30 November 2022

All Things in Moderation

LCC 2022. Courtesy of Kelly Garrett

Back in the spring I attended Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque.  I have already blogged about that twice but I rediscovered another topic in my notes I wanted to write about. 

At LCC I served on one panel, moderated another, and attended a bunch of them. I came away with some thoughts on moderating panels, based on this conference and many others.  So here are my Twenty-five Rules of Moderation, in case you ever have the privilege.


1. Getting to know you.  As soon as you know who will be on the panel, talk to them.  Do you all agree on the topic?  Sometimes the titles chosen by The Powers That Be are ambiguous, or can be misunderstood. (Famous story from the world of folk music: One festival asked Arlo Guthrie to be on a Tropical Songs workshop so he learned "Ukulele Lady."  Turned out the topic was TOPICAL Songs...  But he later recorded the song, so it wasn't a waste.

2. Read ahead,  Read some of the works of each of your panelists.  That will lead to better questions, make it look like you know what you are talking about, and please the panelists. 

3. Prepare your questions early.  Procrastination is not your friend here.  

4. Abundance mindset. Prepare more questions than you think you will need.

Bouchercon 2014

5. Share the questions with your panelists.  I know there are those who disagree with me on this and, as usual when people disagree with me, they are wrong.  A conference panel is not a quiz show with points for spontaneity. Nor is it a final exam where knowing the questions in advance is cheating.  You have two goals: to entertain/inform the audience, and to make the panelists look good.  Neither goal is advanced by causing your team to waste precious seconds fumbling for an intelligent answer.  There will be plenty of opportunity for them to improvise anyway. 

6. Two-way street.  Telling them in advance  also gives you a chance to invite them to suggest questions.  Maybe they know something about the topic you don't.  In fact, let's hope they do!

7. No surprises.  I once served on a panel whose moderator decided each of us should read an excerpt from our book.  Nothing wrong with that except the moderator didn't tell us that until we were in the green room half an hour before the panel started.  That meant all of us who should be relaxing and  getting to know each other were instead fumbling through their books searching for the perfect passage.  Time to practice your recitation? Dream on.

8. Get it right.  Make sure you know how to pronounce the names of the panelists (and characters and book titles, if appropriate).  At LCC I was careful to check a tricky pronunciation but blew one that  looked obvious.


9. Location location location.  Check out the room in advance.

10. Gather the flock.  You have checked in with your panelists, right?  Made sure they arrived and know where the panel is?  If you want to meet in advance in the green room, don't assume they know that.

11. Scene of the Crime.  When you arrive at the meeting room  make sure the microphones are working.  Are there fresh glasses and water pitchers?  

12. Volunteers of America.  Is there a volunteer whose job is to warn you when the panel time is nearly over?  If so they will probably introduce themselves.  Make sure you know where they are sitting so you can catch their signals.

13. Don't call us.  Remind the audience to silence their  phones.  At one panel the moderator's phone rang!

Bouchercon 2017
14. By way of introduction.  One of the moderator's duties is to introduce the panelists.  This should take as little time as you can manage. I have seen moderators actually recite the mini-bios from the program book, which everyone in the audience has their own copy of.  What a waste!  Last time I moderated I skipped the usual intro and instead read a sentence or two from a reviewer or author praising the work of each panelist. I made darned sure to read a passage from MWA's announcement that panelist Laurie R. King had been chosen the latest Grand Master.

15. Watch your language.  A male moderator (much younger than me) frequently referred to his all-female panel as "the ladies."  I was not the only person who asked themselves "What century is this?"

16. Know your place.  Chances are that you wouldn't be moderating the panel if you weren't interested and well-informed on the topic, but this is not about you and you are NOT a member of the panel.  I am not an absolutist here; I will stick my oar in if I have something to add (especially in response to a question from the audience) but if I am talking as  much as the others I am doing it wrong.

At one conference I served under a VERY chatty moderator.  Later a stranger told me "I saw your panel.  I wish I had gotten to hear you." 

17. One for all or all for one? Some moderators prepare individual questions for each panelist.  That can work (especially if the moderator knows a lot about each individual and their work) but to my mind it cuts down on interaction between the members.  One tactic I like is asking individual questions as part of the introductions, and then switching to general questions.  

18. Switch it up. Don't ask the same person first every time.  If your first question is asked to A, then B, then C, then D, start your next query with B, etc. 

