Sunday, January 29, 2012


Carolyn Wheat says, in her excellent book How to Write Killer Fiction, “The central question of the mystery is: Who did it?…The central question of the suspense novel is: Will our hero survive?” Using this yardstick, I find that the last two books I’ve read are novels of suspense. Another way to decide between the two genres is to note how fiercely I gripped the books as I read both them, how tightly I was glued to my chair as I read them, and how hard I found it to stop at the end of each cliff-hanging chapter.

I have just finished reading Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong (Morrow/Harper 2010), and I finished with a fast-beating heart and a feeling of relief and regret. Regret that I was saying goodbye (for now) to the friends I’d made while reading the book; relief that they, against tough odds, survived.

The book is set in Thailand. Parts take place in a small northern village and on the tourist destination island of Phuket; but most of the action happens in the noisy, vibrant, crowded city of Bangkok, and most of the Bangkok action takes place in the red-light district of Patpong, where the music is loud, the lights are low, the smell of street food and beer and human sweat is intense, and the women—some of them mere girls—are made up, charming, alluring, hard at work and at risk.

The heroine of The Queen of Patpong is a former prostitute named Rose, who now devotes her time and her business acumen to rescuing young girls from danger. How Rose got into the sex industry, how she thrived there and became “the Queen,” and how she barely survived (there’s a pun in there; please ignore it) make up the central story of this novel. It’s told in the past tense, and it fills the middle third of the book. I won’t tell you more than to warn you to fasten your seat belt.

Surrounding this story are Parts One and Three, told in the rapid-paced present tense. The present is full of the past, which not only haunts the present…it stalks the present. Rose lives with her farang husband, Poke Rafferty, a travel writer, and their adopted teenage daughter, Miaow. They are a happy family. Poke has his writing, Rose has her business, and Miaow has the role of Ariel in her school’s presentation of The Tempest. All is well. Well, not quite. Before the end of the second short chapter of this book, the past shows up in a restaurant where the happy family is eating. The past comes in the form of a man named Horner and his sidekick, John. These two mean business. And Poke is as determined to protect his family as these two beasts are to destroy it. There will be hell to pay.

Hell happens. On roller blades. I won’t tell you a thing more, except to say you can forget about roller blades; I made that up. Read and find out.

The Queen of Patpong is about prostitution, corruption, revenge, psychopathic sexuality, and danger turned up to nine. It’s also, believe it or not, a tender novel about love, family, friendship, marriage, and loyalty. This book is a tempest of love and death.


Larry Karp's A Perilous Conception (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011) is classified by the publisher as a mystery. And yes, there are a couple of murders in the book, and one of them involves a puzzle and some detection, but the mystery element of the book is almost a subplot. Mainly, this novel is a nonstop thriller, a cat-and-mouse detective yarn, and the yarn is twisted and tangled and hard to put down. The story is told in two voices, and those voices are as different as can be, yet both of them are convincing. The interplay between these two voices, and the characters behind them, is what propels the novel deeper and deeper into the tangled web of deception. Larry Karp has created a pair of tenacious adversaries, and the back-and-forth POV makes for great drama.

In one corner is Dr. Colin Sanford, an OB/GYN in Emerald, Washington (a city that looks a lot like Seattle). He is also a wizard at laparoscopy, and he and his geneticist partner are secretly on the fast track to fame, with plans to be the first to successfully engineer in vitro fertilization. Sanford is a polished, conscientious doctor who charms his patients and appears to have no more important agenda than their medical welfare. Inside that slick presentation is a greedy egomaniac, who will stop at nothing, and will be stopped by nobody in his pursuit of fame and fortune. And then, within this slimeball, there's yet another Colin Sanford, and I won't describe that one. It's enough to say Colin Sanford is a complicated doc.

Sanford's nemesis, Bernie Baumgartner, is all cop. He's also all business, and part bulldog. At the expense of his marriage and of his job, he won't rest until he ties up all the loose ends of what went wrong. Baumgartner is a charmer in his own gruff way. He has a droll, hardboiled way with words and a disregard for baloney as well as any polite protocol that might come between him and solving the case. He also has a wonderful sidekick, a picklock named Iggy, who helps Baumgartner circumvent the formalities of proper police procedure.

There's a lot of crime in this book, and a lot of fascinating science, and a payload of entertainment. And damned fine writing.


