Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Perfect Victim

"The Perfect Victim" by Ed Lynskey, Hardluck Stories, November 2004

This story combines a PI, Frank Johnson, and a serial killer. Usually this kind of combination doesn't work for practical reasons: PIs seldom have the experience and never have the resources for this kind of investigation. Mr. Lynskey arranges the story in such a way that the situation is believable.

Peebles, a sergeant in the Virginia State Police, ostensibly picks Johnson out to help due to his experience with a Neo-Nazi cult. It turns out that Peebles has an ulterior motive.

Unfortunately, Mr. Lynskey has a propensity for purple prose. "A gentian blue sky had purpled to bring rain and flush the day's sunny poetry." It's a lovely sentence, but it doesn't belong in this story. "Here murderous October was in the books . . . . Pale skepticism beat back my hunch until, exploding in gaudier colors, it grew incontrovertible."

All those were major speed bumps coming up, as they do, in a first-person account by someone who clearly does not have the soul or education of a poet. My critique partner would call these passages "authorial intrusion", and he'd be right.

Mr. Lynskey refers in the story to a ".44 Charter Arms Pug". As I remember, the .44-caliber revolver made by Charter Arms was called the Bulldog. Michael Bane calls the Bulldog the world's best "200-round revolver," meaning, fire it 200 times, then buy yourself a new one. I don't remember the Pug, but it may have been Charter Arms' .38-caliber offering.

And I simply cannot let the following sentence go by: "The Prizm's door let in Peebles." I'm sorry, but I have a major problem with anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. I understand the impulse to state commonplace things in an uncommon manner to introduce variety, but imparting independent action to a hunk of metal and plastic is not the way to do it.

As for the ending, I could see it happening like this. After all, people are infinitely variable. I do feel, however, that the ending could have had more punch had the outcome been different.

In short, not Mr. Lynskey's best.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Willie Bats

"Willie Bats" by David Grace, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 2005

This story continues the chronicle of Eddie Montefusco, illicit gun dealer and federal snitch last seen in the November 2004 issue of AHMM. Eddie's primary client is the Abuzzi crime family. He made a mistake and came under the thumb of FBI Special Agent Harold Bolger. Now, in order to stay out of jail, he has to feed Bolger information about the Abruzzis.

This is not a happy marriage of interests on either side. Eddie needs to play Sheherizade to keep Bolger from throwing him in jail. At the same time he has to keep the Abruzzis from finding out and putting him to bed under a dirt blanket. Bolger, for his part, isn't satisfied with what he's getting, but he knows that Eddie is the only key he has into the Family. He has to keep trying to squeeze out those golden eggs without killing the goose.

This time Eddie spins the yarn of a couple of crooked cops and the murder of a Mafioso. Willie Bats, an Abruzzi lieutenant, comes to Eddie for a gun, a gun just like the cops use. He wants the gun delivered to a friend. Willie Bats has a problem, two actually. A member of a rival crime family is tipping a policeman about the location of Abruzzi businesses which this cop then raids and keeps the loot for himself. Willie can't just whack another made guy or a cop, so he has to figure another way. It's pretty ingenious and works well.

The ending has a bit of a twist, but it leaves Bolger unsatisfied and Eddie still on the hook with an increasingly miffed handler. A sure opening for other stories in the series. Unfortunately there is no real resolution here. Both of the main characters are left up in the air along with the reader. It's basically a "war story" told by a Mafia hanger-on, and while war stories can be fun, in a short story they need to have a point.

In short, it's a well written story that is ultimately unsatisfying.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Grotto

"The Grotto" by Donald Olson, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 2005

The cruelest revenge is often that inflicted within families. The players in this tale fall to that fate. It's also a study in the Law of Unintended Consequences.

An old woman, obsessively proud of her station in life and her family background, decides to right an old wrong. The pride and the restitution get in each other's way.

Mr. Olson writes smoothly, which befits a nominee for the Barry, an award given by the magazine, Deadly Pleasures. He establishes the pride and arrogance of the old woman, Enid Ramlow, nicely. By halfway through the story I was thoroughly disgusted with her. (That's a good thing.)

