Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts

13 March 2023

Giving voice to cartoon passion.

I was once asked, “If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you rather be?” 

This is the wrong question.  It should be, if a genie popped out of a can of Dinty More Stew, and said, “Pick any job you want, you just can’t be a writer.”  I have the answer.  Two, actually.

Number one:  A New Yorker Cartoonist.  To me, there’s no higher form of art.  I subscribe to the digital New Yorker Magazine mostly to read the cartoons.  The articles, often quite informative and engaging, are an afterthought.  In a single frame, these artists contain vast stores of wisdom, insight and belly laughs, exquisitely composed and pitch perfect.  I know success in this arena is the result of gigantic effort and stress-filled anticipation as their cartoon editorial overlords judge their submissions, so that doesn’t feel much different from my past professional life, but oh the joy of making it to the inner circle.  I assume the genie can arrange this, so that’s my decision.

I once met the late Jack Zeigler, a renowned New Yorker cartoonist, a friend of a friend, and he seemed quite happy with his lot in life. I’ve been trying to keep the envy in check ever since. 

Job number two:  Having a long career in advertising, I worked with a lot of voice over professionals.  The successful ones, men and women, had the best lives imaginable.  They always showed up at the studio wearing tailored clothes and carrying expensive briefcases they never opened.  They often lived in Upstate New York or Connecticut, and had faces free of stress lines and voices bestowed by the gods.   

I’d settle behind the glass and they’d sit on a stool wearing earphones and read the copy I’d written, usually perfect the first time.  The engineers and I would sigh with pleasure over those silken, exquisitely delivered performances.  I’d make them do a few more takes, just because I could, and each one got better.  I’d say thank you, they’d come into the recording area, we’d shake hands, and they’d stroll away after signing the SAG forms, having made a huge chunk of money for about a half hour’s work, if you can call it that. 

I always thought to myself, I want to be one of those people. 

These days, they don’t even have to leave their homes in the Cotswold’s or Outer Mongolia, since we’re all wired through the Internet, and they can easily afford top drawer home recording studios. 

To be fair, most voice over artists struggle in the beginning like everyone else, trying to get gigs and building a promotable portfolio. And the really successful ones not only have a great set of pipes, but have learned how to speed up and slow down with no loss of timber or enunciation, hitting the time mark at the exact second.  This is a real talent, and like any virtuoso, deserving of reward. 

I’m glad I became a writer, no regrets.  I find the formation of sentences and paragraphs soothing and addictive.  It’s a complicated task, never fully mastered, like sailing, which I’ve also enjoyed.  But remember, there’s a genie involved here who’s demanding I swap my life’s work for something else, and I get to choose what. 

Maybe we could compromise.  Cartoon caption writer?

27 February 2023

You Can't Make Old Friends

If you’re a writer – even the shuttered, introverted stereotype – it’s nearly impossible to not have any friends.  You can add up all the MFAs in Creative Writing and they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, unless you factor in your friends.  Maybe some of your friends are also relatives – a brother, sister, dog or lunatic uncle.  But there’s no better source of creative nutrition than the nutty real-life characters who orbit your private sun.

I had two brilliant instructors in grad school, who became my friends. Did they bestow the same generous help and encouragement on my haughty, self-absorbed classmates?  I’ll never know.  

I have some vague recollection of the academic instruction I received in college, though the real learning came from hanging out at the snack bar with the motley crew of screwball personalities and social deviants with whom I kept company.  We might have ridiculed the pompous professoriate, but we all eagerly debated what they were trying to teach us, and it was through this lively filter that I absorbed most of what my father was reluctantly paying for.   

The late 60s, early 70s were an ideal time to be in college, with permissive administrators, hip young professors trying (unsuccessfully) to be cool, a full buffet of intoxicants and the opportunity to get tear-gassed at an anti-war demonstration. 

A common complaint about the liberal arts heard today is this type of education has little relevance to ones ultimate career ambitions.  The usual rejoinder is that it teaches you how to think and process complex information.  Maybe, but I’m sure it taught me how to keep my student deferment with as little effort as possible, as least until the draft lottery scared the crap out of all of us and sent a few of my classmates directly to Southeast Asia (not me).   I also learned how to write convincing term papers with scant supporting research under ugly self-inflicted deadlines, some just a few hours away, meaning the wee hours of the night. 

My roommate and now longtime friend famously wrote a paper on Boris Pasternak based entirely on the liner notes of the Dr. Zhivago movie soundtrack.  I think he got the A.  My finest effort was writing a paper overnight in heroic couplets, with a little help (okay, a lot of help) from my friends.  I got a B+, but no complaints.     

