26 March 2018

An Emotional List

by Stephen Ross

I read recently in a newspaper about a study into the range of emotions human beings can experience. The study turned up 27 of them. And this was a study undertaken by the University of California Berkeley, and not some random list drawn up by two men in a pub over a pint.

Generally, it's been held that there are only about a half dozen core emotions, e.g., anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.

This study expanded on that.

In short, the researchers at Berkeley sat 800 volunteers down in front of video monitors and asked them to report and rank the emotions they felt when watching 30 short (silent) video clips. The clips included all manner of things, including births, deaths, marriages, sex, spiders, scenic wonders, natural disasters, and awkward handshakes (and probably, Donald Trump's hair).

In short again, they found that the responses they got to the clips were multidimensional. No one clip produced one single emotion. In fact, a clip could elicit a variety of "feelings" in the viewer. And each of these feelings constituted an individual and unique emotion.

For example, a clip of a man on tightrope walking between two mountain cliffs brought in the following response from the subjects: Fear 55%, Anxiety 45%, Admiration 9%, Aesthetic appreciation 9%, Amusement 9%, Entrancement 9%.

I don't want to get into an analysis of how they made their findings or drew their conclusions, but I think I can sum it up: Humans are complex creatures; our responses to stimuli are never one dimensional.


My real interest here, and reason for writing, is the LIST they drew up. And here it is:

27 Human Emotions
  • Admiration
  • Adoration
  • Aesthetic Appreciation
  • Amusement
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Awkwardness
  • Boredom
  • Calmness
  • Confusion
  • Craving
  • Disgust
  • Empathetic pain
  • Entrancement
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Interest
  • Joy
  • Nostalgia
  • Romance
  • Sadness
  • Satisfaction
  • Sexual desire
  • Sympathy
  • Triumph
I like this. It's another handy list for the writer's toolbox.

And I like the concept of multidimensional emotional responses to stimuli. It's a good reminder to write characters that have depth and are of more than one emotion. If a character has only one emotion, he's not real, he's a transparent plot device.

The Illustration: This is a photo (close detail) that I took of a painting that hangs in the Auckland Art Gallery. "For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" by Frank Bramley, 1891. It's quite big and quite haunting, when you stand in front of it. I can report Aesthetic Appreciation, Sadness, Empathetic pain, and Calmness.

www.StephenRoss.net

25 March 2018

Down in Montego

by R.T. Lawton

When the cold, snowy winds of winter come blasting across the Front Range, thoughts of Jamaica bring soothing visions of warm, sandy beaches, cool tropical breezes, a refreshing plunge into clear Caribbean waters, and perchance a local rum drink in a tall glass to smooth out a lazy afternoon. And that's the way it's been on the tourist end of the island for many years. But, with the increasing droves of tourists arriving on the island, along came problems, lots of problems.

left side of Montego Bay
As more and more tourists flew into Montego Bay's airport and more cruise ships tied up to their wharf, Montego Bay in the 1980's emerged as the tourism capital of Jamaica. To provide service to this influx of people with money to spend, native islanders moved to the city, seeking jobs and housing. This sudden growth left the city without enough places for these new workers to live. With nowhere else to go, the new labor force gradually moved inland, where in the local lingo, they "captured" land and built on it. Roughly nineteen unplanned communities, without the infrastructure of proper roads, street lights, addresses or other amenities, cropped up above Montego Bay. Existing roads were dirt, buildings were hidden behind zinc fences, and with all the congestion, the local police didn't have the manpower to effectively patrol these unplanned communities. Theft of utilities, such as water and electricity became common practice. Criminals soon found this uncontrolled environment conducive to their illegal activities. Gangs took over and the crime rates soared.

Harbor at Montego Bay
In St. James Parish, where these informal communities sprouted up, the chief criminal organizations went by names such as One Order, in the Flanders area; Killer Bees, in Granville; Piranha, in Bottom Pens; and Tight Pants, in North Gully. (For a fearsome gang to be named Tight Pants, I don't know if that was a fashion statement or if someone had a sick sense of humor.) At that time, the most infamous gang, known as Stone Crusher, ruled in the Norwood community. From 2002 to 2010, the Stone Crusher gang was believed to be responsible for most of the over one hundred murders per year in St. James Parish, of which Montego Bay is the parish capital.

With money and power being the main motivating factors for organized criminals, the major schemes began. The guns for drug trade is alleged to have been thought up by a Jamaican and a Haitian while both were serving time in a Miami jail during 2001. The Jamaican sent drugs to Haiti and in return, the Haitian sent guns to Jamaica. In 2002, part of the first shipment of guns was alleged to be used in an eight-hour gun battle against the police in the Cantebury section of Montego Bay. Three of the alleged gunmen were killed and three policemen were wounded. The police subsequently seized several high-powered rifles and over a thousand rounds of ammunition. Joint operations by the U.S. and Jamaican authorities later resulted in the arrest of several prominent Montego Bay residents involved in the crime and corruption.

With local and international attention being focused on the drug trade, criminals started moving over to the emerging lotto scam. Con artists in Jamaica would dupe Americans into believing they had won the local lottery. All the "winner" had to do was send money to pay the "processing fees." This scheme brought in an estimated thirty million dollars during a six year period. Rival scammers soon got crosswise with each other and turned to corrupt policemen and the local gangs for protection. At this point, the Stone Crushers entered the lucrative protection and extortion rackets. Lotto scammers who didn't pay up were murdered.

Police corruption ran rampant. Two local policemen were alleged to work for the Stone Crusher gang as hitmen. Those people living in the unplanned communities became afraid to complain of crimes against them. They no longer trusted the police. Political leadership was ineffectual. Pastors of local churches began to preach for a return to moral values. A local newspaper, the Gleaner, started its own investigation into the problems. A monthly award of $100,00 was offered by the Police Commissioner to the police unit making the most arrests and gun and drug seizures. The bodies of gang leaders, hitmen and other gang members began to stack up during gun battles with the police. With heat on the lotto scammers coming from both sides of the law, many moved on to armed robberies, which put them in direct conflict with the police.

