Monday, August 31, 2015

Revising, revising, revising...

"We're asked a lot about how we write, but less about how we edit. How do you know what to change and when to stop?"

by Meredith Cole

The writing process can be summed up like this for me:
  • Attempt to roughly flesh out and outline my story before I start. Figure out if I have enough for a novel, or if it really needs to be something else (a short story, poem or one-act play).
  • Take a deep breath and start writing. I give myself a word count and goals (I love goals!). The pages start piling up. It does not go like my outline. It never does. I run into lots of issues and attempt to write my way out of them.
  • Reach the end (months later). Take another deep breath. Set aside the manuscript until I have some perspective (or can't stand waiting any longer).
  • Print out the book and read it. Write all over it. Despair. Throw out huge sections and figure out what needs to be there instead. Rewrite. Repeat previous steps.
  • Figure out what my book is really about. Despair. Throw out sections, revise, rewrite, repeat.
  • Have someone else read it. Fix typos, make more revisions.
  • Go through and look for passive voice and annoying words/phrases that I use all the time. (Must everyone shrug? Really?) Make sure I've fixed all the mistakes (Bill's name needs to stay consistent throughout the book, darn it!).
And then eventually I do stop revising. Why? Either because I have a deadline or I'm just changing stupid stuff now or I'm just exhausted. Maybe the book could be better. Maybe it hasn't lived up to its full potential. But it's not going to get better with another rewrite by me. So I declare it done. For now.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Is That a Bad Review or Just a Ham on Rye?

How do you react to negative reviews?

by Paul D. Marks

I call up my friends in the Mossad and tell them to seek out and destroy all negative reviewers in the shank of a dark and stormy night. Oh wait, no, that’s what a producer said he was going to do to me when we got in an argument about a script.

Take 2:

Some people say never to read reviews and that’s probably good advice, and probably what one should do. But it’s hard not to. Why? Because, I’m sure, we all want to have our egos stroked. And we’re looking for the positive reinforcement that says we haven’t wasted our lives working on something that nobody likes. So our expectation—our hope—is to get good reviews for that and other reasons. When we don’t our egos are shattered. And those who say it doesn’t affect them, well, let’s just say I think they’re most likely doing that stiff upper lip thing.

I’ve been gratified by most reviews, whether by professional reviewers or consumers on Amazon and the like. But every once in a while...

bill-murray-1984-razors-edgeEven big stars like to check their reviews. I was on the Warner Brothers lot (though it may have been called The Burbank Studios at the time, now it’s back to Warner Brothers [long story]) one day and saw Bill Murray leaning against a car reading a review of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984) that had just come out (and based on my tied for favorite book along with The Count of Monte Cristo). It wasn’t getting rave reviews to say the least, but as I say above, we all want to be validated and maybe also get some constructive criticism as to what went wrong. And I remember thinking even Bill Murray, with all his popularity from “Ghostbusters,” etc. still must feel the sting of a bad review like everyone else.

Hell, even Bob Dylan doesn’t like the sting of being booed, as when he first went electric andBringing it All BAck Home  D1 5701847_147 rock from strictly acoustic folk music. Check out this YouTube clip. It’s less than a minute long:

So let’s focus on Amazon reviews because they’re there, for good or ill. I don’t like reading negative reviews, but how I react depends on the review. Not everybody can like everything. I get that. Of course, one is tempted to remind some reviewers what their mommies told them, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t the real world, is it? So for me, it depends on what the reviewer says. Does it seem like they actually read the book? Do they have an axe to grind? Are they offering constructive comments about what worked or didn’t for them or are they just off on some kind of tangent? Did they get what I was trying to say and, if not, is that my fault or theirs?

LA Late @ Night ebook Cover -- Paul D Marks FD1I got a couple of one star reviews for my short story collection “LA Late @ Night”. And they did piss me off. I had gotten some lukewarm reviews on “White Heat” and lived with them. But these two reviews for “LA Late @ Night” just didn’t make sense to me. These two reviewers, who seemed cut from the same cloth (literally), both hated the book and the stories in it. But their comments made little sense.

