Executions Gone Wrong Or Divine Intervention?

If a prisoner survives multiple trips to the gallows, should he be set free?

Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse lived in “The Glen,” a small village of Babbacome, England, with her servants, Jane and Eliza Neck, Elizabeth Harris, the cook, and Emma’s brother, John Henry George Lee.

In the early hours of November 15, 1884 Miss Emma’s lifeless remains were discovered with three knife wounds to her head. The murderer also tried to set the body on fire.

John Lee had worked alongside his sister at the The Glen since leaving school. In 1879, he joined the Navy. A medical discharge sent him home to Torquay to work as a footman. But he stole from his employer and was convicted. Upon his release from prison in 1884, he returned to work at The Glen.

As the only male in the household at the time of the murder, police zeroed in on Lee as the prime suspect. Along with other circumstantial evidence, an inexplicable cut on his arm sealed his fate. But did the police have the right man?

Attorney Reginald Gwynne Templar was a frequent visitor to The Glen. After Lee’s arrest, he offered to represent him for free. Which was highly unusual, considering Templar and Miss Emma were good friends. Lee told police Templar was also in the house that night. Odder still, folks wondered how he found out about the murder so soon after it happened.

Could Templar be the killer?

There was little evidence to prove Templar was guilty. Just as little to prove Lee was, either. Nonetheless, police believed they had their man.

“The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord,” Lee told the judge at trial, “and He knows I am innocent.”

John Henry George Lee was found guilty and sentenced to hang at Exeter Prison on February 23, 1885. That day, James Berry, the hangman, went through the usual testing of the trap door, the scaffold, and the rope. But when they slipped the noose over Lee’s head and pulled the lever, the trapdoor wouldn’t open.

They tried to hang him again. And the gallows misfunctioned a second time.

“It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death,” said Sir William Harcourt, British Home Secretary.

Three times a charm, right? Wrong. After the third failed attempt to hang John Lee, officials commuted his sentence to penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labor).

The public interpreted the gallows malfunction as divine intervention. Lee served 22 years for the murder of Miss Emma, describing his time as “moving from one tomb to another.” He was released from prison in 1907.

Numerous stories exist about how Lee spent his life from that point on. Some say he moved abroad; some say he moved to London. Two Lee enthusiasts conducted research in 2009 and placed his grave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That same research claimed Lee deserted his wife and children in Britain after his release from prison for a second family in the U.S.

Templar went insane and died at an early age. Witnesses say he “babbled about murder on his death bed.”

John Henry George Lee rose to infamy as “The man they couldn’t hang.” His name went on record as “the only person in the world to survive three hangings.” But was he?

A little digging led me to an English criminal named Joseph Samuels. In 1801, a jury convicted Samuels of robbery at the tender age of 15 years old and shipped him to Australia, to serve his time at a penal colony in Sydney Cove.

Security in those early penal settlements were reinforced by isolation—prison guards trusted the Australian wildlife to hunt and kill any escapees.

Despite the risk to life and limb, Samuels and his gang of thieves succeeded in escaping. Once they were safe from the confines of prison, the unruly bunch robbed a wealthy woman’s house. They were in the process of stealing a bag filled with gold and silver coins from her desk when a policeman showed up. One of the gang members shot and killed him. Because Samuels had some of the stolen coins in his pocket when he was eventually caught, the police believed they’d snagged a cop-killer. The wealthy woman also identified Samuels as one of the robbers.

After an intense interrogation, Samuels confessed to the robbery but claimed he had no part in the murder. Almost all of Samuels’ fellow gang members were acquitted due to lack of evidence, except one—Isaac Simmonds, who admitted nothing.

Samuels, however, was sentenced to hang.

On September 26, 1803, twenty-three-year-old Samuels and another prisoner stood before a crowd of onlookers, cheering for the event to begin. Back then, Australia didn’t employ a drop-hanging method of execution. Instead, they placed the prisoner on a cart pulled by a horse. Once the noose was slipped over the prisoner’s head and secured, the executioner would slap the horse to get him to take off. This resulted in the prisoner slowly strangling while being dragged to his death. Five thick cords of hemp made up the rope that reportedly could hold 1,000 pounds without breaking.

Could divine intervention save young Samuels, too?

The executioner slid the nooses around the necks of the two prisoners. Officials gave the men a moment to pray with a priest, and then offered them a chance to make a public statement. Samuels confessed to the robbery, but, he said, he was no killer. In fact, the real murderer was in the crowd right now. Isaac Simmonds, he pointed out, was the one who shot the policeman that night.

Since Samuels had just prayed with the priest and wouldn’t want to die with such an egregious sin on his conscious, the public believed him. Men in the crowd dove on Simmonds and held him for the authorities.

Once the crowd quieted, the executioner slapped the horse. The other prisoner strangled slowly while the noose around Samuels’ neck snapped, causing him to fall off the cart with only a sprained ankle. A second rope was brought in and Samuels was lifted back on the cart. This time, when the horse tugged the cart, the noose around Samuels’ neck unraveled.

The crowd went wild. God had spared his life a second time!

A third noose was secured around Samuels’ neck. Incredibly, the rope broke again. By then, the crowd had whipped into a frenzy, shouting, demanding the release of Joseph Samuels. It was then that the State Marshall ordered a stay of execution until he could track down the governor.

