19 January 2017

An Addict's Life

by Eve Fisher

Divine in Heaven T-shirt.jpg
Divine
(Source)
I grew up in Southern California in the 60's, which explains a lot. (Thank-fully, there was no Facebook, and no cell phones that took pictures, so I can deny everything.)  As I've said before, it was an interesting time and place to be a teenager.  There's nothing like starting off in a place where there are people of every ethnicity and religion.  (I still love the good juicy mix of people that you can only find in a multi-cultural city.)  Where people still might not be officially out of the closet - although wearing great designer drag - but the euphemisms were very thin and nobody was fooling anyone. (I learned about Jim Nabors when I was ten, and it didn't bother me a bit.) Where cult-shops were on offer everywhere you looked (which is why I know a cult when I see one, even if it's called a church, a party, a membership, or a club).  Where you were never sure if what was going on was reality or someone shooting a movie/tv show (now that could get a little weird...).

And then there were drugs.  Everywhere, oceans of them, both on and off-label, as it were.  I remember when I went to junior high, and the girls' bathroom reeked of what I quickly found out was not just cigarettes (my parents smoked), but also marijuana.  Reds and whites (downers and uppers) were widely available. And other things.  And wide recreational use was helped by the fact that both my junior high and high school were outdoor campuses.  Literally.

Only the actual classrooms and the auditorium were indoors.  The lockers were under the equivalent of concrete carports; the cafeteria was a row of vending machines (they even had burritos, which we all somehow ate and survived...) under their own concrete carport, and there were metal tables (never enough) under their own sheds.  The idea was that we students would dine and relax and run playfully on the wide and spreading lawns.  And we did.  Just not the way they [officially] planned.

Now, my personal experience in life is that almost all children and teenagers, given half a chance to run amok, will.  And in Southern California, where the weather was good and the teachers were worn out...   So freedom, space, opportunity...  most of us took it.

There is a period, from say 12 to 25, where people will do as much drinking, drugging, etc. as they can.  Whether or not they really feel like it.  Those of you who have ever worked at a candy store or a pizza place and been told, "eat all you want" will know how after a while, you don't really feel like it anymore, but you keep doing it because it's free, man, and you're supposed to want this stuff... Most people, after a few weeks/months of gorging will stop.  They may never want the candy, etc. ever again.  But during that time of gorging, you'd be really hard pressed to figure out who's an addict/alcoholic and who isn't.  I know anyone who watched me from 14 to early 20s would have been sure I was headed to rehab.  I drank, I smoked, I did some prescription drugs (my parents had bottles of both booze and Darvon everywhere), and later, when I left home, I did everything I could get my hands on. Just about everyone I knew did the same.

And then, it got old.  I quit doing pretty much anything but pot, alcohol, and cigarettes when I turned 18.  I quit smoking dope a couple of years later, when I figured out that it did nothing for my writing but make me think it was better than it was.  And then there was the early morning (2:30 PM) after the last big New Years' party of my life, where I turned to my new husband and said, "There has got to be a better way to start a new year than this."  And from then on, I was a social drinker.  One glass of wine, two at the most, and I'm done, thanks.

So, if you want to figure out if your teenager is an addict or alcoholic, chances are you really should wait until they're in their 20's to make a final call.  (I know, I know, what if you can't wait that long? Go to Al-Anon.  I am dead serious.  It can save your sanity, and perhaps your life.  Check HERE for a meeting near you.)

So, everything worked out great for me, right?  Yes, it did.  Except that I had one addiction I could not shake:  cigarettes.

Marlboro - my brand for years
Now this didn't bother me for years.  I loved smoking.  I loved the taste of it, the feel of it, the style of it, watching the smoke curl up to the ceiling, the activity, the movement of my hands, and the knowledge that I always had something to do.  It warmed me when I was cold, cooled me off when I was hot, tamped down the hunger pangs, tasted sooo good after a meal, fit in perfectly with my reading addiction (see my blog of 1/5/17), and was somewhere between the best thing that ever happened to me and my pacifier.  Smoking was entwined in almost everything I did, in almost every moment of my day.  I didn't know and I didn't care whether or not I was addicted: smoking was GREAT.

