22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.
One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.


In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!

21 January 2016

Take It Easy, Glenn

by Brian Thornton

A big part of my childhood died on Monday.

(Hey, I don't post under the handle "DoolinDalton" because I'm a fan of the western outlaw gang of the same name–that ought to be a dead giveaway right there for people of a certain age.)

Let me back up.

One of my earliest memories is of riding along a stretch of highway in northeast Texas in my father's 1969 Dodge Charger (avocado green with a black vinyl hardtop), with his radio on, and the Eagles' "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" playing. I was six, and as is the case with most fifty year-olds, I can recall that memory, made forty-four years ago, more clearly than some of the things I saw and heard in the last week.

I like to think that I recall it so clearly because it was a watershed moment in my life. It was the first time I can recall hearing the music of the Eagles.
His shirt reads "Already Gone"– a reference to one of his songs. Seems fitting.

And the voice singing that first Eagles song that I ever heard belonged to a young Michigan-born guitarist named Glenn Lewis Frey.

A friend (Jim Thomsen)  mentioned earlier this month when David Bowie passed that Ziggy Stardust's work was the "soundtrack of (his) life" (At least I think that's how he put it) back in the day. Several other friends have expressed similar sentiments in the days since the Thin White Duke's passing.

For my part, while I like Bowie's stuff, and have come to appreciate him for the visionary artist he was as I've grown older, I didn't find him accessible enough in my youth to really be able to say that his work had much impact on me.

Glenn Frey was a completely different animal. Not only were the Eagles the sole band my dad listened to when I was little that really, really blew me away (thus ensuring I prayed to hear their music on long car rides!), but the imagery that Frey and his writing partner, drummer/vocalist Don Henley created on songs like "Lyin' Eyes" honed in me an appreciation for a well-turned phrase–especially one with a potential double meaning, thereby opening me up later on to the work the likes of Springsteen, Dylan, Costello, the guys in Steely Dan, etc., etc.

Examples of this abound in Frey's work. Here are a few:

"He said call the doctor.
I think I'm gonna crash.
The doctor said he's comin',
But you've gotta pay him cash."

("Life in the Fast Lane")

This one is an obvious drug metaphor–the doctor is a dealer. Duh.  And his "crash" won't be in a car. But when you're a kid just figuring out what metaphors are and how they work, it's pretty profound.

"There's talk on the street, it's there to
Remind you, that it doesn't really matter
which side you're on.
You're walking away and they're talking behind you
They will never forget you 'til somebody new comes along"

("New Kid in Town")

They wrote this one after watching Bruce Springsteen burn up the stage in an L.A. concert in 1976, when he was really just starting to hit it big off the strength, power and ferocity of "Born to Run." In that context, it's obviously about being replaced in the affections of fans by the Next Big Thing, the inevitability of it, and the fleeting nature of fame.

"She gets up and pours herself a strong one,
And stares out at the stars up in the sky.
Another night, it's gonna be a long one.
She draws the shade and hangs her head to cry.
She wonders how it ever got this crazy.
She thinks about a boy she knew in school.
Did she get tired or did she just get lazy?
She's so far gone she feels just like a fool.
My oh my, you sure know how to arrange things.
You set it up so well, so carefully.
Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things?
You're still the same old girl you used to be."

"Lyin' Eyes")

As character sketches go, for my money, that's the equal of most anything Dylan or Springsteen or a whole host of fiction writers I could name could do.

It's no exaggeration to say that Frey's lyrics influenced me as a writer. That whole "appreciation for a well-turned phrase, fraught with double meanings," thing keeps pushing through in my own work even today.

What's more, it was a series of memorable conversations over a number of years with my father (a poet in his own right) about the writing of Glenn Frey and Don Henley that led to my own first feeble attempts at song lyrics.

Which led to poems.

Which led to short stories.

Which led to books.

Which has given me the wide world.

Now, that's a gift.

Lest I seem blind to Glenn Frey's humanity, and the faults that went along with his gifts, let me quote his writing partner Don Henley, who had this to say about his complex friend and collaborator:

"He was the spark plug, the man with the plan. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that wouldn’t quit. He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven."

And he could be a real ass.

Like a lot of people.

I'm willing to look past his foibles, because thanks in part to Glenn Frey (who definitely profited in his own right from the experience), I can still close my eyes and listen to "Peaceful, Easy Feeling," and for one breathless moment, I am transported: once again six years old, screaming down a patch of hot Texas blacktop in a bomber of a green hot-rod. And at the wheel is my father, with whom I share a complicated bond that includes a love for this guy's music.

The car in question looked almost exactly like this one.
And the highway in question looked a lot like this one.

So I don't care how "commercial" or "soft" or "cliched" some of the critics find his music. I don't give a damn that the Cohen Brothers made a joke at the band's expense in their classic film "The Big Lebowski."

(Frey apparently HATED that whole bit, giving actor Jeff Bridges grief about it every time the two crossed paths for years afterward.)

I couldn't care less how much money the guy made doing something he loved, chasing a dream that beckoned him as only dreams can. He and his writing partner and their bandmates have given me a gift that I open over and over again, at will, as often as I can turn on a stereo.

And so, with that said:

Take it Easy, Glenn.

And God Bless.

20 January 2016

Nothin' But The Best

As part of my tireless effort to make the world a better place I am once again listing all the best short mysteries of the year, thereby saving all the other award judges from a lot of tedious reading.  (Well, they could add these to their assigned list. I wouldn't mind.)

I recommend that all those judges take the time they save and do something good for society.  I would help, but I have to start reading next year's stories.

This is the seventh time I have made an annual list.  By coincidence, there were 14 stories on last year's list, and the same number this time.

