Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts

07 June 2021

Warren & The Werewolves


 by Steve Liskow

I've been incorporating a few songs by Warren Zevon into my open-mic repertoire. I've played "Mr. Bad Example" and a couple of others off and on for several years, but lately I've been polishing "My Ride's Here." It's the title track from the CD Zevon released soon after he knew he had terminal lung cancer. He always had gallows humor.


If he hadn't been a musician (Mostly piano, but also guitar and harmonica), he might have become a hardboiled crime writer. He co-wrote a song with novelist Thomas McGuane and collaborated on a song and novel with Carl Hiaasen, both called Basket Case ("My baby is a basket case/A bi-polar mama in leather and lace"). He dedicated an early album to Ken Millar, AKA "Ross Macdonald," and was good friends with Hunter S Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover may have inspired one of his own covers.


Zevon was born in January 1947, two months before me, and died in September 2003, three months after I left teaching and the same month I returned to writing after a 20-year hiatus. His father was once a bookie for gangster Mickey Cohen and had been a prizefighter before moving from Chicago, where Warren was born. 

In his nearly 40-year career, Zevon met Igor Stravinsky and performed, wrote, or drank with half the rock and roll hall of fame, including the Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lindsay Buckingham, Emmylou Harris, and members of R.E.M. Many of them performed on his last CD, The Wind, released less than two weeks before he died. Two songs on that CD posthumously won his only Grammie awards. The CD also features a cover version of Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" that will give you chills.


Because Zevon's humor was often dark and his stories and imagery jarring or downright disturbing, few of his songs got airplay except "Werewolves of London," but he also wrote songs for the Turtles in the 60s, and Linda Ronstadt covered "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" in the 70s.

"Carmelita," a ballad about a junkie, offers the chorus "I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town." Not quite what they were looking for in Peoria. "Excitable Boy" tells of a young man who murders the girl he takes to the junior prom. Zevon called the victim "Little Susie," a wink at the girl who fell asleep at the movies in the Everly Brothers song. "Werewolves of London" offers this gem of wordplay: "Little old lady got mutilated late last night/Werewolves of London again."

OK, not everyone's bucket of blood...

He played piano behind the Everly Brothers, then worked with each of them individually after their break-up. He co-wrote several songs with Phil (Who may have given him the idea for "Werewolves"). He also filled in for Paul Shaffer as music director for David Letterman, one of his lifelong friends. Letterman had him as his only guest for a one-hour segment after he announced that he was dying.

Zevon told great noir stories, including "Excitable Boy." "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is about a rich screw-up trying to buy his way out of trouble, and one of his most bizarre songs (Which every Zevon fan knows by heart) is "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." It tells of a mercenary who is killed by another mercenary, and his headless ghost comes back to get revenge. "Boom Boom Mancini" is an homage to the boxer, probably inspired by his own father's early boxing career. "Mr. Bad Example" chronicles the life of a perpetual con man and gives an autobiographical nod to his father's carpet store in Arizona. "I got a part-time job in my father's carpet store/laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score." Zevon's son Jordan hypothesizes that the old building may have been where Dad got the asbestos exposure that caused his cancer years later. Taken as a whole, the song feels like a Donald Westlake caper set to music.

He could be tender and sentimental, too. "Keep Me in Your Heart," one of his posthumous Grammy winners, tells his lover, "If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less/ ...You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on you blouse/ ...Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams/Touch me as I fall into view..."

He also wrote one of the great earworms. "Hit Sombody (The Hockey Song)" introduces us to Buddy, who "wasn't that good with a puck."

"Buddy's real talent was beating people up/His heart wasn't in it, but the crowd ate it up.../ A scout from the Flames came down from Saskatoon/ Said, "There's always room on our team for a goon."

The ending is both funny and poignant. Find it on Youtube and accept that it will stick in your head for the rest of the day. I used the title for one of my Roller Derby novels because it captures the raunchy humor of the self-described Bitches on Wheels. If he'd lived longer, Zevon might have written a song about them, too.

My Ride's Here has a cover photo of Zevon peering from the window of a hearse. The title track mentions Jesus, Milton, Shelly, Keats, Lord Byron, and John Wayne (Who also died of lung cancer) and alludes to Elmore Leonard's twice-filmed 3:10 to Yuma


Jordan assembled a songbook of his father's songs that I wish were three times as thick. It gathers most of the cult "hits," but omits a few I've used in my own writing. "Hit Somebody," for example. "Run Straight Down" became the title of my standalone novel about a shooting in a public high school (David Gilmour of Pink Floyd plays guitar). I'd love to find an accurate transcription of "The Hula Hula Boys" about a man with a philandering wife that could be a Raymond Chandler novel. "Ain't That Pretty At All" and "Looking For the Next Best Thing" could be novels or stories, too. And, again, funny...sort of.

I still want to create a story matching the wisdom Zevon shared with David Letterman on that TV segment when Letterman asked him if he'd learned more about life and death since his terminal diagnosis:

Enjoy Every Sandwich.

24 May 2021

YOUR Way


Writing is the hardest subject to teach. It's not information like history or science, and it's not a manual skill like carpentry or shooting lay-ups. It's a combination of knowledge (Vocabulary and grammar) and synthesis, combining that knowledge with the writer's own experience, emotions, skills and interests. When you have 25 or 30 students in a class or online with different cultures, environments, and DNA, trying to teach them the same skills the same way at the same time and expecting to absorb it at the same rate is a sure way to fail.

