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

16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
 
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.



Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains

by Steve Liskow

Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

19 March 2018

Genre-ly Speaking

by Steve Liskow

When I retired from teaching and returned to writing after a hiatus of over twenty years, I found myself turning to crime fiction without a second's thought. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, and most of the other golden age writers, and I grew up on The Hardy Boys, so it made sense to me.

On the other hand, my theater cronies knew me only as an English teacher with three graduate degrees, and they kept asking "why mysteries?" They obviously thought I should be producing something "more serious," which I guess meant "literary."

Many people still look down at mysteries and romance as something you scrape off your shoe, but I don't know why. Keep in mind that the idea of genre or non-genre writing is a fairly new distinction. I'm too lazy to research, but I'd guess that it began either between the two world wars or after World War II. Book stores began sorting the books to guide customers to their preferences. I'm sorry about that because you never know what you'll find if you dig through everything instead of just what you'd ordinarily read. I still remember my ninth-grade teacher chiding a classmate for reading only books about basketball. With a straight face, she urged him to try football or baseball, too. Most of us got her point.

As for the larger issue, I think it was Samuel Johnson who first said that only a blockhead writes for something other than money, which means that you want to produce something that will sell enough to make your effort worthwhile. If it happens to survive beyond the first press run, that's even better. A good story will last, and those are the books that used to show up in school. We teach or taught very few books that didn't sell because if they didn't sell, they didn't survive. The Great Gatsby is a notable exception. Several years after Fitzgerald's death, his publisher found over half the original first press run sitting in a warehouse, some twenty years after the original lukewarm reviews.

Between 1970 and 2003, I taught all levels of tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade English at two high schools and a community college. We updated the curriculum at least three times during that stint, and all these books appeared in classes at one time or another. We generally called them classics then even though some were contemporary. Look how many are really mysteries, sci-fi, romance, or westerns.



A good story is always a good story. So there.

Sherman Alexie:  Reservation Blues                       Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
John Ball:  In the Heat of the Night                         Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights                            Albert Camus: The Stranger
Truman Capote:  In Cold Blood                              Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekhov: The Sea Gull                                Alice Childress: Wedding Band
Kate Chopin:  The Awakening                               Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident
Robert Cormier: After the First Death, The Chocolate War
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Open Boat"
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Euripides: The Bacchae                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, "A Rose for Emily"
Charles Fuller: A soldier's Play, Zooman and the Sign
Edith Hamilton: Mythology                                   Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Castorbridge
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the 7 Gables, "Young Goodman Brown"
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller          Franz Kafka: The Trial, "Metamorphosis"
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining
Jerzy Kosinski: Steps, The Painted Bird, Being There
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird                       Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur
Jerome Laurence & Robert E. Lee: Inherit The Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Babbitt
Carson McCullers; The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible
Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye            George Orwell: 1984, "Politics & English Language"
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country               Mario Puzo: The Godfather
Eric Maria Von Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Jack Schaeffer: Shane                                      Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Antigone
William Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's             Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of       Venice  (During my theater career, I acted in productions of Hamlet, Midsummer, Much Ado,             Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Directed versions of Dream, Much Ado,         Merchant, 12 Night, and ran lights for a production of Macbeth)
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice & Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels              Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-5, Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House
Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men             Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence
August Wilson: Fences                                    Owen Wister: The Virginian
Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son

For good measure, we had the Bible in a history of religions course, too, and that covers pretty much every genre all by itself. People who look down their noses at genre miss the point. I wonder how much enjoyment they really get from reading...if they actually do any of it.

26 February 2018

To Pay or Not to Play...

by Steve Liskow

A contest I used to enter regularly (It was free, see below) now sports the following headline on its web page: "Submissions for the 2017 **** Contest are closed. The 2018 contest will open on January 1, 2018." Today is February 26 and that banner was still there when I uploaded this essay.

Yesterday, I found a website for a magazine with exactly the same message. Their submission period will open "sometime after January 1, 2018."

Not encouraging...

