31 January 2020

What's a Plot?


I was asked about plot often when I taught creative writing classes and put together a lecture from information obtained from too many sources to list – writers, editors, publishers, art directors, couple guys on the street, a drunk woman in a French Quarter bar. More of an explanation than a guideline but some people found it helpful.

What's the structure of a plot?

1. Beginning – initial action of a situation. Often the problem (s) to be solved is introduced.

2. Middle – the part of the story which shows the hero's attempts to solve the problem.

3. Ending – the natural result of what happened in the middle. The hero either succeeds of fails or learn from the effot.

The modern dramatic plot.

INTENT – hero wants to achieve something.

FIRST BARRIER – something stands in the way.

FIRST BARRIER REVERSAL – hero does something to overcome to the first barrier.

HIGH POINT OF ACTION – hero is about to achieve his/her intention. Things look good at this point.

SECOND REVERSAL or RUG-PULLING – something happens to frustrate the hero.

CATASTHOPHE – hero falls to low point, may be permanently thwarted or even killed.

RESOLUTION – hero may get though it all and achieve his/her intent.

Plot is the catalyst to reveal character.

Start by answering the plot key:

"It is the story of _______________________ who wants to _____________________.

This is revealed through the character's external actions and internal thoughts.

Harry Whittington, in the introduction to his noir mystery FIRES THAT DESTROY, put it like this, "Once I have worked out a plot key, which will unlock the mystery, I know where I'm going, even if I don't know how I will get there."

from the cover of FIRES THAT DESTROY by Harrt Whittington

Writer-Editor Algis Budrys put it in his Seven elements of plot structure:

BEGINNING
1. A character(s)
2. in a situation
3. with a problem(s)

MIDDLE
4. character(s) makes an intelligent effort to solve the problem(s)
and
5. fails (repeat as necessary)

END
6. character(s) finally succeeds in solving the problem(s)
7. validation quickly follows
edited by Algis Budrys

There are so many ways to put it.

A Plot needs:

1. Forward Movement. Move character along his/her course.

2. Twists and Surprises. Conflict, problems that must be overcome. The unexpected should be there, yet it shoiuld be logical.

3. Darkest Hour. Just before the climax, where all seems lost for the hero.

4. Climax. The high point where the quest ends.

5. Character Change. Story usually has an effect on the hero and he/she evolves.

Do these guidelines work all the time? No. There are no rules to writing, just suggestions.

Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

30 January 2020

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered...


First of all, a big shout out to Janet Rudolph and her posting of one of the funniest - and truest - reads I've seen in a while:  "Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village" by Maureen Johnson.  (Read the whole HERE)  Read it now, and then come back and  I'll continue on with some more handy tips.

When it comes to English Villages, I bow to her amazing expertise and only add one extra warning:  Don't be a spy.

Half of episodes of the 1960s TV show The Avengers were Mrs. Peel and John Steed tracking down dead / missing spies or each other in quaint English villages.  (The Town of No Return, Small Game for Big Hunters, The Living Dead, etc.)

My personal favorite was Epic (Season 5, Episode 11), where a bunch of has-been retired silent film stars kidnap Emma to make "The Death of Emma Peel" which was, from the scenes we see being filmed, a mish-mash of everything from Mourning Becomes Electra to The Perils of Pauline.  Absolutely hilarious.




When it comes to American small towns, the immediately obvious murder victims are:

The man/woman everyone hates.  And there is always at least one.

The town gossip.  These come in two types:  mean and relatively harmless.  In real life, the mean ones almost never get killed (mainly because they're very scary) while the harmless ones sometimes do when they get hold of the right information at the wrong time and pass it on to the wrong person.

The unknown ex-_________ of someone important who comes to town and pretends they're just passing through.  Next thing you know, they're dead.  If you're someone's ex, don't visit their small town unannounced.

The person on the phone who is just about to give valuable information about who / what / where / why.  (This was more fun back in the days when they got coshed on the head at a public phone booth, but cycling at the gym while on the smartphone works, too.)

There are no impoverished aristocrats.  However, there is always at least one Pioneer Family who by now has run to seed and drugs.  (See Neil Inveig, found shot to death in the opening of my own Public Immunity, who was Laskin's drug dealer among the upper crust.  There's still considerable argument in Laskin about who actually killed him, and it crops up every once in a while.)  Anyway, this feckless person is usually the catalyst, and occasionally the victim, of murder.

The pregnant girlfriend of the man everyone hates, the feckless Pioneer descendant, the sleazy politician / sheriff / officer.  This ties right into the basic American trope of:  if a woman wants to stay alive, she must not have sex with anyone outside of marriage, but even within marriage, don't marry the hero!  See my February column, Why There Always Has to Be a Virgin.