This is why so many graduate not only as mediocre writers, but as people who hate writing. Writing is a personal, even intimate skill, and the cookie-cutter approach doesn't work. I see and hear writers at workshops proclaiming that their method is the only way to write, and it always annoys me.

I was a panelist at a workshop a few years ago where one audience member asked if we outline our novels and I was the only one who said, "Yes." Before I could even explain that I used the term loosely, two other panel members screamed at me as though I had relieved myself on the table.

I told one of them later that if her method produced writing like hers, NO ONE should want to know how she did it.

Teaching writing should be less about getting the actual words right and a lot more about finding the way that works best for YOU. Schools need deadlines so teachers can grade your early stumbling efforts, but it doesn't help anyone. Teachers look at spelling, grammar and punctuation because that's easy to evaluate. Structure, style, pacing and rhythm, on the other hand, need larger samples than time permits. My senior honors English class gave me six weeks (It might have even been eight) to produce a research paper of 1000 words, and the teacher checked our footnote style (Remember Turabian?) with a microscope. Now, I expect to write that much on any given day (I produced the first draft of this essay, 1050 words, in about 35 minutes).

I don't know a single writer who uses precisely the same process that I do, and I claim that it works for me because I'm satisfied with most of the 15 novels and 30-some short stories I've published so far. But several writers on this blog have published hundreds of short stories and three times as many novels as I have. I have only a general idea of how most of them work, and it doesn't matter.

When I conduct my NANO workshops, I tell students that the important goal is not really producing 50,000 words, it's learning HOW TO produce those 50,000 words. If they've never tried to write a substantial amount before, it's a great chance to learn how to do it.

I suggest ideas you can use for outlining (Or simply listing scenes). I demonstrate the structure of a scene, how and why some characters work better for a story than others, how setting may help your story by creating obstacles or a context for your character, and how conflict enhances your plot. You need to find your own way to reach those goals.

Here are the questions schools can't help students answer, mostly because they're also doing math, science, social studies, foreign language and art homework, too, so their time is crowded. Never mind a social life.

How do YOU write the most effectively?

Do you write better in large blocks of time (Two hours or even more) or in short bursts of ten or fifteen minutes? Does that change if you're in an early stage of planning or actually working on the last pages of your story? I tend to go faster as I find a story's details and rhythm.

Do you need an outline or do you write a lot of junk then go back to save and expand the good stuff? I know a few major wirters who outline (Robert Crais and the late Sue Grafton among them), but Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and Carl Hiaasen don't. I wish I could write like any of them.

Do you need quiet, or can you listen to music or the traffic outside your window?

Do you need an deadline to motivate you? For me, one advantage of being unpublished and without a contract was that I could work at my own speed. I could go back and rewrite pieces and learn how to make them better without worrying about meeting someone else's deadline. I did 30 years of THAT in theater.

Are you better off writing your first draft with a pencil (John Steinbeck, with legal pads), crayon, rollerball, or fountain pen (Tess Gerritsen's preference), or typing into a computer? How about talking and recording your ideas first?

Do you have to write everything in order? Can you jump ahead to write a scene you expect to use later, and if so, do you need an outline to know that?

Steve Liskow
Steve Liskow

What gives you your ideas? Neil Gaiman answered this question better than anyone else I know when he said that writers get ideas because it's their job. Just like carpenters need to handle tools, actors need to learn lines, and musicians need a good sense of pitch and rhythm. If you can't get ideas SOMEHOW, you're not going to be a writer.

Do you edit as you go along, or do you write a complete first draft before you revise, or a combination of these? Is your process the same for short stories and novels (Mine isn't)?

Do you know other writers who can read and critique your work? How do you give and take criticism? I've been in three writing groups, and none of them helped me very much. I know several writers in the area whose work and judgment I respect, but at this stage I seldom bother them for anything except occasional feedback.

What do you do when the writing isn't flowing or you're overwhelmed? I read, do jumbles and crossword puzzles, play guitar, or praactice piano. I used to work out at the health club because mindless physical repetition helps me release my unconscious, the best editor. That went away during the pandemic.

What did I leave out? I don't know, but maybe THAT's what you need to answer.

10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

Dad said I could write his blog if I promised I wouldn't eat the mouse. It doesn't look or smell much like a mouse, anyway.


My sister Jewel and I met Dad and Mom twelve years ago this week. Our first owner lost his home and we had to go to a shelter. Jewel was really shy and it upset her a lot, but I promised I'd find us a new home. When Dad walked in, I purred and played and let him hold me in his lap. Mom petted me too, and they both liked me. I wouldn't go without Sis, though. The people at the shelter said we were a blonde pair, or something like that. I'm kind of blond, but Jewel was a Himalayan. Anyway, Dad and Mom put us in carriers again--I still don't like car rides because, up to then, they'd all ended up us being somewhere we didn't like--but this time was different.

A basement with two litter boxes and lots of furniture. A nice bright kitchen and two food dishes. Two sets of stairs to run up and down, lots of windows and trees so we could watch birds and squirrels. Jewel hid under the coffee table in the basement that first night, but I trotted back and forth between Mom's chair and Dad on the couch, letting them pet me. By the time they went to bed, I knew we'd scored. And when I jumped ino bed and curled up against Mom, she snuggled me. We still do lots of that.