When I was trying to break into publishing (An accurate phrase for a crime writer, right?), people urged me to enter contests. If I won, I'd catch the attention of editors and agents, and they'd take me more seriously.


But not all contests and awards are created equal. Winning a Pulitzer, an Agatha or an Edgar means something. Second runner-up in the Oblivion County Limerick Derby won't raise many eyebrows.

There are a few problems every writer encounters in writing contests--or even submitting to a magazine or anthology--but I've learned to recognize warning signs.

One is a website that's hard to navigate, or that's out of date, like the two I mentioned above. If you can't find details like a theme, length, formatting, or if there's an entry fee (more about that in a few minutes), you should look elsewhere.

Another is weird judging or criteria.
Yes, no matter how much the judges have a rubric, at some point personal preference will come into play. Every time you send something out, subjectivity is a fact of life, but it should be less crucial in a contest than for regular publication...especially if you pay an entry fee. You won't know this until it's too late, but don't make the same mistake twice.

One judge doesn't like profanity, another doesn't appreciate your humor, and a third wants more violence or a sympathetic female character. I have withdrawn stories from two anthologies (Both later published somewhere else) because I discovered the judges didn't understand their own criteria.

I added one sentence to one story to make it fit a theme, and on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high) the three judges gave me 1, 3, and 4 on how well I adhered to that theme. Not possible. 

In another contest, the sponsors sent me my scores and I saw ratings of 56, 94, and 89. Two judges loved the story and the other gave me low scores on almost every standard. The judge who gave me a 94 total only gave me a 1 (out of 5) for relative quality of the story compared to the others he or she read. Really?

I've mentioned cost a because I'm cheap. If the submission involves a reading fee, look at the prize. I won't pay $25 for a $100 prize. I enter few contests that involve reading fees anymore. There has to be a good return, meaning at least two of the following: money, exposure, prestige.

I avoid one contest because it published the deal-breaker right up front. They offered a $250 prize (not bad) with a $20 reading fee (ummm...) BUT the judges reserved the right to award no prize if they felt on entry deserved it. Nothing was said about refunding the fees.

Oops.

Yeah, I still enter a few contests, but now I need a Plan B, other places I can send a story if it doesn't win. Last summer, I sent a story to an anthology. It wasn't chosen, so I entered it in a contest with a hefty cash prize. I learned last week that it didn't win and sent it to two regular markets. I have three other places to send it if neither of those pick it up.

Prestige is nice, and so is exposure, but in the words of Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.

29 January 2018

Would I Lie To You?

by Steve Liskow

If a story uses a first person narrator, the most important action in that story is the telling. The narrator arranges the people and events in a way that serves his purpose. Since he has a stake in the story, sometimes he cheats. That's where the fun begins.




Many of the classics gain their power from the irony of a dissembling story-teller. Lockwood, the secondary narrator of Wuthering Heights, is too conceited to understand that Nelly Dean passes the buck in her tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's star-crossed love. Through negligence or prejudice, she causes every tragedy in the book and blames Heathcliff, whom she admits she loathed at first sight.

Dickens's Great Expectations thrives because Pip believes that Miss Haversham is polishing him to be worthy of Estella. By the time he understands that Magwitch is his real benefactor, he also realizes that Estella is a miserable woman who would be a horrible match for him.

Critics have argued about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw since its serialization in 1898, and James did little to settle the argument, calling his story merely a "pot-boiler to catch the unwary." His prologue (He almost never used a prologue) shows us a series of narrators who are either biased, lazy, or irresponsible, and the story seems to be an exercise in covering everyone's tush. Is it a ghost story, or did the governess hallucinate the shades of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? The visions first appear when she daydreams about the handsome master who hired her under strange circumstances, so I tend to side with the Freudians even if they do get heavy-handed. I used to love assigning this story in my honors American Lit classes, especially those who had read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the previous year and picked up on the allusion to Peter Quince, the rude mechanical who wrote the hilarious play they perform at the end. Musician Quince Peters, who appears in my two novellas with Woody Guthrie, comes from the same source.

