Saturday, January 01, 2005

A Brother's Gift

"A Brother's Gift" by Michael Wiecek, Hardluck Stories, Fall 2004

Man, it seems like everything I'm reviewing lately has something to do with families. That's OK. Families provide almost unlimited opportunities for murder and mayhem. The stories I like most among those I've written have had to do fathers and daughters, mothers and sons.

In Mr. Wiecek's story it's brother and brother. Mr. Wiecek doesn't say whether they were twins, I got the impression they were not even though they could be mistaken for each other. Familial resemblances can be like that.

Angie makes his living, apparently a pretty good one, on the wrong side of the law. Joe is straight and poor. The brother's aren't very close, yet, out of the blue, Angie, who is currently undergoing trial for a murder rap, has his wife send Joe a fruit cake for Christmas. Personally, anyone sends me a fruitcake, I figure that person is out to get me, but not Joe.

Angie wants Joe to do a little favor for him. The favor is not a particularly big deal for brothers. How the favor turns out makes the story.

This isn't a long story, but Mr. Wiecek does a good job of making Joe a sympathetic character in very few words. And the ending will certainly get your attention.

In short, a Christmas story of brotherly love, of a different kind.

Friday, December 31, 2004

Welcome Michael Bane, Gun Writer and TV Star

I've just discovered that Michael Bane, author, MWA member and host of the Outdoor Channel's Shooting Gallery, has a blog! We had this guy speak at our MWA chapter meeting this year, and he is a hoot! He is also one of the most knowledgeable people you can find on the subject of guns. He writes well and is quirky enough to fit right in with our crowd. His December 27 essay on "The Fighting Revolver" is terrific for anyone who wants to know about the use of revolvers for self-defense.

I've already added him to my links. Drop by yourself and check him out.

Producing an MP3 of Grasshopper -- Part 1

After all my ranting about the short story and making use of the new media, particularly audio, I decided I'd better "put up" before I was told to "shut up". I contacted Dave Zeltserman, editor extraordinaire of Hardluck Stories, and asked if he would be willing to post one of my stories as an MP3 file. After a little thought he said, "Sure." Since it would be one he had already published ("Grasshopper"), he could reissue it in the issue going live on January 20 as a "classic".

That "classic" crack made me feel old, and I don't need any help with that. Nonetheless, I started to work on making the recording.

Now, why, you ask, would I do this, other than the patently vain reason I gave above? Is it going to make me rich, or at least a little money? Not immediately. Maybe not ever. So why do it?

Here come da rant!

I've noticed among writers (and this may be just my perception without any basis in fact, though I doubt it) the attitude that we are powerless pawns under the thumbs of big publishers. An attitude that we have to wait for someone else to develop a new market or a new way to distribute our work; that we are too dumb, too poor, or too powerless to do it ourselves.

Bullshit!

We can do anything we have the will to do. And that includes making new markets. We could start a "Save Our Short Story" campaign just like the Brits did. What will that get us? For one thing it would get us some real numbers about things we can only guess at today. How many short stories are sold each year? What price is paid for them? How many of those go to magazines (including ezines) and how many to book publishers? What is the circulation of the magazines? What's the sell-through on the books? Who reads them and why? It will tell us what the existing markets are and where the new ones are coming from. All of this is information we can use to make intelligent, informed decisions about what we do.

We are the people with the power, not the publishers. We are the direct descendents of Thomas Paine, who helped overthrow the most powerful government in the world and establish another by writing down his thoughts, having a friend print them in small pamphlets and handing them out to people in the streets of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. We who use the Internet and its associated technologies are the new pamphleteers, and the more the Internet matures along with other technologies like PDAs and iPods and laptop computers and wireless networks, the more power we have.

Will it be hard? Damn straight it will be! Is it impossible? Nope. Will it happen tomorrow? Probably not. So why do it? Because we can.

I made this recording as a "proof of concept" to show what was possible. I did it to take that first baby step on the road to those new markets. If I can do it, anyone can.

In the next installment, I'll talk about the process of making the recording: what it cost, the equipment I used, how long it took, the mistakes I made, and other routes to the same end.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Windows to the Soul

"Windows to the Soul" by Beverle Graves Myers, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

Ah, a mother's love is a delicate balancing act, a determining factor in both the kindest and most empathetic of us and also the cruelest among us. Though I suspect the main character of this story doesn't think of himself as the least bit cruel.