Dad's a writer. He spends lots of time by the computer talking to himself and shaking his head. Jewel used to read his stuff and tell me what it was, but he never had enough action or car chases for me--except that book about roller derby, and that was girls, so Jewel got into it more than I did. She wanted more love scenes and stuff becasue she's...well, you know...a girl. I'm more into sports. That's my favorite section of the newspaper. Except the comics. 


For our first Christmas with Mom and Dad--I was about a year and a half and Jewel was two, Mom got us a new kitty bed. It was nice, but it was even better when she took the cushion out of it. Then we could fit in it together and groom in a sunbeam. Mom took a picture and used it as a Christmas card one year. There was even a big hanging plant in the room at first, but Dad saw a few teeth marks on leaves and took it away. He never saw me chew it, but what are you going to do?


Mom's an actress, and sometimes she'd walk around in the bedroom talking to Jewel in funny voices. Jewel would always talk back, and sometimes I thought Mom actually understaood what she was saying. Hoomans are pretty smart if you encourage them. Dad practices guitar sometimes, too. It's weird, a guitar doesn't smell alive, but it makes noise like you wouldn't believe. Jewel and I usually went upstairs when Dad pulled it out of its bed. That's when Mom would stretch out on the bed and we'd cuddle with her. Sometimes, she stayed downstairs and did a crossword puzzle. Jewel probably knew more answers, but I usually sat on the back of the chair so I could see the clues better.

During basketball season, Jewel liked to watch the UConn Women, even though they're the Huskies. Go figure. Mom thinks she taught Jewel to say "Maya Moore," but she could say it all along. She just finally let Mom hear her.

Jewel died about three years ago, and Mom and Dad and I held each other a lot. I didn't remember being away from her before, and I looked all over the condo for weeks before I figured out she wasn't coming back. That really hurt. But I'm still taking care of Mom and Dad.

Mom and Dad take care of me, too. Mom even gets up to fill my water cup if I'm thirsty in the middle of the night because I don't like my fountain downstairs. And I still like to sleep between Dad's feet except in the summer when it's really hot.


Dad's not writing as much as he used to now, and I keep telling him he needs more car chases. I don't think he gets it. He still plays guitar, too, and I help him and Mom watch baseball and basketball. I'll take care of them as long as I can, because that's what Maine coons do. We love our hoomans.  

26 April 2021

No, No, No, No-no, No-no-no...Banned Books


 by Steve Liskow

I'm jumping the season a little. This year, Banned Books Week will be late in September. During that week, we are reminded how many of the classics are or were on somebody's hit list in an effort to protect innocent (?) minds from the corrupting influence of new ideas. If you're of a certain age, you probably read many of these in school or even on your own. I did.

Obviously, the list expands as new authors produce new work, especially work challenging our assumptions about issues like race and sexuality. Unfortunately, few books get removed from that list, even if it's only in some miniscule township or school district ten miles east of Oblivion. 

I directed the play with this poster. 

I don't like censorship and have been known to push the envelope myself. I understand the concerns, but hate the blind fear that often inspires it. When I student-taught in a suburb of Detroit, the school system had a standard form a parent had to fill  out if he/she objected to their child's reading a particular text. I wish I had a copy of it now, but I still remember the first two questions on the form:

1. Have YOU read the entire book?

2.  Are you aware of the critical responses to the book?

I still think that's a good starting point.

I found a list of the most-banned books over the last ten years. I've only heard of two of the books currently in the top ten and haven't read either of them. That makes sense because parents tend to focus on YA books to "protect" their children, which means the books show up in the classroom. I assigned several older titles still in the top 50, including Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, The Things They Carried, and that constant target, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When I started teaching, the only systemic censorship I encountered was for Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Someone complained about the book (To this day, I don't see the problem) and the school's principal, never one to take a stand, ordered the English teacher who maintined the book inventory to burn all the school's copies. Really. That teacher explained why he thought it was a bad idea and donated the books to the local veteran's hospital and various other venues. The principal had him removed and I got his job the following year. True story.

That was fifty years ago. Over the following years, I encountered a few parents and students who objected to certain books, but it was never an organized group effort. 


My first full year, two classes voted to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and buy it from one of the many paperback book clubs common at the time. I'd never read it, and when I opened  the first page, I saw trouble brewing and turned to the seasoned veterans for advice. One told me to compose a letter to all the parents explaining why I thought the book merited study and have them sign and return it to confirm their approval. Only one parent objected, and when I invited her in to discuss her concerns, she signed the letter instead.

I taught in a town with a population that was about 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 black, with a few Asians, too. The students in our district spoke seventeen different languages at home. Given that demographic, it's amazing I didn't start more brushfires, but the only other battle, which became routine, concerned Huckleberry Finn. Some of my black students refused to read it because of the 214 uses of the "N-word."

I gave those kids a choice of three alternative texts, and they could write a two-to-four-page essay about their experience reading the book OR present a five-minute oral discussion to the rest of the class. The three books were Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. All three writers are black, and two of those books are considerably longer than Huckleberry Finn. Invisible Man is also pretty complex. I used this approach for six or seven years, and it worked well. After about three years, more and more kids decided to read Huckleberry Finn after all. 

When I retired from teaching, both Wright and Hurston were part of the curriculum. 