19. One at a time.  It may seem like a good idea to put the follow-up in the original question: "What characteristics does a good sidekick need?  And how does a sidekick differ from other secondary characters?" But now you have the panelists trying to sort through two topics at once and remember Part 2 as they explain Part 1.  Make it easier on them and you can always ask follow-ups if it seems appropriate.

Left Coast Crime 2019

20. You aren't the only one with questions. 
Leave a third of the time for questions from the audience.  They may have better ones than you.  But have extra questions ready in case they dry up.  

21. Lay down the ground rules. Before throwing it open to the audience I always remind them that this is an opportunity to ask questions, not to make comments, however brilliant those comments might be.  And I quote moderator Ginjer Buchanan: "If your voice goes up at the end that doesn't necessarily make it a question."

22. Be the voice of the public. Chances are you will have a microphone and the audience member won't, so repeat the question so  everyone can hear.  This  also allows you to clarify a rambling query.

23.  Never complain, never explain.  If the crowd is smaller than you were hoping, don't apologize and don't complain, especially not to them. As a musician friend says "We play for the people who show up, not the ones who don't."

24. Remember your manners.  If there is a volunteer assigned to signal that time is short, make sure you are watching for that.  And save time to thank the panelists, the audience, and any volunteers.  Don't forget any important announcements, such as when/where the panelists will be signing books.  I screwed that one up at LCC.


25. How was it for you? Email the panelists within a few days of the conference and tell them how wonderful they were.  Send individual messages, not one-fits-all.  Ask them if there was anything you could have done better.

That's all I can think of.  If any of you have been on a panel, or moderated one, or attended one, I'd love to hear your suggestions.

29 November 2022

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

This is an updated version of a column I ran seven years ago with public-speaking tips for authors, though I think the advice could apply to most any public speaker.

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we call Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had new stories or novels published that year can tell the audience about them, and a local bookseller is on hand to sell the authors' works. In November we appear at a library in Ellicott City, Maryland. In December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. These events are free and open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. They offer the audience a good opportunity to support local authors and a local indie bookstore at the same time. (After all, it is the holiday season, and books make great giftsfor others and yourself!)

For the past two years, the events have been held online, but this year, we're back to meeting in person. We started having our extravaganzas annually when I was chapter president fifteen years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and since our December extravaganza will be this Saturday (keep reading to the end for more details), I figured this would be a good time to share some public-speaking tips:

  • Keep it snappyHit the high points without going into unnecessary detail. The authors who keep the audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters or drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. For instance, here's the gist of what I'll say this weekend about my story "For Bailey" (from the anthology Low Down Dirty Vote Volume III): If you've ever cursed your neighbors for setting off fireworks, scaring your pets, you'll identify with teenager Jocelyn. Her town's about to vote on a proposed fireworks ban. Fearing it won't pass, she and two friends come up with an unconventional method to encourage one of the councilmembers to vote their way.
  • Don't be too briefThis is your chance to talk to readers who are interested in what you have to say, so make sure you go into enough detail to make them think, "Ooh, that sounds good. I want to read that." While you don't have to use all the time allotted to you, don't be so eager to get off the stage that you don't share what makes your story or book interesting.
  • Consider if you have interesting backstory to share, perhaps what prompted you to write your book or an interesting research tidbit. For instance, my story "Go Big or Go Home" (published this year in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Diabolical) was inspired by a lot of unsolicited advice I've received on Facebook. In the past I've heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. Public speaking can be scary, and writing down what you want to say may help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. If it would be helpful to have notes, bring them, but they should address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "Five Days to Fitness" (from the anthology Murder in the Mountains) my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character, her problem, her solution
    • The setting
    • It's a whodunit
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice doing so. Have someone you trustsomeone not afraid to tell you the truthlisten to you read so they can tell you if you're good at it. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions too.) The cover of this year's Bouchercon anthology (Land of 10,000 Thrills, which has my story "The Gift") is wonderfully eye-catching, but I wouldn't want the audience to be so distracted by the bloody axe on the cover that they don't listen to what I have to say. 
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my favorite of my stories published this year, "Beauty and the Beyotch," from issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.
It's a tale about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: the struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide? While you can buy the issue in paper and ebook formats from the usual online sources, I've put the story on my website for easy reading. Just click here.
Want to attend our extravaganza this Saturday (12/3)? It starts at 1 p.m. at the Reston, Virginia, library. 11925 Bowman Towne Drive. The 20 authors who'll be appearing are: Donna Andrews, Kathryn Prater Bomey, Maya Corrigan, Ellen Crosby, Barb Goffman (yep, that's me!), Sherry Harris, Smita Harish Jain, Maureen Klovers, Tara Laskowski, Con Lehane, Eileen Haavik McIntire, Kathryn O'Sullivan, Susan Reiss, Frances Schoonmaker, Mary Stojak, Lane Stone/Cordy Abbott, Shannon Taft, Art Taylor, Robin Templeton, and Cathy Wiley. You'll be able to buy books from Scrawl Books. No RSVP necessary to attend. Just put it on your calendar and come on by.

