Sunday, December 23, 2012

Lump of Coal

I wrote a story for a Christmas challenge over at Do Some Damage two Decembers ago. As the rights are mine, I was going to copy it over here, but I took a look at it again over there and they have it so nicely laid out that I thought, why bother? And why shouldn't I send some traffic their way? You'll find a lot of other story responses to the challenge there too, if you're in the mood for a little Christmas crime. Check it out HERE .    

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The First Line--Winter 2012

Just a quick note to say that my story for The First Line magazine is out now. Yey! You can find out how to get it here if you're so inclined.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kobo Christmas stories

Wow--can't stay on that last post of a Thanksgiving story when it's one third of December done already.

I recently took advantage of the special offer Kobo did and bought one of their mini ereaders at a big discount on Thanksgiving weekend. It doesn't have any special features, but if you want just a nice font rather than the chance to watch movies or whatever, it's just fine. I'm not sure what I'll use it for, but I don't mind having it. You can support your favorite indie bookstore by buying your Kobo ebooks through their website, assuming they are on board with this program.

Anyway, I got an email from Kobo yesterday, telling me I could send a free Christmas story to a friend (or many friends) for the next couple of weeks. I sent one to a friend, namely myself, and it turns out that you can read it on a Kobo like screen on your own computer. So, if you want one, drop me a line here--my email is in the profile--and I will send you one. For the record, I sent myself At Christmas Time by Anton Chekov and one by Nathanial Hawthorne, so you don't have to stick with Dickens and the like.

Let me know...

Or actually, you could just go here and send one to yourself--and anyone else you like.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I originally wrote this for a comic crime fiction challenge. It didn't get picked up. It's not really the kind of story that it makes a lot of sense to hold on to for something else, so I'm putting it up here as a holiday gift of a sort. Enjoy.  

Cold Turkey
 Seana Graham 

I was catching a quick nicotine fix with Jimmy Delfino behind the movie theater I was working at back then when he asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. Most guys, if they ask you something like that, you’d be safe in taking it as an invitation. But Jimmy wasn’t most guys. Jimmy was the guy who’d cadge a cigarette from a girl even if it was her last one. Because it was Jimmy, I knew he was trying to cadge an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner as well. I suppose I was just a tad too gleeful about letting him down.

“I’ve volunteered to serve dinner at the shelter this year.”

“Oh right--Saint Cheryl. I should have guessed.” He took a big drag of his cigarette and gazed off moodily, with the upshot that I felt a little sorry for him. In those days, moody always worked with me.

“You could come,” I said.

“I’m not homeless, Cheryl.”

Not this month, I thought. I knew he was shacking up with a girl from my class named Bootsie Malone, but had heard a rumor that things were going sour.

“They don’t ask for ID, Jimmy.” I looked him over. “You could pass.”


He sounded hurt and maybe he even was—it was hard to tell with Jimmy. He had always been a little vain about his looks. Because I wasn’t sure, I added, “Or you could work.”

“Work?” he asked. He sounded puzzled, like a small child would when confronted with a big new concept.

“Sure—I could get you in.”

“I don’t know, Cheryl—how well does it pay?”

“It’s volunteer work, Jimmy. It doesn’t pay anything. That’s the whole point.”

“Not a very good point, if you ask me.”

“Well, you do get a free dinner out of it.”  

“Free?” he asked. For a moment I thought he was going to point out the holes in that logic, but no, he had simply been hooked by the thought of something for nothing. The word “free” was like a bright lure dangled before him. “So, what would I have to do?”

“Just help,” I said. “Same as you’d do at any Thanksgiving dinner—peel some potatoes, set the table. Help wash up afterwards. You know.” I wasn’t really sure he did, and I was almost certain he didn’t realize I was talking about doing this for three or four hundred people.

“Look,” I said, warming to my pitch. After all, Jimmy might benefit from doing an honest day’s labor. “The shelter’s having an organizational meeting on the Monday before at six. If you don’t have any better offers by then, why don’t you stop by and I’ll introduce you?”

“Yeah, maybe I will.” He reached over and poached one more cigarette out of the pack in my jacket pocket. “For the road”, he said. And, yes—it was my last one.

I could tell he thought he’d have plenty of offers better than serving supper in a soup kitchen. But as it turned out, he was wrong.


I don’t know if you’ve done much volunteer work in your life, but people come to it for many different reasons, and not all of them are pure as the driven snow, either. There are a few predictable non-altruistic motives, though, and one of them is the need to know better than everybody else does. Sergeant Major was an outstanding exemplar of the type.

He really was called Sergeant Major. His real name was Dan Major and he had been a Sergeant in the Army at some point, and if you think he was ever going to let anybody forget that, you haven’t met him. I’d had a few run-ins with him myself, once because he assured me I was peeling potatoes the wrong way, but you don’t survive working low level jobs like cleaning up spilled popcorn in a movie theater without learning to take a certain amount of guff quietly. But on the evening of the organizational meeting, it was obvious pretty fast that this wasn’t a strategy that was going to work for Jimmy.

I probably should have prepared him for Sergeant, but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Sergeant was the kind of guy who not only had a wristwatch but also a stopwatch that dangled from his belt loop. When Jimmy showed up half an hour late to the organizational meeting, it was clear that Sergeant wasn’t going to let him just waltz in any time he pleased, or leave when he felt like it either.

