Rip It Good

Recently I learned the lesson that most authors have to learn. You may understand it intellectually, but this is one of those lessons that you physically have to learn, since it will cause pain and self-doubt in the short term. Here’s the lesson:

There comes a time when an author has to rip up his creation.

With apologies to Devo, I can hear a variation on their hit playing in my head:

When a problem comes along you must rip it

When something’s goin’ wrong you must rip it

Now rip it into shape, shape it up…

It’s not too late to rip it, rip it good

The case for me was the novel manuscript I wrote last year, titled “The Stable.” When I conceived the story, I had sharply focused visions of scenes that came to me almost complete. I wrote the first 95,000 word draft in a month and a half by rising early in the morning and working for an hour or two before going to work, and then writing again in the evening. Integral to the story I conceived was a present-day preface and afterword, while most of the story took place in 1957. It would reveal a secret history to a man about his grandparents.

Once I finished, I immediately began the editing process which tightened the story but kept the plot intact. When I was happy with the book, I began the querying process by attending a conference and pitching it to agents who attended. A couple wanted to hear more, but then passed on the project. In the spring of this year I sent out more queries via email. A couple agents asked for the manuscript, but after reading it they passed. The majority of them sent back form responses that it wasn’t the right project for them.

On one hand, you have to believe in your work. The publishing world is replete with stories of authors who faced multiple rejections only to have their novels become bestsellers once published. There’s even a website that lists who has faced rejection. For instance, it took 5 years for Agatha Christie to publish her first book. Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections for “Gone with the Wind.” It continues to this day. After failing to find an agent to represent him, Andy Weir, a software engineer and programmer, decided to self-published his novel. “The Martian” became a bestseller this year, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and will be made into a movie by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon in the lead role.

On the other hand, author and cardiologist D.P. Lyle rewrote his first novel 27 times, with four title changes and major shifts to the setting. The initial draft ran 130,000 words. In the end, “Stress Fracture” was 85,000 words long. The main character, Dub Walker, who has since starred in a series of novels, was not the main character in the first draft.

Recently I attended the Mystery Writers of America University held in Chicago. It’s a one-day intensive overview of mystery writing and the writing life, and had presentations by Sara Paretsky, Jess Lourey and Hank Phillippi Ryan, among others. One thing Ms. Ryan said jumped out at me: “When you think you’re ready to submit your manuscript, stop, because it’s probably not ready, and you don’t get second chance to make a first impression.” Along with that, my wife, who’s read my manuscript and whose opinion I value highly, suggested eliminating the present-day scenes. By that point, I was ready to listen. I sat down at my computer and deleted the preface and the afterword.

With them gone, I went back through the manuscript and did a major revamping of the main characters and the plot. Freed from its previous form, new plot points presented themselves to me that made for a better story. In the end the manuscript remained about the same length, even though I’d cut about 4000 words just by lobbing off those two sections, and in other places in the book I’d cut pages worth of writing. The changes vastly improved the story.

What will happen from here, I don’t know. Since I’ve struck out with dozens of agents with the earlier version of the manuscript, I don’t have the option of going back to them. Like Hank Phillippi Ryan said, no second chances for a first impression. So I’ve gone a different route and submitted the manuscript to the Minotaur/MWA First Mystery competition. That’s a long shot, granted, but if that doesn’t work I’m considering submitting to small presses, or if nothing else self-publishing. I’m also over 70 pages into my next manuscript. One thing all of the authors listed on the Literary Rejections website had in common: they kept going.

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Best American Mystery Stories 2014

Today when I arrived home, I found in the mail my author’s copy of The Best American Mystery Stories of 2o14. The anthology was edited by Otto Penzler and guest editor Laura Lippman. My short story “The Covering Storm” (which originally appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) is one of twenty stories that made the cut for inclusion. The book is available through the usual outlets. Here’s a link to Amazon for the book.

