05 February 2024

The Fine Art of Collaboration

For some writers, collaboration is a fact of life; for others, it's a rare gift. I’m in the second category. I’m awestruck at the harmonious working relationship of writing duos who turn out seamless works, whether they’re bestselling series like the historical mysteries of Charles Todd and his mother Caroline (the other half of author Charles Todd until her death in 2021) or one-offs like the Edgar-nominated short story "Blind-Sided" (2021) by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken and James A. Hearn.

I've participated in a number of musical collaborations, starting in high school, when a friend and I achieved fame for presenting our parody of Hamlet to the tune of folksong "Putting on the Style," with guitars, in numerous English classes. For years afterwards, when I met someone who'd attended my very large high school, they'd say, "Ohh, you're the one who wrote "Hamlet!"

In the noughties, as Brits call the first decade of the present century, I took part in several songwriting workshops led by legendary singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, whose work defies classification, though he's received a couple of Grammy nominations in the contemporary folk category. Jimmie and the other members of his original band, the Flatlanders, hail from Lubbock, Texas, along with Buddy Holly and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. In a long career, he's learned a lot about creative collaboration. In his workshops, he makes songwriters work in groups. He believes the creative group process mirrors the process in the individual writer's head. As he put it, the dialogue in one case and the monologue in the other both go, "That's brilliant! No, that's stupid!" In my case, since I didn't get to pick the people, the group process ended in tears a few times. But I think he's right about how the process works.

Between 2010 and 2012, I had the great joy of collaborating with my friend Ray Korona on an album of songs that I'd written over the course of half a century. It's called Outrageous Older Woman. I produced the album, Ray co-produced and acted as sound engineer, and we collected a tremendously gifted array of backup singers and musicians to create an album of my music that sounded the way I'd heard it only in my wildest dreams. We spent many, many hours in Ray's basement recording studio in New Jersey, and every hour was a happy one. Ten years after Ray's untimely death from cancer, I still cherish a moment when we got exactly the sound we wanted for a solo passage from a fingerstyle guitarist (think Chet Atkins or Ricky Skaggs) after auditioning four different musicians for the descriptor "a git-tar picker who had lightning in his hands" in a song about a country music band. Ray and I exchanged a look of delight and perfect satisfaction that still warms my heart when I remember it. There's nothing like that "Got it!" moment in a good collaboration.

I've never collaborated on a pure writing project, as opposed to lyrics. Like the late Parnell Hall, I would have sold out and said yes to big bestseller Stuart Woods, if I’d gotten the call, or to James Patterson, like everyone else. Bestsellers aside, I’d do my best if invited to collaborate with a writer I respect and trust on a publishable project. But no one’s ever asked. I've had a handful of brilliant editors and quite a few bad ones, and I tend to trust my own judgment over that of most other writers. I hate writing by committee, and while I may dream occasionally of the perfect writing partner, I'm unlikely to encounter one.

My most recent collaboration was with fellow SleuthSayer and multi-talented writer, graphic artist, tech wiz, etc, my friend Leigh Lundin. After reading my post on my adventures checking out my DNA, Leigh had the bright idea of creating a cartoon that riffed on them. He thought it up and did all the work. I got to critique both the artwork ("My complexion isn't green." "Can you make the angry woman thinner?") and the text ("It's funnier if you mention the DNA." "No hyphen in storyteller.") as Leigh patiently produced one version after another. We were both busy with other projects, so it took more than a year, but we finally achieved our "Got it!" moment. Here's the result:

04 February 2024

Une Humeur Noire

Matches with Patches

On a September Friday in 1984, a new crime series debuted on NBC. The plot of the program was subordinate to its glossy appearance. As a director said, “The show is written for an audience … more interested in images, emotions and energy, than plot and character and words.”

The program focused on style rather than substance. Producers literally specified a pastel color palette, while simultaneously banning earth tone browns, beiges, and the color red. Crews repainted buildings to match color patches. The show’s look and feel built a peach and sea-foam green monument to the gods of cars, cash, and cocaine.

Mocs without Socks

Their stars posed as much as acted. The five season run set styles in cars, boats, handguns and holsters, houses, and men’s fashion and accessories. The word metrosexual wouldn’t appear for another decade, but the cast defined the term: pink T-shirts under Italian unstructured jackets, French linen trousers, European mocs without socks, carefully groomed beard stubble.

By now you’re hearing Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme, and yes, they featured damn good music of the era. Wikipedia after-the-fact defines its genre as ’neo-noir’, whatever that implies, but it’s all about mood.

Noire Afar

Une humeur noire means a dark mood, on the off chance I managed the français feminine endings in the title correctly. Mystery writers know noir, but here follows a different take.

Sometime after Crockett and Tubbs committed their last heartbreak, heartache, and visit to the STD clinic, a couple of English bands came out with real noire but with a twist. Rather than write a novel or film a movie and then add music, these groups created music and subsequently filmed vignettes that set mood and hint at a story. They aren’t by any means recent, but their take on retro-noire remains intriguing.

A Plot it’s Not

Here now is the group Pulp.

  This is Hardcore @ Pulp


A predecessor (and still active) group was Portishead. I’ve mentioned it before, a favorite of our colleague Paul Marks. Same idea– music first and then a video setting a premise and mood for a story– without the actual story, leaving you to fill in the blanks.

Here is Portishead.

  To Kill a Dead Man @ Portishead


Even today, this approach remains unusual and controversial, the telling of a story without a story. How can noir become bleaker than that?

03 February 2024

Waiting Is Another Story


This past week I got an acceptance from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which of course made my day. (The knowledge that it'll probably be a long time until the story'll appear in print didn't dampen my mood a bit. Let loose the balloons--it's an acceptance.) I admit my insecurities: I need a pat on the head now and then, and it's always a warm feeling when an editor decides to publish something I created. 

But in the case of AHMM, I've often been asked it it's worth the wait. Sometimes it's a long one, from submission to response. 

How long? As most of us know by now, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan--one of the kindest and most professional editors I know--has said she reads every story herself. That must be a daunting task--I can't even imagine it--and for the writers who submit stories to her, it means a lengthy wait. Most of my submissions to the magazine over the past few years have taken from twelve to fourteen months to get a reply--this latest one took 410 days--and the thing is, not all of those responses were acceptances. Heaven knows, waiting an average of thirteen months only to receive a rejection can be pretty discouraging.

There's certainly no guarantee. As the old carnival guy used to say, as he chewed his cigar and showed you a raised eyebrow and three walnut shells (only one of which had a pea underneath), "You pays your money and you takes your chances." Are you willing to bet a year's time for the possibility of placing a story in a leading magazine?