“Real men don’t go when the going gets tough, they get going,” Sergeant said when Jimmy asked how late he’d have to stay.

I thought Jimmy might “get going” then and there, but instead he only slouched a little further down in his chair, “Whatever,” he said.

Sergeant gave him the gimlet eye, but then looked at the time and must have realized that we were falling a little behind schedule.

“Cheryl, perhaps you’d give your—” he paused, not knowing who Jimmy was to me. Brother? Cousin? FiancĂ©? Sergeant was the type who liked definition in relationships.

“Friend,” I said. “Jimmy and I go back a long way.” So far back, in fact, that sometimes we’d been enemies, but I didn’t think this was something Sergeant needed to know. Jimmy rewarded me with a smile.

“Yes, yes—whatever,” Sergeant said pointedly. “Perhaps you could give your friend a little tour of the facilities. Then bring him back here and I’ll assign him his post.”

“My post?” Jimmy asked, half-rising. Jimmy always said he was a lover, not a fighter, but this wasn’t strictly speaking true.

“Jimmy,” I said. “Jim!” when that failed to deter him. In a lower voice I said, “It’s just a word. It’s just a position, an assignment. Come on, let me show you around.” And I pushed him out of the room with as much grace as I could manage in the instance, which wasn’t much.

Out in the hall, Jimmy said, “Jesus, Cheryl. How do you put up with him?”

“He’s not so bad,” I said.

“He’s a freaking freakazoid. What a control freak!”

“Well, someone’s got to be a control freak when you’re putting on dinner for several hundred people.”

“Several hundred people!” he stared at me. "You know, thanks for the invite and all, but I’m out of here.” He looked around for the nearest exit.

“Whoa, Jimmy—just hold on a sec, will you?” He was breathing hard and so was I. “Why do you let him get your goat like that?”

“I don’t know. He reminds me of my dad.”

I’d forgotten that Jimmy’s dad was retired Marine Corps. Green Beret, no less. A hard act to follow. “Just take his stupid assignment and that’ll be it. You’ll hardly see him on the night, he’ll be so busy running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”          

It took visible effort for him to stop reacting to the guy. But then he did. “Turkey, you mean.”


“The only bird that gets its head cut off for Thanksgiving is a turkey.”

“Turkey it is,” I said. But I didn’t really like where this was going.


It was Tuesday night. I had let Jimmy sneak into a movie. It was pushing the line a little, but it didn’t hurt anyone so I let him talk me into it. He gave me a ride home afterwards, which made me feel like he wasn’t just using me—no, we were using each other. It was pretty late by the time we left the theater and I wondered what Bootsie might be thinking, but I had a feeling that Bootsie maybe didn’t care as much as she would have once.

We hadn’t gone far when traffic slowed down and then ground almost to a halt. There had been some sort of accident. We crept on, until we came to a part of the road lit by flares and the glaring lights of emergency vehicles. Then I saw an odd thing. It was a turkey lying in the middle of the road. Not a live turkey—a frozen one. Jimmy saw it too.

“Get it,” he said.

I looked at him blankly.

“Just open your door as we go past and reach out and goddamn get it.”

“Jesus,” I said. But I did what I was told.

The lights ahead got brighter and this led us to behold a gruesome sight. There were bodies all over the road. Naked bodies. The bodies of frozen fowl. A truck full of frozen turkeys had jackknifed and divulged its treasure.

As we drove closer, we saw the cops and the driver. The driver had a head wound, but it didn’t stop him from expostulating animatedly with the two highway patrolmen who stood with him. Anybody might have thought that they were to blame for the fiasco.

Jimmy passed the jackknifed truck and slowed to a stop.

“Jimmy?” I said.

“What? You’re the one who’s supposed to be the good Samaritan, aren’t you? Let’s see what we can do to help.”

If these words had come from any other lips, I might have believed them. But they hadn’t. Jimmy didn’t help. He helped himself.

The driver was lamenting loudly to the highway patrolmen as we came up.

“No refrigeration! They all done for.”

“Who’s all done for, sir?” one of the cops asked, as if he couldn’t have gotten a clue from the poultry all over the highway.

“I supposed to deliver these turkeys for Thanksgiving. Somebody not going to have no turkey for dinner now. Lotta somebodies.”

“I think that the fact that you don’t have a valid driver’s license on you and have apparently been drinking might be a bigger of a problem for you right now, sir.”

I looked at Jimmy. He looked at me. “The freezer at the shelter,” I said. “There’d be plenty of room to store them in there.”

“Just what I was thinking,” he said. He turned to the policemen and the driver. “Gentlemen, while you attend to the, uh, paperwork, I think there might be a way we can take these birds off your hands.”


We went to the nearest 7/11 and I bought five bags of ice, which we put in the trunk of Jimmy’s car. Then we went back to the truck and with the help of a couple of patrolmen loaded the turkeys into the back.

“We should call Sergeant Major and let him know we’re doing this,” I said, reaching in my purse for my cell phone. Jimmy reached over and stayed my hand. 

“Let’s tell him in the morning,” he said.

