Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fine Fifteen Authors - Arthur Conan Doyle

My grandfather lived with us when I was growing up. He died when I was eight years old and one of his things that I inherited was a book - a mammoth red hardcover tome called THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.

I have no idea whether the book actually contained everything ever written by Doyle. Probably not, although it certainly seemed big enough. I still have the book, and if I ever get motivated enough to check, I'll get back to you and let you know.

One thing the book did contain, though, was a bunch of short stories and longer works about a deductive genius in turn-of-the-century Great Britain who used his powerful reasoning skills to solve seemingly impossible mysteries.

Sherlock Holmes was the crimefighter's name, as you undoubtedly already knew, and those adventures were just as instrumental in developing my literary tastes as the Hardy Boys. Even though the Holmes stories could not in any way be considered "Young Adult" reading, I dived into them with a vengeance.

I must have read and re-read Holmes's adventures a dozen times each, likely spending more time immersed in that gigantic red book over the course of a few years than my grandfather spent in a lifetime. It was also my introduction to noir, to a world where the protagonist of the story, the "good guy," wasn't necessarily always squeaky-clean.

I'm not sure anyone else would agree with me that these turn-of-the-century stories qualify as noir, but how else would you describe adventures where the protagonist spends his time, when not immersed in a mystery, under the recreational effects of morphine or cocaine? In my sheltered young world, Holmes's extracurricular activities were as shocking as they were fascinating.

I haven't read any of those stories in years, decades actually, and I suspect that some of Holmes's deductions that so amazed me when I was ten years old may not seem so brilliant now. Some of them may not make all that much sense whatsoever.

But my fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation introduced me to a world of crime and mystery I still love to read - and write - about today. And that's good enough for me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fine Fifteen Authors - Franklin W. Dixon

A lot of the stuff that you get on Facebook is worthless, but I was recently tagged by an author friend with an interesting note. "Fifteen Authors," it was called, and the point of the exercise was to list, right off the top of your head, "the fifteen authors (poets included) who have influenced you and that will always stick with you."

The rules were that I was supposed to list these fifteen authors in no more than fifteen minutes, but since I rarely have fifteen minutes at a time to devote to anything besides work or writing, I went at it over the course of a couple of days.

I posted my results on Facebook, but it occurred to me that it might be kind of cool to devote a few paragraphs to each of my "Fine Fifteen" over the next few weeks.

The first author to appear on my list is someone who doesn't really exist at all. Or, to be more precise, the name is a pseudonym representing a passel of authors who have contributed work to this ongoing series of books. The name is Franklin W. Dixon.

Franklin W. Dixon's name first appeared on a book cover in 1927, on a mystery book titled THE TOWER TREASURE. But this wasn't any mystery book. It was a mystery aimed at young readers, a category that would later become known as the "Young Adult" market. The protagonists in THE TOWER TREASURE were two brothers - the Hardy Boys - and they would go on to be featured in about a gazillion books over the better part of the next century.

Three Hardy Boys books were published in 1927, followed by three more in 1928 and two in 1929, then one more or less every year through 1979. The 1980's were a busy decade for the Hardy Boys, solving thirty-eight cases written by a number of different "Franklin W. Dixons."

The 1990's and early 2000's were the same story, with the Hardy Boys featured in dozens of adventures, the last of which, MOTOCROSS MADNESS, came out in 2005. The series apparently changed names at that time, becoming known as "Undercover Brothers."

"Franklin W. Dixon" leads off my Fine Fifteen list of authors for one very simple reason. He (they?) introduced me to the joy of reading at a young age. I discovered the Hardy Boys and was transported into a world where young boys could follow clues, outwit bad guys, have adventures and solve crimes.

The Hardy Boys didn't care how many friends I had, didn't care that I was short and skinny and too good at school for my own good, at least when it came to getting bullied in the playground. They welcomed me into their mysteries and even though they encountered danger at every turn, they never failed to get the drop on the bad guys in the end.

By the early 1970's I had outgrown the Hardy Boys and moved onto other literary fare, and although I'm quite certain I didn't read every Franklin W. Dixon novel from THE TOWER TREASURE through THE MASKED MONKEY, I made a damned good dent in them.

My mother thought I was crazy, probably for lots of reasons, but most especially because I would read three or four Hardy Boys books at a time, keeping a separate one, open to the appropriate page, in a bunch of different rooms. If I was eating breakfast in the kitchen, I would pick up my kitchen Hardy Boys book and read while I ate. Parents watching something boring on TV, like the news? No problem. I would simply pick up my living room Hardy Boys book and within seconds be hot on the trail of a diamond smuggler or counterfeiter.

