene is what prompted me to write fictional crime stories? Who knows?

My father had a wonderful but, perhaps a bit strange, sense of humor and told stories of how he exploited the connection to Clyde Barrow. Let me explain, my father was born in Beaumont, TX in 1911 and was in his early twenties when Clyde and Bonnie were running around North Texas. Dad actually lived in Fort Worth, Texas then. A young man twenty-two or twenty-three in the early 1930s was like most young men of the day, prone to practical jokes.

Dad thought it was funny to walk into the First National Bank and write a counter check for ten or twenty dollars, sign his name, T. L, Barrow, walk over and hand the check to the teller. I know most of you would have trouble understanding but in those years, people didn't  have scads of personal checks like we have nowadays. You mostly went to your bank, pick up a printed check form located at the bank's signature island table, wrote out the amount you wanted, gave it to a teller and got the amount you had asked for on the counter check.

Quite often the teller would look either scared or extra hard at my dad, sometimes nod to the bank manager, or ask for identification from my dad. They'd go ahead and give dad his ten or twenty dollars and breathe a sigh of relief that someone with the name of Barrow did nothing more than cash a check. The Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers had almost daily stories of the bad mob known as the Barrow gang. That name was familiar to everyone in the banking business.

A little more involved act of fun happened when two young men got together and took advantage of the Barrow name. Dad and his best friend, Ken Owens, used to go into bars and play their joke. Once inside the bar, my dad would walk down to the far end of the bar and sit on a stool there. His friend, Ken would park himself on a stool near the front door and get the bartender's attention. When the bar man walked up to him, Ken would say, "You see that man down there?" he'd nod towards my father, Tom Barrow. The barman would say "Yes."

Ken would then say, "That's Clyde Barrow's brother and he expects a free drink." The barman would nod and give a free drink to both my dad and Ken Owens. The two young men would drink their free drink and soon they'd leave, leaving the bartender wiping sweat off his brow, thankful that Clyde Barrow's brother had left his establishment. The two pranksters would then head down the street and around the corner to another bar and work it for another free drink.

Like I said earlier, I'm not totally sure of our connection to Clyde Barrow. I do know however, that my father, Thomas Lee Barrow, had a strong influence on my life. My love of mysteries because he gave me my first mystery paperbacks to read, Mike Hammer, Private Eye books written by Mickey Spillane, and Private Eye Shell Scott written by Richard Prather. I think, my mother and father were both quick with funny quips and they passed that gene along. I have a grandson, Riley Fox who lives in Portland, OR who is a stand-up comic. I don't have any bank robbing family members like Cousin Clyde and that's a good thing. I'd much rather write about mysteries and crime that to worry about a sheriff's posse  or the FBI coming after me.

And although, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow never had any children she definitely had a gift for writing poetry, and maybe that writing gene was passed to me through osmosis. Besides the poem listed here she wrote several poems which were published in the Dallas newspapers and there was a little notebook of her poems written while she was in jail.

I'll admit that I've always had a strong desire to claim a connection to Mr. Clyde Barrow. Wonder if I can get a free drink or two out of that?


You've read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need;
of something to read,
here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang
I'm sure you all have read.
how they rob and steal;
and those who squeal,
are usually found dying or dead.

There's lots of untruths to these write-ups;
they're not as ruthless as that.
their nature is raw;
they hate all the law,
the stool pigeons, spotters and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers
they say they are heartless and mean.
But I say this with pride
that I once knew Clyde,
when he was honest and upright and clean.

But the law fooled around;
kept taking him down,
and locking him up in a cell.
Till he said to me;
"I'll never be free,
so I'll meet a few of them in hell"

The road was so dimly lighted
there were no highway signs to guide.
But they made up their minds;
if all roads were blind,
they wouldn't give up till they died.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas
and they have no clue or guide.
If they can't find a fiend,
they just wipe their slate clean
and hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There's two crimes committed in America
not accredited to the Barrow mob.
They had no hand;
in the kidnap demand,
nor the Kansas City Depot job.