Don't be any of these.

As far as dangerous places in American small towns, there are some significant differences from English villages:

If you're in the High Plains and / or the West, "quaint" is not the term to use for many small towns.  Windswept, yes.  Desolate, even.  But not quaint.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Shot of "Anarene, TX" main street  from The Last Picture Show, IMDB


Also, no American bar is as sacred in the same way as the English pub.  Murders happen.

On the other hand, not many people get murdered in American churches (gunned down by a mass shooter is another story), perhaps because that steeple is an obvious target for God's wrath in the form of a bolt of lightning, and most everyone truly believes in God's wrath.  After all, they've lived through floods, fires, tornadoes, (hurricanes on the coasts) massive thunderstorms, earthquakes, hail at harvest time, droughts, etc.  Most farmers and ranchers expect wrath to be unleashed at various intervals, so it's best not to anticipate it by downright blasphemy.

People are not nearly as fetishistic about trains in America as in Britain.  Oh, they have their fans, and most people enjoy a nostalgic ride on one, but the truth is when it comes to trains, Sheldon Cooper is far more British than American.

I think some of the reason is that Americans prefer individual transportation.  Fast cars.  Pick up trucks.  Small planes are popular.  Also ATVs, jetskis, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and anything else that can make a significant amount of noise and cover a lot of ground fast.

There are no marble busts in American small towns.  There are (more or less) bronze statues.

The varieties of death available to the average American increases dramatically as you head into the hinterlands.  Farms often have passels of hogs (which will eat anything), and other large animals that could be used to stomp someone to death, not to mention lots of heavy equipment.  Even in town, there are sheds stuffed to the gills with the odd stuff that could be used for nefarious purposes, from post-hole diggers to sledgehammers.  One of the reasons that English villages are quaint is that they apparently never need of any of these things.  Gardening shears seem to be as much as they ever use, at least on TV.

But the main difference, of course, between America and England is lots and lots and lots of guns.

'Nuff said.

29 January 2020

You've Tried The Rest; Now Read The Best




This is my eleventh annual list of the best mystery stories of the year as chosen by me. They are selected from my weekly best-story-review at Little Big Crimes.

2019 was the second year in a row that my number of favorites dropped by three.  So I have to ask my sibling authors: Is it you or me?  Probably me.   

The big winner this year is Akashic Press, since fully half of the stories come from their anthologies.  I should point out that they sent me free advance reader copies of all those books.  You cynics can draw your own conclusions.

Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines both scored two winners.

Seven authors are men; five are women.  Two are Australian; one is Dutch.  The rest, as far as I know, are Yankees.

Three of the stories are historicals.  Three are funny.  Two have fantasy elements.

And congrats to the winners.  Your impressive trophies are in the mail.  If they never show up it's the fault of porch pirates.  Probably.




Boswell, Robert, "The Use of Landscape," in Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda, Akashic Press, 2019.

Boswell offers a charming story about sociopaths.  Cole is the planner.  All he cares about is money.  Not to buy things;  just a way of keeping score.  He met his girlfriend when she tried to rob him. Tariq is a bartender and expert at cleaning crime scenes. Tariq has pointed Cole to a young woman, rich in money, poor in personality and brain power.

"Did I tell you what happened at Affirm today?" Madelyn asked.  Affirm was her gym.  She described the days activities in excruciating detail, a saga that lasted nearly twenty minutes.  Summary: she exercised.

You will be mightily entertained as the trio the narrator calls the Criminal Element plot their nastiness while discussing women's underwear and the books of Virginia Woolf.



Case, Sabrina, "Our Man in Basingstoke,"  in Fiction River: Spies, 2019.

Pity Sir Almsley.  He gave his estate to the War Office to help fight the Nazis, not expecting that he would be put in charge of a project to create new espionage techniques.  He has no skills in that field, his mission is underfunded, and his staff consists of what the sergeant calls "a human scrap metal drive."

But that's not all.  Peter Tilling, an enthusiastic and imaginative child, has been sent to a nearby farm to protect him from the blitz in London.  He is eager to slip into Almsley's estate to see the top-secret devices being built there.  Good luck with that, young Peter....



Clancy, Christi, "'Mocking Season," in Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Akashic Press, 2019.

Whitefish Bay is a pleasant bit of suburbia until it is disturbed by the arrival of Erin, who we might perhaps call a middle-aged hippy.  She lived in the one home that was not visible from the street, which disturbs the keepers of community norms, "the mothers," who feel that "It didn't seem right to live where you couldn't be seen."  And then there is her charismatic son Lief, who gets the boys into strange habits, like sleeping out doors.  That may be problematic because the mothers seem to care more about their yards than anything else...


