25 May 2018

Suspense In Stories That Aren't Suspense Fiction

By Art Taylor

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be leading a presentation and workshop at the 4th Annual Spring Writing Intensive at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. The session is about crafting suspense, and it borrows its title from the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog—"Something Is Going To Happen"—but when I was planning this with the program's organizers, they threw in a surprise: They had already scheduled a session on genre fiction, and they didn't want mine to be focused on mysteries.

Crafting suspense but not in the mystery genre?

Well, I'll admit some surprise at the request—but only since people who ask me to present at these kinds of gatherings usually want me talking about genre fiction. Truth is, I think the broader scope here actually makes for a more interesting discussion—about the range of different approaches available for capturing a reader's curiosity, introducing the stakes of a plot, getting that reader invested, getting him or her to turn that next page.

Here's the full description of my session:

Hooking your readers with a killer opening—that’s a must. But how do you get them to turn not just the first page but the next too? and then the next? …and the next? Crafting suspense may seem like the special province of crime fiction writers, but literary writers and genre writers both can profit from heightening tension, escalating conflict, tossing in the unexpected left turn, and generally keeping readers focused on the idea that “something is going to happen,” (to borrow the title of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s weekly blog). This session draws on work by writers including Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, and Scott Turow to illustrate various techniques for incorporating suspense into your own work.

...though as I'm prepping for the session itself, and here with a couple of recent events, I'm considering substituting a couple of authors for those mentioned above.

I'm writing this post just as news comes out about the death of Philip Roth, one of my own favorite novelists, and earlier this week I picked up the collection Last Stories by William Trevor, who died in 2016—another favorite writer and one of the great masters of the short story, not just now but ever. Neither of these writers is known for flashy, grabby openings; in fact, the New York Times' book review of Trevor's Last Stories commented directly on his low-key approach: "Most notably, his stories open with comments so blandly informational, so plain and unnoticeable, that they arouse no expectation and appear to promise little."

And yet, I find myself drawn in quickly to Trevor's stories, to stakes which are at once high but muted, their intensity downplayed but maybe all the more engaging for it.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Trevor's "Making Conversation" from this final collection:

'Yes?' Olivia says on the answering system when the doorbell rings in the middle of The Return of the Thin Man. The summons is an irritation on a Sunday afternoon, when it couldn't possibly be the meter-man or the postman, and it's most unlikely to be Courtney Haynes, the porter.

A woman's voice crackles back at her but Olivia can't hear what she says. More distinctly, the dialogue of the film reaches her from the sitting room. 'Cocktail time,' William Powell is saying, and there's the barking of a dog. The man Olivia lives with laughs.

'I'm sorry,' Olivia says in the hall. 'I can't quite hear you.'

'I'm not used to these answering gadgets.' The woman's voice is clearer now. There is a pause, and then: 'Is my husband there?'

'Your husband?' Frowning, more irritated than she has been, Olivia suggests the wrong bell has been rung.

'Oh, no,' the voice insists. 'Oh, no.'
The opening scene continues on for three more short paragraphs, but this is enough, I think. The opening scenes set the stage for all that follows: Two women connected by the husband of one of them, their conversation about those connections (though the title "Making Conversation" refers to something else entirely). The pace is leisurely, it would be charitable to say—a sketch of a Sunday afternoon, a small interruption. So is there... suspense?

Certainly there are questions raised here, both within the scene and pointing further ahead. What was said in that crackle that Olivia doesn't hear? Is the woman at the wrong address? Does Olivia know her husband? Is he perhaps even the man sitting there watching Return of the Thin Man?

Spoiler alert, that's not him, but as for Olivia knowing the woman's husband at all....

Conventional approaches to suspense might require the drama to be amped up more forcefully. Not a ring of the doorbell but a blaring of it—the bell pushed and held. Or someone pounding on the door itself. Not a voice lost in a crackle but a voice screaming, shouting, demanding. The irritation would become anxiety or fear. That word insists would need to tremble with a little more menace.

And yet I find myself drawn forward—and the story amply rewards, mysteries in bloom, though perhaps not the kinds of mysteries we think of with genre fiction.

As for Philip Roth, I just reread the opening of my favorite of his books, The Human Stain. I'll quote the first two paragraphs—and you can find the full first section of the opening chapter at the Random House website here:

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
No rush of suspense here—none that I can see—and not even drama in the sense of conventional scene-building. It's all exposition and description. But the foundation for tension is laid: in the words affair and confided, for example; in the contrasts between the idea of an affair and the description of "church-ruled, hardworking goodwives" and "stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it"; in the contrast between miseries "concealed" and a face which "hide[s] nothing"; and then in the disparity between the main characters' ages—71 and 34—and their educational backgrounds, a classics professor and a high school dropout.

Needless to say, undramatic as all this is, there's plenty of drama ahead.

But does this count as suspense as well?

How about if you add in the chapter title looming over this bit of confidence? "Everyone Knows." 

Such are the questions I'm going to try to explore in my session at St. John's—perhaps not with these passages, which I've chosen mainly because Trevor and Roth have been on my mind today, this week, but with similar ones, looking to see how writers introduce small bits of tension and conflict from the start, how they raise the stakes bit by bit, often in excruciating ways, and, of course, what we other writers might learn from these moves.

Anthony Award News


A bit of news since my last post here: I'm honored that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award for Best Short Story, alongside stories by my fellow SleuthSayer Barb Goffman and by Susana Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. As I've mentioned before, my story was part of the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, also a finalist for an Anthony in the anthology category, and featuring stories by several more of our SleuthSayers family. Been a great year for this anthology, and I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of it. Oh! And I hope you'll enjoy the story itself, which you can read here for free.

See you all at Bouchercon in just a few months!

24 May 2018

It's Vegas, Baby...

by Eve Fisher

For those of you who haven't heard, Las Vegas has an ice hockey team!  Just simmer in that thought for a minute.  The baking oven of the Nevada desert air, the frosty ice of the skating rink...  Now, on with the story.  The Golden Knights expansion team took to the ice this season...  and is going to the Stanley Cup.  Yes.  Which is a great story, except that it may break the bank in Vegas.

Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup run unlike anything we’ve seen
Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and William Karlsson
celebrate their second-round Game 5 victory over the Sharks.Getty Images
NOTE:  The way it's being hyped, you'd think that this has never happened before, but it has:  In 1967-68, the St. Louis Blues began as an expansion team and made it to the Stanley Cups - where they lost all four games, bing, bang, badda, boom.  
But back to the money.  As the New York Post put it, “When [the Golden Knights were] at 300-1, we wrote a ticket for $400, which pays out 120 grand,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations for Westgate Casino. “I can’t give definitive numbers, but every book is going to lose a healthy six figures if the Knights win the Cup. Some places are whispering seven.”  (BTW, if you're thinking of laying a bet down now, the bookies dropped the odds a long time ago.)  On the other hand, they're making a ton of money off the people who are pouring in to see the miracle team.  The Rampart Casino offers merchandise giveaways, food vouchers and opportunities for mid-game wagering each time the Knights play. Westgate shows every Knights game on its 240-foot-wide video screen.  “We want people walking through the door,” Duane Colucci of the Rampart Casino said. “Whether or not they’re betting on the Knights, they’ll play video poker, they’ll grab something to eat.”