The danger of using irony is that readers may not understand. Contrary to increasingly popular mis-reading, Huckleberry Finn is NOT a racist novel (for that, I suggest Uncle Tom's Cabin, which portrays the black characters as docile and stupid, more like Labrador retrievers than people). Huck has been raised by a white-trash drunk and he repeats what he's heard about black people all his life. At the same time, he shows us that Pap, Tom, Boggs, Sherburn, the Grangerfords, the Shepherdsons, and the King & the Duke are lazy, greedy, stupid, violent, dishonest, or most of the above. Jim, on the other hand, is brave, loving, loyal, honest, and patient.

Never trust what someone tells you if he shows you something else.

If you write mysteries, the unreliable narrator should be near the top of your bag of tricks. Agatha Christie showed how far you can take this idea in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). You don't have to go as far as Dame Agatha, but since people lie in mysteries, why deprive the narrator of so much fun?

Remember, you have to let the reader understand that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. A careless reader won't catch on (so much the better), but if you play fair and suggest along the way that narrator X spins more than bottles, you have lots of possibilities.

So, how do you play fair?

One way involves having the narrator say right up front that he prevaricates. In Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden is a paranoid schizophrenic in a mental hospital. He ends the first chapter by telling us, "It's the truth, even if it didn't really happen."

How much clearer can you get?

Holden Caulfield is a direct literary descendant of Huck Fin and a close relation to Chief Bromden. It still surprises me how many readers of Catcher in the Rye miss that Holden delivers his narration to a therapist after he's had a nervous breakdown.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, the narrator of Shirley Jackson's underappreciated We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is almost as crazy as Chief Bromden, but not as straightforward. "Merricat" tells us on page one that she's often thought she should have been a werewolf and that she likes Richard Plantagenet and the death's-head mushroom. We see her obsessive rituals to ward off "trouble," too. She lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian; the rest of the family died from eating sugar laced with arsenic on their strawberries. The small town shuns the family because they believe Constance evaded prison because of insufficient evidence. It's nearly the end of the book when those townsfolk trash the sisters' home and Merricat snarls, "I will put death in their food and watch them die." Constance says, "The way you did before?" and Merricat answers, "Yes."

She hasn't lied to us before about who poisoned the sugar. The subject simply hasn't come up in conversation. By the time it does, we've had ample opportunity to see that Mary Katherine Blackwood has more issues than the archives of the New York Times.

Gillian Flynn is equally clear in Gone Girl. Early in the book, Nick Dunne starts counting the lies he tells other people. This implies that he lies to us, too. Sure enough, when the police and Amy's parents call him out on various inconsistencies, he admits the truth...eventually. What makes the book so powerful is that Amy, the missing wife, lies even more than Nick...and even more skillfully.

Sometimes, the narrator shows you subterfuge without actually saying he lies. Chuck Palahniuk gives us a huge disconnect two page into Invisible Monsters. The macabre tableau involves Edie Cottrell's wedding reception--and Brandy Alexander bleeding out at the bottom of the stairs from a shotgun blast. Palahniuk's scene is horrific because it's so specific. Then the narrator shows her true colors: "It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the blood stain."

He's even clearer in Fight Club. 200 words into the story, he says, "I know this because Tyler knows this." Think about it. He repeats the comment throughout the book, too. That's fair.

Some narrators don't deliberately lie, but their background cause a bias that clouds their vision. I've mentioned Huck Finn, but think also of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Nick tells us his family is wealthy. His unconscious bias against the poor explains his letting Gatsby take the blame even though they both know Daisy drove the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. It's worth pointing out that Nick, who tells us he's the most honest person he knows, has two affairs during the book and came east to avoid marrying the woman he seduced back home.

Never trust what a character tells you if he shows you something else, remember?

In The Perfect Ghost, Linda Barnes shows us apparently agoraphobic Emily Moore, who mourns the death of her writing partner, killed in what might not have been an accident. At the same time, she starts sleeping with the famous director she and her partner were interviewing so they could write his biography. It may not be dishonest or unethical exactly, but it's poor enough judgment to make us examine the rest of her story more carefully.