Later that day, the governor inspected all three ropes for tampering but found no signs of anything wrongdoing. Like the townsfolk, he also presumed three broken nooses must be proof of Samuels’ innocence. Things like this just didn’t happen… unless God had intervened.

Isaac Simmonds was arrested, convicted, and hanged for the murder of the police officer. His noose worked just fine. 🙂

I found another story of a teenager who got strapped to the electric chair twice, and survived. I’ll let the prisoner, Willie Francis, describe his ordeal…

I wanted to say good-bye, too, (Captain Foster had cheerfully said, “goodbye Willie”, before throwing the switch) but I was so scared I couldn’t talk. My hands were closed tightly. Then—I could almost hear it coming.

 

The best way I can describe it is: Whamm! Zst! It felt like a hundred and a thousand needles and pins were pricking in me all over and my left leg felt like somebody was cutting it with a razor blade.

 

I could feel my arms jumping at my sides and I guess my whole body must have jumped straight out. I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind (He had been told it would tickle and then he’d die). I thought for a minute I was going to knock the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead.

 

Then they did it again! The same feeling all over. I heard a voice say, “‘Give me some more juice down there!’” And in a little while somebody yelled, ‘”I’m giving you all I got now!”

I think I must have hollered for them to stop. They say I said, “Take it off! Take it off!’” I know that was certainly what I wanted them to do—turn it off.

 

5+

Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris had some great advice this week on becoming a smarter writer. I thought I’d weigh in (oops, wrong post-holiday idiom, but so it goes) with a few thoughts on how to get serious about making writing a career, be it full or part time.

Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on “I think I have a book inside me” and I choke back the urge to say, “That’s a great place to keep it.”

Then there are those who take a real step. They actually write a novel. Huzzah! I’m all for it, though most first novels are like first waffles. A good beginning, a great learning experience, but not yet ready to be served. Many writers drop out at this point, disappointed that their initial effort was not met with universal acclaim.

The serious writer makes a second attempt, and a third, and determines to keep on going. This writer wants to make a legit run at a) getting signed by an agent and gaining entry into the Forbidden City of traditional publishing; or b) going indie and creating a real income stream (for more on such choices, see this post).

If you have made the decision to be this kind of writer, let me give you ten pieces of advice forged over a quarter century of getting paid for my work.

  1. Make production your priority

I’ve long advised the following: Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your “real life” situation. Then up that number by 10% and divide that number into the writing days available to you. I write six days a week, and take one day off to recharge. If I have to miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I simply try to make up the word count by doing a little extra on the other days.

And if I botch a week, or have something interrupt it—sickness, crisis, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—I forget it and start the next week afresh.

Now, I know there are some writers who find a quota onerous and claim it’s a hindrance to creativity. I don’t buy it. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger when it works out. Try my method for six months and see for yourself.

If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.

  1. Be intentional about learning your craft

A guy who wants to play golf doesn’t get better by going out with a bad grip, terrible stance, and an ugly swing, and chopping holes in perfectly fine grass. At some point he’s got to learn fundamentals and practice to embed them in his muscle memory.

Same for writers. You can keep writing and writing and chopping holes in your stories. You can repeat things that put readers off or don’t allow them to fully engage with what’s in your imagination.

Or you can determine to learn techniques that make your writing better. 

Dedicate some time each week to studying the craft, and putting into practice what you learn. At least once, go to a good writers conference. Invest in a great course.

  1. Set up a system of quality feedback

When I was under contract with a publishing house, I was answerable to an editor. I was lucky to work with some good ones. One in particular would send his authors multi-page, single-spaced letters. When I got one of these in the mail I’d set it on my desk and pace around it for a couple of days before opening it, because I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved.

Which was good, because it made me a better writer.

Hiring a freelance developmental editor can be expensive, though if you connect with the right one it becomes a good investment rather than an expense.

An alternative is a trusted set of beta readers. Here are some tips from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore in that regard.

You might also benefit from a good critique group, with good as the operative word. Here are some tips from Jordan.

Every serious writer needs other sets of eyes on their work. Which reminds me: you do need to pay a good proofreader if you’re publishing on your own. Nothing screams amateur to a reader like a stream of typos.

  1. Set aside time for pure creativity

As I mentioned above, creativity is a muscle that gets stronger with use. I try to take an hour a week just to do wild, creative exercises.

Two of my favorites:

The What If? Game — Write down as many one line premises as you can. Base it on what you observe around you. What if that woman sipping a latte by the window is a serial killer? What if my phone is actually an alien taking notes on everything I do and say?

The First-Line Game — Just make up first lines, not knowing how any of them will turn out! I once wrote: It’s not every day you bleed to death. I came back to it and the plot for Framed started to come to me. I have a ton of these in a file. Do the same and you’ll never run out of story sparkers.

  1. Detox from social media

Everybody knows that social media addiction is real. Hopping onto Twitter or Facebook or Instagram gives your brain an instant dopamine hit. It’s like digital crack. And it’s really doing damage our ability to concentrate and focus.

I find this “drug” calling to me whenever I’m struggling with a scene. Rather than stick it out, I’m tempted to do a little traipsing through Twitter. It’s a cop out, and I have to tell myself—sometimes out loud—to keep writing. Deciding how much time to spend on social media and creating an actual schedule for it (as opposed to haphazard hopping) is a very wise thing to do.

