My short story, officially in print

AHMM published

This feeling is indescribable. A story of mine, “The Frontman’s Journey,” is now published and available in both print and digital versions in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. An excerpt is available at AHMM’s site.

That publication, along with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, are the gold standards of short mystery fiction. I’ve been sending stories to both magazines for nearly 30 years. The clear lessons for every writer who feels that the ultimate goal is to be traditionally published:

1) Never give up.

2) Be open to criticism. Get a beta reader who is interested in your writing (not always the case in workshops) and who isn’t afraid to give you an honest opinion. My highly-trusted beta reader needed only to say one word to make me do some rethinking: “Ack!” But be able to listen to your instincts and heart enough to know when to take a critique to heart, and when to thank the critic but do your own thing anyway.

3) Be willing to put the work into it. The creative part is fun. The honing, shaping, and umpteenth revision are not. Not for me, anyway.

4) Never give up. And I repeat,

5) Never give up.

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This is why I don’t throw away my old files

AHMM 002

I’ve been looking forward for months to July 22, 2014 – the publication date for the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That’s the issue in which my short story, “The Frontman’s Journey,” will appear.

This is especially exciting for me because I’ve been an avid fan of both AHMM and its sister publication, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, for several decades.  If memory serves (and it doesn’t always!), I discovered them when I was a teenager in the late 1970s, working a part-time salesclerk job at a mall that boasted both a Waldenbooks and a B. Dalton Bookseller.  I left much of my salary behind at those two stores.  I’ve been trying for almost that long to have one of my own short mystery stories accepted by AHMM and EQMM.  As far as I’m concerned, if your work is published by either of them, you’ve hit the gold standard.

Today is July 20, and I was delighted to find out last night that the digital version of AHMM, containing my story, is already available on Amazon.com.  Even though I really, really want to hold the actual paper hard copy of the magazine in my hands, I couldn’t wait.  I had to buy the digital version to see how my story looks.  I wondered if they would give it an illustration, and they did.  It looks awesome on my Kindle, and will look even better on paper!

The truly cool thing is the way that “The Frontman’s Journey” could have been a never-was.

Every writer works differently.  That’s the awesome thing about writing:  it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as the result is an entertaining, well-written story.  A few of my writer friends never keep the files, notes, etc. of stories that, for whatever reason, didn’t pan out.  I’m the opposite.  I keep everything.  I still have copies of stories, notes, and revisions that I created back in high school.

“The Frontman’s Journey” started out as a couple of paragraphs jotted down a few years ago.  I had a vision of two rock-and-roll band members driving down the highway.  I’m a huge fan of 1980s rock music, and I often find a way to work my true loves into my fiction. After I wrote those first few paragraphs, I was lost.  I couldn’t figure out where to go with it.  So I shrugged and went on to something else, but I kept the file.  Those few paragraphs might be just a weak sploot of uselessness, but as my Depression-era grandparents used to say, you never know when you might need it.  Grandma and Grandpa were absolutely right.  I’ve been able to go back and harvest quite a bit of my old cast-off stuff for ideas, lines, and characters.

Anyway, not long afterward, I became a member of an online workshop called The Writing Bridge.  There were monthly writing challenges in which all members had to participated, either by writing a story or by reading the contributions and voting.  One month, a challenge to write about a journey brought to mind that few paragraphs of bandfic that had gone nowhere.  With the inspiration of a journey, the story ideas suddenly flowed.

That first version was hastily written.  My Bridge challenge entries were always hastily written, since I always seemed to decide at the very last minute that I wanted to enter. But once the challenge was over, I had plenty of time to do serious revisions and shape it into a story that I would be proud to have carry my name, and that I would be excited for mystery fans to read.

For me, the lesson goes beyond saving my old files.  The real lesson is this:  Never give up!  At the age of those middle-aged musicians in my story, I’ve finally achieved one of my most important dreams. There is everywhere to go from here.

867-5309

Alannah at Nu Woman

867-5309

If you grew up in the 1980s – or, hell, have any knowledge of 1980s music at all – you just sang that phone number. And maybe even added a, “Jennnnny, I’ve got your number” for good measure.