With this evolving of crime in Jamaica, the current tourist should not be surprised to find armed guards in front of jewelry stores, even in the tourist areas.

So, where does that leave the tourist who wishes a relaxing vacation in Jamaica? Fortunately, the majority of violence has been contained to the unplanned communities in St. James Parish, places where the tourists wouldn't want to go anyway. As for you, you've gotten a safe peek at the underbelly of a Caribbean paradise without personally ending up in the line of fire.

Life's a beach in Ocho Rios
For myself, I prefer the area of Ocho Rios or Negril as places to vacation on this island. They are smaller and more laid back, more friendly.  Sure, there's a Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville in both Ocho Rios and in Montego Bay, but you can walk to the one from the wharf in Och Rios, whereas the one in Montego Bay will cost you a hefty taxi ride. And even then, you had best settle on the amount of the fee in advance, else you may feel like you got robbed without a gun being pulled on you.

Will I go back to Jamaica? You bet. I'll just be careful which parts I choose to visit. I still remember going to Montego Bay with the federal Jamaican narcs in the mid-1980's to run down one of our fugitives. Those guys told stories about crime and violence even back then.

Gotta go. Going through all this has made me thirsty for one of them rum drinks in a tall glass.

Have a good one.

24 March 2018

Murder is SO Italian! The Best shows on MHZ

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

It's true.  Murder is so Italian.  POWER! REVENGE! BETRAYAL!  It goes right back to those steps of the Senate, when Brutus asks his good friend Caesar for a light, and then fills him full of bronze.

So it's not surprising that the Italian tradition of writing about murder is first rate.  I'll bet you've already heard of Donna Leon.  She writes very good stuff set in Venice for the English market.  But do you know who is a superstar in his own country?

My favourite writer:  Andrea Camilleri

Set in Sicily, the Montalbano series is about the best thing out there, on paper or on television.  Inspector Montalbano is a fictional hero in Italy, and a wonderful character on the screen.  His supporting cast is delightful.  This is not grim and gritty fare like Scandi-noir.  (Okay, I crossed out the word 'dismal'.  You caught me.)  Nope - Montalbano is truly fun, clever, witty and brilliant.  And oh, the Sicilian scenery.  And the food!  The television adaptation is now playing on MHz, the European Mystery channel, now available in the US and Canada for the same price as Netflix.  If you are a mystery fan, you're crazy not to subscribe to this.

Other Italian series on MHZ (in Italian with English subtitles)

Nero Wolfe:  Yes, you heard that right.  The story is: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin leave New York to go live in Italy for their own safety in the 1950s.  So...an Italian production where Wolfe and Archie are known as Americans, and believe it or not, it rocks.  You'll be believing Goodwin is the real thing from the books - he's perfect.  Yes, it's different from the North American version.  But gorgeous.  The production values and attention to detail are amazing.

Inspector Manara:  Regarded as a 'poor man's Montalbano' (not my words) Inspector Manara is very attractive, but not quite as charming.  They made him a player, which lessens his appeal in my books.  Still, it fills the gap when you've gone through all seasons of Montalbano.

Don Matteo:  This delightful series is very different from most crime shows.  Imagine Father Brown with a wonderful smile, heart full of gold, and ride-um cowboy physique.  Yes, the star of this show is a handsome former Spaghetti Western cowboy you may recognize from earlier films.  He makes a terrific priest and the cast of quirky characters around him are, to a word, lovable.  The Carabinieri Capitano and Marshall are my personal favourites.  Heaps of fun, and the series is in it's 10th season, so lots to watch.  The perfect show before bed, when you want to go to sleep with a smile.

Inspector Nardone:  Hold your hat for a unique series that takes one back to the late 1940s.  WW11 is still haunting the inhabitants of this northern Italian city.  Nardone is a man with integrity and grit, in a world where the bad guys often win and run things.  This is a more serious show, done with an interesting voice-over by a journalist following the actions of Nardone.  Great period piece.

Murder at BarLume:  Truly an original show with Massimo as the attractive bar owner trying to keep control of four geriatric pensioners who would try anyone's sanity (honestly, you have to see it to believe it.)  Murder, of course, is on the bar menu, and Massimo solves each crime ahead of the Germanic female detective.  Great fun.

Obviously, if you watch this list, you will get a good peek into my personality.  But take it from me: NO one does humour like the Italians.

Says she, flying back to Palermo as soon as possible.

Like humorous Italian stories?  The Derringer and Arthur Ellis award-winning Goddaughter series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn't want to be one.  Too bad she keeps getting dragged back to bail the family out.  Here's the latest loopy caper, which is a finalist for the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak award...
On AMAZON

23 March 2018

Seriously, You Don't Think It's a Masterpiece Too?

By Art Taylor

I'm not sure how many times I've read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but I'm now teaching it for what's probably the fourth or fifth time—this round for my "True Crime" course at George Mason University. I almost didn't add it to this semester's syllabus, assuming that many students may have already read and studied it in other classes, but a quick poll of folks who registered early for the course showed that this wasn't the case; in fact, turns out only four of the 20 students have read it before. Even if more had, I might have included it anyway; In Cold Blood seems such a central, foundational text for this genre. How could you not?

Earlier this week, in our first class session discussing the book, I asked for initial reactions from students encountering it for the first time. One woman raised her hand. "It has a lot of details," she said—which immediately opened up in my mind so many directions for conversation: How did Capote amass all this information? What techniques from novel writing did he bring to this nonfiction work to weave that wonderful tapestry of details? How do all these details form a compelling portrait of the Clutters, of their community, of the killers?

Then the student added, "And a lot of commas too."

It was suddenly clear that her observation about details wasn't meant in a positive way.

When I pressed her about it, she added, "It dragged a little"—her tone saying that, really, for her, it dragged a lot.

