Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts

22 May 2017

You Come Here Often?

by Steve Liskow

Tell me what these sentences have in common:

Where have you been all my life?

What's a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?



You got it. They're all horrible opening lines. One of my favorite pieces of advice on openings is the tagline of the film Crossroads, from back in the eighties: Where second-best never gets a second chance.

More often than not, the opening is the last part of a story I polish. I need to get the rest of the story right (hysterical laughter from off-stage) and figure out where I'm going before I understand the best place to start. Three of my novels (four, if you count Hit Somebody, currently in final fixing) picked up a new opening along the way. In two, it was a completely new scene and in another it was a prologue--something editors tell you they hate--that also demanded an epilogue for a frame story. In the other case, I moved a different scene to the beginning.

Hallie Ephron offers solid advice for openings. Don't worry so much about a brilliant hook because that risks becoming a gimmick. Instead, try to present the idea that something is "wrong." It doesn't have to be huge, but suggest dissonance right away, sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" ambiance.

Right now, my growing list of favorite openings/hooks stands at 34, and 26 are from novels. Others might qualify as novellas: Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Some other are comparatively old, like O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

What should a good opening do? Well, let's look at some that work.

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.

This is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and right away we see that the story is in 3rd person POV, and the Grandmother, presumably an important character, has a conflict. Someone wants her to go to Florida against her wishes. Calling her "The Grandmother" makes her a specific grandmother, but not using her real name turns her into an archetype or symbol. The tone is detached. We get all this from eight words. It also makes us ask why she doesn't want to go, and O'Connor answers that in the following sentences. The early pay-off encourages us to keep reading until we reach the final pay-off, which, if you've never read the story, is worth it. The opening scene even sets up the ending, too.

That's a pretty good opening, wouldn't you agree? How about this one?

They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool.

That's from Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing. These eleven words tell us the story (or at least part of it) is in present tense, detached third-person POV, and the unnamed male is probably drunk in a bar. This sets up many potential problems: drunks get into fights or accidents. Maybe he will have a black-out and not remember important details later. We don't know the man's name, but is a safe bet that he will be the protagonist or a victim, maybe even both. The lack of a name (again) adds distance and detachment. If you're like me, you want to read on to see what happens to this guy next. We're pretty sure it won't be good.

Let's try one more. In the spirit of blatant self-promotion, this is from my roller derby novel, The Whammer Jammers.                          

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

Hendrix, the protagonist, is (present tense again) wearing a bullet-proof vest, which suggests he's not going to a backyard barbecue. We can infer there may be shooting (which there is), and it will lead to further problems.

The first sentence is important, but most people will read beyond that. Even agents will give the MS a page, but they expect something in return. These openings all show us the story's essential style (vocabulary, point of view, tone or mood), the presumed protagonist, and some tension or conflict. All these elements draw the reader into the story.

If you're writing a novel, you have more time, but begin your story as close as possible to the important action (inciting incident ) as you can without any back-story. Get the ball rolling before you slow down to explain. If you need to explain something, do it through action, not exposition. Look at the first ten minutes of the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949) for a great demonstration of how to do it. It's all car chases and shooting, but we understand the relationships of major characters without a lot of chatter. If you can't begin with conflict, at the very least introduce the element that will cause it. O'Connor does that in the grandmother example above.

O'Connor's opening sets up her ending, too, another good trick if you can do it. Songs end on the tonic chord, and your story can repeat or refine an image from your opening. If you're writing a mystery, this can be as general as suggesting that there will be a solution, preferably not the one the reader sees coming, or the lovers with end up together...or not. But that's another reason to polish your opening in your final draft...when you know where you're going.


17 April 2017

God Bless the Beta Reader

by Steve Liskow

You have to revise your work, probably several times. That means you're looking at structure, pace, and character development along with accuracy, voice, and grammar. Is your dialogue effective? Does your plot build? Do your characters deepen and grow? Does the whole thing even make sense?

One of the problems with revising is that the more you do it, the more you invest in what you see in front of you. The more you revise and polish, the harder it is to recognize what might be a big problem with pacing or logic because you've been looking at it so long that you begin to take it for granted without even realizing it.

That's why a good beta reader is so important. Someone who hasn't watched you grow and nurture your first several drafts isn't as connected to it and can question your ideas more easily. Distance is a great thing.



Not everyone can be a good beta reader. I know several former English teachers who are so used to correcting grammar and spelling that they can't focus on larger issues like plot or character arc. Dialogue using slang can distract them from the characterization. If they see "literature" as something removed from "genre" or popular" fiction (which many of them do), their bias can get in the way, too.

I've been in two writing groups, and neither of them did the job I would have liked for a number of reasons. The first was composed of people who wrote in all genres: poetry, "literary," memoir, nonfiction...and me. I was dismayed to learn that the rules of good writing don't carry over from form to form. Two people in the group wrote well and offered intelligent feedback, but the rest made me wonder why we'd outlawed flogging. I finally left the group when one woman announced, "This is in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marques," and I, with my usual tact, replied, "So why isn't it in Spanish?" Nobody laughed.

The second group was all genre writers. At one time, we had 23 members, but six or seven showed up at most meetings, four of us regularly and the others at random. One always came to complain that she hadn't had time to write and wanted us to commiserate. I was the only crime/mystery writer, and people complained that my characters kept getting into trouble. Fortunately, the organizer ran into family turmoil and the group dissolved before I had to resort to violence...which I would have called "research."

Both groups had problems with anyone pointing out weaknesses, such as illogical plot twists, 40 pages of description in a 50-page excerpt, or characters who changed speech patterns from meeting to meeting.

Ideally, a beta reader is familiar with the form you write, whether it's mystery, romance, science fiction, free verse or financial theory. They have to understand your work and appreciate it, but still not be impressed by it. Yes, it's a paradox, but it's vital. If people love your work, they'll be reluctant to point out problems, which is the whole reason to be your beta reader.

A good beta reader can spot inconsistencies and inaccuracies but still focus on the big stuff. I remember one reader who wondered if my scene might have more impact in a different point of view, and I realized as soon as he said it that he was right. I changed it.

