Showing posts with label Cozine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cozine. Show all posts

05 March 2016

Writing No-No's and When to Use Them



by Herschel Cozine




For those of you who don't know him, Herschel Cozine's work has appeared not only in many of the national children's magazines but also in AHMMEQMM, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and Woman's World. Additionally, he is the author of many stories in Orchard Press MysteriesMouth Full of BulletsUntreed ReadsGreat Mystery and SuspenseMysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and he has a story in the upcoming Dark House anthology Black Coffee, due for release in May. Thanks, Herschel! -- The SleuthSayers team




(Caveat: The following is for your amusement only. Anyone who survived Creative Writing 101 will find nothing new in this piece.)

Recently I had the good fortune to have a couple of stories published in Woman's World (or, as it is otherwise known, "John Floyd's journal"). I was taken to task by some readers because they had to suspend disbelief when they read it. Under the circumstances it was a legitimate criticism. But at the same time, I felt it was unwarranted.

In this particular instance I had my protagonist, a police detective, discussing an ongoing case with a member of the family. This is, of course, not allowed in real life. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. I have seen defense attorneys and prosecutors discussing open cases on talk shows. Granted, they are not participants in the case. But often the cases they are discussing have not yet come to trial. So they are influencing potential jurors. Do you suppose for one instant that similar conversations do not take place among family members?

Suspension of disbelief in performing arts and literature has been around since Shakespeare. If a woman can don a hat and put on men's clothing and fool her husband of twenty years (as is done in Shakespeare), the poor sap is either completely bereft of any intelligence, or the audience has to suspend disbelief.  In this case, both.

I was a huge fan of the TV program Columbo. Peter Falk had developed a character, an outwardly bumbling police lieutenant who fumbled his way through murder investigations, while in reality he was a keen and competent investigator. But his methods, if tried in the real world, should have had him dismissed from the force. Carrying crucial evidence around in a paper bag, accosting the suspect at work and home and at all hours of the day and night. Discussing key issues of the investigation in public places. You get the point. Did one have to suspend disbelief? Absolutely. Was this a problem? Evidently not. The program was a huge success and ran for several seasons.

I will not bore you with the many instances that occur with regularity on this subject. (Relax, Jessica Fletcher.) And it isn't just happening with poor writing. It is, to my way of thinking, a literary tool that is used to get information to the reader or to create a situation in an interesting manner that is critical to the story. If one stops to think about it, they wouldn't want it any other way. Without the privilege of using it, many stories would become dull dissertations that readers would quit reading by the end of the first chapter.

Another common complaint is that of coincidence. This is not to be used in writing. It is a copout. It is sloppy writing by a writer who is too lazy or too inept to come up with an alternative.

Again I say "Poppycock." Coincidences occur all the time in real life, and nobody pooh poohs them. Some pretty wild coincidences have happened to me, and I'm sure to all of you as well. Could I use them in a story and get anyone to believe it? Doubtful. But it convinces me that coincidence in storytelling is not much different from life itself.

When Ilsa walked into Rick's place in Casablanca, that was a coincidence of the highest order. By an even bigger coincidence, Rick held the documents she and Laszlo needed to escape Casablanca. If she had shown up a few days earlier she would have been dealing with Ugarte. So instead of Bogart/Bergman chemistry we have Bergman/Lorre. Not even the beautiful and talented Ingrid could pull this off. Thank God for coincidence. Without it we would be denied one of the great movies of all time.

And what is all the fuss about the use of adverbs? I suspect this came about with the advent of the Tom Swift books. (I also suspect the sin of opening a story with a weather report was caused by Lytton). In both cases, the hue and cry is deserved. But why should these isolated cases cause a wholesale banishment of legitimate tools?

When I was learning the rules of grammar and was tasked with parsing sentences, I learned about nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. At no time was I told that I couldn't or shouldn't use adverbs. They are legitimate words. They are a part of the language. Why are they there if we aren't supposed to use them?

