Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Compiling a Short Story Collection

Since my college years my focus has been on writing novels. My first effort was an essay, my second a short story, and thereafter I wrote longer works. Still, between longer projects I write the occasional short story. I discovered the character Anita Ray through a short story, and by now I have about twenty published and unpublished Anita Ray stories. It seems about time to put together a collection of some of these, and that has become my end-of-year project.

Building a collection of short fiction is a separate skill. Work is enhanced or diminished by the order in which it appears, and figuring out that order can be a challenge. During the life of The Larcom Review, I was surprised but pleased that most of the work submitted fell into certain thematic categories without our requesting them. This made it relatively easy to find a sufficient number of works that went well together. The Review published poetry, short fiction (all genres), essays, book reviews, and interviews, along with black-and-white art. Selecting and arranging individual pieces has remained one of the great pleasures of my writing life. The work is both tactile and intellectual, and as I stood over the eight-foot table with stacks of paper at my fingertips I could imagine many different versions of the issue I was working on until my choices narrowed the possibilities, and I was left with the one we published.

The same question of an effective arrangement appeared in the Level Best Books anthologies, which I along with two colleagues, Kate Flora and Skye Alexander, later replaced by Ruth McCarty, published for about seven years. Kate did the honors in those volumes, and I noticed as I read how astutely she had matched one story with another.

Now as I set out to arrange a dozen Anita Ray stories into a collection that won't run beyond seventy thousand words I think about variations in tone and setting, types of crime and recurring characters, foreign and native suspects and victims, and any other qualities that will reduce the level of sameness in stories focused on a main character. I'm looking for an arrangement that will enhance the contrasts.

During a recent discussion in the Short Mystery Fiction Society list, several contributors shared their experiences with publishing collections or compilations, noting that a grouping of stories widely diverse in genre can undermine the book's appeal, and a little over sixty thousand words seems to be the sweet spot for length. I keep these points in mind as I continue to select and arrange.

Another aspect is the cover. I now use my own photographs of India for the reprints of the Anita Ray novels as well as the individual short stories I've posted on Amazon. I intend to do the same with the collection. The photograph must fulfill certain requirements, such as indicating at once the setting readers have come to know through the Anita Ray mystery novels as well as drawing the eye of new readers.

This is my final project for 2015, and it will carry a 2016 pub date.

To read two of the Anita Ray stories to be included, go to the links below.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Taking Things Slowly

The Northeast has been in the gentle grip of unseasonably warm weather, which has made the holiday season seem like an afterthought. No one I know feels a sense of impending holiday cheer and celebration. Most of what we’re doing is trying to remember to do whatever it is that we ordinarily do when things are different and the holiday rolls around, or something like that. But one aspect of this time of year has reappeared, almost insistently, for me.

December is when I stop to wonder if I did all that I meant to do. This isn’t about testing my activities in the past months against New Year’s resolutions. Instead, it’s about staying true to whatever life goals I’ve set for myself. Did I wander off course? Am I frittering away time? This is always a danger now that I’m retired. I think I have all the time in the world, and I don’t.

And that last sentence by itself tells me I've missed the mark sometimes.

I came across a word of advice years ago—I don’t remember where—but I repeat it to myself almost every week. “Don’t hurry your life.” I took this simple statement then, and do now, to mean, don’t be in a rush for whatever it is you think you want or are working toward. Perhaps others would call this being mindful, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.

“Don’t hurry your life.” Let things happen in their own good time. During what is usually a frantic holiday season, and may yet become one, I think this is good advice and I try to follow it. In this very slow holiday season, the advice seems the perfect commentary on what is (or isn’t) happening. This holiday season is slow, quiet, laid-back, a relief compared to previous years and what we consider normal. It feels as if the Universe is showing us what it's like when the advice becomes real. 

Don’t hurry your life. Take it slow and let it be richer for you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When No Means . . .

Every writer dreads the letter or email that begins with the usual “We enjoyed reading . . . but . . .” At that moment we die, or at least I do. I can feel myself sinking into the mud of disappointment, where I shall remain until I can find something cheerful to pull me out of my misery.