This type of improvisation was a bedrock capability that allowed for my career in advertising, and greatly abetted writing lots of novels, essays and short stories.  Though if the tactics provided the skills, the culture was the wellspring.  None of my friends have ever recognized themselves in my fiction, though they’re all there, in spirit if not direct description.  The rhythms of their language, their senses of humor, their insights and inexplicable behavior.   

Every novelist mines his or her friends and families to develop characters.  Amply enhanced by imagination and judicious resorting of traits and qualities.  I feel particularly blessed to have an Empire Mine of associations from which to extract limitless fodder and inspiration. 

I’m pleased to report that I appreciated it then, and throughout my life, and treasure it now as we compose those remaining chapters. 

Photo credit: Pierce Bounds

13 February 2023

Writing habits I’ve fallen into. Ignore at will.

Never end a sentence with a preposition?  That is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

Sometimes it's okay to savagely split an infinitive.  (Me)

And if it sometimes feels right to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but,' do it. 

Subject, predicate, object is almost always the right order.  Until it gets boring. (Strunk and White)

Anglo-Saxon words make for sturdy, yeoman-like prose.  The Romance words add, well, romance,

even insouciance, but use them sparingly, n’est-ce pas? (S&W)

The S&W team also said to never use “However” at the start of a sentence.  They preferred “Nevertheless”.  However, this proviso rarely works in common English discourse, so thank them for their service and use that however however you want. 

Elmore Leonard also had a list of writing rules.  They’re mostly worth following, but not starting a novel with weather?  What if it’s snowing?  Never use a word other than “said” to carry dialogue?  Okay, except “said” looks funny after a question mark.  “You don’t agree?” I said. 

Regarding books on writing, Stephen King’s book is a lesson in why you’ll never be as prolific a writer as Stephen King.  Go read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  You’ll actually learn a few useful things. 

Whom and shall are oft-neglected, beautiful words.  For Who the Bell Tolls?  You may eschew such seemingly atavistic terminology, but I never shall.

 My English teachers said to leave out the comma in front of the word 'and' in a set - do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do.  And I'm sticking with it, won’t change and to hell with Oxford University.  And I'm putting commas in front of adverbs, no matter what modern copy editors say, derisively.

I agree with Lewis Thomas that the least appreciated punctuation mark is the semi-colon; how this precious tool slipped into obscurity is anyone’s guess.  

I also love his equating the exclamation mark with an annoying child who’s just interrupted an adult conversation.  Touché!

I can never remember if the period is supposed to go inside or outside parenthesis (which bugs the hell out of my stickler of a wife.).

She also taught me to read what I’ve written out loud.  You’ll know right away if it’s working or not.  Writing and music are cousins.  Both benefit from proper pacing, rhythm and variable dynamics.  And sounds that fall agreeably on the ear. 

English speakers, even the most polished and pretentious, use contractions.  “I cannot believe how many writers do not understand this,” she said, derisively. 

We also speak in short, clipped phrases.  No one delivers paragraphs of dialogue, unless they’re priests, college professors or your drunk, pontificating uncle.

As to paragraphs, shorter are better, but not too many that are too short. 

Use quotes, not dashes, to define dialogue.  Unless you’re James Joyce, who can do anything he wants. 

The only rule of writing is there are no rules.  Listen to advice, then do what feels right.  It might work, it might not.   Readers are the ultimate arbiters.  Writing is an art, boundless and unpredictable.  I only suggest that you learn all you can about what’s been done.  The greatest improvisors are those who’ve mastered the form before launching out into the untried, the startling new.  


30 January 2023

Word salad? Dig in.

I fell in love with words at an early age.  I don’t just mean a love of literature, but of the individual words themselves.  One strong influence was all the adventure books from the late Victorian and early 20th century passed down from my father and grandfather that I devoured like giant bowls of buttered popcorn. 

They were written in the style of the 19th century, which leaned toward the purple and prolix.  Ornate language peppered with words you’d never see in contemporary literature, much less hear in everyday conversation.  I’d look up their meaning in my brother’s exhausted Merriam-Webster’s, and catalog the definition in my tender memory.

I also used quite a number of these forgotten words and usages in my earliest writing, much to its detriment.  Few high school English teachers had ever heard of Stygian darkness or a flexile snake.  Or would approve of a stern expression being described at a stately countenance, or a homeless guy on a street corner as a mendicant.  But I did.

By the way, Victorian writers often interchanged “he exclaimed” with “he ejaculated.”  Even as a junior writer I knew this was an anachronistic usage best avoided. 