The big winner this year was Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, with four stories.  Tied with two each are Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, Thuglit, and the Jewish Noir anthology.

Nine stories are by men; five by women.  (That's one more female winner than last year.)  Four are historical, four are funny, two are parody/pastiches.

Okay.  Drum roll, please...

Camilleri, Andrea.  "Neck and Neck,"  in The Strand Magazine," October 2015-January 2016.

Montalbano,  Camilleri's series character, is appointed Chief Inspector in a village in Sicily, and discovers that a Mafia family feud is well under well.  A member of the Cuffaros is snuffed out with an old-fashioned shotgun, and then one of the Sinagras dies the same way.

But then something highly irregular happens.  Two members of the same family are killed in a row.  How unseemly!  And Montalbano spots a way into the maze of silence...

Faherty, Terence.  "The Man With The Twisted Lip," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2015.

My former co-blogger Terence Faherty is making his third appearance on my annual best of list.  Only three other  authors have scored that many times.

Faherty claims to have discovered Dr. John Watson's notebooks, containing the rough drafts of Sherlock Holmes adventures, before they were "cleaned up for publication."  This is the fourth in his series.

Both versions begin with a woman calling at the home of Watson and his wife, desperate because her husband has disappeared.  In Doyle's version the man is a drug addict and has vanished into an opium den.  In Faherty's tale the same man is a serial philanderer and is apparently staying in a hotel of bad repute. 

"My husband returns!" Rita exclaimed.
"Not a moment too soon," Holmes said.
"You don't understand.  He's insanely jealous.  And violent.  If he finds me in here--"
Holmes sprang up.  "Watson, I bow to your experience.  Under the bed?"

Gould, Heywood.  "Everything is Bashert," in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.
I have a story in this book.  Heywood Gould's tale is about Franny and Larson, two petty lowlifes who like to spend their days at Aquaduct. And it is at that race track one day that they run into a hasidic gentleman they call the rabbi (he isn't).  The rabbi has a Bible-based system for betting on the horses, a sure thing of course, and yet somehow he is short of money.  Go figure.  Our heroes lend him some cash and, well, a wild ride commences that involves among other things, breaking into a morgue, and ends with a sort of spiritual enlightment.  A treat from start to finish.

Hockey, Matthew J.  "Canary,"  in Thuglit, 18, 2015.

Booster is a fireman with a chemistry degree, which earns him the dubious privilege of being the first into a meth lab gone deadly.  He's the one who enters in full HAZMAT gear and has to determine if all the idiots inside were killed by the poisonous brew they created or whether there might be survivors. And this time he finds  a bag stuffed with four hundred grand.  Obviously he ought to leave it where it lies, but who will know if he doesn't?  And so he takes one step off the straight-and-narrow...

Kareska, Lane.  "Big Hard Squall,"  in Thuglit, issue 17, 2015.

Abby has been brutally attacked and locked in the trunk of her car, which is now headed for parts unknown.  We stay in Abby's head as she runs through her life and concludes that there is no one who would want to do this to her.  Therefore the target must be her daughter Margaret, a prosecuting attorney.  Either someone wants to punish Margaret or else put a squeeze on her, and Abby is the pawn in jeopardy.  But when the trunk lid opens Abby and us - are in for surprises.

Lewis, Evan.  "The Continental Opposite,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.

What chutzpah.  Lewis has revived Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op.

This story takes place in the fifties, decades after the Op's last appearance.  The main character is a young detective named Peter Collins (he notes bitterly that his father deliberately gave him a name that is gangland slang for "nobody").  Peter works for the Portland, Oregon branch of a national detective agency and when he accuses his boss of corruption the company sends in a retired op who used to work for the San Francisco branch ("sometime in the forties Continental had put him out to pasture, and he'd spent the years since killing a vegetable garden, sneering at golf courses, and not catching fish.").  This guy strongly resembles Hammett's hero, much older and, if possible, more cynical. A brilliant story.

Liss, David.  "Jewish Easter,"  in Jewish Noir, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, PM Press, 2015.

Al's family moved from Long Island to Jacksonville, Florida, when he was in third grade, because of his stepfather's import business.  Now he is thirteen and has begun to figure out exactly what is being imported.

But that's not his immediate problem.  There are a couple of anti-Semetic rednecks in his class and when they hear about Passover (which the sensitive teacher helpfully describes as "Jewish Easter,") they decide to invite themselves forcefully to the seder.  Let all who are hungry come and eat, right?

What I loved about the story is not the suspense but the surprising choices the characters make (especially the grandmother).  It kept me guessing right up to the last paragraph.

Maron, Margaret.  "We On The Train!"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 2015.  

Greg McInnis is a DEA agent who prefers to travel by train.  On a trip up the east coast he is amused by a young African-American woman who is gleefully phoning everyone she knows to tell them that she is going to visit New York with an older man she says is her Uncle Leon.

Sounds innocent enough, but this is a crime story, so something else must be going on here.  Will our hero figure it out in time?  He only has four pages...

Newman, Kim.  "Red Jacks Wild,"  in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 17, 2015.

John Carmody is a psychologist in New York in 1951.  He also happens to be Jack the Ripper.

Wait a minute, you say.  He'd have to be a hundred years old.

Well, he is.  But he looks the same age he did in the 1880s when he started making human sacrifices to the evil goddess Hecate.  Which he still does, every three years.

But not prostitutes every time.  He alters his "disposables,"  choosing victims from a  group no one will care about.  Which makes him a weathervane pointing at whoever is on the bottom of the social pile.  This story is all about America's twisted psyche, and I loved it.

Opperman, Meg.  "The Discovery,"  in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Issue 18, 2015.