Another good reader stage-managed several plays that I directed, and she understood my rhythms and my visual/aural sense. She grasped that I "heard" things better than I "saw" them on-stage and blocked scenes and beat changes as a form of punctuation.

When I drifted away from theater, I asked her to read one of my novels. We met a month later, and she pulled out the well-thumbed MA (she'd read the whole thing three times, bless her) and flipped to a page with a paper clip on it.

"Do you know there's a huge energy drop in this scene?" She'd even turned down the page where it started, and it showed me that the scene needed drastic cutting. A ten-page scene became five because I had included so much detail that added nothing to the story.

Both those readers have moved away and I don't have emails for either of them. Alas. I have two or three readers now, and they all have strengths, but they all have weaknesses, too. Fortunately, they complement each other. One is great for details and fact checking (you spelled this name with an "ie" here and with a "y" later) but doesn't get structure or pacing. We constantly argue about a turning point coming too soon (I think 90% of the book is fine, but she wants it in the last ten pages, even though I don't write whodunits). Another, who does physical training, has a sense of my pacing and comprehends my rhythms. Her standard comment is along the lines of "I thought this dragged until incident Z in Scene AA." That helps me enormously.

A good beta reader can tell you what bothers him or her without necessarily telling you how to fix it. Sometimes, a casual comment like "this seems to start more slowly than I expected" is all you need. Or, "was that supposed to be funny?"

A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in chocolate, so if you find one, cherish him or her. And DON'T give him stuff that isn't ready for another pair of eyes. I don't like to show anything until the fourth or fifth draft because by then I've fixed most of the typos and can mention specific concerns, such as shifting POV or a strained plot point.

Whatever your beta reader tells you, listen to it. You don't have to change everything but remember that this is a preview of how other people will respond to your book. Think of it as a first date that you want to go well. Otherwise, what's the point?

03 April 2017

Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll

by Steve Liskow

On March 18, Chuck Berry passed away at the tender age of 90 years and 5 months. All the media featured glowing eulogies and long articles about his influence on rock and pop music and how his guitar style became the fountainhead of rock, paving the way for everyone from George Harrison and Keith Richards to Jack White and Ted Nugent and a million unknowns like me.



It's true that Berry popularized licks that Robert Johnson and Elmore James had made blues cliches. What's easier to overlook is that Berry was a terrific lyricist who turned two-and-a-half-minute pop songs into short stories that resonated with his young audience. He gave teens in the Fifties a voice with dozens of songs that became rock standards, and he showed a whole generation of songwriters who followed him how to do it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once told his daughter that to learn to write English prose, one should compose a perfect English sonnet. He said the form is so rigid that the writer has to learn to work within the constraints. Berry did him even better, working within the boundaries of a simplified music form that demanded he also match the rhythm and melody to the mood and meaning.

Berry was nearly 30 when he recorded "Mabellene," his first hit, backed by members of the Muddy Waters blues band. That song borrowed from a country song called "Ida Red," but Berry added a guitar lick that imitated a car horn. He also added a plot involving cars and speed and unrequited love. The Beach Boys would ride this formula into the ground a few years later, with Carl Wilson imitating Berry's guitar on "Fun, Fun, Fun," "409," "Dance, Dance, Dance," and several other songs.

Berry knew about isolation and angst, too. Don't forget, he was a black kid growing up in St. Louis when segregation was still the norm. He knew about not having it all, and he understood the pressures to survive. "Almost Grown" tells us about small victories and small dreams, all he dares to have:

    "I don't run around with no mob/ I got myself a little job./ I'm gonna buy myself a little car/
     I'll drive my girl in the park."

"School Day" captures the feel of being stuck in a big urban school where he's just a name in a grade book, if he's even that. Millions of kids knew what he meant when he said:

     "American Hist'ry and Practical Math, You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass.
       Workin' your fingers right down to the bone, And the guy behind you won't leave you alone."

He's added conflict to the mix, as all good story-tellers do. And the savior is rock 'n' roll:

      "Soon as three o'clock rolls around, you finally lay your burden down...
        Drop the coin right into the slot, you gotta hear somethin' that's really hot."

And there's our resolution, finishing with the line "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' roll!"

"No Money Down," one of his lesser hits, tells of a fast-talking used car salesman who offers outrageous deals to get our hero into a flashy new car and out of "that broken-down raggedy ol' Ford."

Berry constantly uses contrasts to make his point. Sometimes it's verbal, but sometimes he sets happy music against a serious story. "Memphis, Tennessee," covered by Lonnie Mack as an instrumental that lost the irony, and later by Johnny Rivers, tells the understated story of a broken marriage as a father tries to reach the little girl he no longer gets to see:

     "Help me, Information, bet in touch with my Marie,
       She's the only one who'd phone me here from Memphis, Tennessee
       ...We were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
       And tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee
       ...Marie is only six years old, Information, please,
       Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee."

That song is from 1959, when most acts were still singing about sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Berry is addressing more serious topics.

Humor helps him balance the hopes and reams that crash into the reality of color and youth. But things will change. When we learn more, the dreams get bigger. Berry's signature song was "Johnny B. Goode," about a little country boy ("Colored" originally, but he changed it to get radio air play) who

     "...never ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar just like a-ringin' a bell."

This song has the archetypal Chuck Berry riff and the variations show up in song after song. If you were a kid of the time--like the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Beach Boys, the MC5, Ted Nugent, Jerry Garcia, or thousands of other Baby Boomers like me--these were the licks you HAD to have in your arsenal, along with "Louie Louie," "Gloria," and--if you had a drummer with moxie--"Wipeout." Not just because the girls went crazy if you could duck walk to them, but because they kicked ass like nobody had ever done before.

The song shows where that little country boy can go, too.

     "Maybe someday you name'll be in lights a-sayin' 'Johnny B. Goode tonight!'"

Dream big, dream bigger. Go, Johnny, Go.