If they try to act like citizens
and rent them a nice little flat.
About the third night;
they're invited to fight,
by a sub-gun's rat-tat-tat.

They don't think they're too smart or desperate
they know that the law always wins.
They've been shot at before;
but they do not ignore,
that death is the wages of sin.

Some day they'll go down together
they'll bury them side by side.
To few it'll be grief,
to the law a relief
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

29 March 2015

Rejection


by Dale C. Andrews
     
       For the first half of his college career our younger son Colin majored in Theatre. My wife and I had some misgivings over this, but we are pretty well trained, so we kept quiet. Then one Friday Colin called us to say that he had decided to change his major to pre-law. He explained that he had gotten rather used to eating well, and to having some assurance as to how his life would progress, all of which (he feared) would be lacking if he pursued an acting career. What Colin had realized was that his first-chosen career would have been one rife with the likelihood of repeated rejections.
      
       Writers know that feeling. While all of us here at SleuthSayers love to write, and while each of us is published, very few of us have managed to carve out a profession from it. Certainly the days of O. Henry, when short stories alone could bring in enough to live on, are behind us. The market dwindles, the competition increases, and even a story lucky enough to get published only garners a few hundred dollars. Although writers of novels can still strike it rich, like actors a lot of them simply strike out. And continuing to swim against the current of repeated rejections can prove pretty tough.

           How true is all of this?  Let’s take a selective look at the record. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before it was published. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind collected 38 rejection letters. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected 15 times. Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie -- 30. Frank Herbert’s Dune -- 23. J.K. Rowling’s first work Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone -- 12 (initial printing was 500 copies).  And Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, collected an incredible 121 pre-publication rejections. When John le Carre submitted The Spy who Came in from the Cold he was advised that “it hasn't got any future.” Sanctuary by William Faulkner was deemed “unpublishable.” In response to his submission of Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling was advised to give up any writing ambitions since he clearly did not have the requisite command of the English language. And Agatha Christie, cherished in these environs and one of the best selling authors of all times, suffered four years of repeated rejections before her first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, found a willing publisher. 

        All of the foregoing examples are, of course, “success stories.” Perseverance won out.  And the process, however grueling and depressing, in each case ended well with the publication of a well-received work; an “ahh-ha” to those earlier rejections. 

        But appreciate what the process is like not at the end, but in the middle, when the matter is still in doubt.  Before each new submission the author invariably asks himself or herself, is my work really bad? Is it the publishing house that has missed the point, or is it me? And it is hard to answer those questions objectively, evaluating what one has subjectively created. Certainly editors and publishers are the keepers of the gate, the arbiters charged with the objective task of sorting wheat from chaff. But chaff still gets through, and sometimes wheat does not.  Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Beatrix Potter’s The Tales of Peter Rabbit, to name but three, first reached the reading public only as a result of the authors’ exasperated decisions to self-publish. 
     
       So, how long should a writer persist in his or her advocacy in the face of the negative views of others? There can be no universal answer to that question since there is no prototypical rejected manuscript. But while the above examples are heartening, sometimes even ultimate success can be marred tragically by the disheartening submission process. There is probably no better example of this than the publication history of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. 

      Toole, by all accounts, was a brilliant professor of English at Hunter College in New York and at various Louisiana colleges. He completed A Confederacy of Dunces in 1963 after his discharge from the army. Dunces tells a picaresque tale of the travails of its hero Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, self-styled intellectual who pursues employment while disdaining actual labor, lives with his mother, and constantly bemoans a horrific bus trip he once was forced to make to Baton Rouge. Toole submitted the manuscript to various publishing house, gaining some middling interest but absolutely no success. As an example, Simon and Schuster's rejection was premised on the articulated conclusion that Dunces was “essentially pointless.” Eventually, in the face of rejection, Toole gave up and basically withdrew from life, embracing a paranoiac view that the world was aligned against him. He lost his teaching positions and eventually, on March 26, 1969, at the age of thirty-one in Biloxi, Mississippi he inserted a hose through the window of his car, turned the vehicle on, settled comfortably into the front seat and waited peacefully until carbon monoxide took its course. 
       
