Readers, fans, and friends will be glad to know that B.K. Stevens’s daughter is continuing her The First Two Pages blog, where authors talk about the beginnings of their stories and novels. This fall, the blog will feature contributors from Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 (Level Best, 2017), the fourth anthology by members of the NY/Tri-State Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Today at the blog, contributor to and editor of the anthology Elizabeth Zelvin talks about the first two pages of her story “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”
There are few better sources of drama than the family, as many of the stories in this issue illustrate. If one is well advised to keep friends close and enemies closer, then perhaps one must keep family members closest of all.
A death in the family often provides an occasion for changes—such as for the widow in Charles Todd’s “The Trophy” who seeks solace in the countryside of southern Wales, or the woman in Jane K. Cleland’s “Night Flight to Bali,” who is suddenly freed to cash in a forged painting upon the death of her domineering mother.
Or family ties may throw up walls that are difficult for outsiders to penetrate, such as in the investigation into possible insurance fraud involving a disabled teen and his mother in John Shepphird’s “Electric Boogaloo,” or the tangled relationships revealed by the court transcript of a case of a contested will in Eve Fisher’s “Happy Families.”
But sometimes such ties can be powerful motivators—such as for the Muslim woman who hires Beijing P.I. Il yong to find the Uighur son she’d given up for adoption in Martin Limón’s “The Smuggler of Samarkand”—or sources of support and encouragement, such as Jack Tait finds in his formidable aunts as he tries to prevent a rush to judgment against a black tenant farmer in the Depression-era South in “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered in an Open Field with no Footprints Around,” by Mike Culpepper.
Other stories in this issue feature a perfect storm of disasters for Deputy Hector Moody when his car breaks down in the Gallatin mountain range in David Edgerley Gates’s “Cabin Fever”; the outsized dreams of a mid-level accountant in Max Gersh’s “Self-Portrait”; a copyeditor using her wits to foil an e-mail scammer in Steve Hockensmith’s “i”; a volatile partnership between a writer and an actor in Janice Law’s “The Front Man”; an aging spy recalled to action in Michael Mallory’s “Aramis and the Worm”; Dr. John H. Watson encounters a gentleman with a strange health regimen in “The Vampire of Edinburgh” by James Tipton.
No matter the state of your relations with other relatives, our readers are valued members of the AHMM family.
Steve Liskow is the author of three mystery series, and his latest book is Hit Somebody. In 2016 he became the Black Orchid Novella Award‘s first repeat winner. You can read his winning story “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” in the current July/August 2017 issue. Here, he talks about the evolution of this story, his previous winner, and the Woody Guthrie series.
“We live most of our lives in Plan B.” Was that a bumper sticker, a button, or a tee shirt? I don’t remember, but I agree with the claim.
In fall 2003, I wrote the first draft of a PI novel that went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. I sent it out with the PI named Rob Daniels, Eric Morley, and at least one other name I no longer remember. In 2013, I finally self-published it as Blood On the Tracks.
In late 2004, after attending the Wesleyan Writers Conference, I wrote “Stranglehold,” a short story installment in what I saw as a series set in Detroit. Unfortunately, it was almost 7000 words, too long for most magazines, and the others rejected it. I showed it to a fellow writer who said he had trouble keeping track of so many characters in the first three pages. I needed all those people, so I shelved the story and turned to other projects.
In fall 2006, a friend suggested I write a romance novel. Ghost Writers in the Sky became a romantic mystery spoof set in Connecticut with deliberately over-the-top characters, including a PI named Zach Barnes. Between 2007 and 2009, I sent it to nearly seventy agents and publishers with underwhelming success.
Late in 2008, I learned that the Wolfe Pack, named in honor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, sought entries for the Black Orchid Novella Award. Stout’s work influenced both my prose and my tone, so I wondered if I could expand “Stranglehold” to 15,000 words and introduce the large cast more slowly.
Plan B, indeed. Over the next week, I added 9000 words and realized that nothing felt like padding. The story was a novella waiting to be recognized. By then, the Barnes novel was dead in the water, but I liked the character’s name. I gave it to my Detroit rock ‘n’ roll wannabe and sent the new and improved (I hoped) “Stranglehold” to the contest early in 2009.
A few months later, I learned of a new local publisher looking for Connecticut mysteries and sent the Zach Barnes novel out to them, too…with the same protagonist. My wife convinced me to change the title, to Who Wrote the Book of Death? This has to be about Plan C, right?
