08 July 2018

Rapists are Criminals: Why do they live among us?


by Mary Fernando, MD

This is my second interview with the Clinical Forensic Medical Examiner, Dr. Kari Sampsel, the only Canadian physician with a fellowship in Clinical Forensic Sciences. She is a Staff Emergency Physician and the Medical Director of the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at The Ottawa Hospital. 

When victims of  sexual violence come into the emergency room, she is in charge of the rape kit, assessments of sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. She is also responsible for setting up long-term physical and mental health care for these victims.

In the last interview, she stated that one in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime, but less than 20% of victims report the rape immediately. Many suffer with increasing symptoms and then are seen. Some never speak up at all.

There is no other crime that I can think of where the victims are so reluctant to report the crime. Further, a society that believes in the rule of law is poorly served when so many criminals are allowed to commit a serious crime and yet are not held accountable. Imagine, for example, how emboldened car thieves would feel if they knew less than 20% of the thefts would be reported. 

Rape is rarely a crime committed in dark alleyways by strangers. In fact, 85% of rapes are committed by people who know the victim. This suggests that the poor reporting of rape emboldens rapists to assault women they know, largely without fear of any legal consequences. While children are most commonly raped by family members or friends of the family, adult are most often raped by current or past partners, or acquaintances and friends. 

One of the rapes with a great deal of stigma is the rapes by present partners. Many don't see how a present partner can be a rapist. To explain, Dr Sampsel says: “Think of cake. You like cake. But if someone shoves it in your mouth and forces you to keep eating until you feel sick, that would not be OK.” 

The other way to look at this is that rape is assault. If a partner, past or present, or a friend beat a person till they were bloody, breaking their nose and perhaps a few limbs, this would be considered unacceptable in civil society. Assault that is physical, but not sexual, is viewed as unacceptable. Sexual assault should be equally unacceptable. 
When a victim reports a rape, or a series of rapes, the response they encounter can make them walk away and not finish the report. Dr. Sampsel explains that there is often a stereotype of how a rape victim should behave: upset and crying.  

However, the reality is that victims display many behaviours. Some are so upset that they are closed off, unable to make eye contact or articulate what happened. Others, will be angry and in ‘protester’ mode, trying to get justice. Some can even look fairly normal, reporting as factually as they can about the incident or multiple incidents.

Add to this the fact that trauma can make victim forget details, the report itself can appear incoherent and less trustworthy. 

Dr. Sampsel points out that, “People are pretty savvy about when they are not believed. If you give someone the ‘I don't believe you vibe’ then they can be done with the process.”
Which brings us to the process itself. It is long and difficult. Completing the evidence kit takes about 2-4 hours. Every sample must be labeled, dated and gathered in a way that maintains the chain of evidence. Also, many of the samples are gathered from places that we think of as private and, if there are lacerations, this can also be painful.

After the history is taken and the samples are gathered, the victim is often faced with the reality that it isn’t safe to return home. If the rapist was a present partner or past partner with access to the victim’s home, either going to a shelter or staying with family or friends helps. Even if the rapist is a friend or acquaintance, their knowledge of where the victim lives could make it unsafe for them to return home. 

Many cities have a victim service, which provides everything from cell phones to volunteers - who will drive victims to their own home to pick up personal belongings, and help them get to a shelter.

If charges against a rapist are laid, they often get 12-18 months in jail. If a weapon was used or there was an attempt to murder the victim, the jail term could be longer. When the rapist is released from jail, the victim is vulnerable to retaliation from the rapist and may get a restraining order.

Does the punishment for rape fit the crime? Jail is certainly punishment. And the rapist must register as a sex offender and this limits the jobs they can get. Perhaps the biggest part of all this is that the rapist learns that they cannot rape with impunity. Rape is a crime. Punishing criminals is not merely about each individual criminal, it is also about deterring future criminals. If every rapist truly feared jail time, the stigma of being a registered sex offender and limited employment opportunities, perhaps one third of women wouldn't face the ordeal of being raped in the first place. 

07 July 2018

Unsung Heroes



by John M. Floyd



Today I'd like to talk about two deceased writers whose stories still delight and inspire me. One of these authors I heard about from an agent I had long ago and the other I discovered when I happened to stumble across one of his stories in an anthology. Both wrote mostly short fiction and were widely published, but almost no one seems to know their names.

The first is Jack Ritchie (born John George Reitci, in 1922, the son of a Milwaukee tailor). Over a period of 35 years Ritchie wrote and published almost 500 short stories, almost all of them mystery/crime/suspense tales, and--like O. Henry--his endings often had a diabolical twist. His fiction appeared regularly in Manhunt, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The New York Daily News, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. (He once had two stories in the same issue of AHMM.)

The only book I own by Mr. Ritchie is Little Boxes of Bewilderment, a collection of 31 of his stories--but I think I've found and read most of the stories that he published. As I've said, a lot of them were featured in mystery magazines, but many can also be found in anthologies, including more than fifty Alfred Hitchcock anthos.

One of Ritchie's stories, "The Green Heart," was adapted into the feature film A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, and another of his stories, "The Absence of Emily," has been filmed twice and won the Edgar Award in 1982. Several of his stories were also adapted for TV series iike Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.

I actually have a connection, of sorts, to Jack Ritchie. His longtime agent, Larry Sternig, was also my agent for several years, until Larry's death in the late 90s. He was one of that rare breed of literary agents who represented short stories, and was in many ways a mentor to me back when I was just getting started in all this. (Larry once told me he talked Robert Bloch, another Milwaukee native, into writing Psycho.) Soon after agreeing to represent my stories, Larry said to me, "One of the things you should do to become a better writer is to read the stories of a guy named Jack Ritchie," and he mailed me two of Ritchie's collections, with an additional note telling me to send them back to him when I was done. I binge-read them both and returned them as requested, and it was only years later that I located a copy of Little Boxes of Bewilderment on Amazon and snapped it up. Ritchie's collections--and his only novel, Tiger Island--are mostly out of print and hard to find.