       Toole had left the manuscript of Dunces on the top or the armoire in his bedroom in his mother’s house. Some years after his death his mother re-read the manuscript and decided that she would begin, again, the attempt to market it. Like Toole, she suffered through numerous rejections. Finally, with little left to lose, she undertook a crusade to persuade author Walker Percy, then a visiting professor at Tulane University, to review the manuscript. Her persistence led Percy initially to complain to family and friends about the apparently deranged woman who was stalking him peddling a manuscript. Eventually, in an act of desperation, Percy agreed to take a look. This is what he said in what eventually became his introduction to A Confederacy of Dunces:
       [T]he lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
       In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.
With the backing of Walker Percy A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published by LSU Press in 1980. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

       So this ending is a happy one only in the most limited way. A Confederacy of Dunces found its publisher, its audience, and its accolades.  But the rejection process that preceded all of this contributed to the untimely death of John Kennedy Toole. And as grim as this may be, well, at least Dunces eventually reached the reading public. Not so for many works that, good or bad, never find their own Walker Percy. 
       
       The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, edited by C.D. Rose, is a compilation of 52 would-be writers whose work never saw the light of day nor the white of page. None of the authors ever got beyond rejection, but some “lost” works had even stranger back stories. Stanhope Barnes travels to London to discuss his novel Here Are the Young Men only to leave the only copy, never seen again, on an adjacent seat of the train. Veronica Vass, a cryptologist in England during World War II, wrote five novels in a devilish code, which she died without revealing, and which was never cracked. And perhaps saddest -- since it is a lesson on the folly, at times, of trying to overcome repeated rejections by relying too much upon the advice of others, is the case of Wendy Wedding, a budding minimalist who worked diligently editing what those who reviewed it described as a “huge” first draft of her novel The Empty Chair. Like many of us she was counseled to cut words. What happened? Here’s what C.D. Rose reports: 
She removed every adjective from her book. Once that task was completed, she turned back to the beginning and started again. Relative clauses went next, then the passive voice. Metaphor, simile, symbol. All felt the knife. None were spared. 
 In an ending befitting of O.Henry, Wendy Wedding was ultimately left with one blank page. 

       Lessons to be learned?  The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, in his review of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Washington Post, November 5, 2014), points us to Chekhov for guidance.  Chekhov concluded that in judging the merits of literary works "[o]ne must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake."  

28 March 2015

Never Marry a Crime Writer


by Melodie Campbell  (they let me off my leash again...)

Everybody knows they shouldn’t marry a writer.  Mothers the world over have made that obvious: “For Gawd Sake, never marry a marauding barbarian, a sex pervert, or a writer.” (Or a politician, but that is my own personal bias.  Ignore me.)

But for some reason, lots of innocent, unsuspecting people marry writers every year.  Obviously, they don’t know about the (gasp!) “Zone.”  (More obviously, they didn’t have the right mothers.)

Never mind: I’m here to help.

I think it pays to understand that writers aren’t normal humans: they write about people who don’t exist and things that never happened.  Their brains work differently.  They have different needs.  And in some cases, they live on different planets (at least, my characters do, which is kind of the same thing.)

Thing is, writers are sensitive creatures.  This can be attractive to some humans who think that they can ‘help’ poor writer-beings (in the way that one might rescue a stray dog.)  True, we are easy to feed and grateful for attention.  We respond well to praise.  And we can be adorable.  So there are many reasons you might wish to marry a writer, but here are 10 reasons why you shouldn’t:

The basics: 

1.  Writers are hoarders.  Your house will be filled with books.  And more books.  It will be a shrine to books.  The lost library of Alexandria will pale in comparison.

2.  Writers are addicts.  We mainline coffee.  We’ve also been known to drink other beverages in copious quantities, especially when together with other writers in places called ‘bars.’ 

3.  Writers are weird.  Crime Writers are particularly weird (as weird as horror writers.) You will hear all sorts of gruesome research details at the dinner table.  When your parents are there.  Maybe even with your parents in mind.

