15 September 2022

My Follow-Up to the "Compendium" Shared Last Go-Round

Last time around I posted "A Loose Compendium of the Worst Writing Advice Ever. While considering how to follow up on this post, it occurred to me that I might as well try to give some actual useful advice of my own.

And then I remembered that I had already done something like this when answering the standard "Six Questions" that the Goodreads review platform requests authors hoping to have their work featured there take the time to answer. 

So I went and looked at what I wrote. It was a few years back that I wrote these responses, so I've updated, and where appropriate, expanded on my responses.

Wherever you are in your own writing career, aspiring, midlist, NYT bestseller, your entire canon out of print, I hope you find the following worth your time, and thank you in advance for reading. As always, if you've got a response or any addendum to something presented herein, let us all hear it in the Comments section below!

What’s your advice for aspiring writers? 

There are many paths to God. If someone tells you they have THE system to get you published, they are trying to sell you something.

Publishing is a weird business, but even in a process as creative as writing, there are also constants. First: there are no shortcuts. Second: there is no substitute for hard work, especially early on while trying to learn your craft.

I have met dozens of immensely talented writers in the two decades I've been chasing this particular muse. And by immensely talented, I mean gifted, inherently blessed with ability I will never possess. Of those dozens I know FOUR who have published anything. FOUR.

On the other hand, I have met hundreds of aspiring writers with levels of talent running the gamut from "negligible" to "mediocre" to "solid" to "good." And most of them are published. The ones who are share no common traits aside from these two: the desire to write and the willingness to put in the work. Not coincidentally, they also happen to share these twin traits with the first insanely gifted authors I referenced above.

So when I say there are no shortcuts, I mean exactly that. Steven Pressfield says it all with the title of his writing self-help book Do the Work. It's just getting in your reps shooting baskets or taking batting practice or working on your corner kick. Time spent on your writing is time invested in yourself as a writer. Never forget that.

Next, don't turn up your nose at genres/approaches which don't do much for you. Read deeply and widely. Try new things. Don't like present tense narration? Find it jarring? Read some William Gibson. Think Romance isn't for you: read more than one: romance writers tend to be the unsung professionals of fiction writing. Even if you come away from the experience with your mind unchanged and your preferences unmodified, you will have honed your own craft by discovering that within yourself: "I don't like gardening, and after reading Death Stalks Between the Rows and What the Garden Gnome Saw, I now know for sure that gardening mysteries really just are NOT my thing!"

And there's power in that. The most wonderful thing about the writing life is that if you're doing it right, it can be a dazzling journey of self-discovery. After all, each one of us contains multitudes...

How do you deal with writer’s block? 

Exercise. Read GOOD books. I have a book with a hundred different writing prompts, and sometimes writing in response to a canned scenario can help get the writing untracked and rolling. Other times it's merely sitting down and free writing. A writer I knew who has since passed away once put his own system bluntly, colorfully and succinctly: "Ass. Chair. Write." I'm not as talented as he was, so I have to change it up more than that!

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

There are so many great things about being a writer (most writers I know will tell you, "Being a writer is great! It's the actual writing that's a pain!" or some variation on that theme.) but for me the BEST thing is when someone shares that they have been touched in some way by your work, whether they simply "enjoyed your book," or something deeper. Those moments are rare and precious and are to be savored.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently in the middle of writing a couple of short stories and finishing a long-delayed project: a historical mystery set in 1844 Washington, D.C.

How do you get inspired to write?

I asked my wife about this one, and her response is telling: "You get most inspired by deadlines. You write best under a deadline. Maybe it's the pressure, but I've seen it with you time and again. Deadlines."

She knows me (and my writing process) better than anyone, so I assume she's probably right. But I also think there's more to it than just deadlines.

Someone a lot smarter than me once said "Writing is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Sometimes ideas just sort of come to me, and when they drop in my lap like that, they are gold.

Far more often I take inspiration from the world around me: conversations with friends (you would be amazed at the number of works of fiction which start out as: "You won't believe what happened to my sister's mother-in-law..."), and from my own past. In my recent short story "Show Biz Kids," featured in Die Behind the Wheel: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan , which takes place onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer on a port visit at Subic Bay, The Philippines, I used a plot device inspired by an actual incident I witnessed during my own time in the Navy. Lastly, since I write mostly Historical Mystery, I find tons of inspiration in historical research. And that last part is a tough one. As any lover of history will tell you, it can be really hard to halt your research and start your writing!

Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?

My most recent book is a two volume anthology of crime fiction inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan. My inspiration for the collection was twofold: first had the idea when I read Just to Watch Them Die (crime fiction inspired by the music of Johnny Cash), collected and edited by Joe Clifford. Not long afterward Walter Becker, one of the two founding members of Steely Dan passed away, and I was reminded of Clifford's collection and my idea to try something similar with Steely Dan. And the rest is indie press publishing history.

14 September 2022

Fat Leonard

Fat Leonard is the worst U.S. Navy scandal since Tailhook.  And while Tailhook was about sex – not sex, per se, but the toxic fratboy, locker-room culture of carrier aviation – Fat Leonard is about greed, with a side order of espionage, and general embarrassment all around.

Leonard Francis headed up Glenn Marine, a Singapore-based maritime services contractor.  Over a period beginning roughly in 2006 (but probably earlier) and lasting until Leonard’s arrest in 2013, Glenn Marine and its subsidiaries provided port security and other infrastructure support to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.  During that time, NCIS, the Navy’s criminal investigators, opened twenty-seven separate inquiries into Glenn Marine, and then closed every single one, without result.  It’s probably impossible to calculate how many millions DoD and the Navy got burned for. 

The fraudulent billing, and the ongoing security failure, continued for all those years because Leonard and his team infiltrated and compromised Navy chain of command.  Defense industry procurement is ripe for abuse.  No-bid contracts are common.  Leonard bribed admirals.  Cash, travel, luxury gifts, escort services.  What he got in return was inside information about ship deployments and naval maneuvers, much of it classified.  He was able to redirect Navy vessels to ports controlled by Glenn Marine, and overbilled for fuel, food, water, and sewage removal.  

To date, five naval personnel have been court-martialed, and twenty-eight have pled guilty in federal court.  This number includes eleven admirals, thirteen captains, a Marine Corps colonel and an NCIS special agent, and a few hapless lower ranks.  Logistics, operations, systems, supply, the entire food chain.  The point being that it wasn’t just money leaking through the cracks.  These guys gave away the U.S. defense posture in the Pacific - the Order of Battle, generally – but more specifically, ship positions and readiness, an enormous intelligence advantage to any potential adversary. 

Now, whether Leonard was or is under the discipline of Chinese state security is speculation, but information is currency.  Leonard was lining his pockets, and maybe saving for a rainy day.   

Leonard had been in custody in San Diego, awaiting sentencing.  He was under house arrest and wearing an ankle monitor.  He was subject to round-the-clock surveillance.  A week ago Sunday, he discarded his ankle monitor and slipped away.  He was missing for seven hours before the U.S. Marshals Service was alerted.  Not to belabor the obvious, but San Diego is a forty-minute drive from Mexico.  You do the math.  Fat Leonard’s in the wind.