Fast forward twenty, thirty years.  I'm in my 40s, and I'm starting to feel it.  Colds sink into my chest and stay there.  I kind of want to quit, although I don't actually say it.  I'm struggling to cut down, to keep it under a pack, which I manage, and then under half a pack.  If I only smoke half a pack, that's fine, right?  It's better than nothing, and I still can't imagine being without cigarettes.  How do people live without smoking? How did I?  I can't remember it?  I can't envision it - not without a panic attack.  I am hooked, although I'm still in denial...

In my 50s, and I want to quit, God do I want to quit.  I can't deny it anymore:  my lungs are foggy, I'm coughing too much, my wind is gone, this is not good.  My journals are all about my struggle with addiction:  I tried Chantix (didn't work); I tried tapering down even more; I tried to quit outright, and failed, because I kept being ravaged by desire for a cigarette...  and I couldn't not give in.  I kept doing that years.  Tapering off, cutting down, going back, quitting, going back, on and on and bloody on...  I couldn't live with out that damned cigarette.  And the next one after that.  And the one after that...

Image result for horehound drops
Not me, but close enough...
(Source)
When I did quit, it was a miracle, plain and simple. My husband had a heart attack, and was hospitalized for 3 days.  I spent those days in the heart hospital with him, and I knew that that meant the nicotine was physically out of my system.  So - now or never, baby! And, by the grace of God, along with a sack of horehound drops big enough to choke a small hippo and a stack of straws, I quit.

TIP OF THE DAY:  If you cut a straw in half, it is the exact size and shape of a cigarette, and not only can you can puff away on them, but it fills that space in your hands, and that hand-to-mouth action of smoking, that cigarettes held for years.

There were times I thought I would die.  I'd walk by someone smoking and smell that warm, wonderful smell and practically reach down their shirt pocket for a smoke.  Something stressful would happen, and I would walk around the house puffing madly on that damned straw and thinking "this is lame."  And there would be that time, late afternoon, work mostly done, sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and my heart breaking because that had been the best cigarette of the day.  (That and the one after lunch, the one after dinner, the one after that, and...)  But, through the grace of God, I bulled through.  For one thing, I kept telling myself, "Fine, go ahead and have one.  But if you do, you'll just have to quit again."  And I knew I could never go through this again and make it...

Skull with a Burning
Cigarette -
Vincent Van Gogh
And now, I have over 6 years smoke free (after 40 years of smoking). God is great.  Huzzah!

Why am I telling you all this?  Because addiction is real.  Addiction is a disease.  I learned that the hard way.  There are still times when I want a cigarette.  There is a part of my mind that - against my will, I swear to God - likes to look back with nostalgia and regret for the good old days of smoking.  I've got my addiction, like a gorilla, bound up in a corner in my mind, but if I give it an inch, it will come roaring out and eat me alive again.  I know that.  And I'm terrified of that.

And at the same time, I'm so glad.  Because otherwise, how would I understand what it's like for alcoholics? drug addicts? addictive gamblers? other addicts? How could I relate to the guys at the pen, most of whom have been wrestling (and mostly losing) the battle with the gorilla for years?

It's not a matter of will power.  It's not a matter of moral fiber.  It's a mental/physical disease that takes a long, hard time to uproot.  That sometimes is never uprooted.  That is waiting, always, to lure you back again, into one more dance with the devil.  And the worst part of it is the mental, not the physical.  It's the mind - that devious, malicious, faux-nostalgic, faux-friendly, faux-helpful f***ing mind that still screws with me, and that I'll have to watch out for until my dying day.  And so will every other addict.

Image may contain: textMaybe someday our laws will reflect that.  As I've said before, mental illness has been pretty much made illegal in this country.  Rather than getting treatment, it's expected that the family will get their loved one the help they need -
(a brief intermission while all of us in Al-Anon or other family support groups have a long, hard, bitter laugh - again, HERE's the link to Al-Anon, and to NAMI
that the family will somehow get their loved one to the treatment they need, make sure they take their meds (if any exist), and keep them out of trouble.  It doesn't work.  (In fact, usually, it's the people closest to you that you can help the least.) Allow me to repeat that:  IT DOESN'T WORK.

Addiction, like any other mental illness, like any other illness, needs professional help from the get-go, not shame and secrets and expectations that do nothing but drive it further underground.  And then, when the addict finally does something that lands them in the hospital and/or prison and/or the morgue everyone acts so shocked!  How could that happen?

Because there isn't enough treatment.  Because there aren't enough facilities.  Because there aren't enough programs.  Because none of them, without really GOOD insurance, are affordable.  Because we don't believe, as a nation, that addiction is an illness, that mental illness is really an illness, and that treatment / medication / therapy really works.  Instead, we keep talking this BS about willpower, and then, when people's lives have crumbled, we say stupid things like, "I hope they get the help they need."

Maybe.  Someday.  In the meantime, I am so fortunate, and I know it.  


18 January 2017

The very best stories of 2016

by Robert Lopresti

I hope you have all donned your tuxes and/or gowns, because I am about to announce the best short mystery stories of the year.  Prepare to watch the winners sashaying down the red carpet and smirking at the paparazzi.

This is the eighth year I have conducted this ceremony.  I regret to say 2016 was not as good as 2015 (insert political joke here), since the number of stories dropped from 14 to 13.

Seven authors were men, six female.  The big winner was Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine with four stories.  Ellery Queen scored three and Crime Plus Music, an anthology from Three Rooms Press nabbed two. Five stories are historic fiction.  Three are (loosely speaking) comic.

The biggest surprise may be that there were  no repeat offenders: none of these authors had made my best-of lists before.  One SleuthSayer is included, as is one first story.

Addendum: I should have mentioned that slightly longer reviews of these stories can be found at my weekly review site, Little Big Crimes.

Okay.  Start the show!


Barnes, Linda. "The Way They Do It In Boston,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September/October 2016.

Veteran Drew wants to be a cop in Boston but it's hard to make the resident-for-a-year requirement when you are living in your car with your only friend, a beat-up ex-army dog.

So she's working night security on a tow service parking lot, down by the river.  One night a crate of assault weapons washes up on the shore.  Something bad is going on.  Does it involve the lot?  Can she survive long enough to find out?

Bastable, Mark.  "Motive, Opportunity, Means,"  in The Thrill List, edited by Catherine Lea, Brakelight Press, 2016.

Congressman John Fuller left his wife for his secretary.  Said wife did not take it well.  Now she has plotted an elaborate revenge, and Fuller's future depends on the shrewdness and determination of an overworked cop named Pinski who just wants to spend some time with own wife. 

If this description sounds a little sparse, you are right.  I don't want to give away any of the secrets of this marvelous, convoluted plot.

Bracken, Michael.  "Chase Your Dreams,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2016.

Picture a small town in Texas, one so set in its ways that the whites and blacks still use seperate cemeteries.  Cody is a gay man, deep in the closet.  His secret lover, Chase, on the other hand, was "leading one-man Gay Pride parades." When Chase disappears, Cody has to decide what is more important: finding out the truth, or staying safe?

Buck, Craig Faustus.  "Blank Shot," in Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae, Dark House Books, 2016.

1960, East Berlin.  Our protagonist has been shot in the head, a grazing blow that erased most of his memory.  The cops want to know what happened and the deadly secret police, the Stasi, are lurking on the sidelines, up to God knows what. Will our hero figure out who he is before the shooter realizes he is still alive and tries again? 

Cajoleas, Jimmy.  "The Lord of Madison County," in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, Akashic Press, 2016.


Teenage Douglas  has come up with the perfect place to sell drugs: his church's youth group.  Pastor Jerry loves his enthusiasm and has no clue about what's going on... or what Douglas is doing with his young daughter. What I love about this story is that is is full of classic noir characters, but they don't all follow the noir rules, and their choices may surprise you.  Very nice piece of work.


McCormick, William Buron.  "Voices in the Cistern,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, August 2016.

This is McCormick's  second story about Quintus the Clever, a thief in the early days of the Roman empire.  And Quintus is having a bad day.

It isn't enough that he is in a city under siege by the Roman's deadly Scythian enemies.  No, he also has to deal with Vibius, a large, nasty, unscrupulous rogue.  The brute has decided Quintus is the perfect co-conspirator to help him with a dangerous scheme.  The last person involved was actually killed by, uh, Vibius.  What could go wrong?

McDermid, Val.  "The Long Black Veil,"  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

Jess lives with relatives because, a decade ago when she was four years old, her mother murdered her father.  That's the official story, but it turns out the truth is a lot more complicated.  "There are worse things to be in small-town America than the daughter of a murderess," says her caretaker.  "So I hold my tongue and settle for silence."
Moran, Terrie Farley.  "Inquiry and Assistance,"  in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January-February 2016.

A nice story in the P.I. vein by my friend Terrie Farley Moran. New York City, the Great Depression.  Tommy Flood, unemployed bookkeeper is looking desperately for work, and surviving through family ties.

And speaking of family, he gets an invitation from Van Helden, the wealthy man who employs his cousin Kathleen.  He has a dangerously wild daughter, and Van Helden has decided the solution is to find an attractive but tame gentleman to escort her safely to the risky sorts of establishments she enjoys. Tommy meets the daughter by pretending to be a private eye.  And guess what?  Turns out he's good at it... 

Rogers, Cheryl.  "The Ballad of Maggie Carson,"  in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,  May 2016.  

A real sui generis tale.   Maggie Carson, newly unmarried senior citizen, is racing through the Australian Never-Never with a lifeless body in her car.  A retired police officer is on her trail.  And why, in such circumstances, is she so cheerful?

Rogow, Roberta. "The Perfesser and the Kid," in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, issue 19, 2016.

At Nikola Tesla's funeral an aging politician decides to entertain the gathered reporters with the true story of the great inventor's first day in America. We know that Tesla was robbed on the ship and stepped onto dry land with four cents in his pocket.   The official version says that he then met a man on the street with a broken machine and fixed it on the spot, thereby earning his first dollar on these shores. But our politician's version involves  a pool hall, a gang of street toughs, and Tammany Hall.


 Smith, Mark Haskell. “1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr.”  in Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli, Three Rooms Press, 2016.

When was the last time you read a story written in first person plural?  The narrator is we, the collective voice of an over-the-hill rock band. After a gig the band's equipment (including the titular guitar) is stolen but "we couldn't call the police because one of us was supposed to be home with an ankle monitor strapped to our leg."  Hilarious.

Stevens, B.K. "The Last Blue Glass," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 2016.

My fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens has come up with a nice one. Cathy and Frank buy the titular set of six blue glasses as they are preparing for their first dinner party.  They are a bit fragile and expensive but Frank loves them and Cathy tends to go along with what he wants, which turns out to be a piece of the problem in their marriage, a marriage we see falling to pieces like, well, a set of blue glasses.

Thielman, Mark. "A Meter of Murder," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2016.

In his first published story (!) Mark Thielman makes 1661 London come to life.  King Charles II had just taken the throne and anyone who had been on the Roundhead side in the Civil War, or sided with Cromwell after, had to keep one eye over his shoulder, expecting arrest or worse.

One of those was the blind poet John Milton, not yet the creator of Paradise Lost.  The narrator of the novella is Milton's younger friend, Andrew Marvell, who was both a member of Parliament and a poet. When a royalist member of Parliament is killed in circumstances that suggest a possible political motive big trouble is afoot, unless Milton can get to the bottom of it.

17 January 2017

You Don't Want to Cross Me


by Barb Goffman

If the cops ever come banging on my door, I'll know it likely has something to do with a little file I have on my computer. The title: People to Kill.

Sounds bad, doesn't it? Your average Joe might be nodding big time. But my author friends? Nah. They get it. They all probably have lists themselves, though they might not be dumb enough to label theirs People to Kill and leave it right there on their desktop where anyone can spot it.

So who are all these people with a target on their back? One's a teacher a friend had in high school. The guy made my pal's life a living hell, so I told her I'd take care of him for her. Another person on the list is a doctor who made a different friend suffer. So I said I'd off the doc. A third person on the list ... Well, you get the idea. I've got a lot of disgruntled friends.

You'll notice I didn't mention anyone on the list who had crossed me. That's because I don't need to write their names down. They are burned in my brain, and one day, they each will get what's coming.

I know you're waiting for it, so yeah, yeah. On paper. I'm going to get revenge on paper. I'll name a character who's going to suffer after someone's real-life nemesis. Not the full name, of course. The first name or the last name. Enough for me and my friends to know what happened.

I've found I enjoy bringing pain to folks who've been mean--or worse--to people I like. It's cathartic. It's especially soothing when I'm dealing with people who've hurt me. Shall we count the ways?

  • In my first published story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," I murder a thief who steals a ring at the Sleuthfest mystery convention. Harsh? Maybe. But In real life, I had a ring stolen at that very convention the year before the story was published, and, ooh, writing that story made me feel good. 
  • In my story "Compulsive Bubba," an adulterer gets his. I did that job in honor of a childhood neighbor whose husband cheated on her with her best friend. The woman deserved better.
  • In "The Wrong Girl," a teacher who humiliates a child in class ostensibly to help her discovers that she picked on the wrong girl. It just so happens that something like that happened to me in the fifth grade--the humiliation, not the revenge. I promise. But, oh, the catharsis was real.
  • In "Stepmonster," a woman seeks to avenge the death of her beloved father. Someone could have saved him but simply didn't. The basis for this story comes straight from my life. As is some of the dialogue. Word for word. Writing this story helped me deal with the situation, but it of course could never make up for my father's death, and I will never forgive or forget. Even catharsis has its limits.
Want to read "Stepmonster"? It's on my website--one of my two stories published in 2016. To read it, click here. Or if you want to read a bunch of mystery/crime stories involving bad weather (rain storms, snow storms, sand storms), you could pick up the anthology it's in, Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning.

Author friends, have you dealt with real-life foes in your stories? I'd love to hear the details in the comments below. And readers, is there someone you'd like added to my People to Kill file? Please share your story. But don't list your nemesis' name. You can send that to me privately.


16 January 2017

Stranger Than Fiction

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STRANGER THAN FICTION

by Jan Grape

People wonder where writers get their ideas for their stories. We've all discussed this here many times but when news comes up like things happened this week, I can only be reminded that we have to only be aware of the daily news because there are stories every day to give fiction writers ideas.

A baby girl kidnapped eighteen years ago in Florida has been found and reunited with her biological mother and father.  The woman who kidnapped the baby who was only five hours old has been jailed.
If you watch, there will be books and stories written with a kidnapped baby at the center of the story.
I probably would have written one myself, but my thought is to let this information percolate on the back burner for a time and see what rises out of the news this week.

The story goes that the woman who abducted the baby had posed as a nurse and moved to South Carolina. The biological mother was sixteen at the time and the biological father was in jail for having sex with the young mother. But the couple never gave up. The mother made pleas for her baby's return. The mother also had a birthday cake every year for her missing daughter and saved a piece and froze it every year. The husband of the woman who kidnapped the baby thought the little girl was his and he loves her dearly. He hopes he can still be someone in her life.

The young baby grew up and became interested in seeing pictures of missing and exploited children. Something made her suspect she was a missing child. Haven't heard yet what made her suspicious but as of this time has been reunited with her parents and grandmother.

The other big story to me is the "news" about the mysterious saga of D.B. Cooper. The man who high jacked a commercial airline in 1971, demanded a ransom of $200,000, and parachutes in return for releasing the passengers and jumping from the airplane and disappearing. It's been forty-five years and no trace of the man or his money has been found. Okay, money was found at one point, $5800, the serial numbers matching the ransom recorded by the FBI. But no other money has ever been spent or located.

The man who jumped from the place has actually not been identified. A nicely dressed man in a suit, white shirt and tie and who said his name was Dan Cooper paid cash in Reno for a ticket to Seattle. Back then, no ID was required. Once on board, at the back of the place, the man ordered and paid for a drink. One account even said he smoked a cigarette, which you could also do on planes back then. He then handed one of the attendants a note, with his demands and showed her what looked like a bomb in his briefcase.

The pilot followed the man's instructions getting the ransom money and the parachutes. And Mr. Cooper allowed the passengers and part of the crew to get off at Seattle Sea-Tac Airport. The man gave instructions for the speed, direction and altitude of the plane heading to Mexico. The one female attendant left on board saw the man strapping something around his body. Shortly afterward the rear staircase on the plane opened and the man jumped out. Many reports say the night was rainy, stormy and the plane was flying over a big wooded area.

I remember hearing a few months ago that the FBI was formally closing the case of DB Cooper also known as NORJAK. Northwest High-jacking. However, recently some new evidence has been discovered by one of the Citizen's Sleuth Groups who have been investigating the case for a number of years.  The J.C. Penney tie that Mr. Cooper was wearing and left on the plane when he jumped has turned up some 100,000 particles that officials believe could hold clues. Particles detected by one of the new powerful microscopes include Strontium, Sulfide, Cerium and titanium. The thinking is that the man could have worked at Boeing. He could have been an engineer or manager at one of the plants. There is hope these particles can lead to someone who remembers an employee who disappear around this time.

There is so much mystery and intrigue still about this mysterious man and the missing ransom money. I can imagine any number of new books being written with this material. Feel free to research and work out your own story.

Although the FBI officially closed the investigation if any new evidence comes to light, they will certainly will devote time and energy to solving the case.

Robert Lopresti, I'm sure you have great background information on DB Cooper, right?



15 January 2017

Seoul Searching

by Leigh Lundin

Comfort Women
© Japan Daily Press

A simple sculpture of a small, Asian woman is causing a big uproar.

I’m not a believer that blame and shame should be a life sentence, nor that the sins of the fathers must be visited upon anyone else. On a global level, I commend governments that have apologized for war crimes or, in the case of our own country, wrongful imprisonment of our own citizens because of ethnicity.

While humans are capable of horrid barbarity, they’re also capable of great forgiveness. Even so, atrocity denial is making a resurgence.

Comfort Women

Asia had its own version of the holocaust. Leading up to and throughout the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Japanese Army institutionalized slavery of men and women. The scale was so huge, it’s easy to be blinded by the sheer volume of statistics. But the sexual enslavement of perhaps 200 000 young women from Korea, Philippines, and China bring matters into a more personal focus. The term ‘comfort women’ became a euphemism for what Japan considered captives turned into state-owned prostitutes.

Japanese are good at many things, but national responsibility is a tough hurdle for them. Deniers argue
  • it never happened… but if it did,
  • ‘only 10 000’ women took part,
  • they willingly ‘volunteered’,
  • they were, uh, ‘prostitutes’,
  • they queued up to offer themselves,
  • they could freely choose which soldiers,
  • it was ‘necessary to maintain discipline,’
  • it's racist and divisive to discuss it,
  • they're all ‘lying’,
  • and really, it didn’t happen at all.
The few comfort women still living are affectionately called ‘grandmothers’ in both Korea and the Philippines, and are highly regarded. In the 1990s, South Korean and Japanese governments agreed to let bygones be bygones. A former prime minister apologized and Japan even paid compensation, but the attitude of Japan’s mass denial offends Koreans, Filipinos, and the Chinese as well.

Ordinary citizens groups did something about it. Activists placed a statue memorializing the comfort women in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, mirroring similar sculptures in forty other South Korean cities including Seoul. Japan withdrew its ambassador in protest.

The sculptures have appeared in other parts of the world including the US. The first here was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and the second in San Francisco, Osaka’s sister city. Japanese denial organizations unsuccessfully sued to prevent one going up in Glendale, California and at present, a Change.org petition is circulating to remove the one in San Francisco. It insists there’s no documentation or evidence of forced sexual slavery.

Deniers had more success in Australia. A Sydney suburb banned a park statue, but a Uniting Church of Australia volunteered to host the comfort woman memorial.

Unintended Consequences


Apparently Japan has never heard of the Streisand Effect, the phenomenon where attempts to hide or censor information result in further widening distribution of that information. And now you know.

Nobody hates the Japanese– I’m pretty sure South Korea doesn’t– but glossing over a wartime atrocity rankles the public. If I might be so bold as to advise Japan, even if you can’t admit it, stop denying it. Then some day the misdeeds might become a sad footnote in history.

What is your take?

14 January 2017

Revision: Murder by Pencil

by B.K. Stevens 

"Murder your darlings"--that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that's been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:
  • Revision is mandatory.
  • Revision hurts like hell.
We labor so hard to bring our words into this world that sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder--a kind of murder even mystery writers don't enjoy. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over hardest, the ones we love best, are probably the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as pitiless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

Several years ago, I ran into two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn't encountered them before. (They were in a prose anthology I used in a first-year composition course I was teaching. I chose the anthology because I hoped it would help students improve their writing. If it helped them half as much as it helped me, it was a good choice.) While both essays contain many valuable insights about writing, they've made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray's "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts," published in 1973 and available online here. Murray first discusses the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on "the larger problems of subject and form." Then he discusses the stage when writers move "closer and closer to the page," working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work "in short runs, no more than fifteen minutes at a stretch." If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, "I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page."

At first, this approach sounded strange to me--it seemed too fragmented--but I gave it a try. It works. Now, when I reach the final stage of revision, I set a timer for fifteen minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I'm alert, I'm focused on revision, and I'm determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail, or I read a chapter of someone else's book. Sometimes I exercise (I should do that more often), and sometimes I fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more effectively; I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it's too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and smiling at the dialogue. After all, I created this manuscript--it's natural for me to love it. But if I want other people to love it, too, I can't afford to go easy on it. I have to scrutinize it critically and be prepared to murder any little darlings that aren't as good as I'd like to think they are. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser's "The Act of Writing: One Man's Method," written in 1983. (If he'd written it more recently, he probably would have called it "One Person's Method.") Again, there's lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students' essays and "put brackets around every component . . . that I didn't think was doing some kind of work." The "component" might be a single word, such as "the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly)," or it might be an entire sentence that "essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said." "Most people's writing," Zinsser says, "is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic."

I don't know exactly why the brackets work so well, but they do. When I'm reasonably satisfied with the content and general shape of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and--who knows?--whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. I always use a pencil, not a pen. That way, any hasty decisions I make while revising can easily be reversed, anything I cut can readily be restored. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren't doing "some kind of work" and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn't strictly necessary, but I like it--it's a darling--and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, and sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page can be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it's easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages. We put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I've slipped into reading mode and haven't been ruthless enough. It's time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

You could also, I'm sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way to use this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy and a pencil work best. Maybe that's because I'm a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and manual typewriters. Or maybe there's a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates--which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that's taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I'd been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we'll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we'll find valuable new insights, ones that might even make us revise our approach to revision.

How do you approach revision? Can you recommend techniques that have worked for you? 

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Last year, the day before I planned to leave for Malice Domestic, I tripped on a stupid throw rug, fell, broke my right arm, injured my left leg, and ended up going to the emergency room rather than to Bethesda. I've gotten rid of the throw rug, and of every other throw rug in the house, and hope to make it all the way to the conference this year--but I've learned not to take anything for granted. If you're also planning to go to Malice and haven't yet completed your Agatha nominating ballot, please consider "The Last Blue Glass," a short story that appeared in the April, 2016 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read it here. (Even if you aren't going to Malice, you might enjoy the story. I worked hard on revising it.)






13 January 2017

Time to Rant

by
O'Neil De Noux

It's a NEW YEAR and time to rant.

Let's start with the word February, it's not Febuary. Neither 'R' is silent. It's February

Stop using air quotes in conversation. You look like a constipated duck unable to take off.

Stop using 'quite' and 'literally' and 'actually' and 'what can I do you for' - instead of what can I do for you - and 'coinkidink' - instead of coincidence. I mean, like, come on.

Don't smoke around me.

There's nothing cozy about a murder. I've seen enough to know. It's awful. Death can be peaceful but murder is rarely peaceful. Victims cling to their last breath.

Cats cannot solve murders. Neither can dogs. Actually, only a few humans can. I'd be happy if my cats solved the mystery of where is the litter box (I think I said this before).



Kittens are the cutest baby animals in the world. Human babies are pretty but admit it - they look like mini-Winston Churchills.

Stop demanding I share anything on Facebook. It's annoying when I'm asked to prove I like children or kittens or Jesus or the USA and if I don't share, then I don't like them. I like them. You, I'm not crazy about at the moment.

And don't test me, demanding I put a selected word in a comment to prove I'm reading all your junk or I want to remain your friend. When I don't respond, I hope you get the message.

Stop the damn game requests on Facebook. You sound like a Jehovah's Witness.

Why do my friends think I care which elf they are in the tedious LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy? Why do they want to know which elf I am? I'm not a freakin' elf, don't want to be one. I want to be one of those large ebony guys who chews off the elf's head.

People don't pass. They are dead. Deceased. Expired. I know death is scary and the word 'dead' is so final. But death is final. Sorry. I didn't create this world. If I had, a LOT of things would be different and a lot worse for bigots, prudes and tight-ass fanatics.


Dear Russian beauties, I'm not in the market. I'm a happily married older man who knows better. Also - to my male friends - stop sending me photos of naked women in emails (some labeled 'surprise' others labeled 'don't you know me'). Seriously, I know what it looks like.

All right, this is a writer's blog so I'll say something about writing. I want to thank those who write
cliché books set in New Orleans. Manslaughter at Mardi Gras. The Gumbo Drownings. Bigamy at Jazz Fest. The Shrimp Creole Garottings. These books are amazing. So many exclamation points and people calling each other Cher and Ya Mama and Who dat? Just like the real city. New Orleeens.


 "OK, that was quite actually cleansing," he pontificated as he used air quotes to emphasize his point, looking like a mallard, literally struggling for flight.

dog with dead mallard

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