I actually objected to one book myself. In 1999, Robert Fagles produced a new translation of The Odyssey to enthusiastic acclaim. My school had been using the Lattimore translations of both The Iliad and The Oddysey for decades, and at the first department meeting of the new year, a younger teacher (pretty much anyone in the department was younger than I was) suggested replacing the older translation. I raised my hand.

"Has anyone besides me read the Fagles?" I asked.

No one had.

"OK," I said. "It reduces the poetry to informal chat and weakens the majesty of the Lattimore. That may or may not matter to you. But let me point out that 3/4 of the teachers in this department are female. Odysseus always addresses Circe and Calypso, the two women he has sex with while he's away from his wife, as 'Bitch.' If that works for you, I'd like to visit your classrooms to watch you discuss it with your teen-aged students." 

The suggestion died then and there.


It reminded me of the commotion years ago over Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. His original publisher rejected the MS because of the violent and misogynistic content, and people rushed to both sides of the debate. Finally, one critic--I wish I remembered who--pointed out that the violence and ideology were secondary issues. 

The book simply wasn't very well-written.

That still strikes me as the line we don't cross. Is it violent? Sexy? Political? Disturbing? Maybe, and maybe it hits a few of your personal buttons. But those things matter less if the author does his or her job well. I don't read some books because I don't like them. But that doesn't mean I won't let you read them. I wish more people felt like that. I still remember a comment Maurice Sendak made years ago in a writing workshop I attended.

"We teach children taste. What do we teach them when we give them bad books?"

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?


The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?



15 March 2021

The Waiting


 by Steve Liskow

Lately, I've seen writers posting at various sites that they're having trouble writing now. The lockdown has made them stir-crazy or they miss their friends or the family is becoming too needy. They need interaction to get ideas or to keep the energy flowing, and their output has suffered.

I'm not writing much now, but for a different reason. Up until last year, I usually produced a novel and three or four short stories during the year. Last year, for the first time since about 2004, I wrote no novel. I wrote a novella and sixteen short stories. This year, I wrote two short stories in January and have finished a novella, but I haven't writen any other fiction in several weeks.

I have vague ideas for two or three anthology calls, but they aren't coming together the way they usually do, and I think I know why. At least, I know where I'm casting the blame.

Last year, I sold more short stories than usual.

BUT...

Sanford Meisner once defined acting as characters responding to each other's actions. When there's nobody out there reacting, it's hard to act...or write. You write a story, polish it, send it out, then...nothing.


Waiting for a response that never comes is like playing racquetball into Jell-O. If someone rejects a story, I can react by sending it somewhere else, but when nobody responds, I can't do anything. Since last July, I have sent out 22 submissions (a good week for John Floyd or Michael Bracken). Four were rejected and four were accepted, but after eight months, fourteen are still in limbo and it's paralyzing me. 

I used to work on a novel between submissions but  without that big project to occupy me, time crawls by like a glacier. I respect the markets that say "no simultaneous submissions"--which may be stupid or naive, and is certailnly counter-productive--so I don't send a story out again until I get that first response. A few stories are at anthology markets where the deadline is still in the future, so I won't hear about them for a while. And a few are at a market that is notorious for slow responses. Others are at a market that only responds "if interested." 

Significantly, both those two are PRINT markets. I usually send stories to them first, then sent the stories to other markets if they're rejected. That's going to change soon, though.

Two online markets that reply quickly--and have bought several of my stories--have raised their pay rates significantly in the last few months. I've moved them to the top of my submissions list. It's also true that many stories I write for anthologies get picked up elsewhere. 

Yes, I sold two stories ten days ago (A personal first: two sales in one day), but it's even worse than when I used to audition for roles in theater. Then, if you didn't hear anything in a week or so, you could assume you weren't cast and move on. 

As Tom Petty said,  


The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard/

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part.

01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

15 February 2021

More About First Person


 by Steve Liskow

I've discussed point of view before, mostly about the unreliable narrator. That's someone who tells the story but whose word is suspect. That person my be lying to cover his own guilt over some event, or maybe he is biased or misunderstands a situtation. Nelly Dean, the caretake in Wuthering Heights, hates Heathcliff and glosses over her own responsibility for many of the things that go wrong in that book, including the elder Catherine's death. Lockwood, the twit who rents the estate and listens to her account, is too self-centered and dumb to understand the significance of what she says. 

Huckleberry Finn was raised by an illiterate drunken racist, so he doesn't recognize his own racist attitude toward Jim.


He comes to understand through the adventures he and Jim share. Critics often compare The Catcher in the Rye with the emotionally shattered Holden Caulfield to Huck. Others point to Chief Bromden, the paranoid schizophrenic Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All these books gain their power from a narrator who doesn't tell us the truth, expecially since he doesn't lie on purpose.

Many other books, both classic and newer, continue this tradition: The Great Gatsby, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Gone Girl...

But what about books where the narrator tells us the truth? That's a staple of the classic mystery story. I remember being told that a mystery should always use first person point of view, a dictum I tossed as soon as I read The Maltese Falcon, which uses third person through Sam Spade. 

Poe used an unnamed narrator to highlight the brilliance of C. Auguste Dupin. Maybe that's where Conan Doyle got the idea for Dr. Watson, who narrates all except one of the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Hastings, who sounds a lot like Watson, shares his own awe of Hercule Poirot.