And when you do engage socially, follow Clare’s sage advice by sticking to positive and kind give-and-take.

  1. Be thinking two projects ahead

One of the worst things you can do is work, re-work, and keep re-working a book without getting ready to write the next … and the next. I’ve been to writers conferences several years in a row where I’ve seen conferees returning with the exact same manuscript.

Think like a movie studio. You have a project that is in production, one that is “green lit” as your next, and at least one “in development.” Spend part of your creativity time jotting ideas and scenes for these works to come.

  1. Write when you’re not writing

Keep training your mind to be observant and curious when you’re away from the keyboard. Carry a notebook, or use your phone, to record things that occur to you. If you overhear some intriguing dialogue in a coffee house or other venue, write it down.

The benefit of this practice is that the “boys in the basement” will work for you, even as you sleep. I’m slogging through a first draft right now, and over the last few weeks I’ve awakened several times with an insight that’s helped me, or a reminder about something I’d written a month ago that needs revisiting. Love those boys. I send them extra donuts.

  1. Read widely

Of course you should read authors you admire and can learn from. Copy passages that move you (the best way is by using a pen and paper, to really capture the rhythm). You’re not doing this to use the words in your own work—that’s called plagiarism. You’re doing this to stretch your writing muscles and expand your style.

When I read a page or paragraph I love, I sticky note it, or highlight it on my Kindle. I go back to these and read them out loud from time to time.

Don’t neglect non-fiction. Learn more about the world, dig into areas you might use someday in your fiction. Become the kind of autodidact who is welcome at social gatherings.

  1. Nurture your motivation

All writers face moments when they think, Sheesh, should I still be doing this? Why keep beating my head against the door of the Forbidden City? Why self-publish books that languish in the Amazon basement?

The answer, of course, is that you’re a writer. There’s something in you that wants—needs—to put words on paper (or screen) and transfer a story you feel deeply to readers, so they will feel it, too.

That’s your motivation, and you should nurture it regularly, not just when you want to drown your sorrows.

Make a shelf of your ultra-favorite novels and novelists. I’ve found that reading some pages from a book that has moved me gets my writing juices flowing again.

Collect some quotations for reflection. Here are two of my favorites:

“If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.” – Leonard Bishop, Dare to be a Great Writer

“For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you’ll most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you’ll have a happy life.” — Dean Koontz, Strange Highways

  1. Be businesslike

This could also be #1 for the serious writer. In a way, everything else in this post can be viewed as “best practices for writers” advice. If you do such things regularly, you are systematizing, which is what good businesses do.

A good businessperson also looks at the world through clear (not rose-colored) lenses.

Clear lenses recognize that a publisher is not your friend or your mama; it is a money-making enterprise. Make them money and they will keep you around. Cost them money and they won’t. So you’d better understand publishing contracts, the concept of leverage, and what you are prepared to give up in order to have a shot at traditional success.

For indies, clear lenses see that this is not a get-rich-quick pathway. It’s going to take years of production and quality control to build a readership. You’ll need to make informed judgments about things like “going wide” or being exclusive with Amazon; about producing audio versions; about where to concentrate your marketing; and much more.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but then again getting serious about anything takes time and effort. Your brain surgeon doesn’t say, “I think I have a brain surgery inside me!”

So don’t ask if you have a book inside you. Ask if you have a writer inside you. Then get to work.

So where are you on your writing journey?

12+

Everything Old…

Happy 2020! I ushered in the New Year by freefalling into a web research wormhole while educating myself on the subjects of archeology, astronomy, and physics. There are some startling and occasionally frightening discoveries being made in all three fields — particularly astronomy — but today we are going to discuss a recent announcement concerning the significant archeological discovery in Egypt of an illustrated book.

Some of you under the age of twenty may be saying, “Big deal! My grandfather has a first edition of The Watchmen!” I’m talking about something a bit older than that. The book which was discovered is The Book of Two Ways, a work that was well known to historians and archaeologists in its previous editions prior to this latest discovery. It was written as a guide for a deceased individual as they make their journey through the Underworld, with the “two ways” of the title being the options of making the journey by land or by water. The advice presented in the work included spells that could be cast in order that the deceased might ultimately achieve immortality.

What makes this discovery significant is that this edition of The Book of Two Ways, which is estimated to be approximately 4000 years old,  is considered to be the earliest known illustrated copy of the work to date. The location where the book was discovered is particularly interesting, given that it was inscribed on a coffin (rather than being bound or in scroll form) at an Egyptian burial site housing the remains of a woman named Ankh. 

Let’s think about this discovery in modern terms. We have 1)  a coffin dual-purposed as a Kindle 2) containing the first graphic novel 3) which is a distant ancestor of the AAA Travel Guide. With regard to #3, maybe considering The Book of Two Days to be the very first Lonely Planet guide would be more appropriate. Calling it a collection of life hacks due to the spells it contains, however, might be a bridge too far. Still, it makes one wonder whether time truly is a flat circle.