Barnes, Flynn and Fitzgerald all use flashbacks, which delay the revelations because an altered chronology puts more pages between the contradictory details so readers are less likely to notice them. I generally avoid flashbacks, but nothing is off-limits if you do it really well. All three of these writers do it really well.

Another way to justify an unreliable narrator is to make him dumb or naive. Ring Lardner's short story "Haircut" (1926) features a barber telling a stranger about the events in a small Midwestern town. The story lasts as long as the customer's haircut, but Whitey the barber is too thick to understand how the people and events he describes fit together. By the end of his story, we understand that a murder has been committed. We know who did it, how, why, and that he will get away with it, too. Great stuff. And the unreliable narrator is the only way to make the story work.

Lardner's tale inspired my own story "Little Things." The two main characters are a bright eight-year-old boy and a shy six-year-old girl who meet when their respective single parents bring them to a miniature golf course. Amy lacks the wider knowledge to know that her experiences are not "normal," and Brian is too young to grasp the significance of what she tells him. Amy's mother and Brian's father are wrapped up in each other and don't even hear the little girl's revelations.

Everybody lies. But first person narrators do it better.

Trust me.


15 January 2018

Second Thoughts and Second Best

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I read a Facebook post from a writer I didn't know, ecstatically proclaiming that his writing was so good he never revised anything. I went to his Amazon page and opened the "look inside" button on his most recent masterpiece. His claim was about half-right. I read a page and decided he really didn't revise. If he'd been in my tenth-grade comp and lit class when I taught, he might still be there, too.

Someone I know once compared a first draft to that stranger at the bar who looks a little better after every beer. If you don't look again in the cold harsh light of day, you'll never appreciate the bullet you just dodged.

One advantage of accumulating over 700 rejections (That's when I stopped counting) is that it gives you plenty of work in progress. When I published my first short story (I think it was my 23rd), I learned enough from it to go back and revise several of the others. Some of them have sold since then, but many didn't pass the sniff test.

I wrote twelve novels before I sold my first one, too. Three or four of those early attempts have undergone major surgery, since then, always for the better. Cherry Bomb, my second Zach Barnes novel in Connecticut, started as the second Woody Guthrie (He had a different name then) book set in Detroit. The last half of the book rocked, but the first half rolled over and almost died. Moving it to Connecticut solved a few problems immediately, but it took me six years to figure that out. Blood on The Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, changed the character's name three times and had four different titles over the course of ten years and 112 rejections. The cold case surrounding the dead rock singer stayed constant, but the original story had a cozier concept that confused agents, and setting it in 1991 forced the action to stretch out over abut three months and dilute the tension.

This is stuff you learn only by doing it wrong and getting called out for it. Then you have to find your own way to fix it. That journey is a personal quest, but most people agree that you start with the major issues (Plot, structure, setting, character arc) and gradually zoom to smaller details: prose style; dialogue; backstory and description; spelling, punctuation, grammar.

I like revision because it's working with something you already have. You can't make a cake without flour and sugar and various other ingredients, and it's the same with a story. Even if it's a half-baked mess, you can add more ingredients or change the proportions and cook it a little more until you get lucky. The more you do it, the luckier you get, too.

One advantage of self-publishing is that you can go back to a WIP if you're not happy with it and not have other people screaming at you to hurry up. You can put it away and look at it again after time gives you more perspective. When you do come back, you're not as invested in it so killing your darlings won't upset you as much.

I never throw anything away (Flash drives are a wonderful invention) and I recycle stuff fairly often. The October 2017 issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine features "Death by Water," which received its first rejection in 2009. My spread sheet says I sent out three different versions of that story before I got it right. Another story that first crossed the street in 2010 will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2005, I interviewed several people and did lots of research for a book that I thought would feature Woody Guthrie. I moved it to Connecticut in 2011, and discovered the plot didn't work. Several supporting characters worked perfectly for The Kids Are All Right in 2014. Postcards of the Hanging was my sixth-year project in grad school in 1980, and about 90% of what appeared in 2013 is what I wrote then, but re-sequenced with flashbacks to introduce the conflict earlier.