Berry's other lyrical gift is humor. Teen-age frustration creates dramatic tension and comic outcomes, often at his own expense. He captures youthful angst with humor and economy, again in rhyme and simple rhythms. "No Particular Place to Go,' which has almost the same melody as "School Day," tells of a kid who has a car (Maybe even that broken-down raggedy ol' Ford) and a girl..and hopes to parlay the combination into some action. But it doesn't happen:

     "The night was young and the moon was gold, so we both decided to take a stroll
       Can you imagine the way I felt, I couldn't unfasten her safety belt.
       Riding along in my calaboose, still trying to get her belt unloose
       All the way home I held a grudge for the safety belt that wouldn't budge..."

Simple? Sure. But simple is hard because you can't hide anything.

Years later, I met Joe Bouchard, the former bass player from Blue Oyster Cult, when I took a theater design class along with his wife. When the instructor mentioned that BOC was the first band to use lasers and flash pots in their stage act, Bouchard almost blushed.

"Yeah," he finally said. "The monitors back then sucked, so we couldn't always tell, but the bells and whistles keep people from noticing that sometimes we weren't in tune."

Maybe Berry's guitar wasn't always in tune, but his stories never missed.

Rock on, Chuck.

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?

06 March 2017

Last Writes

by Steve Liskow            


A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a former colleague. I have to admit that I'm approaching an age where I--and several of my friends--find this happening more often than we like. But it made me stop and think for the first time how many of my own works involve funerals, too. So far, eight of my eleven novels have funeral scenes or scenes in which characters talk about a funeral. So do both my current WIPs and at least one short story.

That made me try to recall "great literary works" that have funerals in them, and I immediately thought of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, The Loved One, Hamlet, As I Lay Dying, and Antigone. There must be dozens of others, especially when you think of all the "great literary works" I've managed to avoid reading.


This makes sense because if a story doesn't have something at stake, the reader will stop reading and the audience will stop watching or listening. The two main issues that put something at stake are love and death because they cause irrevocable change. Love changes everything. Where would Romeo and Juliet be without it? Well, alive, you say. Exactly, I say.

Most of us in the crime writing biz focus on murder, not jaywalking or littering because it has a more profound effect on the people. My funeral scenes remind me--and my readers--that killing someone affects the survivors, too, the ones who have to carry on without that person who has been taken away. The protagonist has to figure out how and why so order can be restored, albeit differently. The friends no longer have that shopping companion or tennis partner. The lover no longer has his or her other half. The child(ren) no longer have that parent. The parent no longer has that child.

I sometimes use the funeral scene to provide a clue to the crime, but more often than not, I focus on the inner life of the characters for whom the landscape has changed. These people have to reinvent themselves in order to go on. We all do that many times in our lives (See Judith Viorst's Necessary Losses and Gail Sheehy's Passages for examples), but we crime writers grapple with it every time we put words on paper.


Maybe that's why I get annoyed when people look down at crime writers or romance writers as "mere genre fiction." Take away love and death, and what do you have left?

20 February 2017

Romancing the Crime

by Steve Liskow

Happy belated Valentine's Day to everyone. In keeping with the spirit, let's talk about love.


When I started writing mysteries, I read several other writers who eventually wrote themselves into a problem. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that it was a problem until I made the same mistake, and now I'm finally working my way out of it.

Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Barnes and Robert Crais all had their protagonists pursue relationships with lovers they met during various novels, and those couplings eventually caused the same problem: how do you give a lover who no longer influence the plot something worthwhile to do in your story?

Parker had Spenser meet Susan Silverman when she was involved in an early case, and their romance waxed and waned through the rest of the series. Susan left for training on the West Coast at one point and needed Spenser and Hawk to get her out of a jam in the following book, but for several books, her only link to the story is her psychiatric training that allowed her to help Spenser with varying degrees of success. If it weren't for the expert consulting angle, she could have disappeared.

Michael Connelly commented on his website that he doesn't plan very far ahead and that he wishes he had thought more carefully about some character choices. I suspect that Eleanor Wish heads his list of do-overs. She and Harry Bosch met in Connelly's first book and reunited several novels later. But after they married, she became less and less important except as the distaff side of a failing marriage. Now she's out of the picture and Harry is raising a teen-aged daughter alone.

Tess Gerritsen straddles that same line. Jane Rizzoli married Gabriel Dean, an FBI agent she met on a case, and now we see him for about five paragraphs per book, less than the average baby-daddy. At least he shares child-raising chores with Jane, but I wonder how long that will last. And Maura Isles, Jane's co-protagonist medical examiner, finally ended her own rocky romance.

I don't remember if Linda Barnes showed PI Carlotta Carlyle meeting Sam Gianelli, the son of a Mafia family, in an early book or whether they were already a couple when the series started. Either way, Sam has gained age and influence with his peer group and Carlotta, an ex-cop, is too much of an entangling alliance. The star-crossed lovers have gone their separate ways and Carlotta is looking more favorably on Mooney, the cop she's known from the very beginning.

Robert Crais introduced Lucy Chenier in the fifth Elvis Cole novel. Again, Lucy the lawyer was crucial for that story. Crais solved part of his problem by have Lucy, a divorcee with a young son, live in New Orleans while Cole worked in LA, so they talked on the phone but had little personal contact for the following books.

Then Lucy decided to move to LA, partly for a job, but mostly to be with Elvis. Unfortuantely, she could only give him so much legal advice without possible conflict of interest, and Crais finally ended their relationship in one of his best books, The Last Detective, where' Lucy's son is kidnapped while Elvis is taking care of him. There's lots of painful emotional fallout, and Lucy pulls the plug. She still gets cameo roles in later books, but Crais figured out that a romance doesn't fly unless both characters are on the plane.

I've learned that the hard way, too. Beth Shepard, AKA "Taliesyn Holroyd," was a client in Who Wrote the Book of Death? and she and Zach Barnes became lovers before that book ended.
I planned the book as a stand-alone, but reviewers and readers visited my website to ask when Zach and Beth were coming back. Oops. It's hard when the lover is a reporter, cop, or lawyer, but Beth is half of a pseudonymous romance writing team. Her expertise doesn't include chasing bad guys.