I seriously doubt that the author(s) of the recently discovered edition of The Book of Two Ways considered for even a moment that a few thousand years down the road the discovery of their work would be considered a major archeological event. It goes to show you never can tell. It might be unlikely but the story that you are working on, as humble as it may seem to you now, might get similar treatment. Keep that in mind. As our mothers used to tell us, you only get one chance — if you get a chance at all — to make a first impression. 

The in-depth discussions of this discovery are for the most part buried behind paywalls, but I have ever so thoughtfully provided you with a link to a fairly interesting article here if you should care to read more about this. I also offer a tip of the fedora to Egyptologist Harco Willems, who directed the expedition which led to this discovery. If I had been at the helm I would have discovered nothing but camel spiders and left immediately. 

So…what is the oldest book that you own? Mine is a copy of The Eclectic First Reader by W.H. McGuffey. What is yours? Thanks for stopping by. 

 

5+

Reader Friday: Your First Story

Dean Koontz

“When I was eight years old, I wrote short stories on tablet paper, drew colorful covers, stapled the left margin of each story, put electrician’s tape over the staples for the sake of neatness, and tried to peddle these books to relatives and neighbors. Each of my productions sold for a nickel.” — Dean Koontz

What’s the very first story you remember writing? How old were you? What inspired it?

2+

Making Time To Write

 

By Elaine Viets
The cat needs to go to the vet, the repairman is coming at three to fix the light switch, and the dryer is making a shrill squeak. When am I going to find time to write with all these household demands?
This is the writer’s dilemma, and after 35 novels, I’m still coming to terms with it.
Here are some suggestions:
(1) Have a dedicated space to work.
I’m lucky to have an office in our condo, with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway. My husband, bless him, prefers a room with no windows. Don says windows are a distraction. I’d get claustrophobic in his office. The landfill pictured below is my desk.

If you’re serious about writing, you need a place to work. A writer friend with a small apartment uses her daughter’s bedroom while the girl’s away at college – my friend loses her space at Christmas and spring break, but otherwise she has a good writing space. Another has a small desk tucked in a nook in the hallway. A third writes at a kitchen desk. No matter how small it is, stake a claim to some space in your home. And when the going gets tough and you’re overwhelmed by noisy spouses and children, head for the coffee shop or local library.

(2) Know your most creative time.
I get most of my writing done between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, I’ll still write, but my work often feels flat. My brain really sparks during those four peak hours. After that, it’s better for editing.
(3) Seize the time you have.
If your husband takes the kids to McDonald’s, don’t use that time to sort socks. Write!
Romance writer Joan Johnston wrote her way to the New York Times bestseller list by writing her novels between 4 and 6 a.m. – while the kids were asleep. Now, that’s dedication.
What if you have a sick spouse or ailing children – or you don’t feel so well yourself?
That’s where your own determination comes in. I’ve written novels by my husband’s bedside when he was in the hospital, and edited proofs for the next book while waiting to hear from the doctor when he was in surgery.
Am I Super Woman? Heck, no! But I can concentrate for short periods. Writing is a way to escape a painful or scary situation. It can be solace.

(4) Make time
Remember the words of that rabble-rousing journalist, Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” You need seat time.
Try to schedule time-sucking activities after your peak writing time. If the cat isn’t deathly ill, make her vet appointment at 4:30 p.m. The repairman – if he deigns to show up – will start the repairs after your peak writing time. And for now, I’m ignoring the squeaky dryer.
Be ruthless when you write. Turn off your cell phone. Ignore the siren call of the internet, tempting you with cat videos, unanswered emails and Kim Kardashian’s latest lingerie photo. Use that time to write.

(5) A writer writes.
Make that your mantra.
I love being a writer. I enjoy talking to other writers at the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime meetings, and hanging out with other writers in the bar at conventions.
But writing is a lonely business. Eventually, I’m going to have to go to my office, all by myself, and write. You will, too. Good luck.

Pre-order A STAR IS DEAD, Elaine Viets’ newest Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, here.https://www.amazon.com/Angela-Richman-Death-Investigator-mystery/dp/0727890166/ref=sr_1_1?crid=GSRN4WJRG8EV&keywords=a+star+is+dead+elaine+viets&qid=1578517051&s=books&sprefix=a+star+is+dead%2Caps%2C176&sr=1-1

12+

First Page Critique (sort of): The Writer I Was

Photo of me by the late poet Glenn McKee, whom I met at the workshop.

juvenilia (plural noun) : compositions produced in the artist’s or author’s youth.

When: Early August, 1989

Where: The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky

Who: Your Faithful Correspondent

Weather Report: Hot and humid Kentucky summer, not a lick of rain

I’d been writing fiction for about two years. Maybe not even that long. Looking at the definition of juvenilia, it would seem hardly to apply to what I was writing then, as I was twenty-seven years old. Not seventeen, or even twelve. But when we talk about writers of any age, their earliest work is referred to as their juvenilia.

Fully employed, but terminally broke, I wanted to combine a cheap vacation with a writer’s workshop. The Appalachian Writer’s Workshop was pretty much the cheapest out there, with the added bonus that Eastern Kentucky was The Land of My People. Though I didn’t actually know anyone there. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me, as I was shy about my writing.

I signed up for the fiction workshop. That worked out well for me because the instructor was named Pinckney Benedict, and now my name is Laura Benedict, and we’ll be married thirty years in July. But I digress.