This week, Before You Accuse Me, the fourth Woody Guthrie novel, makes its debut. I first conceived of the story (Including the title, which never changed, a first for me) in 2004, but knew it was the fourth or fifth book because I had to develop the intervening backstory first. That took nearly 14 years, but about half of what I thought up back then remains and the rest is stronger for the time away. The biggest change is the move from San Francisco (which would have required LOTS of research) to Connecticut, where I live. That made geography easier to work with and allowed me to feature Hartford cops Trash & Byrne as supporting characters.

It never gets easier, but you get better.

01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again

by Steve Liskow

Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.

And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

18 December 2017

Less is Hard

by Steve Liskow

When people at events ask why I'm self-published, I can spot the other writers in the group with my standard answer: "So I don't have to write another synopsis."

Condensing your 300-more-or-less-page novel to five pages (some agents want only two or even one) is like gift-wrapping the state of Michigan. Remember, there are two peninsulae (or is it peninsulas?), and they're both pretty big. Lots of ribbon and tape...

Agents want your protagonist, setting, and conflict. They also want the plot and emotional stakes. They want to know how the story ends, too, and a sense of your style. In one to five pages. Maybe that's why Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain and Thoreau are among those famous writers who published at least some of their own work. I'd love to see Tolstoy's synopsis for War And Peace or Joyce's packaging of Finnegan's Wake.

But wait, there's less.

When I started self-publishing, I found a genius cover designer, a guy I worked with on dozens of plays. He designed posters for several shows I produced and most of the shows I directed.
We discovered that we could understand each other so he could create a poster that did all that synopsis stuff with a well-chosen graphic image. His covers prove that the cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is still true.

But I still need to write a cover blurb. If you think a one-to-five-page synopsis is hard, try the postage-stamp-sized pitch on your back cover.
Mine run between 125 and 150 words, and they have to do everything that synopsis does except reveal the ending. Once a buyer looks at the cool cover picture, she's going to turn the book over and read the back (I hope). My portrait isn't going to sell the book (although I'm still frequently mistaken for Brad Pitt if it's dark enough), so it's up to that blurb.
How do you do it? Think Tarzan on steroids. Shun adverbs, adjectives and passive verbs. Use concrete, evocative nouns; precise active verbs; and all the voodoo you can conjure up. My designer usually shows me the cover image after reading my outline/synopsis (he'll read up to ten pages, bless him) and asking questions. He can shrink the font, but he's a good enough writer to tell me when he thinks I need to do better.

Before You Accuse Me, my fourth Woody Guthrie novel, will arrive in January. I started struggling with the blurb last June. I thought the cover image was strong enough so we didn't need a tagline, but I like to start the blurb with something punchy. I was playing with Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors."

"Old offenses make bad relations" was too vague, not to mention stupid. That was the third or fourth try. We changed it to "old betrayals make bad relatives," only slightly better. Maybe. Peter dug into the outline again and told me to specify the relative. We played around with that for another two months and finally agreed on "Bad exes make bad clients." Then we changed and cut and added until we could both live with the rhythm.

We could probably do more with it, but we were both exhausted and I was still revising the MS, too. Maybe the second "bad" should be "worse" or some other monosyllable. We knew we were pushing our luck when we used early backstory and an adverb to fill out the rhythm in the closing sentence.

Here is the ninth revision, which we agreed to use:

Bad exes make bad clients.

Years ago, Sarah McKinnon dumped Chris Guthrie and moved hundreds of miles away for a new job and, eventually, a new husband. Soon after that, Guthrie nearly lost his leg in a shoot-out that cost him his job as a Detroit cop.

Now Sarah's new husband is in trouble and she wants her PI ex- to get him out of it. Against his better judgment--and that of his new companion Megan Traine--Guthrie flies east, where he and Megan find Sam Henderson accused of killing his mistress. He has a motive, the opportunity, a weak alibi, and maybe the murder weapon--which has disappeared. when they dig deeper, they find an even more damning motive.