28 November 2022

Literary Land up for Grabs

There comes a time in life when the phrase, "if only I was younger," comes all too readily. A smooth sheet of ice on the state forest pond, a foot of new snow in the field, and, occasionally, an idea of a topic that might once have been perfect, all elicit the same nostalgic cry: "if only!"

That was my reaction recently when I made my way through Peter Cozzens'

Tecumseh and The Prophet, a detailed history of the two remarkable Shawnee brothers who tried to stem the tide of American settlers, land speculators, and soldiers into what had been Indian country in Ohio and the rest of the Old Northwest.

Brave, handsome, personable, and multi-lingual, Tecumseh impressed nearly everyone who met him, Americans and British as well as the chiefs and warriors of the various tribes whom he tried to convince to make a united front against the newcomers. What he didn't know, and what his scapegrace, but charismatic, brother, The Prophet, only realized late in life, was that not intelligence, not courage, not even weaponry was against the native peoples, but demography.

While European diseases and internecine warfare had greatly weakened the Shawnees, Creeks, Cherokees, the Iroquois Nation, and the rest, it was the unstoppable tide of European immigration, combined with the high Colonial and early Federal American birthrates that tipped the scales against the tribes. 

With ever-accelerating speed, land-hungry settlers and ambitious speculators crossed supposedly sacred treaty lines, cut down the forests, and killed the game. When they were met with violence, they called for troops to push the tribal people back to yet another temporary treaty line. It's a sad story and one that does not reflect well on our early days as a nation.

And that is perhaps one reason why, despite a surfeit of possibilities for crime, skulduggery, scams, heroism, betrayals, daring raids, and eccentric characters, the early Federal period on the frontier rarely appears in mystery fiction. Indeed, except for James Fenimore Cooper's works featuring the Colonial period in what is now New York State, the abundant possibilities of guerrilla warfare, militias, land speculation (Cozzens points out how many of our Founding Fathers were engaged in this dubious art), plus the machinations of politicians Indian and American, arms dealers, fur traders, and liquor purveyors has gone virtually untapped by writers.

But historical squeamishness may not be the whole story. After all "cowboys and Indians" plot lines kept Hollywood in cash for decades, so it may be as simple as the fact that current mystery writing is still very much in thrall to three models, two of them British: the beloved cozy with the amateur detective, the Victorian prototype immortalized by Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, and our own 20th century tough guy PI in deepest Noir territory.

So ingrained are these prototypes that our own Michael Bracken stipulated in a recent anthology call: All, or a significant portion, of each story must be set in the 21st Century. And he added, for those mathematically challenged, (That’s 2001 to the present day.)  

A story set in Ohio in 1812 clearly wouldn't fit the bill for Michael at the moment, but considering that we regularly see short stories set in Greece or Rome or early Britain, it is too bad that such a fertile and virtually untouched literary landscape is neglected.

If only I were younger!

27 November 2022

In the Beginning

Mike with OH-58

I did a lot of flying with Huey Mike. Nape of the earth, aerial assaults, sometimes parking hundreds of feet up on top of buttes slightly larger than a conference table. Rode with the toes of my military boots overlapping the outboard edge of the Huey fuselage while looking straight down, and I can tell you I'm not partial to heights. It's a real rush when the pilot dips the nose of the helicopter to get power and the ground drops suddenly away under your feet. I even rode the co-pilot's seat in an OH-58, learned to read an aerial map and how to plot our course on that map while in the air. Guess you could say that with all our adventures together, I trust Mike with my life.