I'm sure I would eventually have discovered books and the joy of the written word at some point, even if I had never heard of the Hardy Boys; I can't imagine not doing so. But he, along with another name you probably know, and who I'll get into at another time, turned me on to a lifetime's worth of pleasure, and so Franklin W. Dixon leads off my list of Fine Fifteen authors.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Well, Knock Me Down With a Feather

Boy, you just never know. I found out last week that my dark, dark, dark short story, "Dance Hall Drug," is being nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize by the editor of Dark Valentine, Katherine Tomlinson.

This is extremely gratifying, as you might imagine, but also more than a little surprising, for a couple of different reasons.

First of all, and I've mentioned this before, "Dance Hall Drug" had been languishing on my hard drive for months, rejected by a number of magazines, presumably due to its content/subject matter/general pitch-black tone. There is sex and drugs and murder and betrayal and revenge and madness, all packed into less than four thousand words of fiction.

I had more or less given up on the idea of ever seeing the story in print until last spring, when I heard about this new online dark fiction site called Dark Valentine. I researched the site and decided it might offer the perfect venue for such a disturbing story, so I submitted it, prepared as ever to receive another rejection. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when Ms Tomlinson contacted me to say she wanted to run "Dance Hall Drug," calling it "a nasty piece of work."

I'm pretty sure I've never received higher praise for one of my short stories, considering nasty is exactly what I was going for.

The second reason I was so surprised to hear about the Pushcart nomination is the nature of the award itself. The Pushcart Prize bills itself as "the most honored literary project in America," and has recognized the work of such literary giants as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver and John Irving, among many others.

In other words, it's the sort of fancy-schmancy award that genre writers like me never sniff. In fact, I can picture some Pushcart judge sitting down with a snifter of brandy in his Manhattan townhouse, opening "Dance Hall Drug," beginning to read, and either dropping dead of a heart attack or getting about two-thirds of the way through the story and crumpling it up into a ball and tossing it into his roaring fire.

But you never know, as I believe I may have mentioned earlier.

I'm not going to lie to you and say that I don't care if I win a Pushcart Prize, despite the fact that until last week I had never expected in a million years to ever be up for one. I'd love to win it.

But there's a lot of truth to the cliched expression, "it's an honor just to be nominated." As I said in an email to Ms Tomlinson after she notified me of the nomination, as an author, my goal is to evoke emotion in the reader. It might be shock or horror or empathy or excitement, but if you read my work and you feel something, then I feel something, too: I feel I've done my job.

Obviously, "Dance Hall Drug" struck a chord with her (and hopefully with other readers as well), and for that I am humbled and grateful. Thanks very much to Katherine Tomlinson for taking a chance on this disturbing story and for believing in it enough to nominate it for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I Think I Have Writer's Cramp

I've mentioned in the past how things seem to go in cycles as far as writing is concerned, at least for me. I'll go along and have several short stories appear in print more or less at the same time, and then a few months go by with nothing.

Part of that is probably due to my own disorganization. I tend to write my short fiction in bunches, composing several stories over the course of a few weeks and then doing nothing with them for a while, leaving them to season on my hard drive. Then, in a burst of enthusiastic energy - also known by its official medical terminology, manic-depression - I will submit a bunch of stories to various publications at roughly the same time over the course of a few days.

Of course, each publication has their own timetable for responding to submissions. Some are relatively quick to get back to the author, either with an acceptance or rejection, while others, maybe because of the volume of submissions they receive, maybe because they hold stories in limbo while trying to decide whether to use them, take much longer.

But inevitably, when you send stories out in clumps, you tend to see them get published in clumps. This summer has been one of those clumps for me.

It started with my novelette, "Uncle Brick and the Little Devilz," which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the venerable online mag, Mysterical-E. This was the followup to my Derringer finalist story from the previous summer, "Uncle Brick and Jimmy Kills." Then "The Waiting" appeared in the Sumer 2010 issue of the brand-new, super-cool print magazine Needle: A Magazine of Noir, followed smartly by "Dance Hall Drug," maybe my darkest and most disturbing story ever, which showed up in the brand-new, super-cool online 'zine, Dark Valentine.

This past week, the print magazine Twisted Dreams, not brand-new but definitely super-cool, published their October 2010 issue featuring my story, "Under an October Moon," and just yesterday my dark revenge story titled "Dead and Buried" popped up at the ambitious and always-entertaining online site called A Twist of Noir.

Whew. I'm tired just thinking about it. But I'm also pumped, because the thought of my work being exposed to the readers of all these different online and print publications is both exhilerating and extremely gratifying. After all, the point of submitting your work to publications is to see it in print. Otherwise, you might as well just keep a journal.

Some of this material is available for free, the rest at a very reasonable cost. You probably spent more for that Mocha Grande Cappucino thingy you ordered at Starbucks on your way to work this morning.

But just in case you don't have the extra cash to buy Needle: A Magazine of Noir or Twisted Dreams, don't you worry about it. All you have to do is click on over to my website,, and then navigate to the "Contact" link on the left side of the home page, then sign up for my email newsletter by October 18. Do that and you will be eligible to win a free copy of the latest issue of each of those magazines, and you can read "The Waiting" and "Under an October Moon" to your heart's content.