While studying at a university in her native Venezuela Celeste meets and marries Robert  and moves to Washington, D.C.  Robert is  a classic abusive, controlling, husband.  Celeste's every move is watched, her phone calls monitored.  When her bus home is late she is beaten.

 Reaching into a hand-carved box, I sort through the gold jewelry and select Robert's latest apology.

But what makes this story more than just a tale of domestic misery is that each scene is prefaced with a quotation from Christopher Columbus's letters or logbooks, describing his encounters with the natives of the new world.  It is no accident that Celeste and Robert get married on Columbus Day.

Palumbo, Dennis.  "A Theory of Murder,"  in And All Our Yesterdays, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2015.

The publisher sent me this book for free.

It's Bern, Switzerland, 1904.  Hector, a clerk in the patent office, is suspected of a series of grisly murders.  Luckily a friend of his, also a patent clerk, is looking into the crimes.  And Albert Einstein is a pretty bright guy...  Wish I'd thought of that.

Ross, Gary Earl.  "Good Neighbors,"  in Buffalo Noir, edited by Ed Park and Brigid Hughes, Akashic Press, 2015.

Lou and Athena have retired after running their Greek restaurant for decades.  Lou's hobby is antiques.  He doesn't collect them, he just wants to buy low and sell high.  But then he discovers that his elderly neighbor Helen has a house full of the things.  And Helen has no relatives, no favorite charities, no one to leave her precious belongings to. So Lou and Athena set out to become really good neighbors and wait for Helen to pass away.

But then the Washingtons  move in on the other side, and it turns out that they are good neighbors too. This story is well-written, beautifully structured, and  one of those rare pieces I reread as soon as I finished it.

Rozan, S.J. "Chin Yong-Yun Meets A Ghost,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March-April 2015.

This is my buddy S.J. Rozan's second story told by the  formidable mother of her series detective Lydia Chin.  When Mrs. Chin  gets a phone call from Gerald Yu she is annoyed  for three reasons.  First, Yu is a gambler and not very bright.  Second, he wants to involve daughter Lydia in his troubles.  And third, he happens to be dead.

"It's about my death, but it's not vengeance I'm after.  Also, it's not really about my death, because I'm not dead."
"Who told you that?  They're lying."

Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. "Christmas Eve at the Exit,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2015.

This is Ms. Rusch's second appearance on my annual best list.

It is Christmas eve and Rachel and her little girl are on the run.  Many pages will pass before we find out from who, and about the shadowy support system that is helping them.

Rachel is terrified, not sure who to trust, and desperately trying to keep up an appearance of normality for her daughter who, heartbreakingly, seems mostly concerned about Santa Claus. This story will appear in holiday-themed anthologies for years to come.

19 January 2016

Merging Magic and Mystery

by Barb Goffman

When I was growing up, I soooo wanted to be Samantha on Bewitched. All she had to do was wiggle her nose, and she could do/be/get/go whatever and wherever she wanted. How absolutely cool.

But Samantha would be make a terrible amateur sleuth because with a wiggle of her nose, she could go back in time to when someone was murdered and watch it happen, thus learning who the murderer is and either catching him immediately or preventing the murder from the start. Talk about a short story, and an unsatisfying one at that (except for the dead guy--he'd probably appreciate the help).
Wiggle that nose, baby!

Readers want their amateur sleuths to actually sleuth--find clues, observe things, figure the puzzle out. If your character has unlimited magical powers like Samantha, there won't be much to the story. But I know from experience that it can be fun to write about magical characters. So how do you  merge magic and mystery and still have a satisfying tale? Your sleuth's powers must be limited so that solving the crime is based on deductive skills, not on magic.

In my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" my main character is a fairy named Annabelle. She's in charge of everything magical that happens in New Jersey. When Santa tells her he's skipping Jersey this year because the state is too dangerous--a murderer is on the loose, killing people who look like magical beings--Annabelle realizes she has to find the murderer to save Christmas. But I couldn't make things too easy for her. What would be the fun in that? So Annabelle's powers are limited. She can "wink," which means she can wiggle her invisible wings (kind of like how Samantha wiggled her nose) and magically appear somewhere else but only in the current time. (This was a helpful skill because it enabled me to move the story along faster without having to worry about Annabelle driving (or flying) from place to place.) Annabelle can also snap her fingers and have items appear. In this case, she snapped up all the police files on the murders, allowing her to quickly get up to speed.

But when it came time to figuring out whodunit? She investigated like any good sleuth. She went to a wake and spoke with friends and family of one of the victims. She talked with the head of her security team about her hunches. (It's always good to have another character to bounce ideas off.) She went to the bookstore where one of the victims worked to chat up his co-workers. Her magical powers made the story more fun, but ultimately she figured out who the murderer was using her powers of deduction, and that made the story satisfying. Combine fun with satisfying and you have a good mystery (at least I hope so). You can decide for yourself. The story is available on my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/A_Year_Without_Santa_.html.

My friend Donna Andrews used this approach when she wrote a short story called "Normal" a few years ago. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ultimately published this tale about a private eye who came from a magical world, but she had no magical powers herself. She fled her world for earth, where she hoped to fit in. But she found herself surrounded by magical beings here too: trolls, vampires, and more. The unfortunate tutor (a wizard) who discovered--and was blamed for--her lack of magical ability came with her to earth, and when he is murdered, Donna's character is determined to figure out whodunit. But does she tap her friends' powers to get the answers? No, that would be too easy. Donna instead allowed her character to figure out whodunit using her powers of deduction and her understanding of human nature. That's what made the story work. And you don't have to take my word for it. You can listen to Donna read the story herself: http://podbay.fm/show/351202656/e/1349099269?autostart=1.