Coward, Mat, "Shall I be Murder?", in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

In Coward's second appearance on my list, our narrator gleefully explains that he is "a self-confessed unreliable narrator."  Is he, as it appears, a blackmailer?  A murderer, perhaps?  Or something else entirely?  And clearly his obvious lying is part of his plan, but why?


Dapin, Mark.  "In the Court of the Lion King," in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

Chevy is an architect and he is in prison awaiting trial.  The police have security camera evidence that he killed his best friend, Jamie.

Fortunately, Chevy has a lawyer: an ex-girlfriend with no knack for the legal profession.  Oh, and the Vietnamese  in the prison want him dead.  Maybe the Lion King, a disgusting gang boss, can protect him for a price.

Don't worry.  Everything is going according to Chevy's plan...


Dean, David, "The Duelist," Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer, David Dean, is making his fourth appearance here.  This ties him for first place with Janice Law.

The time is pre-Civil War and the place is Natchez, Mississippi.  Captain Noddy has a habit of taking offense at innocent remarks by country bumpkins, and then taking their lives in duels.

Now a down-on-his-luck gambler named Darius LeClair has arrived in town and seems quite careless in talking to the dangerous captain.  Is he foolish or is he doing it on purpose?  Is he in fact a gambler or something quite different?



Fusilli, Jim, "Niall Nelson is on my Flight," in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September/October 2019.

Betty's point: You don't send money back.  You don't negotiate out of insecurity.  You push hard.  You demand.
My question: Do they really want me?

Paul has written a treatment for a movie based on the life of musician Nick Drake and now he is flying to France to talk to a studio interested in  making the flick.  He is afraid he is not good enough.  His much-younger wife Betty clearly thinks he is not ambitious enough.   And it turns out a famous A-list actor is on their flight, someone Betty thinks he should find a way to talk to...

I love Fusilli's clever  had-I-but-known use of foreshadowing.  It was one of those men, I later learned, who set out to harm us.  




McCormick, William Burton. "The Three Camillas,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  July/August 2019.

This is the second appearance here by McCormick.

The story is set during the rule of Caligula the mad in the Roman empire.  The narrator is Camilla Tertia, which is to say, the third Camilla. Tertia is twelve and, she reports proudly, "already considered far and wide the scoundrel and gossip of the family."

Her sister Secunda is about to make an unhappy marriage.  Tertia decides it can be prevented if her expensive engagement ring is lost - a bad omen!  And who better to make it disappear than Quintus the Clever, the luckless thief?  "Be an honest man, Quintus, and rob my sister!" 



McFadden, Bernice L. "OBF, Inc," in Cutting Edge, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2019.

Andrew is being laid off because the head of his company has been accused of multiple sexual harassment issues, leading the corporate stock to walk off a cliff.

But good news!  OBF, Inc. wants to talk to him about a possible job.  What is OBF exactly and what do they do?  The answer is extremely interesting and thought-provoking.



Taylor, Art, "Hard Return,"  in Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman, Wildside Press, 2019.

The man and the woman had reached that stage where their relationship would either turn more serious or slowly begin to dissolve.  The seriousness wasn't about sex, a threshold they'd already crossed, but a step into some deeper, more emotional intimacy.

My fellow SleuthSayer has written a fine story about time travel as, I think, a metaphor for certain human interactions.




Tranter, Kirsten, "The Passenger,"  in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

It's a rare thing when I agree with the Edgars Award short story judges, but we can sing harmony on this one.

Robert reluctantly attends a birthday party for an wealthy man, who is the father of his ex-girlfriend.   The father confides that the  daughter's husband has vanished.  Can Robert help find him? And then there's the younger daughter, who is caught up with a pornographer...

If this sounds familiar it is because this is a very clever homage to a famous crime novel.



van Keulen, Mensje,  "Devil's Island," in Amsterdam Noir, edited by Rene Appel and Josh Pachter, Akashic Press, 2018.


The narrator is trying to be helpful to his friend.  Jacob's girlfriend  left him and he can't seem to get over it.  On one bad night he even says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me."

Later that evening they are standing among the cigarette puffers outside a pub when a stranger comes out of the smoke and asks Jacob for a light.  He says that he prefers the old-fashioned wooden matches called lucifers.  "I like the smell of them, though, that momentary blast of sulfur..."



28 January 2020

MGM: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven – Part II


by Paul D. Marks

We're back for Part II of my interview with Steven Bingen, co-author with Stephen Sylvester and Michael Troyan of MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT.  If you missed Part I you can find it here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/01/mgm-more-stars-than-there-are-in-heaven.html .

