Showing posts with label Dennis Lehane. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dennis Lehane. Show all posts

06 July 2020

Second Best


By Steve Liskow

Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...


27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


by Steve Liskow

Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.

Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

14 October 2019

Writers Blocks Build Stories


Dennis Lehane is one of many successful crime writers who doesn't outline. He writes his novels on a legal pad (as did John Steinbeck) and types what he's produced into a computer at the end of the day (not like John Steinbeck). He says that when he gets stuck, rather than considering himself blocked, he knows he's made a wrong choice earlier in the manuscript and goes back through it to find what he did that shut down the action later on. When he finds the problem, he fixes it and surges ahead.

Many writers--lots of them practicing or formal journalists--point to the value of a regular deadline as motivation. The don't have time for writer's block and will produce on demand. I have written most of my life, but didn't sell my first story until I was 60. By then, I had several rejected novels and stories I could return to and play with if I couldn't find a "new" idea. Now that I've recycled most of those ideas that merited a second look, I find that I do get stuck sometimes.

Writer's Block actually comes in two versions. The one most non-writers mean is the lack of ideas to write about. Most of the writers I know agree that the people don't really lack ideas; they fail to recognize useful ones or set their sights too high. They have the seed of a good short story or poem, but they're looking for a blockbuster novel. Unfortunately, nobody, including publishers, can see these coming. Dan Brown wrote several mid-list novels before The Da Vinci Code caught his publisher and bookstores around the world by surprise.

The second version is the idea that doesn't work with your other ideas. Years ago, I interviewed several people to get the details right for what I thought would become the third Woody Guthrie novel...even though I hadn't sold the first one yet. Those notes sat on a floppy disc (remember those?) for several years until I thought the time was right. By then, the story had moved from Detroit to Connecticut and become a Zach Barnes story. Then it changed into a police procedural featuring Trash and Byrne. Six or seven years and several title changes later, I finally sat down to write.

Normally, when I write a first draft, I produce a scene or two daily, going faster as I get deeper into the book and know my way around better. My average scene is about 1600 words. Four weeks into this story, I only had about 50 pages, a quarter of my usual output, and none of it felt right. I put it away and tweaked a few other stories. When I came back, I saw something akin to Lehane's experience.

The story had two crucial premises that contradicted each other. Writer's Block, version 2.0.

The good news is that the time away also gave me a way to handle the problem. I recycled several of the characters, and the book turned into The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation. I was revising an early unsold Woody & Meg story from about 2004. A dozen years later, I understood why that premise didn't work and the book never sold, but I thought I'd learned enough to fix it.

After three days of pushing The Great Pyramid up a vertical slope, I finished page 4.

The notes, outline, character list, and pages went into seclusion on a flash drive. But, again, something else with a vaguely similar idea bubbled underneath. A week later, I recognized that bubble. I finished the first draft of a novella, 16,000 words in eight days. It became "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

Now I'm struggling with yet another idea that seems to be circling the drain.

I'm going to put it away for a few weeks...and hope history will repeat itself.

03 July 2017

Fade to Black...


by Steve Liskow

I'm currently in the sixth draft of my latest Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Even though I know him and his companion Megan Traine pretty well by now (Starting in 2004, I gathered over 100 rejections for their first book) and the plot points are falling into line almost as if I knew what I was doing, one scene is reminding me of something I learned a long time ago.

Sex scenes are really hard to write well.

Every book sets its own standards for how explicit or how subtle, and sometimes you figure it out by doing it wrong. If it's too graphic, it verges on porn, and if it's too discreet, it feels prudish or even silly. Obviously, noir or hard-boiled stories allow more process than a cozy or traditional, but even then, you have a little...er, wiggle room.

Remember the Frank Zappa song "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" The punch line is "I think it's your mind." Well, sex scenes really aren't about the choreography of who does what to whom and how much how often as much as they're about the emotions your characters experience.

If you're just putting tab A into slot B and folding appendage C over corner D, you're writing porn. Janet Evanovich discussed Stephanie Plum's frolics with a fair amount of detail, but also with large doses of humor. If you add humor, which chick lit romance writers--Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Anne Krentz, and Rachel Gibson, to name a few--do, it's much better. I admit, I read chick lit for the terrific dialogue. Yeah, sounds like when we were in college and claimed we read Playboy for the interviews, doesn't it?

Dennis Lehane's novels featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro never describe their activities in much detail, but have any readers ever doubted for a second that they had a very hot sex life? Don Winslow, on the other hand, has a scene in California Fire and Life (one of my favorite crime novels) with Jack Wade and Letty Del Rio that tells you everything you never wanted to know...and it's perfect. These two have blamed themselves for ruining their relationship and splitting up years before, and now they discover how miserable they've been ever since. The scene is in Jack's head, and, graphic as it gets, it's so vulnerable it hurts to read it.