BTW, the last time that a game threatened to break the bookies was in 2015-16, when the British football (soccer, for us Americans) team, Leicester City, took everyone by surprise. The team was 132 year old and had never won a title. They were so bad that bookmakers gave them 5,000–1 odds .  But they did.  They won.  And the bookmakers lost up to £25 million.  One lucky bettor placed £20 at the original odds and won over £100,000!  The largest payout was £200,000 to someone who wagered £100 on the team in October when the odds had improved to 2,000–1.
NOTE:  Winning over odds that long, and a record that dismal, led to claims that spiritual forces worked for Leicester, including the club's Thai owners employing Buddhist monks to bless the players, and the reburial of the recently recovered remains of King Richard III (whose remains had been found in a parking lot in Leicester in 2012) in the city's cathedral in March, 2015.  (Wikipedia
Anyway, the Vegas bookies aren't facing odds that bad.  And even if they were, Vegas always figures a way to play the odds.  And to shift their services to a new customer base.

Today, Vegas is all about "Sin City", and "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."  In the 1990s, it marketed itself as "Family Friendly", which I still find hilarious.  And in the 60's...

The Rat Pack at the Cal-Neva Casino
Wikimedia
Well, the 60s were the last time I spent much time in Vegas.  I was a kid, and my parents would drive up from Southern California to either Vegas or Lake Tahoe to do some gambling.  That was back in the old days, when the mob ruled Vegas, and the Rat Pack ruled the Strip.  I don't remember the name of the casino my parents liked, I just remember that it was huge.  When I was 7-12 years old, I (and the other children who were idling away the time) would run amok among the slots and blackjack tables, or sit and people watch, or just play.  In some ways, it was a much safer, more innocent "Florida Project".  And it was very safe.

Twenty years ago, a child was lured into a Vegas casino restroom, where she was sexually assaulted and murdered.  I turned to my husband, horrified, and said, "That would never have happened in the 60's."  And it wouldn't.  We might have been running loose, but there was always someone keeping an eye on us, wherever we were.  Those large men in suits standing around everywhere weren't going to let anybody touch us.  And if we got too near a door, they'd stop us and ask, "Hey, where are your parents?"  We'd point somewhere or say, "Keno table" or something, and they'd herd us back there, and / or hand us off to a young woman in tight clothing who'd feed us more ice cream.  It wasn't bad.
NOTE:  I understand that today Nevada law prohibits children 100%, absolutely, no exceptions from being on the casino floor.  Maybe that law was on the books back in the 60's, too, but I sure don't remember them acting on it.  Granted, my parents were day gamblers...
Since then, the only other time I was in Vegas was in 2006, when my husband and I met up with another couple (from New York City) to go on a tour of Canyon Country - Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon.  Vegas was the perfect hub to meet in, rent a car, and drive out.  But we had to spend one night there, because our flights arrived at such different times.  Frank & Theresa had a friend who told them about a cheap hotel off the Strip, and we decided to stay there.  It was cheap, all right.  It didn't have bedbugs or cockroaches, but I wouldn't have sat down on that worn brown carpet for love nor money.  (When bedtime came, I leaped out of my shoes and into the bed, with nary a toe hitting the rug.)  The main center for entertainment in the hotel was its own mini-casino down in the lobby, and an elevator large enough to hold a coffin and pallbearers, reeking of beer and cigarettes from the uncountable number of topless drunks (of both sexes) constantly going to or from the casino.  Loud, proud, and endlessly fascinating.

But we were hungry, and the hotel had no dining privileges.  We went down to the Strip for dinner, and the food had certainly gotten more expensive - and to be fair, better - than the 1960s.  Afterwards, we walked around for about half an hour in the stifling heat (90s in the dark) to see the outside casino shows.  (Near-nudity, lights, flames, and the occasional pole dance.  Not too different from the hotel, actually...)  Then we got in the car and drove around counting Elvis impersonators and checking out wedding chapels.  The next morning we went down to the Denny's within walking distance and hung with the locals.  Not an Elvis impersonator amongst them, and only a reasonable number of sonic boob jobs.

After that, we headed off into the desert, and wondered again, where was all the water coming from?




BTW, as many of you may know, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting. "Immediately after the ruling, the stock price for Caesars Entertainment [Nevada] rose 6%." (CNN)

2nd BTW, in 2019, the Oakland Raiders are moving to Vegas, where they'll be known (of course) as the Las Vegas Raiders.  First official NFL game will be in 2020.  

I think the bookies are going to make their money back. 




23 May 2018

Overload

David Edgerley Gates


Information overload is an established phenomenon in the intelligence trade. You can never know too much? You can listen in on way too much, and understand far too little. Former spy chief Gen. Michael Hayden (director of both NSA and CIA) once remarked that his analysts actually managed to process something like three to five per cent of intercepted traffic, if that. This in the wake of the surveillance scandals, his point being that your eyes - or ears - are bigger than your stomach. One recent estimate is that NSA collects 1.7 billion communications a day. The volume is paralyzing. You can't get a grip on it.


I ran across a quote from a guy named Herbert Simon. "What information consumes is obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. ...[A] wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." Which is where metadata techniques come in, pattern recognition, indexing metrics, some kind of Dewey Decimal system. You're not even trying to catalogue content. At this juncture, the best you can hope for is an address book, a directory of unlisted numbers.

This information paralysis of course applies to the assorted dishevelments of the Trump administration. The signal-to-noise ratio is deafeningly high, which makes it hard to identify actual targets. NORAD used to have a similar problem, on the Distant Early Warning line. Are those incoming Russian bombers, crossing the Arctic circle, or a flight of geese? Their radar couldn't discriminate. It created an anxiety threshold, a constant. You had to be on the alert all the time, checking your perimeter.

We also know there are disinformation procedures, decoys and deceptions. A famous example is the phantom invasion force built up around Patton before the launch of D-Day, to mislead the Germans into thinking the attack would come at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. Any career intelligence professional would have to wonder, how much of the chaos in the Trump world is deliberate, or diversionary?