The other short-story writer I dearly love to read--and whose work has taught me a lot--is Fredric Brown. I had no idea who he was before finding one of his stories, "Voodoo," in an anthology years ago. That story, like many of Brown's, is only about 300 words in length--but it's brilliant.

Fredric Brown was born in Cincinnati in 1906, the son of a newspaperman, and worked as a journalist himself for most of his career. He wrote many novels and hundreds of short stories, and--oddly enough--his work was almost equally divided between mystery and science fiction. (His first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award in 1948.) I own several collections of his, including Miss Darkness (31 mystery/suspense stories), From These Ashes (116 science fiction and fantasy stories), and Nightmares and Geezenstacks (47 short-short stories, which Stephen King called a "particularly important work"). Interesting note: Brown seemed fond of punnish titles, like "Nothing Sirius," "A Little White Lye," and "Pi in the Sky."

Fred Brown's short story "Arena" was used as the basis for the episode of the same name in the original series of Star Trek, and was voted by Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the top twenty SF stories written before 1965. His short story "Naturally" was adapted into Geometrics, a short film by director Guillermo del Toro, and another story, "The Last Martian," was adapted into "Human Interest Story," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His novel The Screaming Mimi became a 1958 movie starring Anita Ekberg and Gypsy Rose Lee.

These two writers had one thing in common, besides their love of the short form and their talent with mystery/crime stories: both had a minimalist style that was long on dialogue and humor and short on exposition and description, and almost always included surprise endings. In their stories, things started out fast and never slowed down. I love that.

If you're interested in trying new authors, here's a list of some of my favorites stories by these two writers:

Jack Ritchie:

Shatter Proof
Traveler's Check
The Absence of Emily
The Green Heart
For All the Rude People
Play a Game of Cyanide
The Best Driver in the County
Memory Test
Number Eight

Fredric Brown:

Nightmare in Yellow
The Laughing Butcher
A Little White Lye
Rebound
The Arena
Voodoo
Answer
Placet Is a Crazy Place

I encourage you to find some of these stories--reading them won't take long. I think you'll like their authors.




06 July 2018

Joy of Writing (Groups)


I'm too old to play in a sandpit anymore with my toy cars, toy gorilla, and action man. And if I did, people would think it odd; at best, eccentric. Some might even alert the authorities. However, as a grownup, I can let my mind wander freely, letting my stories and characters flow (action man, gorilla, et al.). And so long as I do it on paper, no one will bat an eyelid. My joy of writing is creation; the joy of making things up. For me, a blank page of paper is like the sandpit of my childhood. 

I wrote the above, more or less, in about three minutes today (Saturday, May 12). I wrote it from scratch. It was a short writing exercise answering the question: What is your joy of writing?

I belong to a writing group. A bunch of us meet once a month at the local library, and we do things such as talk about writing, discuss competitions, hear from guest writers and speakers (today we had a comprehensive tutorial on social media for writers), and occasionally we undertake short, on-the-spot writing exercises, as above.

The group is delightfully informal (behind the scenes, it is a fully incorporated society). I'm not sure how many people belong, maybe upwards of 40-50, as attendance for some is delightfully casual. There’s a fairly wide range of ages among members, and a fairly wide range of writing experience: published, self-published, not-yet-published. Everyone in the room is a writer. Everyone has a WIP: a book, short story, play, poem, or piece of journalism.

I believe I am the only mystery writer in the room. But I’m not the only former teacher. It seems almost every second member of the group is, or has been, a school teacher… Apropos of nothing.

Children's Writing Workshop with Stu Deval
(Photo ©2018 Becky Carr)
I came late to joining a writing group. I've been writing all my life, but I only went along and joined one two years ago. The gateway drug was a post I chanced upon on Facebook about a guest speaker (Frances Housden) who would be giving a crime/mystery fiction workshop. Visitors welcome. Tea and cookies provided.

    I liked the atmosphere.
    It was local.
    (I took in a cappuccino.)
    I've kept going back.

I’ve said it often: Writers are the friendliest people you’ll meet (and I'll add that mystery writers are the friendliest of the friendly).

The writing of fiction is a solitary pursuit and an unsociable practice. By god, it is the very definition of unsociable. And even if you’re sitting in a crowded café, slamming out chapter 27 of your usurper to the Harry Potter franchise, you’re probably wearing headphones and ignoring everyone... except for the waiter bringing more coffee.

Writing is on the list of unsociable occupations along with IRS employee, jail warden, lone astronaut stranded on a hostile planet, and ascetic cave hermit. So, once a month, it's nice to go along and meet up with others who also do the writing thing, and to talk shop.

Sidebar: I bow to those rare literary pluralists who can truly write in tandem with another.

I work days in an office (software company). If I started randomly talking to my colleagues about first person omniscient, writer's block, word count, page formatting, current submissions, or who was nominated for or won a Derringer Award this year (claps and cheers for Elizabeth, Brendan, Rob, and John), their eyes would glaze over.

I suppose, it's a little bit therapeutic in that respect. A writing group is like an AA meeting. “Hi, my name is Stephen. I'm a writer.  I haven’t written a paragraph since 9 A.M. this morning.”

Sleuthsayers is an online version of a writer's group, with the advantage that it's open 24/7, and we can all be anywhere at all: Florida, Seattle, Canada, down here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or at the Stork Club (Thelma?).

The bottom line is: Belonging to a writer group, be it at the local library, or in cyberspace, is a chance to learn stuff (big or small); to plug into the collective writer mind and soak up new and interesting things. To hang out with fellow travelers.

Did I mention competitions? My writing group has a bunch of them, and one of them this year is a trophy-prized, short-story comp: "Crime and Mystery." I've not yet entered any of the group's competitions, but I plan to (pardon the obligatory pun) give that one a decent stab.

SR


Links:
Frances Housden
Stu Deval

www.StephenRoss.net

05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  — Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  

04 July 2018

Patriotic Gore



by Robert Lopresti


This being the Fourth of July I would like to say a few words about one of our country’s most successful exports. We didn’t invent it, but we have certainly helped spread it around.

In fact, this product has become so popular that even countries which objectively seem to be lacking in it will claim to be rolling in the stuff.