One said: “Uninteresting, choppy writing. No plots. I wouldn't waste my time reading this series of books as they are rambling writings.”

Where do I start? With the fact that it’s not a series. Uninteresting, well, that’s your opinion. Choppy, well that’s my style on some things. But each story had previously been published in a magazine or anthology, so somebody found them interesting. No plots, see previous response. Bottom line, I wonder if they even knew what book they were reviewing—But Wait: There’s More. The Kicker is yet to come. But First:

The other crappy review:

“Not that great of stories and the writing is stilted...I didn't even finish them all!”

Oh, where to begin: How ‘bout them criticizing my writing as being stilted when their sentence is grammatically incorrect? So maybe someone who doesn’t know proper grammar criticizing my grammar is actually a compliment.

Okay, here it comes. Hold your breath. The Kicker:

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course had to check each person’s profile to see why they hated my book so much. What I saw were reviews for muffin pans, muck boots, kitchen gadgets, children’s books, religious/inspirational books and very few mystery books, and no noir or hardboiled books. So I wondered why they even bought my book? Judging from their other reviews I could have told them they wouldn’t like it and would have saved them the time, aggravation and money.

It made no sense to me why they would even read a book like mine. So I had to assume there was an agenda going on. I called this to Amazon’s attention, asking them to remove these reviews, which they wouldn’t. I still think there was some kind of agenda happening here, though I couldn’t say exactly what the motivation is and these are the kind of reviews, totally baseless, that really piss me off. And I know authors are not supposed to say that, we’re not supposed have emotions or respond, but hey, you asked, that’s our question this week.

And here are some other One Star Amazon reviews for your entertainment pleasure, only the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Reviews from Amazon – yellow highlights and purple comments have been added by me.

200px-RaymondChandler_TheBigSleepReviews of The Big Sleep:

One Star
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
The book is a big sleep. (Paul’s comment: Well, some of us who liked this book must just be insomniacs.)
One Star
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed

Reviews of Crime and Punishment:

One Star
By Amazon Customer
Very slow & plodding. (Paul’s comment: That damn Raskolnikov, why didn’t he just get it over and confess? On “Law & Order” Briscoe and Curtis would have had him spilling all in 2 minutes flat.)

One Star
Too Long
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Long and pretty boring I don't like the old timely language they use in this book I know it's translated from German or Russian maybe but I was bored to tears and there was never any payoff really just goes on and on.

Reviews of 1984:

One Star
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I love a good dystopian but this was just such a…
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
I have always heard about 1984 being the father of all dystopian novels... I love a good dystopian but this was just such a hard book to read because in the entire story, there is no room for hope.
(Paul’s comment: Maybe Katniss from “Hunger Games” should show up and rescue Winston and Julia from O’Brien.)

Canter's Collage D1One Star
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
….must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and ...
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
This must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and the Rye" (Paul’s comment: Is that a new book, Catcher AND the Rye, or is that something you get at Canter’s Deli (or Katniss’ Deli) – or maybe Canter’s and the Rye, or maybe Ham on Rye – h/t Chinaski.)

Damn! I’m hungry now.

So, overall, you have to take both the good and the bad with a grain of seasoned salt, a quesadilla and some damn good and spicy hot sauce.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]
Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st. Available for pre-order now.

“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”

—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

La-la-la . . . can't hear you.

How do I react to negative reviews? By Catriona

Okay first, I need to make a distinction between A. a review, by a reviewer, in a publication or on a website where reviews are published and B. a rating, possibly anonymous, by a private individual in the role of a consumer.

I have no beef with B. When I'm operating as a fellow consumer, I look at the yellow bars on Amazon. If the numbers are large enough you can sometimes draw conclusions. (On the other hand, if a book has eight to eleven five-star reviews, all beautifully composed, and nothing else . . . I tend to assume the author is in a writer's group. And brings cupcakes. Call me a cynic.)

But I don't look at my own books on Amazon, so I've never seen any good or bad star-ratings to react to. The upside of this speaks for itself, the downside is that when people write glowing testimony and then I meet them at events, I never say thank you. Ahem. THANK YOU!

