21 October 2019

Extreme Editing


On October 15, I finally finished a short story that had been plaguing me for months. I started the story on July 10 after some research. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that long to write a short story without interruption/jumping to another. The story– which I’m being vague about until there is an official announcement– takes real historical people but changes an event in history. 

I loved the concept when asked and immediately knew what I wanted to write, but since I was twisting history that happened in the last twenty years with a decent amount of controversy, I did a lot of research first. I got deep into the weeds bogging down in several areas including government officials and documented “bad guys.” The word count was supposed to be between 5-7k words. It had ballooned to over 13k words in early October. By October 12 I whittled away a lot of obvious excess and got the story down to 10k that had everything I wanted to tell. 

I asked the editor if I could sneak the story in at that word count and to his credit he said no. So I had a lot of cutting to do. Which leads me to this tangent:

Within the short story writing community, it's a common theory that stories should only have four or five characters, that there should be a few scenes so that you don’t confuse the reader and the story doesn’t get watered down. Fundamentally, the reasoning is solid, but I also like to think of the short story as an experimental medium should have limited rules. I would argue that the first and main rule of writing short fiction is to engage and entertain/move the reader. How to do that is up to the writer, not rules. 

As a lover of flash fiction, it seems many stories in the noir world often have 2 or 3 characters, a bar or basement (or some vice-infested locale), a confrontation, and a resolution ending with an act of violence. The format is not bad for a story written in a 1000 words or less, and I’ve written a few this way myself. My hope as a short story writer is not to write just a scene, but a complete story with a middle, beginning and end. Often I try to have multiple scenes with separation of days, hours or flashbacks within a scene to build the suspense/anxiety and create a well-rounded story within a limited amount of words. Sometimes I have a few character and other times I have than what is recommended. I bristle at the idea that short story writers can’t have multiple characters/scenes/periods of time, but high quality investigative reporters with limited word count write engaging stories based on facts. It can be done if it is done right.  

Okay, tangent over. This brings me back to my October 12 problem. I have to cut out 30% of my story in three days (while working a full time job.)  

Here are some things that I did to pare the story down (in no particular order): 

Add contractions

Most people use contractions when speaking. “I don’t want it” instead of “I do not want it.” Every know and then people will make declarative statements like “This outrage will not be tolerated!” So keep it in those instances, and the declarative moments will stand out more. Also, I’d say most people think in contractions as well so combine internal thoughts and possibly the narrative voice if it makes sense. The combinations can cut down dozens to a few hundred words. 

Paragraph reductions 

Take 2 -4 words out of every paragraph. If you have Microsoft Word (or perhaps another word processor) you can see how many paragraphs and lines you have. Go to each paragraph and look at ways you can compress a sentence. Instead of “He walked up the creaky steps and rang the doorbell.” Perhaps "He rang the doorbell" will suffice. Years ago I wrote an article about how 10 authors had their characters enter through doors.   https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/ten-authors-walk-through-a-door/   One example I use is the following scene from James Elroy’s LA Confidential. 
“Bud went in the back way — through the alley, a fence vault. On the rear porch: a screen door, inside hook and eye. He lipped the catch with his penknife, walked in on tiptoes.”
The screenplay uses more words than Elroy's prose. That is quite an achievement. 

Combine scenes and summarize 

I had written a few bureaucratic meetings to show the inefficiency of siloed government agencies in a time of crisis. While showing is better than telling, I used one meeting to show and explained that several other meetings had been like this and cut two scenes out.  

Kill darlings 

The darlings are the precious scenes that writer loves and does not want to get rid in spite of the scene having no value to the plot. Although killed several scenes that I labored over and enjoyed I managed to keep on less-than-plot-oriented discussion about ice cream and religion. The rest of the darlings, however, were massacred. 

Have another set of eyes 

I've been fortunate to have a writer’s group over these past several years. Sarah M. Chen and Stephen Buehler were on standby to look at the story and offer suggestion for vicious cuts. Since they were not as emotionally attached to the story as I was, their advice bolstered my resolve to kill darlings that I might have internally fought to keep.

Start late and end early

Anton Chekhov once told a fellow writer, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” I think Chekhov was advocating for a quick entry and exit to the story so that an excessive, bloated opening and ending wouldn't weight down a story. I had the bloat on both ends of my story.

While I’m not a fan of literary fiction that builds to a moment, but does not offer an ending– which I consider an act of cowardice– there is something to be said about starting in the middle of action/scene without a slow build up and to end at the moment of resolution and not to dwell much on it. My beginning scene got whittled down to 2 sentences and the beloved end scene was chopped off completely. (Another nod to killing darling and motivation from Stephen to take out the 200+ word ending that was fun, but unnecessary.