Do you have any favorite stories that mix magic with mystery? Please share. There's always more room on the To-Be-Read pile.

18 January 2016

A Little Ditty About Poisons

When I thought I'd been misspelling “arsenic” in my newest Milt Kovak, I thought I'd write an article on how how bad spellers of the world should untie. But then I found I'd actually been spelling it correctly and thought, well, hell, there goes that thought. (Although if it weren't for spell check I'm sure I'd never have gotten published in the first place.) 
Then I thought about the fact that I'd been spelling “arsenic” at all – in the new Milt there's arsenic found in the peach melba. (Don't ask. Buy the book.) A couple of semesters ago I taught a series of class on writing the mystery and had one class exclusively on poisons. So I've got the research and you're going to have to deal with that. (Info dump, anyone?)

First off, poisons have been around and used about as long as there have been human beings. One fun fact is that Cleopatra reportedly did a little experimentation on poisons before selecting the asp as her way of doing herself in. She did her experiments on her prisoners and slaves. (Fun lady.) She at first tried henbane and belladonna, but, despite their rapid action, they appeared to cause too much pain in her subjects. She ditched the per-curser to strychnine (strychnos nux-vomica) – also rapid action – because it produced convulsions that left facial features distorted at death. (And who doesn't want to be a pretty corpse?) But the asp, her final selection, supposedly produced a serene and prompt death.

Then, of course, there were the Borgias who fine-tuned the act of poisoning, bringing it to the height of its art. In defense came the establishment of the position of food taster in royal households. If nothing happened to him after a short period of time, the royal would go ahead with his meal. Unfortunately, this did little to stop the serious poisoner.

Formal study of poisons began in the early nineteen century, with the isolation of morphine from opium and research into the effects of curare – a vegetable poison used by South American Indians to poison their arrows. Matthew J.B. Orfila, considered the founder of modern toxicology, experimented with and cataloged poisons and their effects. Arsenic, the poisoner's favorite, was tracked down by James Marsh around 1836. But Orfila, using Marsh's test on biological specimens, was an expert witness who helped convict Madame Lefarge. Remember her?

With the increase of industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, new and niftier chemicals became available to the poisoner. Then came synthetic drugs, which only added to the problems of the toxicologist. With the increase of barbiturate use after WWII, the suicide rate increased.

Currently the trend indicates that medicines for internal use are the favorite for both suicide and homicide, while external use goodies – such as cleaning fluids, pesticides, and vegetable alkaloids – run a close second, with gas and fumes running behind.

Unfortunately concentration on antidotes has not been as thorough as one would hope. The old wives tales of using milk (it really only dilutes the poison), and salt water (which can be dangerous as large amounts of sodium chloride can bring on fatal heart attacks), are just that – old wives tales. Basically, get medical attention when poisoning is suspected.

And on that happy note, have a nice day.

17 January 2016

Old-Time Detection: Best Mystery Writers

Old-Time Detection: The Catalyst Club
featuring Arthur Vidro

I’ve been pestering Arthur Vidro to submit an article ever since he was kind enough to send me a copy of Old-Time Detection, which I read with my feet propped up in the waiting area of an old-time tire repair shop. Before me, Dale Andrews not only invited Arthur, but has written about him more than once.

Arthur lives in Claremont which, as Dale has noted, is the pattern for Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville. His address is on… Ellery Street.

Arthur hand-publishes
Old-Time Detection three times a year, a labor of love. As you might surmise, OTD eschews many of our modern means of publishing, but then its focus is not of this century. It harks back to when detectives used deduction and ratiocination rather than rely on electronic surveillance and CSI labs. That word ‘ratiocination’… I learned its definition as a kid reading golden age mysteries. When has anyone read that word in a novel in the past half century?

The following originally appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of Old-Time Detection. [Mr. Vidro’s notes appear in brackets.]

For more information about subscribing, contact Arthur at oldtimedetection(at)netzero(dot)net

— Leigh Lundin

Anthony Boucher's 1951 List of 44
[42 novelists plus 2 short-story writers]
by Anthony Boucher
annotated by Arthur Vidro

    In June 1951, Ellery Queen asked his fellow crime writers:
“Would you care to nominate the ten best living detective-story writers? “For your convenience, why not use the back of this letter, and the stamped, addressed envelope enclosed.”
— Fred Dannay [of the Ellery Queen collaboration]
    Probably the most thorough reply to Fred Dannay's request for a top ten list came from mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher. His response merits being quoted in full. The names he cites, by his merely citing them, give 21st century readers a dazzling roster of worthy authors to read. I don't know how much time Boucher spent in crafting his reply, but clearly he was enjoying himself; this was no mere annoying task for him, but a challenge he tackled with enthusiasm.
    Boucher's reply, from Berkeley, California, was among the earliest received; it was dated June 14, 1951 and typed on the letterhead of the Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, which was edited by Boucher and published by Spivak:
Dear Fred,