These days, in retirement, he and I usually get together at least a couple of times a year. He is not a writer, but we do brainstorm some short story ideas during these times. Occasionally, he will do some research on characters or place or an era in history he thinks I might like well enough to write about.

Recently, when the creative well ran dry, I started going through old research he had given me on NYC during the Prohibition Era. I had even already written a couple of stories from that material. One, "A Matter of Values," had been published in AHMM, and the second, "Whiskey Curb," has been purchased by AHMM and is now waiting for publication. These two were the basis for a series, except that the 3rd story, "On the Pad," didn't make the cut for some reason.

Oh, what the heck, I needed something to write and Mike had given me some good research on an area in Harlem known as Murder Alley. Look it up in Wikipedia. At one time, it was horse stables. During Prohibition, it was ramshackle buildings where organizing criminals lived and/or maintained places of business. Here, the "Clutch Hand" branch of the Sicilian mafia tended to leave its victims in molasses barrels out on public corners. Okay, that got my attention.

NOTE: For those of you who are interested, during Prohibition, bootleggers would buy barrels of molasses from the Boston Molasses Company, ferment the contents, and distill the results into clear rum, which they then sold in speakeasies as rum cocktails. I think I can work with that.

To date, the story is at 3,500 words with the same protagonist (a city vice detective) as the first three stories, the victim has been found, our vice detective is on the scene, and complications exist.  All I need now is a complete plot (it's currently at about 90%) and a finish (almost 95% there in my head). After much polishing, it will be submitted to AHMM.

For now, it's a beginning. 

Thanks, Mike.

26 November 2022

Behind a Screen, You Say? Writing Comedy as an Older Woman

Today, I'm writing a serious blog.  ('NO!  Don't do it!  Don't-' [ sound of body being dragged offstage...])

 I write comedy.  I wrote stand-up and had a regular column gig for several years.  I opened conferences on the speaker circuit  Nowadays, most of my crime short stories and novels are (hopefully) humorous.  My blog...well, that sometimes goes off the wall.

But I'm noticing that as I get older, if I do comedy in person, it seems to be more shocking.  Or rather, I am shocking people more.  They don't know how to take it.  I see them gasp and act confused.  Did I really mean what I said just then?  Was it meant to be funny?

I don't believe it's because I'm writing a different level of material.

So why?  Why does my comedy seem to shock people more than it did thirty years ago?

It's not the material.  It's my age.

Writing comedy when you are 30 is 'cute.'  I can't tell you how many people told me that I 'looked cute on stage' as I innocently said some outrageous things that made people laugh.

Now I know this is a controversial statement to put forth.  So let me say that this has been my experience, and perhaps it isn't everyone's.  But I have found that saying outrageous things on stage when you are 60 is not cute.  Women over 60, in my experience, are rarely described as 'cute' (unless they are silly and feeble and very old.)  Women over 60 cannot carry off 'innocent' (unless portraying someone very dumb.)  Women over 60 are expected to be dignified. I've found that women my age are not well received by crowds (especially liquored-up crowds.)

Phyllis Diller was a wonderful comic.  She did outrageous things on stage, and we laughed with her.  But she dressed like a crazy-woman and had us laughing AT her.  Some women I know dislike the fact that Diller made herself ridiculous in front of an audience.  I don't, because I know why she did it.

Here's the thing:  comedy is by nature dangerous.  It often makes fun of things that other people take seriously.  In fact, it's almost impossible to write or perform comedy and not offend someone, somewhere.

Women who are young and pretty can get away with murder.  Even better, they can get away with comedy.

But a woman over 60 who makes of fun of younger women is (often) seen as jealous, not funny.  A woman over 60 who makes fun of men is (often) viewed as bitter, not funny.  A woman over 60 who makes fun of other women over 60 can get away with it, but the big audience isn't there.

There are simply far fewer things an older woman can get away with poking fun at.

So what's a poor old gal to do?

I've been supremely lucky.  I've been able to transfer my somewhat madcap comedic style to writing books.  I can still make my living in comedy, but it's from behind a screen now.  The written page is a delightful medium that leaves much to the reader's imagination.

Which is probably a good thing, because right now I'm doing the Covid braless shlep-dress thing at this computer.  You don't want to see it.

Melodie Campbell gets paid to write silly stuff for unsuspecting publishers.  Her 17th book, The Merry Widow Murders, from Cormorant Books, is now available for preorder.  www.melodiecampbell.com

 The Author in her comedy days...

