Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts

12 August 2023

Holy Turnstiles! When Batman Took the Show to Shea

It was showtime. After two years of development, industry vet William Dozier's Greenway Productions let its Batman project roar loose on a caped crusade. Dozier wasn't especially a batfan--he'd barely read the comic--but he saw opportunity in reviving a tired yet bankable franchise. Most everyone else wasn't quite so sold. On January 12, 1966, Batman's ABC debut was put up or shut up.  

Dozier drew an inside straight. Batman smashed past its guarded ratings expectations, biff-ing and boff-ing aside The Virginian and Lost in Space. Batmania was born. It would die young as crazes must, but not before a glorious 1966 ride all the way to a Shea Stadium spectacular. 

We all know Dozier's Batman, a groovy, goofy riff on the World's Greatest Detective. He's the ultimate square, the droll upholder of the establishment. Dozier believed that the whole Batman concept, on an objectively rational level, was silly. Here's a guy wearing bat-themed tights and cape. To fight crime. Against gang leaders self-styled as penguins and clowns. For Dozier, nothing so fantastical held together as a TV series unless done for comedy. Dozier leaned in on an epically comic vision, that of a deadpan hero contrasted against gleefully villainous villains and all of them in on the joke. Dozier himself jumps in as "Desmond Doomsday," the overly-dramatic narrator. 

Critics and purists tried to kaplonk this over-the-top style. Didn't matter. In those early weeks, the Wednesday and Thursday Batman camp-fests weren't just winning their time slots. The show zapped atop every major television market for any program on any night. For its half-season, Batman beat out The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Bewitched.

ABC had bet on Batman with hesitation. Network execs grumbled at Dozier's production budget, but their line-up was taking a powie off CBS and NBC. ABC needed something with zam. Never mind that Adam West barely won a screen test to play Batman. Never mind that those preview audiences hated the pilot. ABC had slots to fill and a Bat Cave full of interested advertisers, so many advertisers that the writers were forced to accommodate an unheard-of fourth commercial break. Batman got rushed in as a January replacement. 

The accelerated TV debut jumped months ahead of the summer movie Dozier had expected to launch the franchise. In its hurry, ABC backtracked on a one-hour time slot. Thirty minutes was the max in their patchwork schedule, but ABC could make back-to-back Wednesdays and Thursdays happen. Dozier's team rewrote episodes into halves, with those now-famed woe-is-our-dynamic-duo cliffhangers tacked on to the Wednesday half. As happens, luck met opportunity. Batman's short scenes zip along antically to leave audiences wanting more, more, more.

And oh, the '66 marketing. Stores filled up with Batman costumes and gear, pedal Batmobiles, Batman playsets, Batman watches, Batman housewares, Batman toiletries, Batman snacks meant for Batman lunchboxes. Batman and Robin (Dick Ward) did a commercial for Lava Soap. West was on the cover of Life and TV Guide. He'd agreed to a summer live tour ahead of the movie release and before season two began shooting.

No small part of Batmania were those cackling and mugging villains. Credit Dozier here, too. He'd been around the biz for decades. He knew everybody and how to land his guest stars. Season one's baddies included Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Cesar Romero (The Joker), George Sanders (Mr. Freeze), and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). 

That first January episode pitted Bats against Frank Gorshin's Riddler, a lavish bad guy performance that would land an Emmy nomination. In that debut episode, Batman tracked the riddle-wrapped clues to the What a Way to Go-Go nightclub where he breaks into the Batusi with Jill St. John. Robin gets nabbed, and Batman only escapes with the random aid of the Batmobile's Batostat Antifire Activator. The Batusi and the Batostat in the first episode? The audience knew what this show was about. And they loved it, again and again, same Bat time and same Bat channel. 

Batman tempted viewers with more than humor. The episodes zip madcap through those shortened scenes. The sets and costumes brim with Pop Art flair.  Those now-iconic WHAMM! and SOCK! bat-fight overlays splooshed onscreen amid each inevitable brawl. The camera perspectives could go Dutch Tilt rakish. In April, Dozier used that camerawork to introduce a recurring gag, the Batclimb. He'd scored Jerry Lewis to open a window and chat up Batman and Robin scaling the building after the Bookworm (Roddy McDowell). Whatever Batman lacked in serious tone, it brought style, satire, and production value. The overall package was almost too polished for camp. That polish came with a cost that vexed ABC. But in spring '66, the money and ratings flowed. Bat life was good.

Here's how good: In March, Neil Armstrong and the Gemini 8 orbiter suffered America's first critical in-space system failure, and ABC couldn't bring itself to scrub Batman. Instead, an announcer broke in with occasional updates on the spacecraft. ABC was flooded with complaints -- about interrupting this week's tangle with Catwoman. 

Meanwhile, on the Billboard charts, the Batman Theme was peaking at #17. Nelson Riddle's official TV show soundtrack album would be a swingin' must-have. In June, shooting wrapped on the movie tie-in. Twentieth Century Fox had a July release set. Fox grumbled over the film's massive cost ($1.8M), but the outlays would introduce new opportunities into the marketing mix. Dozier rented a spiffy new Batcycle for $50 a week. He traded a promise to premier the movie in Austin for a custom-modified Batboat. Bat life steamed along.

It was time to take the show on the road. To Shea Stadium.

Batman Live! would have everything. Everything. The two-and-a-half-hour Batarama would have the Temptations, Junior Walker, and the Chiffons among the opening acts. The Young Rascals would bring their #1 sensation "Good Lovin'." Twenty-six go-go girls would dance the Batusi. This thing even had Skitch Henderson and his Tonight Show Orchestra. And of course, it had Adam West in cape and cowl squaring off against Gorshin as the Riddler. This spectacular had everything, and it was set for Saturday, June 25, 1966.

It flopped. 

Only an estimated 3,000 tickets sold for a stadium that seated 54,000. For two hours, those bands played to an empty house. The bands that showed up, anyway. Some pulled out over ticket sales warnings or when the event promoter landed in a newspaper expose. Cost-cutting cut the Batmobile. West rode onto the field in a Cadillac. The crowd roared approval anyway. His short give-and-take with Gorshin was filled with groaner jokes about Mets baseball. Soon enough, West and Gorshin were even out of costume. West sang a song. Gorshin did celebrity impressions. And then it was over. 

And it really was over. A few weeks later, the movie thunked at the box office. After Labor Day, season two's premiere fizzled. Sure, it brought the same Bat formula and those new Bat vehicles. It brought Art Carney, Shelly Winters, Vincent Price, Liberace, Lesley Gore, Otto Preminger. The problem was what season two didn't bring. More penny-pinching replaced the Bat-fight word overlays with title cards. Gorshin was holding out for a raise. And the gags were last January's news. Batman didn't win its time slots. 