If you don’t recognize that number, then Google it. You’ll be treated to 3 minutes of absolute fun.

On the other hand, you might wind up that time thinking that you’ll never get back the 3 minutes you just spent listening to Tommy Tutone wailing about Jenny’s number on the wall.

That song is pretty much what you make it. It can be fun, or it can be a big drag. That’s how I listen to music. I started out this piece intending to compare it with writing, but I’m rethinking that.

Writing is fun. For most of us, the fun lasts throughout the creative process of getting all your thoughts down. Then comes the part that’s not-so-fun for me: editing, rewriting, getting it all into a condition that makes it fun for other people to read.

This sounds simplistic, but today’s publishing world is becoming more and more a world of immediate gratification. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with immediate gratification, mind you. But when you’re putting your soul and blood out there in a piece of writing, you’ve got to make sure it’s your best piece of work. If you’re after traditional publishing, the reason is obvious: you need to look your best in order to please editors and publishers.

Self-publishing doesn’t mean that you can let down your guard. In my opinion, it means you need to be even more vigilant. Especially since Internet = Forever. Do you want your story to be the one that is wonderful but is immediately invalidated because it portrays someone using a cell phone in 1984?

I was an aerobics instructor (these days called a “group fitness instructor”) from 1986 to 1997. I focused on fun in my classes, because that was the way to get people to want to participate. I used “867-5309” in one of my most popular routines, pointing to one side of the room to sing the chorus of “867-5309,” and then pointing to the other side of the room to sing the responding “867-5309.”

Make it fun. Make it memorable. But for God’s sake, make it without grammatical errors, because there is going to be someone like me who will voice their honest opinion in their Goodreads and/or Amazon review

The Writing Life: Passion or Circumstance?

Me and Mom early 1980s

I like to think that I’d feel the same lifelong excitement about writing no matter what.  But really, has it been part ability, part nurturing?  What does it truly mean to be surrounded by people who believed in me?

I’ve always known that I’m a writer.  Note that I did not say, “I always I knew I wanted to be a writer.”  Because even as a kid, the excitement of seeing my imagination come to life via pencil and paper made it very clear that there was no question.  No “want to be” about it.  I’ve always been a writer.

My grandparents, who had the nothing-goes-to-waste mentality of many who’ve lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s (okay, they were hoarders), had boxes of discarded business memos from a local corporation.  My aunt worked there as a tour guide.  The idea in bringing this stuff home, I’m sure, was at least partly because the blank flip-side of the memos made ideal scratch paper for us kids to draw on and amuse ourselves.

My start as a writer came at age 5 or 6, when my grandfather stapled multiple sheets of this old memo paper together for me to use to write my own “books.”  The length of each book depended on how many sheets of paper he stapled together.  I don’t remember if the original idea was mine or his.  Possibly mine, since I was the only one of my siblings who did this.  I illustrated every page of my books, too.  The less said about my artwork, the better.

So I had family support right from the start.  One of the proudest moments of my young life was when I received an “A” on a poem I wrote for a school class, and my grandmother accused me of copying it from somewhere.  Okay, so that part of it isn’t particularly supportive, but I was 9 or 10 years old and smart enough to know that if Grandma thought my poem had been written by an adult, I really had something going on.

Grandpa’s stapled memo sheets transitioned to my own stapled sheets of double-sided notebook paper on which I wrote adolescent novella-length stories featuring Sugar Barry, my own version of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.  This morphed into spiral notebooks.  At age 15, I wrote my first novel in 3 spiral notebooks.

My mom, despite being downtrodden with 5 volatile kids and a husband who would come home from the bar at 3:00 AM to croon “Oh Lonesome Me” accompanied by his guitar, always made time to read my writing.  With that first youthful novel, I naively wrote a scene in which a dying boy’s mother rushes from the hospital room because she couldn’t bear to see him die.  Mom advised me that no mother would leave her dying son’s bedside.