Enjoy:


Paul: Welcome back, Steve. What are your and your co-authors backgrounds?  Tell us a little about your personal as well as Hollywood backgrounds.

Steve: There are 3 credited author's on this book, "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot."

Years ago our agent was told by a publisher that there could never be a "unified vision" on a book with 3 perspectives.  That publisher didn't understand that we all felt exactly the same way about Hollywood's backlots and shared exactly the same odd obsessions.  Whatever the book's virtues and flaws, I defy anyone to figure out where one of our voices stops and another's starts.  Our collaborating was just like the production of most Hollywood movies.  The book's very existence is a sort of 2-Dimensional denial of the auteur theory.   Creativity by committee, if you will.

Mike (Troyan) and I both came out of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive – although his background is more academic than mine.  I have a background rooted in film production while his is more literary.  Mike is the author of "A Rose for Mrs. Miniver," about MGM star Greer Garson – which I can't recommend highly enough, by the way.

Steve (Sylvester), my other partner is in possession of vast amount knowledge and a vast collection of materials relating to MGM as a physical place.  He's the only one of us who was actually able to boast of visiting the MGM backlot before it was all destroyed.  In some ways, in visiting the studio he was able to do what I've aspired to do for my whole life. Because I was too late to see the place, the studio always seemed almost mythical, like Shangri-La or Camelot to me.  But it was real and Steve was there.  I wanted that perspective in the book.  It just seemed like a good fit for the three of us to coauthor – and it was.

Who have you contacted (MGM old-timers, etc.) and have they been willing to help?

I don't know if it was a conscious decision, but we tended to avoid talking to movie stars because their stories have been told so often, and because their worlds at the studio were so insulated.  Elizabeth Taylor was at MGM for decades, but her experience on the backlot would have consisted of being driven through the sets in a limo to her particular location.  I doubt if she would have had much opportunity or interest in exploring a place which wouldn't have seemed at all unusual to her because of the odd circumstances of her life.  It would be like asking a coal miner what was extraordinary about a mine shaft!

On the other hand we spoke to a lot of "regular people," some of whom worked on the lot for their entire careers who had amazing stories to tell, and who realized, even at the time what a bizarre and wonderful place MGM really was.  Some of our best stories were from people who grew up near the studio who used to climb the fences and explore inside as children.  I really do envy those people.

How many backlots were there?  Where?  What did they have on them?

MGM wasn't a single lot. Lot One contained the soundstages, corporate offices and post production facilities.  The backlot was literally at the rear, or back, of the plant.  As the studio grew it expanded across the street onto a property known as Lot Two.  Lot Two contained a small-town street, residential districts, railroad stations (with working trains) – the largest of which replicated New York's Grand Central Station.  It also had European and Asian villages, a jungle with a bridge, man-made lake, gardens, pools, castles, Southern and English estates, and a half dozen blocks, built full scale, replicating New York City and all its Burroughs – right down to the last street sign, man-hole cover, and fire escape.


Up the road a few blocks was Lot Three, which was even larger and contained three distinct old western settings, two more waterfront districts, a tropical rainforest, rock formations, winding roads, a Mississippi steamboat, a circus set, military bases, a POW camp, a vintage era New York Street, farms, ranches, an Arabian Knight districts and the world's largest process tank for shooting miniatures.

Lot Three was itself surrounded by the satellite lots; Four, Five, Six and Seven – which collectively housed zoos and stables, more sets, storage sheds, partial fleets of aircraft and locomotives, a peat farm….   whatever there wasn't  room for anywhere else.  When L. B. Mayer, the boss, took an interest in horse racing in the 40's, people used to suggest that the Santa Anita racetrack should perhaps be rechristened  Lot Eight!


What are your philosophical thoughts about the loss of the backlots?

I've always been haunted by and interested in Hollywood's backlots in general.  The idea that there exists places in the world where there are entire phantom towns constructed to mimic the real world – and yet where no one has ever lived, could ever live, is fascinating and mysterious and a little creepy.  Backlots are supposed to duplicate our lives, our homes, and the city streets we move thorough every day, and yet although they can be as familiar to us as places we've lived in our actual lives, they remain unknowable, untouchable, just out of normalcy and of recognition.

Backlots are like the purest form of architecture.  They really are designed just for aesthetic reasons.  The backlot architect doesn't have to worry about service elevators or building codes or faulty wiring.  A backlot just has to look good and to set a mood in order to do its job.  There are no real world considerations involved. Find an architect and ask him where else in the world that happens?

During the writing of this book it occurred to me that Hollywood's backlots are responsible for an awful lot of the defining non-movie architecture of the last century as well.  Think about it.  If Hollywood hadn't started designing sets to suggest moods or foreign settings would we really have shopping malls, or theme parks, or places like Las Vegas today?  All of these places, for good or bad, came out of backlots and the people who designed them.