There are many directions I could go with from this anecdote—including a discussion of those details and that pacing and why In Cold Blood remains such a masterpiece to my mind reread after reread. But instead I'm going to focus on that "in my mind" and the divide that sometimes opens up between my own enthusiasm for a story or book or film and my students' just as extreme lack of enthusiasm.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow professor mentioned to me that she would never again teach Austen in her classes. Because she didn't care for Austen herself? That was my assumption and my question. But it was the opposite, in fact: This professor loved Austen so much that she couldn't bear to hear her students react negatively to the novels one more time. It was too heartbreaking. Better just to teach something else.

Despite that advice, I've assigned texts to my syllabi that are among my own favorites—and, as predicted by that other professor, I've struggled more than once with students' derision of them or dismissal of them. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest comes to mind, and Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision," and John McPhee's "Search for Marvin Gardens," and Nicholas Roeg's film version of Don't Look Now, and... There are many others—masterpieces all, I firmly believe this—but no matter how much I try to extol the virtues of each of them, endeavor to count out those virtues one by one, many students—too many—prove unmoved.

I don't take offense (well, not too much), but the disjunction here does pose some questions. When you're teaching students to analyze a text, does it matter whether you get them to appreciate it too? Certainly not everyone is going to like the same works of art as everyone else, but shouldn't you try to encourage a broadening of perspectives? ...which may circle back again from analysis to understanding to that question of appreciation. And then, what if there's simply a generational gap in some cases? A week ago today, I turned 50, and these kids... well, their tastes are different, the culture they grew up in is different, their aesthetics are a world away from mine, and....

Each to his own then? Surely that may be part of it, but even there....

As part of various small celebrations of my milestone birthday, my wife Tara and I were supposed to go see Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in the theater Wednesday night—part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the film. It's one of my favorites—one of a handful of films that I remember watching absolutely mesmerized start to finish. (Others would include Raging Bull, Manhattan, Breaking the Waves, and Birdman—a list that might seem more eclectic at first glance than it really is.) Tara and I never made it to Vertigo. A combination of spring snow and sick child put an end to those plans. But I was reminded of one of the last times I've seen it on the big screen (four total, I'll admit) with a woman I was dating at the time. Partway through those beautiful sequences where Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, that girlfriend leaned over and whispered, "This is so boring."

I guess I should've known then the relationship wouldn't last.

And speaking of Tara, I remember when we first started dating and she asked me if I'd read the Harry Potter books. When I told her I hadn't, she said, "Oh, you need to read them." So I told her that I would—as you do in situations when someone recommends books like that. But then she got very serious: "No. I mean it. You need to read them." Unspoken: Now.

I did, of course, and loved them, which seems fortunate for all of us. I still wonder where our relationship would be if I hadn't read them, hadn't liked them, had failed what was clearly a test of some kind.

The stakes aren't always so high, of course. I loved Birdman—loved, loved, loved it—but when I mentioned that to my writing group, a couple of them looked at me like I was insane. And I couldn't judge them too harshly for that, could I?

....

Several more questions here—this time for the folks reading this post: When have friendships been formed or cemented because of a mutual love for some book or movie? On the flipside, have relationships ever been strained because of serious disagreements on something like this? And how do you handle it when your enthusiasm for a story or a book or a film is met by a shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand from someone whose judgement or opinion you really value?

And if you really hate any of the favorites I mentioned above, I promise I'll try really not to think less of you. 😉


22 March 2018

Live From LCC: Three Simple Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Crime Fiction Conference Experience

by Brian Thornton

This one will be on the short side, as I'm in Reno, getting ready for the kick-off of Left Coast Crime 2018 tomorrow. (This is also why it's being posted a little bit late. Sorry Leigh and Rob!).

For those of our readers who have never attended either Left Coast in particular or a mystery fiction conference in general (Bouchercon, Love is Murder, Sleuthfest, Crime Bake, etc.), I have to say, you are missing out.

My first mystery fiction conference was fifteen years ago at the Bouchercon on the other end of this state, in Las Vegas. I had only just gotten serious about my writing (my first book deal was still a couple of years away over the horizon), and I was nervous, not knowing what to expect.

As it turned out, the overwhelming feeling I experienced that first time was the sensation of coming home to a place that I didn't even know was home, in a community more welcoming than most on this planet.

Mystery writers are an eclectic bunch: with their share of habitual introverts, carefree spirits, hard-working professionals, gadflies, humorless grinds, and many hardy souls who embody all of these archetypes to varying degrees at different times.

And they made me feel like part of the party.

I have never not felt that way in any gathering of writers anywhere, since.

So you can imagine how much I'm looking forward to diving into LCC beginning with tomorrow's panels!

While each of these conferences is unique in its own way (And that's particularly true of Left Coast!), they do tend to share any number of similarities. So I thought it might be worthwhile to give the discerning reader (and potential future attendee) a list of tips intended to help you get the most out of your Crime Fiction Conference Experience(tm).

Here they are:

1. Risk.
2. Pace.
3. Wander.

1. Take one risk per day.

With this one I'm not talking about crossing a busy street without looking both ways first. Nope. Always look both ways before crossing the street!

The type of risk I'm talking about is the sort of thing that terrifies so many people: reach out and make some connections. Attend a panel that interests you. If any of the authors on that panel impressed you (as is so often the case!), approach them and talk to them when they're at the signing tables afterward (time at the signing table can crawl by, take my word for it. Or better yet, if we're ever at a conference together, ask me about it in person. Especially if you see me languishing at the signings tables after my panel!).

After all making connections is the whole point of these things. This is literally the main reason everyone who comes to a crime fiction conference does so: to connect with fans, other authors, industry professionals, etc.

2. Pace yourself.

Conferences start early and run all day (and that's not even counting what so often goes on in the event bar at all hours). Don't be obsessed with "getting your money's worth" by making sure you attend something every hour of the scheduled day.

How you "get your money's worth" in this instance is value quality over quantity. So who cares if you pass on that panel about what kind of shoes Sherlock Holmes may have worn, as long as you get the opportunity to indulge your interest in Nero Wolfe's obsession with yellow shirts? Build in breaks, and pace yourself.

