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

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?

25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.

11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember

By Steve Liskow

Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.

We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.

I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.


Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.

One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.

In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.

28 August 2017

Now It Gets Personal

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed Connecticut crimes that span our country's history. Several were grim "firsts," and they prove that you don't have to set a crime story in the Big Apple or LA.

But when people ask--as they invariably do--"Where do you get your ideas?" I have answers that hit closer to home. Postcards of the Hanging grew from a crime in the town where I attended high school half a century ago, but today I want to talk about other crimes that shocked Connecticut. I know or knew people who were involved in all of these, and even though I changed every possible detail, two of them have inspired novels...so far.

It's probably an urban legend, but New Britain, CT claims to have more package stores (liquor stores to you tourists) per capita than any other city in the United States. On October 19, 1974, Ed Blake felt ill and closed his Brookside Package Store early for the first time anyone could remember. It probably saved his life.

Two career thugs decided that holding up a New Britski packy would mean good money on a Saturday night. When they found their target closed, they went next door to the Donna Lee Bakery, where a customer called one of them by name. The men could have turned around and walked away, but instead they forced all six workers and patrons into the back room and shot them. They raided the cash register and fled, gaining less than twenty-five dollars for their efforts.

Passersby noticed their car and license plate, and police tracked them down within hours. They served long terms in Somers, Connecticut's maximum security penitentiary (one died of cancer a few years ago), but it didn't bring back the victims. One was the cousin of my assistant principal. Two others had a son in my junior English class. Ed Blake's son was a former student, too.

I've never used that story. You don't always gain insight by trying to analyze a horrific event. Evil is simply banal and stupid, and sometimes it comes down to unfortunate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Several years later, Pulaski High School became a middle school and I transferred to New Britain High School, alma mater of two Connecticut governors, Thomas Meskill and Abraham Ribicoff.

By the early nineties, NBHS, designed for 1600 students in 1973, had an enrollment of 2800. It also had turf wars between the Latin Kings, Los Solidos, and 20 Luv, all of whom wanted to control drug sales in the area. The President of the Latin Kings, Miguel deJesus, was no scholar but he caused no trouble in my fifth period comp & lit class, aside from doing no work. Other teachers had less luck with him, and his guidance counselor told me they were less sociopathic than I was.

On November 4, 1993, a car dropped Miguel off at the Mill Street entrance, directly below my classroom's window (circled in red).



He came early to be readmitted after a ten-day suspension for fighting. As he approached the double doors, a stolen car pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a hoodie put a handgun against the back of Miguel's head and shot him six times (the black circle on the picture). Dozens of witnesses saw the car, which was later found abandoned, but it took nearly two years of detective work before the shooter and driver were caught. Two members of rival gangs died in the next week, and police barely managed to contain an all-out gang war. Miguel was the first of three gang members I lost over the next three years.

Run Straight Down changed every detail, but it grew from that shooting. I focus on the teachers who had to go back into the building the next day and make it safe for the kids...when we all knew damn well that everything was broken.

After retiring from teaching, I read newspapers to the blind for several years, but in summer of 2007, a federal trial took place in Hartford without a word about it appearing in print. The jury eventually convicted Dennis Paris, alias "Rahmyti," of assault, drug trafficking, extortion...and over 2500 counts of trafficking under-aged girls along the Berlin Turnpike.
Raymond Bechard's book about the case includes transcripts in which the women are asked over and over if Paris knew they were between 14 and 17 while he forced them into as may as ten liaisons a day. They said "yes" over 300 times. The case convinced the federal government to rewrite the existing law so that if the person was underage, it didn't matter whether the trafficker knew that or not.

The Berlin Turnpike had been notorious for decades (I live less than a quarter-mile from the highway), and I revising Cherry Bomb when I bumped into Bechard at a signing and discovered that his girlfriend was a cousin of one of my former teaching colleagues (and another sister who had been a student). Through him, I got to do a phone interview with one of the "witnesses" to clarify details of prostitution from the woman's perspective.

Dennis Paris's defense counsel was Jeremiah Donovan. His trial was in session when two men invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit, a case I mentioned two weeks ago. Donovan later defended one of those men, too.

In March of 1998, disgruntled worker Matthew Beck, on leave for emotional problems, returned to the CT Lottery headquarters in Newington, armed with two handguns and a knife. He killed four workers. Lottery President Otho Brown lured Beck away from the building to give other workers a chance to take cover and call for help before Beck trapped him in a fenced-in parking lot. Survivors called Brown the hero who saved their lives.