13 September 2022

Editing Evolution

My process for editing has changed over the years, and especially more so lately as the number of editing projects has increased. My first editing projects happened back when manuscripts arrived in the day’s mail, and all editing was done on hardcopy. Some of those manuscripts bled red (or blue, or whatever color pen I was using that day) by the time I finished.

At the back: A novella in progress.
The other three piles:
Anthologies in progress.
Email eliminated the need for authors to send hardcopy, but not the way I worked. I printed, read, and edited on paper before entering my edits and comments into the appropriate Word documents. Over time, I realized my process was responsible for the decimation of much of the world’s forests.

My current process, which may evolve yet again in the future:

1. Before I read a submission, I reformat it to double-spaced 12 pt. Times New Roman; flush left, ragged right; .5” paragraph indents, and no odd spacing between paragraphs. Then I do a quick search-and-replace to fix common problems such as improper dashes and improper quotation marks. I do this because I’ve discovered that the visual appearance of a manuscript (font, font size, etc.) impacts my opinion of it. By making every submission look the same before I read, I find it easier to judge the work based solely on the writing.

2. I read the manuscript on my computer, and I have track changes turned on. As I read, I correct obvious errors (their for there, for example), delete extraneous words, and make notes about things that confuse me. If I find myself making multiple corrections and changes, or find myself  inserting multiple notes, I’ll stop reading and reject the submission.

3. Then I run the file through spellcheck, which almost always identifies something of concern. Sometimes spellcheck finds an error I missed and sometimes it identifies non-errors, such as slang words and dropped gs (goin’ for going).

4. At this point, anticipating an acceptance, I print a hard copy and read the story one more time. Occasionally, I find something serious I glossed over when reading on the computer screen, and I reject the story. The likelihood, though, is that if I’ve reached the point of printing a hardcopy, I’m going to accept the story.

5. If I have identified any additional corrections or have any additional questions, I input them into the Word document.

6. I then send the edited Word document, which might be clean as a whistle (I love those writers!) or may look like the electronic version of a paper manuscript bleeding editorial red ink, to the writer.

7. Upon receiving the edited manuscript, the writer curses me, my ancestors, and my progeny (I may be projecting because that’s what I do when I get an edited manuscript back from an editor).

8. At some point, the manuscript returns. Sometimes writers accept every correction and change, sometimes we arm wrestle over something, and sometimes—if my corrections, changes, and notes are extensive—there may be another back-and-forth exchange with the writer.

9. Once I have all the edited manuscripts in hand, I collect author bios, write an editorial or an introduction, and then organize everything, determining in which order stories will appear in the anthology or magazine issue.

10. Then I spellcheck the completed manuscript and print a hardcopy, which I read cover-to-cover.

11. If there are any additional corrections necessary at this point, I input them into the final manuscript, and then send it to the publisher.

I have had the opportunity to work with three co-editors—Trey R. Barker with Guns + Tacos, Gary Phillips with Jukes & Tonks, and Barb Goffman with A Project to be Named Later—and each brought a different skillset to the party. Even so, the process remained much the same, with each co-editor having a pass at each manuscript and adding their corrections, changes, and notes.

The ultimate goal, regardless of my process and regardless of whether I’m working alone or with a co-editor, is to ensure that each published story is the best it can be and that the final product is worthy of a reader’s time.

Though this is published post-Bouchercon, it was written pre-Bouchercon. I hope I had the opportunity to meet some of you there!

12 September 2022

The Shapes of Names to Be

Jessica Dall
Author Jessica Dall

I bumped into Jessica Dall when I stumbled upon an essay regarding word shapes. I identified when she confessed to being a name nerd. At one time, I’d written a program that harvested 60 000-some names from the web, including numerous details such as meaning, ethnicity, cognates, and variants. One of the basic rules is to avoid giving characters names with the same leading character (which I’ve flagrantly violated in an upcoming AHMM story). But Jessica brought something new (to me). I had to share her with our mystery colleagues.

Jessica Dall is the author of such novels as Forever Bound and The Stars of Heaven. She has written across an array of genres, though her love of history and romance always seems to find a way into her work. Born and raised in southern California, she now resides in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When not living vicariously through her characters, she enjoys travel, crafting, and helping others with their own writing journey.

You can find her on her web site, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

SleuthSayers, I’m pleased to introduce Jessica Dall.

— Leigh

Name Shapes
Jessica Dall


Picking names for characters is both one of my favorite and one of the most annoying parts of character building when I’m starting a new book. On the first hand, I’m a name nerd. I love looking at popularity lists and name meanings, finding things that would fit the setting I’m creating. On the other hand, names can really affect how a reader connects with a character—sometimes on a subconscious level. Even in the real world, a 2003 study by the University of Chicago found that traditionally “White-sounding” names received fifty percent more interview requests than identical resumes with traditionally “Black-sounding” ones. And when it comes to fiction, there is the added pressure of making sure that (1) you don’t break suspension of disbelief by using a name that feels wildly out of place for your setting (sometimes even when they would actually fit. See “the Tiffany problem”) and (2) you don’t trip a reader up while they are reading.

While this latter point can be a problem simple from a name being very complicated (if you have a fantasy character named F’thasheewerbhion, the reader is most likely either going to need to slow down to try to sound it out, breaking the flow of the story, or just think of the character as “F…whatever” the entire book) it can also be an issue with even common names that are easily confused with one another (for example, Alex and Alec).

Jessica Dall – Forever Bound

One thing you quickly learn as an author when you’re ask to do readings is that you need to practice out loud. This isn’t only to make sure you get the delivery right, but it is the only way to make sure you have the right amount to read for your time slot. Everyone’s reading and speaking speeds obviously differ, but it is easily possible to read an extra hundred words a minute in your head than reading aloud— a difference that quickly stacks up in a ten-, fifteen-, or even thirty-minute reading.

Part of the way that people can read so much more quickly in their heads is that brains often take in the “shape” of familiar words and phrases and fill in what should be there are you move forward. This is how even several rounds of professional editing can sometimes not catch typos like missing or repeated words. Your brain is expecting to read “top of the class,” not “top of class,” and skips over the fact that that isn’t what’s on the page. It is because of this phenomenon that some writers suggest not starting character names with the same letter. Where F’thasheewerbhion may become “F-whatever” to keep the reader from needing to sound it out, even a “simple” name like Alan might register mostly as the “A” with the reader’s brain filling in “Alan” much like it fills in the missing “the” above. If there is then a “Alice” on the same page, a reader subconsciously doing this would need to slow down and figure out which character is doing what versus getting caught up in the action.

Jessica Dall - Stars of Heaven

Personally, I don’t subscribe to anything that austere. For example, in my most recent novel, Forever Bound, there is both a Cormac and a Colm. While there is possibly some room for confusion, I felt comfortable using both because they don’t have the same name “shape.” While some readers’ brains may take the first letter and run with it, I find it is more common for people to take in the entire shape of the word, even while reading quickly. Because of that, the issue with Alan and Alice isn’t only that they both start with A, but that the shape of the two names is relatively similar. They are an A followed by a “tall” letter (l) and then close to the same number of “short” letters. This makes them visually very similar to a quick reader. Alternatively, “Cormac” is a C followed by all short letters and “Colm” is a shorter name with a tall letter in the third spot. This makes them more visually different even at first glance.