Six months later, Jane Cleland called to tell me “Stranglehold” had won—twenty-four hours after Mainly Murder Press offered me a contract for Who Wrote . . . ?. Now Zach Barnes had two cases, one in Detroit and the other in Connecticut, a tough commute.
I still saw the Connecticut novel as a stand-alone and thought the Detroit story had legs, so I decided to keep Zach in Detroit and re-name the Connecticut shamus. Years before, at that Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt gave me a piece of advice that resonated now:
Beware of changing the name of a character because it will change the rhythm of every sentence in your story that names him or her. Ah, the joys of computer technology. I did a global edit and changed “Barnes” to “Nines.” Same rhythm, same consonant sounds. “Zach/Zachary” became “Greg/Gregory” and there we were.
A few reviewers wanted to read more about “Greg” and his beautiful girlfriend. Some readers went to my website and told me they thought Greg Nines was a dumb name. By then I’d also noticed that Spell-check went spastic every time I used “Nines” as the singular subject of a sentence. Hmmm.
Eighteen months later, I parted company with that publisher and re-edited the book. The Detroit series was still generating huge waves of ennui, so I changed the PI’s name back to Zach Barnes . . . in Connecticut. Zach now appears in five books. In 2013, when I self-pubbed Blood On the Tracks, the first in the Detroit series, the PI formerly known as Zach needed a new name. My high school classmate, session musician Susie (Kaine) Woodman, inspired the character of Megan Traine, so I still wanted him to be musical.
After bouncing ideas off my wife (much better at names and titles than I am), my equally brilliant webmistress (ditto), and my cover designer, we came up with Elwood Christopher Guthrie, who goes by Chris. Naturally, everyone else calls him “Woody.” Woody’s fourth adventure, Before You Accuse Me, will arrive in December or January.
“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” is a sequel to “Stranglehold.” I actually planned the story as a novel, but didn’t find any of the possible subplots intriguing enough to bear writing, so it ended up as another novella—this time shrinking to size. If you read both stories in Alfred Hitchcock, you noticed the name change. Now you know why.
Plan G, Plan H, Plan I . . .
Richard Krauss is the editor and designer of Larque Press’s The Digest Enthusiast, which has appeared twice yearly since 2015. In today’s post, associate editor Jackie Sherbow talks with Richard about his work and the world of digest magazines. Find out more at the Digest Blog—and you can purchase all issues of The Digest Enthusiast here.
AHMM: Please tell us a bit about yourself. You’ve worked as a designer, marketing strategist, artist, and cartoonist. How did your interest in digests develop, and has that relationship changed over time?
Richard Krauss: AHMM is a long-time favorite, so it’s quite an honor to be here. I’d always read crime fiction, but Geoffrey O’Brien’s reference book Hardboiled America opened the floodgates to 1950s era paperback originals for me. The novels by these crime writers were too seductive to resist. Soon, I found these same authors wrote short stories for digests, by then the preferred format for fiction magazines. There were hundreds of titles—Manhunt, Jonathan Press, Pursuit, and of course Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen, to name just a few.
Collectors D. Blake Werts, Rob Imes, and I were chatting one day via e-mail about digests. As the brainwave to document them dawned, The Digest Enthusiast was born. Every potential contributor asked was eager to help: artist/writer Joe Wehrle, Jr., magazine historian Tom Brinkmann, author Lesann Berry, illustrators Michael Neno and Larry Johnson, cartoonist Bob Vojtko, and Hugo award-winning artist Brad Foster. Once the first couple of editions were out, our circle grew to include writers like Steve Carper, Peter Enfantino, and Gary Lovisi—and our contributor list grows with every new edition.
My passion remains crime fiction, but working on the magazine expanded my interest in all genres of fiction, and even nonfiction titles like True Crime Detective, Fate, and Exploring the Unknown.
AH: Each issue of The Digest Enthusiast is full of a wide variety of content, from interviews to reviews (in many genres) to poems, artwork, and features like “Opening Lines.” What guiding principles help you maintain focus?
RK: Our purpose is to explore the diverse world of digest magazines. We cover all types of genre fiction digests and select nonfiction titles. Variety is essential. We want something for everyone, every time. We even include a few short stories. After all, fiction is what draws most readers to digest magazines in the first place.