And don't be surprised if some of the best memories you'll have of this experience took place in or around the event bar.

3. Let the current carry you.

Maybe you're a planner, someone who finds comfort in relentlessly scheduling your day. Or maybe you're a go-with-the-flow type of person. These events favor people who take the latter view. As an avowed go-with-the-flow type, I have to say that some of the best things that have happened to me at these kinds of conferences came about as a result of allowing myself to be drawn into situations I had not anticipated happening.

Whether it's debating about which Beatles' song is the best, or talking about Scandinavian noir, discussing the nature of evil, or questioning the notion that all irrational actions are borne of a fear of death. Maybe it's listening to an author friend recount how her printer ran out of paper as she was printing off the final draft of her latest book, only to have her car break down on the way to the conference, or it could even be meeting a writer whose work has greatly impacted your life.

The point is that all these things (and infinitely more) are possible at a crime fiction conference.

You can take my word for it, or you can walk up to me at the next conference we're attending together, and ask me how I know.

One's more fun!

See you all in two weeks!

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice

by Michael Bracken

My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”

19 March 2018

Genre-ly Speaking

by Steve Liskow

When I retired from teaching and returned to writing after a hiatus of over twenty years, I found myself turning to crime fiction without a second's thought. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, and most of the other golden age writers, and I grew up on The Hardy Boys, so it made sense to me.

On the other hand, my theater cronies knew me only as an English teacher with three graduate degrees, and they kept asking "why mysteries?" They obviously thought I should be producing something "more serious," which I guess meant "literary."

Many people still look down at mysteries and romance as something you scrape off your shoe, but I don't know why. Keep in mind that the idea of genre or non-genre writing is a fairly new distinction. I'm too lazy to research, but I'd guess that it began either between the two world wars or after World War II. Book stores began sorting the books to guide customers to their preferences. I'm sorry about that because you never know what you'll find if you dig through everything instead of just what you'd ordinarily read. I still remember my ninth-grade teacher chiding a classmate for reading only books about basketball. With a straight face, she urged him to try football or baseball, too. Most of us got her point.

As for the larger issue, I think it was Samuel Johnson who first said that only a blockhead writes for something other than money, which means that you want to produce something that will sell enough to make your effort worthwhile. If it happens to survive beyond the first press run, that's even better. A good story will last, and those are the books that used to show up in school. We teach or taught very few books that didn't sell because if they didn't sell, they didn't survive. The Great Gatsby is a notable exception. Several years after Fitzgerald's death, his publisher found over half the original first press run sitting in a warehouse, some twenty years after the original lukewarm reviews.

Between 1970 and 2003, I taught all levels of tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade English at two high schools and a community college. We updated the curriculum at least three times during that stint, and all these books appeared in classes at one time or another. We generally called them classics then even though some were contemporary. Look how many are really mysteries, sci-fi, romance, or westerns.



A good story is always a good story. So there.

Sherman Alexie:  Reservation Blues                       Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
John Ball:  In the Heat of the Night                         Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights                            Albert Camus: The Stranger
Truman Capote:  In Cold Blood                              Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekhov: The Sea Gull                                Alice Childress: Wedding Band
Kate Chopin:  The Awakening                               Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident
Robert Cormier: After the First Death, The Chocolate War
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Open Boat"
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Euripides: The Bacchae                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, "A Rose for Emily"
Charles Fuller: A soldier's Play, Zooman and the Sign
Edith Hamilton: Mythology                                   Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Castorbridge
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the 7 Gables, "Young Goodman Brown"
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller          Franz Kafka: The Trial, "Metamorphosis"
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining
Jerzy Kosinski: Steps, The Painted Bird, Being There
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird                       Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur
Jerome Laurence & Robert E. Lee: Inherit The Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Babbitt
Carson McCullers; The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible
Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye            George Orwell: 1984, "Politics & English Language"
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country               Mario Puzo: The Godfather
Eric Maria Von Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Jack Schaeffer: Shane                                      Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Antigone
William Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's             Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of       Venice  (During my theater career, I acted in productions of Hamlet, Midsummer, Much Ado,             Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Directed versions of Dream, Much Ado,         Merchant, 12 Night, and ran lights for a production of Macbeth)
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice & Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels              Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-5, Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House
Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men             Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence
August Wilson: Fences                                    Owen Wister: The Virginian
Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son

For good measure, we had the Bible in a history of religions course, too, and that covers pretty much every genre all by itself. People who look down their noses at genre miss the point. I wonder how much enjoyment they really get from reading...if they actually do any of it.

18 March 2018

The Digital Detective, Banking part 3

by Leigh Lundin

bank vault
This continues a series of articles about computer fraud. Originally I practiced a career of systems software design and computer consulting, but I sometimes came upon a more shadowy world, that of computer crime. I seldom sought out fraud but I sometimes stumbled upon it, picking up undetected clues others missed.

This episode doesn’t deal with crime, per se, but it includes a con, minor as it is. The scheme required a little ‘social engineering’ and, though the word might be Yiddish, no one can schmooze like Southerners.

The story came to my attention while consulting for banks, this one deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. My landlord for part of the stay was an eccentric but colorful codger. He talked about a neighbor who leased farm land from him but failed to pay his rent. Outsiders might expect he pulled on a jug of rye whiskey as he talked, but all he did was lean back in his recliner, sip beer, and twirl a never-lit cigarette while a cheerful woman less than half his age clattered in the kitchen. I jotted down his story long before I became a writer, so kindly forgive error and stylistic issues as I strove to capture his dialogue.
corn picker
1950s era corn picker
Damn Ernie. I hounded that man all summer long for the rent. Finally last fall, I hooked up my corn picker and started up the corn rows. Now a corn picker ain’t a quiet machine, and lo and behold, neighbor Ernie come dashin’ out of his farmhouse yellin’ and cursin’ that I’m stealing his corn.

I said to him I couldn’t possibly be stealing corn off my own land, unrented land at that. He steamed and stormed and said the seed and planting labor had been his, and anyway he was just a little late with the rent, three or four months, maybe four or five, weren’t nuthin.