I used to give tours of Warner Bros. Studio in my capacity as historian for the company.  Once I was showing the family of some executives an artificial lake out on the backlot and describing how that lake had been dressed as India for a film which I'd seen shot there.  I was going on about how the set had looked exactly like the real India when all of a sudden it occurred to me, and I told my bemused guests this, that I'd never personally been to India at all.  That my entire idea of what India is, in fact came not from the real thing, not from India at all, but rather from movies, some of which had undoubtedly been made right where we were standing right at that moment!

You should talk to my wife, she grew up in India for a time – but yes, she does have an American birth certificate....  But changing elephants in midstream now, What is your next project?

I can't speak for my partners…but…I will.  Honestly, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to shake off the current project!  After all, I'm doomed to see the MGM backlot every time I sit back to relax and turn on the TV!

We'd love to make this book the first volume in a series about all 7 of Hollywood's major studio lots – the Seven Sisters.  I'm just not sure if logistically, and legally it's going to be possible to do so.  To look at it from the viewpoint of the other studios I can't really blame them for not wanting someone from the outside to come around and start rooting around in their past.  We were able to "do" MGM because so many different hands have been running the company and the people who owned the copyright on the materials we needed weren't the original owners. But I don't know if that set of circumstances could come up again in regards to another studio.  We'll see…

Thank you, Steve, for joining me here at SleuthSayers.  And good luck with the book. "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" is available in bookstores and at Amazon.  Click here:



~.~.~

And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com



27 January 2020

Music, Stories, and Books


author Jan Grape
author Jan Grape
They say that music soothes the savage beast. I believe it. Especially when the savage beast is human. Music can bring back wonderful memories. Music can make you laugh or make you cry.

I grew up in the 40s and 50s. My mother loved Big Band music but her absolutely favorite music was out of the Nashville from The Grand Old Opry. We listened on the radio every Saturday night. She loved Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold. She liked Hank Williams and Little Jimmy Dickins. She adored Patsy Cline and Dotty West and Loretta Lynn. When I happen to hear one of these singers on Country Gold I can be transported to our living room in Post, Texas listening to my mother singing along.

When my parents, Iva Ann and Tommy Barrow, were a young couple first married they lived in a small upstairs apartment in Fort Worth. This was right after I was born and before they divorced two years later. My dad played guitar and a couple of friends joined in including mother who could strum along, the guys all patted their feet to keep rhythm. To keep the downstairs neighbors from complaining, mother put pillows under their feet.

After my mom rremarried and we moved out to Post and I visited my dad in the summer in Fort Worth and he would play ukelate and he and I would sing. Now ukes are popular again. But those memories of my mom and dad are both very precious to me

When my husband, Elmer passed away in '05, I had major health problems. Breast cancer mastectomy and chemo '06, shingles '06, a broken humerus that required a steel plate and 10 screws to repair in '07, an abcess in my colon requiring surgery in '08 it was music that kept me sane. I began going to see live musicians twice a week at my favorite restaurant. It helped to heal my soul and body heal and kept me sane.

What does this all do with stories and books. To my mind when an author makes a mention of the music the characters plays or listens to, I think it makes that character stronger and more real in my mind.

A good example is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Harry loves jazz and has many albums of his favorites that he mentions in every story. I feel I know Harry, a now retired LAPD detective a little better than just his solving murders and maybe getting into physical trouble while doing so.

A successful writer told me many years ago that you should let the reader see, hear, smell, feel or touch on every page. I don't know if I ever do that. I do know I try to invoke reader's senses as much as possible. I do think your characters are stronger and more realistic if you can do this and that's one thing I find with Barb Goffman's short stories. Short stories are harder to give a reader a real sense of the major characer becaause you don't have 250 pages to develop them. Barb does it better than many others I've read.

Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Lee Child all have strong characters in their books. Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman also. You can see, feel, smell, hear and touch what their characters are doing and you are right there along with them because you believe them.

I want to remember these points myself which is partly why I'm writing this down!

26 January 2020

Record Keeping



Two weeks ago, Travis posted his spreadsheet method for keeping track of his writing and his submissions. I can see how his method works for him.

My system developed gradually as I saw the need to record certain information, therefore it became a conglomeration of Word documents. But then, authors go about their writing differently, so maybe authors keep their writing records differently. In any case, here's a brief look at my system.

Naturally, I have a Bibliography document. This allows me to at least consider myself as a semi-successful, short-fiction author on the commercial side of writing and serves to collect some handy-to-have statistics. And yes, there are some duplicate entries from one document to another.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
R.T. Lawton
(as of 01/17/2020)

11/1976   1 "Dead End Alley" Easyriders Magazine ($250) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman] 
                 NOTE: DEA agents weren't allowed 2nd occupations, thus the double alias.