And the reason I don't look at my own books to find out what people are saying? They're not talking to me. They're helping readers decide whether to buy a book. Or, if they are talking to me, it's kind of weird, isn't it?

But what about A? The press and trade reviews feel different to me. They're one of the ways our community expresses the fact that it's a community. (Does that make sense? My one year of social anthropology was a long time ago.) So how do I react to negative reviews in newspapers, trade journals and websites? Well, I can tell if the review is good or bad from the subject-line of my publicist's email "ANOTHER KIRKUS STAR!!! YAYYYY!!!!!"  or "Here is the PW review for your files".

So I either click the link, cross-post, share, put a quote on my website and redesign my bookmarks or . . .

Of course, if someone reads that publication or follows that website, they'll hear the thoughts of the reviewer. But they won't hear it from me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On Negative Reviews

Question of the Week: How do you react to negative reviews?

My Answer: I drink a glass of wine and write something scathing into whatever manuscript I'm working on at the time.

And I love Susan's answer from yesterday. Sometimes I drink a second glass of wine and do that, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"How do you react to negative reviews?

    What negative reviews?

(From Susan: I freely acknowledge I took this photo from a site called Glee Wiki. I couldn’t find a photographer’s name or copyright information and I apologize profusely if this wasn't available to use. It was so perfect…..)

Friday, August 21, 2015

In My Defense, The Baby Name Wizard Only Includes First Names

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Where do you get character names, and how important are they?"—has already prompted both Meredith and Alan to mention using the social security website as a resource (a good one), but I have to admit that I'm surprised to have gotten to the end of the week without someone focusing intently on baby name books, which is my own first resource of choice for this purpose.

There's actually one specific book that I'd recommend in this regard—The Baby Name Wizard—and my wife Tara and I picked it up long before we were even thinking of a child of our own (though it surely was useful for that purpose too, of course). Many baby name books are just lists of names (one touts "100,000+" names—overwhelming) and others go into what the name means, its country of origin, etc. What I like best about The Baby Name Wizard is how it charts the popularity of names over time and cross-references names based on type and likeness. For example, the listing for "Louise"—the narrator of my upcoming book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories—notes that the name is rare for children these days. A line chart traces the popularity over the course of the 1900s to the present, showing a big hump at the start of the previous century (Louise peaked as a name in the 1910s, when it was 18th in popularity for girls) and then a rapid decline toward mid-century, flat-lining after a point. There's a write-up about the name, of course: "During the long and dignified life of Louise, the name lost its continental elegance and settled into a cozy matronliness. It still has an old-fashioned charm but would be a retro choice today. See Louisa and Eloise for likelier versions of the name." Beyond that other variants are listed (Luise, Louisa) as well as nicknames: Lou, Lulu. Even better: Want to know what Louise's brothers and sisters might be named? Cross-referencing popularity by time and by "style families" ("American naming traditions," the book explains, "identified through analysis of name usage, structure and origin"), the book suggests that Louise's brothers might have names like Claude, Herman, Ernest, Arthur or Walter, and her sisters might well be Marion, Lucille, Beatrice, Harriet, and Estelle. (Those style families are listed too here: "French" and "Ladies and Gentlemen"—sending you back to an appendix that offers bundles of names in each category, terrific for browsing.)

My Louise is far from old-fashioned—but I liked the incongruity of that with who she is and the time she's in, and I also liked matching the "Ladies and Gentlemen" feel with someone who's from a more modest background but is also aspirational toward a life of luxury (hence some of her and Del's crimes). Plus, the name felt right when I wrote about her. The name fit, and she grew into it even more the more as the stories unfolded.

That said, two stumbles here:
  • First (stupidly), I'm apparently the only one who didn't put "road trip" and "Louise" together and immediately come up with the movie Thelma and Louise—though now that the book's coming out, NO ONE who hears about it doesn't immediately make the comparison. I apologize now to anyone who's disappointed that my book and that movie ultimately have little in common.
  • Second (also stupidly), I evidently don't think much of last names. Del has one (it's Grayson) only because I had to have a name pop up on the Caller ID when he phones Louise the first time—a brave move since he'd recently robbed the 7-Eleven where she worked and she could've simply turned his name over to the police. However, when it comes to Louise's last name...well, I'll admit it: I have no idea what it is because for most of the book she never needed one. I only realized that I needed one when the time came (spoiler alert!) for them to get married. "Wait," I thought. "What is her last name? Surely she must have one and yet...." And yet, even then I just decided to bypass the question completely by not having them say their vows in scene. 