I love AHMM, and I love writing stories for them, but my acceptance/rejection ratio hasn't been great there. Not for lack of trying; I started submitting stories to them (and to everyplace else) in 1994, when the wonderful Cathleen Jordan was the editor. The first one Cathleen accepted was in late 1995--I'll always remember it, a 1200-word bank-robbery story that appeared in the June '96 issue--and I've sold them 25 stories since then. Which sounds okay, at first--BUT there were a lot of rejections along the way. I don't know how many stories I've sent AHMM in thirty years to come up with those 26 acceptances, but I know it was a lot more than 26. Probably three or four times that many. I can thankfully say my success rate's better there now than it used to be--I was lucky enough to have six stories there in the past two years--but there were a lot of years when I had no stories published there.

So--again--is it worth it?

Consider the alternatives. There are at least half a dozen other mystery magazines out there right now that I think are respectable and worth our time as writers and readers. I submit stories to all of them pretty regularly, and I have been fortunate to have had stories published in all of them. And none of those magazines take as long to respond to submissions as AHMM does. Some are surprisingly fast. Should we mystery writers be sending the fruits of our writing efforts to those places, instead?


Some of my writer friends have chosen to do that. Several have said that a year or more (usually more) is just too long to tie up a good story that might've been submitted, accepted, and even published elsewhere in less time than it takes to receive a rejection from AHMM. Some of these are authors I admire a lot, and it's hard to say they're wrong.

As for me, I've decided to do both. I do submit stories to the other magazines--I think it'd be silly not to--but I also submit stories to Linda, and I plan to continue doing that. I realize the wait is long, and since I'm not as young as I used to be, I find myself more conscious of time, and of wasted time. I understand all that. And yes, my AHMM batting average isn't the best. But anytime I start thinking too hard about that, I think again about the thrill of getting an acceptance from them--and I send them another story. I can't resist it. I keep remembering the old saying that success isn't guaranteed if you try, but failure is guaranteed if you don't.

I hope their wait time decreases in the future. I'll welcome that, if it does. And I hope I'll get better at writing in the future, so I can be certain everything I send in gets accepted (ha!). But even if neither of those things happen, I plan to keep sending stories to all the mystery magazines, Hitchcock included. Why not?

What's your opinion, on this? Are you fed up with what some call unreasonable response times to submissions? Have you decided, however reluctantly, not to submit to AHMM anymore, because of that? (By the way, there are other magazines that also make you wait awhile.) Do you accept those long wait times as a necessary evil, sort of a cost of doing business? Do you compromise, and still submit to AHMM but not as often as you once did? Do you send them stories only as a last resort, stories that have been rejected several times elsewhere? (I'm not sure that's a good idea.) Either way, pro or con, please let me know in the comments. Am I--and Rob Lopresti, who's said he's also hanging in there--the only ones who've decided to hold the course?

Meanwhile, good luck with all your submissions, to any and all markets. I'll watch the sky for balloons.

Hey, nobody said this would be easy . . .

02 February 2024

The Second Murderer by Denise Mina

 For the first time since Poodle Springs, Philip Marlowe shows up in a Philip Marlowe novel and manages to stay well past Chapter 4. If it sounds like I'm giving damning faint praise to author Denise Mina, I'm not. Mina has written the latest authorized Philip Marlowe novel, and for once, we have an author who understands how to place Marlowe in context and not belabor the similes.

Like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Philip Marlowe is one of those characters who won't die with his author. You have to go to science fiction to get anything else American like it. Star Wars is a Marvel-like franchise now instead of the story of a farm boy becoming Siegfried. Star Trek just avoids that fate by becoming a setting more than a story about set characters. Marlowe is...

Well, he's Marlowe. And he has dozens upon dozens of imitators: Lew Archer (more a means for Ross MacDonald to tell a story), Nameless, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Milhonne, VI Warshawski. Even a certain Sleuthsayers contributor originally from Cleveland invented his own not-Marlowe. Which reminds me, there was another not-Marlowe from Cleveland by a much older writer from Cleveland. Seems like everyone wants in on the action.

But Bond and Holmes are larger than life, to the point where Holmes is recognizable the moment he appears, and Bond is now two Bonds: literary and cinematic. Marlowe is a working stiff, a guy in a corner office. If you reinvent him, you almost have to create a new character. Many have tried. The result has been not-Spenser, a book full of wisecracks and similes, or some guy named Philip Marlowe who happens to be or was a private detective. The closest anyone came to the original was Lawrence Osborne's Only to Sleep, featuring an elderly Marlowe in Mexico, though the story had an almost Miami Vice vibe to it. Denise Mina writes a story about the character Raymond Chandler created.

The similes and an odd metaphor or ten are there, but they need to be. That's how Marlowe talks. And he's in period. The Second Murderer begins with Marlowe wrapping up a case but wondering if he got it wrong: The death of a Western character actor on the eve of World War II. He has no time to think about it as an elderly man, in shades of The Big Sleep, summons Marlowe to Stately Montgomery Manor to hire him. He doesn't want the job, but Montgomery wants his daughter found. Because Montgomery is a Very Important Man(TM) from a Very Important Family(TM). And unlike The Big Sleep's General Sternwood, Marlowe doesn't like this guy. He's a shriveled monster who beats his family Yet Marlowe takes the gig. He finds the daughter, Chrissie, soon enough. But he also runs into Anne Riordan, a character so strong she could probably carry her own series. And Mina has made her a PI in her own right. Something's not right.

Marlowe and Riordan soon realize they're working at cross purposes here, and even the police are being played. Despite being at odds in their missions, the pair are soon walking a fine line between what they're tasked with and protecting Chrissie, who has a few secrets of their own.

Mina writes this in period. There's no overlay of modern sensibilities, although she does avoid some language Chandler might not have blinked at. But she's writing in 1938 and focused on the rhythms and the consequences of Hollywood trying very hard to pretend Hitler is someone else's problem. The dialog is in-period. However, the book comes from a Scottish writer, so the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all UK. That takes about a chapter to get used to. As an editor, I've seen the challenge and once had to leave Australian rules in place. But there were occasional lapses. One particular instance has Marlowe describing the rain on his car's "bonnet" (hood to us yanks.) Fortunately, the Britishisms are few and far between, and Marlowe even makes fun of one characters' faux British accent.

Much is made of Denise Mina being the first female author to tackle Marlowe. But I find it interesting a a Gen X woman from Scotland did a far superior job resurrecting Marlowe than Robert Parker or some of the other writers who attempted to carry on the legacy. First off, she focuses on telling a good story. She organically adds in Anne Riordan as a callback to Farewell, My Lovely without being gratuitous about it. And the Marlowe in her book is the Marlowe Chandler wrote. Considering she's been doing this for over twenty-five years, she was a good choice to add a chapter to Marlowe's story. I'd read another by her.