Once challenge of using first person point of view is that the narrator needs an interesting voice or persona to keep the reader engaged. If we're going to listen to someone tell an entire book, they have to be interesting, right?

That's true of the unreliable narratiors I mentioned above, but Watson and Hastings are, frankly, boring. They're nice, dull, unimaginative men of a certain age and class, and that narrow mindset exists to make their sleuths seem even more brilliant and dynamic. It also allows us to forgive (as they do) those detectives' personality quirks and shortcomings. Poirot is an arrogant ass, more concerned with his moustaches and his little gray cells than with anyone around him. Holmes is an off-again-on-again cocaine (or morphine, it changes from story to story) user who practices his marksmanship by shooting holes in the wall of his London flat. Apparently, zoning laws were different then.

Another advantage of having these characters as narrators is that Christie and Conan Doyle could hide clues from the reader because Hastings and Watson didn't recognize their importance. It's not really cheating. It's more like slight of hand where the magician makes you look at the wrong hand while the other one palms the ace. 

But Hastings and Watson and a whole generation of Golden Age narrators were dull. Their only reason to exist was the genius of the character solving complex plots that resembled higher calculus. I read a lot of those books and tolerated them, but at some point I lost interest because the characters were incidental to stories that were little more than the word problems in my math book. 

Rex Stout came along, too. I haven't read all the Nero Wolfe stories, but I don't know which ones I missed.


Stout realized that Nero Wolfe was insufferably vain. He weighed "a seventh of a ton," bred orchids, drank innumberable bottles of beer daily (keeping track by the bottle caps on his desk), and never left his brownstone residence. The traditional dull sidekick would have disappeared in his ego and rendered the books unreadable.

But Stout gave us Archie Godwin. Archie is a good PI in his own right. He's charming, loves the ladies (And Lily Rowan and others reciprocate), and can take care of himself in a fight. He's smart. He's also funny and constantly needles Wolfe and deflates him. The relationship between the two characters has more depth and complexity than their predecessors, and it makes for more interesting reading

.After World War II, Lew Archer and Phillip Marlowe came along to relate more character-driven stores with more complex people as narrators and investigators. I don't know if it's significant that they're both American while Christie and Conan Doyle were British. I do remember Chandler's snide comment in "The Simple Art of Murder," though. "The English are not necessarily the best writers, but they are unquestionably the best dull writers." 

In the seventies, Sara Paretsky gave us V. I. Warshawski. A few years later, Linda Barnes gave us Carlotta Carlyle and Sue Grafton gave us Kinsey Milhone. Three feisty, intelligent women PI narrators.

It's probably simplistic to give Stout credit for the rise of the detective teams who appeared in the 1990s, but I'll do it anyway.


Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are smart and damaged. They explore the dark depths of the human condition and come away even more deeply scarred. They finally married between the last two books in the series, and Patrick left investigating for a nine to five while Angie became a terrific mom to their daughter.

Robert Crais's Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are both military veterans (Vietnam, which would put them both at 70 now) and their youths were littered with emotional fallout that give them a deeper understanding of the people they both help and hunt. Elvis can be funny, too. 

I appreciate them more because I grew up with Archie Godwin's voice and vision coloring my own tastes and guiding my reading. When I started writing seriously (who writes frivolously?), Stout was one of my biggest influences.


01 February 2021

Another Good Year: The Invisible Shift


 by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed the singles that nourished my summer of 1966. 1967 was another good year for pop, but we didn't notice how things were changing until two or three years later.

In mystery terms, it was like moving from cozies to noir. We didn't see it at the time, but by 1969, FM radio gained more traction and played longer album cuts while AM singles began to lose their influence. The whole phenomenon was like clues hidden in a complex golden age mystery plot.


The top SELLING albums of 1967 were overwhelmingly pop. The Monkees' first four LPs topped Billboard's chart for 28 weeks during that year, and their first two albums ruled from New Year's Day into June. Herb Alpert and the TJ brass were up there, along with Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and the soundtrack for The Sound of Music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Petula Clark all had big albums, too, and Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 was required listening for all the folkies in my dorm.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band rode the top of the charts from early July to October, and we didn't appreciate how it would change the landscape. Other bands were experimenting, too, both musically and chemically, and their work burrowed into our consciousness along with the Fab Four.

In January, the Doors released their first LP. It didn't sell until Elektra released a shorter single version of "Light My Fire" that got lots of AM airplay. It even got banned in Detroit during the July riot. This may have been the beginning of bands releasing a single and a different version of the same song with a long instrumental break on an album. The San Francisco bands, who began to make their presence known in '67, played long breaks for the dancers at the clubs, and it began to catch on. 

That same January, Cream released their first LP, Fresh Cream.


They put out Disraeli Gears in December, and by then the "Clapton is God" buzz was almost as deafening as their Marshall stacks. They were British, but echoed the San Francisco trend to long instrumental breaks (Jack Bruce even said that started when they played the Fillmore West). When I saw them live in '68, they filled a 75-minute set with five songs. 