It wasn’t until I started reading Hemingway, that god of succinct and efficient prose, that it dawned on me:  big words – worse, obsolete words – make you sound ridiculous and pretentious.  This was somewhat countered by James Joyce, who used every word in the language, and conjured a few neologisms of his own, but did so with such poetical brilliance that few griped about it.  Not being Joyce, I’d simply choose to pop in a bit of obscure vocabulary every once in a while, and wait for the editors to circle it and write, “Huh?”

I’m not the first logophile, by any means.  William Buckley famously confounded even hyper-educated PBS viewers with the sweep of his lexicographical panache, often insulting his guests on Firing Line without a breath of reproach, since they’d have no idea what he just called them.  Shakespeare is not only the Greatest English Writer of All Time, his vocabulary is still thought to be the largest ever recorded.  And this without Google, or dictionaries for that matter.  But I’d also commend modern writers such as Anthony Burgess, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Hitchens as no slouches in this department.

English has been described as a whoreish language, in that it will copulate and reproduce with every other language on earth without shame or regret.  That’s how we ended up with so many words, so many derivations, such richness of expression.  The French, of all people, find this tendency unseemly, and try to block outside influence, which is one reason why English is now the closest thing we have to a common world tongue. The new Lingua Franca. 

With such an enormous and diverse palette to choose from, it takes discipline to select words that get the immediate job done, though I can’t resist the occasion when a big, fat, juicy splotch of verbal obscurity seems like just the right thing.  It may not always serve the purpose of my writing, but it’s fun. 

Even ineluctable. 


16 January 2023

Swing a hammer, write a page.

If you’re learning to become a woodworker or a writer, the most important thing is to make a lot of mistakes.  This means you’re developing skills, since not making mistakes means you aren’t actually working, just convincing yourself that you are.  The trick is to not be deterred by the mistakes, but rather have them teach you things.  Such as, don’t make the same mistakes more than once.  Two max, if you can help it. 

Before writing a novel, or building a house, figure out what you want to make.  For me, it starts in the imagination.  At this point, all you need is to see it with your mind’s eye while you’re driving a car, sitting on a beach or trying to fall asleep.  This is the basic plot; this is the floor plan.  Move your mind around and test how the various components can work with each other.  Both efforts are reasonably sequential:  this happens, then that; this goes here, so that can go there. 

When you finally get to your desk, or drawing board (mine are the same), sketching is handy to see if those mental playgrounds are more than fever dreams.  The goal is to hear yourself say, “That can work.”  The key for me at this stage is to not lose the sketches or rough story treatments, since the ideas will evaporate if not recorded. 

Assuming the rough paperwork survives, working drawings can proceed from there.  In this, the house designer has a clear advantage, since you have graph paper, standardized proportions, set engineering principles and a sturdy eraser to aid in the effort.  (Or if you’re technologically capable, a computer program.)   For the novel, some write out a complete outline.  I admire those people, but it’s not for me.  I’ve tried, but the outline always collapses soon after the writing begins (as in, the war plan never survives the first contact with the enemy).  Still, I jot down a lot of stuff – rough plot structure, progress of the story, potential scenes, character outlines, things that will help as I embark on the project. 

At this stage, the acts of building a house or writing a novel begin to diverge.  The house becomes more of a team activity, like a movie production, where you need to recruit specialists to do things like shoot the elevation, dig the foundation and pour a concrete basement.  With a novel, all you have is you, and you need to start writing, if you haven’t already – like me, eager to jump the gun.  With a house, the entire frame is raised in an exhilaratingly short period of time.  With a novel, you start building piece by piece, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. 

A house from there is a much slower process of filling in.  Roof, exterior, windows and doors, mechanicals, electric, insulation, sheetrock, trim.  Though after a while, the two activities of writing a book and building a house begin to re-converge.  The final finish of a house now more resembles editing a book.  The polishing, decorating, re-writing (more expensive with a house!), a million little aesthetic decisions.    

Craft is an old and overused word, but it applies to both woodworking and writing novels.  When you’re beyond the planning and plotting stages, the handwork makes the difference.  Getting those clauses in the right order and wrangling prepositions directly equates to cutting on the right side of the pencil line and fitting tight, symmetrical joints.  A sixteenth of an inch off at the beginning of trimming out a room can mean a half-inch failure at the end.  Same with a book.  What starts well, ends well. 

The process is never complete, though eventually, the book has to go to the printer, and you move into the house.  At first, all you see are the imperfections, the unfinished work.  You can’t do much about the published novel, but at least you can keep working on the house.  Either way, time will eventually settle in and you’ll accept that what you did is what you did. 