There were only two flies in the ointment. The final confrontation between Mrs. Ramlow and the bad guy left me unsatisfied. During this scene Mr. Olson never gave any physical description of the assailant's body language that would indicate increasing agitation. And while the dialog is good enough, in and of itself, to indicate that increasing agitation, it is always set off by attributions like: "the same icy tone of contempt," "said calmly," etc. As a result I didn't believe that the assailant would suddenly flip into a rage and attack the old woman. The attributions without the physical descriptions to contradict them made the ultimate act unbelievable.

The other fly was the twist at the end. That had a tacked-on feeling for me, because Mr. Olson did not adequately set the situation up. There were a couple of very vague mentions of some action Mrs. Ramlow was contemplating, but nothing sufficient to make the payoff at the end satisfying.

In short, this is a well written story that, with a little extra thought, could have been so much better.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Invitation -- 2

For those of you contemplating my earlier invitation to submit audio files for a POSSIBLE audio anthology but don't know how to convert words to minutes I offer the following fruits of my own experience.

"Grasshopper" is approximately 2500 words. and the final playing time is almost exactly 14 minutes. "Horse Of The Same Color" is approximately5900 words and the final playing time is almost exactly 30 minutes. Of course, your milage will vary. But probably not too much.

Good Idea Update

OK. Here comes the first restriction on the Invitation for Submissions I mentioned earlier. All stories submitted should be in the mystery, crime, suspense genre. Science fiction/fantasy stories will be acceptable if they contain elements of the mystery, crime, or suspense genres.

A 3-hour playing time will include 5 or 6 stories, I expect. I'll have further info later on how many words translate into how much playing time based on my experiences.

A Damn Good Idea

Gerald So just commented on the third part of my Recording Grasshopper posts saying he was going to get the help of one of his friends to record one of his stories. I replied in the comments, just off the top of my head, that if enough of us did that, we could present Audible with a completed audiobook for them to sell. About an hour later, I got hit between the eyes with a 2x4. That's a GOOD idea!

I am about to do something that I will probably regret, but in the interest of the Form, I'm going to do it anyway.

I am hereby issuing an open invitation to those who have had a short story published, online or in print (as long as you still retain the audio rights), to record that story and submit it to me. I will serve as editor, and when I have decided on the stories I want (I'm thinking total of about 3 hours playing time), I will TRY to find a publisher to take it on.

NOTICE! NOTICE! NOTICE! I do not currently have a publisher interested (the idea is only about two hours old). I have no track record that might get a publisher interested. I may not be able to get a publisher interested. I probably won't be able to get a publisher interested until I have at least two or three stories in hand to show them.

So. If you are willing to take a chance, I'm willing to take that chance with you. Further details will be announced as I think of them.

A Long Time To Die

"A Long Time to Die" by David Zeltserman, Hardluck Stories, Fall 2004

Stories that involve members of a family are among my favorites because the feelings run deep and strong, and Dave Zeltserman proves once again that families are fertile ground for sowing murder and mayhem.

This story involves a pair of brothers, one who has made his way in the world and one who has dropped out. The "successful" one, Brendon, was able to make his way in the world because of a sacrifice his brother, Nick, made. After all, that's what brothers do for each other.

Nick, after his experiences in Vietnam, has been drifting through life dead inside, feeling nothing, and Brendon seems convinced that his brother's brain has been addled. So Brendon asks Nick for one more favor. A simple little job that will make them rich. But the job's not so simple. And there's a beautiful woman involved. And Nick isn't as dumb as he acts. As Nick says later in the story, "There's a difference between being stupid and not giving a damn."

Suffice it to say that the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. The final paragraphs of the story twist things around to a true noir ending.

Now after my first sentence about familial feelings running deep and strong, you might say this story doesn't apply because Nick declares himself to be without feeling. Like most people who say that, Nick still has the feelings, he just doesn't acknowledge them. No one without feelings would do what he did for his brother's wife and kids. And he certainly feels something for Lisa, the beautiful woman mentioned above.