Rejection is part of the writing life. John Creasey received 743 rejection slips before he sold his first mystery. He set the standard of perseverance for the rest of us. One editor considered A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  “neither long enough for a serial nor short enough for a single story.”

The writer who has never received a rejection of her ms has never sent one out. Everyone gets rejected at some point, usually in the beginning, but sometimes repeatedly over the years. It’s part of trying new things, taking risks as a writer, and reaching out to unknown editors. We never know as writers who will like our work and who will not see anything good in it. Over the years, however, I have learned that the rejection letter sometimes isn’t a rejection letter. It’s a delicate prod for the writer to make certain changes either in the ms or the publishers being approached.

I remember one letter (and it was a letter, arriving in a stamped envelope, before everything was done by email) in which the editor complained the submitted novel had no “pizzazz.” I’ve never forgotten that word. I didn’t write the novel to have pizzazz. Scribner eventually published it as Murder in Mellingham.

A colleague received a rejection, she thought, from a publisher who, I felt confident, would take the book. She was so disappointed until I read the email and saw the error in her thinking. They liked the ms, but it was too long. She set about trimming, resubmitted, and the novel was accepted and published.

A publisher rejected one of my titles in the Anita Ray series, and the rejection left me surprised as well as sad. I reread the email several times, particularly the paragraph complimenting me on my wonderful writing. I reread the ms, found the passages where I’d fallen asleep at my desk, resubmitted, and the ms was accepted.

Over the years I’ve learned to read rejection letters with my own personal dictionary at hand—the one that offers several definitions of the word no and its relatives. I also turn to the gem of a book Rotten Rejections, and comfort myself with the observation that other writers better than I have had it worse.

Most editors are polite today, even if they dislike something. Right now I’m glancing at one editor’s comment on John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. “You’re welcome to le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.” This is to remind us all that editors may be the gatekeepers, but they can be—and often are—wrong.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Crime Close By

I read a newspaper every day, scanning the headlines and picking out the stories that interest me. I shake my head at the misery people inflict on each other, and then turn the page. I couldn't do that this week.

About five years ago, an old Victorian mansion, long chopped up into apartments, was sold to a developer, who tore it down and built five McMansions. Buyers of the properties were required to sign a covenant prohibiting certain behaviors, such as parking a boat in the driveway, designed to maintain the value of the new homes.

The new houses came with side effects. For the first time neighbors had water in their cellars after it rained, the result of all that paving for the new street and driveways in the small development. A few neighbors also grumbled that even though the street was private and residents were expected to bring their trash to the sidewalk, the trash collectors still drove down the short street, our tax dollars at work. Other neighbors lost their sunny back yards, which were now cast in shadow most of the day.

This development is barely three houses away from me, just across a small one-way street. I walk past this cluster of new homes almost every day, and my husband passes it three times a day when he's out walking the dog. The houses are occupied by families with children of all ages. The lawns are well kept. And yet . . . And yet . . .

On Monday a man walked into the Beverly Police Department and announced he had just killed his wife. The police apparently, according to one news story, asked a few questions before heading out to the house. There they found his wife's body with no pulse but still warm. The EMTs managed to revive her enough to get a pulse and took her to the hospital, less than two miles away. She never regained consciousness and died on Friday. She was the mother of two young boys.

The woman had quit her job two years ago to stay home and write. She and her husband separated a year ago but had tried to reconcile in September of this year. She completed her first novel, published it with Amazon, and started her second book.

The published novel is titled The Price of Fame. On the cover is the picture of a woman lying face down, apparently after an assault, with her clothes fallen away. If I were writing this in a novel, I couldn't describe a murder and include that scene without a reader complaining, considering it contrived or worse. Again according to one news report, the police did not find signs of a struggle.

Since retiring I have kept up with some of my former colleagues and volunteer activities, including work on a committee to end domestic violence. We talk about warning signs and appropriate responses that won't make the home situation worse, or put the woman in danger.