Louise she is, Louise she will always be—no last name needed.


In another direction, I want to thank my compadre Paul D. Marks here for hosting all of us Macavity finalists for Best Short Story last week—a terrific experience. Folks who enjoyed that post should stay tuned for my next column here on Friday, September 4, when I'll be hosting this year's Anthony finalists for Best Short Story in a discussion of how they edit their work.

And a final bit of personal news: I was so pleased to learn earlier this week that another of my stories, "Precision" from last summer's issue of Gargoyle, has been named among "Other Distinguished Mysteries" of the year in the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology, edited by James Patterson and Otto Penzler. Such an honor to be among that honorable mention group, which includes so many other fine writers and fine friends.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hello, My Name is…

by Alan

How do you find the perfect name?

hello nametag I open up a phone book (remember those?) and stab my finger blindly onto the page. That’s the name of my protagonist. Flip more pages and repeat for all the other characters.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Character names are important to me, so I spend a lot of time thinking about them. Once in a long while, a name pops into my head that’s perfect. In THE TASTE, one of the secondary characters is named Bogart, and it took me about three seconds to come up with that one.

Usually, though, it’s a much more protracted process. With a character in mind, I’ll generate/brainstorm a list of names. As my list grows, somehow the character becomes more defined in my mind, and the disparity between the names I’m generating and the “perfect” name narrows.

After I’ve got a list of between ten and fifty names, I’ll go through and start eliminating. (And adding others, as I think of them). When I’ve narrowed it down to two or three, then I sleep on it.

And often, four days later, I’ll change the character’s name to something brand new. Naming characters is more of an art form than a science.

I agree with Meredith on many counts when it comes to naming characters (see her post on Monday). Like her, I’ll test drive a name for a while (even half a book!). If it doesn’t feel right, I have no resistance to changing it.

Like Meredith, it’s important to me that my characters have age-appropriate names, so I also use the SSA website to authenticate my names. And she’s right about getting sidetracked!

Also like Meredith, I try to avoid using character names that begin with the same letter. To keep track of things, I use a chart, with the letters of the alphabet down the left hand side and three other columns: male first names, female first names, and last names. I try to fill out each block in the grid before using the same initial letter in a name.

I also try to avoid names that rhyme: Jill, Bill, Will, Phil, McGill. And I try to vary the length of the names, too—can’t have everyone with a one-syllable name!

Last rule? No characters named Alan.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Playing the Name Game

By Tracy Kiely

My husband and I have three children. A fourth was simply not an option. This was not due to any scheduling conflicts, medical conditions, or financial limitations. We simply ran out of names on which we could agree. I’d innocently suggest a name for a girl, and my husband would suddenly be assaulted by a memory of a mean little girl who picked her nose. He’d then suggest a name for a boy, and I’d have a vision of that kid who got waaaaaay too into Dungeons and Dragons and was sporting a full beard by sixth grade   
Shakespeare once famously opined, “That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet,” and since he’s Shakespeare, for goodness’ sake, most of us nod our heads in respectful agreement and murmur, “Oh, yes. How very true. Spot on.”
However, at the risk of incurring the wrath of English teachers everywhere, I respectfully disagree.  Now before you start screaming at your monitors (all two of you who are reading), please hear me out. While I have enormous respect for the Bard, I would tender the argument that were we the Rose called, oh, I don’t know, let’s go with “Buttus Rottus,” there might be some among us who might hold off on sticking our noses into an arrangement of them.  Yes, it would smell nice were we to overcome our hesitation to give it a full-on sniff, but the question is - would we?
Names matter. They suggest. They imply. They are the first glimpse we have into a person’s background (via their parent’s preferred nomenclature). You introduce yourself as “Donny Joe,” and I will hazard a guess that you own at least one flannel shirt. You present me with a card that reads, “Winston Harrison Thorpe, III, Esq.” I will likewise infer that you might own a silk tie. Or at least you want me to think you do.
I offer this exchange from the movie The Sure Thing as proof. Because I love this movie and it’s my blog.

