12 December 2016

Living the Dream: Self-Publishing II


by Steve Liskow

Last time, I discussed the potential slings and arrows of publishing yourself. If you're not used to the publishing jungle, it may have sounded pretty bleak, so now let's look at the positive side. This is what keeps me going.

Whatever you're giving up monetarily (which is impossible to gauge with any accuracy), you gain two things that outweigh almost everything else: Control and Flexibility.

If you self-publish, it really is your book, the one you envisioned and struggled for. If you worked hard and took workshops and got good advice, you have something you can display and sell proudly. You don't have to split with your agent or anyone else, and you can keep track of your own royalties and expenses. I work with Create Space, and their reporting is timely and clear. They also offer a much higher royalty and lower price for author copies than traditional publishers do.

Control and flexibility matter. I've abandoned three novels. I was only about 60 pages into one and was blocking up, which is always a red flag for me. I stepped back and realized that the two major premises contradicted each other and that without both of them the book didn't work. I put it aside. Later, I recycled several of the characters with minor changes and they appeared in The Kids Are All Right, my fourth Zach Barnes novel. That book was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel and appeared about two and a half years after the earlier version got shelved.

If I'd abandoned a book for a traditional publisher, the seas would run red. The worst case is that the publisher would cancel my contract because I failed to deliver a MS on time. The best case is that the cover artist, editors, marketing, and everyone else would have been thrown into limbo and the production would have lost anywhere from one to three years. But with no contract and no deadline, I simply turned to my next project and came back to re-think this one later.

I was nearly 200 pages into a book late in 2014 when I decided the subplots didn't have enough at stake to justify their existence. Two year later, I reworked the premise and have completed a third draft that works much better. But that two years would have ended my career with a traditional publisher. Fortunately, I had other rejected works I could re-visit.

When you're your own boss, you determine the deadlines without several other people depending on you. If you have material ready to go, you don't have to wait for months until that traditional publisher decides to release something else so it "doesn't conflict" with your current release.

You also have control over your covers. My cover artist and I worked together in theater for years, so we know how to talk to each other. He does terrific work, and I like my covers better than many that I see at Barnes and Noble. They're different and they stand out. They also give a hint of what the story is about, unlike the generic urban skyline or girl in distress tropes.

When I finally decided to self-publish, I had six novels with a total of nearly 350 rejections in one form or another. Two of them will never see the light of day because subsequent revision changed them so much--and for the better. But I could tinker with the others, send them to beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, and send them out when everyone agreed they were ready. Once I decided to make the leap, I released four novels in about eleven months, two only slightly revised from the most recent agent rejection. Another was a re-edited version of my one traditional book, and another was heavily revised from an earlier series that didn't sell. Maybe I'll tell you about that some day.

Just to be fair, we should talk about traditional publishing, too. I have many negative perceptions and biases here, based on several years of being ignored, insulted, and generally screwed. I can't imagine any reason I would try to place a novel with a traditional publisher now, and I don't think anyone over the age of forty--maybe younger than that--should bother to fight the gatekeepers.

Publishers seldom give an advance now, and even if they do, it may not be more than four figures. It's apt to be for three books, all of which have to be delivered to them in a form they deem satisfactory. You have no vote. If they don't like a rewrite, or you're a few days late, they can cancel your contract. You may not get a cent, and now your name is out there as someone who doesn't deliver.

Those publishers do little or no promoting now, and may tell you that's your job. You'll get no money or reimbursement for anything you do--business cards, travel, whatever--and you'd be doing the same things if you self-published. They also send out fewer advance reading copies for critics (what few real critics still exist), and buy fewer ads in influential newspapers. If your first book doesn't sell in spite of this lack of publicity, they'll do even less for the next one, and may even cancel your contract.

(Since you do your own promotion, scour the Internet to find the best sites for bookmarks, business cards, and anything else you want to use. I like Vistaprint for my business cards and Gotprint for my bookmarks, but there are many others that may fit your needs better.)

Traditional publishers may tell you to hire an editor at your own expense. Traditional editors have evolved (or devolved) from the Maxwell Perkins template of decades ago into marketing liaisons. They help  the firm decide how to package you and write the cover blurbs. You may or may not have any say in this. You are far less likely to have a vote on your cover, and most traditional covers now fall into one of three or four basic templates.

If you sell enough books to earn through the advance, you may receive royalty payments every three, six, or even twelve months. In the meantime, you have to be writing that second and third book, which will be published an average of eighteen months after you turn them in. Your royalty rate will be somewhere around ten percent of the cover price, and you may or may not be able to order books for your events at a discount. If you can, those books may or may not be credited as "sales" for more royalties. Bookstores get those same books at a sixty percent discount and can return any unsold copies to the publisher (who pays the shipping both ways!) for a full refund. Those returns count against your sales and your value to the company.

The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292,000,000. Your chances of making it big as a writer are better, but only slightly.

I love writing short stories, but because I now spend so much time editing, formatting, and promoting the novels, I've written far fewer of them since I began self-publishing. John Floyd wrote a great discussion of short stories and where to sell them on this blog a few weeks ago and it's worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

My short stories have won a fairly prestigious award (twice), been short-listed for three others, and been named a finalist for the Edgar Award. Agents and editors no longer pay attention to such things, so I'm still self-pubbing. In fact, I'll publish a collection of those stories in spring of 2017. It may not sell many copies, but through Create Space, I have no initial outlay. I can buy the books for roughly a third of my cover price and it costs nothing to convert the book to an eBook, which can earn a royalty of from 35 to 70 percent. I don't even have to order any copies if I don't need them for an event.

Granted, it's not financing the beachfront property in Bermuda, but it beats a poke in the eye with a rusty nail.

Over the last few months, I've discovered that many local libraries only have a few of my novels, so I approach them individually and point out that if they buy the books through Amazon (Create Space is allied with Amazon), they'll have to pay shipping, usually $3.99 per book. I offer to order the books myself and deliver them. If they want several titles, I negotiate a discount. Again, it's not high finance, but it gets my books into libraries where readers can find them and it puts a few more dollars in my pocket.

When libraries like me, they're more apt to hire me to conduct my writing workshops, too, which gives me another chance to sell even more books.

When it's really your book, you can be flexible so everyone wins. That makes all the effort worthwhile.

11 December 2016

The Gift of the Maggid


by Leigh Lundin

Yesterday, Bonnie wrote about plot twists. She should know– B. K. Stevens practices the twist herself– the literary kind– as I’ve been learning in her short story collection, Her Infinite Variety.

She goes on to mention
“… those irritating people who say, ‘Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits.’ I can't stand those people.”
Uh-oh. I’m one of those people. I even, er, violated at least one of her stories that way. Well, I don’t say it out loud, but you know– the mind leaps ahead – What would I do? – and sometimes hits upon the right result. Do other readers see it the same way? If we manage to figure out where the plot’s headed, then we might see a little self-satisfied glimmer reflected and mumble, “Genius!” And if we can’t, then we take pleasure the author fairly fooled us.

Stevens — Her Infinite Variety
The Girl from Iphigenia

Fact: Once upon a time in a small New England town, a middle-aged woman worked in the data entry department for a shoe company. The story surrounding Edna was that her domineering mother had never allowed her to date, but made her devote herself to caring for her parents and an unmarried aunt. Beyond bringing in an income, it’s possible Edna’s pedestrian workday had become an escape into normalcy. Why do I mention this? Let's talk about Her Infinite Variety.