Jefferson Airplane gave us Surrealistic Pillow in February, and it charted in March. Their first album was a competent collection of mostly covers before Grace Slick (Vocals) and Spencer Dryden (Formerly the drummer with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy) joined on this record, for which band members wrote all the songs. Those songs ranged from folk-rock to full-bore psychedelia (White Rabbit, 3/5 Mile in Ten Seconds) and it may have been the rest of the country's introduction to Haight Ashbury chic. Only weeks later, the Grateful Dead released their first album. It collected covers, too, but two of them featured extended jams like "Light My Fire." The Airplane LP had two hit singles, so it got AM attention. Not so the Dead.

Buffalo Springfield's first album came out in December '66, but Atlantic added their (only) hit single "For What It's Worth" and re-released the record in May, about the same time the band appeared on The Smothers Brothers TV show. FWIW was the band's big hit, but "Sit Down, I Think I Love You" made Billboard's top 20 for the now-forgotten Mojo Men, and several other songs deserve more respect. The Springfield was one of the great coulda-shoulds-woulda bands that didn't make it, but Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to produce more fine work. Like the Airplane, the Springfield record was a combination or rock, country, folk, and ballads. Nobody was looking at a unified concept for an album...yet.


In June, the world turned upside-down. The Beatles unleashed Sergeant Pepper, and AM radio stations played every song because EMI didn't release a single. This may have been the beginning of album-oriented programming.

Only weeks later, Moby Grape appeared on the scene. Their album also has folkish ballads, countryish twang and petal-to-the-metal rock and roll. All five members sang, composed, and played like monsters. They recorded the entire album, including overdubs, in five days of studio time. Guitarist Skip Spence played drums on the first Airplane LP, but he was a guitarist at heart, and here he was in his element. The Grape is another great "might-have-been" band, but Columbia released five singles on the same day, cancelling each other out and offending the hippy following. Bad drugs and bad karma haunted the rest of the band's short career. 

The Association gave us Insight Out in June, too. It had two legit singles, "Never My Love" and "Windy," but the song everyone remembers is "Requiem for the Masses," the choral anti-war song. I saw the band perform it at Yale Bowl a year later, all the stadium lights turned off as Terry Kirkman played the horn solo at the end. It gave me chills. This is the beginning of the end of albums with lots of singles.

To finish off the Summer of Love, Jimi Hendrix produced Are You Experienced? in September. Like the Beatles, Hendrix forced the engineers to dub, overdub, and re-overdub eight or twelve guitar lines onto four-channel boards. The recording industry had to make technical strides to accommodate the new music, and eight, twelve, and even sixteen-channel boards became common, the biggest advance since Les Paul perfected tape delay in the early 50s. Hendrix gave us a hybrid of blues, jazz, rock, and everything else combined with effects pedals and volume like the eruption of Krakatoa. This record did release a couple of singles in England, where it was recorded, but American stations played every song, especially late at night.


Speaking of Krakatoa, The Who released The Who Sell Out in December. It's a full-concept album (Their next release will be Tommy) with tongue-in-cheek commercials mixed among terrific songs. It's my favorite Who album, especially in the expanded CD. Townshend comes into his own as a lyricist and composer on this one, and it features "I Can See For Miles" with the all-out volume assault that's been the band's trademark forever...and the reason Townshend still suffers from tinnitus. 

December gave us the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, their most psychedelic work. It had a three-dimensional cover and no singles, and it proved Mick and Keith could do far-out, too. Then they went back to blues-rooted rock for their best work over the next several years.

December also saw Paul Butterfield reinvent himself. The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw has Elvin Bishop replacing the departed Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, and it's Butterfield's first record with a horn section. He's learning to share harmonica solo duties with the saxes and trumpet, and it works. Nobody else I know owns this record, but it's one of many resons Butterfield is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Al Kooper was turning to horns at the same time with Blood Sweat & Tears, and Bloomfield left Butterfield to form his own horn band, The Electric Flag. 

Sergeant Pepper is the only album here to top the charts. Several of the others barely dented the basement, but their influence was huge. Think of what will emerge in the next three years: 

Led Zeppelin, Yes, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Chicago Transit Authority, Bitches Brew...

Not so cozy anymore.

18 January 2021

A Very Good Year


I've heard it said that the music we hear in our teens defines our taste because those are such formative years in our lives, and I won't argue. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in my junior year, but for me the biggie was 1966.

After my freshman year of college, I scored a night shift job at a sheet metal plant. My hours were 6:30 pm to 5 am Monday through Thursday and 3:30 pm to midnight on Friday. There were only nine of us, a 31-year-old foreman, four welders, and four machine operators, three of us college kids. I worked a two-man shear with Al, who was missing an upper incisor and smoked a pack a night.

The 52-hour week meant 12-hours of overtime. I still lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work, so that summer paid for the remaining three years of my undergraduate degree. It put me on "normal" time for the weekend, which meant I could have a social life...except that my midnight lunch break made it hard to call a girl for a date. It let me play golf almost every day, too, and that was the summer I broke 80 for the first time.

Swell, you say. So what?

Well, we played the radio most of the time, but all the metal around us interfered with reception so we could only pick up one local station, WSGW, which had a trasnmitter two miles away. At midnight, the DJ piled singles on the spindle. After they all played, he'd lift them, read the news headlines, and play that same stack again. And again. Between lunch break at midnight and punch out at five, we'd hear the same songs ten or twelve times. That was the year my first girlfriend dumped me and the year I fell in love for the first time, so those singles trigger a lot of emotional baggage.