Is this a fool-proof plan? Absolutely not. Do people still judge anyway? Absolutely.
In picking names for my characters, I go with what those names suggest to me. I might use the name of that kid who got a tattoo to celebrate his elevation to Dungeon Master, or I might use the name of an old boss whom I despised. Really, really despised. 
(Legal Disclaimer: For this latter example, I, of course, immediately rejected that tactic as being horribly immature and beneath me, and so I did not use it. I may have mentioned his greasy hair and total lack of oral hygiene, but I did not mention his name.)
I don’t have a list of stock names for the good, the evil, or the daffy. Instead, I try and think of my character’s background and what their parents might have named them. I also wonder what said character would have done with that name. Would they have changed it? Glorified in it? Made a nickname out of it? For me, that’s what begins to shape the character.
And, it’s far easier to shape a character on a page by presenting them with a name than it is to shape the character of a child. Can you imagine what kind of nursing home my kid would stick me in had I saddled him with the name Winston Harrison Thorpe, III? You just know it would be horrible. And I would deserve it. Especially as our last name isn’t Thorpe.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A rose by any other name....

"Where do you get character names, and how important are they?”

By R.J. Harlick

        Sorry, sorry, late I know, but here it is, finally.

Sometimes coming up with the right name for a character takes a lot of thought. Other times it appears as magically as the character does. 
For me the most important name was the one for my series character. I wanted a name that had a number of variations that could be used depending on the speaker. So I decided on ‘Margaret’, my grandmother’s name. I shortened it to ‘Meg’ to make it simple and easy to remember. Throughout my books, I have some characters calling her ‘Maggie’, such as her mother’s cook. Another character refers to her as ‘Marguerite’, the French version. 
Inventing a last name proved a greater challenge. Again I wanted something that was short and easy to remember and had a connection to me. The road I grew up on in Toronto was Harrison Road, but I thought it too long, so shortened it to ‘Harris’.
The name for Meg’s significant other was easy. I liked the ring of ‘Eric’, so ‘Eric’ he became. And no, I’m sorry, he wasn’t named after any boyfriend in my life. I wanted a last name that was in keeping with his Algonquin roots. I perused the website of Algonquin reserves for community member names and discovered ‘Odjik’, which means ‘fisher’ in Algonquin. Though Eric is much nicer than fishers are supposed to be, there is a certain ferocity and intent about him. Besides I thought it would be an easy name to remember. 
For my Native characters I try to give them names that, like Eric’s, are in keeping with their heritage, so I use the internet and select appropriate last names from the relevant community website.  Most indigenous people in Canada have English first names, but often they will have a name in their own language, often called a spirit name. For important characters, like Eric, I will use these names, usually created from consultations with community members. Meg even has a spirit name that Eric gave her, Miskowabigonens, meaning ‘Little Red Flower’
I followed a different approach for Eric’s daughter’s name. Her mother was Dene, a First Nations community in the Northwest Territories, so I wanted a Dene name. I found a telephone number on the web for a NWT cultural organization and called them up. I’m sure the person who answered thought I was a nut case, but she took it in her stride and suggested Teht’aa, meaning ‘lily’ in the Dene language. I liked the sound of ‘Tootoosis’, the last name of one of the stars of ‘North of Sixty’, a TV show which took place in NWT. So ‘Tootoosis’ she became. Unfortunately I have since discovered the name is actually a Cree name, so in the just starting 8th Meg Harris mystery in which Teht’aa will have a major role, I will have to come up with a good reason for the Cree last name. 
I call on family member names for many of my secondary characters. It’s so much easier than trying to invent one. Besides they have a connection to me. But I often don’t use the full name, just the first or last name and sometimes the middle names. Meg’s immediate family names are from my own family. Her father Sutton is named after my grandfather, her uncle Harold after my great-uncle, her sister Jean after my mother and Jean’s two daughters after my two nieces. When assigning these names, I do follow one rule. If the character is intended to be a significant character in the story, with a complete multi-faceted personality, I only use names from deceased members of my family so as not to embarrass or upset anyone, particularly if the person turns out to be not very nice.
All other names come out of thin air. I try to come up with names that suit the role the character will play in the story. Plus I follow another rule. I try not to give names that sound similar or have the same first letter. I read a book recently, where a good 5 or more characters had names starting with the same letter. I was forever confusing them.  Occasionally I will change the name of a character partway through the writing. It then becomes a major challenge to ensure the old name is completely removed, which doesn’t always happen. Once or twice the old name remained until the final proof, despite repeated edits. But I don’t think they ended up in the printed book. At least no one has ever asked me, “Who in the world is so and so?”
On a final note, I see this is a bit longer than planned, but I will keep it short. I like to include my husband’s name ‘Jim’ in each of my books, but never as a character. I have named a lake after him and a pub. I will let you find the other references.