I mentioned before that there were all kinds of reasons people get involved in philanthropy. One of them is power. Another one is crime. Jimmy had the whole ride over to turn me into an accomplice.

“Come on, Cheryl. It’s one carload. Who does it hurt?”

“Jimmy, we told the cops we were taking these to the shelter.”

“We are. We just aren’t leaving them there.”


“The shelter already has plenty of turkey. You showed me yourself.”

“It has enough, probably. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t use more.”

“Look, if it makes you feel any better, we can leave them a few.”


“A few.” He looked at me.  He could tell my resistance was softening. “Cheryl, it’s not just people at the shelter who could use a good turkey dinner, right? We can take it right to the neighborhoods that need it most, offer them a cut rate bargain.”

I gave him a withering glance. “Robin Hood you’re not, Jimmy.”

“Well, I could be if you’d let me, Maid Marian.”

By the time we got to the shelter, he’d talked me into it. But you’ve already figured that out.


By using the back seat as well, we had managed to “rescue” about fifty birds. I had a key to the shelter and between us it took us a good few trips to get them safely stowed in the freezer. By the end of it, even I was beginning to feel that we deserved a bit by way of compensation. Especially since, by dawn, we would have to do the whole thing in reverse.

“Six AM?” Jimmy asked. “Seriously?”

“I’ve seen Sergeant poking around the soup kitchen as early as eight.”

“Fine. I’ll pick you up at quarter till. Unless you want me to stay…”

“Bootsie will be missing you,” I said firmly.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. He sounded unconvinced.



When we got back to the shelter that morning there was no one around the kitchen area. It was just as well because the fight we got into was not one I would have wanted the other workers to hear.

“Cheryl, if we leave some, they’ll have to be explained. If we leave none, no one will be the wiser. It’s like we were never here.”

“That’s not what I agreed to when you talked me into this.”

“I know, but it’s not like you can’t change your mind.”


In the end we stopped arguing only because we were running out of time. It was light by the time we had gotten the last birds out as it was. We left the shelter with ten, and took the other forty. I didn’t feel good about it, but I told myself I had done the best I could.


It turned out that it wasn’t as easy to sell discounted turkey out of the back of your car as you would have thought. For one thing, one of the big supermarket chains had offered a promotion on Butterballs the weekend before, and everyone who’d been looking for a bargain was pretty well set. We headed for a poorer Spanish speaking neighborhood that we thought might be a bit beyond Butterball territory, and opened the trunk. A man who’s battered face made him look like he hired himself out as a punching bag leant in and inspected one of the turkey’s more closely. Jimmy and I beamed at each other—we could practically feel the money in our pockets.

“Is that a tire mark?” 

“Uh…” Jimmy said.

“Hijo de puta!” he said. The language proceeded to get more colorful from there. A crowd was forming, so Jimmy slammed down the trunk lid and we got the hell out of there. We were probably lucky they didn’t run us out on a rail.

By four o’clock, we had sold six turkeys and made ninety bucks. Taking into account the amount of money we had spent on gas and on refilling the car with ice, it was not between the two of us what you’d call a decent day’s wage. And despite various precautions, the trunk had begun to fill up with ice water. I didn’t want to think about the upholstery in the back of the car, and was glad it wasn’t mine.

We sat on the back of the trunk and listened to the water drip from some unknown place within down to the pavement beneath.

“I give,” Jimmy said. To be fair to him, he always did seem to know when it was time to cut his losses.

“But what are we going to do with the turkeys?”

“Dump ‘em somewhere. What do I care?”

“It’s perfectly good meat, Jimmy—even the one with the tire track.”

“Okay, since you’ve obviously thought about it, what do you want to do, Cheryl?”

“Take it back to the shelter, obviously.”

“Hell, no--are you out of your mind?””

“They can still use it. They use worse than this all the time.”

“I’m not going to do it, Cheryl.”

There was a long, pregnant pause.

“Whose car is this, anyway?”

“What are you talking about?”

Whose car?

He let out a long sigh. “Bootsie’s.”

“You think she’s going to be happy when she finds out what you’ve been up to with it? Filling it with ice and turkey carcasses?”

“You’d never tell her.”

But I could see he didn’t entirely believe that.

“Try me, Jimbo.” I’m not usually like this, but it had been a long day.

It was now late Wednesday night and we’d watched the last of the shelter volunteers leave. There was a security guard who came round sometime in the night, but I didn’t think it was till later. Besides, I had a key. Technically, I wasn’t trespassing. We had gotten as far as the kitchen, me hugging a big turkey to my chest and Jimmy with one under each arm, and I was just trying to nudge the handle of the freezer open with my elbow when a flashlight shone blindingly out at us.

“WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH MY BIRDS?” a ringing voice called out of the darkness. If I hadn’t known Sergeant Major so well, at that moment, I might have mistaken it for God’s.

Which might explain why Jimmy, who’d never minded lying and was normally pretty fast on his feet, didn’t even bother to try it out.

“Taking them out for a drive,” he said meekly.

Which was, strictly speaking, the truth.

It turned out that someone in the other part of the shelter had seen us in what was perceived as our “early dawn raid”, and had called the police, who had sent someone over to talk to them and ascertain what was missing. Sergeant Major couldn’t claim that he noticed anything missing, but that only made him believe that the thieves must be fiendishly clever and he resolved to set up a little stakeout of his own.