The workshop was obviously everything I’d hoped for—and more. Now I wish I still had the story manuscript (we’re talking maybe ten pages) that Pinckney enthusiastically commented on. But here’s the thing about juvenilia for most writers: it’s embarrassing. Sure, when I was eighteen, it wasn’t long after I’d accidentally seasoned my from-scratch spaghetti sauce with celery seed instead of oregano that I could laugh about it. The same wasn’t true for my early writing. There’s a video (vhs no doubt) of me reading my work to the Hindman crowd that someone (thoughtfully?) sent us after Pinckney and I married. Mortifying! Even two decades later I threw out the printed pages of my two practice novels, The Disappearing and Skin Hunger (which I still think is a brilliant title, even though someone used it about ten years ago as a YA title).

We are currently deep into a house renovation due to an early fall plumbing disaster. I discovered a box on the top mud room shelf that was full of surprises from our early years. Among them was a story that another Hindman instructor kindly commented on in exchange for a ride from Hindman to the airport in Lexington.

It’s the only story I have from those very early days, and I warn you: it’s not good. It might even be funny-as-hell not good.

I thought it would be fun if I put it up as a First Page Critique. At first I planned to critique it myself, then let you all have at it. Then I decided that I would probably do a critique that would end up ten pages long, and less than thoughtful. Seriously, I practically have to tie my hands behind my back to keep myself from pointing out the first fifty things I see wrong with it.

All this is to say that it takes a lot of writing to become a writer with eight published novels and a couple of collections’ worth of short stories. I’ve been unpublished, and I’ve been a step below amateur, and I’ve been wildly, unabashedly not so good.

Take a few minutes, if you will, to read the beginning of “The View From the Woods.” What criticism could you offer its newbie writer? I’m curious to know if you see the same things I do. I’m so far from this story that it feels like it was written by someone else, so zero worries about my feelings. Or if critiquing isn’t your sort of thing, tell us how you approach your own juvenilia.

[Update, written just after I typed in the excerpt that follows: There’s a dog that has died before the opening of the story. Also, I can’t believe I am offering this up for you all to see. Oh! The melodrama!]

 

The View From the Woods

 

”Mama? Mama, did you hear what I said?” Jerilee screamed into the mouthpiece of the phone. “He shot the dog, Mama. He’s killed Petey!” The valley of silence between Jerilee and the other end of the line was breached by a thousand “I told you so’s”. She paced the cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, twisting the phone cord around her knuckles as she walked. “Mama, what do I do?” Her voice was a frustrated whine.

”Well, I’d say the first thing you do is bury the dog. He’ll be drawin’ flies in the heat. I’ll send your brother along.”

”No, Mama! I don’t need Will over here!” Jerilee stopped pacing. “I want to take care of it myself. I do.”

”Suit yourself, Jerilee. You’re the one who sounds like she’s dyin’. Now just take a deep breath and calm down,” the older woman ordered.

Jerilee closed her eyes, shutting out the harsh sunlight that poured from the kitchen window.

”Now,” her mother said, “is he gone out of the house?”

”God, yes,” Jerilee answered. “He took his guitar an’ all them stupid dead animals of his.” She looked out at the tiny, towel-covered lump that sat in the middle of the yard. “An’ his guns,” she spat. “He took his guns.”

”You shoulda known better than to get that little dog, Jerilee. Billy Clyde hated that poor thing, always ready to step on it whenever it made a noise. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

”Mama, it was a helpless little animal, for Christ sake.” Jerilee was pacing again. The floor creaked under her feet. “The man’s crazy, Mama. What I can’t believe is he didn’t shoot me. He’ll be back. I know he’ll be back.” Jerilee’s anger had erupted into fierce rushes of blood that pounded in her head; the air around her seemed close and tight. The ends of her fingers, wrapped securely with the phone cord, throbbed with pain.

Her mother’s voice continued from the fingerprint-blackened receiver. “Why, good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. You shoulda got rid of him soon as he started steppin’ out with that little redhead from down the drugstore last year. I never can understand why you keep takin’ him back. One day you call me to say he’s gone, and the next day he’s answerin’ the telephone. You just leave the rest of his junk packed up on the front porch.”

 

4+

Eight Ways To Help You
Be A Smarter Writer in 2020

By PJ Parrish

I don’t do resolutions. Well, that’s not completely true. I did make one this year — to read everyday, even if for only a half hour, and only from real tree books.

But maybe you guys, as members of the tortured writers club, do try to start with a clean slate come the new year. You know, the usual stuff like make a daily word quota; write every day no matter what; stop wasting time on Facebook; get a short story published in Ellery Queen.

It’s human to want to try harder. But sometimes, setting new year writing goals can be defeating.  Because the first time you break the resolution, you break out the self-flagellation whip. Believe me, I know.  Which is why I don’t make resolutions about my writing life.

But…

The other day, I read a story called 8 Ways To Help You Live Smarter in 2020. It was in the New York Times business section and was a compilation of tips for business types. What was odd was how each of the eight ideas seemed to be relate-able to our lives as fiction writers.  The italics are from the Times story, followed by my thoughts. Here we go…

1. Find more happiness at work

As many as a third of United States workers say they don’t feel engaged at work. The reasons vary widely, and everyone’s relationship with work is unique. But there are small ways to improve any job, and those incremental improvements can add up to major increases in job satisfaction.