I am referring to democracy.

You may be thinking: well, sis boom bah, but what does this have to do with mystery fiction?

A lot, as it happens. I’m not the first to say this but it bears repeating: mystery fiction only becomes popular in democracies.  (Ahem.  Jeff Baker pointed out that ancient China, not known for its polling stations, brought us Judge Dee.  Okay then.)

I think I know why this is the case. If you live in a country where the laws themselves are secret (as used to be true in the Soviet Union) or the King/Ayatollah/Dear Leader can arbitrarily decide who is guilty, then what’s the point of reading about detectives? If trials are just public theatre to reveal what has already been decided behind the scenes, what use are crime novels?

The author of a cozy mystery believes (or pretends to believe) that he is describing a society in which justice can be done, and therefore investigation matters.

The hardboiled hero lives in a more cynical world, but even she believes that there is some possibility of justice that is worth fighting for. And the hardboiled author believes that she lives in a society in which she can get away with writing so cynically.

One of the earliest proto-detective stories is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. (It has a detective, a Watson character, interrogation of suspects, and a most unlikely killer.) And it is a product of Athenian democracy.

Yes, I know Athens wasn’t such a great democracy, allowing only male citizens to vote. On the other hand, ancient Athenians might argue that a country that only votes every few years and lets representatives decide all the specific issues is a funny kind of democracy, too.

Another play from that era is Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, which shows the punishment of crime moving from the realm of direct vengeance or divine punishment to the decisions of impartial juries.

I wrote most of what you see above a decade ago and it appeared then at Criminal Brief.  I can't say I have as much faith in democracy as I did back then.  Terms like collusion, emoluments, and interference may have something to do with that.

The last few years have shown us so many things that no fiction writer would dare to put in a novel.  As someone said authors have to be believable but God doesn't.  

Have sales of paranoid thrillers been rising while crime novels have dropped? Expand this to 300 pages and you can get a Ph.D.

But in the mean time, go ahead and wave a flag if you feel like it. It’s the mysterious thing to do.

03 July 2018

Manuscript Janitor


I’m a manuscript janitor. I get paid to clean up electronic manuscripts to prepare them for editing and eventual publication. I’m the guy who removes all the extraneous junk writers and their word processing programs insert into files, and I’m the guy who takes all the inconsistent formatting and makes it consistent before editors begin the arduous task of turning word vomit into publishable copy.

Sometimes I hate writers for making me do all this work, but I would earn significantly less if they didn’t, and I earn more per hour cleaning up these messes than some writers earn creating them. Want to take food out of my mouth, save publishers money, and make editors happy? Learn to submit clean manuscripts.

THE FIRST GO-ROUND

Some of the many things I correct while cleaning up electronic manuscripts:

Extra Spaces. Don’t put extra spaces between words, between sentences, at the beginning of paragraphs, at the end of paragraphs, or on otherwise empty lines.

Tab Characters. Don’t randomly insert tabs. (Note: Many editors prefer you indent paragraphs using the Format Paragraph drop-down menu. More important than whether you do this or indent paragraphs by pressing the tab key once at the beginning of each paragraph is that you indent paragraphs exactly the same way each and every time throughout the entire manuscript. And don’t ever indent paragraphs by pressing the spacebar multiple times.)

Manual Line Breaks Instead of Paragraph Marks. Always end paragraphs by pressing the return key. (Note: Holding down the shift key and pressing the return key inserts a Manual Line Break. Don’t.)

Improperly Used Dashes. Know the difference between the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash, and use them properly. (Note: House styles differ on whether or not there should be a space before and after the em dash. If in doubt, choose one style and be consistent throughout your entire manuscript.)

Sadly, the design department at my alma mater
does not know the difference between
an apostrophe and a single opening quotation
mark, leading to errors like this.
Quotation Marks (single and double) and apostrophes. Any text that will be professionally published will require the use of proper quotation marks (commonly referred to as curly quotes or typographer’s quotes), so use them. Do not use a single opening quotation mark when an apostrophe is the proper symbol.

The above problems appear in so many manuscripts that I do a series of search-and-replace passes through every manuscript to find and correct these problems.

THE SECOND GO-ROUND

Some of the changes I make address the requirements of individual publisher clients, and some of what I clean out of electronic files prior to beginning the editorial process is unique to individual writers, so I have developed search-and-replace procedures specific to them.

For example, one publisher’s house style requires a space before and after all em dashes, another requires that all author bylines be typed in caps. I address these and many other house style issues during the second go-round.

I have also learned the foibles of several writers whose work I regularly see. For example, one writer consistently misuses a word, using instead a sound-alike word, so when cleaning up that writer’s manuscripts I search for and replace the misused word with the correct word. Another writer consistently fails to put the comma after the state in statements such as “I went to Waco, Texas, to visit the Silos.” So, I search for state names and insert the missing commas as appropriate.

Then I format every manuscript to look identical. For one client this means 14-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, with a .5” indent on the first line of every paragraph.

THE THIRD GO-ROUND

The third go-round is the actual editing phase. After I have performed my janitorial duties, I pass the manuscripts on to the publishers’ editors. Depending on the client, it may be a single editor or it may be a team of editors, each tasked with a different responsibility. Some editors are subject matter experts, ensuring the accuracy of the information presented, while others edit for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Regardless of how many editors touch the manuscripts, sooner or later the manuscripts come back to me for a final pass. This is when I make last-minute tweaks before sending the manuscripts into production.

Production imports the electronic manuscripts into page layout programs such as InDesign, and the cleaner the electronic manuscripts, the less effort it takes production to format text and lay out pages.

ROUND AND ROUND

Not all publishers use manuscript janitors (which isn’t even a real title). In many cases, the janitorial duties fall to copyeditors, who perform these tasks as part of the editing process rather than separate from it. Regardless, someone has to clean up the messes writers make.

In fact, right now there’s a manuscript janitor somewhere working her way through one of my manuscripts and shaking her head in dismay at the extraneous junk I failed to remove prior to submission.

