Novellas are relatively rare in crime fiction where formats are far more rigid than in literary and speculative fiction. Short story lengths greater than 5000 words are tolerated…barely. And novels must be no less than 65,000 and no more than 95,000 words.
No doubt the formats are dictated by business rather than artistic imperatives. The story or book length a publisher believes will hold readers’ attention spans.
So what is a novella exactly? A long story or a short novel? As an author whose work naturally tends to fall in this category, I believe a novella is a story with a linear plot but with more texture, atmosphere and complexity of character than can be captured in 5000 words or less.
The Orca Rapid Reads Series breathed life into the crime fiction novella. Mostly because of this series, the CWC Awards of Excellence have had enough entries to create and sustain a novella category. (CWC defines a novella as a story between 8000 and 20,000 words.)
The Rapid Reads series is aimed at adults who are ESL students, who have difficulty reading or those who simply want a fast satisfying read. Although the language is uncomplicated, the books are not simplistic. They are hard-hitting, with adult themes and they often focus on social issues.
It’s a challenge for an author to streamline their writing style without losing its essence. That’s why Orca contracted with leading Canadian crime fiction authors for the 68 books in the series, including my friend, Sam Wiebe.
Sam’s novella, Never Going Back (Orca, 2020) is one of the latest books in the Rapid Reads series. Its protagonist, Alison Kidd, is a tough young woman, a master thief who’s just gotten out of jail. She hated prison and she’s determined to go straight, but the local crime boss blackmails her into pulling off a risky job. If she refuses, her brother will be killed. Can she outsmart her old boss and save her brother and herself?
Sam’s hard-hitting, critically acclaimed Dave Wakeland series and his debut novel, The Last of the Independents, are both written very much from a man’s point of view. I was intrigued that Sam chose a woman hero for Never Going Back. Could he pull it off?
I’m delighted to say that, yes, Sam did! Alison Kidd is a terrific and likeable character. (More books and stories with strong women, Sam!) The plot has the twists and turns of a switchback highway and the suspense that goes along with it. An excellent thriller!
Strange times, readers. But happily, at long last we can attack our TBR piles. Definitely time to indulge in feel-good literature even when one is drawn to the dark side – and noir.
The answer? Black humour and you will find plenty in the terrific anthology, Knucklehead Noir (Coffin Hop Press) edited by Robert Bose and Sarah L. Johnson. The byline says it all: When there’s no room left in jail, the idiots will walk the streets. Believe me, when you’ve finished these 15 stories (most new, some reprinted) by leading Canadian and American noir authors, you will feel much better about your own life, family, friends, job and COVID-19.
Leading off these tales celebrating idiots is one of my personal favorites, “Two Kangaroos Chained to a Piss Pot” by Jason Pearce. Angus arrives home with the Christmas gifts he made in jail, like the shiv his little brother can use as a toothbrush. Handy! But when he robs his local grocery store of beer and smokes, things go awry in the most Canadian way. “Honeymoon Sweet” by US screenwriter, Craig Faustus Buck, is the Macavity award-winning tale of marry in haste, repent at leisure. The same warning continues in “Work at Home Opportunity! Perfect for Single Moms” by Laurie Zottmann. Single mom, Chucky Jensen, struggles to sell stolen yoga pants at her kid’s school fair while fending off bitchy competitors and hiding the freshly dug hole in her garden from her nosy neighbour cop.
Golden Derringer winner, Michael Bracken, pens a cautionary tale about wannabee robbers of adult stores in “Sex Toys”, but Pamela Kenney gives us hope in “All in a Day’s Work”. You may change your fate if your kidnappers are dumber than you. The criminals in Chris R. Young’s story, ” Thick as Thieves”, are certainly thick. They mess up a job -no kidding!- and get caught in a hilarious twist of fate.
More inept wannabees appear in Tom Barlow’s, “Hic”. Andy tries to outdo his jailed brother, while sleeping with his brother’s devious ex, but his nerves set off a fit of hiccups and disaster. Jaclyn Adomeit’s story, “Scratch and Sniff”, skillfully blends suspense and humour in hero Nathan’s quest to smuggle drugs into an oil drillers camp. And the sad irony continues in Brent Nichols’ “Go Fish”, where a poacher steals a drowning victim’s cell phone only to find out that the vic has powerful friends bent on a watery revenge.