Well, all writers need to heed this one. I read this as don’t let writing become a chore. Approach it with the anticipation of success. That’s not Pollyanna speaking. That’s me telling myself to give in to the simple joy of putting words on paper. Maybe I should make writer resolutions…

2. Use your strengths more wisely

In the past two decades, a movement to play to our strengths has gained momentum in the world of work. It’s a travesty that many people are fixated solely on repairing their weaknesses and don’t have the chance to do what they do best every day. But it’s a problem that many people aren’t thoughtful about when to do what they do best.

How should we relate to this? Every writer has different strengths. Some of us are great plotters; others are great at character development. Some of us revel in historical research; others love the spareness of noir. What do you love to read? Chances are, it might be what your heart wants to write. Don’t write for what you think the market wants. Write what you need to write. Trust that genuinely felt and richly imagined fiction finds an audience.

3. Track — and learn from — your failures

When things go right, we’re generally pretty good at identifying why they went right — that is, if we even take time to analyze the success at all. But falling on our face gives us the rare opportunity to find and address the things that went wrong (or, even more broadly, the traits or habits that led us to fail), and it’s an opportunity we should welcome.

This doesn’t mean to dwell on your failures. It means find the lesson in the rejection letter, the hard critique, even the realization that the story you are working so hard on maybe isn’t good enough. I was dropped by two publishers, got more rejection letters than I can count, and was savaged by a  Kirkus reviewer for my debut novel. Boo hoo. Did I curl up and die? Yeah, for a couple weeks. But each time, I looked for something to help me grow. And the mean Kirkus guy? Well, he was an ass but he was right.

4. Avoid drama

Gossip at work is common, as is the desire to be a part of a group. In a new work environment, this combination can be harmful if you fall in with colleagues who are known for being negative and wasting productive time.

The world of crime writers is small. Don’t sit at the bar at Thrillerfest and bitch about what an washed-up idiot so-and-so is.  Don’t moan and groan about how the traditional publishing world is an evil cabal bent on blackballing you. Don’t wine and whine. And don’t burn any bridges. That editor who rejected you may end up at a new house and become your champion. And if you become a success, extend your hand down the ladder.

5.  Be smarter about asking for advice

It’s a request that experienced people of any industry have gotten: “Can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” While well-intentioned, execution is everything, and sometimes these unsolicited requests for a casual, informational interviews can come off as entitled and presumptuous. And for the receiver, it can be difficult or even unrealistic for a busy professional to coordinate bespoke consultation appointments for everyone who asks.

Well, what’s our take-away here? Yes, seek out advice from those who can help you. If you go to a writer’s conference, don’t be afraid to talk to published writers and editors. It’s expected. But don’t be noodge. Don’t try to slip your manuscript under the bathroom stall door to an editor. (I actually saw this happen at SleuthFest one year).

 6. Let a friend’s success motivate you

It’s a common situation: a friend’s career is advancing while you’re stuck in what feels like an endless loop of 9 to 5 roadblocks. While it’s easy to grow jealous, you can harness that monster to propel you toward your elusive goal.

We’ve all said it — or thought it: How did that hack get published let alone make the Times list? Okay, go green for a minute but don’t let yourself marinate in envy.  It just makes you feel small and petty. And never do it in public. You’ll look like a fool. (See No. 4)

7. Have kind words for a bad idea

There are ways to turn down someone’s suggestion without being totally brutal. Ask a few questions like “What makes you think this is a good idea?” Applaud the effort. Say why — there’s a big difference between “I don’t like this” and “I don’t like this because…” Pitch an alternative. Have an idea of your own and be prepared to explain why it’s better.

This is for those of us who are in critique groups. It’s easy to tear something apart. But have some tact. Always be constructive. This is something I had to learn to do in my own group and even here with our First Page Critiques.

8. Keep cool while waiting for a response.

After obsessively rewriting an email in draft mode, polishing your resume, or tweaking a pitch, you finally hit send.  But then you’re frantically checking for a reply. Slamming the refresh button all day won’t bring desired results. Pick a replacement behavior to wean you from anxiety. Interrupt your worry spiral — go to the movies or grab a drink with a friend. Hang with select friends. Two people venting ad nauseam about shared stress is called “co-rumination.” Make an effort to lean on friends who won’t drag you into a joint state of panic.

We all need to adapt this to the writing life. Don’t send out one query and sit there refreshing your in-box. Getting a editor response takes weeks; some never respond at all. Don’t wait for an answer from the first one you ask to the prom. Send out as many queries as you can. And that advice about stewing in anxiety soup with like-minded writer friends?  Don’t do it. Stay away from black holes when you’re feeling vulnerable. Find some sunshine.

And a bonus extra 8: Beat those Sunday Scaries

As Maroon 5 famously crooned, “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin.” You look out and realize Monday is just around the corner. The ensuing anxiety is called “Sunday scaries.” Plan an enjoyable (offline) activity like taking a walk or reading a good book. Leave the phone at home. Staying mindful about what’s happening around you will distract you from anxious thoughts about tomorrow. This will help you regain control of your worries and look forward to conquering the week rather than fearing it.