To note, I also took into consideration the fact that these two characters never share a scene together. This separation also makes it less likely for the reader to get tripped up versus in, say, a quick back and forth dialogue. Similarly, I don’t worry about minor characters who aren’t active players in the story as much as I do those often front and center. For example, in another novel, The Stars of Heaven, I have both a João and a John.

Normally, these would be too visually similar for me to feel comfortable using. However, since João is a very minor character, only ever mentioned a few times in exposition, I wasn’t worried about readers getting confused, and thus I felt free to indulge myself (I specifically made the choice since it means that both characters are more or less named John (João is the Portuguese equivalent). Since the book takes place in the eighteenth century, when John was an exceedingly popular name choice, it seemed fitting. I also found it amusing, since both characters are sailors and so linked by the name).

When it comes to naming characters, though, I always suggest writers pay attention not only to if the name fits their setting, but if it will affect readability. A big part of this is paying attention to name shapes. Namely (pun intended), you should look if two names you are using are similar lengths and have tall (e.g. “l, f, b”) short (e.g. “s, r, o”) or long (e.g. “y, g, p”) letters in similar places. Where it’s relatively easy for readers to keep track of who’s speaking when it’s Anne and Alexander having a conversation, it’s going to force some people to backtrack and lose the flow of the story if it’s Alex and Alec. All those little things really help shape the experience of reading the story in a way many don’t think about.

11 September 2022

Medicine and Mysteries: Justice Served

Medicine and mystery novels have much in common and this pandemic has highlighted one commonality in a very tragic way.

Many doctors I know are mystery readers. Many mystery writers the world knows are doctors, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Josephine Bell, Daniel Kalla and Tess Gerritsen.

Readers of mysteries are often greeted with a person facing a serious situation, or a tragedy, often from the first page or shortly thereafter. The rest of the book is all about unraveling the complexities of this story – the pain, the fears and, often with many clues – finally finding out whodunnit.

In medicine a person comes carrying a serious story and through listening to the story, unraveling the complexities of their story, their pains, their fears, we often add some tests and hopefully lift the burden of their story with a treatment once we’ve identified the disease or - in mystery terms - whodunnit.

The focus on the story, the complexities of people and the determination to find whodunnit: this is what mystery readers (and writers) and doctors share.

There’s something else they have in common: a sense of moral beliefs and justice being satisfied – as much as they can be – is part of this commonality.

Physicians go into medicine to help people – to deliver just and fair care to patients. Oddly, one can look on medicine as a means (within limits of science) to rectify the wrongs of disease. It is an attempt to give back the patient the best life they can have for as long as they can have it.

Readers approach mystery novels with a sense of righting wrongs and a sense of of justice delivered.

Imagine a mystery book where everyone throws up their hands and claims that they will never find a murderer because they don’t care or can’t be bothered. Where not even a smidgen of justice is served and the smirking murderer goes free. Now, of  course this may make an interesting plot but, let’s face it, it’s not the normal fare served by a mystery novel. In fact, I would argue, that seeing evil get their comeuppance is part of the satisfaction of reading a good mystery. Yes, we must often tolerate suffering of the innocent but suffering of the many innocents while detectives shrug their shoulders is certainly not the norm and would leave readers disappointed.

Now, imagine being a doctor during the pandemic. At first, physicians were swamped with patents they could not help because COVID-19 was a new disease. Not only did we lack vaccines and treatments, but we were woefully short of the knowledge and supplies to use masks. Then, vaccines came in, and when one waned, we had more vaccines and the promise (now fulfilled) of better vaccines. We had good quality research to show that masks work to prevent infection and even ample supplies of good masks, not just to protect healthcare workers but also the public. We now have rapid antigen tests - although they aren’t perfect, they give an indication of who is infected, allowing them to isolate and prevent further infections.

All of this good stuff should make being a doctor better than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. So, why are many doctors burning out, quitting their jobs or suffering from various mental health problems, including depression?

Part of it stems from the behaviour of the public. Many are eschewing updating their vaccines – or refusing vaccines altogether – and refusing to wear masks. If they get infected and hospitalized – there are some treatments. However, putting a COVID19 patient in a hospital bed may mean that a cancer patient doesn’t get their surgery or a patent in pain doesn’t get a hip replacement. The doctors caring for cancer patients who can’t get a hospital bed, can’t offer them optimal treatment and watch the unnecessary deterioration of their patients. As we add more patients with COVID19 and LongCovid, and lose doctors, physicians at times cannot get their patients access to the help they need for specialist care. Some physicians have been subjected to abuse – verbal and physical – from increasingly frustrated patients. 

The Canadian Medical Association has identified moral injury as a serious and growing problem during the pandemic:

“In the context of health care, when physicians are unable to uphold the oath they took to deliver the best care and put the needs of their patients first, they can experience moral injury. Moral injury is not considered a mental illness; however, those who experience moral injuries often develop negative thoughts about themselves and others, and these symptoms can lead to the development of mental health conditions.”

Moral injury is not a new problem for physicians, but it has increased during this pandemic. A pre-pandemic paper described the dilemma accurately:

“Moral injury describes the challenge of simultaneously knowing what care patients need but being unable to provide it due to constraints that are beyond our control.”

To not be able to properly care for patients is like a lousy ending to a mystery novel – except it’s worse. Much worse. These are real people. With lives, loves and people who love them. To not be able to help a patient because medical science is not up to the task is always sad. However, to not be able to access the care we have and allowing patients to suffer is immoral and unjust.

10 September 2022

Cool Writing Programs I Learned About on My Panel--and Why I Probably Won't Use Them

Last month, one of my Killer Nashville panels was a terrific dive into manuscript polish and being truly ready to submit. I was the short story guy trying to keep up with dynamite authors both traditionally and self-published, a managing editor, and an agent, all of whom had damn fine suggestions about editing steps and especially, in our wonderous modern age, editing software. And when it came to software, I turned into the contrarian every co-panelist dreads. 

Our audience got in on the software suggestions. The tools and platforms were flying so fast that I only managed to jot down three. I googled around post-panel and researched how these leading tools in this, our wondrous age.

And I probably won't use any of them.


Writers Helping Writers came up several times from the audience. I checked it out. It's an impressive platform to help build worlds, deepen characters, and punch up writing power with emotional-type thesauruses. 

Why I May Use It: Everything here looks thoughtful and detailed, especially for tries at a complex novel. Scene maps, character checklists, physical reactions to circumstances, you name it. There is a bookstore and software services to back this up. $11 per month feels a touch steep, but it's a bargain if the tools pay off in a final product. There's a free trial period for test drivers. Free tipsheets, too, but they're marketing teasers. Thoughtful stuff, though.