Another personal favorite is “Johnny Money”, by Steve Passey, where hardened gangster, Johnny, looks out for his vulnerable younger brother, Ricky. American noir author, Steve Brewer, shows his humorous side in “Cemetery Plot” where a trio of idiots try to kill each other off in a graveyard. Convenient because who looks for a murder victim in a cemetery?
Events turn downright bizarre in the cross-genre story “Soft Opening” by Will Viharo. Porn merchants learn that it’s never a good idea to cross an alien. In “Beer Run” by Scott S. Phillips, Radio Ketchum fights to retrieve a beer shipment stolen from his terrifying mother’s bar. And in Axel Howerton’s “The Aluminum Eagle”, we travel back in time in a thoroughly enjoyable homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. And rounding up the collection is the flash story, “Liner Notes” by editors Sarah and Rob where a hapless photog learns the hard way that his pics may be a goldmine, but not in the way he dreamed.
And 13 Claws struck gold at the Arthur Ellis Awards with a win by friend and fellow Madame of Mayhem, Catherine Astolfo for her story, “The Outlier”.
This is a tale so noir, Jack Batten, the Toronto Star critic said: Catherine Astolfo’s story involving a pig, for example, offers an intriguing way of giving Paul Bernardo himself a case of the chills.
Not to forget that we received THREE further nominations for “There be Dragons” by Jane Burfield and “The Ranchero’s Daughter” by Sylvia Warsh and my own novella, “Snake Oil”, about which Jack said: M. H. Callway’s tale mixes snakes and the real estate business in a way that will make readers run a mile from both.
My story, “The Cry”, is published in the April issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine!
In 2012, Ed and I visited Hiroshima, Japan to tour the Mazda factory, an enormous place with its own deep sea harbour and engineering university. Later we felt a duty to view the Peace Park, the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. Sobering, to say the least.
The park stretches nearly a mile in length and contains numerous memorials, virtually all of them in bleak Brutalist style, i.e. grey concrete.
I felt compelled to use this setting some day. In “The Cry”, an elderly assassin, suffering from early dementia, hears a murder being committed. Or does he?
Mystery Weekly Magazine is available in print from Amazon here.
Very excited to start 2018 with a new adventure. My friend, Donna Carrick of Carrick Publishing has launched a new podcast, Dead to Writes. I’m honoured to be one of the first authors featured on the podcast. I’ve been on radio once before on Sirius XM as a guest of Allison Dore.: a breathtakingly stressful adventure. We went overtime on our talk, which means all went well and Allison and her radio crew earned my undying admiration. Huge amount of work and prep goes into every minute of a radio interview.
Tonight, January 8th, my interview with Donna goes live followed by the audio version of my story, “Snake Oil”, from the Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, 13 Claws. Stand by for a thought-provoking discussion on crime fiction and writer’s craft.
Tune in via iTunes or Google Play. See you tonight!
I’ve been away in Iceland, a fascinating spot. Photos and fab street art soon in my next Wanderings.
2017 was a year of peaks and troughs, but two best-ever events really stand out. On a personal level, my husband and I are going to become grandparents. Holy Cycle of Life, Batman. Some days I feel like I’m in a time machine except I age along with the scenery. As my kid says: This Time Machine Sucks!
And 13 Claws, the Mesdames’ new anthology launched to great success. (Read all about the event here.)
Even better, the book received great reviews from Maureen Jennings, creator of the acclaimed Murdoch detective series and Jack Batten, mystery reviewer for the Toronto Star.
Warning: Blatant Self-Promotion!My story, “Snake Oil”, received a shout-out!
The gimmick in the third annual collection of crime stories from this group of Canadian woman writers is that an animal plays a role in each tale…But just because the contributors to the collection write out of an affection for animals doesn’t mean readers need similar feelings to appreciate the stories. There’s enough suspense and intellectual fascination built into the plots of the majority of stories to satisfy even the most ferociously cynophobic reader… And M. H. Callway’s tale mixes snakes and the real estate business in a way that will make readers run a mile from both.
And Maureen wrote:
A great mix of shuddery dark and tongue-in-cheek funny. What devious minds all these nice women have.
More blatant promotion: 13 Claws makes a great stocking stuffer. It’s available on Amazon and at my favorite bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street.
Excited about the launch of the Mesdames of Mayhem’s third anthology, 13 Claws, which I believe is our best collection yet.
Many years ago, my friend and fellow author, Jane Burfield had the idea for an anthology that centred on animals: animals as heroes – or villains. In 2016, our publisher, Carrick Publishing, gave us the go-ahead and here we are, better late than never.
Jane is a champion of encouraging new writers. The Mesdames held a contest and three authors new to the crime fiction genre, Mary Patterson, Roz Place and Marilyn Kay, have stories in the book.
If you’re in the Toronto area, do join us at the launch. There will food, drink and readings. Come out and support our favorite bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street.
The media’s consensus is that 2016 was the Year of Crap. Mad violence, racism, gender wars, the sanctioned rise of tyrants and unbridled greed, more wars…nice, huh? No wonder so many crime writers are turning to noir. Makes me proud – and relieved – to be a Canadian.
Despite the mayhem on earth, 2016 treated my family, friends and myself pretty well. One of the biggest highlights was my 9thRide to Conquer Cancer with my best buddy, Marc, in support of cancer research at Princess Margaret Hospital. The doctors, medical staff and researchers at PMH are truly the A-team. Because of them, many of our friends have beaten back this horrible illness and continue to live happy and fulfilling lives.
I devoted much of 2016 to building my social media presence via my website and Twitter. Blogging has been immensely freeing, allowing me to explore and share my love of street art, travel and the weird and wonderful.Readers around the globe and as far away as Macau have visited here though most of my followers live in Canada, the USA, Brazil and Germany. As of now, I have 1600+ followers on Twitter: mostly fellow writers or fans of crime fiction and street art.
Windigo Fire continues to draw interest. Seraphim Editions sent me my first royalty cheque, which was more than my initial advance. Wow! I also received my first payments from Public Lending Right (libraries) and Access Copyright. In December, I learned that WF was being studied by a high school English class as an example of Canadian literature – and the teacher invited me to meet his students in the New Year. Will the students be scarier than a roomful of hostile IT clients???
This year I participated in 20+ author events, flying solo or teamed up with fellow crime writers through our group, the Mesdames of Mayhem or with Crime Writers of Canada. I gave several workshops on How to Get Published at the Toronto Public Library as well as at my friend, Rosemary McCracken’s Novel II course at George Brown College. And I attended three literary conferences – whew!
Left Coast Crime in February in Phoenix, Arizona was terrific. I was honoured to be on the short crime fiction panel and I partied with new and old friends at the Short Fiction Mystery Society reception, Noir at the Bar and the Meet the Canucks event hosted by CWC. I met two of my favorite authors, Ann Cleeves and Tim Hallinan. Even fitted in a sightseeing tour of wild west ghost towns and rattlesnakes! (See my previous blogs on both subjects.)
Limestone Expo in Kingston, Ontario last July, was an intimate, multi-genre festival organized by horror author, Liz Strange. Ed and I made a fun weekend of it, staying at a haunted B&B, the fab Rosemount Inn and connecting with friends, old and new. I was delighted to share a table with speculative fiction author and aardvark lover, Ira Nayman, who in another life was our daughter’s film professor at Ryerson University! Thoroughly enjoyed being on the multi-genre panel, Monstrous Imaginings.
Bouchercon 2016 took place in September in New Orleans, Louisiana. The exotic location drew in thousands of crime fiction authors and fans from North America and overseas. Easy to get lost in the crowd as a newbie Canadian author, but also great to be in the Mardi Gras parade, to nom down Creole treats at publishers’ events and to hear some of the best Noir writing ever at the Voodoo Lounge. (See my blog on Bouchercon) And during the swamp tour, we learned that gators love marshmallows!
NaNoWriMo in November got me back to doing what writers are supposed to do: to write. Under the guiding hand of my friend, TO Poet, I hunkered down and got to work. Impossible to match TO Poet’s staggering output of 75,000+ words, so I settled on a focused approach this year and drafted two short stories and more chapters for the WF sequel, Windigo Ice.
December was devoted to family, friends and Christmas. Much to look forward to in the New Year. Several public events coming up as well as friends’ book launches and Left Coast Crime in Hawaii and Bouchercon right here in our own city of Toronto.
We Mesdames of Mayhem will be releasing our third anthology, 13 Claws, featuring dastardly, animal-centred crimes. For the first time, we have a contest to discover one or more authors previously unpublished in the crime fiction genre. Stay tuned and hope we survive 2017!!