Worse, NBC and CBS copycats had arrived to compete for any viewers still jonesing for goofball. Dozier launched his other pet resurrection project, The Green Hornet. None of them lasted, and neither could Batman. For 1967's season three, Dozier resolved things with Gorshin and tinkered with the format and introduced Yvonne Craig's Batgirl, but nothing could rekindle the magic. ABC brought down the big splatt. 

Batman was pop art indeed, perfect for its moment. And what a moment, one of luck meets skill, one with undeniable appeal even today, a moment with its high water mark lapping at Shea's gates.

Your essayist's personal Bat Signal

08 July 2023

Weapons and What Comes Around

Crime fiction has a weapon. Figuratively, I mean, not pistols, wrenches, or candlesticks. Not mystery, not suspense. I’m talking about something essential about us, a heart and soul thing. Crime fiction asks a particular question set about humanity. What crimes do we let ourselves commit, and how do we justify it? From there, consequences. 

Yes, all storytelling is about characters and the choices they make, or let’s hope. Abstract examinations of being are best left as philosophy. In fiction, character choices are intensely personal—and personalized. I keep reading crime stuff for these particular questions. How far will someone go, whether to commit or solve a crime? Where and why do they draw their line? Are the laws broken truly just? Is the choice self-deceived? What success or tragedy eventually arrives, as it must? Eventually is the magic.

Flashback to 2017, and I was on a plane to Quebec. Because it was there. Seriously. I hadn’t ever gone, and the bucket list item stared me down. I went. Quebec was there. More than there. Montreal was terrific, a true world city, but it wasn’t always the city I’d imagined. For each touch of flair or cool neighborhood, there were blocks and blocks of the usual stores, generic restaurants, and that same old North American hustle.

Quebec City—highly recommended—carried a vibe closer to the Quebec of my imaginings. The backstreets and old fortress gates have the feel of Old Europe. A lingering touch of wilderness rides the air, an après moi warning in that vastness north. If this was a French Canadian bastion, though, it sure drew an international crowd. Gaggles of cruise ship tours clogged the streets and beer gardens.

I try to journal when traveling. Something about being free of the home routine opens the mindset. And, importantly, on the road I have actual discretionary time. On that 2017 trip, I looked out my Quebec City hotel window and mulled over what to write. I remember the moment clearly because cannons along the escarpment were aimed back my way. The old guns are for show, but still, pressure is pressure.

I started wondering about Quebec and my expectations gap. My mind changed that thought toward a comic premise. What if someone followed this same track but for different reasons? And with way more need and expectation pumping up those illusions? I’d come to discover, but what if someone was escaping here? What were they running from, and why Quebec of all places? Americans on the lam have safer refuges.

Fast forward through several days of drafting under a possible cannon barrage. The story wasn’t working. That first pass was part literary abstract, part buddy comedy. I couldn't finagle the perspective to a cogent third-person distance. When this happens, and it does, I’ve been known to give up and run with first person. My stuff usually rewards following a character and their voice. Not an option here. This guy still wasn’t sharing, even as I fleshed out the shape of him. Hell, I gave him my travel itinerary. But no, he was just running around in quiet despair. When he did talk, it was to justify himself. He wasn't such a bad guy, right? 

Fine. It was time for consequences. I became his judge and jury and heaped consequences on his actions, especially his silences. If he want to run, it would exhaust him. If he wanted to keep mum, he would feel alone and isolated. His crime details started coming out: theft, suspicion, fleeing expected justice. Those had consequences, too. Action, consequence, reaction, consequence. Whatever I piled on him, he wouldn’t stop moving, wouldn’t stop looking for respite in Quebec. There was some idyllic point in that deep north forest only he would recognize. 

He did, eventually. Months and multiple rewrites later, he found his somewhere beside a northern lake already freezing over. He opened up to me, or more precisely, he broke down. His big why for running was a far cry from the crime comedy I’d planned. He'd been chasing the greatest consequence—an ultimate judgment on what he'd done with his life.

Back to now and crime fiction’s weapon. My slapdash journal exercise under cannon threat became “Spirits Along the One North Road,” in the current July/August 2023 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And this near-miracle happened because what I love most as a reader bailed me out as a writer. 

Consequences. It’s a weapon better than any candlestick.

10 June 2023

Trains of Thought: Train Trip Fails and Foibles

It's June, and your author is out and about traveling. Not by train this year, though trains are my favorite way to get around. In the vacation spirit, I present a few of my train rides that went gloriously wrong and transcended to life experiences.

The Germans Are Coming. And In Song? (2004)

The Flying Scotsman is the famed express service between Edinburgh and London's King's Cross station. The line dates back well over a century in various livery and under prior names. 

In 2004, the route was a round trip, a four-hour dash with a pause for breath in Newcastle, and we took it. Four quick hours and we would be in rainy Edinburgh. We waited in some sort of King's Cross lounge while Great Northern Rail attended to our luggage and wine needs. 

We were gods.

As we boarded, the Flying Scotsman hissed and rumbled in the mysterious way that great trains do. Also boarding, and comprising ninety percent of the passengers, was a horde of German college students loaded with beer and ready to sing their hearts out at Germany-Scotland football match. A straight-up menchenmassen, and already the kids were in strong voice. 

Four hours. It's an eternity when set to foreign chants. 

Chunneling Your Demons (2009)

I've taken the Chunnel a few times, but the first descent is the doozy. Since 1994, the Chunnel has connected the Continent and England via a tunnel carved into the Strait of Dover seabed. You're not underwater. You're underneath seventy-five meters of rock that is underwater. For 38 kilometers of track. Oh, lots of trains and cars are down there with you, which at least means you won't get crushed alone.

You might think a bit before spending extended time under rock that's underwater. I did. Death capsules in the deep dark, I have pause. We left on Belgian Rail out of St. Pancras, and by the time we neared Dover, I was really admiring the landscapes and thinking we ought to skip Brussels and focus on white cliff watching. Two things drove me on. One, pommes frites. There is no food in the world quite like what Belgium crafts. Two, the train was clear of London and had opened the throttle to 225 kilometers per hour. I was chunneling.

Here is the thing, though. One minute I was staring at fields and towns, and the next we eased into a tunnel. It was just a tunnel, with tunnel pipes and tunnel lights. It stayed all tunnel things for a while, and suddenly there was much France outside. I wouldn't call the Chunnel boring or anticlimactic. More like clarifying.

This Guy Could Be a Character (2011)

Here's a trip with short story tendrils. I'd only just tried fiction and was in a true explorer's space. Train travel is perfect for writers. It doesn't swamp you with wait time. There is no TSA line or stowing a laptop for takeoff. From boarding to hearing your stop is next, it's just you and a patterned upholstered seat and hopefully no international soccer matches nearby. A writer can write.