Speaking of editing, I’ll soon be reading submissions for a new anthology series: Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir isn’t watered-down mysteries for dilettantes; it’s a crime-fiction cocktail that will knock readers into a literary stupor. An annual anthology of hardboiled and noir crime fiction to be released each fall beginning in 2020, contributors will be encouraged to push their work into places short crime fiction doesn’t often go, into a world where the mean streets seem gentrified by comparison and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. For complete details, visit www.crimefictionwriter.com/submissions/html.

02 July 2018

Recognition


by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking about recognition lately, although not in the form so close to writers’ hearts as great reviews, editorial interest, and large checks. I’ve been considering it in connection with inspiration, the most mysterious part of the creative process. In particular, I have been trying to figure out the relationship between the two arts that interest me a great deal, namely writing and painting.

The Big Y florist who tripped the switch
It is not uncommon for people to be serious in more than one art. At least two of our Sleuthsayers colleagues are active in both music and writing. Recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan paints respectably, while an older laureate, Gunther Grass, did really fine etchings. Going the other way, Vincent Van Gogh wrote some of the world’s best letters, while the term renaissance man (or woman) reflects the wide interests and capabilities of what were often primarily visual artists.

On the other hand, if I have a spell of painting, where I am finishing a picture every week or every other week, I have no ideas for anything creative in writing. PR releases for the local library are fine, but anything requiring imagination as opposed to craft is simply absent.

The change from one to the other is abrupt and apparently not under my control. This makes me think that while writing is basically an auditory art, and painting, a visual one, the roots are the same, and at least in my case, there is only so much of the right neural stuff available for work in either one.
That leads to the question of what inspiration in writing and painting have in common, and that
brings me to recognition. In both cases, I seem to recognize something useful. For example, recently I noticed one of the florists at our local supermarket wheeling out a cart of plants. A little mental click and I knew this was a painting. Why not any one of the dozens of other people in the store that day? That remains mysterious.

But that recognition of the pictorial possibilities had a further effect. I painted a whole series of images of the Big Y store personnel, so that recognition triggered a spate of painting and cut off any literary inspiration. Seven or eight paintings down the road, that impulse dried up.
Then various news stories about the Alt Right led me to revisit a story I had begun a number of years ago and abandoned. Again, I recognized something I could use and the result was the completion of that story and at least two more. The verbal switch is apparently now on. How long will it remain? I have no idea, but at some point I hope to see something that says ‘paint me’ and the cycle will start over.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? I would love to know if painter/ musicians or musician/ writers have similar experiences.

Having two arts is lovely, although there is one drawback. Instead of worrying about a lack of inspiration in one field, one gets to worry about two.

01 July 2018

Digital Desert


Arizona
Before departing southeastern Arizona…

The ’salsa trail’ forms a gastronomical trek between Gunsmoke and Sunstroke, Arizona. Tex-Mex influences all things edible. Families don’t say, “Let’s eat Mexican tonight.” That’s a given unless stated otherwise.

Roadside diners list tamales and enchiladas alongside guacamole burgers. Asian restaurants offer Chinese chimichangas and Japanese burritos. Restaurants might be known for Taco Tuesdays, Fajita Fridays, Salsa Saturdays, and Maalox Mondays.

It affects the whiskey, Fire and Fireball. Overly hot isn’t a problem– guests can pack as much or as little heat as they wish.

Digital Desert

As you know from past dispatches, Gunsmoke’s phone and internet service has varied from non-existent to barely readable. The majority of computer users I met still use Windows 7, including a Tucson hospital. They don’t necessarily want Windows 7, but they’re stuck with it because of lack of internet bandwidth. A Windows 10 upgrade at available speeds could extend from ten to thirty hours.

Based upon library access of about 512 megabytes per hour, I calculated a local bit rate of 1.1-Mbps… reportedly the same ‘speed’ all of Holyshiteitshot County government uses, a tiny percentage of ordinary personal hotspots. If utility lines become too hot, electricity and internet shuts down. Lack of power means the county government shuts down as well.

Hot Spot

It’s not their fault. As everywhere, large cities and heavily populated counties suck up the majority of resources and benefit from economies of scale. While rural roads appear in good repair, lane markings haven’t been painted since the WPA. In the intense Arizona heat, reflective paint temperature differences deteriorate asphalt and cause ‘raveling’. A county that paints lines and turn arrows also means the county must budget for pothole repairs.

Perhaps small electorates vote against their own interest. A library patron felt free internet represented creeping socialism. This sentiment echoed arguments when city water and sewage first appeared.

In previous articles, I teased about Gunsmoke and Sunstroke, Arizona, but residents haven’t strayed far from their pioneer roots. They are deserving people doing their best to eke a living from an unforgiving desert. Doing so in 110° heat takes a lot of damn guts. They put up with haboob sand storms and dust storms, dry rivers, monsoons and flash floods. Why the hell should they put up with poorer communications than Third World countries?

Despite accusations of New Deal communism, REMC brought power and phones to rural America, building an unrivaled infrastructure for its time. Possibly an REMC scheme might work for the Internet. Certainly customers clamor for connectivity and a few are lobbying for it. More power to them.

30 June 2018

100 and Counting




A few weeks ago I reached a milestone, of sorts: I sold my 100th story to Woman's World magazine. Allow me to mention, here, how grateful I am to both their editors and their readers, for allowing me to keep spinning these tales. I hope they'll want to buy a hundred more.

I'd also like to thank Dan Persinger, Jacqueline Seewald, Teresa Garver, Kevin Tipple, and others whose recent mentions of my WW stories on Facebook and elsewhere prompted me to write this piece. Woman's World is a market that is often overlooked by mystery writers, but if you enjoy--and have a knack for--creating very short stories, it's probably a market you should try.

Background info

As some of you know, Woman's World publishes one mystery story and one romance story in every issue. The magazine has a circulation of around two million readers/subscribers, they operate under the Bauer Media Group, they're based in New Jersey, and they've been around since 1981. I'm told they receive about 4,000 short-story submissions a month.