I also want to remind you that the next Meg Harris mystery, A Cold White Fear, due out in November or December, depending on where you live, is now available for pre-order.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How do you find the perfect name?

This post first appeared on the blog back in 2012. Remember it? No? Good. Here it is again...

How do you find the perfect name?

by Meredith Cole

Some characters come named--just like that. There's no stress or worry. You know their name just as you know everything else about them (their favorite foods, the color of their hair, and the car they drive) right away. Other characters take a bit more thought and it takes a while to find the perfect name for them.

I don't remember naming Lydia McKenzie in POSED FOR MURDER and DEAD IN THE WATER. She just came along with a name one day. As I got to know her, I learned about her penchant for vintage clothes and her desire to take murder recreation photos. But the secondary characters were more challenging for me to name. I had Italian American private eyes, a Puerto Rican detective, a French gallerist, and various artists. And yes, you can't name several people with the same first initial. It's way too confusing.

My first strategy was to use the Brooklyn phone book. Brooklyn has every single ethnic group imaginable so I just went shopping there for the perfect Italian name. D'Angelo. Angels. Lydia's bosses certainly don't seem like angels, but they grow on you. They have more heart than she thinks, and they introduce her to an exciting new profession--becoming a detective herself.

Romero popped quickly into my head as the name for the homicide detective/love interest. I didn't realize until later how close it was to "Romeo"... It's taking Lydia a little longer to figure out that he's the man for her.

If a name doesn't occur to me, I sometimes try one out for awhile. One character I called "Andy" until I realized he was a bad guy. My step-father is also an Andy, and I didn't want to use his name for someone awful. Think of the awkward Thanksgiving conversations! So I changed it.

One of my pet peeves when I read a book is names that don't fit a character at all--the name is too old or too young for them, or totally in the wrong time period. You wouldn't name a Medieval maiden "Tiffany" even if there was an occasional Medieval maiden with that name. It just sounds too 80's pop star. And there may be one or two thirteen-year-old girls running around named Susan in America, but believe me it's not very common. Susan was a name that was wildly popular in the 50's, so it would be great for a 60-year-old woman.

A great way to find just the right name for someone--one that really fits--is to check out the social security website. There you can find out the top 100 names for any year--and you can even look up states! That's not to say you should feel limited by those, but it's a great way to find out what the kids will all be named in kindergarten in five years. And you can get a better sense of what sounds are particularly popular (Jayden, Brayden, Hayden--or--Hannah, Anna, Savannah)--especially if you don't have a young kid at home and don't spend all you time on the playground. It's also interesting to see how names in the south differ from those in the north east... (Did I mention this is dangerous if you're on a deadline--?)

I like to give main characters stand out names that not everyone has--but secondary characters that I want to stay in the background need to blend a little more. And I always keep the first initials different so they don't all blend one into the other...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Macavity Short Story Nominees Blog Tour

I’m going to deviate from this week’s question as I’m turning over my post today to the Macavity Short Story Nominees Blog Tour.