This particular trip was a sweep across Provence. In Aix-en-Provence, we toured the local museum that inspired my first sale to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In Arles, the famed Mistral wind buffeted me Van Gogh-style into a magic realism story. Before those were polished and submitted, there was what I wrote on those trains, a comic lark about overcrowded bateaux mouche in Paris. I needed a key descriptive feature for a principal character, something to make him pop. Across the aisle was a guy with a Matterhorn nose, large and peaked and textured. That story became my first piece I held in print. And I owe it to hours on rattletrap regional trains. 

The Heavens Have Spoken (2014)

Another great thing about train travel is the time management. Timed correctly and fates permitting, the window from finding the platform (not to be underestimated) to taking that patterned upholstered seat is barely a blip. Even us nervous travelers allow minutes instead of an hour.

Operative words: fates permitting. 

The surname branch of my people goes back to French Lorraine, in and around Metz. In 2014, we were in the neighborhood, Strasbourg, close enough to pay our historical respects. Now looking at a map, Strasbourg to Metz is doable even in a country the size of Texas. Two hours by timetable, and two hours did get us there. 

We should've checked a weather map instead. 

Metz boasts a soaring cathedral and dragon symbols everywhere, and after a lovely day taking that in--sure, we had the usual occasional showers--we headed back for the station. A nightcap in Strasbourg would crown the family mission accomplished. The showers picked up. And picked up. So did the wind. Finally, the heavens unleashed punishment someone apparently had coming. We had monsoons, we had gale force action, and we had zero timetable for any next train in or out of this Mother Nature beatdown.

You don't think clearly in mid-Biblical plague. I was thinking it was just water. I was thinking that even major wind can't lift trains. Let's get home for a schnapps. Nature wasn't thinking that. The longer we disagreed, the more people bunched around waiting for trains that were somewhere blocked by trees or any of obvious issues severe weather means for trains. An end of days feel hung in the air.

When we did drop into bed, no one was pouring nightcaps. Too early. I learned my lesson about random travel elements until...

Can't Get There from Here (2018)

...French rail workers went on strike. A swathe of Southern France was still on the bucket list, and 2018 was the year to taste that wine and slap those mosquitos and ride those white horses. In particular, the castle town of Carcassonne (you might've played the board game) was a setting for one of those early batch short stories. I'd walked the streets only by Google Earth. It was time to use shoe leather. 

We were in Bordeaux, and we had legitimately purchased and conservatively planned for rail tickets for Carcassonne. Texas distances, acts of God. The French rail people assured us that, given their mess of a strike-altered schedule, there were no trains to Carcassonne. Not happening. Simply impossible.

Americans think the French are rude. Wrong. The French are open and generous if you work on their terms. This means that your problems are yours. We know the dynamic, and sure enough, we had fresh options. The French Rail guy could get us to Arles. Our hotel reservations were for Carcassonne, but now destiny shone on Arles. We changed hotel reservations while the train bundled east into the southern mountains and stark Provençal light. 

A Texas-sized time lapse later, the conductor announced that the next stop was Carcassonne. And it was. We stopped there. The doors opened, a big castle loomed amid the mountainscape, and people got off to check it out. We blinked and clutched our luggage. And stayed put. 

No, the French aren't rude. Their assurances, however, might not be literal. 

Pulling Into the Station

It's back to vacation mode. Trains are great ways to see the world and to write about what you're seeing. You're still grounded and experiencing the world as the train pulls you forward. 

There's a river of life metaphor in there somewhere, but why work that hard? Just relax, check the weather forecast, factor in labor conditions, get centered about any long dark spells underground, and enjoy the ride. Maybe the dining car has good wine, or maybe you can borrow a beer from some German kid.

13 May 2023

Mother's Day and Why I Crack Foxy

Perched atop my basement cabinet is a Maltese Falcon. 

Not the Maltese Falcon prop, understand, but it’s the same size as the movie dingus, the same regal pose, same black matte if less dramatically lit. I bought the thing off eBay complete with that needless sort of tack-on certificate that calls authenticity into question. The whole room is a nod to The Maltese Falcon, with replica period furniture and sidelight insets of Spade and Archer-style frosted glass. The reason behind the homage goes back long ago, to the woman who first encouraged me to dream.

My mom. She died in February.

Mom was always drawn to the creative, to art and architecture. She wrote histories of Louisville homes and reveled in garden design wherever she traveled—and over a lifetime she traveled her share. She loved plays, musicals, the orchestra, anything with a story. She read widely and constantly. Biographies were her staple, to feed her curiosity about what people did and what made them tick. Her tastes in fiction leaned toward literary--but only a lean. Mom could talk Poirot or Rumpole or Morse with anybody. Perry Mason was a favorite show, and maybe she had a little thing for Paul Drake.

One weekend, Mom and Dad bundled the whole family into the car and drove us to UofL’s Speed Art Museum. Young Me wasn’t exactly stoked over art museums. I was more of a dinosaur man then. Mom’s lure was that we would catch a movie. A black-and-white classic, she said, which did not boost Young Me’s excitement. Young Me wasn't getting a vote. There was a classic movie festival, and I was going.

To The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know why Mom picked this particular festival that particular day. It occurs to me now that I never asked. That’s another thing about grief. You keep stumbling on so many half-stories and so many fuzzy memories you want to be remembered. There stays this shape of a loved one where they'd filled your life. I keep thinking it’s time to call her. And I can’t.

But I've long understood why Mom wanted her kids to see classic films. Because they were classics. Mom believed in a way of living. There was the world of family, of practical safeguarding and careful shepherding. Beyond that was the reason we're all here, a big world that we're to seek out. 

Life is a beautiful community, in her view, or at least it should be. People are meant to engage each other, to laugh and enjoy good company. To live well Mom’s way, you had to be up on events, on dance steps, on the classics. You had to be on the scene and conversation ready.

Plus, she liked Bogart. Of course, she did. Even the name is evocative a half-century later. Bogey made any story crackle. Young Me sure thought so watching him match wits with Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet. That noir patter was corny--in a great way. These people snapped off terrific line after terrific line like champs in pro banter. This was gold, this stuff about black birds and sending up gunsels and birds cracking foxy. And anything could happen in this black-and-white San Francisco. Anything, even a sea captain bursting into Sam's office.

I spent the next weeks letting my imagination revel in Bogey and this character-palooza. Mom could've shut me down, and no doubt wanted to a few times, but she did what she always did. She egged me on. She'd put books in our hands as soon as we could read. When she spotted my storyteller's instinct, she bought me a notebook and asked me to write. 