In the end I whittled the story down to exactly 7,000 words at around 9:10pm on the 15th (aka 12:10a.m. East Coast Time.)   Whew! And in the end I think the story is much better for it.

Have you had to do drastic cuts on your project?














Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com

20 October 2019

Viola doesn't play the Viola


Nat King Cole
O’Neil wrote about the blah saccharine music of the 1940s and early 50s. I suffered some of the same issues he touched upon. We chatted about his music-loving private eye in that period.

My parents allowed no television, so we didn’t endure dreck as much as some ruining their televisions with Lawrence dullest-of-the-big-bands Welk. At least nuclear families could participate with Sing Along with Mitch Miller.

In the 1940s, the war hit hard. Less than creative but happy, treacly songs helped people feel a bit better. Sadly, many of the best talents were killed off, most notably Glenn Miller. This resulted in the least significant digits surviving awash in bland, washed-out numbers by Lawrence uh-one-uh-two Welk whose claim to fame was outliving all the greats.

One day I started listening to recordings of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The 1920s were pretty interesting, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for example, but the 1930s blew me away. Everyone knows Glenn Miller’s great ‘In the Mood’, but Louis Prima and Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing!’ (all 6-zillion versions) blew me away. Arguably, the 1930s proved as creative as the 1960s. Unlike Lawrence God-spare-us Welk, these sounds vibrantly lived.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ was written on the cusp of the 1930s/1940s as WW-II geared up. Superficially, it seemed a trivial song with insipid covers and uninspired remakes. But the original, what a tune! Glenn Miller made it playful (as did gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge and the wing-footed Nicholas brothers), but underneath it was musically brilliant, embedding one of the most ingenious transitions ever. I’m grateful Lawrence put-me-out-of-my-misery Welk hadn’t ruined it for me.

As it turns out, the 1940s weren’t at all devoid of good music. Radio fans weren’t looking (or listening) in the right places– Darktown! Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. Thank God they weren’t into the Champagne bubble music of Lawrence just-shoot-me Welk.

And there was Viola Smith. Never has the world seen such a drummer. Tom-toms, snares, kettles… She featured in girl bands, she featured in boy bands. She's amazing. Currently at age 106, she’s even outlived Lawrence gag-me-with-a-pitchfork Welk.


19 October 2019

Who, What, & Where




Okay, put on your thinking hat. It's time for a quiz.

The inspiration for this post came to me some time ago, when a student in one of my fiction-writing classes said, "If my story is ever made into a movie, I wish Steve McQueen could've played the lead." Immediately a young fellow on the other side of the room said, "Who?"

A long silence passed, during which I'm sure most of us in that classroom were thinking the same thing: Are we really THAT old? But sure enough, the King of Cool died almost forty years ago, and there are probably a lot of folks in their teens or twenties who, when they hear the name Steve McQueen, don't think of the Cincinnati Kid or Thomas Crown or the second cowboy in The Magnificent Seven or the guy who blasted through San Francisco in a green Mustang or jumped a prison-camp fence on a motorcycle. They're more likely to think of the other Steve McQueen, the British guy who directed Widows and Shame and 12 Years a Slave.

Hence this quiz. It's not all that hard, but if you haven't seen or revisited some of these old movies via Netflix or Amazon Prime lately, you might be as confused as the young student in my class. At the very least, though, I hope a few of these questions might rekindle some pleasant memories.

NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS: First, any question beginning with "Who" is asking for an actor's name, not a character's name. Second, these are movies, not plays or TV shows, because some of the titles are the same. Third, all movie names refer to the original versions, not remakes.

All set? Grab your popcorn--leave the connoli.