Dave's writing is easy to read, and he uses the tropes of the form well. One sentence I particularly liked was, "Her lipstick - the same blood red as her fingernails - stood out on her skin like a knife wound." And even better, he doesn't over do it by using such similes in every paragraph.

In short, noir by one who knows how to do it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Now THAT'S What I'm Talkin' About

At least, this is part of what I'm talking about in regards to promoting the short story. Thanks to Gerald So for posting about this contest.

The purpose of the Million Writers Award is to honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines during 2004.
The Reason
The reason for the Million Writers Award is that most of the major literary prizes for short fiction (such as the Best American Short Stories series and the O. Henry Awards) have ignored web-published fiction. This award aims to show that world-class fiction is being published online and to promote this fiction to the larger reading and literary community.
How It Works
The Million Writers Award takes its name from the idea that we in the online writing community have the power to promote the great stories we are creating. If only a few hundred writers took the time to tell fifteen of their friends about a great online short story--and if these friends then passed the word about this fiction to their friends (and so on and so on)--this one story would soon have a larger readership than all of the stories in Best American Short Stories.
I particularly like two parts about the award: 1) promoting the fact that high quality short stories are being published online; and 2) the part about writers telling their friends about good online stories. This is one of the ways we can use the Internet to promote short stories. Essentially word of mouth. Any advertising executive (you trust an adman, can't you?) will tell you that you can't buy at any price advertising better than word of mouth.

How did blogging get so big? People telling other people, "You've GOT to try this! It's a blast!" At last count there were 8 million blogs online. And Big Media had nothing to do with getting them there.

The Short Mystery Fiction Society has the Derringer Awards but not much has been done to date to promote the award winners other than announcing them at the Pennwriters' Conference in May. One of the problems with the Derringers (or the Edgars or any of the other myriad awards out there) is that many of the winning stories appeared in print magazines, and by the time the winners are announced, those magazines are damn hard to find. Makes it difficult to tell someone to go read them.

Online stories don't have that problem for the most part. Most 'zines have archives that keep the stories where people can get to them for a long time.

So. When you read a story you like a lot, tell your friends and acquaintences. Give them the URL. Tell them they've GOT to read this story. It'll knock their socks off. Send them here, too. Let's get the word out.

Remember, we've got the power.

Producing an MP3 of Grasshopper -- Part 3

Once the recording was done, I needed to edit it to take out the glaring goof-ups I made. I downloaded the file from the recorder to my computer at home. I needed a music-editing program, so, back to Best Buy. I found MP3 Maker Deluxe 2005 by Magix for $40. I didn't know anything about it other than it was the cheapest thing they had that looked, from the info on the box, that it would edit music (audio) files and could convert them into a number of formats.

Once I got the program on my computer, I loaded the Wave file that I had recorded. I didn't read the manual (very minimal info). I didn't run the video tutorial (still haven't; it might be pretty useful). I just started playing. After several false starts that the tutorial may have saved me from, I got to the editing screen that showed the wave-form (squiggly lines that you've probably seen in some cop or forensics show) of the entire file. That wasn't very useful as I couldn't see enough detail to allow me to edit properly. So I played with the buttons on the screen until I could see about 4 seconds of playing time on the screen. This stretched things out so that I could easily find the long silences (a straight line) that marked my screw-ups.

Then I hit the play button. There is a marker (in this case a vertical line) that moves across the wave-form on the screen as the file plays telling you precisely where you are. I listened until I got to a place I had made a mistake. I stopped the playback, "rewound" to the beginning of the paragraph, highlighted (same way you highlight to delete in Word) from there through the silent spot to where I had started that paragraph over, then hit the delete key. Presto change-o, the offending section was gone. I proceeded in that manner to the end of the recording saving frequently. I had all of the mistakes removed. The resulting recording still sounded a little blarey, and that whining server fan was a little too audible.