Last week, I touched upon a trio of the author’s series characters included in two of the book’s eleven stories– Iphigenia Woodhouse, her irascible professor mother, and ‘Little Harriet’ Russo, the assistant who becomes their foot detective. I hinted at the complex relationship: “Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor.”

But there’s a fourth character, the ever-patient Detective Barry Glass, inamorato of the divine Miss Iphigenia, known as That Man by her mother with considerable bile and venom. If she hasn’t already done so, I hope Bonnie publishes a collection of her Woodhouse stories so we might learn if Iphigenia and That Man Glass ever manage to slip into something more comfortable, i.e, the hay mow, the woods, or the bedsheets.

Bonnie’s article yesterday and Leah Abrams’ children’s religious studies gave me the idea for today’s offbeat title. A ‘maggid’ was an often wandering Slavic Jewish storyteller and teacher popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Temp

The author gives us a sample of another series character, Leah Abrams. Family is important to Leah, her husband Sam and daughters Sarah and Rachel. You notice the Biblical names and may rightly assume quiet piety is important within their home.

Leah, with a PhD in communications, constantly researches material for scholarly volumes, which might or might not see the light of day. In these cosies, we see a parody of those books in self-help courses.

To study workplace psychology, Leah takes interesting office jobs such as temping for a psychic hotline company and counseling for a fancy rehab center. Wherever she works, she stumbles upon murders. Naturally, her friend, Lieutenant Brock, ably facilitates her in finding the perpetrators.

The Rest

B. K. Stevens provides seven additional stand-alone tales, including a Mary Higgins Clark winner, ‘The Listener’. All the clues are there for the astute reader.

I’ve still a couple of stories to go, but I admire the collection. For a smart Christmas or Chanukah gift, you’d be hard pressed to shop for better than Her Infinite Variety, or indeed any of the books from our SleuthSayers members.

Many of our friends and followers have books on the shelves and the on-line marketplace for the holidays. (Elizabeth, does that include you?) Rather than accidentally omit one of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I invite you to add your titles in the comments.

Happy reading!

10 December 2016

The Twist


by B.K. Stevens

At this time of year, it seems appropriate to focus on a short story that would make almost anybody's list of Christmas favorites, especially since that story offers valuable lessons to mystery writers. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" isn't a mystery, but it does a brilliant job of pulling off something many mysteries strive to achieve. I'm talking, of course, about The Twist. An excellent twist, like an excellent gift, reflects both generosity and good judgment. An expensive gift that doesn't suit the recipient probably won't delight, and a suitable but stingy gift isn't likely to inspire much gratitude. By being generous with the reader but exercising good judgment as a writer, O.Henry gives "The Gift of the Magi" the perfect twist.

It's hard to imagine that anyone reading this post hasn't already read "The Gift of the Magi." But if Scrooge-like middle-school teachers and the perversity of fate have conspired to rob you of that experience, please read the story here before going on. It will take you only a few minutes, and I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy it. If you can't spare those few minutes, please don't go on. For I'm about to spoil a classic ending.

It's fairly easy to surprise readers with a twist that pops up out of nowhere. A bomb explodes without a trace of foreshadowing, or the murderer turns out to be a minor character who makes only two brief appearances in the novel, never saying or doing anything that could arouse rational suspicion. It's much harder to create a surprising twist if we shower readers with all the evidence they need to see the ending coming.

That's exactly what O. Henry does in "The Gift of the Magi." From the opening paragraphs on, it's clear Della and Jim have little money to spare for Christmas gifts. It's also clear they love each other. True, the story emphasizes her love for him, not his for her, but her devotion is so sweet and unreserved we assume, rightly, it can't be a tragically unrequited passion. We also learn, in the first two pages, that Della and Jim each have one treasure. Della has long, magnificent hair, and Jim has a fine gold watch he inherited from his father and grandfather. O. Henry spends a long paragraph explicitly comparing these treasures: Della's hair would put the Queen of Sheba's jewels to shame, and even King Solomon, with all his wealth, would envy Jim's watch.

That's all we need to know. No writer could be more generous with helpful information--and O. Henry is so completely generous that he also doesn't try to distract us with the easy tricks of red herrings or irrelevant details. He is utterly open and fair. If he cheats at all, he cheats with his title. "The Gift of the Magi"--singular, not plural. But the magi gave more than one gift, and there's more than one gift in this story. By using "gift" and not "gifts" in his title, O. Henry may be trying to trick us into thinking Della's gift for Jim is the only one that matters. It's a tiny trick, though, and a clever, subtle one. I think we can forgive him.

At any rate, O. Henry gives us all the evidence we need to figure out his crime-free mystery, and he gives it to us early. Less than halfway through the story, when Della sells her hair so she can buy a chain for Jim's watch, we should be able to conclude, "Well, Della and Jim love each other, neither has much money, and each has one treasure. And it's Christmas. If Della sacrifices her one treasure to give Jim something to enhance his watch, I bet Jim will sacrifice his one treasure to give Della something to enhance her hair. No doubt about it--there are some ironic twists coming."

But I don't think many readers do see the twists coming. (And if they do, chances are they first read the story so long ago that they no longer remember how prescient they were--unlike those irritating people who say, "Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits." I can't stand those people.)

How does O.Henry keep us from predicting his ending? I think we can ascribe his success to his good judgment as a writer. First, he wisely chooses to make "The Gift of the Magi" a short story, not a novel. I don't think the plot would work nearly as well if we couldn't read the story in one sitting. First of all, O. Henry would have to destroy its focus by filling pages with extraneous subplots and details. And if we took a break before reaching the last page, if we put "The Gift of the Magi"" down to go for a walk or drive to work, we'd have time to think things over, and we might figure out what the ending will be. (I've read plenty of mystery novels that would have worked better as short stories, that might well have sneaked their twists past me if I hadn't had time to analyze the evidence while folding laundry or letting my mind wander during a boring meeting.)

But "The Gift of the Magi" is a very short story, and also a very absorbing one--I'd guess few if any readers can put it down before reaching the last page. The action pushes us forward without pause, and the protagonist is so lovable and so troubled that she instantly wins our sympathies and our full attention. That's another example of O. Henry's good judgment. He keeps us so intent on Della's dilemmas and decisions that we don't stop to think about what Jim might be feeling or doing.

O. Henry accomplishes that, partly, by not letting us see Jim until the final pages. Imagine how different the story's effect on us might be if O. Henry had begun with a scene of the couple at breakfast, had let us hear Jim make some gloomy remark about Christmas gifts, or let us see him holding his watch in his hand and gazing at it moodily. Instead, O. Henry begins his story after Jim has gone to work, when Della is alone in the flat, counting and recounting her pitiful hoard of coins. Jim gets mentioned often, but we see him only as the reason for Della's despair, not as an independent character who might be grieving over similarly meager stacks of coins and contemplating desperate measures of his own.

Instead, we focus only on Della, and there's plenty to keep that focus constant and sharp. Della's misery touches us, and so does her admiration for Jim--we're moved by her capacity for affection. (By "we," I mean readers capable of being moved by sweetness and innocence. A Grinch would think Della's being silly. If you are a Grinch offended by any story tainted by sentimentality, you don't like "The Gift of the Magi," and you won't like anything I'm going to say about it. Perhaps you'd rather go read some Sartre.) When Della looks in the mirror, turns pale, and abruptly lets down her hair, we wonder what's going on in her mind. Moments later, when she quickly puts her hair up again and hurries out of the flat, we get a glimmer of what she plans to do. Before we can think it through, we come to the quick little drama of her encounter with the horrible Madame Sofronie, memorably characterized in four well-chosen words--"large, too white, chilly." After only a few lines of dialogue, the hair is gone, and Della leaves clutching her twenty dollars. We may feel torn between conflicting emotions, impressed by Della's ingenuity and courage but appalled by the harshness of her sacrifice.