 The Author today...

25 November 2022

Truman Capote

Truman Capote (In Cold BloodBreakfast at Tiffanys) was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans. He was an accomplished short story writer. He is rarely mentioned with other New Orleans literati. Damn shame. Don't have to tell you he was an excellent writer.

I recently read his short story collection, The Early Stories of Truman Capote, and enjoyed it very much.

Young Truman Capote

When In Cold Blood came out, I was in high school and remember my English teacher describing the book as a non-fiction novel. We call it true-crime today. Years later, my father casually mentioned he worked on the Clutter Case. An army CID Agent at Fort Riley, Kansas (The Clutter murders were in Finney County, Kansas), he and other CID agents assisted the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) because one of the killers left a bloody boot print on the scene. It was an army combat boot. They found no connection to any soldiers at Fort Riley, but one of the killers, Perry Edward Smith was a US Army veteran, having served in the Korean War, as did my father. Small world.

It's been reported that the acerbic Gore Vidal, when learning of Capote's death, called it "a wise career move." Such are the wages of celebrity.

That's all for now.


24 November 2022

Giving Thanks

Wow! Thanksgiving? Already?

In a decade where each year itself has at times felt like a decade in its own right, 2022 has flown by at Casa Thornton in a blur. That alone feels like a fine reason to give thanks.

And yet there is so much more for which I am truly thankful. Here, in no particular order, is a sampling of people/incidents/situations-both momentous and minor for which I give thanks on this, the day for it.

My family.

The relative health of my family.

My own health (I’ve had some struggles on that front this year, as have so many, so I’m grateful to come through largely unscathed). And the humbling experience of feeling very sick for long stretches of time.

The medical professionals who have labored ceaselessly to keep our society and the people in it up and running during these trying times.

My fellow educators, who have also faced a plethora of fresh new challenges over the past few years, to keep company with all of the same old ones.

The Seattle Mariners Baseball Club.

The entire 2022 season of the Seattle Mariners Baseball Club.

The end of “The Drought,” with the Mariners returning to the post-season for the first time in twenty-one years.

It’s been a long two-plus decades, and I’ve been a fan for every minute of them, year in, year out.

The love and friendship of both my wife, and of my son. As many of you know, love and friendship are not the same thing. I value getting both from both of them. What’s more, I value their patience with me, and their acceptance of me as I am. I love them more than I can say.

And also for all of the support my wife, Robyn, continues to provide when it comes to my writing career. I couldn’t do any of this without her. First reader. Final editor. Biggest fan-as I am hers. She has accomplished so much this year. I’m just so damned proud of her!

My friends. All of them. Far too many to list. You know who you are.

My writing circle. There is none finer.

My editor. There is none finer.

My agent. (you know what I’m gonna say next.)

My writing successes. Not just this year’s, but every year’s. Writing, like Life, is a journey.

My failures, both writing, and otherwise. I seriously thank God for them. As failures go, they have proven mighty instructive.

The twin gift of humility and empathy. I’m a work in progress, and I’m not perfect, but I’m out there trying to be a better human every day, and hand in hand with that goes the ability to try to feel for the struggles of our fellow travelers. Not always easy, not always successful. Always rewarding.

President Biden, Vice-President Harris, and my personal hero, Speaker Pelosi. The Democrats. If you get it, you know why. If not, I don’t begrudge you the right to disagree.

Women. The sooner the male animal faces the fact that they tend to be smarter and far more pragmatic than we men, the happier he tends to be.

Gen-Z. My day job has brought me into repeatedly and long-lasting contact with the members of this generation. I’ve been convinced for years that they are going to save this world by changing it. And this is one Gen-Xer who is here for that.

Lastly, I’m thankful for you, whoever you are, wherever you’re reading this. Thank you for taking the time and the trouble. I have had so much light in my life lately, I feel blessed and hope to share it.

As you go about your day today, may you find some light in yours.

Happy Thanksgiving!

23 November 2022

The Wine-Dark Sea

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big fan of Don Winslow’s.  The Force was one of my best books of 2017, if not the best, and his Border trilogy, Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border, is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

So let me tell you about City on Fire, which came out this past year.  It’s about a gang war in Providence, Rhode Island, in the latter half of the 1980’s.  It’s very specific to the time and place, and to the culture and the speech patterns of Providence, and to the inner lives of its Irish and Italian mob guys.  It’s also unapologetically modeled on the Trojan War. 