    You're a menace!
    You know I take my responsibilities seriously and can't just go jotting ten names down on the back of a letter – and you also know I never can resist such queries… and there goes a large chunk of F&SF's working day. Spivak should sue you.
    My list of ten is not just living writers – it's contemporary practicing professionals, not including those who happen to be alive but are not actively important; order is alphabetical:
Nicholas Blake
John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson
Agatha Christie
Erle Stanley Gardner / A.A. Fair
Michael Innes
Ngaio Marsh
Ellery Queen / Barnaby Ross
Georges Simenon
Josephine Tey
Cornell Woolrich / William Irish / George Hopley
    A major criterion in selection was not only quality, but individuality and distinction.
    [Always the completist, Boucher insisted on including each author's known pseudonyms – in Woolrich's case, more than one pseudonym. He also felt obliged to bestow honor upon top writers who no longer were adding much to their prior accomplishments.]
    Here's a supplementary list of twelve living writers of the first rank who have stopped writing (at least in our field) or made only a few insignificant contributions in recent years:
Eric Ambler
E.C. Bentley
Anthony Berkeley / Francis Iles
Raymond Chandler
Freeman Wills Crofts
Graham Greene
Dashiell Hammett
Ronald A. Knox
Philip MacDonald
A.E.W. Mason
Craig Rice
Dorothy L. Sayers
    These lists are, incidentally, based primarily on the novel – thus excluding such figures as T.S. Stribling, who's written only shorts, or Roy Vickers, whose novels are usually ghastly. [Vickers won much acclaim for his Department of Dead Ends police investigative short stories. Stribling, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel-length fiction, is well worth seeking out for his short stories featuring criminologist Dr. Henry Poggioli – some of which are in print, courtesy of Crippen & Landru Publishers.]
    You might also be interested in the list of also-rans. These are the people who only barely got squeezed off the first list:
Margery Allingham
Charlotte Armstrong
Manning Coles
Edmund Crispin
Elizabeth Daly
Cyril Hare
Matthew Head
H.F. Heard
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
the Lockridges
Helen McCloy
John Ross Macdonald
Margaret Millar
Q. Patrick/Patrick Quentin
Elliot Paul
Evelyn Piper
Mabel Seeley
Rex Stout
Lawrence Treat
Arthur W. Upfield
    [John Ross Macdonald would later become more famous as Ross Macdonald. The Lockridges refers to the husband/wife mystery writing team of Richard and Frances Lockridge.]
    Do keep me posted and Tell Me All about this poll.
    TIMES has decided to give me the whole mystery-review column for a four-month trial period starting July 1. I'll also be covering the science fiction field for the TRIB (as H.H. Holmes) … which is handy because I have to read all that for F&SF's reviewing column anyway.
    [TIMES and TRIB refer to the newspapers The New York Times and probably the New York Herald Tribune. H.H. Holmes was a pseudonym Boucher also used on two of his mystery novels, Nine Times Nine and Rocket to the Morgue.]
    It took me a while (complicated by commuting to Los Angeles for the Hammett trial) to get over the illness with which I so spectacularly left New York; and I'm only gradually getting untangled and back to normal operations. I'll try to write you a proper letter soon – meanwhile please proffer my warmest devotion to Hilda.


    Fred Dannay was married to Hilda Wisenthal from 1947 until her death in 1972. Boucher did not consider this list of authors to be a full-fledged letter, so he promises to provide one soon; he corresponded frequently with Fred Dannay. Dashiell Hammett in 1951 was convicted of contempt of court for which he served five months in jail. Boucher's “Criminals at Large” column in The New York Times would run from 1951 until his death in 1968.

Leigh again with a historical note:
Old-Time Detection: T.S. Stribling
The trial referred to grew out of the McCarthy hearings in which Congress demanded Dashiell Hammett brand friends as communists. The thought police ploy was nasty: If a respondent knew no communists or had the fortitude to not dime out acquaintances with different beliefs, the result was the same: imprisonment for contempt of court.

Punishment of six months in a federal prison wasn’t sufficient: Hammett was blacklisted, his radio program cancelled, his books taken out of print, and his financial resources drained by government fines and legal fees.
Subscribe to Old-Time Detection ($18US per year, slightly higher elsewhere) by writing Arthur at  oldtimedetection(at)netzero(dot)net

16 January 2016

In Support of the Grammar Police

Lately I've found myself wondering about some of the so-called "rules" of writing. On the one hand--maybe it's my engineering background--I like having a structured set of guidelines. (Call this the S&W approach--Strunk & White, not Smith & Wesson.) On the other hand, like all fiction writers, I enjoy breaking some of those rules now and then. Anytime such breakage suits my needs, I happily splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, begin sentences with conjunctions, make up words, and otherwise ignore the firm orders issued by my English teachers in both high school and college.

I also understand that language has evolved, over time. I won't go further into that, here, but you know what I mean: new words and phrases pop up, others fade away, and separate words eventually become hyphenated words and hyphenated words eventually become combined words (example: on line/on-line/online). That kind of thing happens, and will continue to happen.

Just between you and I . . .

I suspect that some rules will always stand--especially most of those governing punctuation, capitalization, spelling, the basics of grammar, and so forth. Others are subjective, like the late great Elmore Leonard's "ten rules of good writing." (Most of the ten are helpful but arguable, and a few are merely witty.) In reality, writers usually apply their own sets of rules regarding style and structure, at least to some degree. Just consider the vast differences in the styles of successful authors. Faulkner's complexity, Hemingway's minimalism, Fitzgerald's flowery descriptions, Christie's two-plots-converging-into-one, Clancy's technical details, Coben's multiple plot-twists, Patterson's ultra-short chapters, Leonard's realistic dialogue, McCarthy's experimentalism, O. Henry's surprise endings, Michener's margin-to-margin wordiness, and so on and so on.

Recently I saw a list--I can't remember where--of the seven grammar errors that editors and publishers hate the most. Among them were things like "for you and I," "good vs. well," "fewer vs. less," etc., and Grammar Mistake #1--the very top of the list--was "its vs. it's." (If you don't believe this one happens a lot, read a few movie reviews at imdb.com. "What a film! Its a hallmark of it's genre.") And one of the bad-grammar rules listed--I believe it ranked third or fourth--involved the mixing of singulars and plurals. Example: "Everybody does their own thing."

The interesting thing about that mismatching of singular (everybody) and plural (their) is that it has been done so often and by so many people, the rule against it is actually in danger of becoming obsolete. Yep, you heard me: so many people get this kind of thing wrong, there's a movement afoot to just say it isn't wrong at all, and make it okay to write or say things like "Everyone take their seats and open their test booklets."

