Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go


by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

30 May 2018

Wake-Up Call

by Robert Lopresti

I bicycle to work most mornings, on one of the busiest streets in my small city. At one point there is a highway overpass and sometimes apparently homeless people stand there with signs, begging for money from the people leaving the Interstate.  Usually this is not a problem, except that sometimes they leave piles of trash.

This morning,  I saw what appeared to be such a gentleman.  He was bald, in his thirties, and wearing a leather jacket.  He carried a black plastic trash bag which appeared to be stuffed with something the size of an exercise ball.

He was in the vicinity of a couple I had seen before, a woman walking her daughter to the elementary school.  The bald man was trying to talk to the mother and she was trying very hard to ignore him as they approached a traffic light.

I watched this and thought: Oh, crap.  Because if it got worse I was going to have to get involved.  I haven't been in a physical altercation in about fifty years, and my win-loss record back then was not great.

Now the mother and daughter were waiting for the red light to turn.  I was on the other side of the intersection, also waiting.

The  bald man turned and walked away.  Good.

And then he was back, talking over the woman's shoulder.  The light changed.  I thought: If he follows them I will have to interfere, right in the middle of the street.

But he turned and walked off.  Was he influenced by my presence?  I doubt it.  I don't know if he even saw me.

Riding the rest of the way to work I wondered what I would have done if action had proven necessary.  My thought at the time was to go straight into a verbal confrontation but I now think the better choice would have been a system I have heard about several times in recent years: Ignore the aggressor and come up to the victim with a big smile, acting like you know them.  "Hey there!  Can I walk with you to school?"

If it happens (again) I'll try that.

But let's consider a couple of other options.  I had a cell phone with me.  When I saw what was shaping up I should have pulled the phone out, started the phone app (whoever uses that?) and dialed 9-1-1.  Then if I felt I had to step into the scene I could have hit SEND.

You don't have to speak, by the way.  If you dial 9-1-1 and say nothing the cops will trace your phone and come to see what's going on.  At least they do here.  (Don't ask me how I know; that's another story.)

I checked.  It takes me fifteen seconds from reaching for the phone to being ready to hit SEND.  Next time, and may there never be one, I'll go do that first.

Now let's talk about guns.  I don't own one.  Never have.  But it occurred to me to wonder, what would have happened if I had had one with me this morning?

I certainly would have thought about getting it out.  Or at least getting it ready.  Knowing human nature (at least my human nature) as well as I do, I think I would have seen this as an opportunity to get my money's worth out of the gun, not by shooting it, but by attempting to scare the man off.

If I did that I figure one of four things would have happened.

1.  I would have shot the guy, which would have been bad.

2.  I would have dropped the gun, which would have been, at best, embarrassing.

3.  He would have taken the gun away from me (see comments above on my record with physical confrontations,) which would have been at best embarrassing and at worst tragic.

4.  He could have decided to walk away, which would have been good.

And that means the best result that could have occurred from showing a gun was the same as what happened without one.  Your mileage may vary.

So, that was my morning.  How was yours?






16 May 2018

Five Red Herrings, Tenth School


by Robert Lopresti

1.  Derringer Days.  Yesterday the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the winners of the Derringer Awards and I couldn't help but notice that I was one of them, specifically for Best Short.  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan" appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23.  You can read what I had to say about it here and here.  Congratulations to my fellow winners, Brendan Dubois, David H. Hendricksen, and Earl Staggs.  But let's have a big round of applause for the winner of this year's Edward D. Hoch Memorial Gold Derringer for Lifetime Achievement.  That went to our own John M. Floyd!  Well deserved, too.

2. Free pictures!  It's always nice to find a new source for public domain illustrations.  (We bloggers love them, anyway.)  The Library of Congress very kindly sorted out the pictures on their website that are free for the taking.  (See the one below.)  Enjoy.


3. Underpaid through the ages. The University of Missouri Libraries has done a great service for anyone writing historical fiction.  Prices and Wages by Decades links you to actual government publications from the 1700s forward reporting on how much things cost and how much people were paid.  

4. Man With The Axe.  Last time I did one of these gather-alls I mentioned Lowering the Bar, which talks about the odd side of the legal biz.   I have to point out the story above which informs us that in a single incident a man in New York was charged with:
driving while ability impaired by drugs, driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs, no license plates, unregistered motor vehicle, uninspected motor vehicle, operating without insurance, no front windshield, and no safety glass.

But on the bright side for him,  it turned out there is no law in the Empire State against driving around with an axe embedded in the roof of your car.