I recently read one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories. Among the comments on the blurb page was a quote by Elmore Leonard, the "rules of writing" man, praising McBain's storytelling skills. By the end of the first chapter, McBain had used adverbs on several occasions. Shocking! How could this possibly happen?

I--and I am confident that some or all of you--have used adverbs from time to time. Consider this: A laugh can mean many things. If one of my characters laughs he can be doing so because he is amused, disdainful, disbelieving, or a host of other reasons. It can be loud, soft, and so on. It is important for the reader to know how he laughed.

"He gave a disdainful laugh." Or, "he laughed disdainfully."

My preference would be the latter. It uses fewer words, and it is a smoother read. But what about the adverb? Ah, yes, We must do something about that. It is not allowed. "He laughed a disdainful laugh." "His laugh was disdainful." Oh, the hell with it. "He laughed disdainfully." There. I said it and I'm glad.

Then there is the rule one learns in Writing 101: Show, don't tell. I won't insult your intelligence by defining this. I just mention it because it is so basic to writing that I had to include it. Again I ask, inviolate?

Evidently Sinclair Lewis didn't think so.

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."

To my way of thinking, a perfect opening line. Succinct. Defining. Efficient.

To sum it up, the use of coincidence and the suspension of disbelief in writing are--warning: adverb ahead--perfectly acceptable. So, too, is the use of adverbs. They must be used (OMG, more adverbs!) sparingly, intelligently, and in such a way as to not get in the way of the story. So, too, may one "tell" and not "show" when the occasion calls for it. I will suffer the slings and arrows of irate readers while continuing to use these tools of the trade. "To thine own self be true."

(I am well aware that the split infinitive in the above paragraph is a writing sin of epic proportions. I make no apologies.)

If there is an inviolate rule in writing, especially for mystery writers, it is this: Play fair with your readers. That may be good advice for our fearless, upright congressmen as well.

Now, about these adjectives.

Thanks, John, for this opportunity.




21 June 2014

Ruminations of a Senior Citizen


by Herschel Cozine


NOTE: Please join me in welcoming my friend Herschel Cozine as our guest blogger.  Herschel is well known to the writers and readers of both SleuthSayers and its predecessor, Criminal Brief, as an accomplished author of short mystery fiction. His credits include AHMMEQMM, Woman's World, and many other publications, and his book The Humpty Dumpty Tragedy was nominated by Long and Short Reviews for Best Book of 2012. (I'm currently on the road and will be back in two weeks--meanwhile, I've left you in good hands. Herschel, thanks again!)
-- John Floyd


In the past few months several of you have commented on the fact you are getting old. Not fifty or sixty type oldies. Let's face it, that's kid stuff. We are talking "old." It should be a four-letter word. Maybe that's why the British put an "e" on the end. On the other hand, with age comes wisdom, or so the saying goes. Speaking from personal experience, I question that. Some people never learn.

But that is not the purpose of this discussion.

I have a birthday looming on the horizon. Another one. That's the third one this year, or so it seems. I suppose I should be grateful. After all, studies have shown that birthdays are good for you. The more you have the longer you live. But I'm at a point in my life where they start to hurt.

I have a T-shirt that reads: "I plan to live forever. So far, so good." An old Steven Wright joke. But at times I feel I have accomplished that goal.

There is no polite way to put it. I am an old man. It certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone if they are lucky. But it is a sobering time of life, a time when one comes face to face with his mortality. I recently had a financial guru give me a tip on an investment that would double in value in five years. I turned him down. I am no longer a candidate for long term investments.

What has that to do with writing? When I was young and innocent--well, young anyway--I had the irresistible urge to write. As fellow writers, you need no explanation. But I didn't write for any specific market or, for that matter, for any market at all. I wrote because it was something I had to do. I got a certain amount of recognition for this hobby, or whatever word you care to use, when I was in high school. Class writing projects in English usually resulted in my effort being used by the teacher as a model. One of my class projects found its way into the yearbook. It felt good to get this recognition, but in high school no self-respecting boy would admit it. A football hero? Yes. Drag racing champion? Certainly. Writer? Are you kidding me?