Why I Probably Won't: This content load risks planning overkill for short fiction. I don't need to build a new world. I use the one around me. I don't need someone else's character checklist. I won't write somebody's perspective and story if I haven't wriggled into their head. And when my characters and I get on different pages, I've learned free write exercises to help reconnect. 

The panelist point I grumbled was that writing is also about the writer's growth. When I started out, I leaned on The Emotion Thesaurus. It's a great resource and remains on my reference bookshelf. It has gathered a sheen of dust, though. Repeated work on authentic character reactions taught me that skill. I learn more now through critique and reading great authors than I can from a thesaurus. 

I was also the contrarian panelist about thesauruses. In fiction writing, a thesaurus will almost always offer the wrong word. It'll either be imprecise for the sentence or a vocabulary eyesore. The following are synonyms for the verb walk: locomote, perambulate, traverse, and "go on foot." Maybe traverse fits now and then, but perambulate? Who says that except college entrance exam tutors?


Several folks in the conference room swore by AutoCrit for deep manuscript analysis. Analysis? Worth a look, even to contrarians. 

Why I May Use It: Indeed, here is our wondrous age unleashed. Plop in your work, and the AI scans for grammar and style, big name author comps, and fit against current publication trends. It's all based on "painstaking research and professional connections with agents, authors and publishers." I believe it. Layered on the analysis features are an array of webinars and add-on services, all in a slickly packaged site.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm going to say it. A writer can't discover their voice off AI feedback. Can it help? Sure. AI will also push a story or prose direction the writer can't go sustainably or genuinely. Hey, I would love to wave analysis stating I write like Name Your Icon, but I don't. I write like me. Boasting I'm the next Name Your Icon anyway is off-putting. And doubly hollow when I don't back up the claim.

AutoCrit is spendy at $30 per month ($297 annually). Critiques and other add-ons land on top of that. Somebody needs a nice publication deal or steady freelance income to justify this cost, but if you've already begun to make your bones, do you need the voice analytics? There is a free version, but the reduced functionality seems not so different from Grammarly. Still, free does tempt a guy.

And yet. It's been my rule never to paste a manuscript anywhere except a submission portal. Some markets consider any prior pasting as first publication. As a contrarian, I'm out of date but suspect this catch is less and less prevalent. 

There remains a critique site's terms and conditions. Oh, management may pinky-swear not to pull shenanigans with the author's work kept in their digital hands. Terms and management teams change. Not sure I'm ready to trust my hard work this way.


I haven't been able to find this third one that a co-panelist suggested. It sounded the most adoptable suggestion of the bunch. It's something line "One Thousand Words," and it's a true sprint tool. Set course for 1,000 words and launch, no editing allowed. 

Lear, from Wikipedia
Why I May Use It: My perfectionist brain tussles with my creative side while the first drafts spill out raw. I can leave a tweak for the next pass, but it'll haunt my very soul if a big miss a few pages behind might be infecting the current words. I retreat and fix. When that works, it works. When it doesn't, it's stifling. Taking the retreat option off the table seems intriguing.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm all for creative exercises. Aimless sprints are a whole other thing. Segmenting a story or chapter this sharply means having pull it together later, and those pieces might need a bunch of spackle. I keep an ugly first draft together exactly because I'm seeking the story's whole. 

But if I find this tool, I may well give it a rip. Worst thing that happens is a high-intensity exercise.


I'm low tech. Proud of it, apparently. Word--or Pages or Google Docs or whatever--is workhorse enough for short stories. After years of using it, Word's features come second nature, no need to stop a writing flow and figure out new tools. And Word has leveled up of late. 

Word's Editor tools (red box) now give friendlier and more reliable suggestions as to problem grammar, conciseness, inclusiveness, reading comprehension level, and so forth. Important stress on more reliable. Word still gives advice that is dead wrong for voice or in-context meaning. But this editing logic forces me to decide on these critical passages.

Thesaurus-wise, Word is skimpy--and that's perfect. Word also improved its readback feature. I use it  extensively in the final prep phases. Same goes for the Document Compare feature, to double-check if proofing edits survived as expected.


To recap, I've become cranky about software, thesauruses, terms and conditions, and a load of other stuff that didn't come up at the panel. I keep these parts of writing simple. An agent or editor may forgive a novel's characters forever perambulating if the manuscript overall is going to sell. Not so with short story authors. No market accepts a piece that needs their time to fix. Nor should they. Whether we use pre-editors (I do) or software tools (I don't), the polish to readiness comes down to us. 

09 September 2022

In the MidJourney of Our Life

On a recent trip to the west coast I spent an afternoon immersed in one of my nephews’ latest obsessions, an app called DALL-E. It’s a program that uses artificial intelligence to (fairly instantly) generate works of art suggested by a simple caption written by the user.

For example, if the user types the prompt, “an armchair in the shape of an avocado,” they are rewarded with several images like this:

Avocado chair.

The AI scours the internet in search of inspiration, and reconstitutes its findings into the images you see here. The prompt “an illustration of a baby daikon radish in a tutu walking a dog” generates the following images.

Walking daikon.

You can imagine how a couple of teenaged boys who are addicted to pop culture might use this immediate-gratification brain to conjure up images juxtaposing Jedis and Jesus, Captain Marvel and pizza, and so on. I don’t have access to any of the images I saw on my nephew’s phone that afternoon, but from that brief crash course I had the impression that the software had a long way to go. Most of the human faces it generated were…off. Even the images we asked it to generate—of pop culture icons such as R2D2, Ernie & Bert, Spider-Man—were suggestive of the thing being asked for, not flawlessly clear.

So that was my experience of the hot new thing all the cool kids were playing with about a month ago. The thing could barely draw. If it got lucky, it would turn out a nice picture of a radish. Cute, but so what?

Cut to this week, when a professional book cover designer I follow and whom I have hired to create covers of some of my self-pubbed titles sent around a newsletter in which he sang the praises of MidJourney, yet another AI art app that also debuted about a month ago. When the designer typed the following prompt: “jack the ripper hiding in a smog filled london alleyway with red eyes,” the AI thought a moment before generating the following four images.

I think we can agree this is pretty stunning. And when the designer asked the AI for variations, he got increasingly stunning images of an atmospheric landscape.

Again, this is a machine surfing the internet, gleaning from it how things look, and then spinning off tweaks of its findings as quickly as possible in a new form. Compare the Ripper images above to, say, a the cover of an old issue of The Strand Magazine, or the cover of a book of Sherlockian pastiches. 

Both of these covers were taken from works of art created by humans and licensed by the publishers. The MidJourney images were made by software that can be yours for $10 a month, or $30 a month, depending on the number of images you think you’d like to create.

As a writer, I have zero need for such software, but I can absolutely understand why the book cover designer who sent these around to his clients was excited about this brave new world of art. Most designers I know lament how hard it is to find usable, abundant, or appropriate images on stock photo agency sites. It takes an endless amount of clicking page after page to assemble, say, five good images, from which you knit together a composite image and layer in enough special effects via Photoshop or Illustrator to make it look beautiful. That can be hours of work, for which you can charge an author, perhaps $700-$800, tops, for the resulting cover image. Imagine instead being able to type, click, create, and tweak an image in seconds—and charge your client for the AI’s results.