We have no time to dwell on those emotions, though, because the story rushes on. Now we're caught up in Della's search for the perfect present for Jim. She never pauses to wonder about what Jim might be giving her for Christmas, never takes a moment to gaze into a shop window and sigh over the tortoise shell combs on display. That's consistent with Della's character--she's so selfless that she thinks only about Jim's present, cares only about his happiness. It's also further proof of O. Henry's good judgment. If it ever occurred to Della that Jim might be shopping, too, we might start speculating, and that might spoil the twist. By making Della's quest so single minded, O. Henry keeps our thoughts from drifting off in dangerous directions.

And he never lets the pace slow. Della's two-hour search is described in three short sentences. Then, for one paragraph, we share her joy when she finds the perfect watch chain. But the next paragraph plunges us into new anxieties as Della gets busy with her curling irons and frets about how Jim will respond when he sees her shorn. We ache for her as she hears Jim's steps in the hallway and whispers a quick prayer: "Please, God, make him think I am still pretty."

Jim's reaction, we think, will provide the story's climax, and we wait to see what it will be. The nastiest-minded noir addicts among us may hope Jim will respond with rage, may hope the story will end with a nice little murder-suicide demonstrating the cruel absurdity of human existence. Most of us probably expect Jim to be dismayed and perhaps angry at first but then to embrace his wife, declaring that he now loves her more than ever, that in his eyes she's now more beautiful than ever. This is, after all, a Christmas story.

Few of us, I think, expect any climax beyond Jim's reaction. O. Henry has done such a masterful job of ensnaring us in Della's thoughts and emotions that we don't see any further ahead than she does. When Jim stares at his wife, stunned into speechlessness, we think, as she does, it's because he can't adjust to the change in her appearance. As she pleads with him, it doesn't occur to us that there might be a deeper reason for what O. Henry describes as Jim's "trance." Not until Jim pulls a package from his pocket, not until Della opens it and sees the combs Jim bought for her to wear in her long, beautiful hair, do we realize why he was so paralyzed by surprise. We don't see that twist coming until Della does.

It's a clever twist, an ironic twist, a satisfying twist--and not an utterly devastating one. Della weeps when she first sees the combs, but she recovers quickly. "My hair grows so fast, Jim!" she says, and we share her relief. Soon, Della will be able to wear the combs. What a nice climax.

But it's not the climax. There's one more twist coming--a twist we could have foreseen but probably didn't. When Della assures Jim that her hair will grow back soon, it probably doesn't occur to her to wonder about how Jim paid for the combs. Since we share her perspective so completely, it probably doesn't occur to us, either. And when she remembers the watch chain, we may, like her, think Jim's delight in it will erase any lingering regrets about Della's hair.

Then we get the final twist, and everything makes sense. Of course, we think. Earlier in the story, Della says only "something fine and rare and sterling" would do as a gift for Jim, and anything she offers him must reflect his "quietness and value." Just as someone as selfless and loving as Della would give up her most prized possession to buy a present for her husband, someone as "fine and rare and sterling" as Jim would give up his most prized possession to buy a present for his wife. Della has told us everything we need to know about Jim. We should have seen this twist coming. But we probably didn't, because Della didn't. So the final twist hits us as hard as it hits her, and it's even more devastating than the first one. Della's hair will grow back, but the watch Jim inherited from his father and grandfather is gone forever.

Now O. Henry's good judgment as a writer comes into play again. He didn't begin his story too early by letting us see Jim brooding at breakfast, and he doesn't extend it too long by letting us see Della's reaction to the news that Jim has sold his watch. We've already seen Della weep when Jim gives her the combs. We don't need to see her weep again. So when she gives Jim the watch chain, he demonstrates his "quietness and value" by smiling, telling her he sold his watch, and suggesting they sit down to dinner. That's our final glimpse of Della and Jim. The last twist has fallen into place, and its impact is profound. No need to drag things out by belaboring the irony, or by showing us their dismay and recovery. I think O. Henry ends his narrative at exactly the right moment.

He does, however, add one paragraph of commentary, and I suspect many modern readers will criticize him for that. In this last paragraph, O. Henry is teaching us how to interpret his story. He is making its moral explicit. He is--horrors!--telling and not showing. We sophisticated modern readers know how wrong that is. We know writers must let their stories speak for themselves and leave the work of interpretation to the reader. Writers must never sermonize, must never end their stories with paragraphs such as this one:
The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.
I'll admit it--I'm not sophisticated enough to despise this paragraph. Schmaltzy as it is, I love it. I choke up every time I reread it. I enjoy the quiet humor of the suggestion that the original magi may have given gifts "bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication," enjoy the juxtaposition of different uses of "wise." I'm moved by what the paragraph says about true wisdom, and about how some kinds of foolishness rise to become wisdom of the highest sort. And I appreciate the help this paragraph gives me, for I'm not completely confident I would have seen all the story's implications on my own.

I may be wrong. This paragraph may in fact be merely clumsy and inartistic. (I'd definitely never write a story ending with a similar paragraph. Old fashioned as my own tastes may be, I'm savvy enough to know almost any modern editor would reject a story containing such a paragraph, and almost any modern reader would condemn it.) In any case, this paragraph drives home the point that the best twists are more than clever bits of plotting. The best twists illuminate both character and theme. They express ideas. Informed by the writer's generosity and good judgment, they can transform a story into a delightful, perceptive gift to the reader.

Happy holidays to all!

09 December 2016

Diversity in More Than One Direction


By Art Taylor

This week was the final week of classes at George Mason University—though not the final week of the semester, I should stress, since exams and final projects and lots of grading are still ahead.

This semester marks the first time I've taught a course in "Women of Mystery" and the last couple of classes brought some interesting discussions and left me with plenty to think about myself. The final book we studied was Sue Grafton's A Is For Alibi, a novel I've taught before in the context of hard-boiled detective fiction—how this novel builds out of that tradition and shifts its focus. This time, obviously, we were looking at the history of women crime writers and female detectives, which offered a different context. In one class discussion, for example, we charted the great diversity of female characters represented in the book: from young to old, from working class to upper class, from single women to married women to divorced women and with a mix of mistresses in between, and from the domestically minded to the fiercely independent; as students pointed out, while Kinsey Milhone is always jogging and keeping an eye on her health, we also have a character saying that "Fat is beautiful" and arguing for special rights for the "grossly overweight."

But amidst all the diversity of women's experiences catalogued in the book, there was a key bit of diversity missing: As my students pointed out, nearly all the characters here are white.

Throughout the semester, we've examined all our stories and novels as windows into their respective eras: whether as glimpses into the roles and responsibilities of women in those specific times or as challenges to any prevalent expectations. As Maureen Reddy, author of The Feminist Counter-Tradition in Crime, has pointed out, the debuts of Marcia Muller in 1977 (with Edwin of the Iron Shoes) and of Grafton and Sara Paretsky in 1982 (with A Is For Alibi and Indemnity Only, respectively) coincided with the mainstreaming of the feminist movement—and specifically second-wave feminism. But some of the criticism of second-wave feminism, and part of its distinction from third-wave feminism, arose from attention to diversity beyond gender issues. In Bustle's timeline of the feminist movement, the last item from the section on second-wave feminism is the 1983 publication of Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class—and the editors add this commentary:

In spite of its social success, the second wave broke in the late '70s. The racial division that plagued the first wave remained throughout the second, and expanded from a black/white divide to include divisions along economic lines, between various minorities, and between lesbians and straight women. The internal divisions fractured the larger movement into competing factions, which disillusioned many feminists and society as a whole.