Maybe, with luck, you’ll actually be satisfied with the ultimate result, though you’ll be distracted by the next ungainly, terrifying projects already underway. 


02 January 2023

The Blank Page

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many mystery writers were once reporters.  It surprises me that more weren’t advertising copywriters, since we faced the same daily dilemma:  how to fill up that blank screen on demand, usually with precious little time to do so.  This is the ultimate cure for writer’s block.  If you don’t do that thing they pay you for, within the deadline, you’re fired. 

This is motivating.  Especially if you’d been on the job long enough to have acquired a mortgage, a few kids, car payments and a spouse who expects you to hold up your share of the financial bargain. 

My approach was to pull up the empty document, then go to the bathroom.  I found the walk down the hall to be energizing, and often standing at the urinal, something would come to me.  An opening line, perhaps, or recalling a popular song that might provide some inspiration.  Sometimes I’d think of a great headline, and the following copy, then realize it was an existing ad.  Maybe even one I’d written myself.  At this point, I was forced to go back to my office.  

I’m old enough to have started in this work before there were computers.

In those days the blank page was bright white marker paper favored by the art directors.  This provided the opportunity to start filling up that first page with doodles.  I had various themes, but finally settled on drawing lizards, with captions.  This did nothing to prompt creative inklings, though it did compress the timeline until the ideas needed to appear almost immediately or I’d be switching to writing compelling resumes.

Another approach was to just start writing down anything that came to mind, whether it related to the purpose at hand or not.  Hence the first words of an ad could be, “An army travels on its stomach”, or “These are the times that try men’s souls.”, or “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.”  Though the resulting copy was usually far, far worse. 

Procrastinating in the hope that something useful would come to me was great for my inner-office social life.  I’d jump back up out of my chair and start meandering around the halls, popping in on my fellow writers and art directors and striking up an inane conversation.  Since they were also in the throes of an impending deadline, they were more than happy to interrupt their work to exchange thoughts on the British Royal Succession, Saturday Night Live or the comparative merits of tile versus hardwood flooring. 

Our traffic manager, the woman in charge of agency workflow, would usually break up these tête-à-têtes with a glower and a sigh, and a look at her watch. 

The thing is, the idea always did appear.  I can’t explain why, though I suspect it had something to do with getting myself into the proper frame of mind.  I knew a writer who could only start her workday by driving her car to a lake, emptying the car’s ashtray into a paper bag, and cry for a few minutes.  One writer, I forget his name, would spend all day in front of his typewriter, and often only begin something as the sun started to descend.  He did this day after day, every day of the week.  Hemingway wrote standing up much of the time, which I suspect forced him to start writing so he could sit down again.

If I’ve conquered the problem of getting the writing started, I’ve yet to overcome it’s counterpart.  Not being able to stop. 


19 December 2022

He Said, She Said.

girl and boy talking

“I love writing dialogue,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “How come?”

“Well, first off, the lines are short, but it takes up tons of space.”

“In other words, you can crank out a lot of pages with less effort than straight narrative.”


“Isn’t that cheating?” she asked.

“Not if your reader enjoys the experience.  Who hasn’t quietly closed a book when confronted by a giant hunk of exposition, when tidy bits of dialogue might’ve kept things rolling along?”

“My mother.  She liked Dostoyevsky.”

“!”“That explains your penchant for lugubrious literary tomes.”

“No one says ‘penchant’, ‘lugubrious’ or ‘tomes’ in regular speech.”

I do, but you make a good point,” he said. “Actually instructive.  Keep that dialogue simple and unadorned.”

“That feels a little doctrinaire.”

“Simply advisory.”

“I do like my doctrines to be somewhat flexible,” she said.

“Then you’ll hate this: always write the way people speak.  Can’t, not cannot; don’t, not do not; isn’t not is not, you get the idea.”

“You never met my Professor of Medieval Literature, circa freshman year.  Contraction-free.   An eight o’clock class, no amount of caffeine was enough.”

“Leave him, and others like him, out of your book.  Better to waste time listening to Miles Davis.”

“Now there’s a right turn without a signal.”

“Not really,” he said.  “He’ll teach you a masters class in meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics, all applicable to fluid and effective dialogue.”

“I lean more toward Bruno Mars.”

“Just as good.  ‘Julio, get the stretch.’  And the master of them all, Chuck Berry.

“You haven’t mentioned poetry,” she said.  “All this talk about meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics.”

“Don’t forget brevity.  Too many words spoil the conversational broth.”

“Haiku.  The fewest words to convey the idea, none that don’t.”