01 February 2024

James Cathcart & the Vicissitudes of Character Portrayal

This guy.
 Hail and well met again, fellow Sleuthsayers!

Sorry for the brief hiatus, our old friend COVID-19 chose to darken our door and Casa Thornton quickly devolved into Casa Sick-Sick-Sick, and when my last turn in the rotation circled around I was flat on my back, so called for a pinch-hitter. Thanks to my rotation mates for having my back! And now, as promised, the second part of my two-parter about a man who was either one of history's great memoirists or one history's great self-promoters, or, perhaps, some combination of the two?

Ladies and Gentlemen: James Leander Cathcart!

A quick refresher, quoted from last time around's posting:

Cathcart was born in  Ireland in 1768, sent to the American colonies to be raised by a sea captain uncle, Cathcart went to sea early, and in 1785 was taken captive by Algerian pirates while serving on a merchant brig, the Maria, out of Boston.

As with so many captives whose families didn't pony up ransom payments, Cathcart was initially put to work doing slave labor on construction projects in and around the port. Through a combination of good luck and pluck on his part, he was able to parlay a stint as a gardener in the palace of the dey (ruler) into a change of his status. Over the succeeding eleven years, Cathcart managed to claw his way up to working as the dey's secretary responsible for translating and leading ransom negotiations with the diplomats of "Christian" nations looking to conduct business in the Mediterranean unmolested by such pesky inconveniences as Algerine raiders.

In 1796 Cathcart was tapped to negotiate his own release in addition to that of his surviving colleagues from the Maria. Once a treaty had been drafted, the dey sent Cathcart to the United States to deliver it. It is a measure of Cathcart's success as a "slave" of the dey that he actually owned the ship in which he traveled to Washington, D.C.- bought with the profits Cathcart had raked in thanks to the contacts he made while in the dey's service.

Once freed Cathcart married the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family, began having children (the couple eventually had twelve), and embarked on a career as a diplomat, filling minor posts in places such as Madeira (where one of his sons, a future U.S. Senator from Indiana, was born).

Oh, and he kept a journal of his time as an Algerine slave.

*    *    *

Let's get to it:

The Maria of Boston, on which I had embarked, was captured three miles southeast of Cape St. Vincent (Southeast point of Portugal) on the 25th of July, 1785, and arrived at Algiers on the 4th of August following.

The opening sentence of James Leander Cathcart's tale of his eleven years as first a captive, then a slave of the dey of Algiers ("dey," "bashaw," and "bey" being local Arabic terms for the military dictators who served as nominal representatives of the Turkish sultan). It is the most succinct his narrative gets. History does not present us a transcription of Cathcart talking, but if it's anything like his writing, "florid" would not be too strong a word. I can't help but wonder how anyone else ever got a word in edgewise. For example, a description of the conditions below decks on the xebec (literal pirate ship) that took them prisoner:

It is impossible to describe the horror of our situation while we remained there. Let imagination conceive what must have been the sufferings of forty-two men, shut up in a dark room in the hold of a Barbary cruiser full of men and filthy in the extreme, destitute of every nourishment, and nearly suffocated with heat; yet here we were obliged to remain every night until our arrival in Algiers and wherever we were–either chased or in chase.

Algerian xebecs in the foreground of this painting by Antonio Barcelo. Note both the sails and the oars.

And then they got to Algiers:

We arrived in Algiers on the eve of the feast that follows Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr- B.T.) and, being private property, were conducted to the owner of the cruiser's house, having first been entirely stripped of the remnant of our clothes which remained. I was furnished in lieu therof with the remains of an old dirty shirt and brown cloth trousers, which formerly belonged to a Portuguese fisherman and were swimming with myriads of vermin, which, with the crown of an old hat, composed the whole of my wardrobe. The rest of my brother sufferers were in no better condition.

Eventually Cathcart and several other American prisoners were bought by the dey (again, the local top kick and Sultan's personal representative), and he found himself tending animals in the dey's garden:

We were now taken to the hot bath by the other Christian slaves and cleansed from the filth of the cruiser. Our old rags were changed for a large shirt with open sleeves and large pair of cotton trousers, a pair of shoes and a red cap, all made in Turkish fashion, in which, no doubt, we made a curious appearance. We were allowed to remain together that night and fared sumptuously in comparison to what we had some time before, and, being clean. slept for several hours as sound as any people could do in our situation. In the morning, we awakened much refreshed and were stationed at our respective duties: two were retained as upper servants; one was sent to the kitchen: and myself and another were doomed to labor in the palace garden, where we had not a great deal to do, there being fourteen of us, and–the taking care of two lions, two tigers, and two antelopes excepted–the work might very well been done by four.

Hot bath? Clean clothes? Spiffy red hat? Cake day job? Things are going Cathcart's way, right? Well, he got bored, and started teaching his fellow slaves Spanish and French, and how to read. And thus, he ran afoul of the dey's right-hand man: his chief chamberlain "Ciddi Aly" (likely "Sidi Ali," or, in the local Maghrebi dialect of Arabic: "Master Ali."):

This (his educational efforts) procured me the title of the false priest, the moshabbe, and many other names of a similar nature from the chamberlains: and as the lower class, to ingratiate themselves with their superiors, generally imitate them, these appellations proved a great source of disquiet and involved me in continual disputes both the chamberlains and Christians. As I always refuted their arguments, it ultimately procured me many enemies, among them Ciddi Aly (sic), the chief chamberlain, who uniformly persecuted me through the rest of my captivity until he was ultimately expelled from the regency (the dey's government) by Hassan Bashaw (who succeeded to the throne as dey of Algiers in 1791).

Interspersed with his account of his personal adventures, Cathcart delivers description after description of life in 1780s Algiers:

A little more than two months after my admission to the dey's garden, the slaves were permitted to go out into the town in consequence of the great festival (likely Eid al-Adha) of which the first and last day is celebrated in the palace with feasting, music, wrestling, and fireworks of very poor construction, before the palace gate. In the morning of the first day, the banner of Mahomet (sic) is hoisted on the palace and the national flag on the fortifications are fired, those next to the sea with ball (cannon balls!).