On the heels of our study of A Is For Alibi, and for our final day of class, we all studied this year's Report for Change from Sisters in Crime, a "Publishing Summit Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community"—fascinating reading start to finish and glimpse for my students into the many factors the influence book publication and impact readers: from writers' goals and intentions, to the expectations of agents and editors, and even to the inclinations (or disinclinations) of readers to cross color lines, for example. In the report, Linda Rodriguez talks about the little voice inside her head that said, "Mysteries are written by white people. About white people." An unnamed Latina writer points out that "Romance is white people in love; sci-fi is white people in space; mystery is white people solving crime," but if a genre novel is focused on Latino characters, it's Latino literature first. And with specific attention on reader preferences, Rachel Howzell Hall explained that "black readers have been crossing color lines in their reading all of their lives and being able to put themselves into the fiction worlds. If black readers can do this, why can't white readers do that in reverse?"

I won't try to summarize or sample the whole report here, but would encourage folks to read it themselves (the link above) for some perceptive and occasionally provocative insights into these questions about diversity in the mystery genre—and both for some signs of hope about increasing diversity in the genre and for several lists of writers based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. 

Coincidentally, as I was prepping for class, this article popped up on the New York Times: Tony Tulathimutte's "Why There's No Millennial Novel." Here's a sample paragraph:

Where are the successors to This Side of Paradise, The Sun Also Rises, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Bright Lights, Big City, Generation X and Infinite Jest? Time’s Lev Grossman blames our increasingly “multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives” for why any consensus about a single voice now seems impossible. I’d go even further and argue that the “voice of a generation” novel never existed to begin with. For starters, why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?
While we didn't read this one as a class (again, it wasn't published until just before our class meeting), I did bring in some of the column's observations and arguments to help amplify our discussion and our examination of how much has changed even since the early 1980s—and what those changes mean. 

08 December 2016

Updates and Repercussions: South Dakota Edition


by Eve Fisher

Back in December, 2005, the Zip Feed Tower in Sioux Falls, SD, was demolished to make room for retail and office space.  Things didn't go that well:


It's still a running joke up here, and they show it semi-regularly on TV.  Eventually they took a crane and wrecking ball to it, which worked a treat.

However, last week we had a tragedy in Sioux Falls, when a building came down that wasn't supposed to:  December 2, 2016, the Copper Lounge building collapsed out of the clear blue sky while a lot of people were having coffee across the street.  A Mercedes parked right outside the building was crushed; a woman who lived in an apartment was trapped with her dogs, all were eventually rescued; but a man who was working construction in the building was killed.  (The Copper Lounge Collapse.)

Now, before it got tragic, I admit, my first thought was to blame HGTV, because all anyone can talk about on those shows these days is an "open floor plan".  Obviously, someone took out a supporting wall. And - sadly - I was right. This was an old building - built in 1916 - and "Sioux Falls City Building Services approved a limited permit authorizing Hultgren Construction to remove interior finishes such as furnishings, floor coverings, ceiling tiles, and an existing bar area." But the permit did NOT authorize removing walls, as you can see they did in the photo to the left. (Hultgren Construction removed that photo from their website, but local news, and others, posted it on Facebook sites time and again.)

Then, two days later, a hole in an adjacent (and now exposed) wall opened up (belonging to an entirely different business). Emergency Management had put up shoring to protect the first responders and to keep more walls from collapsing, but "The weight was eventually going to take it [down]... That area was heavily compromised." Basically, a lot of businesses are closed. And at some point, a lot of lawsuits are going to be started.

So, lesson of the day:  if you must have an open floor plan, remember that old buildings, like people, don't care to have large chunks removed, and make sure that you leave important supporting walls where they are.  And get all the necessary permits.

On to more fun things, like elections.  South Dakota stayed Republican, and if this shocks you, remind me tell you that "The Wizard of Oz" is a work of fiction.  Donald Trump got 227,701 votes, Hillary Clinton got 117,442 votes, and Gary Johnson got 20,845 votes, with 69.6% of the electorate voting, which isn't bad.  We also had a slew of ballot measures, of which 4 passed:

(1) Amendment R, which transfers control of tech schools from local school boards to a new... something. It's now up to the SD legislature to decide what kind of supervision/board and how much funding to give them. (Note to tech schools: our SD legislature is notoriously cheap about everything but EB-5 and Gear Up. Don't hold your breath.)

(2) Initiated Measure 21, which caps payday loans at 36%, no exceptions. I am happy to say that Chuck Brennan, a former rock concert promoter and CitiBank collections professional, the mastermind behind the multi-million dollar Dollar Loan Center, is indeed doing what he promised, which is that if Measure 21 passed, he'd pick up his toys and go back home to Vegas. (Hint: He's not as popular in SD as he thinks he is.) He's selling the recently purchased Huset's Speedway (bought it for $1 million, wants to $9.5 million), and we're all waiting to see what he'll do with Badlands Pawn and Badlands Radio.

Image result for kelsey grammer marsy's law south dakota
They pulled out the star power for Mary's Law ads...
(3) Amendment S, "Marsy's Law", "creating constitutionally protected rights for crime victims" although they already had them under the SD constitution. This one passed in a landslide, because there were so many ads (with and without star power) that there were barely any fast food commercials on TV for October and November.  That was because Marsy's Law is bankrolled by California billionaire Henry Nicholas III, whose sister was murdered in 1983. Her killer was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, and he and his family attended all the parole hearings, in which the killer was always denied parole.  But apparently that wasn't enough. Mr. Nicholas wants "Marsy's Law" to be not only law nationally, but to become an Amendment to the United States Constitution - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsy's_Law), and is willing to shell out big bucks to do it. (He passes laws, the Hunt boys tried to buy up all the silver in the world, everywhere you look, billionaires have hobbies.)

Anyway, now we have Marsy's Law, and like the dog catching the car, nobody knows what to do with it. The police already aren't giving out address of crime sites anymore - what if there's a victim there? Supposedly, now, a crime victim does not have to be deposed by a defense lawyer (even though that's in the US Constitution.) And everyone agrees that it costs will go up, as notifications now have to go to victims of ANY kind of crime (not just felonies) and sentences will probably get longer, as notifications have to be sent to every crime victim and their families.  More later.

(4) Initiated Measure 22, on campaign finance reform. This is the really fun one: It requires more disclosures and reporting; lowers contribution amounts to AND from PACs, parties, and candidates at all levels. It also creates a publicly funded campaign finance program for statewide and legislative candidates who choose to participate and agree to limits on campaign contributions and expenditures. (Under the program, two $50 'credits' are issued to each registered voter, who assigns them to participating candidates. The credits are redeemed from the program, which is funded by an annual State general-fund appropriation of $9 per registered voter. The program fund may not exceed $12 million at any time.) And it creates an appointed ethics commission to administer the credit program and to enforce campaign finance and lobbying laws. It also prohibits certain State officials and high-level employees from lobbying until two years after leaving State government. It also limits lobbyists' gifts to certain state officials and staff members.