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Stepping In Half-way Down the Block

Recently I read a mystery translated from Swedish, by an author who’s become a bestseller here in the US. It was the fourth book in a series that featured the same main character, but I found it to be a slow read, and when the book is 500 pages long you do not want it to be a slow read. I realized the author had tied everything in the new book into plot lines from her previous books, and without reading the earlier books I was lost.

I’ve never had trouble picking up a series midway through. If I like it, I go back and read all the previous books. My first Sue Grafton book was “I Is For Innocent” and it captured me. I went back and read A through H, and have continued on through W. The same with P.D. James; “The Death of an Expert Witness” was my introduction to Adam Dalgliesh, who became a favorite character for me. I read Tim Rob Smith’s “Agent 6” a couple of years ago to review it for Suspense Magazine. It was his third book featuring Leo Demidov, and events in the earlier books did play a part in the story, yet I was completely enthralled with the new book. My introduction to Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch was “The Last Coyote,” four books into the series, and a book that delved deeply into Harry’s backstory, but that was no problem. I read it, and then read every other book in the series. Occasionally I do start at the beginning; “Rules of Prey” was my first John Sandford book, and I went through all the Lucas Davenport series in order after that (and all of Sandford’s other books as well).

In the classic era of mysteries, of course, you could pick up one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books and get caught up in the story in no time at all. The same is true with John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee books. I don’t remember the first color I added to my palette, but before long I’d indulged in the full rainbow.

With the book in the first paragraph, I felt like I was starting Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with “The Return of the King.” I won’t go back and read the other books in the series, partially because it wasn’t a pleasant reading experience, and partially because reading the earlier books now would be anticlimactic. It’s something I intend to watch out for in the books I write. Don’t antagonize the reader by making the story hard to follow without having read all the previous books in a series. Let them step into your world wherever and whenever they can, even if it’s halfway down the block. If you do your job well, they’ll choose to circle all the way around.

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Guest Blogger

I was the guest writer today on the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine blog, “Something Is Going to Happen.” I decided to write about a police technique I encountered through the Citizen’s Police Academy at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois, and learned more about while I was a role player there – Verbal Judo. Click here to read the post

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Homophones – the Land Minds of Writers

(and yes, that won was on purpose, as was that one.)

It’s rare that you can scroll through a day’s worth of Facebook posts or memes without seeing a homophone – a word that’s pronounced the same way though it’s spelled differently and has a different meaning. The classic example is “There, their, they’re” (and no, I’m not trying to comfort a child).

People may tell others to “Flea the danger!” though if the fleas are dangerous, it would make sense to flee them.

I’m waiting for some debutant to tell Peta not to protest her fur coat because it came off a fir tree.

We may be told to go fourth, but if it’s only the second of the month we’d have to wait two days.

A golfer might yell “Four” for fore, if grammar isn’t their forte.

I rode the road until I got in a boat and rowed some more.

I guess music could strike a responsive cord, if you were trying to rope in the listener.

Spellcheck is impotent against the homophone, or not to be trusted. It often gets its (possessive) and it’s (it is) mixed up. Grammar check caught “cord” above, but that was it.

When it comes to homophones, I’ll paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, who was a decent writer himself. “Eternal vigilance is the price of being a writer.” Otherwise, you could end up with a paragraph like this:

“Eye like won ax plays with a small caste. Eh play rite can keep our attention wrapped with bazaar stories oar reel events. Aye saw adz for a knew one that has a calvary kernal dual the Devil for the sole of a fare made. Another was a bout an ant who flue aweigh from her intended at the alter. Her nephew guest ware she’d hidden and chaste after her. Plays can have a lot of cymbals in sighed their corps and make ewe sea things inn a different whey.”

Pleas dew knot chute mi.

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One of Twenty

Last Wednesday morning, I checked my emails and found one from Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with the subject line “Congratulations.” The last time I received an email from her with that introduction was when I won the 2012 Robert L. Fish Award. This time, she told me that the short story of mine that EQMM had published in their November edition had been chosen for the anthology “Best American Mystery Stories 2014.”