Cathcart continues:

When the wrestling is ended, the officers of the regency and inhabitants kiss the dey's hand while [he is] seated on his throne, having the Hasnagi Agas ("khaznaji": "treasurer," and "Aga" is a term of respect akin to "sir.") at Hodga Beitelmel ("Bayt al-malji": "the keeper of forfeited property") and vikilharche of the marine ("wakil al-kharj": the official in charge of "maritime affairs," the de facto foreign minister of Algiers) standing on his left hand, and the chauxes ("shawushes": ushers or guards.) and other inferior officials behind them. After the Mussulmen [Muslims] have all performed this act of humiliation and respect, not even excepting the hangman and scavengers, the consuls have that honor conferred on them, next to them the head clerk, and then the chief of the Jewish brokers of the palace and their dependents (Nearly all banking and finances of any real significance in the North African Maghreb region was conducted by a vast network of Jewish banking families). The dey then invites the five grandees (bigwigs) to dine with him in his apartments; they are joined by the chief cook. After dinner they retire to their respective houses, and the dey generally goes to visit his lady if he is married; if not, he retires to sleep.

The crumbling interior court of the ruined remnant of the dey's palace in Algiers.

Cathcart's descriptions of settings, buildings, landscapes could also be quite vivid:

The Bagnio Beylique (the local prison) is an oblong hollow square, 140 feet in length and sixty in breadth, is three stories high, and may be about fifty feet high to the top of the terrace. The whole of the apartments are built upon arches and have no windows, except a small iron grating in each of the upper apartments, and receive the light and air from the doors.

This edifice he in turn peopled with a "colorful" and distinctive set of guards:

The gates of the prison were....shut for the night, a heavy chain was drawn across the inside of the outer gate, and the inner one was bolted and locked. The prison was now under the control of the Christian corporals, who were all deserters from the Spanish garrison of Oran, where they had been banished from their country, either for murder or theft, and, before their appointment here, had in general signalized themselves as the most hardened villains in the regency.

A prison completely manned by Spanish cutthroat deserters? Picaresque? Sure. But read the detailed exchange below that Cathcart recalls occurring between himself (once he had learned Arabic) and the head jailer at the bagnio, an aged scoundrel named Ibram Rais:

"You are all young and healthy and too well clothed for slaves. You shall have something to divert you tomorrow....I will show you how I was treated at Malta (where he had been a slave of the Christians there). Here, sbirro ("jailer"), put stout rings on these gentlemen's legs and let them be awakened and brought to me before daylight at the marine gate."

The head clerk then interfered and informed him that we had committed no fault and that the haznadar (a palace official) had ordered him to have them sent to the marine (the harbor). "They shall go to the marine," answered the surly guardian, "but from thence I will send them where I please. They don't know what slavery is yet; it is time they should learn. I have not forgot the treatment I received from Christians when I was a slave."

I observed that I was an American and that it would be extremely hard hard for me to suffer for the injuries he had received from the Maltese, who were situated at the distance of six thousand miles from my country and were likewise of a different religion (Cathcart was a Protestant, and Malta was then as now, overwhelmingly Catholic), which taught them from time immemorial to view the Mahometans (sic) with enmity; but that in America there probably had never been a Mussulman and that we had never been at war with any nation of that religion.

"True," answered he (curling his whiskers), "but you are Christians: and if you have not injured Mussulmen, it was not for the want of will, but for want of power. If you should chance to take any of our cruisers, how would you treat our people?"

"That will emtirely depend on how you treat those of my nation whom you have captured," I answered, "and you may be assured, sir, that my nation will retaliate upon those who treat their unfortunate citizzens with undeserved cruelty."

"Slave!" answered he, "I am not accustomed to listen to the arguments of infidels. You are too loquacious for a young man. Retire immediately, and for the future, be silent and obey."

"I shall obey, sir, but never be silent while there remains a higher tribunal to appeal to."

The above exchange beggars belief. While definitely written in the sort of melodramatic tone typical of much of the literature and even travel writing of the era, it is difficult to believe Cathcart would have been able to get through this dialogue without getting beaten, or at least knocked to the ground. He was, after all, a Christian slave speaking with a Muslim prison jailer in a far less enlightened age.

I mean, come on. The "villain" even strokes the ends of his mustache!

And therein lies the rub with a lot of what Cathcart tells us: he is in many ways the hero of every exchange, getting the last word or getting the better of an adversary. While his descriptions are valuable, his narrative is for the most part, highly suspect.

Which brings me to yet other accomplishments dubiously attributed to Cathcart: a wartime escape from a British prison ship during the Revolution, any number of expenses he racked up both as a slave secretary of the dey of Algiers and later as a diplomatic official both in North Africa and elsewhere. These accomplishments are dubious for us,  because it is only in Cathcart's own narrative that we find confirmation of them. The rest of the historical record remains altogether silent.

So was Cathcart writing this journal to inform or to lionize himself? Well....

Which is part and parcel of why I find Cathcart so fascinating. A flawed man, clearly talented and resourceful, and possessed of the gift of gab. And yet given to exaggeration?

This narrative becomes even more puzzling when one factors in the fact that Cathcart never attempted to publish his narrative. His daughter edited and privately published it fifty years after his death in 1843. So maybe he was "showing off" for family only, never dreaming his reminiscences about his time in Algiers might be subjected to any sort of serious scrutiny?

Cathcart did marry well, and spent decades in a number of minor diplomatic posts, then in semi-retirement, serving as a clerk in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., all the while repeatedly petitioning for compensation of his "considerable expenses." His efforts in this endeavor came to naught. Bitter and disappointed, Cathcart wrote shortly before his death that he had spent years "faithfully serving an ungrateful country."

But boy, what a character, eh?

31 January 2024

BSF (Best Stories Forever)

This is my fifteenth annual review  of the best short stories of the year, selected from my weekly-best choices at Little Big Crimes.  Feel free to cite this list but please refer to it as "Robert Lopresti's Best of the Year list at SleuthSayers" or similar phrasing, NOT "SleuthSayers Best..." because my fellow bloggers are stubbornly independent souls who occasionally disagree with me, as foolish as that seems.

There are sixteen winners this year, one more than last time. Thirteen of the stories are by men; three by women.  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is the big winner, with six tales.  Black Cat Weekly scored two, as did an anthology from Random House. Five were written by my fellow SleuthSayers.  

Six of the stories are funny.  Five have fantasy or science fiction elements. Two are private eye stories.  Two are police stories.  Two are by foreigners.  Seven of the authors are repeat offenders.  

Enough. Please pass me the envelopes.

Marcel   "Martin, the Novelist," in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023. 

Martin is a successful novelist with one great flaw.  He kills off his characters. His publisher  extracts a promise that no one important will die in his next book, or no money.

That's hard enough for Martin to bear but even worse is a visit from one of his characters, who is very unhappy with the plot.  Everybody's a critic, right? 

Cody, Liza, "Never Enough,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2023.

This is Cody's third appearance on my best list.   