It's only fitting on Mother's Day to thank her for that and being right about a million other things. This world is huge. Fascinating, and it can even be beautiful on its best days, with the best stories and best teachers to help us through. 

Last night I re-watched The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time, this time in her honor. I still think about that darkened museum theater whenever Sam Spade lands a wisecrack or my maybe-authentic Maltese Falcon replica makes me smile. My dingus has a few chips in it, but don't we all? So, yes, I enjoy the classics. Yes, sometimes I listened to my mother. Admitting stuff like that puts you in solid with the boss.

08 April 2023

What Is Up With That, Anyway?

A personal Saturday Night Live favorite is "What Up with That?" The sketch features Kenan Thompson as a flamboyant BET talk show host unable to stick to his already out-there format. This loveable pile of silliness is becoming vintage, having appeared not once but twelve times since 2009. On paper, the skit shouldn't have worked even once. On stage, it keeps me grinning, and this can teach something about writing funny stuff.

Yes, twelve times. No one can wear out a successful skit like SNL. If an idea catches fire, each next outing--and they'll come often--clings to the original set-up. "What Up with That" is no exception--with a sub-exception I'll get back to later. 

The "What Up with That" formula goes like so:
  1. A hype man announcer (various cast members) introduces host Diondre Cole (Thompson) and three celebrity guests. The hype man says we'll tackle the events of the day...with soul.
  2. Diondre breaks into the rousing theme song and keeps at it, crowding the camera and immediately undercutting any sense we'll be tackling serious topics. His house band includes a Kenny G knock-off (Giuseppe, played by Fred Armisen), back-up singers Pippa and Poppy (various cast members), and a beat boy forever busting the Running Man (Vance, played by Jason Sudeikis).  
  3. Diondre finally remembers to start the show. It doesn't take. He loses focus and relaunches the theme, ever more in gospel style. 
  4. An exhausted but beaming Diondre gets around to his guests. Legit celebrities, too. The third guest, until 2021 anyway, is invariably Lindsay Buckingham (Bill Hader). The bit goes that Buckingham has been booked, bumped, and re-booked on every show for twelve years--only again and again to get bumped for time. 
  5. No sooner does Guest #1 start plugging their stuff than the house drummer lures Diondre back into yet more theme song. Diondre brings out random freaky associates, including disco flutists and Europop acts and a sexed-up banjo player. The big number devolves into a mini-carnival.
  6. Predictably, Diondre runs out of time before getting back to his guests. Buckingham goes through the stages of irritation to good sport acceptance of yet another bumping. 
  7. The show closes to--wait for it--Deondre and his whole shebang grooving on the theme music.
Summarizing this gleeful mess doesn't do it justice. Here are a few prime examples:
SNL almost didn't run that first "What Up with That." Not everyone likes their humor this over the top. Hell, Diondre sails over any top and up past the stratosphere. Some folks may laugh, and some folks may change the channel. Diondre's lesson one for humor writers: Funny to me may not be funny to you. Accept that and plow toward your north star.

Which Thompson did. The skit was his idea, and he sold it to the SNL doubters. Thompson saw something the writers missed. Thompson saw Diondre would pop if only the actor fully committed. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson explained how he understood Diondre Cole and what must've been his failed preacher backstory. Some part of Diondre might really want to talk issues. He won't because he just can't. He's there to put on his kind of extravaganza. The lesson here is, if you're going to go there on a character, go all the way. A half-hearted Diondre flops royally. 

Thompson has the skills to bring Diondre alive. He still needs a weird world to thrive inside. Smartly, the template surrounds him with complementary characters. The band's tireless groove echoes his endearing obsessions. The volume and ridiculousness of his walk-ons suggest his entourage is a non-stop spectacle. For a counterpoint, the guests are usually name actors or public figures playing themselves--and playing it straight. Their bewilderment of Diondre hogging the air time grounds the silliness.

I mentioned a sub-exception earlier. This skit did wear thin as SNL went to the "What Up with That" well a ton. I've never gotten tired of it, though, to include just now rewatching on YouTube. What keeps me laughing isn't that Diondre wastes the entire show rehashing his theme. It's how Diondre wastes it, how he can't help but be egged into it. Diondre can't stop, won't stop, and even has those walk-on interruptions ready off-stage to amp up the party. 

And look, I've run out of word count. 

We'll wrap with my main humor takeaway. I spent 700 words parsing through comic dynamics--and I did not make you laugh. Nothing kills humor like explanation. "What Up with That" never bothers to explain itself. The skit doubles and triples down on the premise, constantly asking but never answering the very question Diondre's spectacle presents: What is up with that, anyway?

11 March 2023

25 Years Later: Decoding The Big Lebowski

What makes a crime story? A crime, sure, but that can infer a creative box, as if the crime might ultimately confine the story. Not so. A crime story can do anything, given the ambition. 

Consider The Big Lebowski (1998), released 25 years ago this month. Even if you've never seen the oddball classic, you know the main character: The Dude (Jeff Bridges). And if the movie confounded you, you're not alone. Nobody confounds like the Coen brothers.


Actually, nobody else could've made The Big Lebowski. No Hollywood newbie could've sold a script this indulgent in directorial conceits and character asides. By 1998, though notches on the Coens' belt included Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the Oscar-winning Fargo.

The Big Lebowski comes disguised as subverted L.A. noir. That's not clear in the opening scenes, with the Dude sniffing milk and the voiceover narration. But resketch Acts One and Two to include the off-camera action, and themes will sound familiar:

  1. Jeffrey "Big" Lebowksi is a philanthropist statesman of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce set. In reality, he married well and stinks at business. His daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), controls the wealth through a family trust. Big's trophy wife, Bunny, is causing him epic grief by sleeping around and piling up gambling debts to pornographer Jackie Treehorn.
  2. Treehorn sends goons to collect from Big, but the goons mistakenly barge in on unemployed stoner Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. A rug is soiled. 
  3. Bunny disappears.
  4. Uli, an ex-Europop nihilist and Bunny's co-star in a Treehorn low-budget production, senses opportunity. Uli and his crew send Big a ransom note for $1,000,000, despite having no idea where Bunny actually went.
  5. Big senses a similar opportunity. Bunny has disappeared before, after all. She might be playing him for another payout. Big finagles a $1,000,000 withdrawal from the Lebowski trust to fund the ransom--which he pockets instead. He prepares a drop bag loaded with old papers.
  6. Big needs a fall guy for cash sure to be missed. Stealing a replacement rug from his mansion is the perfect mark: The Dude. Suspicion of double-cross and kidnapper retribution would fall squarely on the wayward but pliable Dude. Sure enough, the Dude is guilt-tripped into making a ransom drop he believes is real. 
  7. The drop goes disastrously, thanks to the Dude's bowling pal, Walter (John Goodman). The Dude is left thinking he has someone else's million, no explanation, and the sudden need to find Bunny.