The fact that they weren’t actually his turkeys counted for very little with him. The fact that we were bringing them back counted for less. If he could have figured out how to have us thrown in jail, he would have.  As it was, he was about to throw us both off the premises, but then he realized that we still had the turkeys.

“”Forward, march!” he said. I have a feeling that overseeing our return of the turkeys was the most fun he’d had in a long time. Sergeant Major—what can I say? He was the kind of guy you felt probably wished he’d been around to help orchestrate the Bataan Death March and handled it all a lot more efficiently too.



It was about ten thirty on Thanksgiving night. Jimmy and I were standing out back of the shelter, sharing a cigarette. We only had the one. Sergeant Major had confiscated the rest when he’d caught us taking a break earlier. Breaks weren’t in his plans for us. Neither was smoking. We’d both been there since early that morning. Jimmy hadn’t wanted to come back to the place after our long night there, why would he, but I’d said, Come on, you still don’t have a place to go for dinner, and it will be better if you’re there.

“Really?” he’d asked.

“Sure,” I’d said. I’d only meant that it would take some of Sergeant Major’s punitive focus off me. But then again, maybe it wasn’t all I meant, either.

We’d started by scrubbing potatoes in the morning and finished by scrubbing pots at night. They were the longest hours I’d ever worked at the shelter and probably the longest Jimmy had ever worked, period. Our Thanksgiving dinner was eaten on the run, and unmemorable. Though I will say one thing-- there was an awful lot of turkey.

But now it was over. We leaned against the wall, companionable, our harmony restored.

“Bootsie just called me. She isn’t too pleased about the car,” he said.

“You surprise me.”

“Thing is, it kind of means I don’t have any place to stay.”

“You could stay here. That’s why it’s called a shelter.”

“No freakin’ way.” He paused. “Come on, Cheryl. Let me crash with you for a while. It’s the least you can do.”

“The least I can do?” and I was building up a head of steam to finally let him have it, really have it, when suddenly I realized that he was right. I was the one who had gotten him involved in all this in the first place. Besides, who was I kidding?

Definitely not him.

“All right,” I said.

“Yeah?” he said. He smiled. He plucked the cigarette from between my lips and, taking a deep drag from it, exhaled in contentment. I was standing so close to him that it made my eyes sting.

That was okay, though—it wasn’t the first time James Anthony Delfino had blown smoke in my eyes.

And as he leaned in just a little bit closer, I realized it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

bragging rights

I just heard today that The First Line is going to take my story for their winter edition.  I've posted about The First Line a few times here (like  my very last post) because they offer a  first sentence prompt, you write a story and send it in. No fees, no contest, it's pretty simple. That said, I have tried to write a story from their first line a few times and never had one accepted before. A couple of these stories have gone elsewhere since, so I've never felt like it was a waste of time even when I've gotten a rejection email, but I must say it does feel pretty good to write a story for a specific purpose and have it accepted.

I do feel that every once and awhile it's okay to toot my own horn here, because, let's face it, those moments are few and far between, but I also have another reason. The first line that this story came from wasn't particularly inspiring to me, and the only reason I tried it was because I'd blown their last deadline. And I think it's important to realize in writing that you never know what is going to come from what. You don't have to feel super inspired to begin something. Although I do think a deadline and the idea that someone on the other end of your email transmission will actually read it helps...    

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The 91 word memoir contest

From the latest edition of Erica Dreifus's Practicing Writer newsletter that I received, I learned of this great little contest: All you have to do is write up to 91 words of memoir to enter. The contest is free and is running till October 15th. Come on, people. I know this isn't strictly a story contest, but this one seems doable. Check it all out HERE .

For some reason, I'm not able to get the subscription link For Erica's newsletter to work, but you can visit the Practicing Writer group HERE, and maybe you'll have a bit more success than I did.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wire is Alive--Story Suggestions

My sister Julie made me aware of this great project by her friend Matthew Walden, called Wire is Alive. Remember how I devoted the month of April to suggesting story prompts that you and in reality more likely me could use to start a story? Well, this is kind of the reverse. You  write a sentence prompt and he, or, later, possibly one of his minions might just make a story out of it. So pop on over and send him a telegram. Or at least read the latest story, "Baptism for the Dead".  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pea Green Boat

Haven't had an actual story you can listen to here for awhile. Adrian McKinty has been talking up Stewart Lee over at his place recently, and here is an audio he linked to of Lee's Pea Green Boat . I'd say it was mordantly funny, except I'm not sure I know what mordant means. Darkly humorous then. Very darkly humorous.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A great critique opportunity

Ru over at And Then She Was Like Blah Blah Blah has offered us a great critiquing opportunity for one lucky person. You can find out about it HERE.

Take advantage of this. Seriously. You know I will.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The last First Line of the Year

I explained what The First Line is back here, but wanted to remind you or tell any new passersby that the final sentence of The First Line contest is up and you can write a story using it by November 1st and maybe win a slot in their journal. Here it is:

Sometimes, when it's quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs.