It's all about context, and sometimes you aren't the best judge. My first few books had some fairly explicit scenes, but I've moved away from that...until this one. In the WIP, Chris and Meg have their first really serious fight over a case and are trying to handle a situation they both botched in their previous marriages. Eventually, there's a hot make-up/apology sex scene. That scene didn't appear in my first draft, but my revising showed me it had to be there. In alternate drafts, it has become more and more graphic, and I've tried it from both Meg's and Chris's POV. I've even put it in and taken it out several times. I've tried it as a flashback, too, and it still doesn't satisfy me.

One more revision and it will go to beta readers. I'm already looking forward to their opinions and may even include three separate drafts of that scene: Meg's, Chris's, and none.

Who ever knew that sex could be so hard?

27 January 2014

A Day In The Life Of...


Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Some people think the life of a writer is all glitz and glamour. It is.  For perhaps 1% of writers. I remember speaking to a middle school class several years ago and they all wanted to know if I lived in a big mansion. I had to tell the truth and say "no." I have a nice house probably just like yours.

Today, I thought I might tell you how my day went before I started this blog. It's a lot like many of my days.  I got up between 10:30 and 11. I know that's late for most people but it works best for me. I spent many, many years when I HAD to be at work by 7:00am or 8:00 am. I swore that if I ever had the chance I'd sleep until I woke up and then get up. I've been doing that a few years. For years after my husband and I retired and began traveling in our RV we often got up at 6 or 7 in the morning to get on the road early and get to our next location shortly after noon. After he passed away, I had several health problems and it was just nice to be lazy and sleep until I felt like getting up.

I knew I needed to write an article for SleuthSayers so I told my brain to start working on a subject. First it was time to prime the pump so I checked my email and FB to see if I'd missed anything important. Nothing too earth shattering.

Next I turned on the TV and listened to Melissa for a time then realized I'd recorded the Pro-Bowling Tournament of Champions. I tuned the bowling in and that took up a good hour and a half. I was rooting for Wes Malott from near Austin, Texas as he battled it out with Jason Belmonte.  Jason is from Australia and bowls two-handed and is the new Player of the Year. Now Jason is the winner of the TOC. But he's a good guy so didn't mind my guy losing. Sure Wes didn't feel that way.
My first thought was to write a few book reviews on several books I've read recently. First is The Original Crime by Joseph Pittman. I've know Joe since he was an editor years ago. A beautiful woman is found dead after a horrific storm in a small town in upstate New York. The woman is naked except for a pink scarf around her neck. Eckert's Landing police chief turned ghostly white as he looked closer to the body which had RIP scratched into her forehead. The book is a mixture of mystery with the touch of a thriller, maybe a nod to horror. A page-turner for sure.

Suddenly, I had a strong desire to wash my hair.  Okay, it was bugging me, it's gotten too long and sometimes a couple of strands fall into my eyes and bug me. Once clean it stays back in place much easier. While the hair was drying I played a couple of hands of FreeCell. If you don't know, it's a computer solitaire game.

I reread what I'd written earlier, about the books I'd been reading. Sounds like this might work. Next up was Bone Pit  by Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb. Speaking of page-turners, this book is definitely one. A pair of nurses, Gina Mazzio and Harry Lucke accept an assignment to work at an Alzheimer's rehab hospital outside of Virginia City, Nevada. What happens there as Gina and Harry begin to discover strange shenanigans makes me hope I never have that disease nor have to go to a place like this. I really enjoy medical mysteries as I was a diagnostic radiological and radiation therapy technologist for thirty years and feel right at home in this setting. Bette and J.J. have created authentic characters, a thoroughly scary mystery and I hope the Gina Mazzio and Harry Lucke series continue for a long time.

Time to turn on the Grammy Awards and I didn't take long to decide most of this music is not in my wheelhouse. I changed over to the Pro-Bowl Football game. I do love football and am sorry the season is over, except for the Big Game next Sunday. But we do have the Olympics to look forward to after that. However, I am worried about safety for everyone. What's stupid, the Olympics are supposed to be worry free and to NOT bring terror or politics into the arena.

I didn't feel like cooking so nuked a frozen dinner. Must admit frozen food is a whole lot better than years ago when you had rubber chicken and powdered mashed potatoes.

Back to the books. I also just recently finished reading my writing partner, Fran Rizer's latest Callie Parrish book, The Corpse in the Cupboard. If you want a good lesson in characterization then I'd advise you to read Fran. Funny, unique, realistic people that just walk off the pages of the book and into your heart. These honestly are people I'd recognize anywhere and be glad to sit down and visit with them. She captures the South Carolina setting so well that I feel that I've actually been there before. A touch of mystery and a touch of romance makes this a winner for sure.

Now for a change of pace I'm reading a Dennis Lehane book, titled Live By Night. You are always surprised by Lehane, check out, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. This one is set in 1926 Boston prohibition era with speakeasies, corrupt cops and bad guys all around. I'm about halfway through this one and no telling how it will play out.

This was mainly my day, trying to come up with something to write about. Most of my writing days are full of glamour and glitz like this.