Sheena, the narrator of this tour-de-force novella, is a horrible person.  She never refers to her only child  as anything but "the annoying kid."  She has nothing but insults for her only two friends, one of whom she says "I don't like much."

But worse, when she decides that "the marriage was worn as thin as the hall carpet," she set her sights on an artist.  The fact that he had been in a  relationship for decades only made it more of a challenge. Sheena is a scary, narcissistic, probably delusional, menace.  You wouldn't want to meet her, but she makes a fascinating protagonist.

De Noux, O'Neil, 
"Of Average Intelligence," in Black Cat Weekly, #85.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer is a retired police officer, and it shows.

"No offense, Office Kintyre.  But I'm smarter than you."

Have you taken offense yet?  I certainly have.  Attorney Matt Glick is the speaker and he has recently killed his wife.  The cops have a ton of circumstantial evidence against him and he has a ready explanation for every bit of it.

In fact the only thing Glick doesn't have  a ready work-around for is his own smug superiority,... 

Dean, David, "Mrs. Hyde,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  March/April 2023.

This is my friend and  fellow SleuthSayers' fifth appearance on this list, which makes him champeen of the world.  No one else has been in more than four times. 

Dr. Beckett Marchland  is an alienist, which is to say, a Victorian-era psychologist.  He receives a troubling letter from a woman who reports that her once loving and kindhearted husband is being changed for the worse by a bad companion.

The woman is Mrs. Edward Hyde.  The wicked friend is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Faherty, Terence, "The Incurious Man,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

This is the fourth appearance here  by yet another .SleuthSayer alum.

Owen Keane is a private detective starting a new job.  On his first day, taking the train from New Jersey to New York City, he encounters something very strange.  Every day for a week a woman near Rahway has held up a sign for people on the train to see.  The signs seem ominous, if not threatening, and refer to Giovanni and Elvira, whoever they are.

Everyone on the train is fascinated by the signs except one man who ignores them.  His lack of interest interests Keane...

Finlay, C.C. "The Best Justice Money Can Buy,"  in The Reinvented Detective, edited by Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, Caezik SF and Fantasy, 2023. 

What if the whole justice system was for-profit?  Crimes would not be investigated unless the victims, or someone else, pay for the police time.  Criminals could shell out dough to get out of prison.  (Well, today we call that hiring a good lawyer, don't we?)  And so on.

Detective Chung is not a fan of the for-profit system but today it works in her favor, because she eye-witnessed the son of the wealthiest woman in the country committing a hit and run.  And this gives her leverage, if she can figure out how to use it...

Helms, Richard, "Spear Carriers,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2023.

This is the third time   Helms had made my best of the year list.

Dave and Sam have bit parts in a Broadway play, as policemen.  They only show up at the very end which leaves them with a lot of time on their hands.  One night Dave goes out for a bite in his police uniform-costume and the clerk gives him his food for free. "Thank you for your service."

This happens because Dave is wearing his costume - which is to say, something that looks very much like a police uniform. . That gives Sam an idea...

 Hockensmith, Steve, "The Grown-Ups Table,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,   January/February 2023.

This is the third best-of-the-year appearance by SleuthSayer Hockensmith.  2023

It's Christmas dinner at a dysfunctional family.  Uncle Dan  can't stop spouting the philosophy of his favorite right-wing radio host.  And there is Cryptique who, until we turned goth a few months ago, was named Bobby.  

But the main character is Tia who has just graduated to the Grown-Ups Table.  And she is carefully orchestrating the dinner conversation to reveal who murdered the family matriarch, Gammy Bibi.   

Linn, Ken, "A Flash of Headlights,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2023.

Brody does yard maintenance.  A year earlier he was charged with a DUI.  He has been sober ever since, just barely. He makes a casual spur-of-the-moment decision to do what he considers a friendly gesture.  This leads to a tragedy which affects people he cares about. Every move Brody makes feels like it will make things worse. 

Narvaez, Richie, "Shamu, World's Greatest Detective,"  in Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West, Down and Out Books, 2023.

Shamu is an orca at SeaWorld (the eighteenth to bear that name) and thanks to new technology she is able to communicate with people.  Turns out she is, as the title says, a brilliant detective.  The story is narrated by her assistant, Angie Gomez.

One of the pleasures of this story is Shamu's dialog.  Here she is talking to her police nemesis: "I can solve the case in time for you to get home and rest your minuscule human brain."

Petrone, Susan, "The Silent Partner,"  in Cleveland Noir, edited by Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen, Akashic Press, 2023.

The publisher sent me a free copy of this book.

It's 1970.  The narrator writes about baseball history for the Cleveland Press.  He has to cover the 50th anniversary of the day a Cleveland player was killed by a pitch thrown by a Yankee.

The more he investigates  the more it appears that something weird happened.  Weird, like the beanball being deliberate?  Much weirder than that.

Roanhorse, Rebecca, "White Hills,"  in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

White Hills is everything Marissa ever wanted, right down to the welcome sign by the community mail drop reminding everyone of the HOA rules. Some people don't like HOAs, but Marissa loves them. 

Marissa is perhaps a bit shallow and self-satisfied with  her wealthy new husband.  She constantly rattles off  popular cliches and mantras.  But does she really fit in in White Hills?

One night she springs two surprises on her husband.  The one she is excited about: she's pregnant.  The one she didn't give a thought to before mentioning: she's part Native American.  And suddenly things change...

Sheehy, Edward, "Lavender Diamond,"  in Crimeucopia: Boomshakalaking! Modern Crimes for Modern Times, Murderous Ink Press, 2023.

I'm done writing first-person point-of-view stories.  My latest saga of a modern family stretching back several generations, voiced by 72 first-person characters including pet dogs and cats and a crow circling the narrative dispensing omniscient commentary, had been soundly rejected by dozens of publishers.

So says our protagonist.  But it gets confusing he visits a library where he encounters...

A tall dude, six-feet-four with a shaved head, wore a gold chain over a tight turtleneck that showed off a thick musculature gained from years of pumping iron at Cumberland Correction on a narcotics charge.  Inside the joint the dude known as Craz had been the leader of a brutal and murderous prison gang.

How does he know all this?  Have we wandered into third person omniscient narration?  Hmm...


Thielman, Mark,  "Steer Clear,"  in Reckless in Texas: Metroplex Mysteries, Volume 2, edited by Barb Goffman, North Dallas Chapter of Sisters in Crime, 2023.

 This is the fourth time  my fellow SleuthSayer has appeared in this list.  

 As punishment for an indiscretion with his boss's ex-wife  Detective Alpert of the Fort Worth Police has been assigned to look into the disappearance of a steer.  Funny story with a satisfying solution.