So far, that intended one-off has grown to five books, but Beth has increasingly little to do. She does provide a major clue in my WIP when a character is reading a book she's written under her own name, but she never shows up in person in that story. I'm considering having her do research that leads to a crime and plot in a future book, but I don't know the topic...yet.

Dennis Lehane seems to be the only one who did it right, and I'm not sure he knew that at the time. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro were working together as private investigators in Lehane's first book, and they already had a history, even though Patrick was divorced from Angie's sister and Angie's own marriage was beginning to trail smoke. Angie divorced in the second book and her relationship with Patrick has had more ups and downs than the Dow Jones average. The fourth and fifth books (my favorites) were especially painful. In Moonlight Mile, written over a decade later, Lehane gives the married couple closure.

Unless both halves of the team are actively involved in a case, there's a good chance the outsider is going to become excess baggage.

My "Woody" Guthrie books have learned from Zach and Beth. Megan Traine, Chris/Woody's girlfriend, is a computer wonk for the Detroit PD. She can contribute to the story and still bat her baby browns at the good guy.

How about you? Is a series romance turning into a serious problem?

06 February 2017

Writing by Ear

by Steve Liskow

My Grandmother and her cousin were elementary school teachers, and her daughter and her husband (my aunt and uncle) were reporters long enough ago that they weren't yet called "journalists." My sister and I were the youngest of eleven cousins, seven of whom also became teachers. Another cousin is a lawyer and at least three of us got involved in theater along the way. They joined my parents in reading to me--and, later, my sister--from the time we could sit upright, and they read with vitality and expression.

That's probably why both my sister and I entered kindergarten reading at about fifth grade level. I also grew up hearing a voice saying the words when I read. Later, a reading specialist told me this was a problem, but I never believed it. I still don't, even though means I can't read more quickly than I can hear the words.

Since we grew up in the Midwest, those rhythms, broad consonants and nasalized vowels became my default sound track. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Roethke (whose sister taught me ninth grade English), and later Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman and Linda Barnes sounded like family. I left Saginaw, Michigan fifty years ago but the rhythm is still an internal metronome when I write.


That's good because American English creates meaning by rhythm instead of case endings like the Romance languages. Stress different words in "I can't really bring myself to trust the fellow" and listen to how it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Shakespeare's vocabulary isn't that different from ours--he's writing in Modern English, after all--but he's a master of using rhythm to show actors how he wants a line delivered. The usual iambic pentameter line (ten syllables with the even-numbered ones receiving more stress) is the norm, but if Bill throws in an extra stress, especially in the middle of a line, it forces you to slow down for emphasis. A line with many monosyllabic words goes very slowly and gets lots of attention.

Good queen, my lord, good queen I say, good queen.

This is the only fully monosyllabic line I remember in the canon, and Paulina (my wife in the picture) says it to Leontes in The Winter's Tale when the latter accuses his wife of being a strumpet and she disagrees. Can you hear how slowly she pronounces the words, nearly hammering them into his head? During my stage career, I performed in about a dozen Shakespearean productions and directed six more. I know several actors who were so comfortable with the language that they could improvise in blank verse if they had to. That's the power of strong rhythms.

Hearing the words I read helped me learn lines on-stage, too. I was one of many actors who learned the lines along with the movement (blocking) because it helped fix the words into my body. It's also how I blocked (choreographed) scenes when I directed: a rhythm shift always told me that someone on the stage should move.

I don't act anymore, but rhythm helps writing, too.

Worry less about being grammatically correct--especially in dialogue--and more about whether or not you can SAY what you've written down. That's my final test, and it's my main point here.

In your final draft, READ YOUR WORDS OUT LOUD. I walk around the room while I read, too (my wife and our cats have learned to ignore me), because speech rhythms and movement rhythms work together. If I break stride or stumble over a word, it means I wrote the wrong word or put it in the wrong place.

Some grammar rules are misleading, too. A split infinitive is a mistake only when it confuses the audience. Sometimes, it makes more sense with the adverb between "to" and the verb, and it may flow more smoothly. The same goes for ending a sentence with a preposition. People tell you it's wrong, but the real issue is that it means your sentence ends with a weak rhythm. In English, you put the words you want to emphasize AT THE END (Thank you, Strunk & White).

When you read out loud, you're more apt to notice repetitions or awkward phrases, too. If you put several words with the same sounds close together, they're hard to pronounce. My favorite, a line I stumbled on one night in performance, comes from Twelfth Night:

Notable pirate, thou salt-water thief,
What foolish boldness brought thee to their mercies  
Whom thou in terms so bloody and so dear
Hast made thine enemies?

Hear the repeated and overlapping consonants? Try saying the speech five times fast after four frozen daiquiris.

Punctuation should help the reader read your words aloud, too, so forget the debate about the Oxford comma, the serial comma, the non-restrictive clause, the direct address and everything else. Where do you want the reader to pause to make the words impart the meaning you intend them to have? That's where you put the comma, period, or whatever else you need. If you walk as you read aloud, you can tell. Walking helps you find a smooth natural pace. Speed up for action scenes or slow down for drama. If you walk too slowly, you may lose your place, too. If that happens to me, I need to cut exposition or description, both of which I dislike writing anyway.

I don't write poetry, but I try to end a scene with a strong beat or cadence. I play guitar, too, and at least three bass players will tell you they like to play behind me because I'm easy to follow, which I assume is a good thing.

Nowhere does rhythm matter more than in writing humor. We talk about comic timing, but it's flexible, not absolute. Some people (remember Jack Benny?) can hold a pause so long you feel your hair turning gray, but they still get the laugh. Others deliver the same punch line more quickly and get the same laugh. You have to find your own rhythm when you write, and that means you have to hear it and feel it.

Look on-line and check your local library. If you can find Mark Twain's essay on how to tell a joke, it's still the last word on the subject, a century after his death.

So there it is. Read your work out loud. If you feel yourself falling into a drone or losing your place, you need to change something (cut adjectives, more active verbs, etc.).