I told him that I was just going to keep picking corn for myself until someone showed up with rent money. He dashed off like banshees themselves chased him. Pretty soon he comes back waving his checkbook.

I said, “Ernie, are you sure there’s money in that account?” Oh yes. He told me twice there was, so I said there’d better be, and he said he wanted the corn I’d picked. I told him to consider the already picked corn interest and collection fees. Fact is, I finished the rest of that row, which he just hated.

So the skinflint S.O.B. hustled off to hitch up his combine and wagon, and I find myself a few bushels better off than I was before. I cleaned up and headed in town to the bank, right past Ernie who’s racing his machinery through the fields.

At the bank, I always get in Molly’s line. She’s a sweet, buxom lass, and I’d been thinking about asking her out.

Anyway, I get up to her teller window and she said the account’s a bit short to cover the check. I asked her exactly how short, and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me that.

So darlin’, I cajoled, is this check completely worthless, or did Ernie at least come close? Looking at her computer, she said he was purty close.

Well, I says to her kind of reflectively, I want to tell my neighbor Ernie how much he needs to cover my check. Like would he have to deposit only $10? No, she said, ten dollars wouldn’t cover it.

Well, says I, would $20 or $30 do? No, she smiled at me, it’s not quite enough.

Hmm, says I, I wonder if $40 or $50 would suffice? Um, she said to me, that first amount ought to cover it.

Thank you, I says, I’ll tell that rascal he needs to put $40 in the bank. By the way, sweet thing, can I have a deposit slip? And you think maybe I can call you up? For, uh, you know, maybe dinner Saturday?

So I walked out of there with a bounce in my step, a deposit slip and her phone number. I was feelin’ purty good. What I did was get in my car and circle around through the bank’s drive-thru. I already had Ernie’s account number on the check, so I just filled out the slip and shot it through the air tube with two $20 bills. Sure enough, the receipt came back showing $1002.39. Good on Molly.

But wait, I say, I almost forgot to cash a check. I send over Ernie’s $1000 check and this time I got back a thousand dollars.

Fair enough. I probably had $40 in shelled corn and a lesson I ain’t gonna rent to Ernie no more.

Ernie got stupid, though, and instead of being grateful I didn’t bounce his worthless ass along with his worthless check and turn both over to the sheriff for collection, he raised holy hell at the bank yelling someone manipulated his account.

I took Molly to the horse show that Saturday. Now I tell you personal like, you want to get a lady in a receptive mood, bein’ around horses will do it. Something about women and horseflesh– just a word to the wise.

Anyway, Molly, she confided the bank said it was apparent someone had taken liberties, but they couldn’t blame the girl who took the deposit and they couldn’t blame the teller that cashed the check. They just gave everybody a stern reminder warning.

Ernie wanted to call the authorities, but the branch manager explained Ernie’d be the one in trouble for writing bad checks. He didn’t mention Molly could have gotten in trouble if they’d figured out her role.

Molly said she knew I’d manipulated her and wanted to know if I’d asked her out from obligation or guilt. I said I didn’t want to sully a relationship thinking I used her. She needed a lot of reassurance about that, and so Friday nights and Saturday nights we just get romantic and I give her plenty of reassuring. Been about a year now. Figure we can go on with this for a long, long time.
And he winked at the cheerful lass in the kitchen doorway.



Commonly in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ‘out’ sounds are pronounced like a Scottish ‘oot’. Thus he really said, “I’d been thinking aboot asking her oot.”

17 March 2018

25 Years in Shorts


by John M. Floyd



No, this isn't a post about Jimmy Buffett. But I'll tell you this: the topics of my SleuthSayers columns come from everywhere--books or stories I've read, movies I've seen, music or news I've heard, other writers I've talked with, etc.--and they're sometimes inspired by the columns written by my fellow bloggers at this site (probably because their ideas are better than mine). I was especially intrigued by some of the recent posts by Michael Bracken, Robert Lopresti, O'Neil De Noux, and others who've been reminiscing about their writing careers, their published works, and the way they'd marketed them. So, piggybacking on that subject, here's a quick look into the past . . .

I've been submitting short stories for publication for almost 25 years--longer than some of my colleagues but not nearly as long as others. Most of my stories have been mysteries, and while my so-called writing career is nothing remarkable, I've been able to reach a few of my goals: several awards, an Edgar nomination, two inclusions in Best American Mystery Stories, an appearance in Akashik Books' "noir" series, and the publication of half a dozen short-story collections.

I've also had some pretty crazy experiences with regard to submissions, sales, dealing with editors, etc,--but more about that in a minute.

Bio-statistics

As for frequency of publication, my hat's off to several of my fellow SleuthSayers for their many, many short stories in AHMM and EQMM. I'm especially impressed with Robert Lopresti's back-to-back stories in the three most recent issues of Hitchcock. I'm not yet up there with my heroes regarding the two Dell magazines: I've so far sold 16 stories to AH and two to EQ. And only once have I had stories in back-to-back issues of AHMM: May and June 1999, with a story in their March 1999 issue as well. I did, however, have stories in four consecutive issues of The Strand Magazine (from June 2016 to Sep 2017)--the Strand's published 16 of my stories--and after the upcoming issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine I will have placed stories in the first three issues of BCMM. I've also been in the past six issues of Flash Bang Mysteries, I've had stories chosen for three consecutive Bouchercon anthologies, I've made Otto Penzler's top-50-mysteries list for the past four years, and between 2013 and 2015 I had five stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Though not primarily a mystery market, Woman's World has been kind to me as well--last week I sold them my 96th story there--and I've appeared in back-to-back issues of WW five different times. This is ancient history, but to those of you who remember the pubications, I had 17 stories and 20 poems in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, 8 stories and 17 poems in Mystery Time, 19 stories at Amazon Shorts, and 7 stories in Reader's Break. Other long-defunct markets that featured my stories include Murderous IntentOrchard Press Mysteries, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker CasebookEnigmaDetective Mystery StoriesHeist MagazineThe Rex Stout Journal, Desert Voices, Ancient PathsCrime & SuspenseAnterior Fiction QuarterlyDogwood Tales, and The Atlantean Press Review. (We won't talk about how many rejections I've received from the above publications, because I honestly don't know the number--but it's a big one. A lot higher than my number of acceptances.)