Unfortunately, someone else has found it, too.

It's 128 words, about my average. It has no passive sentences and it reads at about seventh-grade, seventh-month reading level. I aim at fourth or fifth grade, but summaries tend to skew toward more passive verbs, so I'll take this.

someday, maybe I'll learn to write a blurb. Then I'll bottle the secret and sell it to other writers and make the fortune that continues to elude me.

04 December 2017

Old Dogs and New Sticks

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, a woman who has acted in five or six plays with my wife (I directed one of them) invited me to her home because she had "something to show me." She mentioned "corruption," "graft," bootlegging" and murder, too. Your typical date, right? Naturally, I accepted.

A week later, I followed my GPS down a series of twisting back roads through woods and dales to her house, where I found her dining room table sagging under legal pads, file folders, photographs, and her laptop, which looked exhausted.

"Check this out." She showed me a Hartford Courant front page from 1921 (below) featuring FIVE different stories, all continued later in the paper, about Andrew J. Richardson and his son Andrew F. Richardson, who were arrested for bootlegging, auto theft, possible murder and a variety of other charges. some of the headlines were priceless. My personal favorite (bottom of upper right cluster) is "Mom Sobs While Sons Nabbed." They don't write 'em like that anymore.

Reading farther, I learned that Richardson pere and fils were detectives on the New Britain, Connecticut police force. In fact, Dad was the Chief of Detectives. Oops. And it gets even better. I looked up at my friend, Nancy Richardson Cardone.

"That's my great-grandfather," she said. "You think there's a book in here?"

"How much material do you have?" I congratulated myself for not drooling.

She held up a flash drive. "About 200 files."

She gave me a copy of that flash drive and we discussed options. Eventually, I convinced her that the best bet is to find a traditional publisher because she has pictures and other documents from the side of the family her relatives never discussed when she was growing up. She went to Ancestry.com and it turns out she is a brilliant researcher. If Robert Mueller needs someone to flesh out his investigation team, I know where he should look.

I've looked through the files. A lot of them have family value--birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and an autopsy report (yes, really!)--but most of them provide little or no narrative. Nancy knew a few great anecdotes, but they may not even be relevant. I told her that if we can find enough material to produce a coherent story, it's probably going to take three to five years. Since it looks like I would do the writing, I told her I've never tried nonfiction and this could take away two of my few strengths: dialogue and interviewing people. After all, the events took place nearly a century ago, so none of the major players will sit down to chat.

Another downside is that I've never put together a nonfiction proposal. I've started researching that, too, and it looks like a cross between a marketing plan and my Master's thesis. Fortunately, I can write within rigid constraints. As an English teacher, I could sling jargon with the worst of them and still be somewhat coherent (yes, I know that's a sin). I've also written grant proposals, the literary equivalent of jumping through progressively smaller flaming hoops while pounding nails into your forehead. I never want to write another one.

The project has some bright spots, too. I taught in New Britain, scene of the crime, for over thirty years and have former students in city government and on the police force. Maybe someone will remember what a brilliant, funny, and generous guy I was and open a few doors. The gang operated out of several sites, but one was a farm in Newington (where I now live), between New Britain and Hartford. Without even knowing it, I drove past that farm on my way to New Britain High School for years. If we need more pictures, that farm is still there.

New Britain was one of the most prosperous towns in the Northeast a century ago (ever heard of Stanley Hardware or Fafnir Bearing?) and has an industrial museum that I highly recommend if you're ever in the area. They have fascinating exhibits and even more fascinating people who can tell you all about them.

Last week, I tracked down a former colleague who used to do genealogy for clients back before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. He suggested several other possible sources of information.

I know, I could use whatever we find as the basis for a novel, but I'd still have to research the story anyway, and there's more competition (Dennis Lehane's The Given Day comes to mind instantly). If the information is there, nonfiction seems like a better choice even if it does feel like learning to play guitar again...left-handed.