With a little practice, you will find that your ears will help you more than your eyes.

And I still hear a voice when I read.

23 January 2017

Break It, Fix It, Break It, Fix It Again

by Steve Liskow

Last time, I listed several books that helped me write better. They all tell what to do in order to write more effectively, but no book can tell you how to do it. That's a personal thing.

Grad school rekindled my long buried urge to write, and over the next nine years, I wrote five atrocious novels. All I can say is that I learned to produce junk more quickly. When it came time to produce a thesis/project for my sixth-year degree at Wesleyan, I decided to rewrite one of those train wrecks based on what I'd already learned from hundreds of mistakes.

I chose Dr. Joseph Reed as my adviser, partly because I knew he didn't give a rat's ass about hurting my feelings. When I phoned to ask him if he would be my adviser, he said, "Probably not, but come in tomorrow and we'll discuss it."

Because of his response, I did two things I'd never done before. I wrote a 2-page summary (Now I know enough to call it a synopsis) and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the events in my story.
Joe looked them over as though he saw checkmate in three moves. When he learned that I wrote everything out longhand and re-typed it for him--this was 1980, pre-computers--he shook his head.

"You're wasting time," he said. "Compose at the typewriter and don't worry about typos. You're going to revise everything to death anyway."

An outline and typing the first draft changed my process radically. Between 2003 when I retired from teaching and started writing full-time, few other changes merit discussion. But here they are.

Jodi Picault once said that a writer must learn to write on demand, and that's another skill nobody can teach you. Stephen King and other writers set word count goals--King's is 2000 words a day--and I forced myself to do that, too. It didn't matter if 1999 of them were crap, I wrote until I reached that number. Some days, I finished by noon and other days I wrote until midnight, but after a few years, I knew I could sit down at the keyboard and produce two or three pages of semi-coherent English is an hour.

Now, I generally write a few paragraphs in the morning and go to the health club if I get stuck. While I sweat on an arc trainer, my mind runs free to figure where I'm going next. But I don't have to write in the morning. Remember that write on demand thing? I wrote the first draft of this essay at 4 pm.

Do you outline just because your teacher told you to do it in school? If so, have you found a more flexible way to do it? If you do some form of pre-writing, is it words, diagrams, phrases, or something else? What really works best for you? I used to doodle on separate sheets of paper and move them around to figure out my basic plot and character relationships, but now I use a dry marker board. At the end of the day, I photograph it and stick it in my picture files so I can start with a fresh board the next day and still refer to the previous work.

The only other major change is my outline/synopsis. Somewhere in those years of wood-shedding, I started doing what the screenwriters would probably call a verbal story board. I list fifty scenes in order. The character name in bold type is the POV character, and I tell the essential action/change of the scene in a sentence or two. The number at the end is its order in the MS.

The storyboard tells me where I need to do research and shows if I have too many expository or action scenes together so pace is an issue. It takes me several weeks to develop fifty scenes (although I'm getting faster) and that's my first draft. Writing those scenes out as real prose is my second draft, and always shows where I've left something out, repeated something, or put events or information in the wrong order. I correct the scene list ("Chronology" in my terminology) as I go, each change a "save as." By the time I have my first full MS, I'm usually on at least the twelfth draft of the scene list. That continues through the next several drafts, and my record is 31 scene lists.

That first full MS has to come fast because that's how I find the rhythm of the story. It helps me feel when a scene is in the wrong place. I wrote the first "full" version of Dark Gonna Catch Me Here in 33 days (I didn't plan it, it just gushed out that way) and it had over 92,000 words and 57 scenes. The final version a year later lost four of those scenes, added an new one, added another POV character, and cut about 8000 words.

Through my first four or five drafts, each scene revision is a separate word file: Scene 1-A, Scene 1-B, Scene 1-C, Scene 2-A, Scene 2-B, etc. I keep them separate because it's easier to change the order by renumbering a five or six page scene than it is to cut and paste in a 300-page document. If Scene 12-C needs to move, "Save As" gives me Scene 22-D.

None of this means you should do it, too. But if you're in a rut or things aren't working, maybe put a few new parts in the machine and see what happens.

Do you write at a particular time of day because you need to get to work or the kids have to be in school? If not, try earlier or later. Try in a different room. Walk around outside before you write, or go to the gym, or listen to some music. Do you write with music? Try a different kind (baroque instead of jazz, for example) or silence. Do you hear the words better?

If you normally outline, write a scene or two without planning and see what happens. If you don't outline, try it. This is a huge change, and it's hard, but you might discover something.

Try writing character bios for your main characters before writing your story. Figure out what's at stake or what that character's weakness is. I do bios for my major characters and have a file so I have ages and major events consistent (like when Zach Barnes stopped drinking or Chris Guthrie almost lost his leg in the shoot-out), but the minor characters change as I need them, especially names.

Try writing in pencil or roller ball or ballpoint or fountain pen (my fave for early planning) or even crayon or dry marker instead of the keyboard. If you write longhand, go to the keyboard first.

Do you write a few pages, then go back and revise before moving on? Try writing the whole work before you go back. If you usually do a complete draft, try revising scene by scene.

Do you have a word or page goal for the day? What happens if you raise or lower it? What if you write a scene instead of a word count? If one scene is four pages long and the next one is ten, can you still do it? That's my only solid rule now, I have to write the complete scene in a day because the rhythm won't sustain overnight. My scenes average about 1600 words, so if I write one a day, that's about 50,000 words a month (Hello, NANO). And I no longer have to write every day. The point of the fast and messy first draft is that it gives me something to fix. A first draft is like a block of marble: once you have it, you have to chip away the excess to make a statue of an elephant. Or Michaelangelo's David.

When I finished that MS in 1980, Dr. Reed encouraged me to send it out, and it collected a stack of rejections. I knew I'd revise it yet again someday--when I'd learned more craft. When I looked at it again a few years ago, I understood that the opening dragged because the important subplot took a long time to develop. Re-sequencing with several overlapping flashbacks helped, but that created another problem. For the first time, I listed all the events in the story in chronological order before I wrote the new outline so I could keep the back-story coherent. I've only done that with two other books (one of them is currently a WIP) because they had more history to them than usual.