My last sentence is a bit of a fantasy. The designer told his followers that, actually, it still takes him a long while to coax the appropriate image from the machine—as long as it does when he’s searching stock agencies for photos—but what the AI produces is wholly original, one-of-a-kind art.

From the handful of articles I’ve read, people are already up in arms, in the same way they were when programmers started teaching AI programs to write like human writers. Some of the criticisms I’ve heard:

  • These art programs are racist and/or sexist. If you don’t specify the type of person you want them to generate, inevitably they’ll return a white male. When women are depicted, it’s often in demeaning or violent settings. (Software engineers say they are correcting this tendency.)
  • This means the end of decent paying careers for artists! (I don’t think so; not just yet.)
  • If you write, draw, or create science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you’ve come to the right place. The rest of the creative world has no need for this type of crap. (If you have a strong stomach, you can check out some images intended for horror fiction here.)
  • If indeed the AI is “borrowing” references from other images online, will it not inevitably infringe upon the work of a living artist? (I suspect not, but the monkeys have only begun to bang away on the typewriters.)
  • An art director who hires many artists to create book covers recently waded into the fray, reassuring artists that they are not being replaced, and pointing out that the US Copyright Office does not permit art to be copyrighted unless it was created by a human being. You will probably already know this if you remember that story a few years ago about a photographer who wanted to copyright a photo that was taken by, yes, a monkey who stole, operated, then abandoned the photog’s camera.
  • Already, AI work has won art awards, and human artists are pissed.
So, in other words, we are once again immersed in a kind of moral panic over something very smart people have dreamed up. I think it probably can’t be said enough that if a computer program is sexist, racist, or whatever, and it’s using as its creative input the freaking Internet, then we are truly reaping what we have sown. To the extent that images look lovely or appealing to our eye, that too is on us as a species.

That all said, I created a free MidJourney account and had a look around the communal chatroom where the bot is fed its prompts and where users can download the results of their queries. (You’re allowed 25 free uses before you are asked to subscribe.) I could immediately see that I was in the virtual presence of users who had a distinctly artistic mind. With experience, many of these users had come to know exactly how to word their requests. To get the bot to spit out an image in a particular style, they used buzzwords such as “unreal” or “hyperrealistic” or referenced specific artists or designers. Here are two highly specific prompts I encountered:
  • Ethereal humanoid sphinx, Art by Peter Mohrbacher + h.r. giger + Zdzisław Beksiński + Tsutomu Nihei , unreal engine render , intricate details , hyper details —stylize 5000
  • post-apocalyptic cebu city unreal engine cinematic digital art
Little ol’ unartistic me stepped up to the plate, and fed the AI the following prompt: “a detective named sleuth sayers who says sleuthy things.” Within seconds, I had these (admittedly male-seeming) images:

When I asked the AI to generate variations  on this theme, it returned the following:

Was it something I said?

* * *

See you in three weeks!


08 September 2022

The Pig War

I wrote my master's thesis on one of the many adventures of Charles Elliot (1801-1875), British Royal Navy officer, diplomat, colonial administrator and, to put it bluntly, semi-secret agent.  His major adventure was the First Opium War, and there is not enough time or space to relate even half a smidgen of that.  Let's just say he instigated it, fed and watered it, seized Hong Kong (giving the British an excellent island War Room and great revenues for the next 150 years), watched (and participated) as his cousin George and the British Navy fought it, and signed the first peace treaty.  

Then he was recalled home and sent off to his next adventure, as the British charge d'affaires and consul general to the Republic of Texas from 1842-1846, which became the subject of my thesis, "The Man in the White Hat:  Charles Elliot in the Republic of Texas."  

I could also have called it "A Parcel of Rogues", because the Republic of Texas had an almost unbelievable cast of characters, beginning (of course) with Sam Houston.

In 1842, Texas had been a republic for 6 years. Samuel Houston, was in his second term as President of Texas. Houston was known for having spent years living among the Cherokees (hence his nickname "The Raven"). In 1827, he became Governor of Tennessee, but had to resign in scandal when he divorced his wife in 1829. (Even Andrew Jackson tossed him to the wolves on this one.) Houston left and went to Arkansas, to live with the Cherokee again, and eventually went to Texas territory. And the rest is kind of  history. And some legend. Probably a lot of legend. Some of it told by his own fair lips.  

One legend was told on, by or about the French charge d'affairs, the Comte de Saligny, who came to hand his credentials to the President of Texas.  He found President Houston sitting crosslegged on the floor, wrapped in a blanket, Indian style, while de Saligny was in full diplomatic gear, and probably sweating heavily. De Saligny began boasting and pointing out his medals, and when Houston had had enough, he leaped to his feet, throwing off the blanket, and stood, stark naked, pointing to his scars and screaming, "These are my medals! These are my credentials!" 

But then Houston hated de Saligny. Everyone did. Including de Saligny's own boss, French Foreign Minister Guizot.  

De Saligny lived a wildly fraudulent life.  To begin with, his real name was Jean Pierre Isidore Alphonse Dubois, and he was of bourgeois origins. He had to leave France due to involvement in a fraudulent corporation in Paris and a tendency to counterfeit money. Somehow his family managed to wangle him the job in the Republic of Texas, despite its importance. (Both Britain and France wanted to keep Texas independent, for a variety of reasons, which is why they both sent diplomats to do whatever they could.)  

Well, Dubois got to Texas, and gave himself the title of Comte de Saligny. Most of the newspaper articles and letters call him de Saligny, and some Comte, but then Texas was the kind of place where everyone went to get away from their past and start over. Look at Houston. 

Meanwhile, Dubois didn't have much use for Austin, Texas, especially after Paris: It was still in construction, with unpaved streets, wooden shanties, and not much promise of civilization on the march, especially after Paris. And one of those wooden shanties was Dubois' residence, the "hotel" of Mr. Bullock. 

Now Dubois had started over, but with the caveat that he continued to pass counterfeit money.  Including to pay his rent.  His landlord was not pleased.  This laid the basis for the infamous Pig War, which while short, lives in legend.  

Mr. Bullock had pigs. And in Texas (indeed in most of the world back then) pigs ran mostly wild, living off what they could find, because feeding pigs anything but scraps doesn't pay (this goes back all the way to the Middle Ages, and Thomas Tusser's 1573 Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry). Mr. Bullock's pigs ran wild around the streets of Austin, not to mention the yard around Mr. Bullock's boarding house. And they ate corn that Dubois had bought (probably with more counterfeit money) for his horses. Claiming that the honor of France had been insulted when the Government of Texas, i.e., Sam Houston, refused to either back him or repay him for the corn, he refused to pay Bullock's bill. 

Dubois ordered his servant Pluyette to kill Bullock's pigs, which he did, although there's disagreement as to how many hogs died. Bullock assaulted Pluyette in the street, throwing rocks at him and threatening him with an ax, and there were skirmishes in the press. At one point Bullock was arraigned, but Dubois wouldn't let Pluyette testify, citing "The Laws of Nations".  To which Texas basically replied, "Yeah, right. Pull the other one." 