Basically, what I'm suggesting here is a coping mechanism. If you treat the Trump experience, or episode, as an intelligence exercise, an assessment, the way old Russia hands at CIA and State used to game out the Kremlin's intentions, or Sinologists would read the runes about Mao and the Chinese - as if, in effect, it were a foreign country, an alien culture - you can attempt a penetration, a covert operation in a Denied Area. You don't try and deconstruct every utterance, you think in terms of deeper grammar. The volume of traffic is a distraction. You look for signifiers, the moss on the north side of the trees.  

Take the Stormy Daniels imbroglio. At first glance, it's a sideshow, nothing to do with the main event. But then it develops that Cohen banked Vekselberg's front money in the same account he used to pay Daniels? OK, time out. Cohen's a moron. He's as likely a consigliere as I'm likely to ghost a series of Stormy-branded thrillers, Money Shots.

In other news, with everybody focused on the Russians, we have the embargoed Chinese telecom ZTE back in the US market, hand in glove with an announced 500-million-dollar Chinese government loan to jumpstart construction on an Indonesian theme park that includes - wait for it - a Trump golf course and hotels. Soybean futures are safe again?

Lest we forget, there's Erik Prince, late of Blackwater, whose mission appears to be clandestine comms and advance man. He's also floated the notion that the combat presence in Afghanistan and Iraq could be taken private. We're now hearing about a meeting between Prince, George Nader, and a guy whose name is new to me, Joel Zamel, pitching a social media manipulation campaign to Donald Trump Jr., that would be bankrolled by the Saudis and the Emirates. Wait, what?

Not least, the Aztec Two-Step that seems to characterize Trump himself, an inconsistent struggle with cognitive dissonance. It's still not entirely clear whether Trump is playing with a full deck.

Enough already. We have a surfeit of detail. How do you give it any coherence? I'm suggesting you could diagram it out. In the intelligence world, this is known as an Order of Battle. Suppose, for the sake of argument, we were talking about the Warsaw Pact and its offensive capacity in an attack on NATO and Western Europe. At one time, this was a very real intelligence target, and we devoted a lot of resources to it. You begin by developing a baseline, infantry, aircraft, and armor, re-supply and support units, communications, chain of command. Then you monitor their activity. What compromises routine? This gives you background, so you can identify a break in routine, a heightened alert status or ready condition, any significant change in the threat posture.

Applying this to the Trump world, there's an immediate benefit. You distance yourself. You don't let it suck all the air out of the room. You don't take it personally. Establish a baseline, cultivate context. Don't miss the forest for the trees. For all its ambiguities and improbabilities, its fabrications and false flags, it's not that impossible a tangle. Messy, yes. Impenetrable, no.

Spycraft is mental discipline. It's not proof against hysteria, and it can't remedy willful ignorance, but it's a compass heading, possibly even an exit strategy.  

JUSTIFY: the Old Spook and the Flowerspy at a rainy Pimlico, Preakness 2018



22 May 2018

Noir at the Opportunity Bar

by Michael Bracken

Eeek!
In late March 2003 I lost my job. Well, I didn’t actually lose it, to steal a Bobcat Goldthwait joke, I knew exactly where it was, but when I went back there, someone else was doing it. Within a week, I was offered, and I accepted, a freelance editing gig that provided me with an income foundation sufficient to jumpstart my third attempt at full-time freelancing.

In January 2018, a few months shy of 15 years together, that client and I parted ways. Our parting was amicable, leaving open the possibility of working together again in the future, but the immediate impact was an income loss exceeding $13,000/year.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Losing that client also freed up 10-plus work hours each week, and I’ve been surprised at how many opportunities have arisen since January, most of them related to writing crime fiction, and many of them opportunities I might have turned down for lack of time had they come only a few months earlier.

One of them was an invitation to participate in Noir at the Bar Dallas on April 18.
Michael Pool and Michael Bracken

Michael Pool—novelist, short story writer, and editor/publisher of the recently deceased Crime Syndicate Magazine—extended the invitation, and accepting meant nearly 10 hours away from home and an unknown amount of time prepping for the event.

Of course, I accepted.

Although I attended an in-hotel Noir at the Bar at the New Orleans Bouchercon and part of the Noir at the Bar Bouchercon at the Rivoli in Toronto, I’d never participated in one. I have, however, done readings at science fiction/fantasy conventions, only one of which—a midnight, adults-only reading of erotic science fiction to a packed room at Archon many years ago—turned out well.

The other readings—all half-hour solo acts—drew audiences of one, two, and half-a-dozen.

PRACTICE MAKES NEAR-PERFECT

I chose to read “Texas Sundown” from Down & Out: The Magazine #3, an 1,800-word noir story written in first person. The first time I read the story aloud it fit within the seven-to-nine minutes authors were expected to fill. During each subsequent read-through, though, the story grew longer and longer, until I realized I had stopped rushing through it and was adding dramatic pauses.

To wrangle the story back into my allotted time, Temple helped me excise words, phrases, and entire sentences that read well on the page but which were unnecessary when the story was read aloud.

SHOWTIME

Temple and I left home early, knowing a less-than-two-hour trip would likely take far longer given traffic on IH35. Sure enough, we encountered near standstill traffic as we neared Dallas. We exited the highway, navigated side streets, and arrived a few minutes early for our 5:30 dinner reservation at Smoke.

After a leisurely dinner, we made our way to The Wild Detectives, where Noir at the Bar Dallas was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. The Wild Detectives is an older home in the Oak Cliff neighborhood converted into a bookstore/bar, with an eclectic selection of reading material and seating both inside and outside.

Temple and I arrived early. We claimed one end of a picnic table near the outside stage in what had been the home’s backyard, and I goofed around onstage before any other presenters arrived. Soon, Temple’s daughter Emily, who knows I’m a writer but who had never read any of my work, joined us, as did the other presenters, their families, their friends, and audience members attracted to the event.

Texas weather is quite fickle, often inappropriate for outside events where sweating is discouraged. That evening, it was perfect: dry, cool, and comfortable, an uncommon combination. The backyard was packed, the audience was appreciative, and all of the authors brought their A game.

Michael Pool was both the host and a presenter for the evening. Tim Bryant, Eryk Pruitt, Clay Reynolds, Carlos Salas, LynDee Walker, and I were presenters. The first three authors read their work while the sun was dipping low in the sky. After a break, and after the sun had set, the last four authors read. Background sounds throughout the evening included sirens of all kinds—appropriate for a reading by crime fiction writers—and in the alley behind the fence blue lights flashed as if a patrol car or emergency vehicle had parked back there. Afterward, we talked with each other and with audience members.

Reading “Texas Sundown”
Unlike some of the authors, I brought nothing with me to sell because I don’t usually tote books around. I did have and did distribute a flyer prepared by Lance Wright at Down & Out Books that promoted, on the top half, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea, Passport to Murder, and Down & Out: The Magazine #3, all of which contain my short stories. The bottom half of the flyer was devoted to Michael Pool’s first novel, Texas Two-Step.