Questions

 1. What were The Searchers searching for?
 2. What made the impact in Deep Impact?
 3. What did Ferris Bueller take a day off from?
 4. What were the signs in Signs?
 5. What was under siege in Under Siege?
 6. What was the book in The Book of Eli?
 7. What was the planet in Planet of the Apes?
 8. What were the passengers riding on in Passengers?
 9. What was natural about The Natural?
10. What kind of animals were The Ghost and the Darkness?
11. What was the dish in The Dish?
12. What made the splash in Splash?
13. What was the museum in Night at the Museum?
14. What was supposed to happen at High Noon?
15. What were the Kramers fighting over in Kramer vs. Kramer?
16. What was the army's reason for Saving Private Ryan?
17. What group dug the holes in Holes?
18. What group had The Right Stuff?
19. What group were the warriors in The Warriors?
20. What group were the 12 Angry Men?
21. What happened to the bridge on the River Kwai?
22. What was the Red October?
23. What was The Pink Panther?
24. What was the Moonraker?
25. What was Porky's?
26. What was Pelham One Two Three?
27. What was Soylent Green?
28. What was The Maltese Falcon?
29. What was The Stand?
30. What was Jumanji?
31. What was Galaxy Quest?
32. What was The Green Mile?
33. What was The Sand Pebbles?
34. What was Sleepless in Seattle?
35. What was The Shining?
36. What was The Big Red One?
37. What was The Blue Max?
38. What was Shawshank?
39. What was The African Queen?
40. What was The Breakfast Club?
41. What was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
42. What was The China Syndrome?
43. Where was Mystic River?
44. Where was Notting Hill?
45. Where was Lonesome Dove?
46. Where was Chinatown?
47. Where was Snowy River?
48. Where was the waterfront in On The Waterfront?
49. Who got away in The Getaway?
50. Who was the castaway in Cast Away?
51. Who met the parents in Meet the Parents?
52. Who killed Bill in Kill Bill?
53. Whose daughter was taken in Taken?
54. Whose body was guarded in The Bodyguard?
55. Who was the trainer in Training Day?
56. Who was the mama in Mama Mia?
57. Who got stung in The Sting?
58. Who came Back to the Future?
59. Who escaped from New York in Escape from New York?
60. Who was in misery in Misery?
61. Who was the driver in Drive?
62. Who was chased in The Chase?
63. Who came to dinner in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
64. Who was the cowboy in Midnight Cowboy?
65. Who drove Miss Daisy?
66. Who had a close encounter of the third kind?
67. Who was the pilot in Airplane?
68. Who was the pilot in Airport?
69. Who flew the Phoenix in Flight of the Phoenix?
70. Who had Vertigo?
71. Who looked out the Rear Window?
72. Who was Singin' in the Rain?
73. Who ran The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?
74. Who was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
75. Who were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?
76. Who got left Home Alone?
77. Who rode a blazing saddle?
78. Who was Jackie Brown?
79. Who was Jerry Maguire?
80. Who was Michael Clayton?
81. Who was Austin Powers?
82. Who was Ace Ventura?
83. Who was Our Man Flint?
84. Who was The Flim-Flam Man?
85. Who was Cat Ballou?
86. Who was Will Penny?
87. Who was Erin Brockovich?
88. Who was Young Frankenstein?
89. Who was The Man with the Golden Gun?
90. Who was The Music Man?
91. Who was The Lady in the Water?
92. Who was Edward Scissorhands?
93. Who was Annie Hall?
94. Who was The Princess Bride?
95. Who led The Dirty Dozen?
96. Who led The Wild Bunch?
97. Who led The Untouchables?
98. Who led the mutiny in Mutiny on the Bounty?
99. Who led the Journey to the Center of the Earth?
100. Who led The Magnificent Seven?


Answers

 1. A little girl kidnapped by Indians
 2. An asteroid
 3. High school
 4. Crop circles
 5. A battleship
 6. The Holy Bible
 7. Earth
 8. A spaceship
 9. A talent for baseball
10. Man-eating lions
11. An Australian satellite station
12. A mermaid
13. The Museum of Natural History in NYC
14. The arrival of four killers, on the train
15. Custody of their son
16. All three of his brothers had been killed in combat
17. Children at a juvenile detention camp
18. The Mercury astronauts
19. A New York street gang
20. A jury in a murder trial
21. It blew up
22. A nuclear submarine
23. A diamond
24. A British spacecraft
25. A nightclub
26. A New York subway train
27. A product manufactured from dead bodies
28. A black statuette
29. The confrontation between good and evil
30. A board game
31. A Star-Trek-like TV series
32. The final walk taken by prisoners on death row
33. The sailors' nickname for the gunboat San Pablo
34. A name given to a caller on a radio talk show
35. Telepathy
36. The First Infantry division, in WWII
37. Germany's highest medal for valor
38. A prison in Maine
39. A boat
40. A group of misfit high-school students
41. A car
42. A nuclear-plant failure, where the meltdown seeps "all the way to China"
43. Boston
44. London
45. Texas
46. Los Angeles
47. Australia
48. Hoboken, New Jersey
49. Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw
50. Tom Hanks
51. Ben Stiller
52. Uma Thurman
53. Liam Neeson's
54. Whitney Houston's
55. Denzel Washington
56. Meryl Streep
57. Robert Shaw
58. Michael J. Fox
59. Kurt Russell and Donald Pleasance
60. James Caan
61. Ryan Gosling
62. Robert Redford
63. Sidney Poitier
64. Jon Voight
65. Morgan Freeman
66. Richard Dreyfuss
67. Peter Graves
68. Dean Martin
69. James Stewart
70. James Stewart
71. James Stewart
72. Gene Kelly
73. Dolly Parton
74. John Wayne
75. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach
76. McCauley Culkin
77. Cleavon Little
78. Pam Grier
79. Tom Cruise
80. George Clooney
81. Mike Myers
82. Jim Carrey
83. James Coburn
84. George C, Scott
85. Jane Fonda
86. Charlton Heston
87. Julia Roberts
88. Gene Wilder
89. Christoper Lee
90. Robert Preston
91. Bryce Dallas Howard
92. Johnny Depp
93. Diane Keaton
94. Robin Wright
95. Lee Marvin
96. William Holden
97. Kevin Costner
98. Clark Gable
99. James Mason
100. Yul Brynner