The next day I received an email with more details from the editor of the series, Otto Penzler. Each year he works with a guest editor preparing the book; this year it’s Laura Lippman. From all the mystery short stories published in 2013, Mr. Penzler chose 50 he considered to be the best. Then Ms. Lippman winnowed them down to 20 stories for the anthology. (The other thirty stories will be listed in the book.) My story, “The Covering Storm,” made the cut.

Otto Penzler is a legend in the mystery community. He created The Mysterious Press in 1975, which he ran until 1989 when it was purchased by Warner Books. In 2010 he reacquired the imprint from Warner and now publishes the Press through Grove/Atlantic, along with his Edgar-award winning quarterly “The Armchair Detective.” Since 1997, he’s edited the Best American Mystery Stories anthology along with such guest editors as Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Lee Child and Joyce Carol Oates. He’s also the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

Laura Lippman’s fiction has won the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Shamus Awards, among others. She spent 20 years as a reporter, including 12 years at The (Baltimore) Sun before retiring from daily newspaper work in 2001. Her first mystery novel, “Baltimore Blues,” was published in 1997 and featured the character Tess Mongahan. Since then she’s published 20 novels, including 11 in the Tess Mongahan series. She’s just had a stand-alone novel released this month called “After I’m Gone.”

Needless to say, I’m extremely happy to be included in B.A.M.S. for 2014. It will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt later this year, and can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or a local bookstore. It will be available in both print and electronic form.

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After the Golden Years

At my movie review blog, I’ve been combining my love of movies and mysteries by doing lists of the 10 best mystery movies for each of the past 5 decades, after the golden age of the 1930s through the 1950s. There have been times when the choices have been scarce – the 1980s were not good years for mysteries on the whole – but the genre has always come back strong. The Academy Awards got over their prejudice about mysteries with Chinatown in the 1970s, and in the last two decades they’ve accounted for dozens of awards.

To read the posts, please click on the below links:

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

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Want To Hear A Story?

The website Crime City Central has posted a new podcast of one of my stories. The editor had contacted me after seeing my recent short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to see if I’d have a story available that they could adapt. I was very pleased to participate. If you’d like to listen to it, please click here.

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Broadchurch – An Appreciation

Recently BBC America aired the 8-part mystery Broadchurch, originally presented in England by ITV, an independent competitor of the BBC. Rather than wait a week between episodes I DVRed the series so I could watch it back to back. It rewarded me by being one of the best mysteries I’ve seen on television, with the complexity and characterization that you usually find in a novel. That it was an original story made it all the sweeter.

Normally with episodic TV in the US, you have the mystery wrapped up in 43 minutes. They’re short stories on the screen. Occasionally a mystery series will have an arc that lasts for more than one episode but it’s usually related to one of the main characters while they still go about their solving mysteries each week.

There have been attempts at a full season mystery. While more in the thriller genre, 24 was a season-length story arc. Some seasons were very good – Day 2 and Day 4 in particular – while at other times it felt like the writers ran out of steam on one plot and switched ideas in mid-season. The Killing on AMC was supposed to be a one-season story, but they cheated the audience by not sticking to that plan and trying to stretch it to two. It also didn’t help that you felt like you had to wring out your clothes after each episode because of all the rain.

England has never followed the American style of 22-24 episodes in a year. Their seasons were usually 10 to 12 episodes, as every Doctor Who fan knows. HBO and Showtime picked up that format with their original series, and AMC followed their lead. It means the stories are more concentrated, and it’s definitely working well for them.

Broadchurch shows just how effective it can be to focus a show as a stand-alone program that just runs one season.

A short introduction for those who haven’t seen the series yet: The first image we see is of a boy standing on the edge of the cliffs, blood dripping from a wound on his hand. The camera pans in an arc until its hanging over him as he looks down at the beach far below him.