“Though beware of double meanings,” he said. “Or triple and quadruple, if you happen to be T.S. Elliot.”

“Please don’t banish innuendo.  It’s my stock in trade.”

“Never.  I’ve seen Casablanca.  Innuendo is the match that lights the fuse.  The straw that stirs the drink.  The sauce that inflames the pasta.”

“So tortured metaphor is okay,” she said.  

“Not if the metaphor cries out in pain.  As I just demonstrated,”

"They say to show not tell.  Same with dialogue?"

"Especially with dialogue.  Which is why adverbs are verboten (see Elmore Leonard)," he said, imperiously.  

“All this clean and simple might slip into dull and boring.  Just saying.”

“Hemingway’s dialogue was simple, but no one ever said it was boring.”

“That’s an overstatement,” she said.  “My mother thought he was not only boring, but simple minded.  To say nothing of misogynistic and egomaniacal.  I also prefer my dialogue with a bit of garnish.  A flip of the wrist, a scattering of bon mots, a little storytelling, a gush of passion followed by self-deprecating wisecracks.  A full-bodied dose of sincere confession, delivered without restraint or censure.  An outpouring, a geyser, a revealing hemorrhage of pent-up feelings.  This requires some narrative elbow room, n’est-ce pas?”

Oui.  Just don’t lose the reader in the deluge,” he said.

“I can’t tell if you’re a liberator or a killjoy.”

“You can do anything you want as long as it works.  Rules are for scolds and scaredy cats.  Break them at will.  You just have to figure out if the gamble was worth the outcome.”

“So you don’t hand out instruction manuals.”

“Elmore Leonard ruled you should only use ‘said’ in dialogue.  If you use any verb at all.  He thought a good enough writer could convey everything through the strength of her writing alone.  I’m not so sure.  He also wrote you shouldn’t over-describe settings.  He obviously hadn’t read much Lawrence Durrell or Robert Silverberg.”

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf

“Can you at least share some inspirational examples of great dialogue?” she asked (properly defying Leonard).

“Watch His Girl Friday and read Robert B. Parker.  Casablanca, to my earlier point, is another movie to pay attention to, and anything by W.B. Yeats.  Not exactly dialogue, but you asked for inspiration.”

“You said to avoid dialogue that’s too long.  Can it ever be too short?”


05 December 2022

Brick by Brick

Persistence may be humanity’s highest moral calling.  Lightning flashes of heroism may be the stuff of stirring narrative, but it’s often the steady pressure of day-to-day effort that rules the day. 

Real-life homicide detectives know this.  If they haven’t caught the perpetrator in the first few days after the crime, they know they’re committed to the long slog. They hunker down, gather their resources and push on.  You’ve often heard about them canvassing the neighborhood.  What that means is they’ve knocked on every door, interviewed every source, researched every possible connection.  This is vastly difficult and time-consuming work. 

Writing is sort of like this.  Ever notice that you can only write one letter at a time?  Assuming you don’t dictate your novels into a machine.  It’s work, and it takes concentration and discipline and persistence over long periods of time. 

Winston Churchill wrote millions of words over the course of his prolific lifetime.  He also loved to lay up brick.  I think there’s a connection there.  I’m guessing those bricks were exceptionally straight and well-placed, a sturdy bulwark against the ravages of time.  Like his prose. 

Churchill is often compared to a bulldog, of course, but I’m better acquainted with terriers.  To me, these are a sub-species of dog, unique in their focus and determination.  And persistence.  I’ve had five over the years, and none have ever caught a squirrel, though each opportunity is met with the same level of fierce resolve.  They never give up.  They never surrender. 

My other hero of persistence is my friend Steve Liskow, who submitted 350 short stories before getting his first acceptance.  He went on to win a bucketful of awards, including an Edgar nomination, which makes the tale that much more moving.  My wife will tell you that I’m not easily deterred when I have my mind set on something, but I can honestly say I’d have thrown in the towel long before Steve. 

The guy who founded the ad agency we worked for, and later bought, once told me that the two most important qualities behind a successful venture were clear thinking and endurance.  That drive to get out of bed every morning, no matter how tired you feel, and how much you’d rather be doing something else. 

When Glen Frey of the Eagles was a struggling nobody he lived in an apartment above Jackson Brown, also struggling.  Frey notes that he was kept awake by Jackson Brown going over the same musical stanza for countless hours, perfecting and polishing.  Okay, that Jackson Brown and Glen Frey (and his roommates Don Henley and JD Souther) lived in the same apartment house doesn’t seem possible, but you get the point.  Some may call it obsession, but to others, it’s just doing the work.