Others weren't so lucky. Beck shot Linda Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, formerly the first female mayor of New Britain, in her office. New Britain had a 21% Polish population, third in the nation at that time, and Linda literally walked through neighborhoods knocking on doors to talk with residents. She met her soon-to-be husband Peter when he helped her run her campaign. Over 1000 mourners attended the woman's funeral during a cold heavy rainstorm, the same day Mlynarczyk's farewell to his wife appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant. It hurt like hell when I realized he now wrote even more eloquently than he had years before...as another student in my class.

Playwright Marsha Norman advises writers to write about the things in your life that still hurt, that still feel unfair and make you angry.

I've got mine.

14 August 2017

The Land of Shady Habits

by Steve Liskow

I set my first mystery in Saginaw, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Detroit. While I shopped that around, I also worked on a series set in Hartford, CT, where I now live, and many people asked why my stories didn't take place in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston. I told them there were already enough private eyes there to keep things under control. Twenty years ago, Robert Parker, Linda Barnes and Dennis Lehane all worked Boston. It's a wonder there was even a parking violation.

Rosemary Harris uses a fictionalized Southwest Connecticut and a couple of other writers have set an occasional mystery in the state (Thomas Tryon, a Hartford native, created a version of Old Wethersfield in The Other), but I don't know why we don't see more of them. The state has an energetic multi-cultural background--Irish, Italian, Polish, African, Hispanic--not even counting the original occupants. Manufacturing and the insurance industry flourished here, and the history offers truckloads of material.

So does crime. The two towns that still argue over which is the oldest one in Connecticut both have seen major foul play.

Wethersfield, on Hartford's southern border, still has a section called "Old Wethersfield," with colonial architecture, tall trees, and a cove that leads to the Connecticut River. Thomas Beadle, a merchant who contributed to the revolutionary war effort, lived along the cove with his wife and four children. When the Continental Congress devalued Connecticut scrip to 1/40 the face value to help finace the war, Beadle faced bankruptcy and disgrace. In December 1782, after months of planning and delay, he struck his wife in the head twice with an ax and cut her throat in their bedroom. He did the same to the children in their rooms, then wrote a suicide note, sat in his favorite chair with a pistol in each hand, and shot himself through the head. His act was the first mass murder in the American colonies.

Over a century later, Amy Archer-Gilligan
ran a nursing home in Windsor, which borders the northeast corner of Hartford, only about ten miles from Wethersfield. Although she was only tried and convicted for one death, she poisoned at lest five men.

In fact, between 1907 and 1917, sixty residents of her home died, mostly from stomach ailments.


Eventually, the court declared her insane and she spent years in an asylum, dying in 1962 at the age of 93. Her story inspired the popular play Arsenic and Old Lace. If it had become a TV movie, maybe they would have called it Gilligan's Trial.

The Nutmeg State boasts (?) other ground-breaking crimes, too (pun intended). In 1957, authorities captured George Metesky, AKA "The Mad Bomber," after he had planted over thirty bombs in the preceding decade. After years in prison, he died in Waterbury at the age of 90 (Crime in Connecticut appears to be connected to longevity). His arrest came about after one of the first uses of a psychological profiler, whose description proved remarkably accurate.

Wethersfield used to be the site of Connecticut's electric chair, where Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky was executed in 1960 after killing at least seven people in a series of liquor store robberies. His reign of terror caused package stores to close earlier in the evening than had been customary.



In September 1983, several Puerto Rican nationalists held up a West Hartford branch of Wells Fargo and escaped with over seven million dollars, the largest recorded haul in history at that time. By the time authorities tracked down the thieves, they'd spent most of the money on political activism.

A much darker first occurred in 1989. In Newtown, philandering airline pilot Richard Crafts went to prison for killing his wife Helle, the first time a Connecticut jury convicted a defendant for murder without the corpse being found. Prosecutors built a grisly chain of evidence about how Crafts destroyed the body, and the case is still notorious as the "Wood Chipper Murder." It may have inspired the scene in the Coen brothers film Fargo.

In 2005, Michael Ross became the first execution in Connecticut since Mad Dog Taborsky after a jury convicted him of raping and strangling at least eight women in Connecticut and New York. Ross, who looked slightly more dangerous than cotton candy, picked up most of his victims hitchhiking.