Van Camp, Richard, "Scariest. Story. Ever," in Never Whistle at Night: An Indigenous Dark Fiction Anthology, edited by Shane Hawk, and Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr., Random House, 2023.

The narrator has just made it to the finals of the "Scariest. Story. Ever." contest using a story he learned from a village elder.  Tomorrow he will be flown to Yellowknife for the finals.  He needs to find an even better story to tell, so he goes to another elder, his Uncle Mike, and tries to convince him to tell him a properly horrifying tale. Is this a crime story? Sort of. Definitely.  Read it and see. 

Walker, Joseph S., "A Right Jolly Old Elf,"  Black Cat Weekly, #120, 2023.

This is the third story by my friend  to make the best of the year list.  

Marty is a no-talent who manages to marry into an influential family.  Sounds good, right? Alas, the family happens to be the Irish mob.  They get tired of him being useless and decide he has to become part of a robbery.  He will attend an office party dressed as Santa while his two brother-in-laws, dressed as elves, slip off to rob another office. What could possibly go wrong?

30 January 2024

Guest Post: The Short and the Long of It

Joseph S Walker
Joseph S Walker

I read my first Joseph S. Walker story when I found “Riptish Reds” in the slush pile for Mickey Finn, 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 (Down & Out Books, 2020), and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on several projects since.

Joe has received the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction, twice received the Al Blanchard Award, and been nominated for an Edgar Award and twice for a Derringer Award. He’s also had stories in three consecutive editions of The Best Mystery Stories of the Year and is the only writer to have the same story selected for inclusion in both The Best American Mystery and Suspense and The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

Joe, my wife, and I caused a minor kerfuffle at Bouchercon Minneapolis in 2022 when Temple—who uses her birth name (Temple Walker)—sat between us at the awards ceremony. This lead a few people who didn’t know any of us to think she was Joe’s wife and wonder why she was paying so much attention to me.

Anyhow, here’s Joe describing how he approaches writing stories of various lengths.

— Michael Bracken

The Short and the Long of It

by Joseph S. Walker

How long is a short story, anyway?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. One particularly precise answer is offered by the Short Mystery Fiction Society: a Short Story is between one thousand and four thousand words in length. This defines one of the four categories in which the Society presents annual Derringer Awards, the others being Flash (under 1,000 words), Long Story (4,000-8,000), and Novelette (8,000-20,000).

I’ve written roughly one hundred and fifty pieces of fiction. The vast majority, by SMFS standards, are either Short Stories or Long Stories. As I said in introducing myself to a group of writers recently, I’m a short story specialist. I even said I have a short story mind, which, in retrospect, sounds like an insult shouted during a tense English Department faculty meeting.

Even a short story mind, though, can stretch on occasion. February 1 sees the release of “Run and Gun,” the third piece I’ve published that meets the SMFS definition of a novelette. It’s the second entry in Chop Shop, a series of crime novelettes, created and curated by SleuthSayer Michael Bracken, all involving car theft and a Dallas chop shop run by the enigmatic Huey. Chop Shop is a spiritual heir to Michael and Trey Barker’s Guns + Tacos, twenty-four novelettes linked by a Chicago taco truck selling illicit firearms; my contribution to that project was “Two Black Bean and Shrimp Quesadillas and a Pink Ruger LCP.”

I was deeply honored to be invited to contribute to both series, and there was no way I was going to turn such opportunities down. Accepting, however, led to immediate blind panic: exactly how do I go about writing something three times as long as my average story?

Is the process of writing longer inherently different?

I imagine different writers have different answers to that question. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that, yes, I’ve come to think of writing novelettes as a fundamentally distinct undertaking from writing short stories. It’s the difference between making a pearl and building a poker hand.

Most of my short stories start with something akin to the grain of sand that, by irritating an oyster, eventually becomes the core of a pearl. This might be an image, a character, a line of dialogue—almost anything. I think of, say, a bartender in a rural community who playfully but forcefully refuses to answer a cop’s questions about where he came from. I build this out into a story by asking questions about the bartender and the cop, coming up with logical reasons for them to be in this relationship and (hopefully) interesting things to happen to them. The core of the story, though, is still that bartender refusing to talk to that cop, and everything else grows from that and relates back to it (this specific grain of sand ultimately became my story “The Last Man in Lafarge”). This works, I think, because the short story is an inherently concentrated form. It has focus. It is, in fact, defined by focus.

I quickly found this process didn’t work for a novelette—at least, not for me. The kind of tight unity that defines a well-written short story gets stretched thin as a piece of fiction lengthens. Other elements impose themselves on the attention of both the reader and the writer. The novelette isn’t about a single thing; it’s about the relationships between multiple things. The short story is singular focus. The novelette is complex structure.

Instead of building out from a single point, I write novelettes by forging connections between multiple ideas/characters/images/seeds and building out from those. I’m drawing cards from a mental deck, discarding some, occasionally drawing more. For my Guns + Tacos story, my first card was a character who feels emasculated when the illegal gun he buys turns out to be pink. Another was a magazine story about wealthy art collectors displaying replicas of their prize pieces to foil potential thieves; a third the image of a cheerleader with an ice pick. Draw a few more cards. Shuffle them around and see what emerges. Keep it up, and eventually you’ll have a hand you can bet on.

For “Run and Gun,” the cards I drew include an abandoned truck stop, a news item about progressive activists in Texas, the bumper stickers on a friend’s Honda Civic, marginal notes in a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises, and my impression of the tourists in Dealey Plaza, all caught up in a story of car chases, blackmail, and murder. I think I turned it into a winning hand, and I’m looking forward to readers letting me know if they agree.

29 January 2024

Made by hand.

            I never learned how to create on a typewriter.  I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.  Instead, I wrote in tiny cursive so I could fit as much as possible on a yellow pad, since pads were expensive when you didn’t have much money. 

            I eventually evolved a useful compromise, where I would advance the work as far as I could by hand, then type it up, double-spaced, which I would continue revising through subsequent drafts.  But I could never conjure those first words and sentences solely through mechanical means. 

             (Ironically, I’d learned touch typing in high school to such a proficiency that I could work as a Kelly Girl, leading to a nice gig at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, but that’s another story.)

            But then I was introduced to my first word processor.  It was a Wang, which no one under fifty remembers, but was the de riguer method of digital composition in its heyday.  I immediately fell in love with that sickening green screen and those pixilated, poorly kerned characters.  The real beauty was you could modify and correct on the fly, balance out the formatting and be able to read the polished result as soon as it emerged from the printer.  This was sorcery, a seamless blend of human imagination and electronic technology.  I never wrote creatively in longhand again, unless it was to sign my federal tax return.