FINDING BALANCE

Will I participate in another Noir at the Bar if invited? Absolutely!

I met several writers new to me, heard great stories and poetry presented in an entertaining fashion, and learned that I can—with appropriate practice—read in public without embarrassing myself.

Did I have to lose a major client in order to participate? Probably not, but it would have been much more difficult to take advantage of this opportunity—and the many others that have recently come my way—if I had to shoehorn it into an already packed schedule.

Being a freelancer means learning to balance opportunity and revenue in a meaningful way. Sometimes the work we most enjoy is the least remunerative.

Seeking nothing but dollar signs can have us no better off than we were as wage slaves, doing work we don’t enjoy just to put bread on the table. Doing only the things we enjoy, however, can mean having no bread on the table at all.

I’ve been lucky. I like my clients and I enjoy most of what I do, but I’m even more enjoying some things—such as Noir at the Bar Dallas—I’ve been able to do with the extra 10 hours I have each week.

(And don’t cry for me. Nearly half the lost income has already been replaced thanks to existing clients.)


Richard Krauss interviewed me for the June 2018 issue of The Digest Enthusiast. The wide-ranging interview fills 17 pages, reveals my pseudonyms, and touches on work written in a variety of genres. And, yes, that's me on the cover.

My private eye story “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was the story of the week at Tough, April 23, 2018.

21 May 2018

Sticking It Out

Guest starring Brendan DuBois
Jan Grape invited a guest whom we are honored to have with us today. Brendan DuBois is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and nearly 160 short stories. His latest mystery novel, HARD AGROUND, was published this past April by Pegasus Books. His next novel, THE NEGOTIATOR, is set to be published this August by Midnight Ink. He's currently working on a series of works with bestselling novelist James Patterson, with publications set for early 2019.

Brendan's short fiction has appeared in Playboy, The Saturday Evening Post, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and numerous anthologies including THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE CENTURY, published in 2000, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY, published in 2010.
His stories have thrice won him the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, a Derringer Award, and have also earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

Brendan is also a Jeopardy! game show champion.
— Jan Grape and Rob Lopresti


Sticking It Out
by Brendan DuBois


Last month I had the fun and privilege of going to Manhattan for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards ---- or as we call them in our house, Passover (hah-hah-hah) --- and had a fabulous time. The best part of Edgars week is catching up with old friends and making new ones, hobnobbing with agents and editors and other writers, and reinvigorating ones sense of being part a great writing community.

On one afternoon, I attended a wonderful reception at Dell Magazines --- publishers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine --- and among the attendees were two old friends of mine, writers Doug Allyn and S.J. Rozan.

As we talked, laughed and gossiped with editors Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan, assistant editor Jackie Sherbow, and authors Jeffrey Deaver and Peter Lovesey, it was a just reminder of how far I’ve come in publishing. When I was just a kid, writing short fiction at the age of twelve, I dreamed about coming to Manhattan and hanging out in publishing offices.

At some point, some of us realized that three of us --- Doug, S.J., and myself --- had all gotten published by either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock within a year or so of each other back in 1986. I think the three of us looked at each other and all thought the same thing: thirty years! And look how good we all looked! And we are still getting published in both magazines, as well as novels and other works.

Later that week, I joined up with S.J. and Doug at the Dell Magazines table during the Edgars banquet, and as part of the ceremony, there’s a slide show depicting past Edgar winners, and when it came to the 1980s and 1990s, the three of us commented on fellow short story authors who had won Edgars, had published for a few years, and then… disappeared.


What happened?

The three of us discussed this a bit, talking about these past friends and co-authors, and while a couple of them had died over this time period, what of the others?

I don’t know about Doug or S.J., but I felt a slight shudder pass through me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and to be a published author back in 1986 was one of my greatest accomplishments. How could someone just… stop? Give up? Never return again to writing?

And what could someone do to prevent this from happening?

What are the keys to having a lengthy writing career?

Some thoughts:

You have to possess something more than just talent. You need drive. Something inside of you pushing you. Many years ago, when I was in college, a good friend of mine had submitted a short story to The New Yorker magazine. It was rejected, but it was a personal rejection, a typewritten note from an editor, encouraging her to submit again. And what did she do? Nothing! She just shrugged and went on with her life, finding joy and satisfaction in something else.

I’m still gobsmacked that she had done that. But you know what? Her life, her decision.

You have to have a thick skin. Rhinoceros skin? Try two rhino skins. Writing is a hard, tough, and lonely business. Here’s a news flash: nobody cares if you write or not. Nobody. It’s all up to you… and you have to realize that in the outset, you’re going to get rejected. Lots of times. Rejected in creative ways you never knew possible.

And some of those rejections will be harsh and deeply personal. And you have to smile, shrug it off, and keep on writing.

Then… you get published! Yay!

And then you really need a thick skin… maybe three rhino skins. The reviews will come in, and some will be great, and some will be awful. And as humans do, you’ll tend to ignore the good reviews and obsess on the negative ones.

Don’t.

As someone once said, opinions (and reviews) are like certain bodily orifices. Everybody has one. There are a number of fine, dedicated and thoughtful reviewers out there, but alas, it’s the mean ones that stick in your mind.


My trick is this: good reviews come from reviewers who know exactly what I was trying to do in a piece of writing. And bad reviews come from ignoramuses who missed the whole point of my story.

Still, again, you need a thick skin. Maybe even four rhino skins!

You have to be willing to stretch yourself, try different things, different approaches. My first published short stories were of a kind, following certain tropes and approaches. But as months and years went by, I decided to experiment.

You can’t keep plowing and re-plowing the old fictional fields. Editors and readers then get bored. So I wrote first person. Third person. Even a couple of second persons. Then I wrote from the point of a view of a woman. A young boy. A… dog! Yes, a dog.

You need to be trying new things, new ways of telling a story. Sure, there’ll be rejections, but in the end, you’ll be your stretching your talent.

You have to seek out new markets, new opportunities. Back in the days when I first started writing short stories, I used a typewriter. Found my markets via Writer’s Digest Guide to Markets. Sent out my stories in a nine-by-twelve manila envelope, with an SASE contained within. And I’d walk up to my mailbox, shooing away the baby dinosaurs as I did so.

Now it’s all electronic. And there are lots of new markets out there, lots of new publishing opportunities. When I first started out, self-publishing was considered icky, the sign of a loser. Now? I self publish novels that I’ve retained the rights to, and have self-published a number of original anthologies of my own short fiction.

Opportunities had changed, and so had I.

And, lastly, you still have to love it.

Not to mention that there aren’t setbacks, or disappointments, or career plans that founder on the shoals of reality and publishing.

But still, I can’t go without a day without writing.

More than it’s what I do, it’s what I am.