Corruption, extortion, vice, adultery, mystery, questions of personal honor. It's a Marlowe riff, though you can almost hear Chandler grouse over the liberties taken.

Marlowe was in the trouble business. The Dude isn't in any business, let alone walking mean streets. His 60s-era sense of justice has devolved to jaded memories and bathtub tokes to whale cries on his headphones. He's forced to turn detective when what he thinks is the loot gets stolen along with his car. His looking for his ride or Bunny or both is a laid-back search, with ample time for bowling. Clues stumble over him from over-the-top characters who'd be at home in any Marlowe story. The Dude gets threatened, followed, drugged, lured to bed, and beat up by the Malibu cops--if any of that sounds familiar.

Subversion or not, The Big Lebowski wears its crime story clothes with clean lines. The confounding parts come with the added layers, and they're ambitious.


Big is the Korean vet become titan of industry. The Dude and Walter are yin and yang of the Vietnapm years. The backdrop is Iraqi War America. Three wars mark the eternal cycles of time in thinly-veiled allegory. The elder, conservative elite– Big, for example– are empty suits engaged in a money grab. Wars get arranged to protect their interests, and the liberals among the younger set, say like a hippie burnout, get blamed for war's downstream social issues. Attempts to break the cycle can't work unless someone deals with the systemic greed. Probably, no one will.

Take Big's daughter. In a prior age, Maude would've femme fatale-d across the screen. These days, she is too liberated and too busy as an artistic whirlwind. She is by some margin the smartest character in the film, even seeing through Big's shenanigans. Not that she cares much. She's after securing the balance of power for the future generation. She takes more care to retrieve the family rug than to address her dad's fraud. 


Scene One opens with a dadgum tumblin' tumbleweed and a Sons of Pioneers tune and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) in full drawl voiceover.  The Stranger rambles on how he's seen some things but this tale here might top them all, this tale how the Dude would become the man for his times. Weird, but not accidental. A man rising up right wrongs is a western trope.

As for the Stranger, maybe he's a keeper of time. Maybe he's God. He appears bodily twice, both at the Star Lanes bar, both after the Dude approaches. The first is mid-film, and over a sarsaparilla the Stranger imparts a meaningful cipher: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. The second manifestation is at the end, where the Stranger laments the movie's sole death. 

Star Lanes is no average bowling alley. Outside it, wars and aggression rage. L.A. crime laps right to the alley's door. The Dude's car is stolen in their lot. Inside Star Lanes, time passes differently. The fluorescent lights hum, the bowlers can live their best lives, and the pins get racked again and again by mechanical magic. Star Lanes isn't heaven, but it's a higher plane. 


Or if Star Lanes is a Garden of Eden, Walter is the serpent. Everyone else is trying to relax over a few frames, but Walter steps all over the mood with his thirst to impose his personal code on league and non-league play. A practice game infraction escalates immediately to Walter's gunpoint demand the roll gets marked zero. 

Walter represents order. More precisely, the folly of seeking order. Walter insists on his solution for everything, except his problem-solving instincts are disastrous. He turns Big's fake drop into chaos by substituting a second fake bag stuffed with underwear. Walter screws up the Dude's attempts to recover his car. Walter's real problem is understanding this universe. Cosmic and random forces work vastly outside human control. We mortals just need to roll with it. The Dude would, if Walter let him.


For The Big Lebowski's first hour or so, we're fed outrageous characters and Marlowe-ish flourishes. It's a set-up. Likely as not, you hadn't the pivotal guy in plain sight: the Dude's and Walter's third wheel, Donny (Steve Buscemi). 

Donny is a happy, in-the-moment guy. He just wants to bowl. He can't ever understand what the Dude and Walter are wrangling over. Missing money? Kidnapped porn queen? Rugs that pull a room together? It's all over Donny's head.  The one time he cares enough to ride along on the case, it's because the trip goes by the North Hollywood In-N-Out Burger. 

Not long after, the ransom plot has fallen apart. The Dude confronts Big j'accuse-style about the switcheroo scam, and Bunny returns from partying in Palm Springs. It's wrapped up--and it's been about nothing. The Dude is back where he started. Worse, even. No compensation for the rug or his trashed car.

It's wrapped but not over. No one yet has gotten the bear or been gotten. That happens when Uli and his nihilist buddies confront the Dude, Walter and Donny outside Star Lanes. A hilariously weird scuffle follows. In the aftermath, poor Donny, who never wanted anything but to roll with his buds, keels over from a shock heart attack. 

Donny passes young and pointlessly. In the funeral home, while the Dude and Walter haggle over cremains urn pricing, the Coens make plain what this crime caper has been about. The funeral home wall displays a verse from the King James Bible:

Banter, eccentric character turns, absurd scenes, a kidnap that wasn't a kidnap, ransom money never at risk. These things are as flowers in the field. The film says nothing much really changes in the grand play of the cosmos. We live in a disorderly universe, we deal with events of the day, and we die. Unlike true noir, though, the Coens offer hope. The now matters. The now is all we'll ever have.

The story ambition hasn't been about crime or death, which quite literally hits the Dude in the face. The Big Lebowski is about finding harmony in life. After his hippie years and jaded downslide, he can release that baggage and just go bowling. In the closing scene, the Stranger tells the Dude to take it easy, and only then the Dude gives his pop culture line, delivered in shadow: "The Dude abides." Finally, he can. 

11 February 2023

I Am Digging Poker Face

I read the news, and in the news there is hype. A bunch of hype recently touted a new mystery series on Peacock, Poker Face. The reviews were good enough, varied enough, and legit enough. A throwback to Columbo and the case of the week, they said. I was interested, largely because you can't beat the creative pedigree: Rian Johnson, lately of Knives Out and Glass Onion.

Still didn't watch it. I only clicked play when Poker Face cleared my real test: family screening. If family likes a show, I go from curious to intrigued. Family liked Poker Face a lot. And call me sold, six episodes in. Yeah, it's a throwback down to old school credit fonts and an awesomely shambolic sleuth.

The show takes its name from said sleuth, Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne). Benoit Blanc, she is not. Charlie is a heart-of-gold, drifter type whose drifting led to a Laughlin, Nevada trailer park. Episode One opens with her fetching comped drinks at a mid-grade casino. She got the job because the casino boss (Ron Perlman) caught her not-quite cheating at a poker tournament and wanted her off the circuit. Charlie's superpower is she knows when someone is lying. She has no idea what's true, but falsehoods she can spot. To avoid spoilers, circumstances and a sense of justice force Charlie to use that skill for solving a murder. 