            Another wonder was the speed you could achieve with a computer.  Even the slickest IBM Selectric felt clunky and under-powered in comparison.  That you could quickly repair all the typos and mangled constructions caused by such reckless haste, in real time, only encouraged more daredevil velocity. 

            Since the Wang was modeled on the minicomputer, you worked on a (nearly) dumb terminal hooked up to a central disc storage unit in a secret room somewhere in the office, lorded over by the emerging class of IT professionals just beginning to hone their technical and interpersonal skills.  I once lost a whole day of work because a tech wanted to scoot out early and just flicked off the machine.  In a reverse Big Bang, pages of copy, due the next day, collapsed into one tiny green dot in the middle of the screen, forever irretrievable.

             Unlike disasters faced by earlier pioneers, no one was killed in the catastrophe, though the thought crossed my mind.

            Now that we’ve reached the point where Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is nearly realized, all you hear is people bitching about technology.  Official magicians like Gandalf and Saruman the White never had to put up with that kind of kvetching.  No matter how powerful, how convenient, how fast and furious our devices become, they’re never good enough.  You can have virtually the entirety of human knowledge at the tips of your fingers, but really, only 60 Hz -110 PPI screen refresh rate?   What is this, the Middle ages?


I’ve been known to hurl invective at any number of glowing screens, but in my heart, I’m actually grateful.  I feel the same way about air travel, even when snaking through the TSA line at JFK.  It doesn’t seem possible that all I have to do is be hungry, sleepless and crippled by leg cramps for only a little over six hours and I’m in Ireland.  Tell that to the ragged refuse making the reverse trip in steerage. 

            But my deepest gratitude is toward my laptop, which feels like an extension of my inner being.  I avail myself of only a tiny fraction of its functionality, and I’m often lost in the simplest management of files, formats, upgrades, applications and other torments that gush at me on a relentless basis, but what really matters is how fast and easy it is to convert my cacophonous jumble of thoughts and feelings into words on the page, with only the limitation of talent to stand in the way. 


28 January 2024

The Road to Perdition

1913 New Year's resolution postcard

Everyone who made a New Year's resolution, singular or plural, raise your hand. Okay, you can put your hand down. 

A month has now passed since you vowed to make some sort of change to better your life. How many of you made a resolution which had to so with your writing?  Did that resolution have the goal of writing a set number of words within a fixed time period? Or maybe the goal of selling X number of stories per year?  How many of you are reaching or are on track to reach that goal? Show of hands.

You might want to know that a 2023 market data research report by Gitnux shows that 50% of people make a New Year's resolution, but only about 8% of those people keep it. Whoa! So much for good intentions. And, only 64.6% of those people keep their resolution past the first month, which means that more than one third of these resolutionists have dropped out of their own well-intended program. My friend, the odds are against you. You may already have both feet well on the road to perdition.

Now, we don't want you to end up being roasted in some writers' hell, or even temporarily delayed in a writers' purgatory, so listen up, here's what you're gonna do.

First, you should always choose a goal where you have control. If your stated goal was to sell more stories, then you are probably already in trouble. For instance, should the readers, and therefore the editors, agents and publishers, decide that your chosen genre is going out of fashion this year, that is something over which you have no control. Under those circumstances, your well-intended goal becomes more difficult, if not impossible to achieve. If you don't believe that can happen, then ask yourself where the westerns went.

You also have no control over a situation where the editor receives more than one story similar in plot, story arc, ending, setting, etc. and therefore your submission is rejected because he only has room for one of these similar stories. Or, if the editor suddenly decides to put a themed edition together for that month and your story, as great as it is, doesn't fit the theme. Or, my favorite, "Your submission doesn't fit our needs at this time." You, as the writer, have no control in these types of situation

The second way to help you not break your resolution(s) is to choose a reasonable goal to begin with. Can you really write a thousand new words a day, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year Sure, your favorite author may be able to accomplish that feat, but don't set yourself up for failure and disappointment because of a goal set too high. Remember, time must also be set aside for rewriting, editing, promoting, networking, conferences, meetings, family time and just plain living. You can always start out with a lesser goal and gradually raise the word count as time goes by and you become more proficient at your craft.

Okay now, everybody with a good idea on how to make a New Year's resolution and/or how not to break one…


27 January 2024

Five Ways to Rock Characterization in the Mystery Novel

I've taught fiction writing at college for over 20 years.  If I had to drill it down to one sentence, the number one thing I've learned is this:

Readers fall in love with characters, not plots.

Yes, plot is essential for a crime novel.  It's the glue that holds everything together.  But think about the crime series you have loved.

If I were to ask readers of the Goddaughter series what they love about it - and I have - they always say the humour, first.  But a close second is the protagonist, Gina Gallo, plus her wacky cousin Nico - and particularly, the banter between them.  If I ask what they liked about specific novels, like The Goddaughter Caper, they say, 'is that the one about the underground funeral parlour, or the art gallery heist?'  If I'm lucky, they say that.

Because most readers don't remember plots.  They remember characters.

They might remember that a plot was good.  That it was well-crafted.  That it took them by surprise.  And I hope that is true.  But my readers always tell me they go back for more because 'they want to find out what happens to Gina and Nico."  They don't want to say goodbye to their book friends.

Last week, I was asked to speak about characterization in the crime novel, at a library conference.  Here's what I presented:

➊  MAKE US CARE – You want to create a protagonist that the reader likes and can care about.

We are going to put your protagonist in danger, and readers need to like the character so that they will care about what happens, to keep reading.

In The Merry Widow Murders, I create sympathy for Lucy by showing her grief for her late husband, who died of TB after being gassed in WW-1.

She’s only in her 30s and she’s trying to move on, but the grief sneaks up on her with certain triggers, as it does for me.

➋  HAVE A SIDEKICK – A crime book should be ACTIVE – that is, it should move along at a good pace.

A secondary character who acts as a sidekick will allow your book to have lots of dialogue. Instead of your protagonist constantly in monologue thinking about the case, they can discuss it with their sidekick. This creates more white space on the page and moves a book more quickly.

In the Merry Widow Murders, Elf, a pickpocket- turned-maid is Lucy’s sidekick.

She also provides comic relief, as they banter constantly.

➌  MOTIVATION IS KEY – Why is your protagonist getting involved in the investigation? Why are they risking their LIFE? Someone has already killed once. They could do it again. There has to be realistic motivation why your main gal or guy would take on that risk.

In The Merry Widow Murders, Lucy and her sidekick maid Elf find a dead body in their stateroom.

They need to find the killer before the authorities suspect one of them for being the killer.