My friend Doug mentioned this at another ceremony during Edgars Week, where Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine gave out the Reader’s Choice Award. He said something to the effect that decades later, he still loved being in the writing game, that he still loved it.

And so do I.

20 May 2018

Crime Song

by Leigh Lundin

My brother Glen never met a music genre he didn’t like. He came by it honestly, learning brass and reeds as a kid while he tinkered with a marimba. Glen went on to learn guitar and keyboards as I messed with percussion. We’ve attended rock concerts, symphonies, and baroque chamber orchestras. We’ve enjoyed progressive rock, hard rock, fusion, and blues. He’s gone on to embrace electronica, trance, industrial, rap, and world music.

Recently he sent me a link to a familiar early 60s Mersey band, The Hollies, one of the few British Invasion bands still performing. As well as they were received in the US with The Air that I Breathe, Bus Stop, He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother), and numerous other songs, The Hollies grew even more wildly popular overseas.

One of my favorite tunes was the echoic Long Cool Woman, but I’d never listened closely to it. Glen’s link contained lyrics and I suddenly realized it’s a crime song. I found it easy to imagine RT Lawton penning a ballad like this.

Take a listen. Here’s Long Cool Woman:


… and here find the lyrics:

19 May 2018

Hints and Shortcuts


by John M. Floyd





This post is a followup to a column I did two weeks ago called "Manuscript Mechanics." (By the way, Leigh Lundin did an excellent followup already, in his SS post Manuscript Mechanics II the day after mine--check it out also.) As in my first post, much of what I'll say today is pretty basic and should be familiar to you, but I've been surprised at how many writers either don't know these things or have forgotten them.

Imagine I'm telling you an old joke. If you've heard it, feel free to roll your eyes and tune me out. (I'm used to that.) But if you haven't heard it, you might be as pleased as I've been with how much time and how many headaches these hints can save. And, unlike my previous post, the information here can apply to all kinds of writing.

Here goes. A guy walks into a bar . . .



1. Everyone knows about using the keyboard to copy/cut/paste (Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V)--but did you know that you can do a "select all" with the shortcut Ctrl-A? Also, if you make a mistake you can undo it without using the dropdown command menu. Just use Ctrl-Z. It'll even back you up more than one occurrence. Hit Ctrl-Z several times, and it'll take you back to whatever previous point you want, repairing missteps as you go. This saved me recently when I was trying to delete a word in a looooooong email I had saved as a draft, and when I hit the delete key my computer thought I was trying to delete the entire email. I wasn't, but it did. I almost panicked, and said some unkind words, and then realized I could hit Ctrl-Z and bring the email back from the ashes. (By the way, for Apple users, the Command key is used instead of Ctrl.)

2. How do you replace italicized text with underlined text, and vice versa? Some markets (AHMM is one of them) prefer underlining instead of italics, in their submissions--but I usually do all my drafts using italics. If you have a completed manuscript that includes italics, you can change italicized text to underlined text for the entire manuscript in one swoop: Open "Find and Replace," click in the "Find What" box, click on "Format" in the dropdown menu, then click "Font" and choose "Italic" and click OK. Then click in the "Replace With" box, and (under Format/Font) choose a single underline under "Underline Style" and click OK. Then click "Replace All," and it's done. To change it back again, reverse the operation.

3. How do you replace straight quotes with curly quotes? As anyone who's converted Courier to TNR knows, it's hard to find and change all the straight-up-and-down apostrophes and quotation marks in a manuscript to proper "curved" apostrophes and quotes. A quick way to do it is to just pull up "Find and Replace" and key a single quotation mark into both the "Find What" box and the "Replace With" box and click "Replace All." Then do the same with double quotation marks. When you're finished, all apostrophes, single quotes, and double quotes should now be corrected.

4. Highlight using the arrow keys. Sometimes it's difficult to highlight certain text with just the mouse. If ever you need to be exact, and (for example) highlight everything up to a particular character but not including that character, you can just hold down the Shift key while pressing the right- or left-arrow key. But here's the real time-saver: If the text to be highlighted (and then copied, changed, deleted, etc.) is a single word, there's no need to stripe it or use the arrow keys. Just double-click on the word, and presto, it's highlighted.

5. What's the best way to copy/paste a manuscript into the body of an email? If a market requires the submission of a manuscript as a part of the email rather than as an attachment, it can be hard to paste the story directly into the body of the email without gorking up the spacing and formatting. Here's a good way to do that without risk: save the manuscript first as a plain-text (.txt) file in your Word program, then close it and open it again, and then paste it into your email. It will now be formatted correctly. NOTE: As I mentioned in my post last week, saving a regular manuscript in plain-text will convert everything to Courier 10-point font whether you want it to or not, and will lose any special features like italics and underlining. Emphasized text can be indicated, however, by typing an underscore (_) immediately before and after any text (letter, word, phrase, whatever) that should've been italicized or underlined. If by chance you save it as .txt and it doesn't convert it to 10-point Courier (this sometimes happens, for some reason), you're still okay--just remember that your special characters are still lost, and you'll still need to substitute the underscores.

6. Turn off widows and orphans. Another way of saying this: Turn on widow/orphan suppression. Like #5, this is more of a safeguard than a shortcut. If widow/orphan control is left activated, you'll wind up with some manuscript pages that look far too short--some of them seem to end two-thirds of the way down the page. So I turn it off. It really doesn't matter to me, and I don't think it matters to editors either, whether there is a single ending line of a paragraph at the top of a page or a single beginning line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page. Consistency is more important.



Please let me know of any other handy tricks-of-the-trade you might've discovered, or even any pet-peeve issues you might have, with all this. Writing is hard enough work already, and I'd like to make it easy as I can, not only for myself but for the editors I send my stories to.

Best of luck to all of you who type and submit manuscripts of any kind. Keep me posted!








18 May 2018

Face the Music: Public Readings and How to Survive Them

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck



There are few terrors greater than being faced with reading your work in front of an audience, particularly when they are strangers, or not even fans of the genre. Public speaking is a skill, and I don't want to hear writers whinging that they are introverts and just want to stay at home with their cats. No one forced you to write your book. If you were so private, it would be sitting on a closet shelf like Emily Dickinson's poems. Cut the humble shy wallflower act. Being nervous about what people will think of your book doesn't mean you are a selfless monk devoid of ego in the temple just waiting for enlightenment to strike.

It's natural to be nervous about it. However, you are doing yourself, your readers, and your colleagues a disservice if you do not practice reading aloud when you're home alone with your bored cats, whimpering dogs, and headphone-wearing partners and children. We can tell when you show up having never read this story aloud before, unless you are very well practiced at reading in public in general. Some have the knack, the gift of gab, the desire to have an audience, willing or not. And good for them. I remember the first time I read poetry in front of the Rutgers-Newark English department. I gripped that podium so tightly I thought it would shatter into timbers. Before that, remember reading a presentation in 5th grade on deer, where I was shaking like a sizzling slice of bacon in a pan, having to say "urine" with a straight face in front of my classmates. I got a little hammy after that, the class clown act in middle school and high school, doing silly spoofs of Shakespeare. That confidence faded the moment I had to read something I had written in front of people who read books for a living.