As I have been wont to do of late, I close with a 55-word story. It’s based on “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, a story by Frank Stockton written in 1882. You’ll note that it’s a suspense story, although unlike Stockton I don’t leave the reader entirely in suspense at the end.

The Second Course...
The unfaithful slave was ordered to choose between two doors. Behind one, the girl he loved; behind the other, a ravenous tiger.
Hearing growls behind the left-hand door, he opened the right. Entered.
Slam. Click.
The room was empty.
There was no partition between the two chambers.
Next door, a tiger was finishing his appetizer.

By the way, I just had a 55-word story published on-line at Postcard Shorts. It’s not exactly a murder mystery or a suspense story, but it’s about matricide.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Most writers I know are fans of the movies. And I think all of us writers learn a lot from the way movies are written. Modern popular novels are often praised with the term “cinematic,” because of their scene construction and narrative arc, the way their plots are self-propelling, and their realistic yet clever dialogue.

In recent weeks I’ve seen two beautiful movies that are “cinematic” in these ways, and that also happen to celebrate the power and pleasure of motion pictures. They both pay great homage to the early days of the movie business, though they focus on different times and places.

These two 2011 movies are “The Artist” and “Hugo.” I won’t describe them or critique them, because better reviewers than I have already raved in print. But if you haven’t seen these two gems, I strongly urge you to do so, especially if you’re a writer. If one of these two doesn’t win Best Picture, I’ll be sorely disappointed, and it’s a shame they can’t give away two Oscars this year, because they each deserve one.

As I am so wrapped up in film at the moment, I’m going to give you a few 55-word stories about the flicks.

Roll em!

Welcome to Kansas
Whatever Judy was on blew her mind away. She tripped higher and higher, her head spinning, her brain a rainbow.
When she finally came down, she found herself in a cornfield. The world was black and white.
“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hollywood anymore, Toto,” she sighed. “Wonder what they fed me this time?”

From Here to Eternity
“Looks bad, Frank,” Saint Peter said. “Booze, broads, brawls...”
Frank shrugged. “I did it my way.”
“You belong downstairs with the hookers and gangsters.”
Frank smiled.
“But the Boss likes your singing,” Pete continued. “Put on this white robe. From now on you’re singing in the choir.”
“Like hell!” Frank thundered.
Pete smiled back. “Bingo.”

The Misfits
“Arthur, will you take this woman…”
Are you kidding? This calendar girl? Those world-famous bazooms? Move over Jack Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Joe Dimaggio…
“I will.”
“Marilyn, will you take this man…”
Well duh. This guy wrote “Death of a Whatchamacallit,” right? We’re talking serious brains here.
“I will.”
“Then I pronounce you…”

Where They Get Summer Movies
The contest rules were broadcast all over the infinite universe. In galaxies everywhere, an infinite number of monkeys sat down to an infinite number of typewriters and began writing. They eventually wrote the world’s shortest stories of all time.
But they missed the deadline.
So they sold their stories to Hollywood instead.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


In my last post I wrote about the pleasures I’ve had writing and publishing 55-word stories. I promised to include a 55-word story with every post for the foreseeable future, so here’s this week’s:

Leo and Mona
“What for?”
“It’s your job.”
“I don’t feel like smiling.”
“C’mon, Mona. You have it easy— a sit-down job, you don’t have to strip, you’re well paid, now smile.”
“Because I say so.”
You? Mr. Famous Painter, Mr. Hotshot Inventor, Mr. Big Cheese—”
“Big What?
“Say again?
“Hold that pose.”

For this post I’d like to move on to something bigger: 99-word stories. It’s remarkable how much 44 more words can do for a story. Mainly, it’s a lot easier to write them, and often it’s more fun to read them.

I adopted the 99-word story as a teaching device when I began teaching creative writing twenty years ago, and I’ve used it ever since. I challenge students to retell a plot we all know in the confines of 99 words. They may set the story in any era, tell it from any point of view, and highlight any aspect of the story. The only requirements are that the story be a real story (something has to happen to somebody, something involving conflict and change), and the story has to contain 99 words—no more, no fewer.

For many years running I published a yearly anthology of students’ 99-word stories. The theme was different each year. We did books based on fairy tales (Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood), Bible stories (Cain and Able, The Garden of Eden, The Prodigal Son), Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet), classic books and movies (The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland), and Greek myths (Pandora, Pygmalion). And more. The anthologies started out as small pamphlets, but when I opened the invitation to any writer anywhere, instead of just my students, the books got bigger and became small paperbacks.