This story follows a man with a thing about eyes and spirituality. He tries a number of churches of different denominations, all in search of the eyes that will bring him a certain peace.

And then there's dear, old Mom. He tries to be a dutiful son, certainly more so than the rest of his siblings, but Mother keeps getting in the way of him fulfilling his life. What's a son to do? What's a mother to do?

This is a well-written story, easy to read, and it kept my interest even though the main character's ultimate actions, in fact all of the criminous actions, are deliberately vague. The change in situation in the last section of the story is signaled by a change in point of view. Nicely done and a poke in the eye to all those pedants in our educational system who insist that switching viewpoints in a short story is fatal, simply not done, old boy.

My one quibble is that I think the final section of the story was too long. I would have preferred a snappier, or at least shorter ending. It could have given the story a bit more punch.

In short, Ms. Myers has produced a nicely nasty tale of mothers and sons.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Banks Is Back

Ray Banks is back online with his new blog. ('Bout damn time, Ray).

Go check it out.

The Short Story Market UK -- Part 3

The part of the study dealing with readers and the promotion of the short story was particularly interesting. Two-thirds of the respondents who said they don't read books of short stories said that was more by accident than design. I interpret (dangerous ground, here) that to mean that they simply didn't go looking for short story books. If one were to suddenly pop up in front of them while they were browsing, they might buy it. About half of the group that didn't read books of short stories said they did read short stories in magazines, but that was, again, more by accident than design. They read them because they were there. Now this does not apply to genre fiction magazines like AHMM, EQMM, and Crimewave. This applies to general interest magazines that only publish one or two short stories per issue. As a part of this, they said readers were more likely to read a single short story than they were to read multiple short stories.

The study suggests that the reason short stories are not read more widely is a matter of exposure. Short stories just don't get the attention that longer works of fiction do. This led into a discussion of the future and readership development programs. Some of the suggestions were specific, but most were not.

Of the specific ones they said that a reading CULTURE for short stories needed to be developed, and the best place to do that was in the schools. Another one was to develop readers groups that concentrated on short stories, though this was seen to have difficulties. How do you develop a short story readers group when you can't convince the readers that short stories are fun? One of the publishers' marketing directors said, "It's hard to get readers groups to read short stories - especially library-based ones as they tend to use library stock. Libraries are very unsupportive of the short story. They think that readers don't like reading short stories, but is this because they don't promote them enough?"

They also talked about how libraries shelve short story collections, suggesting that they be included in promotions and shelved in the general fiction sections rather than in short story sections. I don't know about the UK, but that would certainly queer the old Dewey Decimal System over here. I think it does have some merit, however. Most people looking for fiction don't go to the 800-section of the library. I'll bet if the short stories were shelved with general fiction it would increase borrowing.

One of the less specific suggestions was to "rebrand" the short story and "explore ways of engaging readers in new ways." Rebrand is one of those nebulous marketing terms that doesn't seem to mean much in the real world, but this is the kind of thing I was talking about in the rants that started this whole landslide of ramblings. We, the authors and readers of short fiction, need to do something different to increase the exposure of the short story. Maybe that means visiting with our local librarian and suggesting a table promoting short stories. I don't think we're going to convince them to break short stories out of the 800 ghetto, but you never know. Maybe it means starting our own readers groups. "Tired of trying to read War and Peace in a week? Read a short story instead." Maybe it means making a run at the iPod generation.

What I do know is that we have to do something different. "There's no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle."

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Bigfoot Christmas

"A Bigfoot Christmas" by James Powell, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2005

I guess you could call this a police procedural or maybe a spy story. About Bigfoot. But not the tall, hairy, Chewbacca-like Bigfoot we all know. No, this story tells us about the Bigfoot, an offshoot of some tribe of indigenous people in upper Saskatchewan. These people look a lot like us, with one exception: their feet are six-feet long. They have managed, however, to develop methods of concealing their superpods through becoming the suppliers of preference of floor coverings ("the wall-to-wall carpet is a dead give-away") for the Canadian government.

The death of a friend, crushed under a papier-mache boot that was to be part of an Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe Christmas display, brings Acting Sergeant Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into play. This friend was an unofficial Bigfoot expert (crackpot) who was convinced that the Bigfoot were going to stage a coup to take over the Canadian government. The story follows Acting Sergeant Bullock as he investigates and tries to thwart the conspiracy.