I’ve never had writer’s block, thank God, but I’ve spent occasional moments staring at an empty page, or screen, wondering what I should do next.  My simple solution is to start writing. Anything.  A letter to a friend, a description of my mood, free association making little sense, but after a while, the words begin to form into coherent sentences, and I knew how the rest of the time is going to go. 

My favorite book on writing is Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Her core thesis is contained in the title.  Her little brother was daunted by a report he had to write on birds, and their father advised him to just start the project, completing one bird at a time.  One step at a time, one brick on top of the next, one letter following another, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until there you have it.

A book. 

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, 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.

07 November 2022

Creativity. Damned it you do, damned if you don't.

Creative work often presents itself as pure invention, when in fact, it’s merely a reconstitution of existing forms.  These are successful forms, which is why writers, editors and publishers produce this work by the trainload.  One only needs to see a lot of blockbuster movies, listen to commercial radio and read thick airline-oriented thrillers to know this is true.  There is tremendous comfort in diving into the familiar.  Like that cardboard container of MacDonalds French fries, you know what you’re going to get, and you can’t wait to get at it.

I’m totally down with this.  I read Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Rex Stout because they’re a known commodity.  Important for me, they’re also really good at it.  They know how to maintain a familiar rhythm and context, while introducing just enough surprise and variety to keep the stories interesting.  Also true with some of my favorite TV shows, recently Shetland and Longmire. 

The hang up is that without genuine creativity – offering ideas, themes and plot structures that have never been tried before – the whole art form will eventually die of arterial sclerosis.  It becomes boring, dulling the senses and deflating like a tired old balloon. 

Here enters risk vs. reward.  Most fresh ideas fail.  It’s the cruel reality of biological evolution, that it takes thousands of beings to produce that one mutation that will improve the life prospects of a particular species.  Contrary to common wisdom, publishers are always looking for that one big idea that will transform the industry, and their financial well-being, but in the process kill more nascent innovations than a blue whale scooping up krill. 

Most artists succeed, in the sense of wide recognition and good pay days, because they remind us of what we already know.  But occasionally, someone rips up orthodoxy and shows us something so wonderfully different that we can’t resist assimilating the fresh mutation.  As to TV shows, I’m thinking The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.  Philip K. Dick was so unceasingly creative that his work inspired some of the finest sci-fi movies ever made.  Dashiell Hammett virtually invented the modern detective story.  James Joyce invited readers into the consciousness of his characters in a way that permanently altered the literary arts.   

This is why we need what Steve Jobs called the crazy ones (Philip K. Dick and Vincent Van Gogh were certifiably mentally ill, but that’s not exactly what he meant.)  Business folklore is full of risktakers, iconoclasts, scruffy revolutionaries working out of their parents’ garage.  The ones we know about were not only prolific idea machines, they were also inured against the effects of failure, or had the persistence to fail forward, to keep screwing up until something finally clicked. 

A breakthrough requires two distinct capabilities.  One to come up with the idea, the other to introduce it to the world.  As a practical matter, I think the latter takes the greater risk.  When I was in advertising, I’d remind my fellow creatives that if our campaign fails, we might lose an account, but our partners who worked inside the client companies could lose their jobs.  Creative people tend to dismiss the sensibilities of the money people, but when a half million books get remaindered, they aren’t the ones typing up their resumes. 

Humans are biologically programmed to avoid risk, otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it out of the Pleistocene.  This is why a truly fresh idea is often met with skepticism, if not outright fear.  We also learned in advertising how to somewhat overcome this natural reaction, but at the end of the day, it simply took a lot of guts and faith in the power of originality. 

I once wrote a line for a stock photo company that wanted to encourage their clients to take greater risks by supporting more pioneering photography.  I think it equally applies to the writers, editors and publishers of mystery fiction.

“There is nothing so difficult to create, so delightful to render, or so dangerous to defend, as a new idea.

24 October 2022

All love is good love (in writing as in life.)

I have a particular hobby horse when it comes to mystery writing that I keep well fed and groomed, and in a comfortable barn. 

Good writing is good writing irrespective of the genre.  I’ve got the degrees and read thousands of books of all kinds, and some mysteries are examples of transcendently exquisite writing.

Classical, didactic definitions of exceptional literature are meaningless to me.  What constitutes good writing is in the mind of the reader, though I think we can fairly say that if it engages you, holds your attention to the end, and leaves you feeling a bit excited, the writer’s mission was a success. 