I haven’t had a 9 to 5 job for a while now, but I remember this feeling vividly. Sunday night sweats as I anticipated the horrors of what awaited me at the office in the morning. Part of the sweat came from the fact that, toward the end I was in management and I hated my job.  But I think there is a good lesson for writers in this: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.  Writing a book can be frustrating, lonely, terrifying, maddening. You have to schedule time away from the computer to refresh your spirit. Walking works for me. And when I’m really aggravated about the work in non-progress, I head to the pickleball court and bang the hell out of the whiffle ball for hours. Stop and look at the clouds. Take up the ukulele.  Empty your mind. So there’s room for the plot to run and the characters to start talking to you again.

Live — and write — smarter in 2020, crime dogs.

 

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Happy New Year!!

Happy New Year from all of us at the Kill Zone and welcome to 2020! Here’s to a new year that is both productive and fulfilling for everyone’s writing career!

As usual I have many, many, resolutions – some writing, some fitness/life-balance related but one new resolution of mine – to be kinder on social media – came out of an experience with a wonderful online community that I joined late in 2019. This Facebook group is devoted entirely to collies – and, of course, as an avid collie owner I had to join – even though I had no real idea what to expect. As with everything online, my previous experience with Facebook and other social media groups had always come with some cautionary caveats. We’ve all experienced online ‘discussions’ which (inevitably) lead to arguments, bad behavior, and (more recently it seems) the hurling of insults. For a while there it seemed no topic or group was immune to this, until I discovered the joys of the American Collie Facebook group which exists for the sole purpose of celebrating and cherishing a beloved dog breed and (perhaps more importantly it seems to me) being kind to one another. No one says anything disparaging, no one sets up any discussion just to draw people into an argument – all you get a wonderful, upbeat posts about collies. No one makes snide comments or insults another owner and for every photograph or video posted you see tens (sometimes hundreds) of likes and loves. It’s the way social media should be…or could have been in an alternate universe…and I love it! For me, no matter how many Facebook posts I see where friends rip into each other for their beliefs or twitter rants I read, I know there’s this wonderful safe haven I can visit online. I view it almost like meditation – only with Lassie:)

So this year, no matter how crazy the world gets, or how horrible people can be online, I’m going to follow the example this group has shown me…I’m going to kind. I’m going to ignore the posts that infuriate me and focus on the likes and the loves rather than the hate.    I’m going to know that even in the worst of times, I’m able to belong to a group of people who have their priorities straight – where it’s all about life, love, and a good dog by your side:)

I’m going to be like my own collie, Hamish… (here he is in his holiday post for the Facebook group:))

So TKZers what are your hopes for the new year?

 

 

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What Path Should a Writer Take in 2020?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve always used December as a month to re-calibrate and re-think my writing goals for the new year. Since we have writers at all stages of the journey here at TKZ, I thought it might be a good time to consider the various paths a writer might take…and how to choose among them.

  1. The Forbidden City

The traditional publishing industry—represented by the so-called “Big Five”—is still kicking it, though there are clear challenges ahead. This mega-model cannot sustain itself without developing new talent, but the risk capital for doing that is not so plentiful as it once was. What’s keeping the lights on in Manhattan offices is the ever-increasing dependence on A-list writers. Which means fewer resources to nurture midlist talent. As a recent article in Publishers Weekly put it:

[M]idlist sales have faltered enough in recent years that there is a growing concern among publishers and agents about how the business can create new hits when the field they once turned to is, well, disappearing…

A publisher at a major house agreed that, to an extent, publishers have contributed to the gap between the top sellers and those below. With social media offering a variety of ways to promote titles that are selling, publishers usually put more resources behind books that are succeeding in order to maintain momentum. As these books get the lion’s share of the houses’ focus, other titles are left to find audiences on their own.

The dependence on big hits by proven authors has also been exacerbated by two other developments, according to the article: “a shrinking physical retail market and an increase in competing entertainment driven by the proliferation of streaming TV platforms.”

Getting invited inside the walls of the Forbidden City has always been difficult. And it’s always been difficult to stay inside. With fewer slots available for new writers—and even less for a flat-selling mid-lister—the difficulty of this path has only increased.

  1. Small Publishing Companies

I’d define this slice of the publishing pie as any company not owned by the bigs but still operating in a traditional fashion. That is, they take on a manuscript and foot the bill for editing and design work. They may or may not pay an advance, but do offer traditional royalty terms.

I’d put Amazon Publishing (note: not Kindle Direct Publishing, which is for indie writers. See #3, below) at the top of this category, though it is truly unique in that it owns the largest (online) bookstore in the world, yet isn’t usually granted shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores (unless, of course, they own those stores!)

Also near the top is Kensington, which calls itself “America’s Independent Publisher.” (They must have good criteria as they publish this fellow.)

Blue-Footed Booby

As presses get smaller, they usually have a tighter genre focus. For example, Graywolf tends toward the literary, while Brash Books walks the mean streets of crime. Powerhouse bestsellers from the smalls are as rare as the Blue-Footed Booby. But with the right partnership you may be able to put together a solid body of work and a steadily growing readership.

How do you find the right small publisher for your novel? You can still pick up a copy of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market 2020 (which you ought to do soon, as the future of this publication is uncertain due to the sale of WD assets to Penguin Random House earlier this year).