Lowering the bar

Those who propose such an acceptance of incorrect word usage have a point, I suppose. Some of them maintain that clarity is the only really important thing, in writing and in speech, and that the meaning of statements like "Everybody does their own thing" is perfectly clear.

Those who feel uncomfortable, though, when they hear or read that sentence (I'm one of them), say you can't abandon a rule just because it's inconvenient to obey it. And it is, by the way, inconvenient. "Everybody does his own thing" (which is one of the proper ways to rewrite it) doesn't sound bad, but it borders on being politically incorrect: shouldn't it be "his or her" own thing? And if you say it that way you sound a little dumb, which is a rather high price to pay for correctness, political or otherwise. Besides, if you take that approach with my second example, it becomes "Everyone take his or her seat and open his or her test booklet," which sounds not only dumb but ridiculous.

So what's a wordsmith to do?

Since I'm usually an S&W supporter, I try to do it the correct way. In my stories and in my speech, the singulars and plurals match, or at least I attempt to make them match, unless doing so makes it sound idiotic. If it does, I sometimes dodge the problem by writing or talking "around it." In other words, I change it to other words. Instead of "Everyone take their seats," I might say "Everyone find a chair," or just "Sit down." No harm, no foul. The Grammar Police, probably responding to a call involving comma errors, march right by without giving me a second glance.

So, what's your take on all this? How do you feel about the singular/plural issue, and the possibility (probability) of making its misuse acceptable? What about other widely accepted rules of writing? Which ones do you regularly and voluntarily break? Which ones do you hold sacred? And finally, how far do you feel we, as writers, should go to maintain grammatical (and political) correctness?

Meanwhile, I hope everybody has their best writing year ever.

15 January 2016

The Murder of Reporter Don Bolles

For about 14 years, reporter Don Bolles had worked at the Arizona Republic newspaper as an investigative journalist. Those who knew him agree that he was cautious -- often placing a strip of Scotch tape between the hood of his car and the fender, to ensure no one had tampered with the engine compartment. Given that he wrote investigative stories in which he, at one point, even listed 200 mafia members's names, however, he was neither seen as paranoid, nor deemed overly cautious.

Evidently disappointed that few people seemed to care about the corruption he unearthed, he began petitioning his editors for a different assignment around 1975.  By 1976 he was covering the state legislature instead.

But, perhaps his investigative skills just couldn't be resisted.

On June 2, 1976, he typed a note that he left behind in his office. According to that note, he would be meeting an informant, then going to a luncheon meeting, with plans to return  around 1:30 that afternoon.  That evening, he and his wife were planning to see a movie as part of their wedding anniversary.

He never made it to his luncheon, however, nor did he ever return to his office or see that movie with his wife.

Police examining Bolles' car after the blast.
(Parking space is now part of covered parking)
That day, Bolles drove his 1976 Datsun 710 to the Hotel Clarendon (then also known as the Clarendon House, now called the Clarendon Hotel and Spa), located at 401 W. Clarendon Dr. in Phoenix.

After waiting in the lobby for several minutes, Bolles got a call at the front desk.  He reportedly spoke on the phone for only a minute or two, then left the lobby and returned to his car.  While backing his Datsun out of its parking space, he was gravely injured by a remotely detonated bomb hidden beneath the car under his seat area.  The bomb blew his car door open and left him hanging part-way out of the vehicle.  According to some reports, when found, he uttered, "They finally got me.  The Mafia.  Emprise.  Find John."

Though Bolles' left arm and both legs were amputated in the hospital, he died eleven days later.

At his funeral, local citizens turned out en-masse to participate in the procession, as a form of protest against the mafia, which was largely perceived to have perpetrated the killing.

Interior of his car.
Emprise, one of the names reportedly mentioned by Bolles after the blast, was a private company that operated several dog and horse race tracks, and was a major food vendor for sports arenas.  Emprise had been investigated for ties to organized crime in 1972, and six members were later convicted of concealing ownership of a Las Vegas casino.  No specific connection was found, however, between Bolles' death and the Emprise company.

Bolles had not only investigated mafia-related criminal actions around Arizona, he had also written investigative stories about land fraud that led the state legislature to open blind trusts to public scrutiny, a move that was not wholly welcomed by powerful high-rollers in the state.

The question was: Who actually killed him and why?

The then-newly formed organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), sent a group of volunteer investigative reporters from around the nation to dig into the case.  According to the IRE,  Bolles had gone to the Clarendon to meet John Adamson.  Adamson had called Bolles saying he had information that linked Barry Goldwater and at least one other prominent state GOP member to land fraud perpetrated by organized crime.  On June 2nd, on the desk phone at the Clarendon, Adamson told Bolles his informant couldn't make the meeting.

Thus, the "John" reportedly mentioned by Bolles may have been John Adamson.  Bolles may have been concerned for his informant's safety.

Unfortunately for Don Bolles, John Adamson was evidently not an informer, but was instead luring him into a trap.  Later trial testimony revealed that Adamson had purchased two sets of electronics, similar to those found in the bomb, while on vacation in San Diego.  Adamson, early on that fateful June 2nd, asked the parking garage attendant at the Arizona Republic which vehicle belonged to Bolles, and police later found only one set of electronics in his home.

In 1977 Adamson agreed to a plea bargain, accepting a sentence for 2nd Degree Murder for building and planting the bomb that killed Bolles, while accusing Max Dunlap, a Phoenix contractor associated with wealthy rancher and liquor wholesaler Kemper Marley, of ordering the hit.  (The idea here is that Dunlap targeted Bolles in retaliation for negative news stories he had written about Kemper Marley, which kept Kemper Marley from getting a seat on the Arizona Racing Commission.)