Practice does help. "Noir at the Bar" readings, where you can socially lubricate if necessary, can be a good start as long as you don't let the drink in your hand become a crutch. Invite your friends, they'll mimic their rapt attention, or look at their phones and say they were posting a photo of you to Instagram to boost your social media presence. Join a writer's association like the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and so on, and you can ask to be a reader at their events, surrounded by friendly writers who know what it's like to be up there. I did all of that. I even hosted Noir at the Bar in Manhattan for the longest year of my life-- that's another column, but if you host one of those events, you suddenly become every writer's unpaid publicist-- and all those accomplishments helped:

Now I can say "urine" in front of a crowd of strangers and not even snicker.

I had a stealth strategy, helped along by some of my pub family. They like karaoke. Some of them even insist on pronouncing it like they're in Tokyo, where it's done differently, in a private room among friends. You can do this in Koreatown in Manhattan as well, and I'm sure in other cities with such neighborhoods, if you prefer privacy, but to me that misses the point. It helps to have grown up in and around bars. My uncle ran bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan for thirty years. I never visited one, to my chagrin--I wanted to be a bouncer, like Sascha the Slovenian, who busted knees with his club and smashed The Infamous Urinal Pooper's face on a car hood--but it was not to be. I did sit on a stool at Grandinetti's next to my grandfather and drink a Coca-Cola before Sunday dinner, while he nursed a Pabst. And I've been to every tavern in northeastern New Jersey so my father could drink while we kids had burgers and fries. Bar patrons often have the blues, and when you have the blues, you want to sing about it.

So, American karaoke is more about flipping through a binder full of songs until you find the one that reflects your soul, and belting it out in front of a bunch of people who just want to drink and not hear your caterwauling. And what better way to get a thick skin about reading in public? So what if you can't sing, few can. Even the good ones can maybe belt out one song or singer, and know not to step out of their wheelhouse. Or should. I don't. I'm a tenor. I've sang everything from Elvis to Guns 'n Roses, growled out John Fogerty, flopped terribly trying to keep up with the Ramones, serenaded my wife with a gender-bent version of the DiVinyls "I Touch Myself", and done duets of "Love Shack" by the B-52's that brought down the house, and been hugged by strangers on their birthdays for my emotional rendition of "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morrissette.

Comedians know. Sometimes you kill, sometimes you bomb. More often, you face a storm front of indifference. That's the ugly truth. Even if you silence a room with your reading, it doesn't mean that they are waiting with bated breath for the climax. It's a better sign than the audience talking amongst themselves, but don't get cocky. Unless it's a book event for you, they may not even be there to hear you. Even if it is your event, they may only be there to ask how they can get their epic about their Uncle Oogie and his funny-looking foot made into a movie with Tom Hanks. Hey, you write the script, use my idea, we'll both be billionaires. But it's more likely for people to show up to your events if you are a practiced reader who respects the audience.

Some advice:
Keep it short. This is another reason you practice reading at home. A "short" story of 2500 words can take 15-20 minutes to read, which is an eternity. Read excerpts. Read the good parts. Give a short introduction and start where stuff happens.

Be entertaining. If you want to read a nuanced and powerful piece, by all means do so, but read the room. If you're not alone, and the writer before you just read about a puppy who died defusing an atom bomb, you might want to chat a little bit about your book or what inspired the story so they can finish wiping their eyes and put away their tissues. Bring a backup story. I didn't do that for my only reading at Noir at the Bar D.C., where Josh Padgett brought in a great crowd. An older crowd. I had read host Ed Aymar's stories, Nik Korpon was there, they both are a little raunchy. So I brought my story "Gunplay," a hilarious poke at gun fetishism. (It went really well when Hilary Davidson read it at Shade in Manhattan, for our story swap.) I'm no Hilary Davidson. I read it to be funny, but the groans from the audience told me that a couple who cosplays as Union soldier and Scarlett O'Hara with live ammunition in the bedroom wasn't their cup of sweet tea!

I finished anyway, took a bow, and lost the audience favorite in the voting. But they will remember my name. It's not always so bad, I've had many readers come up and tell me how much they liked a story at a reading. It's a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience. It's part of the job. Even if you never do readings, chances are you will be on a panel, flanked by witty and seasoned writers, and you will have to hold your own. Or worse, you'll be next to That Guy who hogs the mike and bullies the moderator into making it a one-man show, and you will need the chutzpah to interrupt and grab the wheel of the bus so you and your fellow writers can get a word in edgewise. To some people this comes naturally. For the rest of us, practice makes passable. Read to your cat. Sing to your dog.

And be thankful for the printing press, or we'd all be reciting our stories like Homer. Maybe we'd be so good the king would pluck our eyes out so we couldn't wander off.

17 May 2018

This Is The Way We Avoid Writing...Avoid Writing...

The guy it all started with...THIS time.
by Brian Thornton

This time it all started with Ezra Meeker

A pioneer Northwesterner, an Oregon Trail settler who became famous for enriching himself by cornering the world's hop market during the late 19th century, Meeker, was an early and enthusiastic booster of Washington, first as a growing territory, and later as a new state.

I have a project set around the time that Washington became a state (1889) which involves an "Immigrant Inspector" assigned to the Puget Sound area by the INS. As such he has run-ins with illegal immigrants (mostly at this point Chinese), sex slave trafficking rings, drug (mostly opium) smugglers, railroad labor wranglers, railroad labor agitators, and a whole host of others.

With Meeker playing such a prominent role in the early history of the region, I decided that I wanted to dedicate a portion of this on-going project to the South Sound region, and doing research on Meeker and his large extended family seemed like a great starting place for historical evidence that might be used to dress up my germ of a story.

Several rounds of ever-expanding Google searches about Meeker and his extended clan helped lead me to Asa Mercer.


Asa Mercer after he'd left Washington for Wyoming

Poking around in the back yard of the Meekers brought me around to a ton of information on another prominent Washington family: the Mercers, specifically the younger of the original two Mercer brothers, the restless, energetic Asa Mercer.

Now, I write historical mystery. I have a Master's degree in history, and I am a native of the Pacific Northwest, so I've had research-based encounters with both the Meeker and the Mercer families before. This is not new ground for me.

This time, however, I was doing historical research for a fiction-based purpose. So tidbits I might have not bothered pursuing previously, when I was still writing predominantly nonfiction, struck me as worth pursuing, this time around.