I added a couple of scenes and expanded one character, but beyond the re-sequencing that demanded some new transitions, at least eighty percent of that book is what I wrote in 1980. That astonished me. I finally self-published Postcards of the Hanging (Another Bob Dylan allusion and not the title from back then) in 2014, 34 years after it was a thesis and 42 years after the first version began in the back of a spiral notebook.

Gotta keep it fresh, right? My next project is to learn to write with my left hand...while standing on my head.

What have you changed since you started writing? What do you wish worked better?

09 January 2017

Books for Writers

by Steve Liskow

Well, 2017's a week old, but this is my first chance to wish everyone a Happy New Year dripping optimism and good intentions. Those good intentions show up in the resolutions we make and--sorry, but it's true--often break. Many writers vow to read more books, review more, attend more workshops, or improve their writing in some way, and I'm no different. Especially when I look back at how far I've come...and how much further I still need to go.

I tell people in my workshops that if you can read something you wrote more than two years ago without wincing, you have stopped growing as a writer. The only upside to low standards is they make you harder to disappoint.

In the 1970s, I wrote five deservedly unpublished novels. When retirement loomed in the new millennium, I knew I wanted to make at least one of those novels better and vowed to learn the craft, which I'd never bothered to do before. As an English teacher I knew how to write a decent sentence or paragraph, but I'd never learned how to tell a story. Once I retired, I attended workshops, joined writing groups, and read dozens of books on writing. I'd always read writing texts for the classroom, but now I had a different focus. It was the start of a much more arduous journey.

Since I began teaching, I have probably read over 1000 books on writing or how to teach writing, and it's a sad paradox that most of them are poorly written. English teachers worry more about formal correctness than style, and most creative writing classes are too big to give people individual attention. Writing is a personal thing and everyone does it or learns it differently, which is why composition classes have such mixed results. You need to do most of the work yourself.

And here's how. The following list is for potential fiction writers, not necessarily of mystery/crime, but slanted that way. These are the books that have helped me, which doesn't mean they will help you, too, but give them a shot.

PLOTTING:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby                        This is geared toward screenwriting, but it covers premise, plot, character, setting, dialogue, and how to blend them into a cohesive whole better than any other book I've found.




Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt          This expands Georges Polti's over-praised The 36 Dramatic Plot Situations from a century ago. Schmidt, also a screenwriter, is clear, concrete, practical and demanding. The offers many questions that will help you generate your own ideas in a lot of different forms.

Story by Robert McGee                   This has been considered the book for some time, and I think it gets a little more abstract and philosophical than it has to. I prefer Truby, but it's a matter of taste.

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham                  Bickham's prose is dry but his discussion is crucial. Many later books refer to this one, which is appropriate because nobody else has explained the mechanics as well or as thoroughly.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler            One of many books on the Jungian/Campbell hero model, but more readable than most of the others. Like Schmidt, Vogler is a script doctor.

CHARACTER:

I've found more good books on character than on any other fact of fiction, and here are my faves.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Character, Emotion and Viewpoint  also by Nancy Kress                     These two books repeat a little material, but Kress's discussion is concrete and practical. The first book includes a huge worksheet for developing a character that may be overkill but demonstrates how much there is to consider. It also has an excellent discussion different ways to handle internal monologue.

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon              There are several dictionaries of baby names and the like, but this one cross-references by nationality, meaning, and gender. It also has common surnames and explains how the language or culture developed those names.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt                Same author as the plot book. She uses mythology and Jung to sort the characters into types and has a concrete discussion of how various character complement each other to develop a deeper plot.

SPECIALIZED TECHNIQUES:

Dialogue by Gloria Kempton            There are few books on dialogue, and most of the others are terrible, including those geared toward play-writing. The belief seems to be that either you can write it or you can't (mostly the latter), but this book give you solid techniques and exercises that generate plot or character, too. It's cheaper than taking my workshop, too. ;-)

Hooked by Les Edgerton              Supposedly about openings, it covers several other aspects of fiction and ties them together well.

Description by Monica Wood                 A masterpiece about the technique everyone loves to overuse...badly. This book shows how description can strengthen theme, tone, character, setting, and everything else.

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Setting by Jack Bickham                  Again, dry prose but a deep and thoughtful discussion of all aspects of how and why your location can make or break your plot and your characters.

REVISION AND EDITING:

Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden               If you don't already have this book, buy two copies, one as a spare for when you wear the first one out. Roerden is a former reader for a major publisher and also a ghost-writer. Here, she offers helpful--and often hilarious--examples of how to ruin your writing and how to fix it.

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell                This covers all the crucial issues above: plot, character, pacing, dialogue, tone, point of view, and gives helpful examples and exercises. Even though it's only one chapter, his discussion of dialogue is second only to Kempton's.

Story Fix by Larry Brooks                 Brooks offers a long discussion on the importance of a solid concept and premise, which few other books even mention. He makes a strong argument for tweaking that idea until it can support the mechanics of plot and character and shows how to strengthen your structure.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King                 This has been around for quite awhile, mostly because it's very good.

Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale                 Discussing how to build a style and voice is both difficult and dangerous, but this book does it well. Again, many excellent and funny examples.

Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss                             This is a collection of essays on various aspects of writing fiction. Jauss's discussion of point of view leaves everyone else back on the wagon train, and his analysis of present tense is only slightly less brilliant.

You'll probably notice a few omissions. Yes, The Elements of Style is a crucial text, but it's better for exposition than it is for fiction. Writing narration as Strunk and White suggest can lead to a more clipped and impersonal voice than you might want for stories. That said, it's the be-all and end-all for crafting strong prose. I've also left off grammar books and dictionaries because I'm an old-fashioned grump.  If you don't know grammar, spelling, and punctuation already, why the hell do you think you should be a writer?

What are your favorite books that I've missed?

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles

by Steve Liskow

Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?