One last statistic: my collections of short fiction--Rainbow's End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2015), Dreamland (2016), and The Barrens (coming in 2018)--contain a total of 240 different stories. As for novels, I've written four of them, all of which I like and two of which are out with an agent, but all of them, alas, remain unpublished. My heart's really in the short stuff.
Welcome surprises

In the icing-on-the-cake department, my story "Molly's Plan," which first appeared in the Strand, was chosen to be part of The New York Public Library's permanent digital collection, and another of my stories, "The Tenth Floor," was recently included in a 600-page book with 108 different authors from 11 countries, which is up for a Guinnesss World Record for the largest short-story anthology ever published. Several stories of mine have also been published in Braille and on audiotape, taught in high schools and colleges, and translated (last month) in Russia's leading literary journal, although I can't say any of those accomplishments were on my wish list. They were what we at IBM used to call "bluebirds": they just happened to fly in through the open window.

Okay, enough tooting of my own horn. The following is the goofy part of all this:

Weird tales

- Twice I've had stories appear in Woman's World under someone else's byline. Thankfully WW paid me and not the other writer, but it's strange to look at one of your own stories in print and see an unfamiliar name beside it. I never did find out whether the dastardly impostor liked my stories or not. Lesson #1: Once you sell a story and it's out of your hands, anything can happen.

- On three different occasions editors have contacted me asking to buy stories I sent them more than two years earlier. On two of those occasions I happily sold them the stories in question; on the third I had already given up and sold it someplace else. None of those editors ever explained why those submissions were still lingering in their records, and I didn't ask. My wife suspects they just fell behind the piano or the refrigerator and stayed there awhile, as some of our important papers at home tend to do.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories that I didn't write. In both cases I contacted the editors and said I wish this were me but it's not.

- I once published a short fantasy story, "Chain Reaction," in Star Magazine, and proudly appeared alongside accounts of alien kidnappings, Bigfoot sightings, and three-headed chickens. Lesson #2: If you've been paid, don't worry about it.

- I've had at least a dozen stories accepted by magazines that then promptly (before my stories could be published), went out of business.  See Lesson #1.

- Most of my stories seem to be in the 1000- to 4000-word (short story) range, but my three Derringer Awards were in the short-short, long story, and novelette categories. Yes, I know that doesn't make sense.

- I was once told by an editor that the 12-page story I'd submitted "should have ended on page 7."

- I've published poems in better-known markets like EQMMWriter's DigestGrit, The Lyric, Mobius, Capper's, Byline, Writers' JournalFarm & Ranch Living, etc.--BUT I've also published poems in Volcano QuarterlyThe Pipe Smoker's EpheremisBarbaric YawpHard Row to Hoe, Feh!, The Aardvark AdventurerBootsCreative JuicesAppalling Limericks, Tales of the Talisman, Nutrition Health ReviewMythic Delirium, SmileHadrosaur TalesOuter DarknessThe Shantytown AnomalyDecompositionsStarLineFirm NoncommittalACafeBreakThe Church Musician Today, The Pegasus ReviewBlind Man's RainbowKraxSophomore Jinx, And many other wild and crazy places. For the record, 31 of my poems appeared in Rural Heritage, 34 in Rhyme Time, 47 in Tucumcari Literary Review, 33 in Laughter Loaf, and 55 in Nuthouse. (Did I mention that my poetry is more lighthearted than profound? Bet you would've never guessed.) Anyhow, I challenge you to come up with more creative magazine names than some of those above.

- My short fiction has also appeared in publications with strange (and clever) names: Champagne ShiversMouth Full of BulletsShort Attention Span MysteriesAntipodean SF, Ethereal Gazette, Illya's HoneySimulacrumGathering StormMeet CuteScifantasticFireflies in Fruit Jars, Cenotaph, Thou Shalt Not, Dream International QuarterlySniplitsT-ZeroAfter DeathThe Norwegian AmericanLost WorldsFicta FabulaJust a MomentThirteenLines in the Sand, Phoebe, We've Been TrumpedHorror LibraryMatilda Ziegler Magazine for the BlindPebbles, Spring Fantasy, Eureka Literary MagazineSpinetinglerTrust & TreacheryPenny DreadfulSweet Tea and Afternoon TalesWriter's Block MagazineQuakes & StormsReadWriteLearn, Scavenger's Newsletter, NefariousShort Stuff for GrownupsListenThe Taj Mahal Review, Mindprints, Inostrannaya LiteraturaMad Dogs and Moonshine, and Yellow Sticky Notes.

- Years ago I was about to submit a story to AHMM, and at the last minute I asked my wife to read it first. She did, and said she thought I should change the ending. I changed it completely, sent it in, and it sold, Later, editor Linda Landrigan told me she bought it because of the ending. Lesson #3: When your spouse speaks, listen. Especially if she's smarter than you are.

- While most of my short stories are mystery/crime, I've also published 57 westerns, 20 romances, 103 SF/fantasy stories, and 23 "literary"/mainstream stories.

- The second story I sold to AHMM ("Careers") was less than 1000 words; the third story I sold to them ("Hardison Park") was more than 10,000 words.

- I have twice been paid in advance for short stories not yet written. (That doesn't happen often--at least not to me.)

- One of my stories, "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," came within two weeks of being filmed. The cast and crew were on board, the screenplay was polished and ready, locations had been arranged, I was told to invite friends to the set, original music had been written for it (I still have the CD), and suddenly everything stopped and everyone went home. Sad but true. Lesson #4: Don't trust the movie business.