Think about it: Free Stuff. And you might just find either or both of those magazines to be such outstanding reading you'll want to get the next issue, and the next. Before you know it, you'll toss your TV, trash your iPod, call in sick at work, and curl up in bed, reading.

Just don't blame me if you get fired.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Step Into My Office

One of the blogs I enjoy following is the always interesting "Murderati." The blog's contributors include some of the best and fastest-rising authors in the mystery/thriller genres, including (but not limited to) Tess Gerritsen, Ken Bruen, JT Ellison, Robert Gregory Browne and Allison Brennan, among many others. The material they cover runs the gamut from plotting and characterization to marketing to the occasional timely rant concerning the publishing business or just about anything else.

A month or so ago, some of the authors contributed posts and photos of their workspaces, the areas where these evil geniuses dream up and execute (pun definitely intended) their fictional mayhem. They ranged from entire separate rooms dedicated to the craft of writing, to portions of rooms filled with papers and computers covering what, presumably, was a desk buried somewhere beneath.

The posts were a fascinating look at the physical manifestations of the creative process and pretty much included the semi-sloppy messiness that always seems to accompany creative output. At least that's what I tell myself when my messes get out of control.

Anyway, the posts got me thinking about my own office. It's a little smaller than most of the ones featured by these best-selling authors most of the time, although occasionally it's quite a bit bigger. You see, my office is wherever I happen to sit down and open up my laptop.

Most of my best work is done on my bed.

Feel free to interpret that any way you want, but what I really mean is when I'm working on a novel or a short story it is often while sitting on the bed-covers, pillow propped behind my back, leaning against the bed's headboard. There are several reasons for this, but mostly it's because I need to have silence - or as close as possible to it - when I'm writing, and with a three year old running around our house, sometimes that's in short supply.

I've made my office in plenty of other places, though. When my granddaughter was an infant and my wife was still working, I wrote entire chapters of PASKAGANKEE (a supernatural suspense novel I still have high hopes for) with a sleeping baby perched on my left shoulder, rocking her back and forth while I typed one-handedly on my laptop as it sat perched on top of the stove. Most of the time while it was off. The stove, that is, not the laptop, although based on the lack of success I've had selling the manuscript, maybe the computer should have been off as well.

I have also written short stories and novel chapters sitting in my daughter's room on the floor, leaning against the wall in the space her futon used to take up until I rented a van and drove it to her college dorm. Once in a great while I write while sitting on the living room couch, although most of the time that only happens when nobody else is home.

Plenty of work gets done when I am on breaks at my day job as an air traffic controller. It's not always easy to switch gears from talking to airplanes, all of whom are trying to occupy the same space, to writing about chaos and murder and mayhem, although now that I think about it, it's often not all that hard, either. The point is, wherever I can find a free conference room or unused office on my breaks, I open up my laptop and it instantly becomes my office, at least until my break is over.

Oh, that reminds me. My break is over. Time to close up my office and get back to work.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Down in a Hole

It's the dead of night, miles from anywhere, in the middle of a lonely forest, and a man is hard at work. He stabs at the ground with a shovel, tossing dirt, excavating a hole roughly the size and shape of a human body. The man has bad intentions, that much is obvious. Who digs a body-shaped hole in a secluded area under cover of darkness otherwise?

What the man doesn't realize is that he is not alone. Behind him, screened from view by trees and undergrowth, stealthy and silent, a lone figure watches him work. The hole will not go empty. The only question is who will fill it, and why?

This is the premise of my short story titled, "Under an October Moon," featured now in the outstanding dark fiction magazine, Twisted Dreams. It's available in print form for $7.55, and as a file download for just $2.55, and let me tell you, this is a pretty damned good deal if you like original, disturbing dark fiction.

The magazine also features original artwork, reviews, and an interview with actor Brad Greenquist, veteran of movies and appearances in TV series such as Stargate SG1, Alias, The Practice, and Walker, Texas Ranger as well as many others.

Here's a small taste of my story, "Under an October Moon":

He leaned on his shovel and examined his project with a critical eye. The original plan called for a grave roughly four feet deep, six feet long and a couple of feet wide. That was before Ray had realized just how much goddamned work was involved in digging a grave out here.

Now he pictured Linda dropping into a four foot long hole - its current size - and concluded these new dimensions would work just as well and would save him a lot of effort. He would simply break her legs with the shovel once she had fallen into her permanent residence, then fold them back over her torso before filling in the hole.

What difference would a couple of broken legs make, really? Linda would be dead, or nearly so, so it's not like she would complain. And what if she did? Who the hell was going to hear her?

I think it goes without saying Ray's project doesn't go exactly as planned. Check out Twisted Dreams and "Under an October Moon" if you love dark fiction, especially with Halloween right around the corner. Just be careful walking through the woods.