This creates a doubling effect, the dynamic between characters who imagine they can have some say in how they live their lives, and the inexorability of the Fates who pursue them.  Danny Ryan is Aeneas, the Murphy boys are Hector and Paris; the Moretti brothers are Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Liam Murphy steals Paulie Moretti’s girl.  The heat is on.  Of course, it’s all about turf, and the Irish losing ground, so at bottom it’s business, but it’s just as much about losing face, everybody on about dick size.

It’s a cool conceit, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus.  Or closer in genre, Sharky’s Machine reimagining the legend of Orpheus.  City on Fire takes the equivalencies very literally, though.  Aeneas’ mother is the goddess Aphrodite, and she rescues him from death in battle.  Winslow wondered aloud in an interview how you could pull this off without resorting to cornball trickery, but he stage-manages it convincingly.  The thing I miss, though, in City of Fire, are the improvisational riffs.  You’re too tied down to the score.  There aren’t any breakaway solos.

In other words, the same Fates that hem in Danny Ryan squeeze a lot of the air out of the story.  Achilles kills Hector, and drags his body behind his chariot.  Well, in this case, Pat Murphy gets hooked on the oilpan after a hit-and-run, and dragged a couple of blocks under a stolen Caddy.  It’s not that I wasn’t convinced, or even that I didn’t think it was a funny bit, by itself, but in honesty, I found it contrived.  

The things I liked the best in City of Fire were the local bits, the Easter eggs.  There’s a scene where somebody brings a guy in the hospital a coffee cabinet.  This is strictly Rhode Island.  Back in the day, a milk shake in New England meant syrup and milk, and that was it, at the soda fountain.  If you wanted ice cream in it, you got a frappe.  Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, you called it a cabinet, and according to the food writer Aimee Tucker, it’s because that’s where the blender was kept. 

Winslow says he’s going to quit writing fiction, and concentrate on politics.  He wants to humiliate Trump, and grind his face in the dirt – an ambition I can sympathize with - but I wish he didn’t feel the choice had to be so absolute.  Here’s hoping he can accomplish the one, and get back to the other.

22 November 2022

A Few Short Thanksgiving Thoughts

 We've had some rain here in the Fort Worth area the past few days. A chilly bit of November precipitation puts a damper on arrests. Criminals may not want to be outside on a cold, wet night. The police also might wish to stay dry. They may let some minor traffic violations slide that would have resulted in further investigations had the weather been better. (In an August blog post, I discussed this issue and other meteorological questions.)

I raise the matter again today because I'd planned to write about the voice-to-text hiccups that found their way into recent probable cause documents. The dearth of arrests made my pile a little thinner than some months. 

The Birds and the Buzz

My local police encountered a young man walking in the street, ignoring the oncoming traffic. He sang and flapped his arms. In his pursuit of an explanation for the man's behavior, the patrol officer asked him, by chance, whether he may have ingested an intoxicant. According to the report, the man stated that he did conceive both alcohol and Xanax earlier in the day.

If true, the ability to birth both alcohol and alprazolam would make this young man very popular on the mean streets. 

Side note: The local prosecutor recognized the typographical error. The office charged the man with possession and not delivery.  

The Ferrous Wheel

Another man's odd behaviors similarly drew the attention of law enforcement. In the cop-speak of the offense report, the officer exited his vehicle and approached the suspect. After observing the man's unkempt condition, unsafe actions, and lack of appropriate responses to questions, the patrol officer noted that "he believed the suspect had a metal condition.

Fortunately, the term was a typo, not the latest euphemism for being shot. 

When I read the sentence, I couldn't shake the image of Don Quixote. An oddly acting man clad in armor. (Perhaps I formed a metal picture.) 

Miscellaneous (Not voice-to-text)

As I said, the pile was a little short, so I'm adding a couple of other observations. 

The advent of cold weather brings the homeless population into the jail. (Another topic discussed in an earlier blog.) They stand near the bond desk and get ordered to leave the premises. They continue to stand as the command is repeated. "Leave, or you'll be arrested," the men are told. (It's almost always men.) When they decline to exit, they get escorted from the public side to the secure side of the jail. Although I can never dismiss the tragedy behind these cases, in this run-up to Thanksgiving, I am reminded of "The Cop and the Anthem," the short story by O. Henry. 