Adamson further accused James Robison, a plumber in Chandler, of triggering the explosive device that killed Bolles.

Adamson would eventually serve 20 years in prison.

Dunlap and Robison were both convicted of 1st Degree Murder in 1977, but their convictions were overturned a year later.

When Adamson refused to testify in the retrial of Dunlap and Robison, he was convicted of 1st Degree Murder and sentenced to death.  The Arizona Supreme Court later overturned this verdict.

In a lengthy procedure that evidently concluded in 1993, Robison was recharged and retried, but acquitted -- though he did plead guilty to soliciting an act of criminal violence against Adamson!  (Gee!  Maybe that's why Adamson refused to testify that second time!)

Dunlap was recharged, and retried, in 1990, when Adamson finally agreed to testify again.  Dunlap was found guilty of 1st Degree Murder.  He died in prison in 2009.

Adamson died in the witness protection program in 2002, after serving a 20-year sentence.


Let's see.  We have a reporter who dug up and printed secrets about organized crime and a company involved in dog and horse racing.  But, when it comes time for trial, we have one guy who is "associated" with someone possibly prevented from getting onto the Racing Commission by Bolles's stories.  Plus a plumber who admitted he threatened the witness who said he pulled the trigger.  And a guy who wound up in the witness protection program.

Nope!  No mafia connection with this crime, is there?

See you in two weeks!
— Dixon

14 January 2016

The Chinese Are Coming!

A while back I wrote a column called "A Little Light Corruption"  about how South Dakota looks like Mayberry and acts like Goodfellas.  The body count is still only at seven (thank God), but the money is getting weirder by the minute.
For one thing, 35 Chinese investors are suing the State of South Dakota for $18,550,000, claiming they got ripped off in the EB-5 (green cards for a $500,000 investment) program.

And Joop Bollen (a Dutch foreign national), who somehow was allowed by our own then-Governor Mike Rounds (currently our US Senator) and our current Attorney General Marty Jackley, to privatize EB-5 and turn it over to himself via his own corporation (SDRC, Inc.) is now suing the State for defamation of character.

And our AG, instead of issuing warrants, is asking the court to freeze Joop's assets which are, in one bank account, around a million dollars.
NOTE:  Remember, originally, AG Jackley determined that the only "misappropriated" funds from EB-5 was the $500,000 that Richard Benda supposedly stole before supposedly killing himself in a field.  Apparently things have changed.  Although Marty Jackley is keeping as quiet as a tomb.
Joop Bollen and then-Governor,
current SD Senator, Mike Rounds
SECOND NOTE:  Mr. Bollen has, throughout, been treated with kid gloves.  He's never even been subpoenaed.  But the State of South Dakota has finally sued his corporation, SDRC, Inc... for documents.  Like, before they're shredded. 
THIRD NOTE:  Despite the Chinese investor losses, and Mr. Bollen's interesting bank account, South Dakota is still officially missing $120 million dollars in EB-5 fees and investments.  Where did it go?  Well, the state deficit in the last year of Mike Rounds' governorship was $120 million, so it didn't go there...  
Repeat after me:  "Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing, and life doesn't." Author Neil Gaiman.

Okay, on to GEAR UP!  Because we can't have just one major scandal about disappearing federal grant dollars in our tiny state.

A whole lot of  money (almost $3.5 million in 2011) went to a whole lot of people, except that almost none of it went to what the purpose of the grant was:  to give scholarships and education to Native Americans.  In fact, while 50-75% of all GEAR UP funds were supposed to be spent on scholarships according to the federal grant requirements, South Dakota requested (and apparently got) a waiver to spend NO money on scholarships, but to spend 100 percent of the grant on college preparedness and college readiness. And of course the best way to prepare Native American students for college was to hire endless consultants and directors of various sub-corporations.  (Angela Kennecke investigation)  The result is, $14 million dollars spent (somewhere), and 20 people went to college.   As my blogger friend Cory says, wouldn't it have been cheaper just to give the kids scholarships?  (dakotafreepress.com/2015/12/31/)

Some of you may remember from my last post on this that the Westerhuis' cell phones were cancelled the day after the arson / murder / suicides, and all the records were wiped, including who made a call and left a voice mail about 20 minutes before the fire.  As it turns out, the Westerhuis cell phones were through the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative (MCEC, the hub corporation for GEAR UP money, and for which the deceased Westerhuises worked). And it was MCEC that cancelled the phones and had the records wiped.  No explanation why they would do this before the ashes had even cooled on the ground...

And you may also remember that there was a missing safe, which apparently had legs like a dog and got up and trotted off because it hasn't been found yet.

From the "It can't get any weirder than this" files:

Governor Dugaard and Secretary of Education Melody Schopp
at the Interview
The US Department of Education tells KELOLAND News that in 2014, the South Dakota GEAR UP State grant file was destroyed and none of the documents are available.  (More Angela Kennecke investigation)

When KELO-TV investigative reporter Angela Kennecke asked for an interview with Secretary of Education Melody Schopp about GEAR UP and MCEC, she was told by the governor's office that she could only talk to Schopp with Governor Dugaard present. (see photo to the right)  Still trying to figure out whose hand needed holding...

And the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative had a forensic audit of their books, and presented it to a public meeting of the MCEC board. Said the auditors:  “We did not have access to financial records or other information from any other business or individuals.”  (For example, any of the multiple organizations that the deceased Mr. Westerhuis set up.)  And neither MCEC board members, nor the public, nor the media were allowed to ask any questions or even speak at the public meeting.  (http://dakotafreepress.com/?s=audit)

Just another day in South Dakota, where federal grant money can disappear like magic.