As you may have guessed by now, this is a humorous (or is it humourous) story. Mr. Powell is a fine writer and follows most of the conventions of a police procedural. It's just that the basic situation is a little over the top. But that's OK. It's supposed to be.

In short, I had fun and look forward to the next appearance of Acting Sergeant Bullock of the RCMP.

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Short Story Market UK -- Part 2

Continuing my review of the marketing study of short stories in the UK, booksellers saw marketing collections or anthologies from the publishers as poorly done. This statement indicates that UK publishers do market collections and anthologies, however poorly. I haven't noticed a lot of that by US publishers. Those of you who have worked in bookstores (Kevin Tipple, are you out there?), what have you seen? Do US publishers market collections to the booksellers?

The booksellers also said that the publishers will sometimes try to market a collection as a novel to increase the orders from people who don't read the fine print too carefully. The impression I got was that the booksellers are a tad ticked off by that.

One reason that the publishers gave for not being more enthusiastic about short stories was that they have difficulty selling "subsidiary rights". Unfortunately they didn't define what they meant by subsidiary rights other than saying that it was "bloody hard for translation rights." They went on to say that there was a "hostility to stories in European culture greater than it is here [UK]." Now in the little bit of reading of other papers listed under research on the "Save Our Short Story" site, I saw references to how healthy the short story was in Russia, Germany, and France. Those of you who have published abroad (Dave Z?), have you talked to your publishers about short stories?

One publisher said, "Anthologies do best if they have young edgy writers, and are cutting edge. The nastier ones do well - best are the erotic collections. Middle of the road collections do less well." They also said that collections do better from small and independent publishers than from mainstream publishers. One strategy that has proven beneficial to sales is including short story volumes in "3 for 2" promotions. Borders is already doing this, but I haven't seen any anthologies included.

Another "revelation" was that themed anthologies sell much better than non-themed anthologies and that a quarter of all short story volumes are bought as gifts. This seems to be borne out by the experience of Mary Anna Evans, co-author of "Starch". She granted me permission to quote what she sent me in an email.

"Regarding your crusade to publicize short fiction, I had an interesting conversation with a bookseller recently. She says that she sold case after case of Algonquin's southern Christmas story anthology last year, and that she's selling the heck out of this year's anthology, too. In fact, people are still buying last year's anthology, buying the two as a set. One is red and the other is green, and the price is right--$15.00 apiece for a small hardcover.) It seems that anthologies with a gift-giving hook will sell if they're put out by a publisher big enough to get wide distribution."

One last comment about anthologies and marketing. The report says, "since most short story collections are bought on impulse, visibility within bookshops is very important." They also said that putting short stories in their own section didn't work as well as putting them in among the regular novel-length works.

In the next installment I'll wind up this review with how the readers felt and what might be done to increase readership.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Murder

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Murder" by Tim Wohlforth, Shred of Evidence, November 2004

This is a nice little story of a love that could have been, murder and bloody vengeance.

A campus cop admires a coed from afar. Well, not too afar, the next table actually. The coed admires the campus cop from the same afar. Someone kills the coed, Cindy, while the cop admires her. The cop doesn't see anything but her falling down dead. Feeling guilty he tries to find out what happened. He's a campus cop, looked down on by the city police as little more than a rent-a-cop. Can he discover the killer? And if he can, what will he do?

I really like the way Mr. Wohlforth handles his dialogue. The two scenes between the cop and Jose, the barista, the scene with Cindy's roommate, and the scene with Squeeze all read quickly and easily. I never lost track of who was speaking, and they sounded completely natural. Not a lot of physical description, not a lot needed.

I do have a couple of really minor quibbles. The first occurs just before Cindy's murder. "Then a deep rumble from the street. A car must have been passing on Bancroft." It turns out that this car is a BMW. I've never heard a BMW rumble. In fact, despite the number of them on the street around here, I've never HEARD a BMW.

The second occurs at the beginning of the final scene with Squeeze. "I spotted the BMW a block away. . . . A young boy, perhaps twelve, spotted me and walked over to the Mercedes." What is this thing, a Transformer? As I said, minor stuff.

In short, Mr. Wohlforth has crafted an excellent story, well worth the read.