Finally, a few paragraphs back, I referred to cop-speak, the unofficial language of the police when communicating with the public. My favorite example in some time came around this week. The officer described using force against an uncooperative suspect who suffered from poor judgment and rich intoxication. The man assumed a fighting stance. The officer wrote that he then "brought his fist to the lower quadrant of his face as a distraction technique." 

Today marks for many the start of the Thanksgiving festivities. I shall close, therefore, with this holiday wish. As you gather with family and friends, may the blessings of the season be upon each of you. May all your stoplights be green and all your lines short. May all your food be perfectly cooked and all your teams victorious. And may you finish your time of celebration without distracting anyone.

Remember, jail is no place to spend Thanksgiving.

Until next time.  


21 November 2022

Sorry, just not a good fit.

Chris Knopf

No writer likes rejection. That’s because no human being likes being rejected. But writers are often more eloquent in their anger and despair over rejection, because they’re writers and have some time on their hands as the result of being rejected so often.

The kind of rejection I like is terse, breezy and obviously canned.

This means they just don’t want you. I’ve had rejection letters that actually go to some trouble to express their bitter disappointment over the quality of my submission. This takes some extra effort.

There’s no solace anyone can offer the rejected writer.

But we can at least appreciate that other, better writers than ourselves have experienced far more devastating rebuff. I’m always hearing about some world-famous, best-selling author who wrote fifty novels that were rejected two thousand times before a fluke cracked open the door, with the rest being, naturally, history.

I spent most of my adult life as an advertising copywriter, which is the ultimate cage fight of unrelenting rejection.

You not only enjoy having your best ideas die like rotted fruit on the vine, but sometimes a bit of derision accompanies the occasion. I had a client accuse me and a creative partner of being on drugs, which we weren’t, though in that moment we considered it. (That campaign was later approved and was the most award-winning work I ever did. But that’s another story.)

So I’m pretty thick-skinned.

I admit, at first I usually consider the rejection a pathetic failure of critical judgment by people with diminished mental capacities, but later, after cool reflection, I go back and re-examine the work. Often this inspires me to make genuine improvements, or at least, launch another project that might have a better chance. I’ll show you, you knuckleheads.

I never liked Nietzsche’s line, “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

In fact, what doesn’t kill you can often leave you in a puddle of broken dreams, bones and/or recurring headaches. That written, nothing succeeds like failure when it comes to motivation. Even if those who’ve defeated you are wrong in their estimation. Especially.

I’ve also worked as an editor, publisher and creative director, where much of my job involved rejecting other people’s work.

My approach, as with other arbiters I’ve admired, was to point out the good parts before admitting the shortcomings were insurmountable. It still didn’t feel so great. I think a lot of people in that role go through the same thing. The creator might feel the sting, but the rejectors often suffer greater remorse for having to deliver the news.

My friend Steve Liskow, who invited me on to this blog, was rejected 350 times before publishing his first short story.

He’s won a passel of awards since then, including being short-listed for an Edgar. I have no words for my admiration of this level of steely determination. My steel has no such equivalent alloys.

I downloaded this article from the New York Times several years ago, and I like re-reading it once in a while.

If you’re a writer, I guarantee you will also enjoy reading it. It’s not often I can make that claim, but I do here.

If you’re daunted by the paywall, write me at chrishknopf@gmail.com, and I’ll super copy it and send along.

By the way, it’s especially fun for me to see my last name (no relation, as I’m forced to constantly explain) so liberally used within an article on foolish rejections, in particular those from the most exuberant rejector of them all, Alfred Knopf.

20 November 2022

Murakami Haruki — Professional Tips

We’ve offered up professional tips from many famous authors, but I don’t recall we’ve published any from Japan. Meet Murakami Haruki (Haruki Murakami in Western notation), award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer.

He’s been accused by Japan’s literary elite of being too Western, of being unJapanese. Among his influences are Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Cormac McCarthy.

From time to time, Murakami has dropped pearls of wisdom vis-à-vis writing. Fortunately author Emily Temple has gathered them into a must-read article. The bullet points are:

Murakami Haruki
Murakami, Haruki
  1. Read.
  2. Take the old words and make them new again.
  3. Explain yourself clearly.
  4. Share your dreams.
  5. Write to find out.
  6. Hoard stuff to put in your novel.
  7. Repetition helps (outside of writing).
  8. Focus on one thing at a time.
  9. Cultivate endurance.
  10. Experiment with language.
  11. Have confidence.
  12. Write on the side of the egg.
  13. Observe your world.
  14. Try not to hurt anyone.
  15. Take your readers on a journey.
  16. Write to shed light on human beings.
  17. No matter what, it all has to start with talent…
  18. … unless you work really hard!