Later that night, Dubois and Bullock got into it at the door of the inn, and Bullock actually grabbed Dubois and shook him by the collar and then the arm! Dubois walked away, congratulating himself loudly & publicly on his composure, which he totally lost when he found out that the Texas Secretary of the Treasury, John Chalmers, approved what Bullock had done, and said that if Dubois had laid a hand on him, Chalmers, he'd have pulled out his gun and killed him.  

Well, shortly thereafter, Dubois decided that the greater part of valor was to flee the whole sordid mess, and he did. In the middle of the night.  To New Orleans.  Specifically, a brothel in New Orleans, which became his home away from home for a quite a while. 

NOTE: I remember sitting in my graduate student's carrel, reading my way through the French diplomatic letters of that time. All my fellow students were bored to death by their research, while I was practically howling with laughter as Guizot - from 8,332 kilometers away - wrote letter after letter cursing, hounding, pleading, ordering, and cursing some more in his desperate attempts to get Dubois to go back to Texas and get some actual foutu work done!  

Meanwhile, up in New Orleans, Dubois apparently wasn't content with les demoiselles du New Orleans, but had moved on to adultery. He was challenged by a woman's husband, but refused to duel, at which point he was hounded out of town for cowardice. All of this was why the French had no role at all in any of the stuff that happened with the Republic of Texas, leaving the field free for my guy Elliot.

BTW, years later, the French, under a misunderstanding that Dubois had actually served in and knew America and Mexico well, sent him as French ambassador to Mexico in 1860, where once again he fiddled with the money. He was recalled to France in 1863, in disgrace, and never served again as a diplomat. But he did marry a young, ultraconservative, wealthy Mexican woman and took her back to France. He bought a chateau and estate in Normandy, where he spent the rest of his life.  

But no one liked him there, either. Rumors of cruelty to wife and servants led to an interesting result.  After his death in 1888, he was buried but later the cemetery was moved from the town square to the area behind the church. Everyone's casket was moved except his. Dubois was left in his place, in the square, and every time there's a festival - to this day - the locals dance on his grave. Now THAT'S a grudge.  (Kenneth Hafertepe's A History of the French Legation in Texas.)  

As for my man Elliot?  He was beloved by both Anson Jones and Sam Houston, even though they hated each other.  Anson Jones named one of his sons Charles Elliot Jones.  Sam Houston eulogized him on the Senate floor after Texas was incorporated into the United States:

"England was represented by a gentleman whose intelligence would compare with that of any representative from any country... He was a man who sympathized with Texas, and he proposed nothing but what was for the interest of Texas... The character of that gentleman was preeminently praiseworthy and patriotic, and it would be seen that Texas appreciates him when she writes her annals. And as a statesman and diplomatist, he was entitled to all the respect and gratitude of Texas."  (Writings of Sam Houston)

Elliot went on to become Governor first of the Bermudas, then of Trinidad, as well as an Admiral.  He died at 74, and no one danced on his grave.

07 September 2022

From the BBC to you.


For the second week in a row I am going to discuss British audio.  Pip pip and all that.

I have written here before about enjoying audiobooks through the Libby service my library makes available.  I also listen to podcasts.

Recently I discovered BBC Sounds, a free source of tons of radio from Old Blighty.  Let me tell you about some relevant favorites.  (Keep in mind that some of these have expiration dates.)

My Sister the Serial Killer. 
A novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite, read in condensed form.  Korede tries to protect her sister but it is awkward because Ayoola is indeed a serial killer, although a million miles from the stereotype.  A bizarre novel from a writer  with a truly original mind.

A Charles Paris Mystery.  Bill Nighy stars as the cynical actor in an excellent dramatization of Simon Brett's A Doubtful Death. Charles goes to Oxford for an "experimental" production of Hamlet and finds a possible case of murder.

.  Dramatization of short stories by E.W. Hornung about A.J. Raffles, the original gentleman thief, created as a sort of anthesis of Hornung's brother-in-law's famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

McLevy.  Radio dramas about a Victorian Scottish policeman.  The current series finds him in the United States. 

Miss Marple. June Whitfield plays Agatha Christie's legendary sleuth in Nemesis.

And here are some more that I haven't listened to yet:

Dead Cert.  A dramatization of Val McDermid's novel.

How to Kill Your Family.
  An abridged reading of a novel by Bella Mackie.

The Reckoning.  A dramatization of Charles Nicholl's book about the murder of Christopher Marlowe.

Annika Stranded.  You may have seen the show Annika on PBS, about a Norwegian policewoman.  These are readings of stories about the same character, written by her creator Nick Walker.

And moving away from crime...  I discovered this website because BBC's Friday Night Comedy is no longer available on other apps. That program usually consists of a rotating series of news-related comedy shows, but over the summer they switch to a serial.  At the moment they are running a second season of the hilarious Party's Over, starring Milo Jupp as Henry Tobin, trying to adjust to normal life after a brief and disastrous term as Prime Minister:

Reporter: "Prime Minister, which of the many catastrophes over the eight months you were in power do you think was the biggest? The petrol crisis? Losing Gibraltar?  The school dinner dog meat scandal?"

Henry Tobin: "Many of these events could be viewed as successes. You call it a petrol crisis.  I call it more Britons using bicycles than ever before."

Happy listening.   


06 September 2022

Road Trip

     As this blog posts, my traveling companion and I are pulling out of our driveway. This morning, we embark on our trip to Bouchercon 2022 in Minneapolis. Traveling through America's heartland, we will be preparing ourselves to cannonball into the deep waters of mystery fiction. Today, I'm wading slowly into that mystery pool. I'd like to consider the contributions to the mystery genre of some places we'll pass by as we motor up I-35. 

    Unless we stop for a fried pie in the Arbuckle Mountains, we should arrive in Oklahoma City in a smidge over three hours. I don't come to "The City" without remembering The Long and Faraway Gone. Lou Berney's book, set around a pair of crimes in Oklahoma City, explores memory and the continuing consequences of crimes. As I think about my writing, I try to remember what Berney taught me about damaged characters. If you've not read it, pick it up. Bring it to Bouchercon. He'll be on a panel moderated by Michael Bracken. 

   Another four-hour jump north will bring us near Topeka, Kansas. This selection, I'll acknowledge, is a total cheat. Perhaps I should go with The Late Man by James Girard or In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Rex Stout, however, was raised in Topeka before attending the University of Kansas. He created Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, in Fer-de-Lance in 1934. Although there are books and authors more closely associated with Kansas, Mr. Wolfe's devoted fans, the Wolfe Pack, have been kind to me. Their Black Orchid Novella Award recognized my first published short story. I'll think about Rex Stout on our drive across Kansas. We might even pass the time listening to Too Many Cooks. In that book, Nero Wolfe left his New York brownstone and took a road trip. It seems fitting. 

    BTW: The Man Who Went Down Under by Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson, this year's Black Orchid Novella Award-winning story, was in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine's July/August issue. 