The five Macavity nominees are Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson, our own Art Taylor...and me. I’m honored to be among these people and their terrific stories.

I want to thank everyone who voted for us in the first round. And the second and final round of voting is taking place right now. So if you’re a member of Mystery Readers International I hope you’ll take the time to read all of the stories and vote. The deadline is September 1st and you should have received your ballots by now.

Macavity logo d2But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers, whose bios are at the end of this post.

All five of the stories are available free here—just click the link and scroll down.

So without further ado, here’s our question and responses:

Do you return to certain themes or ideas in your writing? How does this story fit in or differ from your other stories?

Craig Faustus Buck: “Honeymoon Sweet” (Murder at the Beach: The Bouchercon Anthology 2014, edited by Dana Cameron; Down & Out)

The common thread in my stories has more to do with character than theme. The people I create are all gasping for breath, struggling against the current in the sea of life.

In “Dead End,” for example, my protagonist Johno Beltran was an LAPD detective whose tiny misjudgment, while handling evidence, allowed a vicious killer to walk free. We meet Johno four years later. He has lost his wife, home, and career, and now lives in his car and works as a restaurant parking attendant. One night the freed murderer drives up to Johno’s valet stand in a $100K BMW and we’re off and running.

“Honeymoon Sweet” (current Anthony and Macavity nominee) stars a couple of low-rent con artists, newly married, who break into a mansion on the beach for their honeymoon. The woman is smarter than the man, and they both know it, creating an uneasy tension in their relationship. This issue rears its head when their plans go south.

One of my favorite stories, “Pongo’s Lucky Day” (to be reprinted in Kings River Life in September), stars a bumbling competitive snowboarder who can’t land the triple-flip he needs to be a serious contender or even to get laid. He stumbles on an ATM-gone-wild that spits out money. Of course, his apparent lucky day turns into a nightmare.

So in terms of recurrent themes, I’d have to say that I’m attracted to likeable low-lifes and underdogs, and the foolish decisions that doom them. Doom is, after all, the touchstone of noir.


Barb Goffman: “The Shadow Knows” (Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, edited by Barb Goffman Cleaned-up version cropped2Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley; Wildside Press)

I don’t write with a theme in mind. My only goal is to tell a good story. That said, there are some ideas I’ve returned to repeatedly:

Child molestation. I’ve had four stories published involving child molestation. I don’t, thankfully, have any personal knowledge of this subject. So why did I revisit this topic? A crime writer is often looking for a good reason to justify murder. Child molestation more than fits that bill.

Sibling rivalry, particularly between sisters. I’ve also had four stories published in which one sister tries to kill another sister or get her sent to prison. This topic also makes sense: No one can get in your craw like your family, making murder believable. (Moreover, these stories bother my own sister, who doesn’t believe that they’re not about her. So they’re a win win. Kidding!)

Humor. I like writing funny crime stories. When I write something humorous, I don’t worry that the reader will think, “Who cares?” Everyone likes to laugh. I had this idea in mind when I began writing my Macavity- and Anthony-nominated “The Shadow Knows.” I knew I wanted to write about a man who believes his town groundhog controls the weather and has caused his area’s excruciatingly long winters, so he decides to get rid of the groundhog. That’s an odd idea, but adding humor can turn a weird story into a fun one and make a reader smile. And that’s a great thing to do.

Paul D. Marks: “Howling at the Moon” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014)

Paul_D_Marks_bio_pic -- CCWC-cropped

One recurring theme in my writing is that most of my characters are damaged, often dealing with or “recovering” from some physical or psychic wound. Another is the theme of memory and the past and how those things affect the characters in the present.

Ray Hood in “Dead Man’s Curve” is a man who’s lost his focus, his dreams and his purpose, and is desperately trying to get them back. The question is, how far will he go to get all of that back? Duke Rogers in White Heat is battered from growing up with an abusive father and that affects the actions he takes. Winger, the Weegee-like photog in “Poison Heart” is so desperate for recognition that he finds pleasure in doing photo recreations of grisly murder scenes...until it all gets out of hand and becomes too real. Darrell Wood in “Howling at the Moon” is jaded by war and life in general. He’s lost touch with his roots, causing him to question his priorities. He also shares a collective memory with his native American ancestors and that shapes his actions in the story. And in my upcoming novella Vortex, available on September 1, 2015, Zach Tanner is physically wounded by war and mentally changed by it. This sends him on a collision course with the past and decisions he made that he deeply regrets now.