I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

12 December 2016

Living the Dream: Self-Publishing II

by Steve Liskow

Last time, I discussed the potential slings and arrows of publishing yourself. If you're not used to the publishing jungle, it may have sounded pretty bleak, so now let's look at the positive side. This is what keeps me going.

Whatever you're giving up monetarily (which is impossible to gauge with any accuracy), you gain two things that outweigh almost everything else: Control and Flexibility.

If you self-publish, it really is your book, the one you envisioned and struggled for. If you worked hard and took workshops and got good advice, you have something you can display and sell proudly. You don't have to split with your agent or anyone else, and you can keep track of your own royalties and expenses. I work with Create Space, and their reporting is timely and clear. They also offer a much higher royalty and lower price for author copies than traditional publishers do.

Control and flexibility matter. I've abandoned three novels. I was only about 60 pages into one and was blocking up, which is always a red flag for me. I stepped back and realized that the two major premises contradicted each other and that without both of them the book didn't work. I put it aside. Later, I recycled several of the characters with minor changes and they appeared in The Kids Are All Right, my fourth Zach Barnes novel. That book was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel and appeared about two and a half years after the earlier version got shelved.

If I'd abandoned a book for a traditional publisher, the seas would run red. The worst case is that the publisher would cancel my contract because I failed to deliver a MS on time. The best case is that the cover artist, editors, marketing, and everyone else would have been thrown into limbo and the production would have lost anywhere from one to three years. But with no contract and no deadline, I simply turned to my next project and came back to re-think this one later.

I was nearly 200 pages into a book late in 2014 when I decided the subplots didn't have enough at stake to justify their existence. Two year later, I reworked the premise and have completed a third draft that works much better. But that two years would have ended my career with a traditional publisher. Fortunately, I had other rejected works I could re-visit.

When you're your own boss, you determine the deadlines without several other people depending on you. If you have material ready to go, you don't have to wait for months until that traditional publisher decides to release something else so it "doesn't conflict" with your current release.

You also have control over your covers. My cover artist and I worked together in theater for years, so we know how to talk to each other. He does terrific work, and I like my covers better than many that I see at Barnes and Noble. They're different and they stand out. They also give a hint of what the story is about, unlike the generic urban skyline or girl in distress tropes.

When I finally decided to self-publish, I had six novels with a total of nearly 350 rejections in one form or another. Two of them will never see the light of day because subsequent revision changed them so much--and for the better. But I could tinker with the others, send them to beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, and send them out when everyone agreed they were ready. Once I decided to make the leap, I released four novels in about eleven months, two only slightly revised from the most recent agent rejection. Another was a re-edited version of my one traditional book, and another was heavily revised from an earlier series that didn't sell. Maybe I'll tell you about that some day.

Just to be fair, we should talk about traditional publishing, too. I have many negative perceptions and biases here, based on several years of being ignored, insulted, and generally screwed. I can't imagine any reason I would try to place a novel with a traditional publisher now, and I don't think anyone over the age of forty--maybe younger than that--should bother to fight the gatekeepers.

Publishers seldom give an advance now, and even if they do, it may not be more than four figures. It's apt to be for three books, all of which have to be delivered to them in a form they deem satisfactory. You have no vote. If they don't like a rewrite, or you're a few days late, they can cancel your contract. You may not get a cent, and now your name is out there as someone who doesn't deliver.

Those publishers do little or no promoting now, and may tell you that's your job. You'll get no money or reimbursement for anything you do--business cards, travel, whatever--and you'd be doing the same things if you self-published. They also send out fewer advance reading copies for critics (what few real critics still exist), and buy fewer ads in influential newspapers. If your first book doesn't sell in spite of this lack of publicity, they'll do even less for the next one, and may even cancel your contract.

(Since you do your own promotion, scour the Internet to find the best sites for bookmarks, business cards, and anything else you want to use. I like Vistaprint for my business cards and Gotprint for my bookmarks, but there are many others that may fit your needs better.)

Traditional publishers may tell you to hire an editor at your own expense. Traditional editors have evolved (or devolved) from the Maxwell Perkins template of decades ago into marketing liaisons. They help  the firm decide how to package you and write the cover blurbs. You may or may not have any say in this. You are far less likely to have a vote on your cover, and most traditional covers now fall into one of three or four basic templates.

If you sell enough books to earn through the advance, you may receive royalty payments every three, six, or even twelve months. In the meantime, you have to be writing that second and third book, which will be published an average of eighteen months after you turn them in. Your royalty rate will be somewhere around ten percent of the cover price, and you may or may not be able to order books for your events at a discount. If you can, those books may or may not be credited as "sales" for more royalties. Bookstores get those same books at a sixty percent discount and can return any unsold copies to the publisher (who pays the shipping both ways!) for a full refund. Those returns count against your sales and your value to the company.

The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292,000,000. Your chances of making it big as a writer are better, but only slightly.

I love writing short stories, but because I now spend so much time editing, formatting, and promoting the novels, I've written far fewer of them since I began self-publishing. John Floyd wrote a great discussion of short stories and where to sell them on this blog a few weeks ago and it's worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

My short stories have won a fairly prestigious award (twice), been short-listed for three others, and been named a finalist for the Edgar Award. Agents and editors no longer pay attention to such things, so I'm still self-pubbing. In fact, I'll publish a collection of those stories in spring of 2017. It may not sell many copies, but through Create Space, I have no initial outlay. I can buy the books for roughly a third of my cover price and it costs nothing to convert the book to an eBook, which can earn a royalty of from 35 to 70 percent. I don't even have to order any copies if I don't need them for an event.

Granted, it's not financing the beachfront property in Bermuda, but it beats a poke in the eye with a rusty nail.

Over the last few months, I've discovered that many local libraries only have a few of my novels, so I approach them individually and point out that if they buy the books through Amazon (Create Space is allied with Amazon), they'll have to pay shipping, usually $3.99 per book. I offer to order the books myself and deliver them. If they want several titles, I negotiate a discount. Again, it's not high finance, but it gets my books into libraries where readers can find them and it puts a few more dollars in my pocket.