Much of our content is a look back, but we also report on the current scene. Recently we started a column called “News Digest,” which includes all the late-breaking industry news we can gather as each issue enters final production. We present cover previews and news about the four Dell digests, F&SF, Nostalgia Digest, Fate, and the new generation of digests, mostly made possible by today’s publishing technology—Pulp Literature, Paperback Parade, Weirdbook, Switchblade, Mystery Weekly, Betty Fedora, and many others.
AH: And what motifs and themes do you see across the variety of digests?
RK: Editors like Ellery Queen, Ray Palmer, Robert A.W. Lowndes, and H.L. Gold were as important to their readers as their magazines. Publishing a genre fiction digest has always been challenging. The editors, artists, and writers that create them love what they’re doing, and readers know it. Readers want that affinity for their favorite writers and their stories and characters.
You expect crime and deception from a mystery digest; new ideas and concepts from a science fiction title. But with a closer look, you’re struck by the unexpected, and energized by the unbounded creativity in digests. For example, Robert Arthur’s Mysterious Traveler digest, with every tale hosted by the title’s namesake. In 1981, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine had flash fiction from Robert Lopresti before flash fiction was labeled. B.K. Stevens’ epistolary approach to her Bolt and Walt series for AHMM—and the inclusion of Dale Berry’s seven-page comic story earlier this year. Get a digest and get enthused.
For writers, these days, it’s all about platform. Most successful digests also leverage platform. Alfred Hitchcock, Isaac Asimov, The Man from UNCLE, and The Saint were all well established names/brands before their digests debuted. In 1953, Manhunt began serializing a brand new novel by Mickey Spillane, at the height of Spillane’s popularity. Manhunt sold over half a million copies of their first issue. In 1948, the UFO craze seized America. Fate Magazine debuted with Kenneth Arnold’s account of his famous 1947 sighting, catapulting Clark Publishing into success.
Slow and steady only wins if you can afford to stay in the race. Otherwise, better to hitch your wagon to a proven platform.
AH: Can you talk a bit about the relationship between visual elements and copy in your favorite digests?
RK: You judge a book by its cover—or more precisely, you form your first impression from a book’s appearance. The cover is primary, but you react to the whole package. How does it look and feel? Digests have an inherently appealing size, easy to hold, easy to carry, and inviting to read.
Some fiction magazines use the same fonts for every story title, intro, text, and notes. Others vary the titles using different fonts to reflect the feel of the story to come. The text font is probably unconscious to many readers, but the magazine’s designer has given it a lot of thought, trying to balance all the options in style, size, weight, leading, and line length.
If the budget allows, an illustration can spark interest in a story in a heartbeat. The best are custom-made, depicting a scene from the story, or perhaps the overall feel of its milieu. Digest collectors follow their favorite artists as often as their favorite authors.
AH: What observations do you have about the community of digests enthusiasts (collectors, artists, writers, fans, etc.)?
RK: The community is as friendly and welcoming as you could ever want. Writers and editors, reviewers, contributors, collectors, and readers—they’ve all been enthusiastic and energizing. Just a terrific group of people, sharing and celebrating their common interest, a love for compelling fiction and artistry.
AH: What are the top three things you wish everyone would know about digests?
RK: First, they’re a bargain. Probably no surprise to AHMM readers, but digests offer the best, most affordable short story writing available. Online, at your local newsstand, or by subscription, there is no better fictive bang for your buck.
Second, they gave many of the world’s favorite writers their start. Perhaps the biggest star, Stephen King, had his first professional stories published in Startling Mystery Stories. But there are plenty of examples: Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Joe Lansdale, etc. Art Taylor’s “Rearview Mirror” first appeared in EQMM and later won the Agatha Award for best first novel as On the Road with Del & Louise in its expanded version. If you want to discover tomorrow’s bestselling, award-winning author today, read a digest. (And many of the greats return to the pages of their earliest supporters.)
Finally, there are hundreds of terrific digest magazines available. Whether you want a new adventure or a new passion, digests are easy to find online, highly collectible, and more affordable than just about any other type of magazine.
AH: Are you working on or planning any other projects?
RK: Writer and filmmaker, Alec Cizak, published of one of the earliest digests to leverage the new publishing technologies, Pulp Modern. After a year hiatus, he and I teamed-up to revive the title and released our first new issue from Volume Two in May 2017. The next Pulp Modern will be out late this year, near the same time as The Digest Enthusiast #7.
I’m also working with Marc Myers on a collection of Clark Dissmeyer’s comix work from the 1980s, which will be released this fall.