In central Connecticut, the Cheshire Home Invasion of July 2007 is still an open wound. Two career screw-up druggies battered Dr. William Petit in his home, forced his wife to withdraw money from a local bank as a ransom (The banks' surveillance video was evidence at the trial), then raped and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. The injured Petit managed to escape and alert police, who captured the fugitives within blocks of the house, driving Petit's car. Their trial and ultimate convictions aroused a movement to bring back the death penalty, which Connecticut had rescinded after Ross's execution. The movement failed.

In August 2008, Omar Thronton, fired for stealing beer from the Hartford Distributors in Manchester, entered the building with two 9 mm semi-automatics and killed eight co-workers before turning his guns on himself.

It's disturbing to notice how these tragedies seem to come more and more quickly. The most horrific of many school shooting rampages took place in Newtown, the home of the Crafts couple I mentioned above. On December 14, 2012, mentally disturbed Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 six-year-old students, five teachers and the school's principal. He shot himself when police answered the frantic 911 call, and his mother--who bought him the guns, including an assault rifle--was found shot to death in her home. Local Senator Chris Murphe is one of Congress's strongest voices for gun control, and President Barack Obama's private visits to each of the victims' families are now local legend.

I'm closing this installment with the story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if you don't follow football, you might have heard of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, a star athlete at Bristol Central high school (where one of my theater buddies used to teach English). Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015. while in prison, he was tried for two more murders, but was acquitted. Five days after his acquittal, guards found him dead in his cell, apparently after hanging himself.

Yes, it's a grim list. But it gets even worse. Next time, I'll discuss a few more cases, all of which involved people I know. I even used a couple of them for stories...

31 July 2017

RIP Dick Wagner

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I wrote about Chuck Berry, a household name even if you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Three years ago yesterday, Dick Wagner, one of rock's great unsung pioneers, passed away from respiratory failure at age 71. I never saw a word about it in the newspapers or online, and only learned about it because Susie Woodman, my high school classmate and ex-wife of Dick's first drummer, posted it on Facebook.

When I mention Dick's name, most people say, "Who?" When I mention certain bands or records, their eyes widen and they say, "That was him?"

Dick played on over 30 gold or platinum albums and CDs, usually as an unnamed session guitarist, but those records include the blazing duet (With Steve Hunter) on Aerosmith's cover of "The Train Kept A-rollin'," backing Lou Reed on his Rock and Roll animal tour, and several Alice Cooper hits--most of which he co-wrote. He also played or wrote for Kiss, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra.

Back in my deformative high school years, I knew of Dick as the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/arranger of The Bossmen, a Beatles knock-off band in Saginaw, Michigan.
Dick wrote practically all their material, and you could hear him grow and develop as the Beatles did. By the time his band ended its run in 1967, it included Mark Farner, who would later perform with Terry Knight & the Pack, which morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. Dick went to Detroit and fronted The Frost, a good band that didn't make it, and started writing and producing. Other musicians and producers called him "The Maestro" because he could read music (a rarity for guitarists), write like a devil, and play guitar like a monster.

In the early seventies, he released an LP, but his label decided to call it "Richard Wagner." Of course it ended up in the classical bins and sold about twenty-six copies.

Dick's brilliance led to problems. He developed an Olympian cocaine habit--maybe from hanging out with Aerosmith--and he admitted to a sex addiction that led him to cheat on his first two wives with possibly hundreds of women. Eventually, he developed heart problems and had a nearly-fatal coronary in 2005. That and pressure on the brain paralyzed his left arm and he had to re-learn guitar after surgery and a long bout of physical therapy.

He began to tour again, often with musicians he'd known in Detroit including Mark Farner, and Dennis Burr. At about the same time, I connected with him on Facebook through my high school classmate, who still plays session keyboards and performs around Detroit. When I was looking for blurbs for my first Woody Guthrie novel Blood On the Tracks, Susie--who inspired my character Megan Traine--said I could drop her name to various Michigan musicians.
She knew or played with Dick--and Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and members of both Savage Grace and ? and the Mysterians.

Most of them, surprise, surprise, never got back to me, but Dick said, "Send me your book. When do you need something?"

A few months later, he emailed me his blurb, short, sweet, and perfect. It's on the back of the book, and I sent him a copy.
By the time it came out, though, his health was deteriorating and he never mounted the comeback tour that was in the works. I read his memoir and found a CD of the Bossmen's songs on his old website. I was amazed how many of them I remembered from fifty years ago.

At an open mic last week, I played on of Dick's best-known songs as a thank you to a star who didn't have to give me a boost, but did.

"Only Women Bleed."

Thank you, Dick.