THE STORY OF A STORY OF A STORY by Jim Cort
“Before I Wake” had its genesis in my desire to try a story entirely in dialog. A few experiments were enough to convince me that some compromise would have to be made, and I wound up producing a story composed of documents and letters and transcripts that I thought still gave the effect I was looking for.
The story languished for while. I finally shipped it off to a house looking for stories to adapt into audio plays on tape cassettes. I’m not going to give the name of the company, because I intend to say mean things about them shortly. There it found a home, and they offered me a chance to do the audio script myself.
My experience with the audio house was less than idyllic. A little background: “Before I Wake” is the story of a man who believes himself threatened by his own dreams. The threat can reach him only when he is asleep. He winds up causing a disturbance and being held in jail, where he tells his story to a police psychiatrist. The original story had an all-male cast. I thought a female voice would provide variety in the audio version.
When I received the recorded cassette, I ws horrified to find my psychiatrist showing up at the county lockup in a party dress, detoured from the country club cotillion. Her whole professional status was undermined. The whole script had been rewritten and had come out pedestrian, cliché-ridden, clumsy and predictable. I had foolishly sold all audio rights to the house from then until the end of time, so there was nothing I could do about it.
So “Before I Wake”, in its radio incarnation, remained a thorn in my side for a long time. However, the story in its original version took off on its own.
In 1989 saw a call for submissions for a new anthology to be called October Dreams, put together by Dave Kubicek and Jeff Mason. The reference to dreams in the title made me think of “Before I Wake”, so I sent it along. A month or so later, the familiar rejection letter arrived, but not so familiar, either. Unlike most rejections, I sensed in this one a genuine reluctance to pass this story by. They mentioned their disappointment with the ending. I was moved to do something I had never done before with any story
I phoned them up.
I called the office number on the letterhead. I can’t remember now if I spoke to Dave or Jeff. I pitched a new ending over the phone. I have no idea where it came from. It was as if the words came out of my mouth at exactly the same moment the ideas came into my head. In the end, Dave said (or maybe it was Jeff), “OK, write it up that way, and we’ll take another look.”
I did and they did and they said yes. We all signed the papers, and everybody was happy. But that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward 10 years to 1999.
I got a letter from a nice lady at Perfection Learning, a house that publishes educational material. They were putting together a middle school anthology to be called Flights of Fantasy. They had taken the trouble to track me down because they wanted to include “Before I Wake”. (Note to self: always be track-downable.) I was flattered. I must confess I did feel a little strange about becoming required reading. But I said yes and we all signed the papers and everybody was happy.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward 14 years to 2013.
I had been posting some of my old teaching materials on Teachers pay Teachers. (unsolicited testimonial: teacherspayteachers.org is a sort of clearinghouse where teachers, or former teachers like me, can share materials they’ve designed for their own classrooms and pick up a little money as well.) I came across a quiz on the story “Before I Wake” prepared by Marianne Todd of Sioux City Iowa (not her real name) for her Language Arts class. I got in touch with Ms. Todd. She was happy to hear from me, and told me that the story was a class favorite. I’m glad she didn’t ask me to take the quiz. I’m not at all sure I would have passed.
Deaf Dog Press has come out with a special edition of “Before I Wake” through Smashwords. It contains the original published story along with the original radio play. You can find it at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/527874.
Or, if you happen to be in Sioux City, Iowa, drop by Ms. Todd’s class. She might still have a copy.
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Jim Cort has been writing since the cows left home. He is curretly chief cook and bottle washer at Deaf Dog Press. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337106.
A lot of people would like to paint, and I’m no exception. In high school I had a close friend who painted, and I always wondered how well he did with it later in life. I took a run at it myself in those days and bombed badly. Much later I returned to it in a more methodical way and became fairly competent, but I didn’t quit my day job.