The program comes with several filters you can use to take that stuff out: denoisers, dehissers, room filters, dynamic filters, and other things. I didn't know what they did or how they did it, so I saved a copy of the edited Wave file, and started applying them at random. When I found a filter that did something I liked, I saved that copy of the file and tried another filter. By working that way, I wound up with a recording I liked. It's not professional, but it's pretty good.

The file was still in Wave format, so I used the program to convert it to MP3. There are several levels of quality for MP3s (music is usually 128 kbps, speech usually 48 kbps). I chose the 48 for maximum compression. After several bad conversions that resulted in partial files or artifacts like whistles, squeaks and beeps, I found the best way to convert was directly from the editor. I now had a usable MP3 file that anybody could download and play on their computer or MP3 player. The 14-minute recording resulted in a 4.7 MB MP3 file. I knew Dave needed the file to be as small as possible, but I couldn't compress it any more without considerably degrading the quality. So I converted it to a WMA (Windows Media) file that came in at 3.4 MB. That's the one I sent to Dave.

If you want to make a recording of one of your stories, for whatever reason, but don't want the brain damage of doing it yourself, try this. Go to the Drama Department of your local college or university (Yeah, Gerald, that means you!). See if you can talk one of the professors into making this a class project using the college recording studio. Everybody who wants to gets to do a dramatic reading of your story that is recorded. You supply the tapes or CDs and each student gets a copy for his very own to use as a demo. Of course you will have to have some kind of paperwork that allows you to use the recording you like best in whatever way you see fit, but that shouldn't be a problem. That agreement should also state that should you receive some compensation for this recording, the talent gets (or doesn't get) X percentage of that. Just a simple agreement, lawyers not needed.

This is not rocket science, folks. Anyone can do it. So get out there, have fun, and make a new market.

Monday, January 03, 2005

I Feel Like I've Arrived

Sarah Weinman has posted an entry on her blog about my "Save the Short Story" posts. She makes some good points and mentions some exciting anthologies that are being published this year. For those of you who have been living under a rock, Sarah's blog is the premiere litblog for the mystery genre. If you don't already read her blog, begin immediately. To be mentioned there is a real rush.

Gerald So also makes a couple of good points in his blog.


"Home" by Gerald So, Shots Magazine, Autumn 2004.

Gerald So is fiction editor for Thrilling Detective and a fellow blogger. It's nice to get a chance to review the work of someone who has dissected my own work and helped me turn it into something special. His writing proves that he can not only tell others how, he can do it himself.

Tom Gregory is an ex-Marine coming home to see his sister after a prolonged absence. He uses the death of Irene, the woman who served as their surrogate mother after the loss of their own parents as an excuse to make the trip and possibly endure Lisa's scorn for his neglect.

I particularly liked the scene where Lisa finds Tom on her doorstep. Gerald shows the joy of reunion tempered by the resentment and anger brought on by what Lisa must see as his abandonment of her and Irene.

Tom, in spite of his extended non-communication, still loves his sister and wants to see her happy. Something makes him think she isn't, so he decides to hang around and find out what's really going on.

Tom's love for his sister isn't just lip service in spite of the unemotional way he deals with their reunion. We know he's just repressing these feelings of love and guilt by the action he takes, putting his own life in jeopardy to improve hers.

In short, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to Gerald's next story.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Audio Books

Jim Winter just posted a story over on his blog about his most recent experience with an audio book of Stephen King's Everything's Eventual that illustrates what I see as a problem with how short story collections and anthologies are distributed in audio form. The "book" was an abridgement that contained only five of the 14 stories in the print version. The marketing department for the book's publisher (I imagine) chose the stories to be included and chose them (I'll bet) on the basis that the stories fit into the genre King is most noted for, not necessarily the best stories. I can understand this. They want to get the stories out there that will sell the most copies for a price that won't have the customers fainting dead away. (Makes it hard for the other customers to get around, stepping over all those bodies.) Some of those unabridged editions can set you back significant money.

While Jim said he enjoyed three of the five stories and thought that his money was well spent, he missed what I consider some of the best stories in the volume (as well as a couple of stinkers.)