The next day, the inhabitants of Broadchurch go about their business. In the Latimer house, Beth (Jodie Whittaker) gets her teenaged daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) ready for school and her plumber husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) ready for work. She believes her 12-year-old son Danny has already left to do his paper route before heading for school, but then she finds his lunch pack still on the counter. When Mark leaves to meet his assistant, the camera follows him as he strolls down the town’s High Street (Main Street in US terminology) and greets many of the residents. It’s a shot worthy of Hitchcock or Orson Welles but without the overindulgence of Brian DePalma. In the course of a few minutes, we’re given the setting and introduced to most of the characters – or, to be exact, the suspects.

One person Mark greets as he passes is Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) who’s out with her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle), her 12-year-old son Tom (Adam Wilson), and her infant child. The Millers have just returned from holiday, and Ellie enters the police station believing she’s to be promoted to Detective Inspector. Instead she’s told by the Chief Superintendent that while she was gone the job was given to an outsider, Alec Hardy (David Tennant).

Hardy is out early that morning on a vandalism report at a farm down the coast. He’s then called to the beach with a report that a body has been found. When Miller joins Hardy at the scene, she recognizes the victim immediately as Danny Latimer.

There are no shortage of suspects, among them the local newsagent (David Bradley), the parish priest (Arthur Darvill), Mark’s assistant (Joe Sims), and the odd woman who lives by the coast (Susan Wright). And why is Miller’s son Tom, who was Danny’s best friend, deleting emails they exchanged?

Tennant is wonderful as Hardy, who’s haunted by a previous case and hiding secrets of his own. Coleman is the viewer’s surrogate, struggling to maintain her relationships with the townspeople even as the case turns her cynical. Arthur Darvill is known to US audiences mostly for playing sweet, bumbling Rory on the past three seasons of Doctor Who, but his role here as Rev. Paul Coates is a polar opposite. David Bradley played the Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch through the entire Harry Potter series. In Broadchurch, his role as newsagent Jack Marshall is an ultimately tragic character. The emotional center of the story, though, is Jodie Whittaker. The first episode is compelling as she searches for her son, Danny, with a growing sense of doom, and when she discovers her son’s body the grief is palpable.

The series was written by created by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote all but one of the episodes and was an executive producer. Chibnall had worked on both Doctor Who and Torchwood as well as the Law & Order: UK spinoff. The one episode Chibnall didn’t write (Episode 6) was penned by Louise Fox, who’d mostly written for Australian TV. James Strong and Euros Lyn were the directors of the series – Strong did 5 episodes while Lyn did 3. Both of them had worked with Tennant on Doctor Who. They often use off-kilter medium shots which effectively changes the audience’s perception of a scene.

The series was filmed with only a couple of the actors actually knowing the killer’s identity. When it was aired, it became a sensation in the U.K., breaking records with the number of tweets on Twitter about the series and garnering over 10 million viewers for its finale.

Chibnall intended it to be a single series, even though a second series has been announced in the U.K. Fox TV is planning to do a US version of the show for its 2014-2015 season. That can sometimes be bad news, but there’s hope the US version will maintain the quality of the original. For starters, they’re bringing in Chibnall to do the adaptation, and it was recently announced that Tennant would again star as the lead detective. I hope it will find a strong audience in the US, just as it did in Britain.

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New Short Story Published

One aspect of the writer’s life that many on the outside don’t understand is the length of time it takes to get something published. In the winter of 2011, I wrote a short story called “The Covering Storm,” a murder story set during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. I enjoyed writing the story, especially researching the details of life in Galveston as well as the hurricane itself. I submitted it to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and about six months later the editor, Janet Hutchings, purchased the story.

I knew from when I met Janet while I was attending the Edgars in 2012 that EQMM has a backlog of purchased stories. She wanted my story, which sent me into orbit, but wasn’t sure when it would make it into the magazine. I was fine with that, and waited patiently for it to appear.

The wait is now over. In the new edition of EQMM (for November 2013) my story is the second one in, after a story by Mystery Writers of America president Charlaine Harris. I was also pleased that I’m mentioned by name in the blurb about the issue on the magazine’s website. To see it, click here.

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