Image result for family heritage alliance actionIn case you're wondering, IM 22 is being fought tooth and nail by the GOP Legislature. Now I understand totally why no one wants to come up with those $50 per-tax-payer-credits.  (HINT: with no income tax, our only revenue is sales tax, and sales have gone down; WAY down.  We don't have money for much of anything in SD.) But that's not the reason our Legislature is already talking about nullifying the will of the people, either by hook (lawsuit) or crook (repeal).  It's about money, honey, and jobs: So far, 12 legislators and 1 organization are filing a Lawsuit HERE, because the legislators are claiming they would need to quit the Legislature or quit their jobs, or their spouses would need to quit their jobs because of conflict of interest. (Makes you wonder who's doing the hiring, doesn't it?)  And the Family Heritage Alliance group ("protecting and promoting faith, family, and freedom", and they only mean conservative Christian), which lobbies our Legislature with considerable success every year, is suing because... well, obviously, they spend some money to get their views... enabled. And our fearless leader, Gov. Dennis Daugaard has (1) said that he'll support repeal if the measure isn't struck down in court and (2) NO MATTER WHAT, he will not fund IM 22.

Meanwhile, going back to Marsy's Law, fear not:  after a month of confusion, our Attorney General, Marty Jackley, has just announced that crime victims have to opt-in for their rights under Marsy's Law, and names, addresses, etc., may continue to be given to news media, insurance companies, etc. (In an interesting twist, he said that crime victims have to opt-in the same way perpetrators do...)  And, although Marsy's Law also increases costs (extra hearings, longer jail times, more contacting victims and victims' families), it will be fully funded, one way or another.

Anyway, one good thing that came out of this is that we know who's running for governor in 2018: South Dakota United States Representative Kristi Noem (who looks great on a horse, and whose family makes their living off of crop insurance, both receiving - 18th largest recipient in the state! - and selling it)

Image result for kristi noem on horseback

and our Attorney General, Marty Jackley (who still can't find the Westerhuis safe, but does have good Anderson Cooper hair).

  Image result for marty jackley

They both opened campaign accounts and transferred money in a couple of days before the IM 22 became law (remember, it limits campaign contributions).  So we also know that Noem has $1.6 million and Jackley has $730,000 in their treasure chests.  This should be fun.  This should be epic. Bring popcorn.

Well, that's it for now.  More later, from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 







07 December 2016

Jailbird


by Robert Lopresti

 I should probably start by saying this is not fiction.  It happened last week.

I'm piecing this together from several news stories.  Craig Buckner was due for an appearance at the courthouse in Washington County, Oregon.  He had failed to appear previously on drug and theft charges.

When the cops found him asleep they suspected something and gave him a drug test.  The result was that he was arrested.

Buckner was upset.  Expecting only a short visit he had brought his pet to the courthouse.  His macaw, named Bird, was sitting in a tree outside, waiting for him.

The cops realized the birdy might not survive the chilly Oregon night.  They tried to coax him down, but Bird was not interested in talking to the cops.  He was no stool pigeon.  (Sorry, but it's going to get worse.)

Finally the police let Buckner out to call his friend down.  A deputy took care of Bird until another friend (this one unfeathered) came to spring Bird from the cage.  (They just write themselves, don't they?)

The cops took an unusual mugshot of Buckner with his pal, and that's what made the news.

The way human-interest stories work (especially those that involve non-humans), I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Buckner and Bird get a lot of offers of help.  I hope things work out for them.

And I hope whatever Buckner did in the past his future career does not involve robin people.  Let us not snipe at him but hope this event gooses him to reform.  Perhaps these toucan go on a lark and have only mynah inconveniences...

All right.  I'll stop now.  Before I do something I egret.

06 December 2016

A Day in the Life of Dru Ann Love


by Barb Goffman

Her name says it all. Dru Ann Love. She loves mysteries and their authors, and they love her back.

You'd be hard pressed to find someone in the mystery community who doesn't know Dru. A self-described book nerd, she began blogging about the mysteries she adores in 2008 on her blog Dru's Book Musings. In 2010, Dru attended her first mystery convention, Malice Domestic, where she found what she calls "her community"--mystery readers and writers. A year later she implemented her idea to let mystery authors share their characters directly with her blog readers, uploading A Day In the Life posts in which the fictional characters talk about their days, and her blog really took off.


Since then, Dru has been a finalist for the 2015 Anthony Award for Best Critical or Non-Fiction Work. And last week she was named the 2017 recipient of the Raven Award by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The Raven Award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. Dru will receive the Raven during MWA's Edgar Award ceremony in April.
Dru Ann Love

"I knew a couple of weeks before," Dru said. "It was hard to keep the news to myself. I wanted to shout it to the world."

The mystery world shouted their approval back once the news was announced. And I thought this is the perfect time to let people get a glimpse into Dru's life. (Reporting and writing by Barb Goffman, life lived by Dru Ann Love.)

A Day in the Life of Dru Ann Love

It's four a.m. and I'm wide awake. No alarm necessary. I've always been an early riser, and today's no different. First stop: my computer to check email and Internet. I have several friends who are regularly up at that hour, and it's nice to touch base with them. Barb Goffman, this means you. (Note from Barb: If I'm up at that hour, it's because I woke up hot and will be returning to bed once the sheets cool off.)

Then things happen in a hurry. I turn on the TV news and weather at 4:30, hit the shower, and am out the door at 5:10, on my way to the Daytime Situation. After an hour-long train ride during which I read mysteries (of course) on my Kindle, I arrive at a well-known financial conglomerate and head to my desk in the marketing department. While my author friends are at their computers during the day, writing zigzagging plots and zany characters, I'm working on online surveys, helping to write them, program them, and send them out.

Love my Kindle!
Finally lunch time comes. Some days I'll meet a friend for lunch, but today I'm heading to the Irish pub across the street from my office. I love how quiet it is. I grab a corner table, order my favorite meal of fish and chips--extra crispy, no lettuce, tomatoes, or anything that would make my fish soggy--and I read, read, read.

Alas, lunch time must end. I'm spending this afternoon reviewing survey results to ensure we received enough back as well as  working on a preliminary analysis for clients. I wonder if I could program a survey through which I send out cryptic murder instructions. I'll have to share that thought with my author friends. (Note from Barb: Excellent idea! I feel my muse preparing to visit. ...)

The benefit of starting work early means I get to leave relatively early too. Before you know it, it's a little after five p.m., and I'm back home in Brooklyn. On the agenda for this evening: dinner with a friend, people-watching on the boardwalk, reading (of course), catching up with Facebook friends, and working on my blog, all with the TV on for background noise.
Heather Webber

This weekend I'll begin work on a new quilt and probably start reading another new book. And for sure I'll thank author Heather Webber. She was the one who convinced me to go to Malice Domestic for the first time. I'm such an introvert, it's amazing she succeeded in getting me out of my comfort zone. But boy, I'm glad she did. I wouldn't have found this crew of people, my community, without her.






05 December 2016

Oh No! You Did..n't
























OH NO! YOU DID..N'T
by Jan Grape

Have you ever told a published author what was wrong with their book? Max Allan Collins has told the story of a lady coming up to him at a mystery con and said,"Want me to tell you tell you what's wrong with your book?"

Mr. Collins said, "No." and walked away.

He wasn't being rude. It's just when the book is already published if he made a major mistake, it's just too late. The book is already published. There is just nothing to be done at this point.

I've never said anything like that to an author but I did tell two authors at two different times they had made one small error in their book. I wasn't trying to be a smart-alec but honestly thought they might want to know if they had made an error so that next time they wouldn't make that same error. But this was when I had only published about 12 or 15 short stories and had NOT published a novel. Not sure they appreciated my input.