On the quiet lane three houses from where I live, no one heard the man strangling his wife. No one knew she was in danger.

Over the years I have refused to read mysteries in which one woman after another is murdered or debased in the opening pages (or even later). I consider such fiction exploitive and repulsive. But what is the difference between one murder and thirty?

I sometimes wonder if writing crime fiction is a sign of my own callousness. I think I'm addressing issues of justice and the way life takes strange and startling turns and challenges us to face an ugly reality or our own weaknesses. Before I knew the woman down the street had died, I printed out a next-to-final draft of a new mystery novel. Here it sits on my desk, almost three hundred pages waiting for a final read-through. I am uncomfortably aware that my next reading will be different from my previous one. Beyond that I'm not sure what I think.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Unpacking the Conference

My email box fills up every few months with announcements of posts about conferences I might have missed—notes on panel discussions, awards announcements, and interviews. Since I attend only one conference a year, one held in my home state as well, I’m always curious about what happens elsewhere. I scan the posts looking for a few interesting tidbits and ideas for whatever I’m working on.

The New England Crime Bake, a mystery conference held annually in Dedham, MA, ended Sunday, November 8, and I’m now at home “unpacking” my conference experience. I was thinking about posting a summary of some of the panels I attended, and then quickly dropped the idea. For me, unpacking a conference in the days right after I get home means following up on conversations held over three days and two nights. I have lots to do this week, most of it by email.

Conferences are about readers meeting writers, writers meeting readers, and writers selling books. Crime Bake gives short story writers the same opportunity as novelists. Level Best Books held its annual book signing, and I was one of the writers included in Red Dawn, the last anthology by this group of editors. We had a long line of writers signing piles of books for readers. I have a chance this week to get two more signatures of writers who didn’t attend the conference but live in my area. 

I owe a list of books to a good friend and colleague who recently moved to Pennsylvania. We share an interest in the history of the genre and where it’s going. We talked about two nonfiction books he wasn’t familiar with, and I’m sending pub info.

Two colleagues asked me to work with them to put together a writers’ group for established writers, and that means we have to think hard about how to go about this. We don’t live near each other, but we can and do drive. Lots of planning ahead.

An agent interested in a new project gave me several suggestions for the (now considered) unfinished ms, and the revisions will be my focus for the next few weeks. I’ve made notes on what I want to change and add, and promised her a revised version.

It wouldn’t be a conference without meeting several writers whose books are unknown to me. I have a list of titles whose authors I enjoyed meeting. The bar, for this writer, is not a place to drink. It’s a place to meet other writers, and share information. In exchange for a list of mysteries from one author, I suggested a nonfiction book that would help with the research for a paranormal mystery series. (Who knew I could be useful in such an area?)

A colleague mentioned his wife’s new position, which including scouting people for work in India. I just happen to know a scientist in India who is between jobs. We’ll see what happens.

In several panels experts in various fields talked about the technical errors writers make (this is hardly news to me, since I know how ignorant I am in police procedure and hence let all the police work happen off-stage). I know this offends readers with expertise, but this is not the point of reading a novel, in my view. The technical information adds authenticity but shouldn’t overshadow the characters.

In the discussion about how to manage specialized information I would like to hear at least one expert admit that the science of policing is not the point of the story. If you want to know the rights and wrongs of city policing, read a manual. In some novels the writer is so busy showing off his or her special knowledge of legal and policing information that such information becomes the story, and the ostensible mystery devolves into nothing more than a clever anecdote. I appreciate the research, but it is not the story.

There is one experience from this conference that was totally unexpected. I met a journalist whose husband has studied Sanskrit. For the first time in my mystery writing career I didn’t feel like an oddball. Thank you, Debra.

Finally, a good conference gives participants things to think about for months to come. I keep a small notebook with me all the time and use it for anything that happens during the year, including conferences, so I can locate and revisit ideas easily. This conference almost filled my little notebook.

Crime Bake is a popular conference. The organizers made a decision early on to keep it small, and as a result registration fills up fast. If you’re thinking about joining next year, get on the mailing list and sign up early—while you can.