When I started submitting stories to WW almost twenty years ago, their mysteries were 1000 words in length and paid $500 each and their romance stories were 1500 words and paid $1000 each. Now, mysteries are 700 words max and pay $500 and romances are 800 words max and pay $800.

In January 2016 Patricia Riddle Gaddis replaced Johnene Granger as Fiction Editor of the magazine. I can't say enough about these two ladies: both of them are smart, professional, and talented, and both have been very good to me.

Although WW's mystery stories are often referred to as mini-mysteries, the correct term is now "solve-it-yourself" mysteries. More about that later.

Observations

Almost all the stories I've sold to WW have been mysteries--but two were romances, published years ago. I think those 1500-worders were much easier to write than the current 800-worders, and I have a lot of respect for those who can consistently write those short romance stories. It didn't take me long to figure out which genre was easier for me.

My first WW stories appeared in 1999, in their April 20, July 20, and July 27 issues. Afterward, I sold them one story in 2000, one in 2001, three in 2002, one in 2003, three in 2004, six in 2005, four in 2006, three in 2007, four in 2008, two in 2009, four in 2010, six in 2011, seven in 2012, ten in 2013, six in 2014, eight in 2015, ten in 2016, thirteen in 2017, and (so far) five in 2018. More than you wanted or needed to know, right?

In 2001 I began featuring two recurring characters in my WW stories, which has worked out well. For one thing, since readers are now relatively familiar with the two protagonists and their quirks (my characters have a lot of quirks), I don't have to waste much time "introducing" them in each story. That allows me more words to devote to the plot.

Not that it matters, but 62 of my 100 stories sold to WW involved either a robbery or a burglary. Only 21 involved murders. The rest were a mix of kidnappings, arson, fraud, jailbreaks, assault, blackmail, embezzlement, forgery, etc. I think there's a reason for that, although I doubt I was aware of it at the time: WW has always liked lighthearted tales, and non-lethal crimes like theft and trickery and property damage are a bit less traumatic than homicides.

Still on the subject of statistics, 92 of my 100 sales have been series stories, the rest of them standalones. And only 19 were whodunits. Most were howdunits. I've often heard that to write mysteries for WW you should have three suspects, and the guilty person must be one of those three. That's bad advice. You can do that if you want, but you don't have to. The main goal should merely be to put together a crime puzzle of some kind, not necessarily a whodunit, and make it entertaining.

In 2004 the top brass at WW decided to move to "interactive" mysteries rather than mysteries with traditional storylines. Hence the new name "solve-it-yourself" mysteries, where a question is introduced in the story and the answer is provided in a solution box at the end of the piece. I confess that I lobbied against this idea--I liked the freedom and variety of the traditional storytelling format--but they'd already made up their minds. And, as I think I've said in the past, when the train you want to ride comes blasting through the station, you can either (1) climb onto it, (2) get squashed, or (3) get left behind. I hopped aboard.

As part of WW's transition from regular mysteries to interactive mysteries, I was invited by the fiction editor to write several experimental stories that would help to ease readers into the new format. The first of these ("Customer Service," Dec. 14, 2004, issue) included--get this--six clues that were not only highlighted in the text but were designated as "CLUES." (Did I mention that this was a "trial-and-error" transition?) Anyhow, i happily wrote the story, but I told them I didn't like the "announcement of clues" approach, and WW agreed. Afterward, the solve-it-yourself mystery became just a story and a solution box, and it remains so today.

Here's something crazy: On two different occasions, my stories were published under another writer's byline. (How did this happen? Who knows.) Both times editor Johnene Granger phoned me afterward to apologize, and I think she was relieved to find that the mistake didn't bother me at all. The checks came on time, the bank cashed them with no problem, and my ego survived the ordeal.

At one point, after WW had published eight of my standalone stories and 23 installments of my "series," I decided to try sending them a story with two different main characters. The editor bought and published that story ("The Quilt Caper," May 17, 2010, issue), but then sent me a note saying she preferred I go back to my tried-and-true cast. Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I saluted and obeyed. My other two crimesolving characters, Fran and Lucy Valentine, did survive, though: they've now appeared in 56 stories, most of them in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Flash Bang Mysteries, Mysterical-E, Kings River Life, and several anthologies--but they've never appeared again in WW.

One of the best things about Woman's World is its professionalism. They've always gotten the contracts to me on time and paid me on time. Always. And they've been easy to work with, on proposed changes. They've also twice paid me "kill fees" (twenty percent of the full rate) when they found they were unable to publish stories that they'd previously accepted. (This happened in 2004, during the trial-and-error transition from one mystery format to the other.)

Another good thing is that the editor sometimes asks me to write a story--especially if there's a holiday coming up and they don't have a story in hand that they want to run. Several years ago, for example, the editor contacted me and said she needed a Fourth of July mystery. "And I need it by tomorrow," she added. I came up with an idea that night, wrote the story, sent it to her the following morning, they published it, and everyone was happy. That doesn't happen often, but when the editor asks me for something, I try really hard to deliver it. (I feel the same way about invitations to anthologies: if someone thinks highly enough of me to invite me to contribute a story, I'm not going to say no.)

A final observation, more about me than about WW: I don't write only short-short stories. Most of my stories these days seem to run between 3000 and 8000 words--several of those are upcoming in AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, etc.--but there's something about the little mini-mysteries that's always been fun for me. Part of it's probably because I actually enjoy the re-writing and self-editing phase, the whittling away of all the extra and unneeded stuff that most of us plug into our stories. As you flash-fiction writers know, stories of less than 1000 words require a lot of this.

A word about editing

I must tell you, WW does like to edit my manuscripts. Usually just a word or two, but sometimes more. Example: In my story "Fun and Games," which was published a few weeks ago in the June 11 issue, my Sheriff Jones character and his amateur-sleuth partner Angela Potts have arrived at the local college library, where Professor Harriet Pinskey informs them that a golden statuette of a regal woman in Roman attire--presented to Pinskey's organization by a European billionaire--has been stolen from a display case. The following is some dialogue between the sheriff, Angela, and the professor:

    "What organization?" the sheriff asked.