Were they all great songs? Not by a long shot, but some were. The Rolling Stones released "Paint It, Black" and the Beatles gave us "Paperback Writer/Rain." The Hollies offered "Bus Stop," The Kinks "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," and Paul Revere and the Raiders were "Hungry." The Mamas and the Papas released "Monday, Monday." But the local DJ promoted home-grown groups selling their new single at the Battle of the Bands at Daniel's Den on Saturday night.

The Rationals at Daniel's Den, Saginaw's teen hot spot


Southern Michigan's music picked up the heavy metal thunder of the automotive plants, where Dad could make enough money to buy his kid an electric guitar and amplifier. Those kids formed bands and practiced in their garages, the DIY movement that became the flagship of garage rock, the grandfathers of Punk. It was democratic music, the kids stealing their licks and lines from the songs they heard on the radio, so simple ANYONE COULD DO IT. And if you got a fuzz-tone for your birthday, even better.

? & The Mysterians



That summer, "96 Tears" was huge. ? & The Mysterians, a Saginaw band, played Daniel's Den and the Blue Light constantly. Terry Knight and the Pack (Later to morph into Grand Funk Railroad) had a cover version of "Lady Jane," but it got pulled because the Rolling Stones hadn't released theirs yet. DJ and the Runaways had "Peter Rabbit," featuring the octave riff they lifted from "Wooly Bully." The Bossmen (Never big, but members went on to play with Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper) released "Thanks to You." The Standells from LA had their biggest hit with "Dirty Water" and the 13th Floor Elevators gave us "You're Gonna Miss Me" with the full-bore reverb and an electric jug. Really.
The 13th Floor Elevators, Tom Hall on Jug...



Bob Seger and the Last Heard scored their first single, "East Side Story," recycling the riff from "Gloria" into flash-fiction noir. Seger wouldn't hit nationally for several more years, but he was probably the biggest act in Detroit behind the Motown groups (Where Stevie Wonder was also from Saginaw). He would have several more hits that don't appear on any of his greatest hits collections, too, maybe because they were on the tiny Lucky Eleven label, swallowed up by Cameo Parkway, which submerged in the late sixties.
Young Bob Seger



The Rationals from Flint had the first version I heard of Otis Redding's "Respect." Contrary to local myth, Glenn Frey was NOT a member of the band, but he did hail from Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. 

The Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl" came out then, too, along with the Music Machine's "Talk, Talk," and Love's take on "Little Red Book." Composers Bert Bacharach and Hal David preferred Manfred Mann's version of that song and loathed Love's take on it. The Shadows of Knight put out "Oh Yeah," the follow-up to their cover of "Gloria."

Those were the songs I heard while a two-man shear pounded out the rhythm for my summer. I bought my first guitar a few months later. When I look back at these songs, they evoke a very good year, and I can play pretty much all of them now without even thinking about it. The only surprise is that I've never used any of those songs as story titles. 

04 January 2021

Blurbs Too


by Steve Liskow 

If you read John Floyd's discussion of blurbs a few days ago, you found his usual Fort Knox worth of wisdom. Since we have so much in common (We went to different high schools together), I was thinking about blurbs, too.

Does a blurb really help your sales? I don't know. But if a well-known writer says nice things about one or two of your early books, it gives you more street cred, and that shouldn't hurt, should it?

John and I agree that it's best to ask friends for blurbs, especially if they're well-known and you have compromising photographs. But John prefers email, and I like to ask people in person on the theory that it's harder for most people to say "no" face-to-face than it is to send an email. 

Usually, that well-know writer and I have a common theme in our writing. Sometimes, the connection is a little more arcane.


Jeremiah Healy and I met at Crime Bake in 2006. I admired his books, but I also read his blogs about his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. I was diagnosed with the same condition only weeks before the conference, and we spent time at the hotel bar discussing his experience and the options. When I sold my first novel a few years later, he remembered the drinks I bought and asked for my outline and first 30 pages. Then he wrote a blurb I have recycled at least twice.

After that first novel, for reasons that don't bear discussion here, I decided to self-publish, and that made getting blurbs more difficult. Many established writers are forbidden by their contract from blurbing a self-published writer. At least, that's what they told me. Luckily, I was a member of MWA and SinC and often appeared on panels or at workshops, so I could make other connections.

Chris Knopf and I did a panel together in White Plains, New York on the night of an Old Testament cloudburst. 85 people signed up to hear the four-person panel, but only 7 showed up. Chris and I both drove about 80 miles from Connecticut (He got detoured by a washed-out road), and the four of us didn't sell a single book to the small audience. The shared misery brought us together, though, and Chris agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, The Whammer Jammers. He used to work in advertising, so he wrote me a blurb so good I even put it on my bookmarks.


I only have two blurbs from writers I didn't personally know, and their books shared a theme or subject I was writing about, too. 

Cherry Bomb is about teen trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious stretch of Connecticut blacktop that connects Hartford and New Haven. Another writer had written books about troubled teens, and she gave me a blurb that showed up on three of my books.

I got the other blurb for that book through sheer synchronicity. Browsing at Border's (Remember them?), I discovered a nonfiction book about trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike. Even better, author Raymond Bechard was going to do a signing the following week. I bought the book and burned through it so we could discuss it later. When we met, I discovered that his girlfriend's cousin was one of my English-teaching colleagues. Sometimes, it just works out...