The first author I said something to was Ed Gorman. I don't remember when it was but I think it was one of his short stories. It was set in the fifties and dealt with a high school girl wearing blue jeans or Levis. He writes about the girl buttoning her jeans in front. I don't know about where you lived in the early to mid-fifties but where I lived in a small town, girls didn't wear front button or zipped jeans. Girls wore jeans that buttoned or zipped on the left side. We called them Girl's Jeans. And Boy's Jeans buttoned and/or zipped in the front. The exception was "loose girls" might wear Boy's Jeans. And everybody knew she was loose. It was just understood that it was easy to get to second or third base with her. I went to school with a girl who wore Boy's Jeans and she had a bad reputation. I'm not sure Mr. Gorman appreciated my insight. He did thank me, but he probably was being polite. The thing is, nice girls in the fifties didn't wear pants very often, even if it was cold.

I don't know whose idea that was. Probably some man because it was many years before women wore pants even way before the fifties. We probably were very lucky to have managed to wear them in those years. When my daughter was in the first or second grade, on a very cold day I sent her to school in a dress and a pair of long pants. The school sent her home, this was in Austin, Texas, in the mid-sixties and told it was against school policy. It was okay if she wore leggings or tights under her dress, but not pants. That was stupid. When it's cold you really need tights and pants when you're little. They changed the dress code after that, I'm sure other mothers complained.

The other author I gave corrective information to was a man who shall remain nameless but he wrote books set in Michigan. He had part of his book set in Texas and he called the highway patrol, THiP. Like they call them in other states, notably in California because of the "CHiPs" television show. In Texas, the highway patrol is named Texas Department of Public Safety. And we do call them DPS for short. This author, did thank me, but in another book he did the same thing so guess he didn't believe me or didn't care.

I know it probably doesn't matter but I have this weird feeling that any little detail that jars a reader out of the fiction or fantasy of the book is just not good. I'm reasonably sure that most of us try very hard to make sure what we write is a true and correct as we can make it.

One thing that bugged my husband no end and he let authors know it every chance he got was when an author uses the word cement as a synonym for concrete. And author after author does it. I guess they feel that it doesn't matter to most people. And to most people it doesn't. But to Elmer Grape who was in commercial construction for thirty years and worked with concrete all those years, it just bothered him. CEMENT is the powder that is mixed with sand, gravel and water to make concrete. The finished product is CONCRETE. Sidewalks, platforms, houses, streets, all are made of concrete.
I actually blame the use of cement as a synonym comes directly from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. They all called their swimming pool the CEMENT POND. That was the beginning and it caught on and became one of those interchangeable words.

This idea grabbed my attention a few days ago when I was reading a book by a famous best selling author. He had a book set in Texas where a girl, maybe around 14-15 years old wearing a strapless sundress to school. I really don't think so. However, maybe I'm behind times now and perhaps it's allowed nowadays.  It only jarred me for a few moments and I went ahead with the intriguing story, but it did stick in my mind.  Anyway, I didn't write and correct him. And I didn't even call the school district to see if I was right.

However, I thought this might be a good time to write this up in my column. It only takes a few minutes to Google something to find out what the proper word is for what you write. Even better if you can talk to a person who is in the profession you are writing about. Find out if you have to or ask them for the proper jargon. It might not seem too important to you but you don't want a reader throwing your book across the room in disgust because you used "Cement" instead of "Concrete."

And maybe even if you really do want to tell an author what's wrong with their book. They might not appreciate it. A little minor correction? Okay, maybe that's not too bad. But don't blame me if someone says to you...Oh, no! You Did..n't.

04 December 2016

Writing the Obvious


by Leigh Lundin

What makes a good writer?
He English good.


We take for granted our favorite authors are good writers. Like a talented musician, an Olympian gymnast, or an Oscar-winning actor, they entertain us on a professional level. We might not always experience a virtuoso performance, but we’re satisfied if we receive our money’s worth.

A few decades ago, I got to know workers in a factory. A supervisor– a portly, prejudiced and petty little man, lucky to have a job at all– complained about managing Portuguese women. Mr Eddy infamously said, “Their English, they don’t speak good.” In office jokes, that morphed into “They don’t English good.” He of the immense girth never understood the giggles behind his back nor grasped the fact the Portuguese senhoras had him well in hand. When the ladies answered the phone, the conversation went like this:
“Is Mr. Eddy ’round?”
“He shore is.”

Of course the man was complaining about the accent while failing technically correct English himself. Both are among the standards by which we judge people’s ability to communicate.

Regarding pastiches, I tend toward a dour viewpoint. Few authors who attempt take-offs of Sherlock Holmes and other great characters reach the high bar in my mind. There are exceptions including Dale Andrews and James Lincoln Warren.

Last month, I read David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lagercrantz’s version was… adequate. I couldn’t lay down Larsson’s novels, but while Lagercrantz’s effort was moderately entertaining, it wasn’t unputdownable.

I thought about what we admire in writing. A dozen or more factors may strike us as fine craftsmanship, and we may at various times accept differing conclusions. We may mix-and-match, perhaps appearing contradictory to others but no doubt consistent without our own mind.

Take for instance our own B.K. Stevens’ collection, Her Infinite Variety. I read the first two stories featuring Iphigenia Woodhouse and her professor mother. You will not find characters like them elsewhere. They’re engaging and Mrs Prof Woodhouse, well… She’s the kind of person you’d affectionately delight in unless she was your own mother. Then you’d frantically Google ‘matricide’. In discussing the characters, Bonnie mentions Nero Wolfe, but it’s more complicated than that: Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor. If it sounds complicated, it’s simply fun.