Check out their website, where they will explain it all for you.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize Competition

I  got news about this contest the other day by email and thought I'd share it with you. I'm thinking about entering it myself, but I'll be happy if you win too! Drop me a line if you do--I'd love to hear.
Dear Writer,

I wanted to remind you about an exciting prize and publication opportunity available through The Missouri Review. There’s one month left to submit to our Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize Competition--for which we offer over $15,000 in prizes. We accept submissions in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Winners in each category receive a prize of $5,000, plus a feature in our Spring issue and paid travel to our gala reading and reception. Contest finalists will receive cash prizes and have their work considered for publication as well.

While the contest has a postmark deadline of October 1st of this year, we encourage early submissions. We accept submissions online or by mail. Winners will be announced in January of 2013.

Don’t forget that your $20 entry fee gets you a one-year subscription to The Missouri Review. Subscriptions are available in print or digital versions. Our downloadable digital subscription includes a full-length audio version of the journal.

You can find more information about the contest through our website:

Interested in reading a past Jeffrey E. Smith Editor's Prize winner? Check out the essays "Big Jim," "Letters to David," and "My Thai Girlfriends" on textBOX, the Missouri Review's free online anthology:

Thanks very much for your help in making this year’s contest a success. We look forward to reading your submissions!

Best regards,

Claire McQuerry

Contest Editor

The Missouri Review
357 McReynolds Hall
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


My friend Leslie Karst has started a new blog called Custard and Clues, which is at least somewhat aligned with her  new venture of writing mystery novels. Checking it out last night, I learned about something called the Gearing Up to Get An Agent blogfest/contest.

To be honest, I wasn't really gearing up to do much of anything in September, but on the other hand, I do have a lot of unpitched and unpublished work, and you never know, we go.

Deana Barnhart

Not entirely forthcoming biographical notes:

I live in Santa Cruz, California, which I first came to to attend the university here. Although I have tried several times to escape, it's never ultimately worked out, and I have worked for many years now at a large independent bookstore here. Still trying to figure out how that happened, but for your purposes, that means that I know quite a lot about the realities of the publishing world from a a very particular angle. So feel free to ask questions, as long as you know that some of the answers may be disheartening.

I've written in a lot of different forms and I like trying out new genres and new media. I've even co-authored a trivia book about Southern California (my birthplace). I  have a lot of blogs, which is probably a mistake, and the most popular one is one called Confessions of Ignorance, which I think people like because they are comforted by the fact that I know even less than they do.

As far as actually getting published by other people, other than the trivia book, my success to date has been in the realm of short stories. I've recently put in a few links on this blog so that people who enjoy the form can access these from here.

I have several longer manuscripts, though, some of which I've tried to get an agent for, without success. I'll probably try the most recent one in the pitch festival here. Should be interesting. ("Interesting" is often used as a cover word for "terrifying").

Meet and Greet Questions and Answers:

Where do you write?

I used to do almost all my writing in coffee shops, but gradually that has shifted over to working almost entirely at home.

Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?

Once you look past a truly appalling pile of clutter (I'm the kind of person who watches Hoarders and worries) there is a really beautiful garden, which, not surprisingly is maintained entirely by my landlady, and not by me. When I first moved in here, it was a kind of dark, ferny redwood garden, which I liked. But then a giant tree fell down, luckily not on my house, and now it is a sunny and entirely different garden. There's a metaphor in that somewhere.

Favorite time to write?

I like to write in daylight, I don't really care when. At night, I pretty much like to turn off and be a complete sloth. But facing different deadlines at various times in my life, I've learned that preference is only that--preference. You can do an awful lot of writing when you're "too tired and don't really feel like it".

Drink of choice while writing?

I used to drink a lot of coffee while I wrote, but now I don't really drink anything. If there happens to be a beer nearby, though...

When writing, do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

This is a funny thing. At home, I need it quiet. But if I'm writing out somewhere and there's background music, I really don't mind it, and usually only half notice it.

What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

I somehow got drawn into the world of spycraft. It started by reading Barry Eisler and watching Burn Notice on television and becoming more and more intrigued about how the world looks from a spy's point of view. Then I almost accidentally took a spy writing workshop from D. S. Kane at the Muse Online Writers Conference last year, and then took the plunge and wrote out the whole thing for last year's Nanowrimo. There are aspects of all this that are not unlike being recruited into the spy world itself.

What's your most valuable writing tip?

Don't let excuses bog you down too much. Don't wait for ideal situations or the perfect story or some aspect of your life to change before you really 'get serious'. Just start.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Shout Her Lovely Name, by Natalie Serber

I recently wrote this up on my book review blog, but I think it should probably be here as well, as it a review of a very fine collection of short stories

Every once in awhile I see the complaint that writers and readers are now all part of one big mutual admiration society. Here's an example. For all I know this is true, although I certainly don't think you can blame the authors for any publicity schemes they might come up with, as, much more often than not, they are left high and dry by their publishers' marketing departments, who tend to be focussed, like everyone else in the publishing game, on the big fish and the big score.

Every once in awhile though, the opposite effect happens. You happen to know the author when they are still a struggling unpublished writer. Maybe they're your next door neighbor, or someone you work with or someone's spouse. You admire the gumption maybe, but you don't think it's going to take them very far. Or maybe that's just me, because I've worked in the book biz for a long time, and  I know a little bit about the odds.