➍  3-5 GOOD SUSPECTS – A mystery book should give the reader a challenge.

That’s why we read them. You need to develop 3-5 possible suspects, make them different and well-drawn, each with sufficiently believable motivation for wanting to kill the victim.

➎  MAKE A REALLY GOOD VILLAINRemember that the killer is never a villain in his own eyes.

He has what he thinks is believable motivation for doing what he is doing. The world or someone has done him wrong, and he is only getting what he rightly deserves by committing this crime.

At the same time, KEEP THE VILLAIN HIDDEN. In a thriller, the antagonist can be known because the book is about the preventing of the crime. But in a mystery, you have to keep the identity of the killer hidden until the very last chapters. It takes real skill to accomplish this without giving it away early on.

I'll speak more on motivation in a future post.  Meanwhile, I hope you feel motivated to look at some of my books, including The Merry Widow Murders! Available at all the usual suspects.

26 January 2024

The Successful Writer’s Guide to a Guilt- and Success-Free New Year!


You're a winner, dude!

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

If you’re me (and I sincerely hope you’re not) the New Year is already weighing you down. Maybe you openly drafted some resolutions back in December that you hoped would sharpen and expand your writing career and author business. Maybe you merely dispatched a fervent wish heavenward to the Muse, asking for guidance as you prepared for a fresh twelve months. But here it is, the third week of January, and the fragile ladder to success you’d hoped to build is wobbling.

Frankly, it’s all just too much work, isn’t it? How are you supposed to write and edit the stories that move you, while holding down a “real” job, spending time with ones you love, wresting joy from this moment on earth, while still appeasing the Gods of Ceaseless Book Promotion?

Fear not, dear scribes! I spent a stupid amount of time between November and December scouring the internet for advice on the writing craft and its necessary evil, “business.” I delved into the state of book marketing, social-media-ing, and all the rest. I attended webinars, watched courses, absorbed podcasts, and connected with movers and shakers in the burgeoning new world of Author-Care Professionals. Here’s what I learned.

Be sure you follow every one of these pieces of advice. Your career depends on it.

It would seem logical that since humans write, and all humans are different, that everyone would have a different writing pace and working style. Don’t believe the hype! If you want to succeed in the writing racket, you must not only murder your darlings but also Unlearn Your Fuzzies. That is, the molly-coddling thoughts of working at a pace that’s “right” for you. Tough love, writers: There is no right for you. There is only one way—the Successful Way.

In the hot new world of churn-and-burn publishing, if you are not writing at least 10,000 words a day, you’re destined for failure. Stop listening to the fancy-pants bestsellers who say that they write 1,500 words in the morning, before ingesting a light lunch, brewing a mug of mint tea, and turning their attention to fan mail, tending to their author brand, and blah blah blah. They can play that game, because they’re tools of the man. The rest of us can’t. Luckily, several excellent books can teach you what you need to know. Maybe you start small, writing only 5,000 words a day before ramping up to 10,000. After consuming those reasonably priced ebooks, sign up for each author’s $797 course that will school you on the hot new world of “Rapid Release.” Some courses cost a little more, some a little less, but ones ending with 9 and 7 are the best.

Need help? Hire a developmental editor, accountability mentor, and a coach. You need all three on your “support team.” The best are aligned with quasi-academic institutions you may never have heard of, but all have placed at least one short story at prestigious publications. (“Prestigious” = markets paying in copies only.) Developmental editors charge $3,000 to assess your novel, mentors $3,000 to $5000 to be on-call annually, and coaches $100 an hour for virtual sessions. Beware professionals who quote round figures. Coaches who charge $197 an hour, for example, are the best.

Fearful of overspending? Get over it. What’s your career worth? Besides, you can use Assfirm or Blarna to pay it off in sixty-seven easy payments. Every dime is tax deductible. Take your credit card out of its holster, because you’re gonna need it.

If you’re launching a book, don’t just announce it on on Facepants, Twerper, and Instapork! Who are you, Grandma? Sign up for Megadon, Shreads, and BlueEarth, and DisChump as well. If you want followers to lay actual eyeballs on your announcements, you must pay to play! For as little as $2,797 or even $3,797, you can book an exciting package that will see you and your book feted by up to 30 blogs, and Instapork and DikTok channels. Your book has not lived until a 16-year-old influencer has sung its praises. I’m not going to say you’re a loser if you resist this new class of social media titans, but I just did!

Oh, and by the way, regarding your writing? Feel free to open with the weather! Research shows that Elmore Leonard’s books have never been celebrated by DikTok influencers. Nor did he ever plumb the lucrative reverse-harem romance, or dinosaur/werewolf erotica markets. Look where those missteps got him! Feel free to write entire books about the weather! The hot new thing in spicy romance is Nimbus-Cumulus-Stratus ménage à trois fiction!

True fact: Facepants and Junglezon have both recently debuted the exciting new world of AI-driven online marketing. No longer will you need to a) dream up clever copy, and b) hire a “human” designer to create book promo ads, and c) rack up stock image agency fees. Simply upload the entire text of your book to Facepants, and a legion of helpful bots will ingest your prose, generate clever ad copy—with images!—and populate their respective sites with instant ads touting your tome. Entrust these helpful corporate entities with your credit card digits and you’re good to go. They will spend your money in the most prudent way possible, or the bot’s name isn’t Bleep-Bleep-Ka-ching!

You know all those people who signed up for your newsletter six years ago, expecting you to write them once in a blue moon when you had a book out? Scrape those suckers off your boots, and get with the program—the hot new newsletter program, Gobstack, that is—and start spitting out newsletters three times a week. Enable the Monetize-The-Crap-Out-of-This function, and soon your adoring followers will have you rolling in sweet, sweet cash! The more you noodge, you more you earn!

Since Junglezon bought the ever-popular book site Goodbleeds, you can now offer book giveaways to your adoring potential readers. Upon payment of a very reasonable $599, your new book will be free to a select number of readers. (At press time, developers are trying hard to lower that price to $597 to align with the market.)

You will need some additional software to make your literary dreams come true. Sign up for your own website store, Flickstarter campaign, and AI art generation-cum-AI-cowriting software. Use the latter to craft sales copy, outline plots, and dream up ideas for future books—only. No one is suggesting that you use such things to write your own stories! That would be unethical.

With all these new author tools, you’re sure to succeed. But we understand that you may occasionally need a daily break between your first crop of 6,000 words and the second. By all means, step outside, stretch, and smell a freaking rose. Just make sure to snap a photo of that bud, and Instapork it as soon as you get back to the cockpit.


Joseph D’Agnese is a writer who occasionally writes fiction. If you squint real hard, the foregoing sorta could be.