Following are a few writing criteria that could appeal to us readers.
Technically Correct
In some ways, this is both the most and least obvious, the English teacher criterion. We don’t notice the mechanics until bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation intrudes upon our consciousness. An author has to do is get the basics right, but a writer like Art Taylor is much more than an English professor.
Character
Jan Grape is able to sketch characters without bogging the reader in descriptions. Most of us enjoy character-driven stories and we tend to remember great characters from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lector. Mysteries found in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody / Ramses series aren’t especially noteworthy, but her characters in the larger storied context are wonderful. As Steve Liskow points out, your character is your brand.
Plot
I admire a clever plot. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent strike me as clever, clever plots. The versatile John Floyd has dreamed up hundreds of smart plot lines.
Beautiful, Poetic
Moving, Powerful
Descriptive: Visual, Aural (5+ Senses)
Sometimes the writing is so elegant, we follow it instead of the action. Janice Law, for example, uses word art. A personal opinion poll reveals in no particular order: Baudelaire, Willian Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, William H. Gass, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Tao Lin, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Virginia Woolf.
Clever Wording
Clever Wordplay
While the above are noted for their word-smithing, Chaucer and Voltaire are known for misdirection. Voltaire says one thing but means another. Similarly, Chaucer is equally hard to pin down.
I enjoy wonderful wording on a small scale. Erika Jahneke may be disabled, but her writing dances: “Lotta gimps, lotta problems. Nobody I see all day has a leg to stand on.” “Flirtatiousness is not usually considered an independent-living goal.” “As a human being, his best ratings would come if God graded on the curve.”
I find a few mystery writers particularly rewarding in their descriptions: John Lutz, Sue Grafton, Caroline Graham, Brian Freemantle, F. Paul Wilson, Michael Marshall Smith, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Noah Hawley, Susan Dunlop, Sparkle Hayter, and Anne Perry. Short story specialist Rob Lopresti is another smart, smart word guy.
Descriptively Precise, Accurate
Exact writing is highly valued in technical writing and legal circles, but beyond brain surgery and rocket science, accuracy is critical when baking a cake, sewing a shirt, or building a boat. When it comes to fiction, Michael Crichton comes to mind. Likewise, James Lincoln Warren uses great precision in his historical novels. I also point to our Melissa Yi’s Hope Sze medical series. And then we come to a special case, Brian Thornton. Who else would dare write The Book of Bastards?
Informative
Some authors are known for authentic minutiae, whether historical or relating to some specialized subject such as archeology, glass-blowing, or bell-ringing… or economics like Eve Fisher, spying by David Edgerley Gates, and old Parisian pickpockets by RT Lawton. Our Paul Marks lovingly describes historical Los Angeles and O'Neil De Noux depicts New Orleans much as Jeffrey Deaver paints New York City. The trick is to make the subjects interesting, not bore the reader with useless trivia, but allow an open reader to gather a little knowledge. I’ve written a short story (yes, I know I should submit it sometime) of an actual mystery set in the British Midlands. It’s accurate down to fine details including names, documents, and court testimony.
Funny
Janet Evanovich is known for her humor in her Stephanie Plum series. Likewise our Melodie Campbell writes comedy, combining droll with drama. Barb Goffman writes gentle pieces from absurd situations such as kidnapping a groundhog.
Clever Cultural References
At one time, educated people were well-versed in classical literature. At a minimum, everyone understood the Holy Bible and many had at least a smattering of Greek and Roman mythology. Mention Sisyphus or Cerebus, Scylla or Charybdis, and listeners knew who you were talking about. To be sure, Harry Potter draws upon classic literature and mythology, but these days audiences are more likely to expect pop references.
Clever White Space
You may wonder about this item. This falls in the less-is-more category. While shorter chapters and less dense wording allow text to ‘breathe’, they won’t by themselves mend bad prose. But in this situation, consider Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. In One Virgin Too Many, she has two or three chapters in a row with about the same number of sentences. Why? She uses the technique to portray an intimate seduction scene. Trust me, it works.
Clever Bland
How can bland represent good writing? Most of the previous examples draw attention to the author, especially the beautiful and the cleverly descriptive. The story slows or even stops as the reader ponders the golden words on the page. But a more subtle writer, perhaps self-effacing but certainly disciplined, secrets himself behind the scenes, letting the puppets entertain the audience without making them aware of his (or her) presence. Ideally the story maintains a brisk pace allowing the reader to submerge in the setting among the characters and the plot. Lee Child impresses me as an author who disdains frills; he stands back and lets the action do the talking. That says a lot.

As Julie Andrews or John Coltrane might say, these are a few of my favorite things. What constitutes fine writing in your book?

03 December 2016

Writing What I Knew




by John M. Floyd


How many times have we, as writers, heard that we should "write what we know"? I'm not sure I always agree with that piece of advice--I'd rather it be "write what you feel comfortable writing," or "write the kind of things you like to read." What you know--or at least what I know--isn't always interesting enough to carry a story. Besides, if Asimov, Bradbury, Verne, Heinlein, Serling, etc., had written only what they knew . . . well, you've heard that argument before.

But in the case I'm about to describe, I chose to heed the advice.

Work files

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of the current issue (Oct.-Jan.) of Strand Magazine, which contains one of my stories, called "Jackpot Mode." It's one of those tales that was fun to write, partly because--for a change--I covered a subject that was extremely familiar to me, once upon a time.

A bit of boring background, here. I hired on with IBM right out of college, back when the pharaoh was building the pyramids, and stayed with the company for thirty years. (That time-span included a four-year leave-of-absence to the Air Force.) I worked as both a marketing rep and a systems engineer, and for most of my career I was what was then called a "Finance Industry Specialist," which means I spent a lot of time in banks, from Atlanta to Anchorage, Boston to Burbank, Minneapolis to Manila. My specialty area was the software for IBM teller stations, check-processing systems, and ATMs.

Which brings us to my Strand story. Financial institutions have always been prime fodder for crime writers, and for the past forty years bank robbers seem to have had an unusual fondness for automated teller machines. There must be something especially tempting about the fact that so many thousands of dollars are sitting right there in a box near the sidewalk--never mind the fact that it's encased in half a ton of steel. Even in this day and age, stories of dimwitted, would-be thieves trying to blow up, drill through, or drag away ATMs are regularly featured on the evening news. These attempts, as I'm sure you know, almost always fail. So I figured, why not write a story about a couple of inside guys--a bank programmer and an equipment repairman--who team up and try to do it the right way?

Technicalities

I should mention at this point that not everything I put into this story works exactly the way I said it does--after all, I don't want somebody using information in my fictional frolics to actually steal a small (or large) fortune. But most of it is technically correct. In the olden days ATMs would occasionally suffer electronic or mechanical indigestion and spew cash like oversized slot machines until the error was found and corrected. We had a term for this thankfully rare occurrence: it was called "jackpot mode." (I saw it happen only twice, during routine off-line testing.) It also served as what I thought was a good story title.

Like several of my recent mysteries for the Strand and other magazines, this one ran a little long, around 8000 words. But there was a lot of detail involved as well as a lot of money, and I can never resist putting in multiple plot twists. If you read the story, I hope you'll like it.

Mining your past

Do you often find yourself using personal memories and first-hand knowledge from your jobs, hobbies, etc., to come up with fictional material? If you do, and if these experiences are unmodified, I can only assume your life has been more eventful than mine. I suppose I could write about making ill-fated stock market investments, or watching Netflix movies until four in the morning, or regularly mowing my wife's newly planted flowers that I mistake for weeds--but who'd want to read about that? Instead, my stories usually consist of normal, routine happenings that I then inject with steroids, asking myself "what if" and plugging in exaggerations that (hopefully) make those incidents more interesting and entertaining than they were in the real world.

The person I always think of when this subject comes up is Nevada Barr, an excellent mystery writer who once lived the kind of life her fictional heroine lives now. Nevada was a park ranger for many years, like the main character of her twenty-plus novels, and the author's familiarity and comfort level with the National Park settings and her protagonist's occupation make her books authentic and believable--and even educational. (She once said she wasn't quite as brave and daring as Anna Pigeon is, but Nevada's face is always the one I picture in my mind when I read about Anna's adventures.) Most writers aren't fortunate enough to have that kind of background--and when they don't, they have to make up for it with research and imagination.


Author Marie Anderson once observed, in The Writer, "I used to write what I know. I used to write about infertility, motherhood, suburban middle-class life, blue-collar Catholic childhood, law school from a dropout's perspective. I'd send out those stories and never see them again, not even the SASEs. Then, somewhere, I came across a better rule: know what you write."

That sounds better to me, too.



02 December 2016

Covers, Baby


by O'Neil De Noux

Harlan Ellison once told me a book cover should have one strong image, the writer's name and maybe one thing about the book. He didn't mention awards listed on a cover because if he wore a military uniform with medals for each of his writing awards, he'd look like a general from a banana republic. We mortals with fewer awards can list one, but I don't recommend cluttering a cover with too many things in the days of thumbnails (the computer kind).

Covers can be good or bad, sometimes really bad.

I'll start with the cover of my first book. I raced to my favorite bookstore the day it came out because my publisher hadn't sent my contributor's copies yet (or a proof of the cover). I helped open the first box of books and - oh, no. They misprinted my name. It's De Noux not Denoux. I knew I'd catch hell from my family and did.