Eventually, after college, I was told by someone that I should try my hand at writing for--how crass--money. I had been writing poems and stories for children, but never submitted them to magazines. The thought was intriguing. I found an ad in a writing magazine about a contest being sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers. First prize was $100, a princely sum at that time. I had just completed a children's story, in verse. So I typed it up, put it in the standard package of the day--a manila envelope--and sent it in. Lo and behold, it won!

I was hooked. For several years I wrote and sold a fair number of poems and stories to the children's magazines of the day. But, being a big fan of adult mysteries, I eventually turned my attention to writing them. My first success in that arena was a Department of First Stories sale to Ellery Queen.

I won't bore you with any further successes and failures. I have had some of the former and more than my share of the latter. I mention them only as a prelude to what I really want to say.

I have reached a stage in my life where writing for money is no longer important. Oh, I won't turn down a check if some editor wants to buy my story. But this is now merely a fringe benefit and not the main purpose for continuing to write. (Come to think of it, it never was.)

What is important to me is to have the respect of those who take the time to read my efforts. I particularly cherish the recognition afforded me by other writers. They, after all, are fellow travelers who know and appreciate the slings and arrows of this business. They have hit the same bumps, felt the sting of rejection and the giddiness of acceptance. You, my friends, matter.

As I said in the beginning, I am an old man. I no longer write with the fervor and eagerness of youth. Ideas that used to come in torrents now dribble in grudgingly. I continue to write. But it is not the same. I am more critical of my work, often deleting it after several attempts to make it work. But enough of it remains to keep me going. And that will never change. I don't question why. All I know is that I am a writer; whether a good one or not I leave for others to decide. But a writer--a true writer--cannot quit. To paraphrase, neither sleet or snow or dark of night, or old age, will keep a writer from his word processor. And now to bed.

NOTE: A special thanks to Jim Williams, a lifelong friend, for his cartoon. In addition to being a cartoonist, Jim is a fellow writer. His book, Cattle Drive, published by High Noon Press, has just been released and is available on Amazon.

01 September 2012

A Bookstore for All Seasons


by Herschel Cozine

NOTE: This week I have again invited my friend and fellow crimewriter Herschel Cozine to stand in as a guest columnist. As you might already know, Herschel's work has appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, and many other magazines and anthologies.  His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and several of his tales are currently available at Untreed Reads. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California. This piece, by the way, first appeared in Kings River Life Magazine and is reprinted here with their permission. (Herschel, it's good to have you here again. Readers, I'll be back on September 15.) -- John Floyd


There is a bookstore in my hometown, Ojai, California, that is one of the most interesting I have ever been in.  Before I tell you about it, I would like to give a few facts about Ojai (pronounced "Oh Hi") itself.  Situated in the foothills of Southern California, between Santa Barbara and Ventura, it has a short rainy season, and what rain does fall quickly evaporates, with very little runoff.  The residents hardly miss a beat because of rain.  Also, because of its small size and rural atmosphere, there is little need for folks to double lock or even single lock their doors.  All in all, it is small town America at its best.  Both of these factors (rain, locks) make it possible for the bookstore to operate successfully.

The first thing one notices about Bart's Books is the sign by the front door: "When closed, please throw coins in slot in the door."  Lining the outside wall are rows and rows of books.  One is free to read them or purchase one even if the store is closed; the honor system that is sadly disappearing in this country.

When one steps inside, the big surprise is this: There is no roof!  The entire bookstore is open to the atmosphere.  Shaded here and there by a tree, only the bookshelves themselves have a covering.

On the rare occasions when it rains, the books are protected by these coverings.  The water evaporates in hours, leaving the area dry and the books undamaged.