    "An all-female academic society," Pinskey said. "MOLTH. It means: Move Over--Ladies Thinking Here."

    The sheriff grinned. "Why not 'Women'? That'd be appropriate: MOWTH."

    "You better shut yours," Angela said. "You're outnumbered."

Yes, I know it's silly, and certainly not necessary to the plot, but I love this kind of idiotic humor. Alas, the editors did not: that exchange didn't appear in the final, printed version.

On one occasion (in my story "The Train to Graceland," June 30, 2014, issue) my robbery victim was a young Chinese lady. For some reason, the Powers That Be at WW didn't like that, and I was asked to change the woman's nationality. I made her British instead, and all was well. I'm still trying to figure that one out.


Sometimes titles get changed, as well. Out of the 100 stories I've done for WW, 49 of my title choices were overruled. A few of their new titles, I must admit, wound up sounding better than my originals--but some didn't. I truly loved one of my titles, to a story involving the robbery and kidnapping of a guy named Ron. My suggested title was "Take the Money and Ron," which in all modesty I thought was pretty clever; their title, the one that made it in to the magazine, was "Candid Camera." Big sigh.

Tips

Here are a few things I would suggest a writer do, if he/she wants to write mystery stories for Woman's World:

- Include a lot of dialogue.

- Don't use strong language or excessive violence.

- Avoid politics, religion, social issues, or anything else that might be controversial.

- Don't put pets in jeopardy. Go ahead and whack Professor Plum on the head with the candlestick in the parlor if you like, but do NOT dognap his poodle. Around that corner lies immediate rejection.

- Inject some humor. Sometimes it gets edited out, sometimes it doesn't--and it usually helps.

- Be fair with the clues.

- Keep the solutions short.

- Lean toward cozy. About six months ago WW decided to focus more on lighter subject matter and less on murder mysteries. As a result, all the stories I've sold them so far this year involved domestic, non-violent crimes. Just saying.

Questions

Have you ever tried sending a story to Woman's World? Have you been published there? (Several of my fellow SleuthSayers have been.) If so, what were some of your experiences? Do you find these very short mysteries easier to write than the typical mystery tales--or harder?

If you've never tried it, give it a go. As I mentioned, most of my stories are longer rather than shorter--I honestly enjoy writing those, and we all know a longer story offers the writer a lot of working-room for the plot. But there's something I also like about trying to tell an entire story in a matter of only two or three pages.

You might find you like it too.

29 June 2018

North to Alaska


by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck
By the time you read this I will have been eaten by bears.

Or moose. A Møøse once bit my sister.

Remember Monty Python? Ah, those were the days, discovering off-kilter comedy on Public Broadcasting, brought from overseas. Now I scroll through cable and everything looks like a commercial. Maybe I'm just old and cranky, I just turned 47, which is the new 29, but still old. I am frightened for my country. We have a taste for war and little empathy, because we have never been invaded. Well, the South knows war better than we do. They're still bitter over it, even though they started it. War leaves scars. And the last person to get hit always thinks they're the victim.

In a few days I'll be visiting Canada, and after the President's foolish comments, I'm wary of meeting strangers. Usually when I travel, I like finding a pub to meet the locals. When I visited Ireland during the Bush II Presidency, I drank a lot of free pints from people who wanted to ask why we elected that buffoon. Now I'm more concerned that I'll have a beer splashed in my face, or worse.

Yuppie problems. Boo hoo, my country's harmful policies might ruin my vacation.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, and everything.

I haven't been writing. Not as much as I'd like, or at all, depending on the day. I have trouble seeing the point.

Then I find some motivation and chunk along a bit, editing the crap I wrote the days before, and adding some more to it.

The dance band kept playing on the Titanic. People need entertainment more than ever.

When I feel this way I am reminded of a wonderful poem by Maggie Smith, called "Good Bones."

Good Bones

BY MAGGIE SMITH
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Or if you'd rather have it in a snappy hardboiled patter, the final lines from the movie Seven, written by Andrew Kevin Walker: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." Hemingway's full words are, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." But he did, when he felt useless. And he left so many cats behind. I can't imagine doing that. The cats survived, as they do. They even survived Hurricane Irma, when cat lovers fretted over the 54 six-toed felines. They weathered the storm in Hemingway's villa with its 18 inch thick limestone walls, as did the curators of the house. He built something with good bones, that outlived his own despair.

And we all do, when we write with our hearts in it.

I'll keep fighting.


28 June 2018

Book Store Event Dos and Don'ts For Authors


by Brian Thornton

(Today I'm interviewing Bainbridge Island's own Jim Thomsen. A former newspaperman and current freelance writer/editor, Jim recently did a stint as a bookseller and assistant events manager at Eagle Harbor Book Company. He came away from the experience with a new understanding of the importance of book store events for authors, and some innovative ideas about ways in which authors can leverage these events to help build brand and leverage sales. Jim is a frequent guest contributor to this blog, including his most piece, celebrating decades of distinctly Seattle-centric crime fiction, which can be found here.)

Let’s talk about your unique experience within the publishing industry first. Can you walk readers not familiar with your work through what kind of work you’ve done so far?

I work as an independent manuscript editor, doing developmental and line-editing work. I've done contract and one-off work with publishing houses before, but I prefer working directly with authors, who generally fall into two camps: 1) self-publishers; and 2) authors under contract who don't trust the quality of the editing they get from their publishing house. I prefer to be a free agent, to give my clients my best advice without constraints, and usually work for publishing houses is defined as much by what you aren't allowed to do as what you are. I've worked with a few hundred clients since starting full-time in 2010, just ahead of the end of my 25-year career as a newspaper editor. 

Most recently, I worked for just shy of seven months as a bookseller and assistant events manager at my hometown bookstore, Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island.


And you’ve attended your fair share of writing events as both a guest speaker and as an audience member over the years. So how did taking on this new role change your outlook on bookstore events?