How'd you do? Here's my rating chart:
  • If you answered 0 questions correctly, you are either very young or have spent years in solitary confinement.
  • If you answered 1-19 correctly, you are either very old or you're not much of a movie fan.
  • If you answered 20-39 correctly, you probably like movies but you've also missed some good ones.
  • If you answered 40-59 correctly, you are a normal, average, well-rounded U.S. citizen.
  • If you answered 60-79 correctly, you are a definite movie fan and a borderline Netflix addict.
  • If you answered 80-99 correctly, you either have an excellent memory, you have no social life, or you work in the film industry. Possibly all three.
  • If you answered all 100 correctly, you probably should be in solitary confinement. And observed carefully.

Consolation prize

Here are ten more, that might make you feel better about all this:
  • Who was Forrest Gump?
  • Who was Dirty Harry?
  • Who was The Big Lebowski?
  • Who was My Fair Lady?
  • Who was Rain Man?
  • Who was Tootsie?
  • Who was Ben-Hur?
  • Who was Mad Max?
  • Who was Spartacus?

And that's it. Next week I'll try to steer the ship back to mysteries and/or writing.




18 October 2019

Music in the Time of a Private Eye


Music in the Time of a Private Eye
by O'Neil De Noux

Research for my private eye series set in the 1940s-1950s drew me to YouTube to learn just how bad popular music was before rock and roll. The radio was filled with dreck. In 1947 Perry Como had a hit with Chi-Baba Chi-Baba and Al Jolson was still around with The Anniversary Song. 1948 gave up hits like MaƱana by Peggy Lee with a God-awful Spanish accent and The Andrews Sisters with the yodel polka Toolie Oolie Doolie. In 1949 we had a faux-western hit by Dinah Shore called Buttons and Bows where the "cactus hurts by toes" and Tommy Dorsey's brassy The Huckle-Buck. 1950 came with hits like Goodnight Irene by the Weavers and Perry Como was back with another polka Hoop De Doo. Wait, 1950 gave us Nat King Cole's Mona Lisa. Thank God for Nat.


The Weavers were back with a top hit in 1951 – On Top of Old Smokey. Lord, help us. Phil Harris had a big hit with The Thing (No, not from the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, but a goofy novelty song). Perry Como was back with the sleep-inducing If and we had the tear-jerker Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page. I admit, I sorta like Tennessee Waltz.


1951 gave us the unforgettable Aba Daba Honeymoon by Debbie Reynolds and Patti Page's Mockin' Bird Hill, where the morning sun kisses roses on a windowsill. For some reason, I like Mockin' Bird  Hill. Hey, maybe I just like Patti Page. (I also like sugar songs like 1963 's Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilber and the Fireballs and – please forgive me – 1969's Sugar Sugar by the Archies).

1951 hits did give us a good hit with Nat King Cole's Too Young, but watch out, it can put you to sleep. Tony Bennett's Because of You was OK, but not one of his best. He also had a hit with his cover of Hank Williams' Cold, Cold Heart but the original by Williams was far better. But that version was played on hillbilly radio stations. No way my cool cat PI would listen to country music, even though Hank Williams had dynamite songs.

The radio hits of 1952 were highlighted by Kay Starr with Wheel of Fortune and Vera Lynn's Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart and the Mills Brothers with The Glow Worm. Irish-American Rosemary Cooney gave us at hit with an horrendous Italian-accented Botch-A-Me.


According to Billboard, the No. 5 tune of 1953 was P.S. I Love You (No. Not the cool one by The Beatles – John was 13, Paul 11, George 10 and Ringo 13 at the time). This hit came from four singers wearing college freshmen beanies and sweaters with a big W on the chest. They were The Hilltoppers, hailing from Western Kentucky State College. At No. 2 sat another sleepy song, You, You, You by The Ames Brother.



Tony Bennett had a couple top hits in 1953 with Rags to Riches and Stranger in Paradise.

OK, what about Frank Sinatra? He was in a slump between 1946 and 1953. Dean Martin did have success with 1952's You Belong to Me and 1953's Sway. In 1953, he finally had a top 10 song with That's Amore at No. 2.


My private eye is saved by listening to jazz and rhythm and blues on the radio with New Orleans own Fats Domino's 1951 hit The Fat Man. Too bad my PI has to wait years for Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many others.