What I did learn from painting is that you have to see things differently. There were exercises where, for example, you’d paint a vase upside down. It helped to keep you from thinking of it as a vase––putting a name to it––only seeing the action of light and shadow on the surfaces, which is what you painted. Names come from a different part of the brain and they get in the way.
Later, I wondered whether seeing things differently be any use in solving a crime. My painter character, Paul Zacher, living in Mexico with his historian girlfriend, doesn’t think so when he’s asked to look into a murder by the widow of the victim. He knows he sees the relationships of curves and contours to each other, the different colors within the shadows on human skin. But what would he pick up at a crime scene that the police missed?
That’s the premise of my book, Twenty Centavos, the first of a series of mysteries involving Paul Zacher, his girlfriend Maya Sanchez, and their retired detective friend, Cody Williams. They are mostly set in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial mountain town in the center of México with a large expatriate population. I’ve lived there too for the past seven years.
At thirty-five, Paul is a guy with an irreverent sense of humor who does fairly well as a painter, showing at two galleries, and he likes his life. When the book begins, he is engaged in a series of nudes posed with statues of Mayan Gods against a jungle backdrop. The show he’s preparing for will be called Gods and Goddesses. Getting pulled into a criminal investigation, he finds himself at odds with the local police, and with himself as well, because he sometimes feels like a snoop. As an outgoing guy with an ironic sense of humor, he’s uncomfortable with his new need to be covert and even sneaky at times in order to solve a case.
When I began this book I was on a painting trip, driving down a long curving mountain road outside of Taos, New Mexico, when a scene came to me of a woman coming to pose for a nude portrait at a painter’s studio. She was not an experienced model, but wanted to preserve an image of herself in her prime at the age of twenty-eight. She was also wondering whether it might be fun to engage in a little rendezvous with the painter as well. He was an attractive guy and she knew he liked women.
As it developed, I turned this scene over and over in my mind and virtually memorized it. When I arrived at my hotel in Taos, I immediately sat down at my laptop and wrote it.
Paul Zacher, who already knew he was attracted to his new model, is nonetheless loyal to his Mexican girlfriend. As a painter, he views the naked body as landscape; hills and valleys, outcroppings of bush here and there. But even more, for him the studio is a place of discipline and concentration, and to get involved with a model means chaos. His reaction is complicated by the recollection of an earlier encounter where he had stumbled in the studio. Upon this model’s arrival, a fine misunderstanding follows.
Naturally, solving this case led to others. I found I was already working on the second book of the series, The Fifth Codex, even before I was finished revising Twenty Centavos.
Currently there are twelve published and another in process. They fall into two categories, artifact and relationship. Twenty Centavos is focused on ancient Mayan ceramics, and The Fifth Codex deals with the discovery of a fifth Maya book, where only four had been previously known. The fifth one, Strike Zone, is centered on the recovery of a skull cast from the remaining gold of the Aztecs in the days of the Conquest. These are the artifact books. The ninth concerns an attempt to steal Mexico’s greatest religious treasure, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Brushwork, the third of the series, is about revenge. Daddy’s Girl, Vanishing Act, and Identity Crisis focus on love, loss and greed.
This is a rewarding series to write. I love the backdrop of the upscale expat community in San Miguel, and the continuity and developing relationship of the three core characters. As with so many successful series books, these are the books I myself want to read.
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John Scherber, a Minnesota native, settled in México in 2007. He is the author of twelve Paul Zacher mysteries, (The Murder in México series), set in the old colonial hill town of San Miguel de Allende, as well as his three award-winning nonfiction accounts of the expatriate experience, San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart, Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path, and Living in San Miguel: The Heart of the Matter. In addition, two volumes of the Townshend Vampire Trilogy have appeared, and a paranormal thriller titled The Devil’s Workshop.
His work is known for its fast pace, irreverent humor, and light-hearted excursions into the worlds of art and antiques––always with an edge of suspense. Neither highbrow nor lowbrow, his books are written as entertainments and dedicated to the fun of reading. While he has acknowledged being no single one of his characters, he also admits to being all of them. Find John on Facebook and Twitter, and visit his website at: http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com
Before You Hire a Freelance Editor, Read These Tips
By Barb Goffman
Everyone can always use a second pair of eyes. That’s where I come in.