It turns out Charlie missed her calling. Comic premise becomes a series formula when Charlie goes on the lam from Very Bad People. Every week, she hits a new town and new offbeat turn at murder. Charlie's sleuthing rambles between utter inexperience, missed inferences, and downright brilliance, with plenty of it's-right-on-the-edge-of-her brain shtick. The format is a howdunnit, with the crime played out first over 15 minutes of motive, means, and opportunity. Charlie's presence and accidental sleuthing emerge later, a perfect choice. Charlie is no cop. No one's calling her to a crime scene. She has to trip over a corpse, and our knowing the truth puts the spotlight on Charlie's dogged pursuit. In the end, at that shecaughtem, Charlie has stumbled a step ahead. If Lyonne is riffing Peter Falk, it's lovingly subversive. 

Your content warnings: This is no cozy. The murders are on-screen and sometimes violent, though the camera cuts away from most blood and guts stuff. The language is salty. The humor is slant and situational, not constant one-liners. It all suits the vibe.

Every week also brings a new crop of guest stars. No A+ Listers here. Even if the budget could swing one, an A Lister kills the working actor homage to the 70s mystery heyday. Columbo had his William Shatner, Julie Newmar, Roddy McDowell, and Valerie Harper. Charlie Cale goes up against waves of folks you'll know or maybe recognize--and more's the fun. 

And damn, Poker Face is fun.

10 December 2022

One-Fers and Zero-Fers and Damned Statistics

I know this is the holiday season and all that goodwill stuff, but I'll tell you one thing I'm not feeling good about. Not thankful for it, either. It's my late year submission record. Let's just say my stocking gets more coal this time of year.

In point of fact, in the ten-plus years of my submitting stories, I have sold precisely one story in November. It's a good one, but it's only one, and it sold in 2013. It had been worse. Until 2021, I'd gone 0-fer-October. Holiday cheer? Not so much. It's enough to shrink a heart two sizes too small.

I'm joking. A little. My month-by-month stats aren't meant to track emotional swings. I track them to keep my submissions straight. A by-product for a numbers guy is stats help glean insight and/or trivia. You notice things in the numbers. 

"Hey," you might say to the cat. "I'm seeing a trend here." 

The cat peeks her eye open. She says nothing.

"I don't get it," you might say. "One-fer November? That's a trend. Bank it."

She does not, but forget what the cat thinks. Ten-plus years is a certified trend. The real question is whether it's a curse.

It is. A total jinx, I've come to understand. But not the first jinx that slithers to mind. The curse is me.

Story ideas don't come to me in genre form. Sometimes, I'm writing to spec, such as for Alfred Hitchcock or anthology calls. My track record there is pretty strong. But the curse involves the other stuff. For the stuff not to spec, I start with zero no idea what end form it'll find. I just follow my process. If it has enough crime to it, it's a crime story. If crime-free or crime-light, it's a general lit story (once, a speculative mash-up with my famous magic sandwich). But I'm left with a batch of decent stories without a natural home. 

Which is fine. Normal, even. Except that I can be too much a Numbers Guy. 

I'm usually operating under a set of goals. These goals tend to come at New Years. I'll set a target for stories to write and past stories that deserve continued journey toward submission-worthy. The focus bump carries me into the year. By summer, my goals have met reality. My year has a word counts and response tallies. A track record. There is momentum--or not. 

Momentum brings creative confidence. I mean, the endorphins are flowing, a buzz even the cat can't kill. Numbers Guy will look at his story inventory and want them submitted pronto. "Let's blow this year out," you might say, and here comes the jinx. 

On the flip side, some years are lean. Dry spells and rejection streaks show up in the numbers, too. A healthy response would be to trust the process and plug ahead. Another response, some years my response, is to pour over the spreadsheet and glance at a calendar and understand time is running out on a good year. "We're getting stuff out there," you might tell the cat. "Buckle up."

She does not.

My editing standards don't slip when I hit this mode. Wishful thinking, though, comes rosy into my usual realism. I might push ahead with dream markets instead of angsting out over if the piece is for them. Out go a batch of submissions in summer and fall. November and December bring the rejections. Worse, I diverted time and energy away from stuff with much higher success prospects. My oh-fer-October ended last year when I ignored the calendar and just kept the plan rolling. 

Overconfidence, thy name is statistics. 

Fortunately, writing provides regular ego resets. Then, you can actually learn from the numbers--if you watch for what they really mean.

12 November 2022

I Confess: New Fletch Is a Big Improvement

I thoroughly enjoyed the Fletch reboot. You might agree, or you might disagree, or likely you hadn't heard there is a Fletch reboot. Well, there is. September. Confess, Fletch skipped wide release and headed almost straight for streaming services, propelled by a Miramax marketing campaign so stealth it would've shamed a ninja.

Fine by me--in the short run. I last darkened a movie theater door sometime before the pandemic. I'm happy in my basement cave, the big screen primed and a glass of wine ready for crime comedy.

Jon Hamm takes up the Fletch mantle. Fletch, if you've never seen the 1980s films or read the novels, is an ex-investigative reporter turned odd combo of art writer and impromptu sleuth, with special stress on impromptu. Movie-version Fletch is forever under-thinking investigation aliases and winging his way through trouble, usually of the upper crust sort. Fletch isn't a bumbler, though. He's a glider, and given the chance, Jon Hamm glides like few can.

The film offers plenty of glide path. The set-up: An Italian count hires Fletch to help recover a stolen art collection. Fletch's contacts say one stolen piece was sold in Boston. Fletch gets wrapped up first with the client's daughter and next with Boston Homicide detectives. Fletch discovers a young woman murdered in the Beacon Street condo that his new Italian flame rented. Then the Count vanishes, presumed murdered. The more Fletch investigates, the more the crimes are connected back his girlfriend. There's an actual mystery here.

They make too few movies like this anymore. Paced but not hurried, snappy dialogue without banter, constant humor without stooping to sophomoric, a bit of style but not style-obsessed. Much too rare these days. That's my long-term worry over Confess, Fletch landing bang in my basement cave, zero marketing beyond rolling the dice on a social media buzz-let.

If Miramax thought a smart crime comedy would break the box office, Miramax would've tried that route. I get it. Jon Hamm is great, but he's a television guy, and Mad Men was a while ago. Box office leads aren't also doing Progressive commercials. Nobody casted in Confess, Fletch is pre-hyped to younger thrill-ride seekers actually buying tickets. This film franchise has been dormant for three decades. The Fletch demographic is home decompressing via binge watch.

Maybe no one wants to make movies like this anymore.