4.  Writers are deaf.  We can’t hear you when we are in our offices, pounding away at keyboards. Even if you come in the room.  Even if you yell in our ears.

5.  Writers are single-minded.  We think that spending perfectly good vacation money to go to crime writing conferences like Bouchercon is a really good idea.  Especially if there are other writers there with whom to drink beverages.

The bad ones:

6.  It may occasionally seem that we’d rather spend time with our characters than our family or friends.  (See 9 below.)

7.  We rarely sleep through the night.  (It’s hard to sleep when you’re typing.  Also, all that coffee...)

8.  Our Google Search history is a thing of nightmares.  (Don’t look.  No really – don’t.  And I’m not just talking about ways to avoid taxes… although if anyone knows a really fool-proof scheme, please email me.)

And the really bad ones:

9.  If we could have affairs with our beloved protagonists, we probably would. (No!  Did I say that out loud?)

10.  We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.

RE that last one:  If you are married to a writer, don’t worry over-much.  Usually writers do not kill the hand that feeds them.  Mostly, we are way too focused on figuring out ways to kill our agents, editors, and particularly, reviewers.


Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like The Artful Goddaughter, book 3 in the award-winning series about a reluctant mob goddaughter.  Please don't be reluctant to check them out.

27 March 2015

You Asked For It (or: Changing Men's Minds Redux)


By Dixon Hill

Not long ago, I posted an article linked to a story discussing the difficulties encountered by female police officers in Afghanistan.  At that time, I told you about one of my experiences concerning the education of foreign officers where females soldiers were concerned.

I also mentioned that I'd had a second experience educating foreign troops to change their view of women, and some readers asked me to post this experience, so that's what you'll be reading below.

I think I should point out that there are different ways of helping chauvinistic men see "the weaker
sex" in a stronger light.  Some of you may not approve of my particular methods in this case, but I hope you'll realize that my objective was to help soldiers in an army that was preparing to send troops into trouble spots for the United Nations, as well as other peace keeping organizations, avoid potential problems.

And, the biggest problem here was that we didn't want some unit subordinate to the UN, for instance, to commit war crimes.

Our concern was, because of these troops' cultural views on the roles played by men and women during armed conflict, they might ignorantly be led to shooting innocent people during a fire fight.

I'm not talking about "collateral damage" here: I'm talking about troops intentionally shooting innocent people, because they might hold the view that the gender of these folks made them legal targets on the battlefield.

The following is what happened:

My A-Team was working in a foreign country, running a leadership school for them, and the Host Nation held a demonstration of their military prowess (as is common when an A-Team visits). During this demo, they showed us the method they used to determine if a person was an enemy combatant or not.

During the demo, they conducted a live-fire exercise against targets with full-color illustrated paper figures taped on the front, which were somewhat similar to the targets in the montage on the left.

In the montage left, above,
this woman is a victim.
In another target version,
she is carrying groceries.
Here, she is clearly
a  COMBATANT,
pointing a gun at you.
In other versions, this guy
is carrying a movie camera.
Some of these target figures were men or boys. Some were women or girls.  And many held fire arms or knives, while others carried groceries, a camera or some other innocuous item.

I was quite used to these targets, having used them myself when in various schools, or other training, to learn selective shooting techniques.  And, I knew that the trick to succeeding against an array of these targets -- erected by someone who was trying to trick you into shooting "innocent" targets, in order to train you NOT to do so in the future -- was to concentrate on the target's hands.

If the target holds a weapon, you shoot it.  If not, you can't, because that person (unless identified by uniform or in some other manner) is a non-combatant; so hold your fire.


The soldiers in this Host Nation, however, had a different practice.

Their procedure?

"If it's male -- KILL IT!  If it's female, let it live."

They didn't care that they shot men holding little boy's hands.  They shot the little boys too!

(I was stupefied.)

If the man was holding a little girl's hand, however, the girl was not to be shot.  Just the man beside her.