- I once won a $30 gift certificate to Amazon in a contest for 26-word stories whose words had to begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. My story, called "Misson: Ambushable" was Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected you." ZAP. (Hey, what did you expect, in 26 words? Fine literature?)

- I've never published a story written in present tense. I don't mind reading them, but when it comes to my own writing, I guess I prefer the old "once upon a time" approach.

- One of my stories, "A Thousand Words" (Pleiades), has been reprinted seven times; two other stories, "Newton's Law" (Reader's Break) and "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" (Dogwood Tales Magazine), have been reprinted six times each; and at least four of my stories have been reprinted five times each. Lesson #5: Recycle.

- I once sent the same story to two different publications at the same time, then sent another story to two other publications as the same time. As it turned out, one of the two places I'd sent the first story accepted it, and one of the two places I'd sent the second story accepted that one. So all was well; I just sent withdrawal letters to the two markets that hadn't yet responded. BUT it made me think: What if both those first two places had wanted that first story, or if both the second two places had wanted the second one? I would've had to withdraw an already accepted story, which isn't the best way to get on an editor's good side. This is not really a lesson because everyone's mileage will vary, but ever since that time, I've been reluctant to simultaneously submit my work.

- My payment for one of my early story sales was a lifetime subscription to the magazine.

- When my publisher (Joe Lee, of Dogwood Press) and I were having trouble coming up with a title for my fourth collection of short fiction (Joe has usually given those books the same title as one of the included stories), we solved the problem this way: we changed the name of an as-yet-unpublished story to "Deception," included it in the collection, and made that the title of the book as well. Lesson #6: Think outside the book-box.

- One of my stories in the Strand ("Bennigan's Key," 5000 words) featured only one character and had no dialogue.

- My longest published short story ("Denny's Mountain," Amazon Shorts) was 18,000 words. My shortest ("Mum's the Word," Flashshots) was 55 words.

- At our local Kroger store, I once went through the checkout line with three copies of a magazine that contained one of my mystery stories. The checker said, around a wad of chewing gum, "You got three of these." I told her I knew that. "But they're three of the same issue," she said. "I know," I replied. "Actually"--I stood up a little straighter and lifted my chin--"I have a story in this issue." She gave me a long, blank look and said, "That'll be $4.80." Lesson #7: You're probably not as big a deal as you think you are.

- One of my stories, "The Garden Club," was written start-to-finish between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. in a room at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, after I woke up sick and feverish and couldn't get back to sleep. I submitted it as soon as I got home from the trip, and the first editor I sent it to bought it. In the acceptance letter she said it had the best ending she and her staff had read in twenty years.

- A producer who was planning to film one of my stories called me and said he needed a logline for it, for marketing purposes. I said I didn't know what a logline was. He told me to find and read an old copy of TV Guide, and hung up. I found a copy in a back closet, and one of the entries said something like "Little Joe confesses to Hoss and Adam that he's fallen in love with an Indian girl." Understanding dawned, and I came up with what I thought was an effective logline. The producer even liked it. But the movie never got made. See Lesson #4.

- I once sold a story called "Wheels of Fortune" to an Australian magazine that published only on CD-ROM, and was required to read my story aloud and send it to them as a recording. I still have the magazine-on-CD that they later mailed to me, but I have never listened to my story.

- After my first submission to the Strand (the story was "The Proposal," the first one I ever sold them), editor Andrew Gulli phoned me and said he liked the story, but his staff was unfamiliar with the kind of poison I had used. I told him that was because it wasn't real--I made it up. He paused just long enough to really scare me, then said, "Okay." Lesson #8: If something in your story just won't work, invent something that will.

- More than 90% of my published stories were written in third-person POV.

- I appeared in every issue of the magazine Mystery Time from 1994 until its demise in 2002 (17 issues).

- One of my short stories was rejected almost two dozen times. I later heard that a national magazine was looking for Christmas stories, so I changed the setting of my oft-rejected story from summer to winter, included gloves and icicles and Christmas lights and gifts and carols, and sold it for much more than I would've made at any of the previously-attempted markets. Lesson #9: Don't give up.


And that's that. If you would, let me know about some of your own strange experiences, in dealing with editors or writing stories or novels or marketing them. What are some of the most unusual or notable things you've had happen to you, as a writer?

Lesson #10 (to myself): Don't write such a long column, next time . . .






16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck














"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
He didn't need no pony tail.

You do not have to write.

The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.

Eventually.

I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!



Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?


P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

15 March 2018

Babylon, Babylon

by Eve Fisher

Baker Banana.jpg
Baker - 1926
My husband and I have been watching Babylon Berlin on Netflix.   It's a guilty pleasure, not because of the sex, which is actually pretty unappealing.  (NOTE to future producers to broaden your audience:  most women aren't turned on by naked women being taken by big fat slugs in kinky and/or violent ways, i.e., raped or whored. Just a thought.)

No, my real problem is that it's so historically inaccurate. (Yeah, I think that way.)  For example, the video below (SPOILER ALERT - there is some nearly nudity).  My problem isn't with the girls in bananas - that's straight up Josephine Baker - but the people on the dance floor in the video, who are basically freaking line dancing.  I mean, it is a 1920's Berlin nightclub, full of smoke, alcohol, and opium, so there wouldn't be much coordinated syncopation going on, if you know what I mean.



Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough role
The Blue Angel, 1930
Plus, like Cabaret, there's the constant effort to ram home (in more ways than one) how decadent 1920s Berlin was, but using modern Hollywood ideas of what kinky / sexy is.  Take a look at Marlene Dietrich:  that's her breakthrough role, as Lola in The Blue Angel.  That was the hottest, sexiest, kinkiest thing that had ever been seen on film in 1930's Berlin.  Well, let me assure you that, in Babylon Berlin everyone has been made up, eyebrowed up, thinned down, shampooed and conditioned, and generally made into someone entirely different than what was cooking in the Berlin stews of the 1920s.  They did the same thing in Cabaret.  Only in Cabaret, everyone's pretty clean cut - even Sally Bowles.

Liza Minelli doing Dietrich in Cabaret
Actually, you can tell that Cabaret's an American movie because it uses "divine decadence" to promote straight up family values.  Sally Bowles has Daddy issues, will do anything for money and/or love and/or attention, and is sleeping all over the place (I think it's the first movie where the word "syphilis" is used in a joke), even though she's "as fatale as an after-dinner mint".  But after she has an abortion, well, it's pretty obvious that Sally's going to end up on the skids, the streets, and the morgue.  In the same way, the menage-á-trois weekend with Sally, Brian and Max, is there to confirm how futilely, half-assedly decadent the German nobility was.  That's why, when the blue-eyed blond-haired youth starts singing "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", he seems like a refreshing change to the Cabaret Berlin Babylon.  And even after the camera has pulled back and shown the Nazi uniforms and swastikas - I'm not entirely sure that the director grasped that some people might still root for them.  Pauline Kael noticed in her review at the time that "Bob Fosse, the choreographer-director, keeps the period—Berlin, 1931—at a cool distance. We see the decadence as garish and sleazy." (Wikipedia).  In other words, we're observers, safely at a distance, and at a distance, the Nazis can look good:  At least they'll clean the place up.

But back to Babylon Berlin, which does not have THAT problem, but instead suffers from massive PCS, a/k/a Plot Complexity Syndrome:  No one is ever who or what they seem, to the point where you can't help but wonder where they're buying all those disguises, and what phone booth are they using to put them on.  And why no one ever recognizes someone's long-lost whatever by their freaking voice, which wouldn't change, even if everything else has had plastic surgery...  And of course, every twist has another twist that twists back on itself and then corkscrews.  And it would take a silver bullet from the hand of Dracula himself to kill some people off.  Shooting them, pushing them off tall buildings, beating them to a pulp - it just makes them mad.

The problem with PCS, in movies or in novels, is that the excessive plot takes up all space for actual characters.  Yes, we're given heroes and heroines, but they don't have time to actually, think about anything, or have more than four basic emotions, fear, lust, anger, and...  well, maybe just the three.  They're too busy:  there's sex, there's violence, there's the few moments actually at work, there's more sex, there's drugs, and they're always running from or to or after somebody or something.  That's another reason I call Babylon Berlin a guilty pleasure:  there's no there there, except for the plot, and that'll just give you a headache.  Stick with the visuals, kid, it's a lot more fun.


Pasqualino Settebellezze 1975 film poster.jpgThat cannot be said about my favorite of all "babylon" type movies:  Lina Wertmüller's 1975 Seven Beauties.

Seven Beauties is what they call a picaresque movie.  Episodic, and all revolving around our hero Pasqualino Frafuso a/k/a Settebellezze, i.e., "Seven Beauties".  He's called that because he has seven very unattractive, unmarriageable sisters, and his role as the man is to keep them all virtuous until marriage.  Meanwhile, of course, Pasqualino's doing every woman he can get his hands on.  Giancarlo Giannini is brilliant in the role:  Pasqualino is a self-obsessed dandy, a wanna-be Mafioso, and a fool - God, what a fool! - and we can't take our eyes off of him.

Here's the basic plot:  Pasqualino kills a pimp who's whored out his oldest sister.  That lands him in jail; he pleads insanity. That lands him in the insane asylum; he volunteers to fight in WW2. And that lands him in hell. He ends up in a German concentration camp, and how our hero survives that has to be seen to be believed.

How everyone who survives has to be seen to be believed.   (To the right is the clip shown at the Oscars.  While I couldn't find it with subtitles, I'm not sure that it needs it.)

Along the line, Seven Beauties expresses ideas about Italian manhood, womanhood, life, survival, and the long-standing difference... dislike...  sometimes war, between Northern and Southern Europe.  This shows up in everything European, literature, art, habits, war.  The Southern view of Northern Europeans is that they live so much in their minds and their jobs that they've lost all sense of nature, of humanity.  As Pedro, an anarchist in the concentration camp says:  
Pedro: But soon, very soon, a new man, a new man will be born. He’ll have to be civilized, not this beast who’s been endowed with intelligence and obliterated the harmony in the world and brought about total destruction just by disturbing nature's equilibrium. A new man… able to rediscover the harmony that’s within.
Pasqualino: You mean, put things in order?
Pedro: Order? No, no, the orderly ones are the Germans. No, a new man in disorder is our only hope. A new man… in disorder.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans look down on Southern Europeans as a lazy group of hedonists who work only enough to get in a harvest and then spend the rest of their time eating, drinking, and screwing.  They're poor, and it's their own damn fault, they're like rats or sheep or...  Why do you think the Germans enjoyed putting the economic screws to the Greeks so much?  They deserved it.

Look, the real war between the North and the South is, at base, the war between the rich and the poor.  And the poor win because they will do anything to stay alive.  The Commandant of the concentration camp in Seven Beauties says to Pasqualino, "You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you'll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”  

Seven Beauties has all of the decadence, sex, and violence that anyone could want - plus a hell of a lot of humor that pushes the boundaries of everything and everyone.  But it also has a thirst for life - a sheer enjoyment of life - that no other "babylon" movie I've ever seen has.  

Seven Beauties, dedicated to:



The ones who don't enjoy themselves even when they laugh. Oh yeah.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else. Oh yeah.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle. Pow! Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "Follow me to success, but kill me if I fail," so to speak. Oh yeah.
The ones who say, "We Italians are the greatest he-men on earth." Oh yeah.
The ones who vote for the right because they're fed up with strikes. Oh yeah.
The ones who vote blank ballot in order not to get dirty. Oh yeah.
The ones who never get involved with politics.  Oh, yeah.
The ones who....  

Watch the rest of the opening sequence on the right and find out who the others are.

BTW - Lina Wertmüller became the first woman in history nominated for Best Director for Seven Beauties (and it didn't happen again until 1993, with Jane Campion's The Piano) and Giancarlo Gianinni was nominated for Best Actor for playing Pasqualino.
John Avildsen won that year for Rocky.  Lina was robbed.