Antoine "Fats" Domino 1928-2017

That's all for now.
http://www.oneildenoux.com


17 October 2019

The Pharaoh Akhenaten: Or How to Get Your Own People to Destroy Every Trace of You After You’re Gone


Akhenaton: the criminal of Amarna.

                                                                                                 — Ancient Egyptian Saying

Akhenaten, the unexpected heir to the Egyptian throne, unsettled his people by glorifying one god instead of a pantheon. In return, they tried to pretend he never existed.

The “criminal of Amarna” didn’t start out as a criminal, or even as a pharaoh. Likely suffering from Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue (which would explain the elongated facial features and long, thin fingers on the statues of him that have come down to us extant), Akhenaten began life as a younger son of the great pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose rule lasted thirty-nine years, one of the most prosperous periods in Egyptian history.

Named Amunhotep (Ancient Egyptian for "Amun is pleased," a reference to the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon.) after his father, the young boy was probably initially intended for the priesthood. But when his elder brother suddenly died, young Amunhotep became heir to the throne, and succeeded his father in 1351 b.c. as Amunhotep IV.

For five years his reign was fairly conventional. Then in 1346 b.c., everything changed.
Amunhotep IV changed his named to “Akhenaten” (which means “The servant of the Aten”), stating that there were no other gods, that the Aten (the Sun itself, as opposed to the sun-god Re) was the sole holy being and that he himself, as pharaoh, was the Aten’s voice on earth. Then he shut down the temples of the other gods, declared their priesthoods dissolved and illegal, and made it clear how things were going to be in his new order: He would worship and serve his god, the Aten, and the people of Egypt would in turn worship and serve him. Akhenaten even cleared out of the capital city of Memphis, taking his family and royal retinue with him, founding a new capital city in the desert, about 200 miles south of present-day Cairo. The ancient name of the city, Akhetaten, means “horizon of the Aten” or “horizon of the Sun.” The city was later given the name “Amarna” by Bedouin tribes who settled nearby.

A modern artist's conception of Akhenaten's capital, Akhetaten.

For the next decade, Akhenaten continued to suppress public worship of the old Egyptian gods ignored his neighbors, didn’t bother with diplomacy, and showed not the slightest interest in doing anything other than glorifying the Aten in his new capital out in the desert, out of touch with everything earthbound, a veritable hermit in the midst of his own people.

The ruins of Akhetaten (Amarna) today.

Modern-day American presidents have made much of the fact that they live in a “bubble,” insulated from contact with most of the people in their country, and talk about how they try to pierce that bubble, to be able to understand their people, in order to better serve as their leader. Not so Akhenaten. He embraced the “bubble,” and if anything, made it harder to pierce. Not a very bright move for someone trying to make a sweeping fundamental change to a religious system that had flourished in the Nile Valley for millennia.

In the end, it cost him his very identity as king of Egypt.

After Akhenaten died, the resurgent priests of Amun gained control of his 9 year-old son and heir Tutaknhaten. Through this boy king they set about dismantling Akhetaten's cult and undoing his life's work: his religious reforms. His erstwhile subjects went even further; rebelling against his very memory, smashing his idols, abandoning both his cult and his new city, returning to Memphis and to Thebes, and to the old gods and their temples. His very name was scratched out of every place in the country where it had been chiseled into stone, be it stele or monument.

A remark that serves as an effective, if unintentional, epitaph for this “rebel pharaoh.” Unsurprisingly in light of the revenge taken by the priests of Amun after his death, Akhenaten himself quickly faded from Egypt’s memory for millennia, as did his son.

That son ruled a mere nine years (and probably never without a regent looking over his shoulder) before dying under mysterious circumstances at age 18. After his sudden death he was buried in a hastily-finished, and quickly forgotten tomb among the much more resplendent and extensive tombs of dozens of other monarchs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Shortly after his father's death, the boy king's advisors, no doubt egged on by the priests of Amun, even forced him to change his name. Instead of "Tutanhkaten" ("The living image of Aten" in Egyptian) he would be known as "Tutankhamun" 9"The living image of Amun.").

When Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered in 1922 (untouched since being sealed up over three thousand years earlier), this minor pharaoh was catapulted to posthumous fame, becoming arguably the most famous pharaoh of all time, based solely on the splendor of the items found in his previously unlooted tomb.

Akhenaten's much more famous son

The irony of Akhenaten, a rebel at heart, languishing in obscurity while the son who (under duress or not) betrayed and undid everything his father believed became a household name throughout the world is a palpable one. One cannot help but wonder what the hard-headed religious zealot might have thought of it.

One of the rebel pharaoh's homilies is oddly insightful, without demonstrating any actual insight on his part at all: “True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance.”

Maybe if he hadn't been so stiff-necked and dead certain about his "one true faith," it's possible the man once known as "Amunhotep IV" might have been better known than his short-lived, largely inconsequential son.