I had a very one-sided view of what makes for a successful author event at a bookstore, and probably an uniformed view of what the bookstore is obligated to do vs. what the author is obligated to.  Much as naive authors think their publishing houses should arrange all their publicity and promotion, so do they think that bookstores should do all their heavy lifting for an event. Not so! In fact, that mindset is almost certainly a recipe for failure, and that's a knock on the author, not the bookstore. Both have their jobs to do, and they work best when they approach the job of getting butts in the bookstore seats as a teamwork task. Before, I thought bookstores made most of it happen. Now I know better.


Can you walk us through the process of preparing for one of these events on the bookstore/event staff side?

My immediate boss at Eagle Harbor Book Co., Victoria Irwin, is a stone pro at this job, and it was a pleasure to follow how she did her thing. Sometimes an author or an author's publicist approached us; sometimes we looked through upcoming author-tour announcements in online trade publications and thought, "Hey, this author's book has a lot of buzz, and she's going to be in the area during a time when we have some openings on our calendar, and we think our readers will like the subject matter, so let's make our interest known and hope for the best."

Jeff Benedict
And sometimes an event just magically drops in our lap. A recent example: Jeff Benedict, the co-author of the new big-buzz Tiger Woods biography, had centered his last book on the U.S.'s top food-safety lawyers, a guy who lived on Bainbridge Island. The lawyer's wife approached us and said that if we wanted Benedict to speak to our customers, she could arrange it. How awesome was that? That was a "get" way out of our league, and Benedict was wonderful — he flew out from Boston just for us, and gave a terrific talk.

Anyway, once we agree to a calendar date with an author, we really go to work. We decide how many copies of the book to order, and order them, which is a fine art in itself — trying to gauge customer interest in an event. Over-ordering, especially with independently published books outside the Ingram ecosystem, can be risky because returns aren't guaranteed and we have to depend on the good faith of the author in a consignment arrangement. 

Then, we hit all the publicity bases: We put the event in our website calendar and our monthly newsletter. We post about the event on our Instagram, Twitter and Facebook sites. We write press releases and send them to local media — not just news outlets but anybody who has a calendar/newsletter and a vested general-community interest. We enter the event in the local online calendars — in Eagle Harbor's case, the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce and the two newspapers that cover Bainbridge — the hometown Review and the Kitsap Sun. We do a new round of social media posts, with links to interviews the authors have done or reviews of their books on respected sites like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, etc. Lather, rinse and repeat, all the way up to the afternoon of the event. And of course, we talk the event up with our customers, and do window and front-of-the-store signage and displays. 

But we also check in with the author. Do they have local friends? Are they promoting the event in person or via their online platforms? Are they planning to bring enticements like baked treats? (Memo to authors: Everybody loves baked treats. You cannot go wrong bringing goodies to your event.) 

Through all these factors, we get, hopefully, a ballpark idea of how many people are going to show so we can clear the right amount of event space in the middle of the store in a timely fashion. 

That said, we often guess wrong. Think of the last party you planned. My experience with party planning follows a weird "rule": One-third of the people who say they'll show don't, and a handful of people who gave you no indication they were going to come, did. 

Much depends on weather. If it's too nice out, people will stay home and garden or walk or bicycle or paddleboard or just laze on their porch. If it's stormy out, people would other prefer to stay home and not get wet. 

The sweet spot, for us anyway: The local author with lost of local friends who does their share of the promotional heavy lifting. Whether they're self-published or New York-published doesn't matter as much as the fact that they have a lot of church or work friends or neighbors or relatives who wish them well and want to show their support. The event then takes on a kind of happy-kaffeklatsch feel, which is fine with us. 

There's some genre bias as well. For us, nonfiction books with a niche interest do much better than fiction — we have a number of local rock-star genre novelists whose best-seller statuses don't necessarily translate into big bookstore crowds. The readers tend to bond more with the books than the person who wrote them, is the best I can guess. Though we have one Bainbridge novelist who's such an outsized, hilarious, charismatic presence that we decided to "go big" for the recent launch of his latest novel, and drew some 200 people for a party at a local community center. That's more the exception than the rule, in my experience.

What we call "woo-woo" books draw good crowds. There's a seemingly bottomless appetite in our community for books about spirituality, metaphysics, healing, journeys through loss, etc. Activity-based books draw good crowds, too — hiking, biking, beachcombing, cooking, kid stuff, environmental stewardship, etc. Memoirists do well as well.

Owen Laukkanen
Crime fiction? Sadly, not so much. My last night as a bookstore employee featured a thriller author, Owen Laukkanen, who was doing a self-financed cross-country tour behind his most recent book,which had gotten good reviews. But based on previous experiences with events featuring crime authors, I knew we needed to do more than promote the book. I thought I had the key: Owen kept a blog in which he talked with rare candor about his struggles as an author and as a person, and I thought that humanizing element would add an extra dimension to his potential draw at the event. I posted several blog excerpts in several different social-media venues, trying to whip up interest. It didn't work. We got nine people.

I was discouraged, and though Owen was a good sport about it, I know he was disappointed as well. In his blog the next day, he wrote: "I had a blast at every one of my events, but, man, it’s sure getting old trading excuses and rationale for low numbers with sympathetic booksellers. If it’s a sunny day, it’s too nice out to be in a bookstore. If it’s a rainy day, it’s too miserable out to leave the house. Too hot. Too cold. Wrong time of year. Or maybe I’m just not a very big draw." He concluded with "Is it possible to feel discouraged without feeling the world owes me anything more than it's given me?"

I can't say I blamed him much for feeling that way. I felt the same too. 

(BTW, that's not why I quit! I left to deal with family matters, and put more time into my resurgent editing practice. And I left on great terms with everyone.)

What do you think of the recent trend of authors “teaming up,” and doing double signings?

It's rare that we have precisely those kinds of events. Multi-author events at Eagle Harbor tend to fall into two categories. The first is what I call the big-big events, like Independent Bookstore Day, in which several Bainbridge Island authors served hour-long stints throughout the day as "guest booksellers," chatting with customers and offering their recommendations. Or Summer Bookfest, which we co-hosted with Seattle7Writers. Nineteen Seattle-area authors for two hours of mingling and handselling.