Honestly, Hollywood didn't even make the original Fletch movies like this. Fletch (1985) exists to let Chevy Chase shtick his shtick. Seriously, there have been interviews about the lack of a traditional script. The plan was Chevy. The shtick works, but it doesn't hit hard. It can't when Chevy riffs through scenes played as skits, some legit hilarious, few with conflict even decent comedies need. Shtick without story wears thin. Witness the sequel, Fletch Lives (1989). Its contribution to entertainment was that actors and crew banked a paycheck.

Confess, Fletch takes the road more scripted. Good thing, because director and writer Greg Mottola asks the cast to act their comic roles. Much of that script sticks to the source material, Gregory McDonald's Edgar-winning novel (1977). Updated for a double-generational leap, of course. The best tension onscreen isn't between Hamm and his girlfriend or any of the suspects. It's the inter-generational joust between Hamm and Ayden Mayeri's Junior Detective Griz. Mayeri is gloriously Millennial in speaking her value while learning to keep up with Fletch.

Confess, Fletch can be nitpicked. The suspects could've used character depth. More danger would've sharpened the humor. The forensics and evidentiary exposition creeps toward a high-budget episode of Castle. But smart comedy doesn't have to be inventive genius. It has to be good, and Confess, Fletch is pretty good.

Please, someone keep making films like this.

Side note only discovered while researching this: In the 1980s, Gregory McDonald relocated to Pulaski, Tennessee, sixty miles from my basement cave. McDonald got involved in local anti-Klan efforts, which makes him especially cool.

08 October 2022

Haunted Hearts and Trapped Souls:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

October has crept around, and again for the season I'll risk a toe in gothic waters. Last year, I analyzed Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. To stay with the author, I'll delve into my favorite of Jackson's novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

First edition (Wikipedia)

Hill House was written in third person, often in a sweeping omniscient perspective that amplifies the narrative distance. Jackson never wanted us to understand Hill House's ghost. Instead, the novel explores how worse things than the supernatural walk our world. Persecution, isolation, fear-mongering, self-destruction. Jackson wrote about ordinary cruelty.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no ghost story. There's not a scrap of actual magic, however much protagonist Merricat wishes otherwise. Castle is a crime novel. Humans are humans, and the dead are dead but never out of mind. The holds of the dead and our past are what gives Castle its unsettling punch. This time, Jackson wants us to meet cruelty up close and personal.

Consider this your spoiler alert.

The opening paragraph:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Masterful construction. Straight out, the voice invites a bond with this Wednesday Addams-ish Merricat. Her interests promise quirks and raise questions, lots of questions. Death stalks the paragraph. Unlayering the moving parts takes reading Castle closely more than once. If you haven't read it, hold two thoughts. First, Merricat believes magic exists--with a preference for a violent sort--though good luck might not. Second, every single word is about herself.

Merricat and Constance are the last Blackwoods alive after arsenic-laced sugar poisoned the family. The only other survivor, Uncle Julian, had gone unusually light on the sugar and was left an invalid. Merricat had been sent to bed without dinner--again. Suspicion lands on the otherwise-saintly Constance, the family cook and famously averse to sugar. But why use obvious means when she had a garden's worth of poisons? Why kill without a motive? A jury acquits Constance from lack of evidence, and the Blackwoods retreat to their hilltop confines.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2006

The novel opens six years later. Constance is captive to agoraphobia and a mother role to Merricat and the slowly-dying Julian. Julian obsesses with the unsolved crime and dedicates his addled brain to document it. Merricat runs errands and helps keep the house just as their parent left it. Between chores, she dashes around semi-feral with her cat, marking daily rituals and burying talismans against outsiders.

Her sympathetic magic protections aren't without cause. The village, sure Constance got away with murder, amps longstanding class friction into a cold war and Blackwood monster myth. Merricat endures vicious taunts on her twice-weekly supply runs. The grocer only serves her because she pays in Father's gold coins.

Constance is still young and attractive– and rich. Scandal cloud or not, a loyal upper crust connection wants Constance eased back into society. Constance is tempted. Merricat can't process Constance's restless thoughts or why any Blackwood might want to leave home.

Into the mix comes gold-digging cousin Charles after Constance's hand. Charles isn't the sharpest blade around. His charms and bluster work on Constance alone. Worse, his tactics make the wrong enemy in Merricat.

Underneath her endearing fails at magic, underneath her Blackwood grit, Merricat is stone cold cruel. She takes great lengths to follow strict house rules, such as parental belonging she can't touch. She can't enter Uncle Julian's room. She isn't allowed to light matches. She isn't allowed to prepare food. She states the rules simply, as if handed down from Constance or parents six years dead. But those rules aren't placed on Merricat. They're self-imposed. As Charles malingers, Merricat's changing attitudes show how her rules make shapes around darker things--not least a control mechanism over Constance. 

Jackson planted that seed in the opening paragraph. Merricat uses "I" eight times in six brief sentences. Constance is mentioned almost as a possession. At eighteen, Merricat is an indulged girl-child full of daddy issues and Blackwood privilege. Discipline is for less perfect children. Woe to anyone who disturbs the fantasy.

Merricat's cruelty isn't evil. Her obsessive routines and lack of expression and antisocial struggles hint at someone on the autism spectrum. She was born into Blackwood expectations and taught by formidable and vain parents. Her mother, a villager, had the Blackwood grounds sealed tight over Father's hesitation. It's not the last time her parents disagreed. One such argument rattled the manor that night of the tragic meal.

In the Jackson way, cruelty begets cruelty. A family friend from town makes her periodic visits. Merricat, no proper hostess, complains how terrible everyone in the village treats her. The guest correctly suggests that the townsfolk would be nicer to Merricat if Merricat was nicer in town. Constance asks for the same truce with Charles– and a bath and clean dress wouldn't hurt, either. 

Merricat never developed such emotional intelligence. Instead, she escalates her empty magic. When that doesn't scare off Charles, she uses his smoldering pipe to start a house fire. The town gathers to gawk and celebrate the fast-spreading blaze.

When the night is done, Charles is gone but so is most of the Blackwood finery, looted by the villagers. The upper floors are a burned hulk. Julian is dead of a smoke-induced heart attack.

In the aftermath, and in case anyone missed what's been in plain sight, Jackson clears up the murder mystery. Merricat did it– out of childish revenge for simple discipline. Merricat is fine with murder and fine letting Constance take the blame. Merricat is fine with burning the manor down, come what may.

Merricat wins, such as it is. Constance isn't going anywhere. The Blackwoods remain. The sister bond is sealed, if doomed. In a literary turn, vines grow over the wrecked manor. The sisters live in darkness and on meals left hurriedly by remorseful townsfolk. Merricat has achieved her self-image, a light of lights to be brought offerings. Sacrifices, more like. She's become the village bogeywoman from those rhymes. 