16 October 2019

Ten Things I Learned Writing Short Stories


Photo by Michael Fowles


As I mentioned in an earlier column, October 2019 was a special month for me. Not only is it my fortieth anniversary as a published writer but - by coincidence - the Northwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America asked me to be the speaker at their meeting. They suggested I review highlights of my career but that sounded boring even to me. I countered with the title above, which gave me a chance to do such a review but make it of possible interest to my fellow readers. So now I am going to summarize the words of alleged wisdom I shared with those who attended.


1. Editors don't reject you.  They reject words you have written. So don't take it personally, and try again.  I was rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 76 times before they bought a story.

2. When in doubt, don't throw it out. If a story doesn't sell does it mean that it stinks? No, it means that on a given day it didn't meet that market's needs. Really. So tuck it away and see what happens.

I wrote a story about a TV actor who kills a rival. All my favorite magazines rejected it. Years later the Mystery Writers of America announced an anthology to be titled Show Business is Murder. "On The Bubble" found a happy home.

3. Flattery and bribery are good for you. I don't mean that you should apply them to your editors, reviewers, or even readers. I am talking about the Miner, which is what I call the part of the brain that comes up with story ideas. (The other creative part of your brain is the Jeweler, which turns the raw material into something pretty and publishable. When an author says "I don't even remember writing it!" that means the Miner did ninety percent of the work.

Most people have trained the Miner to be lazy. How do you that? By ignoring the ideas he offers you. You can flatter him by taking those ideas seriously. Even if you don't have time to start that novel today, write down the concept. Spend five minutes brainstorming the idea. Don't in short, look a gift horse in the mouth.

And how do you bribe the miner? Spend money on him! Buy a writing text, get that new desk chair, go to a writing conference. Convince him that you are taking your writing career (yes, let's use that word) seriously. Who knows? Maybe you'll convince the rest of your brain as well.

(Interesting example: I gave this talk on Saturday.  Monday morning I woke up with two new ideas for short stories.  The Miner obviously liked the attention.)

4. It's okay to plagiarize. Sometimes. I'm talking about what Lawrence Block called "Creative plagiarism." That's when you take someone else's idea and use it differently.

Many years ago Fletcher Flora wrote a short story called "The Seasons Come, The Seasons Go."   It appeared in Ellery Queen in 1966.  The plot involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill someone in the family.

The first story I ever sold to Alfred Hitchcock was originally called "My Life as a Ghost," but they changed it to "The Dear Departed." (The only time one of my stories was retitled, so far.) My story involved a wealthy man, his useless nephew (who narrated), an attractive young woman, and a plot to kill a family member.  It also featured a similar twist ending.

Stop thief, I hear you cry.  But the truth is, my version is completely legitimate.  The murder and  motive are quite different, and my victim is a person with no parallel in the original.  If you read the two in quick succession you would probably have a suspicion about how the second story would end, but that happens all the time.  There are only so many possible endings.

5. Self-publishing doesn't work.  Unless it does.  Since no one seemed to be clamoring to publish a collection of my short stories I did it myself.  Shanks on Crime includes 13 stories about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks, most of which had already appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  I hired a professional book designer and produced it both as a paperback and an ebook.

How did I do?  I lost a couple of hundred bucks on the deal.  Nothing that would keep me from buying dinner or make me lose sleep, so I was fine with it.

Then I received an email from a literary agent asking if I would like to sell the Japanese rights to Tokyo Sogen, the oldest mystery publisher in that country.  I said, why sure.  The amount they paid me would be less than a rounding error for, say, James Patterson, but it is the most money I have ever made on a piece of writing.  And they were so happy with sales that they just published a collection of some of my otherwise uncollected stories later this year.

Would any of that have happened if I hadn't bit the bullet and self-published my book?  Nope.


6.  Mash-ups are delicious. In computing a mash-up is an app that combines data or functions from two sources.  Classic example: you create a Google map using the addresses in a database of customers.

When I refer to a mash-up I mean taking several different sources to create something new.  For example, I have published six stories about Uncle Victor. These stories are a mash-up of The Godfather, I, Claudius, and Jack Ritchie's Henry Turnbuckle stories.   Uncle Victor is the eccentric relative of a mob boss.  Like Claudius, he survives in a deadly family because no one takes him seriously enough to kill him.  And his major asset as a private eye is the one he shares with police detective Henry Turnbuckle: self-confidence that is completely unjustified by reality.

Another example is my story "Brutal," which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock.   It combines Jim Thompson's The Getaway - about a robbery that goes perfectly, followed by a disastrous attempt to escape - with Neil Simon's movie The Out-of-Towners.  My story is about an assassin who completes his job perfectly and then is crushed by a series of average city-dwellers who are just carrying on with their lives, completely unaware of who they are dealing with.