"What's the matter with you? You can't spell your own name?" You see we have country cousins who spell their name Denoux and we city slickers in New Orleans spell it with a space. The cover was also sensationally awful. Here it is:



1988 edition                                          2015 edition

When I became an Indie writer, we reissued the entire series. I took photos of New Orleans cemeteries for these NOPD Homicide novels. It's good I was trained as a US Army combat photographer. When I went to the cemeteries, I carried my Glock (I'm still a cop) because New Orleans cemeteries only look peaceful. There have been armed robberies in them. No one bothered me and I got some good cover photos.

The original cover of my third novel, BLUE ORLEANS, was even worse. I'd made a preemptive strike and sent them a photo of NOPD's unique star-and-crescent badge before they put something like an NYPD shield on the cover. Still...


1991 edition                                    2015 edition

Until I became an Indie writer and could control my covers, they remained pitiful. Especially the gobbly-gook on the back covers. On the back cover of my second novel THE BIG KISS, some idiot wrote - THERE'S A RED DRAGON LOOSE AT MARDI GRAS. The book is not about a serial killer, it's a gangster novel about the Mafia and doesn't take place at Mardi Gras. They labeled my fourth novel BAY CITY BLUES. What the hell? The nearest bays to New Orleans are Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and Barataria Bay, down by the Gulf of Mexico, which is about 100 miles from the city.


Super busy 1992 edition                                    2015 edition

Here is the cover of THE LONG COLD (cover art a commissioned oil painting). At least what's written on the back cover is from the book. I think the award finalist notation on the front cover adds clutter to such a busy piece of art but how many times do you get a novel nominated for a SHAMUS?


Judge a book by it's cover? Of course we do. You see a crappy cover online you move along. Clip art looks like clip art, like a child trying to design a cover. There are many sites where you can purchase excellent photos or drawings for as low as $15 for single use on a cover. My last book published by a traditional publisher allowed me to choose the photo from a group of single use images and it came out well. When the rights reverted to me, I used a photo of a model's legs. Since I took the photo, there was no rights issue. Both covers grab attention.


Original Cover                                    2016 cover

I'm no expert but I know what attracts the eye and in these times of thumbnail searches through amazon.com and smashwords.com, I believe a cover should catch the eye.

TIP: If you don't have the ability to design a cover using Adobe InDesign or Photoshop, get your image and go to the nearest community college or university's art department. Seek out a college student majoring in graphic design and hire the student to design your cover. They can add this work to their portfolio and you can cut a bargain with them. I've seen it work.

SECOND TIP: Demand a good cover from your publisher (if you go that route). And PLEASE get a proof of your cover beforehand.

www.oneildenoux.net


01 December 2016

Loaded Magazines


by Leigh Lundin

This is the last in a series about broad-range magazine writing. Thanks to all my colleagues who’ve chimed in these past several days.

Milking a Story

When I was 15, the American Dairy Association sponsored a youth conference, inviting a hundred boys and a hundred girls for a weekend in Indianapolis. The symposium represented a lot of firsts for many kids: first hotel stay, first formal dinner, first formal dance, and first time adults seemed to take us seriously.

It was marketing, of course, but on the side of the angels. It focused on micro- and macro-nutrition, from food on a personal scale to feeding a burgeoning population. The upshot was that the ADA and its partners (Wonder Bakeries, Kraft, Green Giant, etc) sponsored an outreach competition, encouraging participants to propagandize civilization through our teenage charm.

In my case, they knew not what they were unleashing– a mad scientist bent on world domination through robots, alligators, and power-hungry computers. And eventually crime stories, but that would take a while.

That summer, I wrote articles for newspapers desperate to fill vacant space, The Shelbyville News, The Indianapolis Star. Mainly I wrote speeches. Radio WSVL (now WSVX), set literally in the middle of a corn field, gave me broadcast time. I shudder to think how awful those radio chats might have been. But, community presentations became my thing. At small gatherings, I gave talks using props like Albert my alligator or sometimes taking along my robot. Amazing when I think how tolerant adults were back then. Possibly I stunned them into submission.

The feminine participant of our county, Susan DePrez, grew up in a neighboring town and was a year ahead of me in school. We vaguely knew one another. In other words, she was a pretty, sophisticated, teenage older woman and I was the kid dweeb. There’re makings for a movie here, Hollywood.

Documenting everything, I clipped the articles from the newspapers. With luck, they’ll never again surface to embarrass me, but as it turned out, Susan and I won the respective girls’ and boys’ divisions of the competition. Another dinner and a check, followed by glory, fame and fortune.

The Art of the Article

In school, I didn’t get it. How could I be a writer? I had nothing to say. How could I? I lived in a boring time in a boring school in a boring place… It took a while for matters to *click*.

In the meantime, I had desultory articles published here and there: a New England sailing periodical called OffShore specializing in photographs of tall ships, articles for a zoo newsletter, and occasional articles for Datamation and InfoWorld magazines for those of us in computing. This last brought about my first experience with a heavy-handed editor who chopped a manuscript into unrecognizability, completely altering the meaning of the article. Fortunately, editors since have been kind and applied a much lighter touch.

Mr Strangebottom

Occasionally in movies you’ll see some computer guru who peers at multiple screens as he madly types away. In real life, that’s seldom seen these days but 20-25 years ago, multiple monitors were much more common. The alternative for users who wanted more than one terminal session was a physical switch to bounce between screens.

Ta-da! I wrote a package that allowed such super-users to switch via software… no extra hardware required. Unfortunately, salesmen had no clue how to market it, let alone describe it. In response, I wrote a fictional introduction to the manual describing how Mr. Strangebottom and his programming staff might use the product. After an initial “you can’t put humor in a tech manual” objection from the sales people, the fictional introduction achieved a modest cult following. Fame and glory followed.

I wrote similar introductions for our other software products, including a backup-restore package, an email encryption routine Oliver North should have bought, and a couple of others. The writing was possibly passable, but now I realize creativity was bursting in my veins.

First Contact

Two things happened about the same time. I sent a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine way before my writing skills were ready. The editor at the time, Eleanor Sullivan, found minor humor in the cover letter and sent the manuscript back with an encouraging personal note. That was kind of her.

Meanwhile, I proposed an idea for an article to ComputerWorld, the daily newspaper for computing professionals. In fact, I pitched an interview of an unusual fellow who wanted to legally change his name to a number. The editor said, “We don’t do interviews especially of non-notable people.” I pointed out (a) national news outlets were trending with this story and (b) I happened to know this guy, without explaining how vague and tenuous my acquaintanceship was.

The editor grew interested but expressed doubt I could pull off an interview while television and national magazines were vying for his attention. I expressed 90% confidence in landing an interview, about sixteen times my actual estimate given sunny skies and a good wind.

“Okaaaaay, sonny. If you think you can. we’ll take a look at it.” I considered that a sale.

Then I had to convince Mr 1069 (One-Zero to his friends) to sit down with me. As it turned out, he desired recognition by computing professionals, the curators of information numeric. As I would discover, professional acceptance or at least cognizance lent validation and perhaps legitimacy to his quest. Interviews by the networks and major publications like Time Magazine were nice, but ComputerWorld offered something kindred to his digital soul.

Perhaps because I wasn’t a professional interviewer, he felt comfortable as we chatted late into the night, barely pausing for food intake. To my surprise and possibly ComputerWorld’s, they ran my article on page two.

I stumbled upon that long ago interview on-line. Google had indexed it as part of their Google Books project. To my surprise, it reads a little better than I remembered. It’s not prize-winning journalism, but I had persuaded one party to grant an interview and convinced a newspaper to publish it. That has to count for something!

Here now is the outcome of 1069's mission to change his name:


And the saga continues and continues and continues… (Thanks to ABA for these links.)