When I was 16, I worried her with knife-wielding, wrist-slicing murder and suicide poems with titles like “Fire and Ice” and “From a Suicide.”  (I never did tell her that she had every reason to be worried.  I suffered from deep bouts of depression and serious emotional disturbance as a teen – all undiagnosed and untreated, because this was the 1970s and society felt I should “just cheer up” and “quit mooning over boys.”  But that’s for another time.)

When I graduated from high school, it was Mom’s idea to take a creative writing class together at a city college.  In my 30s, she was thrilled when I wrote a character based on her into a mystery novel.  She called me excitedly from Boston to talk about the ending and her character’s secret life.

In fact, the more I matured as a writer, the more exasperating it became to show my work to Mom.  In those days before the internet and online writing workshops, I wanted honest feedback.  In Mom’s eyes, everything I wrote was great.  That was no help!  I needed guidance, not a fangirl.

However.

Would my strong sense of knowing myself as a writer be different if I hadn’t had lifelong encouragement and support?  I like to think that, no matter what, the passion of writing would always have burned within me, yada yada.  But what if my grandfather hadn’t stapled together makeshift books for me and praised the results?  What if Mom had been indifferent to my writing, or told me to quit wasting my time?  What if I hadn’t also been an avid reader who knew what to do with the overblown fantasies in my head?   What if I hadn’t been a painfully shy, perpetually bullied introvert who had nowhere else to release my feelings?

Is a writer nurtured, or is it all just a matter of circumstance?  Right time, right place, etc.   I know gifted writers who don’t see themselves as such because they have shockingly little faith in themselves.  (A particular shame, considering there are too many people who think they are talented writers but desperately need to rethink that.  Again, something for another time).  Nature, or lack of nurture?

I’d love to hear from my fellow authors.  What’s your story?  Has the support system around you been vital to your journey?

I had planned on a different topic this week, but my mom has been on my mind.  Eleven years ago on February 7, she died during a massive heart attack.  I miss my biggest fan.

   

A Word by Any Other Name

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My mom never understood the time I spent with books. When I was a kid, she would actually lock me out of the house with the command to “Get some sun.”  Ha!  Little did she know. I sneaked books outside with me and sat in the shade of our backyard birch tree to continue my journey away from reality.

I was no less avid a reader as a teen, but definitely a whole lot more picky.  The books targeted to my age group covered serious and realistic concerns: drug use, mental illness, running away, teen pregnancy, etc.  But why, I wondered, didn’t any of the characters in these books ever swear? My peers—especially those of the male persuasion—certainly knew how to let the curse words fly (when the parental units weren’t around, anyway).  So why did these people have such clean mouths?

That, of course, was in my naïve youth.  And trust me, I was more naïve than most teens, even back in the ‘70s.  Remember, I was painfully shy and spent most of my time with books rather than people.  So I had this idealistic notion that people in Young Adult books should talk the way kids in life do.

When I wrote my first novel-length story at age 15, I gave my characters realistic dialogue.  No “f” or “s” word was spared when I figured a real peer would be using it.  Not that my characters had potty mouths. I didn’t put in any gratuitous cursing, either.  I just wanted to produce something that I wished had been available to me as a reader:  characters my own age speaking real dialogue.

Once finished with the novel, I blithely showed my creation to my English/Creative Writing teacher.  She did not like the swearing at all.  However, she did say that I write dialogue well because I really listen to people talk.  For a very young writer, the latter was encouraging while the former was just adult silliness.

I did eventually get it.  Parents don’t necessarily want their teens to be exposed to (ahem) “realistic dialogue” in their reading material regardless of what they may be hearing around them every day in real life.  I’ve chosen not to have kids, so I don’t have my own parental viewpoint on the matter.  All I do know is that my late mom never censored anything I read as I was growing up.  Whether that’s because she was a liberal thinker or because she was just relieved that I was reading instead of going out and getting into trouble, I have no idea.

This is my first blog post, so I’m not sure how many are reading this.  For those who are, I’d love to know if any other avid readers and/or fellow writers have ever felt the same way.