The second kind of multi-author event is the "in conversation with" event, in which we pair an out-of-town author with a local author who writes in a similar genre or vein for an hour or so of Q&A before turning it over to the audience. Those seem to work well, as we draw a deeper pool of prospective attendees who may be fans of one author or the author, and walk away fans of both.



Jim Thomsen is a writer and book-manuscript editor who lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute ferry ride west of downtown Seattle. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 25 years, including stints at The Seattle Times and The Kitsap Sun. A longtime board member of the Mystery Writers of America-Northwest chapter, his crime fiction has been accepted for publication in Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Switchblade and West Coast Crime Wave. He can be reached through his webpage: http://jimthomsencreative.com/




27 June 2018

The Big Sleep


If not the most celebrated of noir private dick pictures, The Big Sleep is a pretty tall stick on the way there. Right from the get-go, you know what country you're in, the leads in silhouette, Bogart lighting Bacall's cigarette, behind the titles, the foreboding Max Steiner score. The mansion, the butler, Carmen with her up-from-under look, the general in the hothouse full of orchids, "nasty things, ...like the flesh of men." Not a lot of wasted motion.


It was shot in 1945, right after To Have and Have Not, but Warners didn't release it until '46. In the meantime, they did some reshoots - the famous horse-racing exchange, for one - and Hawks re-cut the picture. The first edit actually makes more sense, and there isn't much difference in the run-times, but the finished product is paced so fast you never get a chance to catch your breath.

People complain the story's too hard to follow. Fair enough. Did the Sternwood chauffeur drive himself off the pier or was it staged? It's a dropped stitch, there's more than one, and nobody gets that worked up over it. Some of this is because of the Production Code. There was stuff they were never going to get away with. The biggest for instance is that Carmen can't have killed anybody, at least not and walk away, so they have to blame it on Eddie Mars. (In the book, Eddie lives to fight another day, and Marlowe even respects him on certain levels.) The book dealer, Geiger, sells pornography to a very select client list that he also blackmails, and the Lundgren kid is his boy-toy. That didn't make it into the picture. Big sister Vivian of course wants to help Carmen out of a jam, but she's not an accessory to murder. And so on. The problem being that if you subtract a key piece, the puzzle falls apart.

On the other hand, it mostly doesn't matter. The movie's all misdirection. It's character, and dialogue. How many pictures have so many amazing bits of business? The script is credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, with an uncredited assist from Philip Epstein. More than a little comes straight out of Chandler. Can you beat it?

The cop, Bernie Ohls, describing Sean Regan: "The ex-legger Sternwood hired to do his drinking for him."

"I don't like your manners."
"I don't like 'em, either. I grieve over them, long winter evenings."

"Is he as cute as you are?"
"Nobody is."

"You know what he'll do when he comes back? [Canino] Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling."

"You're a mess."
"I'm not very tall, either."

Hawks later said the picture proved something he'd already suspected, that with enough foreground razzle-dazzle, you didn't have to worry about narrative logic. "I never figured out what was going on," he told an interviewer, and at the end of the day, nobody else could, either.

Bacall gets the last word, right before the fade-out, after Bogart hangs up on the cops.
"You've forgotten one thing," she says. "Me."
He looks at her. "What's wrong with you?" he asks.
"Nothing you can't fix," she tells him.

26 June 2018

Welcome to my Universe


I recently read two books of the same subgenre which appeared within a month of each other.  Nothing odd about that, except the only other book I have ever encountered of that type I read decades ago.
Thekind  of book I am referring to a shared universe collection of mystery stories.  The concept of a shared universe is a group of authors writing about the same world with perhaps overlapping plots and characters.

To be clear I am not referring to:
* Authors co-writing a book (e.g. Ellery Queen)
* People merely writing new stories about an existing character (e.g. ten million post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes adventures.
* An author inheriting some earlier writer's franchise (e.g. Anne Hillerman).
* A single author writing a novel in stories, (e.g Art Taylor's On The Road With Del and Louise)
* A serial novel, in which each chapter is written by a different author (e.g Naked Came The Stranger, and several other books with titles starting with those first three words. Or The Floating Admiral, created by the Detection Club in 1931. By the way, Mark Twain hilariously described the writing of one of these in  Chapter 51 of Roughing It.) 

No, I m referring to an author deliberately setting up a playground and inviting other authors to play in it by creating tales of their own.

Shared universes are pretty common in science fiction and in fantasy.  Charles L. Grant even created one in horror.  (Greystone Bay is a lovely New England village, but I wouldn't recommend it to tourists.)

I read a mystery of this type back in the early eighties and if someone can remind me of the title and main author I would be grateful.   In the first story a private eye is hired to find six paintings that have been sold to different cities.  He subcontracts the job to different private eyes, and each story tells of a different hero's adventures in pursuit of the artwork.

And as I said at the beginning, that was the only example of the type I had read until this year, when Culprits appeared.  It was edited and conceived by Richard Brewer and Gary Phillips.  It's a caper novel and would appeal to fans of Richard Stark's Parker novels.

The first story, written by the two editors, describes the planning and the heist.  There is a double-cross (surprise!) and the old gang breaks up.  Then the remaining authors (Zoe Sharp, Gar Anthony Haywood, and David Corbett, to name a few) follow various members of the pack on their post-caper adventures.  Some tales are tightly connected to what you might call the main story line (hunting for the traitor) and some float free.

A week after Culprits was released Night of the Flood arrived.  The editors are E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen.  This book takes place in the small fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania.  A woman named Maggie Wilbourne is executed for murdering the men who raped her.  A group of women calling themselves the Daughters promised that if that happened they would blow up the dam, destroying the town.  The stories take place on the night they carry out their threat.

As in Culprits, some of the stories adhere to the main plot (the Daughters) and others have no connection except that they take place during the flood.  My favorite story in the book is an example of the latter.  In "The Curse," by Mark Edwards, a couple think they have been chased all the way from Britain by a demon who has attacked them with several plagues including, yup, a flood. 

Both books are enjoyable, and bravo to everyone involved for trying something different.

Have you read any similar books?  Whatcha think?

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)


A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.