This included Asa Mercer's connection with the nascent University of Washington (as a young man he helped build the school's original building, and also served as both its first president, and its first teacher), and his subsequent much more pop-culture friendly association with the so-called "Mercer Girls."
Young Asa Mercer: Check out that pompadour!

For those unfamiliar with the Mercer Girls, here's the short version of the story:

Mercer recognized that the majority of settlers in Washington Territory were young, single (and overwhelmingly white) men. Recognizing an opportunity, Mercer headed east to New England, where, during the height of the Civil War, he convinced a significant number of young, unmarried women to travel to the Puget Sound area, luring them with the promise of "honest work" such as teaching jobs, and the greater likelihood of them finding eligible bachelors who could make good husbands.

These intrepid young women all went on to work in the region as schoolteachers. Nearly all of them would later marry, have children, and serve as the human roots of any number of current Northwest family trees.

Nearly a century after their arrival in Puget Sound the Mercer Girls went on to serve as the inspiration for a "comic western" television series produced between 1968 and 1970.

I'm talking about Here Come the Brides, of course.

A sappy TV show which has not aged well, Here Come the Brides featured three young actors, two of whom spent considerable time during the '60s and '70s as "teen heart-throbs": Bobby Sherman and David Soul.
These two.
Sherman would go on to a moderately successful career as a pop singer/songwriter, and Soul went on to play Hutch in Starsky & Hutch, then to England, where he was still acting as late as 2014.

And the third guy?

He's Robert Brown.

He's the guy on the right, Those are some sweeeeet gloves.

Here Come the Brides was pretty much the high-water mark of Robert Brown's career, name-recognition-wise. And of course when I came across his picture in the course of digging deeper down into this particular rabbit hole, I recognized him right away.

But not for his work on Here Come the Brides.

Nope.

There's a Star Trek connection.

Yep, I'm a Trekkie.

Nope, not a "Trekker." I don't dress up or go to conventions, or speak Klingon. I just LOVE Star Trek, and have since I was four (the year the original series was canceled).

So of course I recognized Robert Brown from his guest-starring role in the Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor." As the time-traveler Lazarus, he played a dual role (same guy, two universes. In one he's sane. In the other, he's not.).

He was great.

And he gets to rock a fake beard that looks waaaay worse than either Ezra Meeker's or Asa Mercer's!
Now, I have a rule when it comes to researching for my writing. If I come across anything remotely relating to Star Trek, the writing of Ross MacDonald, the music of Miles Davis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Ryan Adams, or the poetry of William Butler Yeats, I am required to cease all research, get away from the computer, and go do something which might be remotely productive.

Because given the excuse, I will dig down that particular rabbit hole all the way to China!

So there you have it:

Ezra Meeker. Asa Mercer. Mercer Girls. Here Come The Brides. Robert Brown. Star Trek.

This is the way we avoid writing today.

(But tomorrow is another day!)

See you in two weeks!


16 May 2018

Five Red Herrings, Tenth School


by Robert Lopresti

1.  Derringer Days.  Yesterday the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the winners of the Derringer Awards and I couldn't help but notice that I was one of them, specifically for Best Short.  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23.  You can read what I had to say about it here and here.  Congratulations to my fellow winners, Brendan Dubois, David H. Hendricksen, and Earl Staggs.  But let's have a big round of applause for the winner of this year's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Gold Derringer for Lifetime Achievement.  That went to our own John M. Floyd!  Well deserved, too.

2. Free pictures!  It's always nice to find a new source for public domain illustrations.  (We bloggers love them, anyway.)  The Library of Congress very kindly sorted out the pictures on their website that are free for the taking.  (See the one below.)  Enjoy.


3. Underpaid through the ages. The University of Missouri Libraries has done a great service for anyone writing historical fiction.  Prices and Wages by Decades links you to actual government publications from the 1700s forward reporting on how much things cost and how much people were paid.  

4. Man With The Axe.  Last time I did one of these gather-alls I mentioned Lowering the Bar, which talks about the odd side of the legal biz.   I have to point out the story above which informs us that in a single incident a man in New York was charged with:
driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs, no license plates, unregistered motor vehicle, uninspected motor vehicle, operating without insurance, no front windshield, and no safety glass.

But on the bright side for him,  it turned out there is no law in the Empire State against driving around with an axe embedded in the roof of your car.


5. Shanks does Japan. According to an automatic translation app, the title of the book at the right is Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  Could be, but in English it's Shanks on Crime. First time I have ever appeared in Japanese.  I wish Shanks a long and happy visit there.



15 May 2018

Giving Thanks

by Barb Goffman

It may be six months until Thanksgiving, but when the urge to thank people moves you, I say, go with your urges.

Writing fiction might feel like working in a vacuum because so much of the time the author is sitting alone in front of a computer, typing away. Even if the writing occurs in a public place, the writer is essentially toiling alone (except for the voices in her head). But we all need help from time to time, and it's a wondrous thing to work in an industry--the mystery community--where people are willing to help others, even eager to do it. They were helped along the way, and they like to give back by helping others.

Take Barbara Ross. She's a mystery writer from New England. Last month she gave a presentation to my local Sisters in Crime chapter in Virginia about promotion--what works and what doesn't. We didn't pay her to do this. She was going to be in the area and has a bit of expertise in this subject and didn't mind spending a chunk of her day sharing her knowledge with others, so she did. Mystery writers do things like this for others all the time. Heck, it's what so many of the blog posts here at SleuthSayers aim to do: help other writers. To all the Barbara Rosses out there, thanks.

There are other people we writers often turn to for assistance: subject-matter experts. I was reminded of this recently when I was answering a question posed to me about my newest short story, "Till Murder Do Us Part." The question was: Do police officers really use peppermint-scented masks to avoid terrible odors at death scenes. (A sheriff's chief deputy wears just such a mask in my story.) And my answer was yes, some do. I got the information from a subject-matter expert who gives his time, free of charge, to help authors get details right. It's also how I knew to call this particular character a chief deputy. So to Lee Lofland and all subject-matter experts who help authors get their  lingo and other details right, thank you.

You don't have to be a professional in any particular field, however, to have useful information for an author. Personal experience can be wonderfully helpful. When I was writing "Till Murder Do Us Part," I needed to know what it looked, smelled, and sounded like when a cow exploded. There's only so much information I could find online. I needed someone with personal experience to answer my questions. Bless my Facebook friends; they came through. None of these people are farmers, but they all spent time on farms growing up, had firsthand knowledge with exploding cows, and didn't mind providing pertinent details. So thank you to my friends Bob Harris, Gwen Mayo, and Teresa Wilder for their help with these details. And thank you to everyone I know who has, over the years, shared personal information that enabled me to get details right. Everyone is an expert in their own lives, after all. You just need to know who to ask about what.