There are thousands of books in every category one can imagine.  Fiction and non-fiction, clearly marked and separated into the various genres.  History, biography, sports, and so on.  There are a few enclosed rooms where cookbooks, art, specialty and rare books are housed.  In these rooms are chairs and couches where one can sit while contemplating whether or not to purchase the book.

The fiction is by far the most abundant.  Classified by author alphabetically within the various genres, it is easy for one to find his favorite author or title.  And if you have difficulty, there are helpful staff members to aid you.  Needless to say, the staff is a happy one.  I overheard a customer ask an employee: "Do you actually get paid for working here?"  Considering the environment, it was a legitimate question.

Once you have found the book you have been looking for, there are tables and chairs available for you to sit in the shade of one of the many trees and read.  There are even snacks and soft drinks available.  It would be easy for one to spend the entire day in the store.  I have been there several times and still have not seen it all.
The store deals primarily in used books.  And, having been asked the question countless times, the management has T-shirts for sale with "What Do You Do When It Rains?" printed on them.

For those of you who love books, and that includes everyone in this group, if you are ever in the vicinity, make the detour to Ojai and visit this amazing store.  You will find it well worth your while.

04 February 2012

Computers? They're Not My "Type"



by Herschel Cozine


NOTE: This week I've invited my friend Herschel Cozine to do a guest column. Some of you are already familiar with his work; Herschel's short stories and poems have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and many national children's magazines. He's also published a number of stories in Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Untreed Reads, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California, and often serves as my wise but unpaid advisor on literary matters. (Herschel, many thanks! Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) -- John Floyd




I lived many years BC (Before Computers), and have issues that have yet to be resolved. And I am sure I am not alone; certainly my problem resonates with those in my age group.

Allow me to preface my remarks with an anecdote. I was born in an old Victorian house on Long Island, situated on 180 acres of mostly unimproved land. The house and grounds were owned by J. P. Grace, the multi-millionaire banker and businessman. Mr. Grace stipulated in his will that his estate could neither be sold nor subdivided, so it is still intact today. However, since his death many years ago, the grounds have been neglected by his heirs and have fallen into disrepair. The house and most of the buildings burned to the ground at various times over the years.

Recently I discovered that the local historical society had dispatched a team to map and explore the estate. They dug in the places where the structures had once stood, collecting and cataloguing the relics that they unearthed.

I wasn't prepared for this. How would you feel to discover that the house in which you were born was now an archeological dig site? Old. Very old.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I started writing before the age of computers (or digital clocks for that matter). The writers of the day used typewriters, carbon paper and onionskin paper for their file copies. For those of you too young to remember, carbon paper was not made from carbon, nor was the onionskin made from onions. And the typewriter was a clever device that one learned how to operate in high school. Basic. Easy to master. Uncomplicated. Like many inventions of that era (rumble seats, slide rules), it was too good to last.

The writers started by jotting their musings on foolscap, a legal pad, or whatever suited their needs. Then would come the simple, albeit arduous, task of typing it (using the aforementioned typewriter), onto a clean white sheet of stationery, together with a sheet of carbon paper and a sheet of onionskin. Naturally, mistakes were made. Thus the ever-present bottle of whiteout came to the rescue. A blob of that over the typo and the manuscript was good as new. Of course, the typo was forever preserved on the onionskin copy. But that was for one's file and not a big problem. Eventually the imaginative typewriter folks devised a ribbon that had a strip of whiteout incorporated in the ribbon. One simply positioned the platen so the offending typo was under the striker, typed the letter through the whiteout, and then replaced it with the proper letter. Life was beautiful!

Then the electric typewriter made its appearance. Prior to that the darkness of the letters varied with their position on the keyboard. For example, the letter "a" was usually fainter than a "g" or one of the inner letters because one struck the "a" key with his weaker finger. The electric typewriter took care of that problem as well as the one of capital letters that stood half a line above the rest of the word. Life was now even more beautiful.