I’ve been editing fiction for several years as a co-editor of the Chesapeake Crimes anthology series. (Stories in the series have won nearly every major crime-fiction award—check ’em out if you haven’t already.) I’ve been editing nonfiction for far longer than that, thanks to training from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. (Go Wildcats!) Finally, last year, I decided to hang out my shingle and offer my services on a freelance basis. And I must say I’ve been pleased with the response, both in terms of clients and promotional support from my friends.
My business’s focus is crime fiction. While I could provide a copy edit for any type of fiction (grammar, spelling, and punctuation don’t vary across genres), the genre I’m most familiar with is crime, as it’s what I write. So it’s crime fiction for which I offer developmental editing services, as well as line editing and copy editing.
Having been immersed in it for a while now, allow me to offer my top ten tips for authors planning to use a freelance editor (also known as: how to save yourself a little money and your editor a little gray hair—and yes, that’s gray with an a).
10. The better shape your manuscript is in when I receive it, the less I’ll charge you. So run a spell-check yourself. And pay attention to American spellings. Gray. Toward. Backward. Canceled. Did I mention gray?
9. Real people use contractions when they speak. So use them in your writing, especially your dialogue and internal monologue.
8. Real people also hem and haw when they speak, but, um, well, you don’t, you know, um, have to include all these tics when you write. They can be distracting. A little goes a long way.
7. No one shouts all the time. So lay off using a lot of exclamation points. You can show a person is excited by what he says or by using the occasional “he shouted.” Otherwise, remember that the period is your friend.
6. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes and consider “how would I react?” as your plot moves along. Then put those reactions in your story. When you get too wedded to moving the plot along, you can miss the chance to bring your characters to life by showing their reactions.
5. Description is great, but it’s not always appropriate. If your character is entering a place for the first time, it’s believable he’ll look around and notice the architecture and décor. But if he’s coming home after a long day at work to a house he’s lived in for ten years, he’s not going to notice that his house is decorated in a certain style, and he’s not going to focus on the fact that he has four windows in the living room with plantation shutters. At most, he’ll notice that his house smells funny because he forgot to take out the garbage that morning. Again.
4. Always keep your main character’s point of view in mind while you’re writing. If Jane hears a car pulls up outside her house, she can’t know whose car it is unless the car makes a distinctive noise or Jane is looking out the window. (Of course, you could create a character who makes a lot of assumptions, but in that case, I would make use of that. Let Jane wrongly assume it’s John who’s pulled up outside so she flings open the front door, allowing herself to be kidnapped by Sebastian.)
3. Every scene should move the plot along. Character development is wonderful, but you shouldn’t create a scene that only builds character. If your plot isn’t moving forward, your story is stagnant, and the reader may start flipping pages. Don’t do that to yourself.
2. Think through your action scenes to ensure they make sense. I know some writers who once acted out a romance scene. They realized that for the scene to work, one of the characters needed three arms.
1. Create a list of the things you often do that you know you shouldn’t, and go through that list after you type The End. If you tend to overuse a certain word, search for it and change some of them. If you tend to write long, complicated sentences, break some of them up. And please, please, please have someone review your work before you send it out into the world. Someone who’ll tell you the truth—not your mom or your best friend. That’s where I can come in. I’d love to hear from you.
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Barb Goffman is the author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, a collection of short stories published in 2013 by Wildside Press. She won the 2013 Macavity Award for best crime short story published in 2012, and she’s been nominated twelve times for national writing awards—the Agatha (seven times), the Anthony (twice), the Macavity (twice), and the Pushcart Prize once. You can reach her at goffmaneditin[[at]]gmail[[dot]]com . Learn more at http://www.barbgoffman.com and http://www.goffmanediting.com.