To those who think genre writing, in particular the mystery/thriller species, is somehow second rate, I like to say, “You try it.”  I also play in a rock band. Trained classical musicians might think our musicality is primitive, but if you don’t have a feel for the nuances and texture of the form, it will stick out like a sore thumb.  I love ballet, but I’ve known some ballet dancers who have no idea how to get it done on the dance floor, especially with a disco ball overhead and giant amplifiers pounding in their ears. 

Writers of both literary fiction and mysteries select from the same toolbox.  They both need vividly rendered characters, clever and mellifluous prose and a sturdy, satisfying plot.  In fact, mystery writers cannot succeed without that last ingredient, whereas the literary breed can sort of drift off toward the end of a book with a vague, exhausted glance at their premise and often get away with it. 

The debate over high vs. low art is eternal and unresolvable.  Partly because what’s high or low has been historically fungible.  To me, the Olympian height of visual art was achieved by the Impressionists, though in their own time, the French Academy wouldn’t invite them to a cocktail party, much less to a spot on the wall of the Louvre.  There isn’t a music critic alive today who wouldn’t regard Duke Ellington or Miles Davis as a consummate genius, but go look at their contemporaneous reviews. 

Everyone is entitled to like what they like and disregard the rest.  I have a list of songs and movies I love that my best friends think are complete crap. And vice versa.  That’s not only okay, it’s what makes the arts so richly wonderful.  There’s something for everyone.  That doesn’t mean there can be no objective measures of quality.  There is often a general consensus (few would regard Bo Derrick’s Tarzan movie on par with the best of Truffaut), but you have a right to stand bravely outside the mob and declare your devotion to Bo’s “They’re painting me!” pathos. 

What I argue with is condemnation, or ridicule, of entire swaths of creativity, based entirely on whether or not it fits within a prescribed set of criteria – a frozen, sclerotic definition.  Most, if not all, the mystery writers I know would say they could care a toss about this.  But of course, deep down, they do.

I just know that Scott Turow set out as a young writer to create a mystery/thriller informed by literary techniques and sensibility, and came up with Presumed Innocent, an artistic tour de force.  As did Dennis Lehane with Mystic River and Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl. 

I’m convinced that in a future time, these works will be sitting alongside Faulkner, Twain and Flaubert, and no one will think a toss about it. 

29 August 2022

Last Dance With Mary Jane

Barb Liskow

Today is my wife's birthday (Happy birthday, Barb).

It was Michael Jackson's birthday, too. It's also the 56th anniversary of the Beatles' last live performance, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Apparently, John was sick of touring, but the others were less certain. Paul, for example, loved live performances. Many things stand out about that last show.

For one thing, less than 60% of the seats sold, at a maximum price of $6.50. You can find a video of that show on YouTube, the sound predictably sketchy, and it lasts about 28 minutes. To put that in perspective, Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" lasts over 18 minutes by itself, and Iron Butterfly's self-indulgent "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is over 17. The live version of "Free Bird" is about 14.

The Beatles played eleven songs, opening with Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" and closing with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." They played nothing from Revolver, the new album in record stores. Their next single was "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane," followed by the Sergeant Pepper LP, so they were moving away from songs they could feasibly perform live anyway. Ringo, the oldest member of the quartet, had recently turned twenty-six.

It feels like a fitting date for me to sign off here, too. I've been contributing to this blog for nearly six years now, and I've loved learning from Barb, Rob, Eve, Liz, Leigh, Janet, John, Michael, and everyone else, but I'm running out of ideas worth sharing.

I've learned about history and historical crimes, police and court procedures, films, sci-fi, aesthetics, and more other topics than I can list here. I've loved commenting and receiving comments from everyone, but it's time to leave the silver bullet on the bar and ride into the sunset.

Like the Beatles, I'm changing my focus, but I'm going in the opposite direction. They moved from singles to albums, and I'm turning from albums to singles. I published my last novel in paper in 2019 (another appeared as an eBook last year), but I have eight short stories due to be published over the next 12-18 months. That would be a total of 46 stories since 2007, along with 16 novels.

I have twelve stories in submission limbo, too (some probably rejected without telling me) and three more in various stages of revision.

Hey, it isn't the Library of Alexandria, but I started late. Music, writing, theater, music again, writing again. I'm still trying to find something I'm good at.

This is a good time to introduce Chris Knopf, who will be joining SleuthSayers and taking over my slot soon. If you don't know Chris's work, you owe it to yourself to check him out. We met at Crime Bake several years ago when I had only published a few short stories and my novels were still seeking a home. When I became an active member of MWA, he agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, which most writers were either unwilling or forbidden to do at that time, and he gave me a huge boost up. 