What do you think? Does this sound like a good story? Would you read it? And how old do you have to be before you can learn new tricks?

20 November 2017

Plotters and Pantsers

by Steve Liskow

Several years ago, I sat on a panel with three other writers and one of the patrons asked if we outlined or not. I said "yes," and it set off a debate that filled the rest of the evening and did little except confuse the poor woman who asked the question in the first place.

Saturday, I conducted a workshop on plotting and the same issue held the center stage for most of the afternoon. I think it's an important question, but there's not one right answer. Writing is a personal action tied to your own rhythms, thought process and voice. About half the writers I admire do outline and an equal number don't. Both approaches have advantages.

Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen don't outline. Gerritsen writes (or used to write) her first drafts in fountain pen in a notebook over the course of about seven months and revised for the rest of the year. Lehane used to write longhand on legal pads and type his work into the computer at the end of the day. He said that if he hit writer's block (a topic for another day), it meant he'd made a wrong choice somewhere and he had to re-read everything to find it. He would make all the necessary changes from that point on and continue. I don't know if his process has changed now that he also works in television.

Robert Crais got his start in television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and others. He says he still pins index cards with ideas on a cork board in his office and sorts them until he knows where he's going. Maybe having to write quickly and know the good guys will survive at the end makes that necessary. Mark Twain didn't outline but Charles Dickens did.

When I started writing (without an outline), I produced nearly 300 pages of a first novel over the course of about a year and a half. Then I got lost. I went back and discovered I had over 125 characters, many appearing only once, and lots of dialogue that went nowhere. I scrapped about 90% of what I'd written because it was all tangents and false starts. What was left looked sort of like an outline, and I've used a refined version of that approach ever since.

My thought process is far from linear (my friends prefer to call it "delusional") so plotting is hard for me. I also tend to use several point of view characters to help with pacing and to keep information away from certain people. Outlines help me keep track of who knows what. It also helps me find recurring images or themes to use along the way. I usually have a general idea of the ending, but the outline helps me figure out how to get there. It's sort of like MapQuest with a few wrong turns.

My outline is closer to a story-board, a list of scenes that name the POV character, the setting and the important action or change that takes place in that scene, all in three to five typed lines. I like to have about fifty scenes in what seems to be the right order before I write the first real text, but I never have them right. I add scenes, delete others, and move many around to get the pacing right and strengthen the cause and effect connections. That list is both my outline and my first draft. By the time I finish the first full prose version of the story, I've revised that list at least a dozen times. I think my record is 27. By the time I have the list and the completed first typed text, most of my plotting is done. Everything after it is revision.

That revision often involves going back and adding false leads or red herrings to make the ending a surprise. Occasionally, I find a more surprising ending along the way. Chris Knopf (I don't think he outlines) once told me that he writes with several possible endings in mind. When he decides which one will pack the most punch, he goes back and changes the details that lead elsewhere. I suspect other writers do that, too. I assigned Huckleberry Finn in my American lit classes for decades, and I still maintain that Twain added the scene with the dead man in the floating house (chapter 9) when he realized that Pap was an unresolved problem at the end.

People who don't outline have a sense of pacing and probably know their characters well enough (maybe in a series?) to understand where they will go and what they will do next. And, again, there's always revision. At that plotting workshop last week, I cited Jack Bickham's book Scene & Structure
with his explanation of scene and sequel. The sequel is a reflection on what has happened and what to do next. It helps with pacing and it gives pantsers a place to figure out where they will go next. They can even delete the passage later if they want to.

If you outline and it locks you up, toss it away and try writing your first scene. That will show you what your second scene should be. That will give you your third scene, and so on.

If you write from the seat of your pants and keep getting stuck, try an outline. My scene list is usually about six pages long and takes me anywhere from two to six weeks to write. Not only does it give me the action, it shows me what research I might have to do. Maybe that's another topic for a rainy day.

Remember, the only wrong way to write is not writing.

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes

by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



23 October 2017

Writing and Reading

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?