In a sense that was a case of too much success. As the books got bigger (and better) they also got more expensive to produce. When my teaching income diminished, and when we downsized our publishing company, I decided the series had to be retired.

I also wrote a collection of my own 99-word stories.  Ninety-nine of them, to be exact. I never published them as a book, and that’s probably a good thing, but I placed a number of them in small litmags.

So I recommend the 99-word story exercise. If you end up with something you’re proud of, I encourage you to email it to me as an attachment. My email is I don’t plan to publish any print anthologies from now on, but I might devote future blog posts to showcasing good 99-word stories from friends in blog-land.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


In the summer of 1987, Susan and I were honeymooning in San Luis Obispo, California, when we came across a copy of the New Times, the free weekly paper of that town, in which was announced a brand new annual contest called “55 Fiction.” There were a lot of complicated rules, but they boiled down to this: each entry had to be a complete short story, with plot, setting, and character, within 55 words. 

Great gimmick, I thought, and thought no more about it.

A few weeks later, back home in Santa Barbara, I found myself unable to sleep one hot full-moon Santa Ana night, so I got out of bed, dressed, and took a walk around the neighborhood. As I walked, I mulled over a story plot I had made up as a teenager some thirty years earlier and had never done anything with. There and then I decided to write the story, and since it was to be only 55 words, I figured I could make it up as I walked, before I returned to my bed and went to sleep. Which I did. It took me about fifteen minutes.

In the morning I carried my story, in my head, to the office and keyed it into MacWrite. That took me about five minutes. I counted the words and saw that I had written 237. It took me over two hours to pare down the story into 55 words. I sent the story off to the New Times and thought no more about it until a friend in San Luis Obispo called me to congratulate me because I had won first prize.

You can imagine how thrilled I was. There was no money involved, but I won a tee shirt and a certificate, and my words in print, and the accomplishment—not of having won a prize, but having finally gotten that thirty-year-old story into words.

Here’s the story in its entirety:


         He’ll never hold me as he holds that guitar. Hasn’t touched me that way in years.
            I’ll get inside the guitar, to be in his arms again.
            She spent all day, sacrificing shape, voice, everything but desire to be held. Finally inside, mute, invisible, she waited.
            “Honey, I’m home! I bought a new guitar! Honey…?”

Since that time, I have recycled the story, “Guitar,” several times. I managed to get it reprinted in Publishers Weekly, I included it in my first published volume of short stories, The Woman by the Bridge (Dolphin Moon Press, 1991), and my son Morgan in Mendocino used it briefly as his answering machine message. I used to say more people knew my writing from those fifty-five words than from any other words I’d ever written under my own name.

But that was only the beginning.

In the spring of 1994, Steve Moss, editor of the New Times, came to Santa Barbara to meet with Susan and me to get some advice on how to go about publishing a collection of the best 55-word stories published in the newspaper over the past eight years. We found Steve to be a delightful person, and the book project he showed us was really exciting. We gave him all kinds of valuable advice and sent him on his way, envying him for having such a clever idea and such an entertainment-packed book to publish.

We began plotting. Acquiring.

A few phone calls later, and we were on board. We ended up publishing The World’s Shortest Stories in conjunction with New Times Press. They did all the design and production, and our job was marketing, promotion, sales, distribution, and a bunch of busywork details connected with book publishing.

The book became one of our biggest hits. We started with five thousand copies and then went back to press twice. Within a couple of years, we sold reprint rights for the book to Running Press. It’s still in print. Not only that, but the book has been translated and published in Japanese, Chinese, and Hebrew. Not only that, but Running Press published a sequel, The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, edited by Steve Moss and myself. This was followed a couple of years later by The World’s Shortest Stories of All Time, published by Quality Paperback Book Club. Running Press even published a set of cocktail coasters, with selected 55-worders on them.

In addition to “Guitar,” I have written another few dozen 55-word stories. Some of them have been published under my own name in the books I’ve named above. Others were published under pseudonyms. Others were out-takes or written since and are still waiting to be published. My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to include one 55 Fiction story with each blog I post during the year, as an extra feature, a verbal cartoon, so-to-speak.

Meanwhile, I invite you to try out the art form. Try writing a complete short story in 55 words. Once you get started, you’re likely to get hooked!