7.  Be nice to your editors and they may be nice to you. Obviously good manners are important.  I am sure most editors have a list (at least in their heads) of writers who are Too Much Trouble To Deal With.  But I want to give a specific example.

A few years ago I wrote a story which looked at the very first mystery, Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" from the viewpoint of the murderer (that's right; the orang-outang).  I sent it to a magazine with which I had an excellent relationship.  And then I saw a notice for an anthology of Poe-related stories.  A perfect market for my tale! I didn't want to withdraw my already submitted story and risk the relationship with an on-going customer.  So  I wrote to the editor I had already submitted to and explained my plight.  I said I would be delighted to have my tale in their publication, but would it be possible t jump the queue and get an early decision so if they don't want it I could try the anthology?

And the editor went above and beyond by pulling my story out of the long stack and giving it a quick read.  Turns out they didn't want it, which was fine.  I submitted it to nEvermore! and not only was it accepted but  it was reprinted in two best-of-the-year collections. But this was only possible because the editor was willing to do me a favor by giving me a special read.

8.  One-market stories are dangerous temptations.  Ideally you want to write a story that could find a happy home in many different locations.  But sometimes an opportunity comes up for a niche market, usually an anthology.  Whether that's a good idea depends on a number of factors including: the speed you can write, the possible reward, and how intriguing you find the concept.  After George W. Bush was elected someone announced an anthology called Jigsaw Nation, in which all the stories would take place in the United States after the blue and red states separated.

I thought it was a great concept and wrote "Down In The Corridor," about the consul from the Pacific States of America dealing with a nasty situation in the San Diego Corridor which connected the greatly diminished USA to the ocean.  It was a crime story (my specialty) as well as a science fiction (or alternative almost-history) story.  It sold to Jigsaw Nation which was great but the book was pretty much ignored by the world.  Ah well.

A few years ago several cartoonists created an anthology called Machine of Death, with an intriguing concept. You put a drop of your blood in this machine and it tells you how you will die.  Not when; just how.  Car crash.  Gunshot.  Mary. Yeah, but which Mary?  Your wife Mary or Hurricane Mary?  Like all good oracles the machine is wickedly ambiguous.  Suicide could mean that somebody jumps out a window and lands on you. 

I loved the concept so much I wrote two stories for it: a historical and a police procedural.  The editors rejected both.  Those are two stories I can never use anywhere.

9. Network, network.  Also: network.  There are fine organizations out there looking for members: Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers,  Private Eye Writers of America.  There are conferences: Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic. And here is a shocking secret: a lot of mystery writers are friendlier than you might expect.  They DON'T want to read your unpublished manuscript but they might be happy to hear what you liked about their latest masterpiece.  And if you see a lonely author sitting alone at a signing table, go up and chat.  It doesn't obligate you to buy anything.  And don't forget to read SleuthSayers!

Well, that's nine jewels of wisdom down.  In two weeks I will return to polish the last gem.







15 October 2019

Call Down the Thunder – with Deitrich Kalteis


Today I’d like to welcome Dietrich Kalteis to SleuthSayers. Dietrich is the award-winning author of Ride the Lightning (bronze medal winner, 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best regional fiction), The Deadbeat Club, Triggerfish, House of Blazes (silver medal winner, 2017 Independent Publisher Book Awards, for best historical fiction), Zero Avenue and Poughkeepsie Shuffle. 50 of his short stories have been published internationally, and his next novel Call Down the Thunder will be released October 2019. He lives with his family on Canada’s west coast.

Take it away Dietrich.


Paul D. Marks: Call Down the Thunder is your seventh book by my count. It takes place in Kansas in the 1930s. You’re Canadian—what made you choose 1930s Kansas?

Dietrich Kalteis: Being a time of great hardship, the dust bowl of the thirties seemed the right setting for the story. The initial idea started off with a couple at odds with each other while trying to survive on their desolate farm, and the drought and dust storms added a layer to their desperation and struggle.


How did you do research for that long-gone era? And did you learn anything that surprised you or that you never knew before?

I went through years of archived newspapers, historical accounts, personal memoirs, and I viewed hundreds of images of the damage inflicted by the dusters and drought. The Kansas Historical Society along with several websites were great resources. I enjoyed the digging, learning about the people and how they survived and adapted to whatever came.

How did you come up with the characters of Sonny and Clara Meyers? Are they based on anyone you know or knew?

Sonny and Clara simply started as a young couple at odds with each other, and their characters and backstories just evolved through the first draft. And no, they weren’t based on anyone I’ve ever known.

What’s your method? Do you get the idea first, the characters, some neat plot twist? How does the story all come together?