05/1977  2 "...to ashes,...to dust" Easyriders magazine ($225) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman]

10/1984  3 "Jeffrey" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

12/1984  4 "Peer Pressure" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

NOTE: Yes, I did write 22 children's stories for two different state-wide elementary school newspapers at the same time as writing three biker stories, but I had to be careful writing on two different levels simultaneously because there are some words bikers don't understand.

*   *   *  skip to end of document  *   *   *

09/14/19 9 Holiday Burglars, KDP Paperback (all stories previously published in AHMM

09/22/19 31 Mini-Mysteries, KDP Paperback (31 mini's, plus 1 previously unpublished "And the
               Band Played On" as a bonus story.

11/01/19 137 "A Loaf of Bread" #7 PU 40 AHMM ($370)

12/01/19 138 "The Job Interview" Mystery Weekly ($35.86 minus $1.88 fee)

Bought, but not yet scheduled:  "Reckoning with your Host" #6 SA 41 AHMM ($360) + "A Matter of Values" 42 AHMM ($430) + "A Helping Hand" #8 PU 43 AHMM ($410) + "The Road to Hana" 44 AHMM ($340) + "Gnawing at the Cat's Tail" #7 SA 45 AHMM ($340)

a total of 143 published short stories
(and below this line is a list we'll skip of published writings in other categories, such as cowboy poems, articles, etc., plus a compilation of short story statistics.)

Some of the number codes above are easy to figure out, some aren't.  For instance, "A Loaf of Bread" is the 137th published short story, the 7th in my Paris Underworld series and the 40th story bought by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The next document is my SUBMISSION LOG kept in 4 year increments. It keeps track of when and where a story was submitted, what happened to it, when the contract and check came and when the story got published. This document lets me know how long some processes take and if something is overdue. Here are some samples of entries:

10/01/19  "The Job Interview"                                         Mystery Weekly
  10/02/19  e-mail acceptance, signed e-contract
  10/03/19  payment via PayPal
  12/01/19  published
11/12/19  "The Release Factor" #8 SA                             AHMM # 903457

01/17/19  "The 14K Assassin" #9 SA                               AHMM # 994625

Any time there is a blank space between the lines above, that means there is pending action and my eyes are quickly drawn there.

Lastly, there is an UNSOLD STORY TRACKER where I can tell at a glance which stories are still in inventory and who rejected them. Here's a short example:

WAS: "Taking Down the Room"                                        AHMM, EQMM
WAS: "Slipping into Darkness" (long version)                   MWA anthology
WAS: "Down in Jersey"                                                      Deadly Ink
SOLD: "Slipping into Darkness" 750 word flash sold to  Flash Bang Magazine

WAS: "Mom's Day"                                                            AHMM
NOW: "Mum's Day"                                                           Weekly News

"The Queen"                                                                       Blue Cubicle Press (casino issue)

If an anthology or other call for submissions comes out with a short deadline, I can refer to the above document and instantly know if a story languishing in inventory has the right ingredients for their writer's guidelines.

Those three record-keeping documents are the main ones I'm concerned with. However, I do have a tendency to make lists and also keep various writing statistics. For instance, a list I'll skip showing here is my AHMM stories sold, how much was paid for each one (with a running total) and the word count in each story (with a running total). I only made this list up in order to use the stats as a means to argue my point of view in a blog article I wrote a couple of years ago about short stories vs. novels.

So, there it is. I'm open to any and all ideas. It may not be a glamorous side to writing, but how do you keep your writing records?

25 January 2020

The Most Important Trait for an Established Author


You wrote the book. You got the publisher. You’ve won the awards. Okay, you’ve even got seventeen books and five series behind you.

What’s the most important thing you need to remain in the biz?

A much admired colleague wrote an email to me recently, in which he said, “As a writer of your experience and calibre, you must (still) feel the need to have confirmation, at times." That made me think about what it takes to survive as an author these days. And I’m not talking about a nice advance or a working spouse.

I have a post coming up in which I talk about what it takes to *become* an author. The Three Things you Need to Become an Author. But today, I want to talk about the 4th.

It’s not something you hear about often. In fact, I wouldn’t have known it until this year.  But 30 years after I won my first short story award, 200 publications later, and thirty years in the business, it’s clear to me.

You need to be versatile.

I got my start writing standup.  Mostly, I wrote for other comedians, and sold through an agent.  Then I became a newspaper humour columnist.  After that (and in addition to) I started writing short stories.  Often, I got paid $1000 a gig.