Chris has published 9 Sam Acquillo novels and 3 Jackie Swiatkowski books, all set in the Hamptons, and assorted stand-alones. He won the Nero Award in 2013, and more and more stories are appearing in the major mystery periodicals like Alfred and Ellery. He writes terrific prose, so clean and vivid you don't notice how good it is until you read someone else after him, and his dialogue is even better. I think you're going to enjoy meeting him.

I'll sneak back when I can work free from other entangling alliances.

And, finally, congratulations to fellow Sleuthsayers O'Neil De Noux, Eve Fisher and Barb Goffman, who have "Other Distinguished Stories" listed in the Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2022.

Stay safe, everyone.

06 June 2022

Crime Conn '22

Last Saturday, I attended a writing conference for the first time in much too long. The in-person attendance was sparse, but many people chose to attend on Zoom. I considered that, but I knew a few writers attending and wanted to catch up. Besides, Tess Gerritsen was the Guest of Honor and Alison Gaylin was on a panel and I wanted to meet them both, especially since Gaylin's The Collective may be the best book I've read so far this year.

The "Changes" panel getting ready

Crime Conn is now a regular event (barring the pandemic) at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, about 35 miles west of New Haven. That makes it an hour's drive for me, and I got there in time for coffee and donuts and greeting a few friends before the presentations began. The program offered five 45-minute panels with time in between to buy books and get them signed. You can never have too many books and never meet too many crime writers, who are among the most generous people on earth.

The theme of this year's conference was The End of the World As We Knew It, complete with the REM track introducing the festivities. For the music buffs, the panels were "Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes," examining what's different for writers now; "The Eve of Destruction," discussing whether or not this is the Apocalypse; "Forever Young," presenting three YA authors explaining how they help young readers navigate the New Crazy; "Psycho Killer," three current or former law enforcement officers and a death investigator from the CT State Medical Examiner; and "I'll Be There For You," looking at how the last two years of isolation, hostility, and shifting rules have helped writers create or maintain relationships. The final presentation, "Doctor My Eyes," featured John Valeri, a Connecticut book critic and one of mystery writingt's best friends, interviewing Tess Gerritsen.

MWA Chapter Pres Al Tucher
welcomes the guests

I'm pretty sure Chris Knopf, one of the organizers, came up with the titles. That night, he would be playing bass in a band. He and I shared tales of how arthritis affects our guitar playing, but he's still probably much better than I am.

Rather than discuss each panel in depth, here are a few pithy comments from the writers.

From the Changes panel: Multi-racial and gender identity are important in this changing world. Roughly 10% of today's kids are multi-racial, but only 1% of the books out there have a multi-racial character. We have to represent "Different" accurately.

The Eve of Destruction panel asked "Will pandemic books sell?" The idea reappeared in other panels, but the prevailing wisdom is that 9/11 books still don't (the only exception I know might be SJ Rozan's Absent Friends), and we're still too close to Covid. When asked about upping the ante in today's world, the authors stressed that the best approach is not to amp up the crime, but to become more human. I was one of many who appreciated that emphasis on character over "stuff."

The YA writers (I bought books by two of them because they impressed me on the panel) pointed out that backstory informs character NOW. What in the past will make them afraid in the present?

The law enforcement officers explained, among other things, how Covid has changed policing. The New Haven detective observed that the streets were much quieter at first, and that she became leery of interacting with the public. All three panelists tried to minimize arrests and bringing people into enclosed cells. They agreed they'd seen an increase in domestic violence. One officer-turned-writer has not yet included Covid in his work and commented, "It's easier to read and write about adversity after it's over."

Audience at left. The tables of books for sale
in the background

Wendy Corso Staub and Alison Gaylin shared many writers' problems with trying to write when they were no longer alone all day because their hsuband was working from home and the children were learning online instead of in a school. Staub reverted to early morning writing as she did years ago. She would feed her infant child, then stay up and write for several hours before going back to bed. Over the last two years of lockdown, she has completed four novels. 

Tess Gerritsen wanted to write from the time she was seven, but her parents encouraged her to study other fields. She majored in anthropology as an undergrad, became a physician, and plays several musical instruments between writing now. She said, "It doesn't matter what you study, it matters what you LIVE."

The gathering was small enough so writers and audience mingled easily. There was a writing workshop during the lunch break for those who were interested, too.

I sat at a table with Lynn, now working on her first nonfiction book, and Chris, who has not written anything… yet. They both attended the writing workshop. As the conference wound down, they weren't the only ones who looked eager to get back home so they could resume writing.

That's what a good conference does.