Finally, there are “really small” companies springing up, seemingly all the time. They focus almost exclusively on ebooks. In many cases they’re run by indie writers who’ve had some success themselves, and seek to make extra scratch helping new writers get out to market.

A great big caveat scriptor is necessary here: it’s easy to call yourself a publisher, and just as easy to go bust. (I got a flaming email once from the founder of a one-person press after I issued a gentle warning to writers about such companies. How dare I! We can give more personal attention to individual writers! I wrote back and wished her good fortune. Eight months later the company was out of business, unable to pay their writers the royalties they were owed.)

While these micro publishers do not offer advances or require an agent, you really need to do your due diligence with any contract. (File this advice under “Duh.”)

How can you tell if a small press is legit? Start by reading this post.

  1. Indie (Self) Publishing

We’re twelve years into the ebook revolution, and enough time has gone by for the dust of the self-publishing “gold rush” (roughly 2008-2013) to settle back down to earth. We have adequate history now to assert a few things.

First, this path to market is still fast and without obstacle. Anyone can do it. That’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since Gutenberg it’s possible for an author to make bank outside the walls of the Forbidden City. A curse because there’s a great temptation to toss a book out there when it’s clearly not ready for prime time, and/or has a shoddy design.

There are innumerable books and blogs and courses that can teach you the technical details on getting your books online. If you are averse to being truly DIY (that is, dealing directly with Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc.), there are aggregator sites that will do the distribution for you, in return for a percentage of your net proceeds. Your net is based on the retail price of your book, less the bookstore’s commission. For example, Amazon retains 30% as its commission when a book is sold off its site. The author gets 70%. The aggregator takes a slice (usually 15%) out of that 70% and sends you the balance. Smashwords and Draft2Digital are the leading aggregators right now. Here’s an article comparing the two. (Note: If a company charges you an upfront fee as opposed to percentage of net, it falls more into the category of a vanity press. See #4, below.)

Just remember that regardless of how you get your books to market, the three keys to making actual dough as an indie are 1) writing commercially viable books (i.e., in a popular genre); 2) being prolific; and 3) understanding that you’re running a small business.

That last item—business sense—gives many writers the willies. It’s hard enough to find the time to write! Now I have to spend time on business?

Well, yeah, if you truly want a shot at indie success. I wrote a book about the business principles you’ll need.

  1. Vanity Press

This is a business that makes money off authors, rather than the other way around. They require you to put up a pretty penny (do they make pretty pennies anymore?) to “publish” your book. They usually do a competent design job, but then what? They’ll offer to upsell you various packages (e.g., enhanced marketing) the value of which is negligible.

The article referenced earlier has a section on vanity presses. If you have written one book that you would like to distribute to family and friends in a nice hardcover edition—and have no desire to make writing a career…and you have lots of discretionary income—then perhaps a vanity publisher might be an option.

Whew. Now that we’ve covered these four paths open to writers today, we need to ask one more big question before making the choice, and that is: just what is it you want to accomplish, when all is said and done and published, with your writing? Here I think there are three possible answers.

The first is the amorphous concept of validation. A lot of writers I’ve talked to over the past ten years about self-publishing have given me variations on, “But I want the validation of a traditional contract.”

I call this notion “amorphous” because you can’t measure it. Will this type of validation give you 100% satisfaction? Probably not. How about 80%? Perhaps, but how long will that feeling last? If you become one of those writers who is dropped by a publisher (which will retain the rights to your output), what then? You’re five years into what you thought was a career and all that work you’ve done belongs to the company that let you go? And your dismal sales numbers make it impossible to land another contract with a like-sized company? (This makes it imperative that you and your agent negotiate a fair reversion clause, based on royalty income, and whatever else you can get.)

A more understandable reason for seeking a traditional contract (from a Big Five publisher) is to play the lottery. You’re hoping that one of your books will be among those chosen to get a huge marketing push, landing you a prime spot on the New York Times bestseller list and guaranteeing a long, seven-figures annually career. There are about two dozen authors who fit this profile and ten million who would like to. That’s why this is a lottery.

I find it a perfectly fine reason to knock on the doors of the Forbidden City. I just want you to be aware of the odds.

The third type of writer wants to create a reliable and steady stream of income. That could happen with the right small publisher partnership, but I find it more likely and lucrative in the indie world. My favorite model is the classic pulp fiction era. The writers who made it were, above all, good storytellers. They knew their craft. They were also prolific and understood the market—just like successful indie writers today, of which there are many. I personally know several indies making healthy five- and six-figure annual incomes because they operate on pulp principles.

Your assignment is clear. Figure out which motivation is most important to you. Then you can fashion 2020 plans and priorities accordingly. Next December, and each December after that, think through these considerations anew.

And whatever your choices—whatever type of writer you see yourself as—do this above all: Love the writing itself. Write with joy. Find and nurture your sweet spot. That’s the only thing that will sustain you over the long haul.

Which is why TKZ exists. We love writers and writing. We love sharing our insights, and hearing back from you in the comments. So as we wrap up another year, thank you for making this community one of the best places to hang out and talk about fiction craft and the book business. We now pause to catch our collective breath, and will see you back here on January 6, 2020!

Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Próspero año y felicidad!

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