It started with a single scene where Sonny is alone splitting firewood in his yard, and he gets to wonder about his supper, and why Clara isn’t home yet from the general store fixing it like she always does. And he gets a feeling that maybe she isn’t coming back. The story grew from that scene, and I switched back and forth from his and her POVs. One scene led to the next, and subplots and backstory just filled in as I kept writing that first draft. When I started I had a different outcome in mind, and a better one came along as I got into the second draft.

You don’t write a series character. Is there a reason for that? Any plans to do one in the future?

So far when I’ve finished a story, all the ends have gotten tied up. Sometimes key characters aren’t with us anymore, or they’ve achieved their goal, learned a life’s lesson, and there’s just no more story to tell.

By the time I’ve finished one story, I usually have ideas for the next one, and so far they’ve been unrelated to the ones before. Who knows, maybe the right character(s) will show up, and I’ll have them stick around for a while.

And your books are set in a variety of different places and deal with a variety of characters. Which I think is kind of cool in that you’re not limited to a certain set of characters or locales. Is there a reason you chose to go this way instead of writing a series or staying in one or two locations?

I come up with what I feel is the best setting for each story. Sometimes the setting is familiar to me, places I’ve lived, and sometimes I have to take a trip and do some research until I feel like I know the time and place.

Often the settings add a character-like feel. For instance, the fires in House of Blazes started to feel like an antagonist, and really drove the pace. And the dusters helped create the feeling of isolation in Call Down the Thunder. I don’t think either of these stories would have worked as well set anywhere else.

When I think up a scene for a story I just add the character(s) I’d like to see handle the situation, and they just take shape from there.


You’ve won several awards, which is really cool. Do you think it’s made a difference in the way you write, what you write, how your writing is received, etc.?

I don’t know if it’s made a difference in the way my writing is received, but I can tell you it’s encouraging and gives me the feeling I’m on the right track.

What’s your background? Do you have a day job? Or did you—what is/was it? And does it come to play in your writing?

For years I worked as a commercial artist, but not much of my former career has come into my writing.

You could say writing is my day job, except it never feels like a job. That would seem restrictive, too nine to five. I don’t have any set rules about it. Usually the mornings are the best time, so I write until around noon, then maybe again for an hour in the evening.

Does your Canadian background make your books different than books from American crime writers? If so, what do you think the difference is and why?

I don’t think my background really comes into it. If I’m writing a story set in Canada, then I have to play to regional customs, dialects, that sort of thing. The same goes for a story set somewhere in the States. All that matters is that the story is convincing to the reader.

Who do you like reading? And who’s inspired you?

In the crime genre I like reading George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Carl Hiaasen, S.J. Rozan, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke and James Ellroy. And I’ve been inspired and have read just about everything by past-masters like Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, James Crumley, and Charles Willeford.

Do you read outside of your genre?

Outside of the genre I enjoy reading Patti Smith, Margaret Atwood, Hunter S. Thompson, J. K. Rowling, Charles Bukowski, and from time to time I like to revisit the classics by Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger—some books I can’t read too often.

Is it hard for you to write characters who aren’t like yourself. Women, for instance, like Clara in Call Down the Thunder. Or Frankie del Rey in Zero Avenue. How do you get inside a character’s head when they’re completely different from yourself?

I think if a character were hard to write, I’d have to abandon that one. As each individual’s personality and backstory takes shape through the early stages, that character becomes real and believable. Gender or how different they are from me doesn’t matter. I write from their perspective and just turn them loose on the page and follow their actions, letting them stay true to their own nature.

Do you edit your own work? Hire a professional? Writing group? Friend?

I write three or four drafts without anybody looking at it. I want each story as polished as I can make it before I send it off to my publisher. From there, it’s in the hands of the professionals. I’ve been fortunate to be teamed with a great editor ( and a wonderful author) Emily Schultz. She’s edited all seven books with ECW Press, and she’s always spot-on and just amazing to work with.

What’s next?

The next two novels are in queue with my publisher. The first one is set in present-day Vancouver and involves a cheating couple being pursued by a gangster husband who’ll stop at nothing to catch them. It takes readers through northern BC and up into Alaska. The one after that is based on a pair of lesser-known, real-life bank robbers who were at large in the central States in the late 1930s. I don’t have release dates for either story yet.

Currently, I’m working on one set in present-day Vancouver involving a retiree, a runaway, a couple of casino crooks and one killer motor home.

Where can people find you and your books?

My website is http://www.dietrichkalteis.com/, and my publisher’s site is www.ecwpress.com.

My blog is Off the Cuff: http://www.dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/

And I regularly contribute at 7 Criminal Minds: http://www.7criminalminds.blogspot.ca/

You can also find me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/dietrich.kalteis/

and Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dietrichkalteis/

And I’d like to thank you Paul for having me as a guest on SleuthSayers. It’s been a real pleasure.

It’s my pleasure, Dietrich.
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

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