I know a fair number of writers now, but so far only a couple have I known before their books came out. One was Laurie R. King, who chatted to me at my housemates' backyard barbecue about a mystery she was working on. I was polite and sympathetic, but I didn't think it would amount to much. That was before Grave Talent won the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1994, and much before her acclaimed Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series took off like gangbusters. So much for my predictive powers.

I should have known better, then, when Natalie Serber's stories began appearing around town. I believe she actually won first place in a short story contest that the bookstore I work in started hosting while she still lived here.I know Natalie a little, mainly because she is a close friend of one of my long time friends. We very briefly shared a book group. So  I must stress that I never thought she wasn't any good--I think I just thought her semi-autobiographical stories would hold more local interest than national.

Well, I sure don't mind admitting I was wrong. Shout Her Lovely Name is a terrific collection. I'd place it right up there with another favorite, Melissa Bank's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which also exploits what I assume is autobiographical content to lovely effect. Natalie's collection mainly tracks the ups and downs of Ruby and her daughter Nora, but there are a few unrelated stories thrown in as well. Although I suppose these are a bit disruptive to our more pure involvement with this picaresque pair, I sure wouldn't sacrifice the powerful title story for the sake of purity. The collection is held together by a more universal vision of the lives of mothers and daughters, and the  incidental vagaries of men.

All these stories but particularly the second person Ruby/Nora stories are beautifully observed, with a writerly eye for the telling detail. Although there is a clear gap between the generations, there is none of the" revenge on the parents!" feeling that plagues many writers' stories when they are first granted permission to unleash them. Ruby isn't perfect, but neither is Nora. Neither is anybody else.

I really enjoyed this collection and very much look forward to seeing what Natalie Serber, writer-at-large, will do next.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Flash Fiction advice from David Gaffney

Now that you know that Istories wants your work, here's a timely little bit of advice from Sawn-Off Tales author David Gaffney on how to really make these little tales deliver...

Come on, you know you want to.

Monday, August 6, 2012


No, not stories driven by excessive ego. Istories.  You know--the ones that work with your Iphone app.

I'm not a huge fan of Iphones, apps and all that world. but Narrative Magazine disagrees with me and they are asking for Istories to go with their free app. It's not as technology heavy as you might first think. An Istory is just a very short piece of fiction, up to 150 words long, and if they publish you, they'll pay you.

The catch is that there is an entry fee, and for a very short piece it seems a bit steep. But you get some perks from it even if you don't win. In any case, the rules are here. And if you'd like to see what a winning Istory looks like, go here. The selections are actually quite good.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

International Thriller Writers, Inc.

I just became a member of International Thriller Writers, Inc. a couple of days ago. Before I get on to some actual story content in my next post, I thought I'd tell you how this came about, because I think it's instructive.

Some while ago, I wrote a story for a story challenge. I've mentioned the story here before, but it was written in reponse to a blog challenge to write a contemporary crime story based on a classic fairytale. I had responded to one or two of these challenges before, and realized that it was an enjoyable way to write stories for me. A few years ago I had gotten pretty heavily into the more official submissions world, where you send a story out endless times and hope that someone will take it. I had some results, but frankly, it's a lot of effort, and not just writing effort, for a little return. Writing stories for fun and having them immediately featured somewhere seemed a lot more rewarding. But honestly, since it was just for a blog, I really didn't think about consequences, other than that a few more people would read it than might otherwise.

Well, the blog host, John Kenyon, somehow was in connection with the folks at Untreed Reads, and they thought it was a good idea for an ebook. All of us who participated in this challenge eventually became the authors of Grimm Tales, and the book was published just before Christmas of last year. It connected me to a good group of talented crime writers and has added to my life in that way.

There is an even longer term effect, though, in that Untreed Reads itself has just recently been granted the status of an ITW recognized publisher, which means in turn that all Untreed Reads writers are entitled to membership in the ITW. That's right...even someone with one, tiny, not particularly criminal story gains entrance. And that someone would be me.

Obviously, I hope, I'm not writing this post to brag, because let's face it, it's a pretty poor brag to say you managed to barely sneak in an open door. What I'm really trying to show is that luck is a big factor in the writing game, and you just never know where anything will lead. If you have a story for a story challenge or anything like that, for heavens sake, write it. Because you just never know what's going to happen next.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Another intriguing call for submissions from Untreed Reads

Jay Hartmann from Untreed Reads has just sent out another open call for stories.  This time it's just horrible...

"Some people are sorry to see a year go by. Great things happened, vacations were taken, memories were made.
Of course...not EVERY year is necessarily a good one. And, sometimes, New Year's Eve can be the scariest holiday of them all. Forced to relive awkward moments, breakups...and sometimes something a little more sinister. A new year doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a GOOD year.

A lot of people die on New Year's Eve. Many of them happen in traffic accidents. But what about the others? What about the unusual deaths? Could there be a supernatural reason why people don't make it to a new year? Some force at work determined to thin the herd before the clock ticks over to 12:01?