So, starting with admonition № 1, check out the article. Perhaps you’ll find a gem too.

19 November 2022

Treasures from the Sock Drawer

Like all writers, I have a lot of ideas for stories. When one of them occurs to me, I try first to figure out whether it's marketable, and if I think it is I go ahead and write the story. If the idea seems a little anemic, I store it away until I can (1) develop it into something better or (2) combine it with another idea. Several stories that I've written lately have come from this second approach.

Most ideas seem to appear to me from thin air, but sometimes I see a call for a short-story anthology whose theme kicks off an idea that might not have happened otherwise. (Barb Goffman's Crime Travel was one of those, and Michael Bracken's Jukes & Tonks, and a couple of Josh Pachter's music-themed anthologies.) At other times--not often--I go back to ideas that I had and stories that I wrote many years ago, stories that I felt weren't strong enough to submit. And whenever I dig those manuscripts out from under the bed or from the back of my sock drawer and look at them I usually realize how good a decision it was to hide those stories from any chance of public view. Most of them were terrible, and serve to remind me of just how little I knew when I first started trying to write short fiction.

But now and then I find that some of those old stories can be repaired and made presentable, and when that happens it's like finding a silver dollar on the sidewalk, or a free gift among all the bills in your mailbox, or a pair of clean underwear in your dorm room in college. In other words, a pleasant surprise. And the rewriting of some of those old manuscripts can actually be enjoyable.

Most of my favorite stories have been written fast: I get an idea, think about it a while, write the story, edit it, and send it off to a market. But a few of my favorite published stories didn't start out as a blinding bolt from the blue; they came from unearthing those aforementioned old stories and trying to breathe new life into them. One of those was "Molly's Plan," a dot-matrix-printed manuscript about a bank heist that I found hidden not in my sock drawer but in a cardboard box on the bottom shelf of a closet in one of our back bedrooms. I took it out, dusted it off, worked on it for a week or two, and sent it to Strand Magazine in the spring of 2014. It wound up getting published there, went on to be selected for Best American Mystery Stories the following year, and has since been reprinted overseas, considered for film, and chosen for inclusion in the permanent digital archives of the New York Public Library. Another was "Calculus I," an unsubmitted and forgotten story I'd written in the mid-'90s about two engineering students' plan to cheat on a college exam. I found the manuscript, rewrote and retitled it, and sold it in 2019 to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post and later to a foreign publisher. I usually judge the worth of my stories by how much fun they were to write, and I had a great time writing (in this case, rewriting) both of those. And I almost missed them completely.

A few weeks ago I found several more of those old unsubmitted manuscripts in the back of one of my file cabinets (I'm not the most organized person in the world), and while two or three of those stories look promising, the others are probably too weak to ever grow into anything more. I won't throw them away--I never throw away anything I've started writing--but if I use them at all it might be to try to salvage some parts and pieces from them to insert into something more current.

Okay, question time. Have any of you writers discovered older stories in your files that you later reworked and marketed? Any success with those? Do you have other projects (teaching moments?) that you gave up on and will probably never revive? Do any of you save your story ideas for later use? How and where do you save them? In your head? In a Word file? In the "notes" app on your phone? Do your story ideas usually come in a burst of heavenly light, or do they seep in during deep thought, or come from "prompts" like anthology submission calls or themed issues of a magazine? Please let me know, in the comments.

As for my situation, I have re-filed several of those old manustcripts that I recently found--this time I put them in a folder called "in progress" (a hopeful label if ever I heard one)--and I'm actively reworking the others. If I'm lucky you'll soon see those somewhere in a publication. And meanwhile, I'm trying to stay alert to any new ideas that happen to come along.

One last observation: They can be quick as rabbits, these story ideas, and if you're not careful they show up and then scurry off into the bushes before you can grab them and hold on. Especially those that appear in the middle of the night. But when you do catch one, and when it turns out to be something you can develop into a story you're proud of . . . well, that makes all this worthwhile.

Good hunting, to all of us.