5. Shanks does Japan. According to an automatic translation app, the title of the book at the right is Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  Could be, but in English it's Shanks on Crime. First time I have ever appeared in Japanese.  I wish Shanks a long and happy visit there.



02 May 2018

A Close Shave

by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to ramble a bit today on the subject of logic. (We will see how often I can tie it to the subject of crime fiction.) I am doing this because I just heard, for the millionth time, someone define Occam's razor incorrectly. Specifically, the person claimed that Occam's razor says that the simplest explanation is probably correct.

It doesn't say that.

Occam's razor is, of course, a principle for scientific research, and it is usually attributed to a thirteenth century monk named William of Ockham (Ockham is an English village. Occam comes from the Latin translation). Actually, we owe the most famous famous version of the rule ("entitles must not be multiplied beyond necessity") to John Punch, several centuries later. The principle, in one form or another, goes back at least to Aristotle. I recently realized that it also hides within one of my favorite quotes of Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." (And speaking of things, not being simple, Einstein apparently never said that.)

One of Ockham's more distinguished, if fictional, students.
In his famous quote above John Punch (what a great name!) warned us to watch out for unnecessary entities, as in someone or something that played an active part in causing an action. Punch means that if you walk outside and something knocks your hat off, you don't start out by assuming there is  a malevolent invisible demon in the vicinity. It might have just been a breeze.

But my point is that Punch/Occam is not saying that the simpler explanation is the most likely one. It is simply the one you should examine first. Not because it is the most likely to be correct, but because examining it is the fastest way to reach the truth.

Let's take an example from our own field. The police are called to a building. They find that the store on the ground floor has been robbed, and that a man has been murdered on the third floor. Should the robbery squad be called to one crime scene and the homicide team to the other? Or are we looking at a single event?

Brother William made no specific recommendations about police personnel matters, but his principle advises treating this as the "simpler" situation, i.e. one event. If the cops do that, and if they do their job properly, they are more likely to find something wrong with their solution, than if they start at the other end. 

Perhaps the two crimes happened at the same time, or maybe the robber was right-handed and the killer was a southpaw. But if instead they begin by assuming there were two separate criminals - and there was only one - it is going to be harder for them to realize that one of their proposed culprits is imaginary (an unnecessary entity).

You may remember the TV series House, MD, which was a medical detective show, about a diagnostician (whose name was a tribute to Sherlock Holmes, by the way). In an episode called (surprise!) "Occam's Razor," the physicians are unable to explain all of a patient's symptoms with one disease, so House suggests that there are two illnesses present. His team is not buying it.

Foreman: Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation is always the best.

House: And you think one is simpler than two.

Cameron: Pretty sure it is, yeah.

House: Baby shows up. Chase tells you that two people exchanged fluids to create this being. I tell you that one stork dropped the little tyke off in a diaper. You going to go with the two or the one?

Foreman: I think your argument is specious.

House: I think your tie is ugly.

Leaving aside House's maturity issues, he is making a point about Dr. Foreman's misunderstanding of the 'ol razor. And that brings us, naturally, to Asimov's elephant.

Isaac Asimov was, of course, a great science fiction writer. He also wrote devilishly clever mystery stories, and was a brilliant explainer of science. One of his contributions was the concept of unexplaining. He said that pseudoscience typically unexplained more than it explained. Consider his little parable:

Imagine you are strolling through a park and see a tall tree split right down the middle. Cut asunder. You begin to seek an explanation.

So you could say: there was this elephant, flying through the sky, whistling a happy tune. It decides to have a little rest and lands SHEBANG! onto the poor tree, which breaks in two. The elephant falls to the ground, swears 'Oy vay!' and flies off again.

Now that is one explanation of why the tree is broken. Trouble is it unexplains everything you previously thought you knew about elephants. So, instead, using Ockham's Razor, you say simply, the tree was hit by lightning!*

I love that 'Oy vay!' Clearly a Jewish elephant.  Of course, Asimov has pointed out the problem with Dr. House's obstetrical stork.

So one issue about the razor is that people will disagree as to which explanation is simpler, and what 
is left unexplained. Therefore I am going to end with my favorite quotation from the philosopher 
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (And by the way, Ludwig was a huge fan of crime fiction; not the logic puzzles of the golden age, but the messy thinking of hardboiled tales.)

Supposedly he asked a friend: "Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?"

"Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going around the Earth."

"Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?"

*I found this parable in Asimov's Elephant, edited by Robyn Williams. It is a collection of essays from an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called, yup, Ockham's Razor.

18 April 2018

Five Red Herrings 9

by Robert Lopresti

1. Little gun, big noise.  This weekend saw the announcement of the finalists for the Derringer Awards, presented by the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Once again, it was a good year for the Notorious SleuthSayers Gang.  In the Flash category Travis Richardson was shortlisted for "Final Testimony," which appeared in Flash Fiction Offensive (ed. Hector Duarte, Jr. and Rob Pierce, July 10, 2017) and Elizabeth Zelvin scored for "Flash Point,"  in A Twist of Noir (ed. Christopher Grant, March 20, 2017).

Paul D. Marks is a finalist for the Novelette zone with "Windward, from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea  (ed. Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks, Down & Out Books, January 2017)

And I made it into the  Short Story category with  "The Cop Who Liked Gilbert and Sullivan"  Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #23, (ed. Marvin Kaye, Wildside Press, October 2017)

Congrats to all my fellow finalists, SleuthSayers or not!  


2. A Nonfutile, Nonstupid Gesture.  I recently watched the Netflix original movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture.  Some of you may recognize that title as a line from Animal House.  The movie tells the story of Doug Kenney who (with others) created National Lampoon, Animal House, Caddyshack, and a hilarious little book-length parody called Bored of the Rings.  The flick is narrated by Martin Mull playing an older version of the main character.  ("I'm a narrative device," he explains.)

The reason I bring this flick up is that at one point Mull points out something in the movie that is not true to life and then announces that they are going to provide a list of other inaccuracies.  It rolls up the screen quickly in tiny print but you can go back at the end and read them all.  They range from "Characters A and B met in a party, not in a bar," to: "Everyone was much more racist and sexist."

I loved this.  Whenever I see a movie based on true events I wind up going to the web to see what was real and what wasn't.  (I knew that tube scene in The Darkest Hour  was fake.)  Bravo to the folks who made Gesture, which, by the way, is definitely worth seeing.

3. You call that Justice?  Lowering the Bar is a wonderful blog about the quirks of our legal system.  The most popular piece last year was the true story of a lawyer whose pants literally caught fire while he was summing up the defense of his client, who was accused of arson.  This is the sort of thing that drives fiction writers to despair, because you couldn't put it in fiction.

But I want to tell you about this piece  which has everything for the SleuthSayers audience: a mystery, law, grammar issues, snark, and Sherlock Holmes.  The main topic is this portrait which resides in the Massachusetts Supreme Judiciary Court, but no one knows who it is.  That's the mystery.  The rest comes from the newspaper quoting the Chief Justice urging the public to "put on their Sherlock Holmes’ hats " and try to figure out who is pictured.  Kevin Underhill, who runs the blog, is outraged:

So. “Sherlock Holmes” is not a plural noun—unless you’re talking about several men named “Sherlock Holme.” If such men exist, and they have hats, and you collected the hats of more than one such man, then, my friend, you would have in your possession “the Sherlock Holmes’ hats” (that is, the hats of the men named “Sherlock Holme”). “By Socrates’ beard,” you could say then, “I have here all the Sherlock Holmes’ hats!”

4. Comic Sans and Brimstone.  This is a public service announcement. I just want to warn you do not go to the website Clients From Hell.    It is a hilarious time suck.  Anonymous people (mostly graphic designers)  report on horrifying encounters with horrifying customers. Here are some of the main categories (as judged by me).
The vague: "Make it more modern and traditional."
The clueless: "I can't find the ENTER button on my screen."
The Arrogant: "My friends  at NASA says this is a terrible website design."
The Holy: "We won't pay you but you will be working for God."
The Unholy: "Take out the pictures of Black people.  Our customers are White."
The Crooked: "Just copy it off our competitor's website."
The Greedy: "You're a freelancer.  I thought that meant you worked for free."

Stay away from this page, I beg you.  It will consume many hours of your life.

 5. Stop the Presses!  Do you remember how in newspaper movies they would announce that they had to stop everything and tear out the front page because of breaking news?

I had to throw out the last item I had set up today because it was just announced that my book WHEN WOMEN DIDN'T COUNT has won the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award.  That's the big prize for scholarship in government information.  The Government Documents Round Table said a bunch of nice things about the book here.  I would be happy to say some nice things right back.






04 April 2018

Who Do You Trust?


by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't charged through the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine yet, I encourage you to get off the proverbial dime and do so.  You will find many good stories including appearances by three SleuthSayers: Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and your humble (oh, shut up) reporter.

It was R.T.'s story that inspired my sermon today.  (And if you missed it, you can read his own thoughts about the tale here.)

What I want to talk about is something much beloved of literary critics: the unreliable narrator.  The concept has appeared in literature for thousands of years but the phrase comes from William C. Booth in 1961.  It refers to a piece of literature with a first-person narration which the reader, for whatever reason, would be unwise to trust.

To my mind there are four varieties, all of whom can be found in mystery fiction.

The Lunatic.  This one goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe.  (Hint: When a character begins by insisting that he is not crazy you would be wise to doubt him.)

The Liar. Agatha Christie did the most famous version of this, infuriating many readers.  Decades later something happened that I imagine went like this:
Critics: Of course, having the narrator secretly being the murderer is a one-off stunt, and no author could use it again.
Dame Agatha: Is that so?  Hold my tea.
And to everyone's consternation, she did it again.

I mentioned this a long time ago, but: One of my favorite examples of this category was The Black Donnellys, a short-lived TV series about Irish-American criminals in New York (2007).  The framing device is Joey Ice Cream, either a hanger-on or the Donnelly brothers' best friend, depending on who is telling the story.  Joey is in prison and he is being interrogated by the cops about the Donnelly's career.  And he is a compulsive liar, happy to change his story when they catch him fibbing.  YOu can see the brilliant pilot episode here. 

The Self-Deluded.  Not crazy and not deliberately lying.  This character is just so wrapped up in himself and so devoted to defending his actions that his views can't be trusted.  Think of Jonathan Gash's Lovejoy with his endless stream of explanations for his failures and dubious decisions.  I remember one book in which  he casually mentions breaking a man's arm "practically by accident."  My private eye character Marty Crow is quite trustworthy - unless he is talking about his gambling problem.  Problem?  What problem?

The Innocent.  This narrator describes accurately what he saw, but fails to understand it.  A famous example is Ring Lardner's classic story "Haircut."  The barber describes a crime, and doesn't even realize it.

And that brings us back to R.T. Lawton's story.  "The Left Hand of Leonard" is part of his series about the criminal underground during the reign of Louis the Fourteenth.  His narrator is a young pickpocket, not very skilled and not very clever, who is sent by the king of the criminals to help steal the bones of a saint.  Things go wrong and then seem to go right and the boy can't figure out what happened.  Ah, but the reader will, just as R.T. intended.

Do you have any favorite tales with unreliable narrators? And if you say you do, should we believe you?

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

07 March 2018

Write in Haste, Publish at Leisure

by Robert Lopresti

There were so many killings that year I had to look up his name.  It was Philando Castile.

He was a Black man in Minnesota, killed by a Latino cop moments after telling the man that he had a licensed handgun in the car.  The police officer was acquitted.

The shooting happened on Wednesday, July 6, 2016.  The next day someone put up a link to this (already existing) video in which a jolly cop and cheerful civilian explain how to safely inform a police officer that you are carrying a weapon.  Someone had added in the comments, approximately: "For best results, be White."

The next day I went to synagogue and the rabbi's sermon was about the killing. As I biked home I remembered that video.  The plot of a story burst into my brain.

I am usually  a slow writer.  Very slow.  It takes me months to write a first draft and then a couple of years to turn it into something publishable.

But I wrote the very short "Nobody Gets Killed" in two hours that Friday night.  I revised it the next day and sent it to a friend for editing.  By Monday it was on its way to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and you can find it in their current, March/April, issue.


I have said before that every piece of fiction involves two sides of the brain, the Miner, and the Jeweler.  Some people talk about conscious/unconscious mind, or left and right brain, but this metaphor is what works for me.  The Miner digs out the raw material and may do some of the work, but eventually he hands it off to the Jeweler who polishes it into something that is hopefully publishable.  Often when the Miner is running the show the writer has little conscious memory of the process.  "It's like I wasn't even there.  The words just flowed out."

A lot of the time my Miner comes up with only the bare idea and leaves the Jeweler to do everything else.  But "Nobody Gets Killed" was 90% Miner.  Doesn't mean it's a better or worse story for that, by the way.  You will have to read it and see what you think.

One more thing...  I have just had stories in three issues of Hitchcock in a row.  "The Chair Thief" was a short comic tale  of office politics, with an unexpected sting in its tail.   "Train Tracks" was a long historic semi-Western story of revenge and redemption.  And now "Nobody Gets Killed" is a brief ripped-from-the-headlines slice-of-life anecdote.  Hitchcock has purchased one more  but it is not yet scheduled; "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests" is a comic crime caper.

It would appear that I am having some difficulty establishing a consistent brand for myself.   But as long as Hitchcock keeps buying (I am up to thirty sales there) I guess I shouldn't complain.

By the way, I wrote another piece about writing "Nobody Gets Killed," and it appears on Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.



21 February 2018

There Was A Wicked Messenger

by Robert Lopresti

I have lots of friends on FaceBook, some of them I have known since childhood and some I wouldn't know if they bit me.  That's the nature of FB.

Not long ago one of that latter group contacted me on the FaceBook app called Messenger.  It became pretty clear that something shifty was going on and, checking out that friend's FB page I found a note saying "Ignore any messages from him.  His account has been hacked."  Well, by then I was too interested to ignore them.




Alas, I didn't spot the typos here. (I was in a restaurant wating for lunch to arrive.) I meant to say "I enjoyed their singing but frankly their dancework..."



??? indeed.

At that point I gave up.  But if I had sent one more message it would have gone something like this:

I contacted the sponsors and they said they left the names of some winners on the list at the request of the FBI.  You see, it turns out some real scumbags are trying to rip off the winners. I hate people like that, don't you?  How do they spend all day trying to rob people who never did them any harm and then use those same hands to caress their lovers or comfort their children?  How do they talk to their mothers knowing how ashamed those mothers would be if they knew the truth about them?  Please be careful, my friend. There is a lot of evil out there.

By the way, a few days after this happened to me the same thing happened to Neil Steinberg, one of my favorite columnists.  You can read about what he did here.

07 February 2018

No Fun Aloud

When my first novel was published I went to a regional booksellers conference to explain to those fine people why they needed to stock thousands of copies of my masterpiece.  Among the other naïfs in attendance was Steve Hockensmith, promoting his first comic-western-mystery.  We hit it off.  Steve has gone on to write fifteen more novels, receive two Edgar nominations, and has been spotted in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, as well as the New York Times Bestseller List.  Recently I asked Steve to write something for SleuthSayers about the importance of riboflavin in the human diet.  He countered by offering to discuss the writing process.  Since neither of us was sure what riboflavin is (is it better than regular flavin?), that seemed the better approach.  You can read more of his wisdom at stevehockensmith.com.
— Robert Lopresti



No Fun Aloud
by Steve Hockensmith

I think I might be a good writer partly because I'm bad at it. Not "bad" in the sense that my writing's turgid or confusing or cliched or wrong-headed. I'm not [AUTHOR NAME REDACTED IN THE INTEREST OF KEEPING THE PEACE...HEY, SOME PEOPLE LIKE TURGID, CONFUSING, CLICHED AND WRONG-HEADED]. It's just that writing's so damn hard.

Words don't come pouring out of me. They drip. Slowly. Like...like...aw, hell. I don't feel like spending 20 minutes trying to work out the right simile, so just take my word for it. They drip. Even the smallest project -- writing a tweet, say, or adding a message to a birthday card -- requires brainstorming, outlining, two pots of coffee and long, long stretches of absolute silence. And even then I'm going to lose my confidence half-way through and come close to quitting. ("'Enjoy your special day'? I can't believe I actually wrote that. I'd tear this card up and get another if it didn't cost me four bucks. Stupid Hallmark…")

The only thing that's more painful than writing is rewriting. Fortunately, I usually don't have to do much of it: Most of the needed rewriting already took place in my head while the writing was going on. Spend 10 minutes on one sentence, and there's a good chance it'll come out right. (Warning: There's also a good chance you'll lose your mind.) Rewriting can feel like taking a perfectly good cake and trying to turn it into a plate of cookies. Sometimes, of course, the cake actually sucks, and sometimes you have a contract calling for a plate of cookies. So you do what you gotta do. But I agonize in the hope that I don't gotta.

I think I know where a lot of that agony comes from, too. Fellow writers: Do you write out loud? Do you actually speak every sentence you're trying to construct? Do you test words by listening to them together?

Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. If every writer answered "Yes, yes, yes," none of us would ever be allowed in Starbucks again. Too many customers would be complaining about the weirdos muttering into their laptops.

And lots of writers do write in coffee shops. Which I've never understood. You know where I want to write? A closet. An isolation tank. The Batcave (when Batman and Robin are off POW-ing and ZOK-ing the Riddler's henchmen in a jigsaw puzzle factory and Alfred's upstairs baking bat-pizza).

I need to be somewhere I can hear the words and not get glared at by latte-slurpers for doing it.
Because writing isn't just stringing words together on a screen. It's speaking to readers. It's standing up and telling them a story the way we used to do it around the fire at night. Out loud. When we talk about a writer's "voice," it shouldn't just be a fancy way to say "style." For truly good writing, IMHO, it should be literal.

Not MHO at all, because it's a damn fact: That can make writing a lot harder. I think it's worth the extra effort and aggravation, though. In the end, it's the voice of your story people will hear, not all the mumbling, grumbling and cursing it took to find it.

Unless you’re one of those nuts who writes in Starbucks…