When libraries like me, they're more apt to hire me to conduct my writing workshops, too, which gives me another chance to sell even more books.

When it's really your book, you can be flexible so everyone wins. That makes all the effort worthwhile.

21 November 2016

Dreaming the Life: Self-Publishing Part I

by Steve Liskow

Before I say anything else, if you don't already know this, no legitimate publisher will charge you money up front to publish your work. If someone offers you a deal that involves you paying first, walk away. Once your book is available, you should be able to order as many or as few copies as you want at a discounted price, too. If that's not the case, look somewhere else. These are called vanity presses, and a few in particular have given self-publishing authors a bad name.

Several years ago, Laura Lippman commented that many people ask the wrong question. Instead of asking "How can I get my book published?" she suggested that the better question is "Is my book ready to be published?" While self-publishing doesn't carry the stigma it did ten years ago when those vanity presses ran rampant, you need to work a lot harder if you decide to publish yourself. Find a good editor and conscientious beta readers. Take their advice. Yes, it costs money, and you won't break even financially, but you may produce a book you can show proudly. If you're really lucky, a handful of readers will tell you so, too.

Five years ago, someone asked me if I'd considered self-publishing and I laughed. But things change. As I write this, I have eleven self-published novels available and plan to release two more in the next year or so (I publish short stories through traditional markets).

A small publisher produced my first novel in spring of 2010, but I knew my WIP set in the world of roller derby was too long and too dark for that publisher's catalog. By the time Who Wrote the Book of Death? appeared in print, I was already looking elsewhere.

I pitched The Whammer Jammers to an agent at Crime Bake in November of 2010. She asked for a full MS and rejected it about a month later. Between January and April 2011, I submitted that MS to fifty other agents in groups of ten every four weeks. The book became a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and earned a positive review from Publisher's Weekly, but I couldn't sell it. Six years later, I still have seventeen unanswered queries.

That spring, I joined a panel of local authors for a presentation and everyone else self-published. Two of them had been with prestigious firms and left for various reasons. They all urged me to go it alone and one mentioned Create Space. When I checked it out, I was leery, but as more rejections came in, I investigated more fully.

Then I met an actor and designer who created posters for a dozen plays I had directed in a past life and we talked about book covers. He looked at my existing cover and explained how he would change it and why--very specifically. I told him about The Whammer Jammers and three weeks later he showed me a mock-up. I published the book in September of that year, ended my association with my previous publisher a month later, and re-edited and published the first book only weeks after that. By then I was revising two other novels that had collected fifty rejections between them (but positive feedback). I even found established writers to blurb them.

None of that should mean anything to you. That is my journey and my decision, but yours may be different. Self-publishing has advantages and disadvantages, and you need to consider them carefully.

First, you are in charge of everything. You write, you edit,
you draft the cover copy, you oversee the cover design, you develop the promotion, you arrange for the blurbs, you format, you publish, you register the copyright, and you arrange your own events. Maybe you even run your own website. If you're very organized and like keeping control--and actually have expertise in all these areas--it's OK. But the multi-tasking means less time for your primary job, which is to write books.

Whether you know spelling and grammar or not, you need beta readers. I belong to the Guppy (acronym for the Great UnPublished) chapter of Sisters in Crime because they feature manuscript swaps for critiques. You need editing, too. I do most of that myself, but my beta readers are writers and editors. I do my own formatting for Create Space because I figured out an easy visual style that eliminates hassles with different headers and footers, but I have little visual or graphic sense.

Fortunately, my cover designer and I worked together in theater long enough to figure out how to communicate with each other. We live about ten miles apart so we can discuss a synopsis or images in person. That's very helpful. My designer also has a good eye and ear for language and we work together on cover copy--along with my webmistress, my daughter with a double Masters in Communications and Marketing. My wife used to write advertising copy for radio, so she's a huge asset, too.

Ignore what you see on the Internet. Nobody has yet found a one-size-fits-all method of promoting, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, blogs, or anything else. Your friends can come to events and buy books, but asking them to review is risky because most of them don't know enough about reading or writing to craft a review that doesn't look bogus. In the October 28, 2016 issue of Publishers Weekly, longtime agent Peter Riva tells why he thinks Amazon reviews are worthless anyway. I have business cards and bookmarks because I also conduct fiction writing workshops and edit fiction. I know thirty librarians on a first-name basis, but that doesn't mean they can get me into their building. Funding for libraries is diminishing like common sense during election campaigns.

If you conduct workshops, the preparation and promotion also take you away from your "real" writing.

If you're self-published, many established authors will not blurb you. For some, it's a philosophical issue, and for others it's a contractual one. I was lucky to get a few blurbs for early novels because I met many members of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America (I appear on panels for both groups) at events, but I ran out of connections. Six of my last seven novels bear no blurb.

Remember that if you've self-published, most agents and traditional publishing houses may treat you like toxic waste if you query them later. I don't agree or disagree, but that's how it is. I've heard of self-pubbed authors (generally very young) getting picked up by major houses, but what have they produced since then? Amanda Hocking comes to mind.

Self-published authors have trouble getting publicity. My local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, has gutted its staff and is owned by the Tribune. That means it's edited in Chicago and local news is low priority. The reviewer who used to support local authors now sees her work trimmed or deleted. She used to promote my events, but last year I couldn't even get mentioned when the Private Eye Writers of America named me as a finalist for the Shamus Award.
The largest independent bookstore in Connecticut demands a payment of $125 from self-published authors for an appearance there, and they will only do a fifty-fifty consignment split. I would have to bring the books with me, sell seventeen just to pay that fee, and take the unsold copies with me again.

Most bookstores won't carry your books because they can't get the same distributor's discount and free returns they have with traditional publishers. Your book will cost them more to buy, and if you bring your own, they get a smaller percentage from the sale price (see above). That hurts their margin so they probably can't afford you. Maybe you can make a special deal with your local store, but maybe not.

Those are the shortcomings I've discovered so far. Sound bleak? Well, maybe, but next time, we'll look at the advantages. I think those outweigh the problems.