All of these characters have to overcome their issues to survive and come out on the other side...if they can.
Travis Richardson: “The Proxy” (Thuglit #13, Sept./Oct. 2014)

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“The Proxy” fits into my rural noir stories which constitute about half my writing. Most of the other stories take place in Los Angeles or other urban areas. Of my rural crime fiction, a few have been set in the fictional town of Lynchwood. I don’t exactly know where Lynchwood is located, only that it’s east of Oklahoma and in the American South. In a lot of my writing, I try to focus on the morality of crime. I often write about criminals who are very much human, not stone cold psychopaths. They may be in way over their heads or burdened with knowledge that their actions have devastating consequences, yet they cannot leave the life or ever undo what has happened. There is sadness combined with a sense of duty. Life continues for my characters as their wounds harden into ragged scar tissue. They must trudge on… unless they are killed in the end. I don’t think I’ve ever overtly preached that crime is bad, but I don’t make it sexy or positive either.


Art Taylor: “The Odds Are Against Us” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014)
"Art Taylor"

Many of my stories seem to hinge on the idea of relationships taking a bad turn. I like to explore the kinds of responsibilities people have in relationships, the duties to others, and then look at the factors that might cause that sense of responsibility to fracture, that might threaten to cripple or even shatter those relationships (or in some cases maybe make them stronger—there’s that too). Betrayal is a common theme, the tests and temptations that we’re all subject to, and there’s a moral weight to all of this, I hope—at least that’s the thing I respond to in the short stories that have had the strongest impact on me, so I can only hope that my own stories might have a similar effect on my readers. “The Odds Are Against Us” falls pretty squarely in the middle of those themes. Two old friends seem to be having a simple conversation, remembering old times, but there’s trouble beneath the surface of that talk—and heavy stakes for everyone in the decision that one of them has to make at the end of it all. Part of my focus in the story was on how and why that decision got made—how and why the odds might ultimately be against both these characters—but beyond that what interested me was their friendship and the legacy of that friendship, the way the memory of those old times will cast a long shadow on the narrator, well beyond the close of the story.


Author Bios:

Craig Faustus Buck’s debut noir novel Go Down Hard was published May 5, 2015 (Brash Books). His short story “Honeymoon Suite” is currently nominated for both Anthony and Macavity Awards (free at He lives in LA, where noir was born, and is president of MWA SoCal.

Barb Goffman is the author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Even (Wildside Press 2013). This book won the Silver Falchion Award for best single-author short-story collection of 2013. Barb also won the 2013 Macavity Award for best short story of 2012, and she’s been nominated fifteen times for national crime-writing awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime and general fiction. Learn more about her writing at

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. Publishers Weekly calls White Heat a “taut crime yarn.” His story “Howling at the Moon” (EQMM 11/14) is short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story. Vortex, a noir-thriller novella, is Paul’s latest release. Midwest Review calls Vortex: “…a nonstop staccato action noir.” He also co-edited the anthology Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books).

Travis Richardson has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Spinetingler Magazine and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at, and sometimes shoots a short movie. He has two novellas Lost in Clover (rural coming of age crime) and Keeping the Record (violent baseball roadtrip comedy).

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. His short fiction has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity, and three consecutive Derringer Awards, among other honors. He writes frequently on crime fiction for both The Washington Post and Mystery Scene.


In other news, but having consulted with a “higher authority...,” I have a couple of announcements:

Vortex: My new Mystery-Thriller novella coming September 1st.Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]
“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it’s nearly impossible to put down before the end.”
—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

Akashic Fade Out Annoucement D1a--C w full date
Fade Out: flash fiction story – set at the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine – coming on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder, Monday (big surprise, huh?), August 17th. Here’s the link, but my story won’t be live till 8/17:

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