So, too, did the female wielding a shotgun go without injury.  But, the man holding groceries (his target standing beside the shotgun-wielding female) was filled with holes.

It was unbelievable.  But it happened.


That evening, in our team hooch, my Team Leader (a captain rather new to SF) looked at me and said, "Sergeant Hill, you're scheduled to teach the class about the Law of Land Warfare.  Your class has to address this issue!  These guys are in an army that's getting ready to do a lot of work for the U.N., and other international peace keeping organizations, and they're going to get into firefights going where they're going.  You've got to make it clear that they can't kill innocent civilians: they're going to wind up committing war crimes if you don't."

So, this is how I wound up teaching a class, in which I used a rather oddly chosen movie to carefully outline what made a person a "combatant" under the Law of Land Warfare.  And, I carefully explained that women could be combatants.  And that NOT ALL men were combatants.  And that they'd better be sure they weren't shooting innocent civilians, or they could be hung for committing a war crime.

Problem was:  These guys weren't paying any more attention than those Middle-Eastern officers had paid to that female Spec-4 I mentioned in that previous post.  Their culture told them that all men were legal targets, and all women were innocent.  They didn't know why I was confused about this, but clearly I was.

I hated to spoil their dream of all women being innocent, but . . .

Well, I'd prepared for this moment.

And now I decided it was time for a little shock treatment.  About a half-hour before class, I had put a TV set in the class room (which was outdoors; I had to run two 100-foot extension cords), along with a VCR.  I had the tape of Apocalypse Now all loaded, and had run it up to the point where the Air Cavalry attacks the Viet Cong village in a helicopter assault.  It was dark out, being night time.

So, I shut off the lights, and hit PLAY.



I had pre-set the tape so that we started right in the middle of the battle: VC anti-aircraft batteries firing at the choppers, choppers machine-gunning rifle-wielding VC and firing rockets into the anti-aircraft sites.  The students leaned forward, excited.

I stood back and used a pointer, tapping it on the TV screen, pointing to the weapons certain VC characters carried, saying: "Weapon!  Combatant! -- LEGAL TARGET!" each time.  Or, I might point out "Uniform!  Combatant! LEGAL TARGET!"

My pointer tapped the anti-aircraft crew gathered around their weapon: "Combatants, or not?" I bellowed above the movie soundtrack.

"Combatants, sir!" came the mass reply.  This went on for some time.

Then . . .
                 we came to the scene where the Viet Cong female throws a conical hat into the helicopter parked on the ground.  The chopper explodes, because her hat hid a grenade.  The students cried out, shocked.

A second or two later, I tapped the end of my pointer against the woman's running figure as she scrambled across the screen, away from the carnage.

"Combatant, or not?" I called.

They stared at me, silent, blinking, heads swiveling between me, my pointer and the figure on the screen.

"COMBATANT  OR  NOT?" I demanded.

Before I could get an answer, she was gunned down from a helicopter above.

My students gasped.  They clasped their hands over their mouths.  Some of them rocked back and forth in horror and confusion, where they sat on the split-log benches.  Their horror was nearly palpable.

So was their confusion.

And, frankly, this was the moment I'd been waiting for.

I froze the picture on the image of the man who had used the machine gun to shoot down that woman.  (I think it was Robert Duvall, as LTC Kilgore, but I can't find a copy of this particular scene online for some reason.)  Slapping my pointer on his image, I snapped, "Is this man going to be tried and hung by an international court of law for war crimes?  Or is he safe from such charges?  Was that woman he killed a combatant, or not?  If she was a combatant, he's safe.  If she wasn't --- He . . . will . . . be . . . HANGED!"

Not an eye in that classroom wandered for the next two hours, until my class was over.  For many days afterward, students would quietly approach other members of my A-Team, suggesting scenarios and asking if so-and-so would be a combatant or not.  From what I heard, many of these questions centered around actions performed by women during combat.  As one of my team members said to me: "What the hell did you tell these guys?  They're all scared s--tless of being hung for war crimes, or else being shot by some chick!"

I nodded and smiled.  "Good!"

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon