19 April 2018

And How Was YOUR Spring Break?

by Brian Thornton

Saturday


First day of Spring Break! Drive a couple of hours to a small college town where my wife has booked a couple of days at a spa (birthday weekend for me. Thanks, honey!), and planned a weekend full of writing-related activities. Check-in time is 3 PM, so we head downtown to hit one of the local indie record stores.

I have a lot of music. Most of it is digital these days, but I've got a turntable again, and I've been having a lot of fun building up a vinyl collection. I came of age as cassettes were beginning to eclipse vinyl, followed closely on their heels by compact disks. So I had some vinyl as a teenager. Not much, mostly Elvis and the Eagles, and The Village People's "classic" Go West LP.

I like to think that the vinyl collection I'm building these days is more worthwhile and more eclectic, reflecting my expanded tastes. I'm willing to take chances on new music as long as it promises to be interesting, and with streaming services, I can "try before I buy."

(Yes, I still believe in buying music. I want to get money into the hands of people who make stuff I like so they'll be inclined to continue to make it. Capitalist Brian, that's me.)

Anyway, like I said, this is a college town, so of course both the staff and the clientele at this place are unironically ironic in that "I'm too young to realize that you see right through my false front, and understand more than I can know how HARD I'm trying to look like I'm not trying at all."

The posturing is epic.

They have a lousy selection of jazz LPs and their staff don't know jack about what they do have. That in and of itself is no big deal, and certainly no sin. What's both funny and a little bit sad about the experience is watching one of their sales clerks tie himself into knots trying to explain that they don't have any more by that particular band when I show him a certain album and ask about it.

"Magic City," he says, nodding sagely. I imagine him visibly resisting the urge to touch the vaulting tips of the handlebar mustache which arcs in twin points above the glorious mess of his imam's beard. "GREAT group. Don't think we have anything else by them."

"You dig Magic City?" I say.

This time he actually touches the end of one of his mustaches. "Yeah," he says. "I'm hip to them."

The college-age girl he'd been in converse with when I'd walked up to the register looks from him to me and back to him, admiration writ large across the expanse of her all-too-credulous face. "Niko," she says, her voice filled with wonder. "I had no idea you liked anything but hip-hop."

Is it just my imagination, or does he stand just a bit taller? "Yep," he says. "I'm hip to jazz."

"This one, Sun Ra is really good," I say. "But they have so many great ones!"

The Magic City is an album by a jazz keyboardist and bandleader known as Sun Ra. Not the other way round.

"Have you heard Filles de Kilimanjaro? Man, the guitar on that one is insane!"

"My sister has it," he says. "I've heard it but don't know it all that well. Love the guitar on it, though, yeah."

There are no guitars featured on Filles de Kilimanjaro. And it's by legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, not "Magic City."

"What do you think of their album Mingus?" I say. "Or Pithecanthropus Erectus?"

He touches his mustache again, and glances at the girl, who has lost interest in our conversation. She's leafing through a rack of posters, obviously waiting for him to finish with me. "I like Mingus," he says. "Don't know the other one."

Of course he doesn't.

At some point it just stops being funny
I grin at him, tell him it's a shame they don't have more of Magic City's stuff in stock. He says something about ordering it, but I wave that off, and content myself with picking up several Springsteen albums, a good (and cheap!) copy of Jackson Browne's Running on Empty, an equally cheap copy of Pablo Cruise's Find Your Place in the Sun (this one I'm picking up as a gift for a music teacher friend of mine who's just retired. Can't wait to see the look on his face when I give it to him.), some classical music for my wife, and a Winnie the Pooh album for my son (his first vinyl album!).

I also pick up a not cheap but interesting copy of Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu & Rabbit, a one-off by a couple of refugees from Free (remember "All Right Now" and "Fire and Water"?) a Japanese bassist and the guy who will go on to build a career as the keyboardist for The Who. Kossoff's guitar work on it alone is worth giving it a listen. They really needed an actual singer, though!



Then things got interesting.

We had lunch at an eclectic hamburger place across the street (the "hamburger salad" I ordered tasted funny), then we headed in the direction of the spa. It still wasn't check-in time yet, so we wound up down the road from it, at a local bookstore well known in indie circles.

We no sooner got through the front door than something began to seriously disagree with me. (Hint: it was the salad!).

I spent nearly the entirety of our visit in the bathroom. It wasn't that long, it's just that getting dragged around a multi-storied bookstore by an overstimulated five year-old can wear a body out. Just ask my wife! (To her credit, she'd been fighting a cold, but didn't want to cancel our trip, because it was my birthday, and she knew I'd been looking forward to it. Yet another reason why I love her.). I did manage to find a couple of books that are already serving as research sources for one of my fiction series, so that was some consolation.

I bought them, and then we headed to check in to the spa.

When we got to the place, it didn't look much like its pictures on the site where my wife had booked it. And it took forever to find parking. Then, as we're making the dash between our car and the hotel's front door, dragging rolling suitcases and juggling a couple of bags filled with vinyl and books, all in what had suddenly become a driving windstorm, complete with sheets of rain.

The sack with the books I'd just bought split apart halfway there, dumping its contents on the sidewalk. My wife (God love her!) chased the sales slip out into traffic (that wind again!), while I kept our five year-old from chasing it, and picked up my luckily not-too soaked books.

Once we got into our hotel room, my son began to sneeze. Turned out he'd either caught my wife's cold, or maybe he'd picked it up and given it to her. the details are sketchy. (Somehow I managed to avoid catching it! Thank goodness for small miracles, eh?).

Our hotel room had a wonderful view of a sliver of Puget Sound and a massive expanse of mid-70s vintage apartment building across the street. There was also an amazing shower/bath (you know, spa.), and a bed as hard as a hand-carved beechwood door.

We dropped our stuff and went out to a local pub for dinner. Our son didn't eat a thing he'd ordered. My wife liked her meal, and I had a hamburger so rare it could it have doubled for the Hope Diamond.

At that point I began to wonder about cutting losses. Moreso as we were driving through what was now a deluge to get back to our hotel room. (Still no parking!).

My wife had booked a massage for me, and that lived up to its billing! Great massage! (Thanks again, honey!).

When I got back to the room my wife was crashed out on the bed (at this point I'd say the cold was winning!) and our son was watching TV. It took a while to get him to sleep, but by about midnight, I'd managed it.

As it turned out, there were railroad tracks between this spa and the portion of Puget Sound it fronted on. We put this together after noticing the earplugs left next to the alarm clock in our room. Long after. Around 2 AM, in fact. And then again, around 4 AM.

Sunday

Up at 8. Got ready and went to the hotel restaurant in search of breakfast. We didn't have a reservation. (We didn't know we needed one). Got the high hand. This place clearly catered to the North Face and Brie crowd.

So we made the executive decision to cut our losses at this point, and head for home. (We were scheduled to stay through Monday morning).

Driving back along I-5 it rained so hard I swear I saw Noah working on his ark in a field just north of one of the outlet malls.

Got home, had a quiet dinner, played with our kid, and went to bed early. Our bed was (and continues to be) a slice a heaven.

Monday

Our son woke us at 6:30 having sneezed so hard he had a ball of snot dripping from his nose. I groggily told him to just go to the bathroom and get some toilet paper and blow it. We'd been working on that (he's five, after all).

Turns out he used half a roll or so and tried to flush it. And then tried again. And again. And yet again.

It was about that point when the sound of the toilet tank filling for another plunge brought me fully awake.

Our son had flooded our upstairs bathroom.

It leaked all the way down into our kitchen.

Fun with contractors and insurance claims ensued.

Tuesday

I had lunch with a guy from my critique group. We had a great time.

Then I went to get gas, turned too tight angling in next to the tank, and scraped the car door on one of those posts designed to protect gas pumps from guys like me.

More fun with insurance ensued.

(Luckily, my wife is a very understanding woman! Thanks honey!)

Took my son for two days at Grandma's.

Wednesday

Minor surgery (outpatient). Hurt like crazy once the local wore off.

More fun with insurance following up on both claims while recuperating (mostly on hold).

Thursday

More fun with insurance while trying to not move too quickly (still recuperating).

Picked up my son from two days at Grandma's.

Friday

Worked with my badass ranger brother-in-law on a military espionage PTSD thriller we've been plotting out. Then worked on the anthology I'm editing.

Played with my son (still not moving too fast, though.).

The Weekend

Wife and son both recovered from their colds. These two days were the best parts of my spring break.

At least it ended on a high note.

And once again, thanks honey!

See you in two weeks!

18 April 2018

Five Red Herrings 9

by Robert Lopresti

1. Little gun, big noise.  This weekend saw the announcement of the finalists for the Derringer Awards, presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Once again, it was a good year for the Notorious SleuthSayers Gang.  In the Flash category Travis Richardson was shortlisted for "Final Testimony," which appeared in Flash Fiction Offensive (ed. Hector Duarte, Jr. and Rob Pierce, July 10, 2017) and Elizabeth Zelvin scored for "Flash Point,"  in A Twist of Noir (ed. Christopher Grant, March 20, 2017).

Paul D. Marks is a finalist for the Novelette zone with "Windward, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea  (ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, January 2017)

And I made it into the  Short Story category with  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan"  Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, (ed. Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press, October 2017)

Congrats to all my fellow finalists, SleuthSayers or not!  


2. A Nonfutile, Nonstupid Gesture.  I recently watched the Netflix original movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  Some of you may recognize that title as a line from Animal House.  The movie tells the story of Doug Kenney who (with others) created National Lampoon, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a hilarious little book-length parody called Bored of the Rings.  The flick is narrated by Martin Mull playing an older version of the main character.  ("I'm a narrative device," he explains.)

The reason I bring this flick up is that at one point Mull points out something in the movie that is not true to life and then announces that they are going to provide a list of other inaccuracies.  It rolls up the screen quickly in tiny print but you can go back at the end and read them all.  They range from "Characters A and B met in a party, not in a bar," to: "Everyone was much more racist and sexist."

I loved this.  Whenever I see a movie based on true events I wind up going to the web to see what was real and what wasn't.  (I knew that tube scene in The Darkest Hour  was fake.)  Bravo to the folks who made Gesture, which, by the way, is definitely worth seeing.

3. You call that Justice?  Lowering the Bar is a wonderful blog about the quirks of our legal system.  The most popular piece last year was the true story of a lawyer whose pants literally caught fire while he was summing up the defense of his client, who was accused of arson.  This is the sort of thing that drives fiction writers to despair, because you couldn't put it in fiction.

But I want to tell you about this piece  which has everything for the SleuthSayers audience: a mystery, law, grammar issues, snark, and Sherlock Holmes.  The main topic is this portrait which resides in the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court, but no one knows who it is.  That's the mystery.  The rest comes from the newspaper quoting the Chief Justice urging the public to "put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats " and try to figure out who is pictured.  Kevin Underhill, who runs the blog, is outraged:

So. “Sherlock Holmes” is not a plural noun—unless you’re talking about several men named “Sherlock Holme.” If such men exist, and they have hats, and you collected the hats of more than one such man, then, my friend, you would have in your possession “the Sherlock Holmes’ hats” (that is, the hats of the men named “Sherlock Holme”). “By Socrates’ beard,” you could say then, “I have here all the Sherlock Holmes’ hats!”

4. Comic Sans and Brimstone.  This is a public service announcement. I just want to warn you do not go to the website Clients From Hell.    It is a hilarious time suck.  Anonymous people (mostly graphic designers)  report on horrifying encounters with horrifying customers. Here are some of the main categories (as judged by me).
The vague: "Make it more modern and traditional."
The clueless: "I can't find the ENTER button on my screen."
The Arrogant: "My friends  at NASA says this is a terrible website design."
The Holy: "We won't pay you but you will be working for God."
The Unholy: "Take out the pictures of Black people.  Our customers are White."
The Crooked: "Just copy it off our competitor's website."
The Greedy: "You're a freelancer.  I thought that meant you worked for free."

Stay away from this page, I beg you.  It will consume many hours of your life.

 5. Stop the Presses!  Do you remember how in newspaper movies they would announce that they had to stop everything and tear out the front page because of breaking news?

I had to throw out the last item I had set up today because it was just announced that my book WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT has won the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award.  That's the big prize for scholarship in government information.  The Government Documents Round Table said a bunch of nice things about the book here.  I would be happy to say some nice things right back.






17 April 2018

Editing, TV Style

by Lawrence Maddox

Paul here: 

Please make sure to scroll to the end (but I know you will ’cause you’ll have read the whole piece by Larry 😊), to see my announcement about SleuthSayers, the Derringers and other awards.

My pal Lawrence Maddox's background is in editing for various television shows, including Santa Clarita Diet, Raising Hope, and many more. His crime fiction has appeared in the anthologies 44 Caliber Funk and Orange County Noir. Larry scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick Raw Target and the indie musical Open House. His debut novella Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey) debuted last month. 

I thought it might be interesting to see how Larry applied his visual editing background to his prose writing. So take it away, Larry:

***

“They want to publish Fast Bang Booze, but you’ll have to turn it into a novella. That’s twenty-five thousand words,” Gary Phillips said. “And they want it in the next couple weeks,” he added dubiously.

This was a great opportunity for me, but I wondered if I could cut my novel nearly in half without turning it into something I wouldn’t be proud of. At the time I was also working substantial hours editing a TV show, not to mention raising a family. Time would be tight. If I had any chance at coming out on top of this, I knew I ‘d have to fall back on a set of skills I’d been honing for years—maybe I could apply my skills as a television editor to the editing of my novel..

As a network TV editor, I’m tasked with building an episode scene-by-scene, following the script as I pick the angles and performances that best tell the story. I’ve worked in just about every genre, but my bread-and-butter are half hour single-camera comedies. They’re the hardest. They don’t just tell a story, they also tickle the funny bone (or try to). My shows (single-camera comedies) don’t have laugh tracks that tell you when the show is funny. I’m happy about that, too. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on multi-camera shows (I’m currently introducing my eight-year old to The Munsters—she loves it), and many of them still shine, decades later. But as I got older, I found that laugh tracks seemed 1984-ish, especially when the writing was clearly mediocre. It’s like Big Brother is telling you, “Everyone else thinks this crap is funny, why aren’t you laughing too?” Single camera comedies don’t have the crutch of the laugh track.

The shows I edit are like carefully constructed mini-movies with three acts and multiple jokes per page. There are no pauses for live audience laughter. You know it’s funny because you’re not searching for your remote control in that pesky crevice in the couch. And humor moves. Pace is king and that’s something I definitely applied to my novella: pace—keep it moving.

While the show is being shot, usually over the course of five days, I’m putting it together. It’s like assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle where every piece talks and reacts and forgets what their lines are. I’m not supposed to cut any dialogue when I’m doing the initial edit of the show, called the Editor’s Cut. I’m often dying to, but I get why I can’t. Those words represent big bucks, as well as hard fought battles in the writer’s room. Showrunners (writers usually) who are the main creative forces behind TV shows—don’t even like director’s taking dialogue out when it’s their turn to take a whack at their episode. When directors do their pass through the show after I turn over my cut, they inevitably turn to me in the edit room and ask, “Is the showrunner okay if I chop out dialogue to help get my episode to time?” I will usually respond, “Sure, if you don’t mind not getting hired back.” Then we carry on as if the conversation never happened, all dialogue left untouched, the auteur theory a burning, distant ember.  In TV, the writer is king and queen. Directors are hired guns who need to tread carefully where all things script-related are concerned or they could end up being “one-and-done.”

When the director leaves after their DGA-enforced two days with the editor are over, the showrunner finishes up with their own notes, as well as with notes from the studio and the network. If they don’t like what the director did in the editing room, they’ll often use the Editor’s Cut as their basis.  Now is the time when the elephant in the room takes a seat on the couch behind the Avid (the prevalent non-linear editing system used in TV and film), and begins to tap his Rolex. It’s get-the-show-to-time time. I should mention that many cable and streaming shows are a lot more loosey goosey with running times. While cutting Santa Clarita Diet, getting episodes to time is rarely an issue. I get to concentrate on the fun stuff, like the lovely and talented Drew Barrymore eating people.

Getting a show to time is the Jason Voorhees of network postproduction, the looming obstacle that faces every editor, over and over again. For a half-hour single camera comedy, “getting to time” means making sure an episode comes in at twenty-one and a half minutes. This timing differs from network to network, but not by much. The pilot I’m currently editing can’t come in over twenty-one minutes and twenty-two seconds. Episodes can come in a little shorter, but not a frame over. Remember at the beginning I told you that I start this process by building an episode scene by scene, closely following the script? What if that script is, say, thirty-two pages? At the minute-per-page standard calculation, we’re talking a thirty-two minute first cut. That’s ten whopping minutes—one third of the show—that needs to come out. That’s not editing, that’s liposuction.  And I don’t have all day. At this stage, they’ve already started filming my next episode. That means I’m back in dailies (shot footage), starting the process all over again. I’m finishing one episode and starting another. I have to act quickly.

My showrunner will come up with many of the trims, but they’re even busier than I am. They have to monitor what’s happening on set and in the writer’s room. Egos have to be massaged. Often, showrunners depend on the editor to come up with ways to take the time out of the episode without hurting it. So, when I’m in this position with my own fiction I ask myself the exact same questions I do when taking the excess baggage out of the shows I’m editing. Is this redundant? Do I have to keep this character beat or is this ground covered elsewhere? Have I over-stayed my welcome in this scene? TV editing has taught me the joys of being callous and bloodthirsty. Ruthlessness is called for. Babies are going to be killed. The editing room floor will be awash in punch lines and exposition, as will the outtakes in my novel, hopefully more of the latter than the former.

The through-line of the episode’s A-story should remain unscathed, which is also how I approach my prose. In TV editing I’ve had to be adept at juggling all the story lines as the episode shrinks. Many a B-story has been the victim of a subplot-ectomy in the service of getting an episode to time. When I did my Novella pass through Fast Bang Booze, I lost an entire B story (actually, it was more like a D-story) and no one was the wiser. It made the main story even stronger.

A pilot is the first episode in a proposed TV series. If the pilot doesn’t go well, the series is scrapped and the pilot never sees the light of day. The scripts for pilots inevitably come in over thirty pages, and cutting them down to time are high-pressure situations. The big fear is losing elements about the main character(s) that everyone loves. I’ve learned that this stage is an opportunity to refine the characters and make sure they are consistent. The pilot for Suburgatory had a lot of first person narration. As we whittled it down, the narration was re-written and improved until it was sharp as a one frame splice. Less really was more.

I have to see the big picture and also travel through an episode line by line. Every word is scrutinized in dialogue, and much of it is boiled down editorially to the bare bones. Excess verbiage is jettisoned, word-by-word, until the dialogue flies. I do this when I’m editing my own work. And when I’m done, the leanest, meanest version of the episode is infinitely better than its former self.

So when Gary threw down the novel-to-novella gauntlet, I didn’t freak out. I put on my edit room goggles and did what I do. Except this time, I was ruthless and mean for me, not for a network.  And it worked. I was amazed with how well it worked.

I should add that the original publisher I was writing for went belly up, but Eric Campbell and Ron Phillips of Down and Out Books and Shotgun Honey snatched up Fast Bang Booze, and it debuted March 23rd. If you’d like to see my criminal take on my under-the-gun profession, check out my story “Smotherage,” an extra bonus found at the back of my novella that details the pressure cooker world of editing TV pilots, and “Hot Moviola,” in the anthology 44 Caliber Funk (Moonstone), is about an editor caught in a world of intrigue in 1974 LA.

Keep on cutting!

***

Thanks for stopping by, Larry. Good luck with the book! And you can find Larry’s book here: Down & Out Books and Amazon.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

SleuthSayers Cleans Up:

Derringer Nominations have come out: (https://shortmystery.blogspot.com/2018/04/2018-derringer-award-finalists.html ). I want to congratulate all the finalists, including SleuthSayers’ own Elizabeth Zelvin "Flash Point,” from A Twist of Noir (March 20, 2017) and Robert Lopresti, “The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan," from Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, editor: Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press (October 2017).

My story “Windward” is also nominated in the novelette category, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books (January 2017).

But the truly mind-blowing thing is that 4 stories from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea have been nominated: Mine, Andy McAleer’s, Matt Coyle’s and Robert Randisi’s. I’m truly amazed and honored for such a great showing from a terrific book. And many thanks to the Short Mystery Fiction Society:

Available at Amazon and Down & Out Books

And another SleuthSayers’ story, Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha. SleuthSayer John Floyd’s “Gun Work” and my story “Windward” have been chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mysteries of 2018 by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler. – And I want to thank all of the authors who contributed stories to Coast to Coast. – So, like I said, mind blowing. And I’m thrilled to be part of it on various levels.

***

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:


Check out my website: www.PaulDMarks.com

16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
 
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.



Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?

15 April 2018

Kranky Kalls
Telemarketing Tales 1

by Leigh Lundin

Judy Hopps © Zootopia
Zootopia • Judy Hopps © Disney
My phone rang at 08:01 this morning, waking me up. In my house in Florida, 8am qualifies as ‘middle of the night’, but more about that later.
“Hello?”

“Hey, is Diana there?”

“Nooo…” I say cautiously. “Diana won’t return until tomorrow.”

“In that case, maybe you can help me. I’m with the First Responders Philanthropy Foundation, and we’re collecting for police and firemen in your area.”
In three sentences, he’d told me three lies. His question about ‘Diana’ had thrown me off. The real Diana is my housekeeper who doubles as den mother. His ‘Diana’ was of course mythical. So was his phony soi-disant charitable foundation and collecting for rescue officers. According to telemarketing reports, the vast majority of police ‘charities’ and all but one military assistance organization vary from fake to fraudulent.

Notice the salesman’s generic use of “in your area,” instead of looking up where his targets lived. All said, he’d actually committed four deceptions. His caller ID number was faked, or in internet parlance ‘spoofed’.

I’d fallen out of practice. If I’d been on my game, our conversation would have gone something like this:
“Hello?”

“Hey, is Diana there?”

(sharply) “Who are you and why are you using this line?”

“Maybe you can help me. I’m with the National First Responders Philanthropy Foundation, and we’re collecting for police and firemen in your area.”

“This isn’t funny. Get off this line immediately.”

“Sir, I can assure you I’m collecting for our fine first responders…”

“Sure, sure. You thought it would be funny to screw with an op. Where are you located?”

“Kansas City, but…”

“Your fake caller-ID says Jacksonville. You think interfering with federal surveillance is funny?” (muffled aside) “John, trace this idiot, find out where he’s calling from.” (back into the phone) “All right, clown, what’s your name?”

“Sir, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m hanging up now.”
Asleep at the Switch

This ‘story-telling’ began long ago when I designed software packages. Typically I worked nights when all was dark and quiet, I could concentrate, and I had Westinghouse’s computers all to myself.

A substantial part of our business came from Europe. As part of the deal, I had to be prepared to take phone calls from overseas and the Americas during the day… my sleep time. As a professional, I had to instantly snap awake when the phone rang… I’m still pretty good at sounding awake… even when I’m not.

That wasn’t the downside– the real bane was telemarketers. Post-Millennials who encounter phone solicitation only every week or two might not believe we endured multiple calls a day hawking encyclopedias, dubious diamonds, water softeners, and religious donations.

Telemarketers were the phlegm of phones, the bunions of business, the hemorrhoids of humanity. They interrupted family dinners, high school homework, television dramas, tender love moments, and possibly a romantic proposal or two. One day I fought back.

I had fallen sound asleep for the third time one fateful morning when yet another call came in. I snapped awake, prepared to deal with a tech problem in Sacramento, Senegal, or Switzerland, and I heard the following…

Kustom Kleaning
“Good morning, sir. We’re Kustom Kleaners and we’re offering to clean three rooms, yes, three rooms of your choice for only $29.95, and additional rooms for only $19 more plus tax, a real bargain. What do you…”

“How dare you.”

“Huh?”

“How dare you. Let me guess. You saw the news and thought calling would be funny? Have a giggle while others listen in? Record this for a laugh with colleagues?”

“Sir, I have no idea…”

“Sure, right. The blood isn’t even dried and you thought you’d have a yuk, you and your so-called Kustom Kleaning caper, right? Never gave a thought to the victims, not even buried yet, eh?”

“Sir, I assure you…”

“You sick bastards, trolling families in their time of crisis, blood still everywhere, my wife sobbing, you sacks of…”

“Sir, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I won’t bother you again, I won’t. I promise.”
I settled back to sleep until…

Kustom Kaskets
“Good morning, young man. I’m Fred of Fine Funeral Financing. Have you thought ahead about your loved ones, their grief at your final passing? That’s why we offer prepaid-burial services. Mega-Mortuary membership allows you to choose every nuance of your funeral arrangements, paid in small monthly increments until your passing. No detail is overlooked by our fine professionals. How does that sound to you?”

“Every detail? I pick out my own casket?”

“Of course, sir. We carry a fine line of hand-crafted Kustom Koffins, highlighting hand-rubbed lacquered woods, polished brass or even precious metals. Each vessel to the beyond is lined with the most comfortable of satin or other exquisite materials. How does that sound?”

“Wonderful. If I may ask, is it possible to purchase caskets with crosses on them?”

“Right you are, sir. Crosses are among our most popular adornments for one’s heavenly crossing.”

“This is really important to me. Can you mount the crosses upside-down?”

(long pause) “Sir, why would you want to do that?”

“It’s part of my belief system, an inverted cross is really important to me. Let’s write it up now, I’ll grab my credit card. Can you take the first installment over the phone?”

“Uh, sir. I’m not sure I can do that.”

“Why not? You said your coffins are the finest woods and the crosses come in brass. When the time comes, I need your guarantee each cross will be positioned upside down, one on each side and one on the… do you call it a lid or pop top?”

“I’m uh, I don’t think we can…”

“Can you ring up the total?”

“Uh, I’ll have to call you back, sir.”

“Okay, you have my number. I’ll be waiting.”
Kranky Kraftmanship…

Each evening, I related these tales to my girlfriend who worked for Disney. At lunch, she shared my phone misadventures to a growing audience. A fan club of sorts developed. Disney artist Mark Chichiarra suggested the Kasket salesman would have really freaked out if asked to bury a buyer face down. Mark said, “Leigh thinks fast on his feet, doesn’t he.”

“On his feet? Probably not. Flat asleep maybe…”

Still the calls rolled in.

Coming up, a cottage industry of …

Kold Kalls

14 April 2018

On Coffee

by Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore
I turned the hot water on and got the coffee maker down off the shelf. I wet the rod and measured the stuff into the top and by that time the water was steaming. I filled the lower half of the dingus and set it on the flame, I set the upper part on top and gave it a twist so it would bind.
The coffee maker was almost ready to bubble. I turned the flame low and watched the water rise. It hung just a little at the bottom of the glass tube. I turned the flame up just enough to get it oer the hump and then turned it low again quickly. I stirred the coffee and covered it. I set my timer for three minutes. Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique. Not even a gun in the hand of a desperate character.
— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Percolator, French press, drip or Keurig, from carts and convenience stores, artisanal shops and vending machines, coffee is the unsung hero of the crime novel. Black and bitter or hot and life-saving, it can sooth an anxious gunman, fix a hangover or keep you up long enough to solve that murder/heist/kidnapping that has plagued you for 200 pages. 

My own writing time starts with a coffee ritual. I wake up, usually around 6 a.m. (having set the alarm for 5:51 a.m., which gives me enough time to hit snooze once and snuggle with my husband and cat). I use a French press, a tip I picked up from the same college English professor who taught me about crime fiction (and who gave me the copy of The Long Goodbye that I re-read every year) and coarse-ground coffee, preferably from Fairway (I stock up at the store at 74th and Broadway). I will make due with other coffee, if I have to. I vary on the flavor; currently I’m using the traditional Fairway blend.

I heat the water in the red teakettle my husband and I bought when we first moved in together. Not quite to boiling; I listen until it just starts to rumble a little. While the water is doing its thing, I prep the French press. Two scoops, with about a quarter of a scoop extra. I don’t know why I do this. Luck, maybe.  A couple flicks of cinnamon too, just to help me wake up. Brain food.

While the coffee is brewing, I make my playlist. Can’t write without the playlist.

I used to take mine with Carnation evaporated milk when I was going through a weird 1950s housewife phase. Then I took it with half and half, but lately, I’ve been drinking it black, with raw sugar. 

I feel like you can tell a lot about a person by what kind of coffee mug they use. Is it personalized? Did it come from a special event, a concert, a vacation destination? Or is it plain, nondescript, something that came in a set of four from WalMart. Maybe it was stolen from a stakeout at a fancy hotel. I only have a handful of coffee mugs, all of them from special events – the 2016 Steely Dan tour, my beloved Beverly’s in Oklahoma City, a bookstore in Austin, Texas, where my Dad proudly bought copies of The Big Rewind for his co-workers. Guess he figured I already had a copy and bought me a mug instead.

When it’s ready, it’s ready, and I can finally sit down to write.

But maybe your detective drinks tea instead. Or yerba mate. Or energy drinks that make his heart feel like it’s going to explode all over his laptop. Whatever it is, make a ritual of it. Let her live fully in that moment, that ritual. Let it be a piece of his day, ahead of the robberies and the dead bodies, tap into a grand genre tradition. 

How do you make and take your coffee?

13 April 2018

Agatha Award Finalists: Best Short Story

By Art Taylor

The annual Malice Domestic convention is right around the corner—April 27-29 in Bethesda, Maryland—and two of us SleuthSayers have stories up for this year’s Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman with “Whose Wine is it Anyway?” and me (Art Taylor!) with  “A Necessary Ingredient” (mine with ties to other SleuthSayers as well, since the anthology which includes it, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, was co-edited by Paul D. Marks and features stories by several members of our group too). Three other fine writers/fine stories round out the slate: Gretchen Archer’s “Double Deck the Halls,” Debra H. Goldstein’s “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” and Gigi Pandian’s “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn.” The Agatha Awards will be presented at the annual Agatha Awards Banquet on Saturday evening, April 28.



In advance of the big weekend, I invited the finalists to answer a question about their nominated stories, and I’m glad to share these reflections here. Please note that you can read each story for free through links in the paragraph above and in the headers to each response below. 

Here’s the question: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing your particular short story and how did you overcome it?

And the responses, in alphabetical order by last name:

Gretchen Archer on “Double Deck the Halls”

The biggest challenge I faced writing “Double Deck the Halls” was also the most fun. One of my characters, in dire need of salvation, couldn’t speak. She could only communicate by humming Christmas carols. My mission, as her author, was to find appropriate song lyrics for her to hum so she could help her rescuer, a senior citizen with nothing but the retirement accessories she had on her person, save her. First, the lyrics had to fit the story, as in answer specific questions and convey detailed instructions. Not only that, the lyrics had to be in the public domain for me to use them. Writing a character who could only communicate in holiday tunes was so much fun. (And challenging!) 

Barb Goffman on “Whose Wine is it Anyway” from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet 

My biggest challenge in writing the story was overcoming the issue that I rarely drink wine (or any alcohol) and didn't know enough about cabernet to use it properly in a story. (I know. Sacrilege!) The anthology requirements were that the story had to involve a mystery/crime involving cabernet and it should be lighthearted. So I started doing research. I scoured the internet, reading wine websites, wine blogs, even newspaper stories involving wine. The most interesting item I came across was a Japanese hotel that fills its hot tubs with red wine, but I couldn't come up with a good idea stemming from that tidbit.

 Finally I read about how some people can be fatally allergic to the sulfites in red wine, including cabernet sauvignon, and an idea began forming. What came to me was a story about a seventy-year-old woman, days from retirement from a job she's loved for decades. But in these final hours, she realizes she hasn't been appreciated as she should have been. So she decides it's time to teach some lessons about the importance of caring more about people than appearances, and what I learned about wine allergies enabled me to make the story work. So the moral of my personal writing story here is that you don't have to be an expert on a topic to write about it. You can always learn the information you need to make your story work. Just keep at it.

Debra H. Goldstein on “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 

“The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” combines the impact of an exchange between a nine-year-old boy and an adult during a Civil Rights era evening where there is a murder in a house where the sheets are changed more than once a night. My biggest challenge was to make the voices of the child and the adult believable and recognizable to the reader. It was easy to establish the heat and tension of the setting of a 1960’s non-air-conditioned kitchen through references to the linoleum floor, catching a breeze through the screen door, and grabbing a glass from the drainboard, but making the characters’ voices realistic rather than stereotypical required nuanced layering of details. Rather than pounding the reader with what the characters said, wore, thought, and did, my challenge was to present a sufficient build up of these things, sentence by sentence, to trigger each reader’s personal reactions and memories. By engaging the reader through evoked recollections or associations, “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place” hopefully succeeds in establishing and resolving a crime while contrasting the innocence and bravado of childhood as it is lost with an adult’s acceptance of life as it is. 

Gigi Pandian on “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn”
 
I write fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, stories in which a big part of the fun is that clues are hidden in plain sight for the reader. “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” is a locked-room mystery, the style of mystery popularized in the Golden Age of detective fiction that takes puzzle plots to the extreme by solving a seemingly impossible puzzle.

Whenever I begin writing a new locked-room story, my biggest challenge is to set up a clever twist so the big reveal is satisfying to the reader—something that seems impossible, but if you pay attention closely, you can see what really happened.

I’ve always loved puzzle plot stories with a satisfying twist; they epitomize why I love mystery. Locked-room mysteries are the ultimate puzzle, and can be the foundation to build so much more into a story. Impossible crime stories frequently include hints of the supernatural, creating a Gothic atmosphere that’s like reading a ghost story—but there’s always a rational explanation.

To meet the challenge of coming up with fresh ideas for impossible crime stories, my process is that I work first on a paper notebook that I fill with ideas. Sometimes a short story comes together quickly, and sometimes it can take years between when I think of an initial idea and when the ideas come together to make the twist successful. There’s one story draft I wrote five years ago, and I’m not yet satisfied with the ending so I haven’t send it out yet! But happily, I’ve written enough impossible crime stories that turned out successfully that I have a collection of Jaya Jones locked-room mysteries being published later this year.

The twist in “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” was also challenging because there’s a double-twist at the end. That made it one of my most challenging—but also satisfying—stories I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Art Taylor on “A Necessary Ingredient” from the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea

Though I was pleased to have been invited to contribute a story to a private eye anthology and though I love and often teach works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, etc. in my classes at George Mason University, I’m not actually a regular writer of private eye stories and don't think I've ever written anything traditionally hard-boiled. I think I’ve only had two PI stories published before—one a parody, the other steeped in the fantastic—and while I wanted to write this one a little more straight, the small-town North Carolina setting (my assigned region to help the anthology’s stretch “from sea to shining sea”) also posed some challenges  in terms of any potential hard-boiled leanings: No mean streets in my town for my main character to go down, for example.

My solution? With "A Necessary Ingredient," I tried to put yet another twist on the conventional PI tale—Ambrose Thornton has “Private Detective” on his office door but he’s really just an unassuming guy seeking a quiet spot to read old crime novels—and then I drew as much on the traditions of regional crime fiction, in the spirit of Margaret Maron, for example, as I did on the legacy of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald in terms of crafting character, setting, and plot. When a new chef in town tasks Thornton with finding a special bean prized in French cooking (a bit of gentrification, this little restaurant), our detective sets out not down any means streets but instead on a tour of local farmer’s markets, roadside vegetable stands, and greenhouses. And while Ambrose references a couple of classic gumshoes here and there, a key twist in the story offers my own nod toward Maron's influences—hopefully keeping the balance of several traditions in play and satisfying readers across a wider spectrum.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Malice in just a couple of weeks! 

12 April 2018

Metaphors and Morality Plays

by Eve Fisher


Image may contain: text and outdoorThe sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
    - Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"


We're back in the middle of February here, folks.  With some regularity.  Now I don't mind a snow day every once in a while.  I think of all the things I can get done, like read a good book, finish cleaning out that closet, or (gasp!) writing.  But of course, too often, what happens is that I end up, hours later, looking up from an internet reading binge that is only occasionally informative, as in,
Do you want to see the oldest tree in the world?
Answer:  hell yes!

Image may contain: outdoor
6,000 year old Senegal baobab tree.
6,000 years old.  Think about that.  That means that huge tree was a little sprout/twig back in 4,000 BCE.  That's a long way back.  It's right on the border between the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and the Bronze Age; humans have learned to cast lead, smelt tin, copper, and are just starting to smelt bronze.  There's agriculture in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as animal husbandry, tamed dogs and cats, pottery, combs, beads, and lots of clothing.  But there's no writing, not yet, so we don't know how all of this happened.  We can only imagine.

(Fun note:  6,000 years ago, there are still mammoths on Saint Paul Island, Alaska, and Wrangel Island, Russia!)

Opium fields
The other thing that's already been developed is alcohol, both beer and wine, and perhaps strong liquor, in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Georgia, Sicily, etc.  Traces left of fermentation have been dated back beyond 8,000 years ago, which proves what I used to tell my history classes:  no society has ever been found that was able to live drug free.  They always had something.  

Alcohol, marijuana, mushrooms, and opium derivatives are universal and thousands of years older than any writing.  Which makes sense, because living in a physical body is going to get painful sooner or later.  Think of the pre-industrial world:  tens of thousands of years of hard work done without benefit of machines, accidents, wars, beatings, old age, botched surgeries, unsuccessful surgeries, cancer, medieval dentistry, ancient trepanning, arthritis, osteoporosis, rotten teeth, and all the other wear and tear of daily life.
As Dr. Samuel Johnson said in the 18th century, about alcohol:  "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
I bring all this up because Buzzfeed posted a great article April 3, which I read while watching the snow whirling past my window, called "The Opioid Crisis Isn't a Metaphor".  Quite simply, it points out that - contrary to innumerable modern op-eds - people aren't drowning in opioid addiction because post-modern life in America is hell on earth.  People have been drowning in addiction and alcoholism since the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Life, any time, anywhere, will sooner or later get you taking serious medication. 

Oxycontin 
And - as the article says - that's why people generally start taking opioids:  they're in pain.  And when it comes to severe, teeth clenching pain, aspirin, Advil, or Tylenol just don't cut it.  For that, the best thing is still opioids, the derivatives of that ancient poppy plant, cultivated for multiple thousands of years, but now processed to a fare-thee-well:  codeine, heroin, morphine, all those oxys, and the latest scourge, fentanyl, which would drop an elephant in its tracks.

But even then, people in pain really do not "addict" that easily.  Unless they're widely available, as in West Virginia, where out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 21 million opioid painkillers to two pharmacies in Williamson, WV, population 2,900, in 3 years (see Vox), not to mention millions more to other pharmacies in other small towns throughout the country.  Let's put it this way, if that much crack or meth had arrived in Williamson, WV, in 3 years, every law enforcement authority in the country would have been all over it.  But it was legal.  And all the physicians urged to give them out like candy, and renew the prescriptions at the drop of a hat, for as often and long as... well, as they're asked for.  And why?  Because:  profits.
NOTE:  Meet the Sacklers, the family behind the whole opioid crisis, (Daily Mail - and Esquire), $14 billionnaires and counting, most of which came from OxyContin.  (Oh, and they don't like to talk about it - they're very private people.  Spread the word.)
So, we have two chronic human needs - for pain relief, and to get wealthy - meeting in communities around the nation, and it's all legal.  (At least at first.)  Addiction and overdoses begin to skyrocket, especially as teenagers - who will do anything and everything to get high because that's what teenagers do - get their hands on them.  As people sell them on the black market to make some extra cash.  As people trade them around in search of better pain relief or a better high.  As it all rolls up into one giant white pill shaped ball and pundits ask "Why do people do these things?"  And cluck their tongues like America was such a Puritan paradise before this happened.

HA!  The original Puritans banned dancing, drama, cards, gambling, and most toys, but they did drink.  The Mayflower was loaded with more beer than water, and the very first Thanksgiving meal was served with beer, brandy, wine and gin.  And I'll bet they used whatever they could for pain relief.

And then there's the little issue of withdrawals.  As the Buzzfeed article says, "And once you’re addicted, you don’t take a hit because you’re surrounded by postindustrial despair. You do it because not taking a hit makes you feel worse than you could have ever imagined. If you go long enough without it, you’ll vomit, crap your pants, and want to die, just for starters. So of course you'll do anything to get another hit."  And it's not just opioids.  Untreated, alcohol D.T.s (delerium tremens) has a 15-40% death rate.

Crack cocaine
Now many have noticed that the idea of drug addiction as a way of coping with a life lacking any hope, purpose, or possibilities, was never applied to black urban neighborhoods anywhere.  When the crack epidemic erupted in urban America back in the 1980s and 1990s, no one tried to understand why urban blacks were using crack cocaine in such high numbers, or how a life of unemployment, racism, urban decay, hopelessness, etc., could affect their addiction.  Instead, America got tough on crime, to the point where, "the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 increased penalties for crack cocaine possession and usage. It mandated a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole for possession of 5 grams of crack; to receive the same sentence with powder cocaine one had to have 500 grams."  BTW, poor urban blacks used crack; powder cocaine was more often used by rich urban whites.  5 grams vs. 500; nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving...

So yeah, this whole idea of drug addiction caused by post-industrial despair only cropped up when white people began to become addicts, criminals, and die in epidemic numbers.

Addiction:  From Morality Play to Metaphor of Modernity in only 30 years.  Depending on where it happens, and to whom...










11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize

David Edgerley Gates

The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.


10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer

by Michael Bracken

Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.