    Four hours later, we'll be solidly in Iowa. I just finished reading The Fields by Erin Young. This 2022 mystery is a procedural set in Black Hawk County, Iowa. The setting is a smidge east of I-35, the road we'll take through the state. But it couldn't be helped; I don't have a good Des Moines mystery at the ready. 

    The Fields is dark with an engaging female protagonist, Sergeant Riley Fisher. It opens with a murder on a family farm. Combining small-town life with the threats of corporate farming, the book moves at a quick pace. It may be located east of here, but it is not hard to imagine the setting as we slice through the corn belt. 

    Journeying northward, we'll cross the Minnesota state line. The first town we come to on that side of the border is Albert Lea. To the east, the next town is Austin, Minnesota. On this small sample space, the state appears organized alphabetically. If that's true, then Aurora County must be nearby.

    Aurora County, Minnesota, is the setting for the Cork O'Connor mysteries written by William Kent Krueger. And we won't find O'Connor here in the corn belt. The books are set in the state's north woods. Krueger, however, will be one of the guests of honor at Bouchercon. To commemorate this fact, I'll put forward Iron Lake, the first of the Cork books, as my state representative. I don't think I need to say much about him. Nineteen books in the series sort of speak for themselves. 

    Bonus: We will likely decide to return through South Dakota, the land of my youth. I reached out to fellow Sleuth, Eve Fisher for a recommendation on a Sioux Falls mystery. She didn't have one to offer. Instead, she suggested I try Kathleen Taylor's books set in Delphi, South Dakota. I read the first one, Funeral Food. I liked the small-town tropes. They felt authentic. When I picked it up, I expected to read a cozy. The protagonist is a waitress at the town's caféBut not all the sex occurred off camera. The plot felt a little forced in spots, but the humor was genuine. I laughed. 

    The westerly swing into South Dakota means we will return home through Nebraska. (You can check the map.) The state claims the hard-boiled crime fiction writer Jim Thompson on a Nebraska librarian website. He attended the University of Nebraska for a time. Oklahoma, however, also considers Thompson one of theirs since he was born in the Oklahoma Territory. His family subsequently moved to Fort Worth. The Lone Star State also takes credit for shaping him. Thompson was praised by Anthony Boucher. He was hailed as a Dimestore Dostoevsky. That label alone, I think, is worth a mention. With his tie to Boucher and nearly every state on our return, Thomson seems the ideal writer to recognize for the trip south. (Apparently, he never paused long enough to write a postcard from Kansas.) I'm pushing The Killer Inside Me

    If Bouchercon has left you too tired to read, you can catch The Killer Inside Me on video. Stacy Keach starred in 1976, and Casey Affleck reprised the lead role in a 2010 film version. 

    If you have other recommendations from these midwestern states, I'd love to hear about them. I can't promise, however, that I'll read them anytime soon. My traveling companion and I will likely return from Bouchercon with a tall new stack for our TBR piles. 

    Until next time. 

04 September 2022

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Richard Helms
Richard Helms

Allow me to introduce my friend and wonderful writer, Richard ‘Rick’ Helms, author of a zillion award-winning novels and short stories, a man who’s received more nominations than an Iowa caucus. A former forensic psychologist, he oozes Southern charm and he’s witty and modest as well.

He and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he still muscles out superb stories. You can find more about him on his web site. Now read on…

— Jan Grape

Bloom Where You’re Planted
Richard Helms

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
— Ernest Hemingway

I wrote my first full-length novel forty years ago. It wasn't published for another eighteen years, after going through dozens of submissions and two different agents. The Valentine Profile is still out there, and—being my first work—it's perfectly horribly awful, and I hang my head in shame every time I think about it. Please don't buy it. Or buy a caseload. You do you.

Despite years of disappointment and an almost legendary number of rejections, I persisted, and wrote four or five more novels, which also weren't published for many years. With each new title, I tried to stretch and improve, and each new book was incrementally better than the last.

I was always reminded of Raymond Chandler’s advice to analyze and imitate. Not surprisingly, most of my first half dozen or so novels are extremely derivative of the authors I was reading at the time—Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, David Hagberg, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, and the like. It takes time to find your voice as an author, so for a while you borrow other people’s voices. There are those who still say—and they aren’t far wrong—that my Eamon Gold private eye series is still just Spenser transported to the west coast.

For years, I didn't even consider writing short stories. I didn't think I had the chops. Like many new writers, I presumed that real authors wrote novels—huge sweeping panoramas of human greed, suffering, conflict, passion, and inevitable death. I earned a Russian Studies minor in college—long story—and might have been influenced a bit by Tolstoy. Somewhere in the recesses of my autistic head, short stories were for quitters who put down Anna Karenina on only page 534.

More than that, though, I was convinced I couldn't say everything I wanted to in only a few thousand words. I thought that was a special skill, like shorthand, and I was playing hooky the day they handed it out.

This is really strange, because my most treasured physical possession is a book of—you guessed it—short stories.

It was my first ‘grown-up’ book. We were moving from Charlotte to Atlanta a week or so after I finished first grade, and our neighbors’ oldest son, who might have been twelve at the time, crossed the street as we were packing our car for the move to Georgia. He handed me a paperback book. He probably said something like, “My mom and dad said you like to read and stuff, and I had this lying around, so you can have it, okay?”

I prefer to remember the moment in the same emotional vein as the Lady in the Lake hefting aloft the mighty Excalibur, presenting it to Arthur. It was a turning point in my young life.

The book was Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction. It was an anthology cobbled together from classic pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s. There were stories by Lester Del Rey, Ray Bradbury, John D. McDonald, Murray Leinster, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and many more. As we tooled down the blue highways between Charlotte and Atlanta, I huddled in the backseat floor—as kids did sixty years ago—and read about robots and rockets and tiny unconscious homunculi used as currency and a funny alien named Mewhu and a man and a dog transformed into Jupiterian beings and time travel and all sorts of amazing concepts I’d never thought of before.

A lot of it didn’t make sense to me and was confusing, but most of it was amazing and astounding and made my little seven-year-old heart flutter. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was my gateway drug to adult literature and pulp fiction at the same time. Dick and Jane? I didn’t care if they ran. I wanted to know why they ran. Why were they being chased? What horrible thing did they do? Dick and Jane might have been okay for the other second graders. I yearned for more. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction fed that hunger, and for the first time in my life, I understood that stories didn’t just happen, as Richard Brautigan wrote, like lint. Somebody had to write them.

Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction is still my most prized physical possession. It resides in a special place on my bookshelf at home. If the house ever catches fire, I will see that Elaine and the cat are out, and then I’ll rescue the book. Everything else can be replaced. This book can’t, for one reason.

Theodore Sturgeon
Theodore Sturgeon autograph

In 1978, I had dinner at UNC-Greensboro with Theodore Sturgeon and his partner, Lady Jayne. He was a guest of honor at a sci-fi convention at the college. He had written the story “Mewhu’s Jet” in my Sacred Book. I brought the by-then tattered paperback with me, and at a probably clumsy moment I thrust it into his hands and told him the story of how this book changed my reading life—and eventually inspired me to become a writer as well. He took one look at it, and said, “This book has been well-loved”, and he signed the first page of his story.