Then the short story market crashed in the 90s.  Did you hear about that?  Magazines like Good Housekeeping used to feature short stories.  Then some bright ad exec figured out they could get fiction publishers to pay to have the first chapter of a novel featured in their magazine, as an enticement for readers to buy the book.  In one move, many magazines quit paying authors like me, and started making money from them.  I was axed.

Next I tried the men’s magazines.  And yes, I wrote some pretty racy stuff for Fox and others.  (Under a different name, natch.)  That got old pretty quick.

Someone said I should be writing novels.  I started writing novels.  First, I wrote fantasy, because fantasy as a genre accepts comedy really well.  Comedy R Us, after all.  A trilogy (Rowena Through the Wall) got me featured on USA Today.

Then my publisher showed signs of collapsing.

Enter Publisher no. 2.  Would I write crime novella length books for them?  Damn right I would.  I wrote six.  (The Goddaughter series.)  Then Publisher no. 2 says, “We need a romantic comedy for the line.  Can I have your outline by April and a book by Sept.?”

I wrote the outline.  And the book.  Me, writing romantic comedy.  People liked it.  Contract came for a second.  All the while, I’m whining, “I’m a crime writer!”

Are you seeing a pattern?

Two years ago, I was signing books in my publisher’s booth at the Ontario Library Association conference.  Two male teachers came up to me and said, “Did you know your Goddaughter books are popular with the teenage boys in our high school?  Why aren’t you writing YA?”

The YA publisher for Orca Books, who happened to be standing next to me in the booth, said, “Yeah. Why aren’t you writing for me?”

And so Crime Club, the book that came out in September, is young adult crime.  And I don’t hate it.  I actually enjoyed writing for an age group I’d never tried before.

I relished the challenge.
 

I have come to the conclusion that the most important trait you need to survive in this business is to be versatile.  Markets change.  Tastes change.  Publishers come and go.  Fads come and go (seriously, are we done with Vampires yet?)  Even average reading ages change.  The girls who read sweet romances have all grown up and are now into domestic noir. 

No, you don’t have to turn yourself into a pretzel.  You don’t have to write what you hate.  But if you want a thirty-year career as a writer, the best thing you can be is versatile.

Asked to write in a new genre?  Think of it as a plot twist.  And welcome to my very twisty writing career.

Here's that YA book!  "Scooby Doo meets the Sopranos" Canadian Mystery Reviews
CRIME CLUB - available at all the usual suspects.


24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.


23 January 2020

R.I.P. Neil Peart (1952-2020)


Neil Peart (1952-2020)
One of the greatest musicians of the 20th century died earlier this month. An intensely private, and highly introverted man, he would in all likelihood have quailed at the public testimonials (including this one) which have poured forth since the news of his passing.

Well, who was it that said, "Funerals are for the living"?

Whoever it was, they were right.

So I'm going to use this week's blog post to talk about the late great Neil Peart, no matter how much he might not have wanted me to.

All that said, I scarcely know where to begin. This is because Peart, and Rush, the band he, guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee helped make iconic in the annals of rock & roll, have had such an outsized influence on my life since that day, not long after my 16th birthday, when a friend introduced me to their work.

And fittingly, my first impression of Rush's work was getting to watch them in concert on MTV, back when MTV played nothing but music videos. I saw Neil Peart perched behind his massive drum kit, all focus, all professionalism, the embodiment of precision and perfection, seemingly unaware of the audience, and came away from the experience changed.

(The concert film in question was "Exit...Stage Left." If you're curious you can check out live cuts from it such as fan favorites "Xanadu"  and "La Villa Strangiato" on YouTube. Or you can watch the entire thing (just under an hour in running time), if you're unfamiliar with Rush, and want to know more. Just be prepared to say, "How did they DO that?" over and over again)

I had no idea someone could play drums like that. And as part of a three-piece! It sounded like there were six or seven guys up on that stage!

I had to learn more. So the next day, I went out and bought their most recent studio album, 1981's Moving Pictures (of "Tom Sawyer" fame). I couldn't believe what I heard. Not just "Tom Sawyer" (The band's biggest hit, and without doubt the most "air-drummed" song of all time), but a host of incredible songs, including, but not limited to "Limelight", "Red Barchetta", and the instrumental "YYZ" (taken from the three-letter geocode designation for Toronto's Pearson International Airport, with the morse code for the letters "Y-Y-Z" played as both the intro and outro of the song, no less!). That was it. I was a fan from that first listen onward, and have been ever since.

And this was before I even began to explore the band's extensive catalog of previous work. Too much to go into here, but 2112, A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves, Fly By Night, all great in their own way, and no two of them alike in approach and content.