Technically, Merricat is an unreliable narrator. I don't read her that way. Mary Katherine Blackwood is honest from that opening paragraph. Stunted and dangerously arrogant--but honest in what she says and what she withholds. She feels no more need to share uncomfortable truths with a reader than she does in the village. We can't be sure how much guilt she feels, but Jackson doesn't spare the torture. Guilt is everywhere in the house. Guilt is Julian's main character function, a withering reminder Merricat can neither avoid nor internalize. Those rules become a coping mechanism.

The novel's secret sauce, though, is Jackson herself. The main characters are the sister figures caught in complex circumstances– sister figures often based on her daughters. The setting is again her New England stomping grounds, where years as a Bennington wife left her agoraphobic and feeling undervalued despite her track record. She tinkered with witchcraft. When Jackson wrote We Have Always Lived in The Castle, she wrote from her soul.

10 September 2022

Cool Writing Programs I Learned About on My Panel--and Why I Probably Won't Use Them

Last month, one of my Killer Nashville panels was a terrific dive into manuscript polish and being truly ready to submit. I was the short story guy trying to keep up with dynamite authors both traditionally and self-published, a managing editor, and an agent, all of whom had damn fine suggestions about editing steps and especially, in our wonderous modern age, editing software. And when it came to software, I turned into the contrarian every co-panelist dreads. 

Our audience got in on the software suggestions. The tools and platforms were flying so fast that I only managed to jot down three. I googled around post-panel and researched how these leading tools in this, our wondrous age.

And I probably won't use any of them.


Writers Helping Writers came up several times from the audience. I checked it out. It's an impressive platform to help build worlds, deepen characters, and punch up writing power with emotional-type thesauruses. 

Why I May Use It: Everything here looks thoughtful and detailed, especially for tries at a complex novel. Scene maps, character checklists, physical reactions to circumstances, you name it. There is a bookstore and software services to back this up. $11 per month feels a touch steep, but it's a bargain if the tools pay off in a final product. There's a free trial period for test drivers. Free tipsheets, too, but they're marketing teasers. Thoughtful stuff, though.

Why I Probably Won't: This content load risks planning overkill for short fiction. I don't need to build a new world. I use the one around me. I don't need someone else's character checklist. I won't write somebody's perspective and story if I haven't wriggled into their head. And when my characters and I get on different pages, I've learned free write exercises to help reconnect. 

The panelist point I grumbled was that writing is also about the writer's growth. When I started out, I leaned on The Emotion Thesaurus. It's a great resource and remains on my reference bookshelf. It has gathered a sheen of dust, though. Repeated work on authentic character reactions taught me that skill. I learn more now through critique and reading great authors than I can from a thesaurus. 

I was also the contrarian panelist about thesauruses. In fiction writing, a thesaurus will almost always offer the wrong word. It'll either be imprecise for the sentence or a vocabulary eyesore. The following are synonyms for the verb walk: locomote, perambulate, traverse, and "go on foot." Maybe traverse fits now and then, but perambulate? Who says that except college entrance exam tutors?


Several folks in the conference room swore by AutoCrit for deep manuscript analysis. Analysis? Worth a look, even to contrarians. 

Why I May Use It: Indeed, here is our wondrous age unleashed. Plop in your work, and the AI scans for grammar and style, big name author comps, and fit against current publication trends. It's all based on "painstaking research and professional connections with agents, authors and publishers." I believe it. Layered on the analysis features are an array of webinars and add-on services, all in a slickly packaged site.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm going to say it. A writer can't discover their voice off AI feedback. Can it help? Sure. AI will also push a story or prose direction the writer can't go sustainably or genuinely. Hey, I would love to wave analysis stating I write like Name Your Icon, but I don't. I write like me. Boasting I'm the next Name Your Icon anyway is off-putting. And doubly hollow when I don't back up the claim.

AutoCrit is spendy at $30 per month ($297 annually). Critiques and other add-ons land on top of that. Somebody needs a nice publication deal or steady freelance income to justify this cost, but if you've already begun to make your bones, do you need the voice analytics? There is a free version, but the reduced functionality seems not so different from Grammarly. Still, free does tempt a guy.

And yet. It's been my rule never to paste a manuscript anywhere except a submission portal. Some markets consider any prior pasting as first publication. As a contrarian, I'm out of date but suspect this catch is less and less prevalent. 

There remains a critique site's terms and conditions. Oh, management may pinky-swear not to pull shenanigans with the author's work kept in their digital hands. Terms and management teams change. Not sure I'm ready to trust my hard work this way.


I haven't been able to find this third one that a co-panelist suggested. It sounded the most adoptable suggestion of the bunch. It's something line "One Thousand Words," and it's a true sprint tool. Set course for 1,000 words and launch, no editing allowed. 

Lear, from Wikipedia
Why I May Use It: My perfectionist brain tussles with my creative side while the first drafts spill out raw. I can leave a tweak for the next pass, but it'll haunt my very soul if a big miss a few pages behind might be infecting the current words. I retreat and fix. When that works, it works. When it doesn't, it's stifling. Taking the retreat option off the table seems intriguing.

Why I Probably Won't: I'm all for creative exercises. Aimless sprints are a whole other thing. Segmenting a story or chapter this sharply means having pull it together later, and those pieces might need a bunch of spackle. I keep an ugly first draft together exactly because I'm seeking the story's whole. 

But if I find this tool, I may well give it a rip. Worst thing that happens is a high-intensity exercise.


I'm low tech. Proud of it, apparently. Word--or Pages or Google Docs or whatever--is workhorse enough for short stories. After years of using it, Word's features come second nature, no need to stop a writing flow and figure out new tools. And Word has leveled up of late. 

Word's Editor tools (red box) now give friendlier and more reliable suggestions as to problem grammar, conciseness, inclusiveness, reading comprehension level, and so forth. Important stress on more reliable. Word still gives advice that is dead wrong for voice or in-context meaning. But this editing logic forces me to decide on these critical passages.

Thesaurus-wise, Word is skimpy--and that's perfect. Word also improved its readback feature. I use it  extensively in the final prep phases. Same goes for the Document Compare feature, to double-check if proofing edits survived as expected.


To recap, I've become cranky about software, thesauruses, terms and conditions, and a load of other stuff that didn't come up at the panel. I keep these parts of writing simple. An agent or editor may forgive a novel's characters forever perambulating if the manuscript overall is going to sell. Not so with short story authors. No market accepts a piece that needs their time to fix. Nor should they. Whether we use pre-editors (I do) or software tools (I don't), the polish to readiness comes down to us.