Untreed Reads is pleased to announce a call for submissions for a new horror short story anthology we're calling Year's End. Come tell us your scariest story about New Year's Eve. Happy endings are not necessary. Heck, the more horrific and unhappy the better. Here's the rules:

1. All stories must be between 1500-5000 words.
2. Deadline for submission for consideration is October 15th, 2012. This is a firm date; no submissions after this date will be considered.
3. All submissions should be sent to Jay Hartman at with the words NEW YEARS in the subject line.
4. Your story CANNOT take place on New Year's Day. The ending may take you there, but the bulk of the story MUST happen on New Year's Eve.
5. Submissions must be in DOC, RTF or ODT format.
6. We will not be publishing the stories individually. Only the anthology will be available.
7. Authors will receive royalty, but not upfront payment. Authors will each receive a share of royalties of 50% of net (net = cover price - vendor commission) based on the number of authors in the final anthology.
8. Characters appearing in other Untreed Reads series or other series not published by us are strongly encouraged. Please check your contract with your publisher to make sure you may legally do so.
9. Your story MUST have a strong horror element to it. Any genre of horror is fine. Preference is to psychological horror rather than gore.
10. Stories not accepted for the anthology may be still be considered for other publication.
11. Previously published works are fine providing that electronic rights have reverted to the author and the story is not currently offered for free anywhere on the Internet or currently published through a self-publishing venue (i.e.: Smashwords, Amazon KDP, etc.).
12. There are no restrictions whatsoever on age, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc in the work.. Just tell us a great story!

Please direct any questions to Jay Hartman at We recommend looking at any of the following for an idea of the types of stories we're looking for: Joshua Calkins-Treworgy's Roads Through Amelia series, Benson Phillip Lott's Pumpkin series or any of the horror works by Rick R. Reed.

All decisions on material will be made by November 1st, 2012. Every attempt will be made to notify all authors of the status of their submission at that time. Please do not inquire about status prior to November 1st, 2012.

This anthology has an expected publication date of December 15th.

This is an open call, and may be reposted anywhere and everywhere."

Go to it, writing friends!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flash Jab Fiction Challenge--Baseball

I was honored to have my story published over at Jack Bates' Flash Jab Fiction challenge a couple of  months ago. I thought I should return the favor by letting you know about his newest challenge. Make it short and make it about baseball. That's it. Details are HERE . I don't think I have any baseball stories up my sleeve,  but I'll bet you do.

Give it a shot. It's fun.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On reading and readings

I just finished the very enjoyable Monstress, a collection of stories by Lysley Tenorio, an American author who uses his connection to his native Phillipines to write a diverse collection of stories about living lives drawn between these two poles. Although I have a read a fair number of anthologies over the last few years, I haven't lately been reading a lot of single author story collections. My loss, really, because, though there is something to be said for reading a story by itself, there is another kind of pleasure in reading a collection of work by one writer, as his or her concerns and themes tend to be amplified by this grouping.

I actually started this book awhile ago, for a somewhat unusual reason. One of my bookloving friends, Steve,  is always looking to cajole or coerce a few of his cohorts into different literary activities, so his friend Richard and I all carpooled up to UCSC to see Tenorio, who was taking part in the Living Writers Reading Series. I started the book late, and so had only read a few of the stories before I heard him. By chance, the story he read was "Superassassin", which I had only just begun.

This sequence of events led me to become aware of the book in a way that I might not otherwise have done. Tenorio read in competent way, and Steve and Richard both said that they felt their enjoyment of the book was enhanced by hearing it. But I felt that I had actually read it in my head a bit better than I was hearing. This was because I was hearing it in the voice of a young teenager and not in the more worldly voice of an adult college teacher. If I hadn't already had the one voice in my head, I might not have noticed. Also, if I hadn't just recently been listening to Leonard Nimoy's masterly, dramatic reading of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", which I linked to here in May, I might not have realized how much a trained actor can lend to a reading.

Now obviously, my sense of liking the voice in my head better was a minority view among the three of us. And I am on kind of a roll with this lately, feeling like I don't want to see movies of novels and so on. Tenorio had some interesting things to say about reading his stories in front of different audiences--people sometimes find things funny that he didn't intend, and vis versa. The group we were sitting with was largely college students, and they laughed at certain things I didn't think were meant to be funny, but it wasn't too jarring.

An odd thing is when you find yourself disagreeing slightly with the author about the character he is describing. Usually, you don't know this unless you go to an event like this and the author opens up a bit about a story. In this case, I thought that Tenorio might not have realized how sympathetic he had made his "superassassin", and how much the reader might be weighted toward hope that things might in the end be all right.      

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hard Times and Great Expectations-the film

One of my crime fic faves, Paul D. Brazill, has started up a new column on Out of the Gutter called Brit Grit Alley and that is why I am able to offer you this lovely, moving short film, based on the work of Nick Quantrill, which is part of Hull's celebration of Charles Dickens festival.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Gotta Killer Submission? Be Thankful.

I got an email today from Jay Hartman, the editor of Untreed Reads, which is the publisher responsible for putting together the most recent anthology I've been in, Grimm Tales. It's an open call for submissions for a crime anthology centered around Thanksgiving. If you think you might be able to come up with a good, funny crime story centered around Thanksgiving, read on. I've been involved in a  couple of Jay's projects now, and it has been a lot of fun!

"The Killer is back!
We had so much fun with The Killer Wore Cranberry back in 2010, that we felt it was time to revisit the anthology. So, we're happy to present The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping.

As in the previous anthology, all the stories contained within must be about murder and mayhem happening at Thanksgiving, and must feature a typical Thanksgiving dish as a vital part of the story (i.e.: turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie). Most must be funny! This anthology is all about making people laugh while enjoying a great mystery short at the same time. The anthology will be edited by Editor-in-Chief Jay Hartman.
And now, the rules:
1. All stories must be between 1500-5000 words.
2. Deadline for submission for consideration is September 1st, 2012. This is a firm date; no submissions after this date will be considered.

3. All submissions should be sent to Jay Hartman at jhartman@untreedreads with the word THANKSGIVING in the subject line.

4. Submissions must be in DOC, RTF or ODT format.
5. Unlike the previous anthology, we will not be publishing the stories individually. Only the anthology will be available.
6. Authors will receive royalty, but not upfront payment. Authors will each receive a share of royalties of 50% of net (net = cover price - vendor commission) based on the number of authors in the final anthology.
7. Characters appearing in other Untreed Reads series or other series not published by us are strongly encouraged (i.e.: Wade J. McMahan's Richard Dick, Beth Mathison's Mobsters or Young at Heart or Albert Tucher's Diana Andrews)
8. Your story MUST have humor in it, feature a Thanksgiving dish and have a great mystery or crime at the heart of the story.
9. Stories not accepted for the anthology may be still be considered for other publication.
10. Previously published works are fine providing that electronic rights have reverted to the author and the story is not currently offered for free anywhere on the Internet or currently published through a self-publishing venue (i.e.: Smashwords, Amazon KDP, etc.).
11. There are no restrictions whatsoever on age, race, sex, sexual orientation, etc in the work.. Just tell us a great story!
Please direct any questions to Jay Hartman at We recommend looking at the original The Killer Wore Cranberry for an idea of the types of stories we're looking for.
All decisions on material will be made by September 15th, 2012. Every attempt will be made to notify all authors of the status of their submission at that time. Please do not inquire about status prior to September 15th, 2012.

This anthology has an expected publication date of October 15th.

This is an open call, and may be reposted anywhere and everywhere.

Jay Hartman
Untreed Reads Publishing

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Narrative Magazine Contest

I got an email for this the other day, and as I am considering entering it, I thought I'd give you the link too. Price of submission is a bit steep, ($22) but Narrative is a pretty ambitious enterprise, and you get some freebies thrown in, so don't dismiss the possibility out of hand.

Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest

Deadline, July 31, 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A dribble of drabbles

Patti Abbott has posted the entrants to the drabble challange over at her blog Pattinase . Reading them is a fun, fast Sunday kind of thing to do. Or any day, really.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Highwayman--a drabble

He was the illegitimate son of a defrocked minister who had once set the ladies’ hearts aflutter with his physical beauty and convincing talk of hellfire and damnation. Or so Trace had heard—he’d never had the pleasure of meeting that fine gentleman. He’d inherited his daddy’s looks, but not his calling. Now, as he fled the scene of his last, botched robbery, dragging his bullet-shattered leg behind him, Trace finally came within sight of his father’s abandoned church. Though only a husk of its former self, it seemed as good a place to make his last stand as any.

(c) 2012 Seana Graham

Sunday, June 3, 2012

June's bonus prompt

Just in case anyone is still reading along here and going through withdrawal for those prompts, I've just learned that Patti Abbott has put up a drabble challenge. A drabble is a story of exactly one hundred words. As she notes in her post, Rob Kitchen frequently has one up and Paul D. Brazill has just posted one as well, if you need examples.

Try one and you could win a book of your choice by her daughter Megan Abbott, who is an acclaimed mystery writer herself. Details HERE. Deadline is June 16th.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Short Story Month, Day 31. The wrap up.

I have kind of drifted away from putting up this logo on each post, mainly because it takes a little extra time, but let's start by crediting Steven Seighman for the banner, and Dan Wickett's Emerging Writers Network for coming up with the idea.

Although it was an irrational, mostly quixotic ambition to post something every day relating to stories, I'm glad I did it. I know a couple of people have checked in here, and I hope that is or will be useful to them. But of course the main audience has been myself and I'm sure I've gotten much more out of doing this than anyone else will. I've gotten a couple of stories out of this, which is two more than the previous six or eight or twelve months gave me, and I've marshalled my resources, which will come in handy later. Probably the best thing is that I have had the idea of stories up in my face for 31 days, and that's a good thing.

I'll leave you with a couple of story listening links. One is to a really fine reading of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Leonard Nimoy. I'm a bit hesitant about this, because for me it ran out before I had quite gotten to the end, but you should listen to Nimoy's rendition, even if you have to go out and read the rest of the story for yourself. You can find it HERE.  And public radio has many more stories to listen to HERE.

The other is Colum McCann's "Transatlantic", which was published in the New Yorker in April, and which McCann read for the blog at the same time. You can find this HERE. They have podcasts of many famous stories HERE.

But you were waiting for a prompt, weren't you? Sure you were.

Once upon a time... Now describe the main character. Make the main character you.