Then came the typewriter with a memory. Up to ten lines of typing could be stored on the device so one could edit and correct before committing it to paper. Another ingenious work-saving innovation. It couldn't get any better than this.

Then--the computer! Life will never be the same.

My son had to convince me of the advantages of the computer over my clunky, outdated typewriter. Thus I was pulled into the twentieth century just before it in turn was pulled into the twenty-first. I still have the scars.

To begin with, my first computer informed me that I had performed an "illegal operation." I was appalled. I had never received so much as a parking ticket before. I pleaded with it to tell me what it was that I had done, promising never to do it again. But it just sat there, its cursor blinking at me accusingly.

I swore at it, threatened it. "I'm the intelligent one in this room. You are simply a collection of circuit boards and wires. If it weren't for me you would be languishing in some warehouse in Peking. Show some gratitude!"

No response except for the blinking cursor. To this day I don't know what I did wrong.

Thankfully, my present computer is not that judgmental. I no longer get that message.

But I digress. Since my main reason for getting a computer was to simplify and modernize my writing efforts, I removed my typewriter from the den and turned to the word program. Awesome!

I looked at the screen in bewilderment. The options, features, icons, and symbols boggled my mind. Before I could start writing I had choices to make. What font style: Courier, Gothic, Times New Roman, even fonts that printed in symbols resembling hieroglyphics. I settled on Times New Roman and moved on. Font size--from microscopic to billboard. Did I want bold, italics, underline? What color? Did I want headers or footers, indented paragraphs, right justified margins, single or double spacing? What size paper? How about columns? Graphs? Double spacing before or after paragraphs?

I was overwhelmed. I have a hard time deciding between "over easy" or "scrambled" when I eat out. "Panic" is a little too strong a word to define my mental state. But it will suffice for the purpose of this discussion.

By the time I had set up all the parameters I had forgotten what it was I had started out to write. I have reverted to jotting down the story on foolscap ahead of time. This is progress?

With some trepidation I began to write. Suddenly the font changed from Times New Roman to Lucida. What had I done? I later learned from my son that I had not set my defaults. (I thought that only happened to loans.)

I labored on, enduring the whims and peculiarities of the computer, finally reaching the end.

Having finished for the day, I was ready to save my work. This scenario followed:

Computer: Do you want to save this?

Me: I just went through three cups of coffee, two bathroom breaks, four and a half hours of typing, not to mention the ordeal you put me through. Of course I want to save it, you moron!

Computer: Where?

Me: Someplace where I can find it again. I am still looking for the last one which disappeared without a warning. I even called my computer-savvy son, who told me, "You must have hit the delete button," and then hung up. I suppose I would have done the same if I had been called out of an important meeting. But it seemed a bit rude. After all, I am his father.

Computer: What format? HTML, Doc, PDF, RTF, etc.

Me: UCLA, NASA, FBI, GOP. How the hell should I know? You're the expert. You decide.

I have no idea what format my document is in, nor do I care. All I ask is that it is where I stored it and that it is readable. (I recently opened a file to find nothing but rows and rows of symbols and punctuation marks that ran on for three pages.)

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of Bill Gates.

Of course, I understand that a computer is more than a glorified typewriter, and I should be taking advantage of its versatility. I try. I have 378 friends on Facebook, six of whom I have actually met. I am bombarded with crude jokes, tasteless photos, and messages concerning their bodily functions and sexual prowess. I don't spend a lot of time there.

Then, of course, there is e-mail. There was a time when I had to trudge out to the mailbox to get my junk mail. Now I have it delivered directly to my den. (I wonder if that poor man ever managed to get his money out of Nicaragua.)

Ah, but I am beginning to sound like my father. He was convinced that civilization as we know it would not survive the invention of television. Fate was kind to delay the invention of the computer until after he had passed away.

There is a group of men on Long Island who will unearth a rusted, scorched Underwood typewriter in the rubble of my old house. I wish I could be there when that happens. God, how I miss it!