What I would like to see more of is the entire collection or anthology put out in multiple volumes of four or five stories each. I will admit that I have seen this from some publishers, though not in brick-and-mortar stores. I believe King's collection, Gray Matter, was published on audio in three volumes, but I saw this (and purchased one of the volumes) on
Audible. (I tried to get over there to check it out and research other anthologies, but they were down for maintenance.) I don't ever remember seeing this sort of thing in Barnes & Noble or Borders.

Jim also mentioned a good market for audio books: pizza delivery drivers. I'll bet most of those guys these days have MP3 players. We could set up electronic kiosks in every pizza joint in the country where the drivers could download new stories to their players between every run. We'd be rolling in dough!

I'll crawl back under my rock and be quiet now.

Dangerous Women

I just ordered Dangerous Women, Otto Penzler's new anthology. According to Amazon, the release date was January 1. The authors included are:

Ed McBain
Michael Connelly
Joyce Carol Oates
Walter Mosley
Laura Lippman
Nelson DeMille
Thomas H. Cook
Andrew Klavan
John Connolly
Lorenzo Carcaterra
J.A. Jance
Ian Rankin
Jay McInerney
S.J. Rozan
Anne Perry
Elmore Leonard
Jeffrey Deaver

I can hardly wait until it come in. When it does, you may be sure you'll be reading about it here.

Producing an MP3 of Grasshopper -- Part 2

Once Dave Z told me he would post a recording of "Grasshopper", I started looking around at what I had to do it with. At the office we had an Olympus W-10 digital recorder. It's about the size of a small A-1 Steak Sauce bottle and cost $100 at Best Buy. They have digital recorders that cost less and some that cost more, but we got this one because it said on the packaging that it recorded in Wave format and had a USB cable to download the recording to a computer. So I borrowed that to make the recording.

Actually, if any of you own one of the iPod clones manufactured by iRiver, Samsung, or Creative, you've already got digital recording capability. To my knowledge all of those have either a line-in jack or microphone jack. Apple also gave iPod a recording capability, but true to long-standing tradition, they crippled it.

For my recording studio I chose the office where our network server resides. My own office has too many hard surfaces, and I figured that would cause some reverb problems. Boxes of software, wiring, spare parts, etc, line the walls of the server room, so I thought that would deaden any echoes. The only problem was a noisy cooling fan on the server. It wasn't too noisy, and I knew I could filter most of that out later.

So, I printed out a copy of the story, turned on the recorder which I held in my hand, and started reading. I made mistakes. I stumbled over words. I got tongue-tied. No big deal. When something like that happened, I stopped talking and stayed silent for 2 to 3 seconds. Then I began again with the beginning of the paragraph I had screwed up. The silence helped identify the mistakes during editing. When my mouth got dry or my throat threatened to seize up, I paused the recording and took a sip of lemon tea. Once I quit gurgling, I started the recording again. I don't know about anybody else, but I can't speak without involuntary sound effects right after drinking something.

The final length of the unedited recording was 16 minutes and change. I then made a second recording, just to be on the safe side. Next, I listened to them playback on the recorder. Not bad, considering. It was not recording studio quality by any means, but it wasn't bad from a technical standpoint. The volume levels weren't constant in a few places. I think that's because I was holding the recorder in my hand, letting it get closer to me or farther away at times. When I do it again, the recorder will be on a stand.

My performance wasn't terrible, either. I'm certainly no Lawrence Olivier. Hell, I'm not even Joey Tribiani. My enunciation could stand some improvement. I slur some of my words, but not to the point that it hurts intelligibility. My timing wasn't the best. The next time I'll use different color highlighters to indicate character changes and pauses. I noticed that as I read through the story, I had a tendency to speed up. I was able to recognize this before it got out of hand and correct it. Hoping to get to the end, I guess. Sixteen minutes of straight talking is a LONG time. At least for me.

OK. The recording was done. Now to edit out the mistakes and make it "purty" for Dave.

Next time, Adventures in Editing.