For instance, if you need information about writing, ask some writers. Just today, I had a friend who was feeling down because she hasn't yet had luck selling her first novel. (It's great--I've read it--but sometimes these things take time. Not every agent is right for every author and book.) I figured it might help her to hear from other authors who had a lot of rejection before they had success, so I asked my Facebook friends to share their stories. And did they. About thirty authors shared their stories of querying and querying and querying until, finally, they had success.
Not the right paper for professional
queries, but very pretty





Three of these authors sent out more than 400 queries each, and for two of them, when they finally got published, their first book was nominated for major awards. These are perfect examples of the importance of persistence. Hearing these personal stories helped my friend, and my heart was warmed that so many people shared what some might think is embarrassing information in order to help another writer have confidence to continue querying. Rejection is just a step on the journey to success, but it's never easy. So to all my fellow authors who shared their stories on my Facebook page yesterday, and to authors everywhere who regularly share their insights to help others get published, thank you.

The list of people to thank feels endless, which is lovely, because it shows that wherever you turn, there are helpful people. Thank you to the agents, editors, and publishers who have taken a chance on me and other writers. Every one of us was new at some point and needed someone to give us our big break. Thank you to all of you who've done that.

Thank you to the bookstores, librarians, reviewers, and bloggers who buy our books and share them with the world. You help make our dreams come true. And finally, we authors would be nowhere without readers. You buy our books, enabling us to buy our food and feed our dreams. So thank you.

Before I end, a little BSP with a little more thanks thrown in: First, the launch party for Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (in which I have my cow story, "Till Murder Do Us Part") is this Sunday, May 20th, at the Central Library in Arlington, VA, from 2 - 4 p.m. If you're in the DC area, I hope you'll come to the event and share in our celebration. Books will be sold and snacks will be served.

Second, this past week I was honored to have my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" nominated for an Anthony Award, along with stories by fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor and authors Susanna Calkins, Jen Conley, Hilary Davidson, and Debra H. Goldstein. You can read my story on my website by clicking here. Art's story is available here. Debra's story is available here. Hopefully Susanna's, Jen's, and Hilary's stories will be available to read for free online soon. In the meanwhile, you can buy the books these stories were published in. Congratulations also to SleuthSayers Thomas Pluck, nominated in the best paperback original category, and Paul Marks, nominated in the best anthology category.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to send in ballots for the Anthony Award nominations, and especially thanks to everyone who listed my story on their ballot. With so many good stories published each year, receiving an honor like this is, well, an honor. A true honor. So ... thanks.

If you have someone you'd like to mention or thank who helped you on your life's journey, I welcome you to do it in the comments. And thanks for reading.

14 May 2018

Seeing Eye To Ear

by Steve Liskow

When I was young, I wanted to play piano but my parents wouldn't drive me across town to my great aunt's house to practice on her Steinway baby grand. They let me study violin instead, and I quit after one year. Years later when the British Invasion hit, I was one of thousands of guys who saw girls go crazy over the Beatles. In 1966, I spent twenty-five dollars on a Stella Harmony guitar with strings thicker than coat hanger wire and set about cultivating terrible technique and a crop of blisters.



Since then, I've bought, sold or traded at least twenty guitars and a half dozen amplifiers. Right now, I own five guitars, two of which are for sale. Around the Millennium, I bought a used Roland keyboard and have wasted lots of time and a little money on books that promised to turn me into the next Glenn Gould, Otis Spann or Dave Brubeck. None of them did.


A few months ago, I saw a series of DVDs on playing piano at a ludicrously low price and decided to bet on one more losing hand. Surprise, the videos are excellent. After watching the first three, I understand the keyboard and music theory better than I ever have before. Piano gives you a fuller understanding of what is going on in a song because you play two separate lines. It's changing how I look at and hear the guitar, too.

The old blues players often used alternate guitar tunings, which I avoided until I bought a resonator guitar and started playing slide more often. Different tunings change the sound of a chord you've heard for years, and it forces you to think about what those tones mean. I'll never be great on either guitar or piano, but I'm thinking a lot more about what I'm doing.

Looking at your writing from a different perspective can have the same effect.

In 2005, I wrote a short story featuring Woody Guthrie (under a different name) and Megan Traine and a rock band. It was a complicated story and one of my friends commented that he had trouble keeping all the characters straight. The story was almost 7000 words long, which meant few markets would look at it, and when I cut characters and words, the whole thing became incoherent. I ran out of places to send it, and it languished on a floppy disc for about four years.

In 2009, someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Among other requirements, entries had to be between 15 and 20 thousand words. Could I expand that short story into a novella and introduce the large cast more gradually?

Over the next four days, I added nine thousand words and nothing felt padded! I'd never considered writing a novella because at that time the market was non-existent. But now I had one on my hands and I sent it out. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2010. I was so used to thinking "short story" that I couldn't see it was really a novella waiting for its growth spurt.

A few years later, something felt wrong near the end of a WIP and I couldn't figure out what it was. I swapped manuscripts with another writer, who suggested that I change the point of view in one of the last scenes. Both characters had POV scenes throughout the book, so the change was feasible. It also made the ending much stronger. Someone with more distance could see that right away.

The Whammer Jammers introduces Hartford detectives Tracy "Trash" Hendrix and Jimmy Byrne exploring the world of roller derby. I interviewed skaters, referees, coaches, boyfriends, announcers, spectators, and Hartford police officers before I developed an outline and started writing. After about sixty pages, I felt like I was hip-deep in quicksand.

That night, I watched a baseball game on TV, the announcers giving the play-by-play in present tense, the way they always do. It dawned on me that Roller Derby is a sport, so what if I went back and changed the book from past tense to present? Bingo. I finished the rough draft in six weeks.

I did lots of research for what I thought would be the third Woody Guthrie novel, too. The more I played with it, the more it felt like it would work better with Zach Barnes in Connecticut. From there, it evolved into a police procedural with Trash and Byrne again. Once I have an outline, I usually produce eight or ten pages a day, but this beast needed three weeks to reach page fifty. I put it aside for a month, and when I looked at it again, I saw that two crucial premises actually contradicted each other. Oops. I recycled about half the characters into The Kids Are All Right, a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

When you revise, you become more committed to what you already have on paper. You tweak, but you don't rebuild. Looking at it from a different angle helps you see other possibilities. What if the other person is the main protagonist? What if you try it as a comedy instead? Should you expand that short story? Could it become a play, or maybe even a screenplay?

Going back to music for a minute, I remember Leonard Bernstein discussing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and saying that the original opening, the da-da-da-DUM, included a flute in the score. Beethoven, one of music's great revisers, realized that a flute didn't belong in that "strong masculine utterance" (Bernstein's words, not mine) and removed it.

Learn from the masters. And maybe pick a different instrument.