Sturgeon is long gone now, dead for over forty years. His autograph in my book with the added ‘Q’ with an arrow he used to symbolize “Ask the Next Question” can never be replaced. So the book gets rescued.

As illuminating as it was, Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was also intimidating. To me, the authors in those pages were giants, superhumans endowed with powers far beyond the grasp of mortal scribblers. They captured entire universes in five or six thousand words, and I was not worthy to look upon their visages.

So, I wrote novel after novel after novel. Twenty-five now and counting. Some were squibs. Some were award finalists. Not one of them has ever sold more than 1500 copies. That’s probably my fault, as I am much more comfortable tapping on a keyboard than pressing flesh. A born salesman, I am decidedly not.

In 2006, I decided to start a webzine publishing hardboiled and noir short stories, and solicited submissions on all the usual email listservs, the Facebook and Twitter of the day. Within weeks, I was swamped with submissions, a great number of which had been penned by Edgar and Shamus and Anthony Award winners. I was shocked.

Reading all those stories by such distinguished writers gave me an opportunity again to analyze and imitate. I pulled out my old trusty copy of Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction, and I read those stories again as well. As I read, I discovered that the stories that had cowed me so completely decades earlier now made sense. I could recognize the use of a three-act structure and the economy of language in them. I had a little peek underneath the magicians’ capes. I thought, perhaps, I might be able to write in this strange, truncated style after all.

In 2006, I was mowing the grass and came up with an idea for my third Eamon Gold novel. Started working on it, and realized there wasn't enough there for a book, but it might make a nice short story. Longtime buddy Kevin Burton Smith published it on his Thrilling Detective Website, ("The Gospel According to Gordon Black") and it went on to win the Derringer Award that year. I had also written a short story for my own webzine, The Back Alley, entitled "Paper Walls/Glass Houses", and darned if it didn't win the Derringer as well.

No shit, dear readers. My first two published short stories were award winners, and made me one of only two authors ever to win the Derringer in two different categories in the same year. (The other is the incredibly prolific and masterful John Floyd.) Nobody was more surprised than I.

So I wrote another one, based on a failed Pat Gallegher novel, and retitled it "The Gods For Vengeance Cry." On a flyer, I sent it in to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and by golly Janet Hutchings bought it! It went on to garner nominations for the Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Awards, and won the 2011 Thriller Award.

Yeah. My first THREE published short stories won awards. The fourth, "Silicon Kings" was also a Derringer finalist.

Clearly, it was time to reevaluate my writing priorities.

For almost a quarter century, before Kevin kindly published "The Gospel According to Gordon Black", I had always presumed that I was first and foremost a novelist, however obscure and failed. I had been conditioned to believe the fallacy that novels hold an exalted spot in literature. While I had enjoyed some limited critical acclaim with my novels, the sudden shocking success of the short stories left me wondering whether I had wasted thirty years of my writing life.

It’s a good thing I’m not into regrets.

Over the last fifteen years, I've embraced the idea that I might actually be a short story writer who dabbles in writing novels. I have six Shamus Award nominations (and one win) for my novels, but my short stories have garnered a mind-boggling fourteen nominations, and have won the Thriller, Shamus, and Derringer Awards. One story I wrote for anthology editor and master story craftsman Michael Bracken (“See Humble and Die”, in The Eyes of Texas, for Down and Out Books) was selected for the 2020 edition of Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and C. J. Box.

And the hits just keep coming. Several years ago, the Republican National Convention was held in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. As happens in many cities, Charlotte made a concerted effort to get rid of the many homeless people who cluster each night along uptown Tryon Street, because images of people sleeping on bus stop benches make for bad national TV. I read an article about it in the news, and my first thought was that sweeping the streets of homeless people might make an excellent cover for a murder. Kill a homeless guy, hide the body, and everyone would think he was just given ‘Greyhound Therapy’—a bus ticket and twenty bucks to go somewhere (anywhere) else.  I let the idea cook in my head for a week or two, mostly coming up with a compelling protagonist, and then I started typing. I threw in some stories I’d heard about living on the streets from my hippie buddies back in the early 1970s. The resulting story, "Sweeps Week" (EQMM, July August 2021) won the Shamus this year, and is a finalist for the Macavity at Bouchercon next week.

My wife said, “You know, you might have a knack for this.”

Sometimes I have to shake my head when I realize that one story in EQMM is seen (and hopefully read) by more people than have read all my novels put together. That's humbling, but also exciting. Unlike each new book, which might flop or fly, or even go completely ignored, the stories are being read. Nothing is more important to a writer.

A Kind and Savage Place (novel)

I still write novels. Earlier this year, Level Best Books’ New Arc imprint published A Kind and Savage Place, which traces the evolution of civil rights in the south as experienced by the citizens of a small North Carolina farming community. Next year, their Historia imprint will publish Vicar Brekonridge, a novel based on my Derringer Award-nominated EQMM short story “The Cripplegate Apprehension.” I recently finished a massive novel called 22 Rue Montparnasse, about the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris, and I’m about ready to set sail on another novel about Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, inspired by the music of the late Nashville songwriter Larry Jon Wilson. None of these, with the possible exception of Vicar Brekonridge, is a traditional mystery story. Writing mystery short stories has freed me to explore other genres in my novel-length works, and to write the more mainstream and historical stories that I’ve back-burnered for years.

For now, though, my plan is to spend 2023 focused mostly on short stories. I’ve discovered that they are intensely rewarding. In what other medium can you come up with an idea on Tuesday, write “The End” on Friday, and people will buy it (hopefully)? In the same way I truly enjoy diving into massive amounts of research for a sweeping historical novel, I love the spontaneous nature of short stories. They’re almost like zen paintings, executed in seconds only after days of contemplation. The typing is only the last stage of storytelling. First, the story has to live inside your head. As Edward Albee once taught me in a master class, “Never put a sentence on the page until it can write itself.”

Living on the autistic spectrum, it would have been easy to stay rigidly glued to the novel-writing path. Comforting, even. Stability, structure, and adherence to a long-standing pattern of behavior is kind of a big deal among my neurodivergent tribe. Gritting my teeth, shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and breaking out and trying something new fifteen years ago turned out to make a huge difference in my writing life, and opened the door to a level of authorly satisfaction I had never known before.

My point is this (and it doesn't apply only to writing): The secret of happiness, I think, is to find your sunny spot and bloom where you're planted. If you beat your head against a door for years without an answer, maybe you're at the wrong door. I spent twenty-five relatively unhappy years working as a clinical/forensic psychologist, but only found career joy when I followed my true calling and became a teacher. Likewise, when I embraced short stories, the flower of my writing career blossomed.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to step back, survey the Big Picture, and figure out exactly where you fit into it, as opposed to where you want to fit. Life has a way of showing you the paths you need to tread, if you’re open to looking for them. A simple jink to the left or right could change your entire life. But, wherever you land, it should be the place that makes you happiest. Living as a tortured literary artist slaving in a dusty garret may be a romantic notion, but it isn’t much fun.

Sometimes, you win by trading one dream for another.