Neil Peart (pronounced like "pier" with a "t" on the end) did for the drums what Eric Clapton had already done for the guitar, what Elton John had already done for the piano. He helped redefine percussion for an entire generation of rock music fans, and for their kids and their kids, and...etc.

Rock had already given rise to a whole succession of great drummers: Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of The Who (both of whom were early idols for Peart when he was still learning his craft), John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson, just to name a few.


But Peart transcended all of them, combining the flourishes of the wild men (Baker and Moon) with the rock-steady bombast of Bonham and the technical innovation of Bruford. I mean, come on. The guy played everything you can think of to hit and get a sound from and still call it "percussion." And he could do it faster and cleaner than any other rock drummer out there. AND, like Michael Jordan dunking from the top of the key, he made it look effortless.

And as if that weren't enough, Peart also served as the band's lyricist. Lee and Lifeson wrote the music, and Peart gave them the words. Reminiscent of the collaboration between Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, if Taupin had been an introverted genius with a voracious appetite for science fiction and a strong "independent contrarian" streak.

By and large Rush eschewed love songs (at least the traditional ones). Their career arc hewed from early twenty-minute-long sci-fi epics such as the first side of 2112 to ever more introspective pieces which wrestled with the human condition. "Limelight," for example, gave  the notoriously shy Peart's response to the (for him) exhausting question of what those who achieved "fame" owed to the world at large and to those who admired them in particular:

Living in a fish eye lens
Caught in the camera eye
I have no heart to lie
I can't pretend a stranger
Is a long-awaited friend

In other words, "Nothing."

On 1982's Signals, the band's follow-up to the multiplatinum Moving Pictures, Peart, Lee and Lifeson produced a lead single "Subdivisions", which addressed the generational experience of modern youth growing up stultified in the banal suburban tract houses of their parents, of their inevitable flight to the flash, bustle and noise of the big city, and of their eventual middle-aged longing to return to the neighborhoods of their adolescence. "Sell-outs in search of a hit," they were not.

Here are the lyrics to "Subdivisions" in their entirety:


Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In-between the bright lights
And the far, unlit unknown

Growing up in all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detatched and subdivided
In the mass-production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

Subdivisions
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory
Of lighted streets on quiet nights

Subdivisions
In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
Subdivisions
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out

Any escape might help to smooth
The unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe
The restless dreams of youth

* * *

(Sidenote: I used "Subdivisions" in my first teaching job as a tool to teach my eighth grade English classes the difference between a metaphor and a simile.)

This song tore through me the first time I heard it. Of course, at seventeen myself, on the cusp of adulthood, growing up in a comfortable suburb of Spokane, Washington (an experience which my parents had worked damned hard to provide for my brother and me, and for which I am still grateful, at least, I am now.), I guess you could say I was pretty much this song's target audience.

And it goes without saying that I followed this path: took off for the Navy and then for the city (several times). And now, staring down fifty-five, I've come full circle: I live on a well-lit suburban street, and my nights are quiet.

Who knew a hard rock band was supposed to make you think? Most of the other stuff I listened to at the time (Read: early '80s Heavy Metal.) sure didn't.

In many ways Rush's music and Peart's lyrics served as a double-gateway drug for me. Had I never listened to the complicated arrangements of such Rush songs as "YYZ," "Beneath, Between and Behind," and "Cygnus X-1," I might never have gone in search of more adventurous music, listening to artists who took chances. I definitely wouldn't have been able to appreciate the likes of Miles Davis, or The Police, or Bowie, or Roxy Music, or, or, or..

And Peart's lyrics pushed me to find other voices, like Springsteen, and William Shakespeare, and Loreena McKennitt, and Bob Dylan, and James Baldwin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ross MacDonald, and Toni Morrison, and Sting, and, and, and...

There's so much more I could say about Neil Peart, but others have said it better elsewhere (including Peart himself, in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, wherein he chronicled the experience of losing his teenaged daughter in a car wreck and his wife to cancer, within an eighteen month period, and what it took to come back from that experience.).  And this isn't intended to be a comprehensive retrospective.

It's really just a fond remembrance of a great artist, who died this month after a three-year-plus struggle with brain cancer. Peart left behind the second family he built after he finished mourning the loss of his first one: a second wife, and a second daughter. He also leaves behind legions of fans he touched without really trying to.

In one of his infrequent interviews Peart revisited his struggle with the demands fame placed on the artist, something he had chronicled so ably in "Limelight" a couple of decades before. "I never wanted to be famous," he said. "I just wanted to be good."

Whether he liked it or not, he was both.

Me during Neil Peart's drum solo in the middle of "Freewill,"  Columbia Gorge, 2011

22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.