Did I mention that 4 in every 10 dollars in South Dakota revenue come from the federal government? (10 States most dependent on Federal Government)

Repeat after me:  "Life is always going to be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be convincing, and life doesn't." Author Neil Gaiman.

13 January 2016

Seven Killings

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.

"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.

The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.

One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.

12 January 2016

Made to be Broken

Well, it’s January 12th. If you haven’t already broken your New Year’s resolutions you’re running late. So get to it. Start by eating that Snickers bar or cutting back your daily jog from twelve miles to a quick walk to the corner store...to buy that Snickers bar.
A couple of years ago Writer’s Digest put out 5 resolutions for writers (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/5-new-years-resolutions-for-writers ). I’d like to comment on them.

1. Resolve to make time for writing: This would seem pretty obvious. We all have busy lives, but are they really any more busy than when we had to till the ground working from dawn till dusk, before there were dishwashers and washing machines to do our dishes and clothes? Generally speaking we are as busy as we want to be. True, there are things that have to get done like work and dealing with kids or critters, but if one wants to write they will find the time. I hear a lot of people who claim they want to be writers. They have great ideas for the next best-seller or Academy Award-winning screenplay. They want to share them with you, have you write them while they take half the credit...and money. But they never write a word. So, apropos of Resolution five below, are they writers?

2. Resolve to embrace your personal writing style: The WD piece talks about embracing your style of being a pantster or an outliner. But I would look at this differently. When I first saw their resolution I thought they were talking about “writing style,” as in your voice, not how you go about your writing. And I would say, find your own voice. We all borrow from things we’ve read but you have to make it your own. The “worst” part about finding your voice is when some editor or someone else wants to water it down. That’s why I never use grammar checkers. They’re way too didactic, and some editors are too. They often want you to change your style to fit some mold or template that they like, which may be fine. But it’s not you. So you have to resolve to stick to your tone, your voice. Your style.

3. Resolve to self-edit as you write: They’re talking about “revising as you write in order to produce a cleaner manuscript that requires less revision on the back end.” I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not saying one shouldn’t do a little minor editing as you go along, but that often turns into major editing and going over the same ground ad infinitum. The best piece of writing advice I ever got was not to rewrite as you go along. If you do rewrite as you go you’ll just get mired in that quicksand and often never move ahead, or move ahead so slowly that it hardly seems like progress.

4. Resolve to step outside your comfort zone: Here the folks at Writer’s Digest suggest we branch out from whatever genre we mostly work in to other things outside of our comfort zones. For example, if you write fiction, try freelance articles, if you write cozy try hardboiled. Like that. I don’t have a real problem with this one...except to say who has the time to branch out? I have several “branch out” works in progress, but I rarely have time to work on them, much as I want to. And why not just try to break out of your comfort zone within your own genre/sub-genre? Sometimes the best novels are the ones that change the genre and stretch the boundaries of that genre. They also mention reading books you normally wouldn’t read. Fine. I like reading a variety of things anyway. As they say, variety is the spice of life, one just needs the time to enjoy those spices while trying to meet deadlines, earn a living, etc.

5. Resolve to call yourself a writer: Writers write. If you write you’re a writer. You may not be a professional writer, but you are a writer. Go for it. I’ve seen various arguments here and there as to who is and isn’t a “writer”. But why rain on someone’s parade? If they write, if you write, you’re a writer. Just do it. Learn as you go. Trial and error. We’re all at various stages of learning to write and we’re all still learning as we go. I come from a screenwriting background. Making the switch to prose writing had various learning curves, particularly in description and transitions. In screenplays/movies description is sparse at best. A beach is a beach. No glorious crimson sunsets dancing on the edge of a knife (well, you know what I mean...). And transitions are usually cuts from one scene to the next. The audience can figure out what’s happening. In prose writing one needs smoother transitions and more “transcendent” descriptions. In some quarters there’s a certain snobbery as to who’s a writer and who isn’t. But mostly I’d say you’re a writer when you put the words on the page, keep writing despite setbacks of one kind or another, including “endless” rejections. When you persevere and believe in yourself, then you are a writer.

6. And now a resolution of my own: Resolve to watch more shows on the Murder Channel, Discovery ID: like Homicide Hunter (Lt. Joe Kenda), Momsters: When Moms Go Bad (w/ Roseanne Barr), Wives with Knives, Web of Lies, Evil Kin, Vanity Fair Confidential, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones, On the Case with Paula Zahn. In fact, I plan to do nothing but watch murder shows on Discovery ID 24/7 to escape the horrid realities of everyday life.

7. And one more resolution of my own: Resolve not to do much BSP in the coming year: But wait, it’s time to break all those resolutions, so please check out Vortex, my noir-thriller novella (which means it’s short—you can finish it quickly!). And if you’re eligible to vote for the Lefty Awards from Left Coast Crime, I hope you’ll consider it for—here it comes and it’s a mouthful: “Best mystery novel set in the Left Coast Crime Geographic Region (Mountain Time Zone and all time zones westward to Hawaii)”. Vortex definitely fits the bill. Set in L.A., Venice, CA, Hollywood, the Salton Sea and on/at the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz/L.A. Ballots are due by January 15th. And right now the book is still on sale at Amazon/Kindle for a mere 99 cents, which means it’s cheap—it won’t break the bank. Hell, you probably have 99 cents in change in your pants or purse or on the dresser right now that you just don’t know what to do with. I know what you can do with it—Vortex calls.

And Happy New Year to all ye merry SleuthSayers and our Cherished readers.

Hour glass credit: photo credit: Grains via photopin (license)