By the time I wanted to publish Blood on the Tracks, I'd run out of famous writer friends, and a few others declined my request for a blurb because I was still self-publishing.

Then I remembered Raymond Bechard and the friend connection.

Blood on the Tracks is about a rock and roll cold case in Detroit. By happy coincidence, a high school classmate became a session musician in Detroit. When I met her at our reunion, her escort was the former drummer from Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. She had been married to the drummer in a band fronted by Dick Wagner, who later played behind Lou Reed, Aerosmith, and a host of other stars. He also wrote many of the songs that became hits for Alice Cooper. Susie said I could drop her name into the discussion, so I asked Wagner, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Mark Farner (Who briefly played bass in Wagner's first band). Wagner, who had recently published his own rock and roll memoir, said sure.

Deborah Grabien also writes mysteries involving a musician.
She's one of only two strangers I've asked for a blurb.

He had serious health issues at the time, and he was preparing for what he probably thought would be his last tour. I dedicated the book to my classmate for all her help and published the book with Wagner's shout-out. Two days before I received my first copies so I could mail him one, Susie posted on Facebook that Dick's health problems caught up with him and he passed away.

That was the last time I asked someone for a blurb. Reviewers said a few nice things about me and spelled my name right, so I re-cycle those comments, too.

I don't get asked to write a blurb for anyone very often, but it always thrills me. 

Golly, someone actually thinks I'm famous.

21 December 2020

Report to the Shareholders


In 2020, I wrote 16 stories and sold seven. That's nothing compared to several other SleuthSayers, but it shows how I reinvented myself in the year of Covid and other misadventures. I received 14 rejections, too, which means I'm not submitting often enough. 

In spring of 2004, I was struggling with two different novels and heard that you could get attention from agents and publishers by selling a few short stories. I've always liked shorts, but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writers' Conference that summer. Alexander Chee, Roxanne Robinson and Chris Offutt gave me good advice and great writing prompts, so by year's end I submitted seven stories to various markets. None of them sold, but they taught me a new process. The following year, I wrote and submitted ten more stories. None of those sold, either, but each rewrite sucked a little less.

Between then and 2017, I only submitted 13 new stories, mainly because I sold my first novel late in 2009 and published it in 2010. By then, I had six or seven versions of various other novels on my hard drive. I sent some of the older stories out in revision (some sold), but I concentrated on those novels in various degrees of development.

Late in 2019, I published Words of Love, my 15th novel, and it changed my landscape. For the first time since 2003, I had neither a new idea nor an old manuscript loitering on the computer. My writing workshops earned more than my book sales, anyway.

Then came 2020. In late January, I had a minor traffic accident that aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck. My left arm went numb, and the ER doctors thought I'd had a minor stroke. They prescribed blood thinners, pain-killers and other meds for a month, then decided it wasn't a stroke after all. I'd said as much, but the drugs scrambled my concentration. I went off them at the end of February, but by then the pandemic was shutting us down and I had two workshops cancelled. I wrote a novella for a contest, but that was the only fiction I produced in the first half of the year. More about that in a minute (Like the foreshadowing?).

In March, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time (I hate reruns). Between April and July, I had eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in August. The chemo didn't give me the nausea I heard so much about, but my hairline is higher now, and my remaining silken silver locks are a lot thinner. I also have enough unused meds in the bathroom to stock a small CVS.

Fatigue and the new pills disrupted my thought process even more. By May, I didn't think I could plot out a novel again even if I had a decent idea, and it seemed clear that I had to write shorter.

So I did.

Since May, I have written 15 new stories, and the seven sales doubles my personal best for the year.

Between chemo treatments, I self-published a novella that won Honorable Mention for the Black.

Orchid Novella Award last December. Last week, I learned that the novella I wrote last spring earned Honorable Mention again for 2020. The announcement will appear in the Wolfe Pack newsletter, but I receive no certificate or any other proof of the honor. It won't even be mentioned in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which publishes the winner. Novellas are a hard sell, which is why I self-published last year's near-miss in July. Both other markets turned it down...

I also won my fourth Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Again, no money or publication, but I get an impressive certificate and I was recognized at this year's virtual New England Crime Bake, where I've appeared often enough so they know I pronounce my name with a long "O." Eventually, I sold all three of my previous winners, so this story should find a good home, too. 

Since I'm reinventing how I write, I've examined my output for this year much more carefully than I would have a few years ago.

Four of the sales were to anthologies, one a story I wrote in 2007 and another in 2009. Both those stories were fewer than 3000 words, short for me. Another story will appear in a bundle next year, and two stories became only the third and fourth I've sold on the first submission.

Excluding the novella, my average word length was about 4700 words, which didn't surprise me. For years, my comfortable length has been between 4K and 5K. That seems to be my attention span.

Three new stories are between 3K and 4K, seven are in my usual 4K to 5K, and two fall between 5K and 6K. One is over 7K, and the novella is not quite 17K.

All those stories involve a crime but only six of them involve someone solving a mystery. The others feature the protagonist getting away with something or deciding that justice has already been served. I don't describe myself as a noir writer, but many of my stories tilt in that direction.

It's been that kind of year, hasn't it?

I'm doing a desultory edit on a novel that received 50 rejections between 2006 and 2008. Five different agents asked for the full MSS and passed on it without explanation, but I think I finally figured out the problem. If I publish it, it will only be as an eBook.

I am working on two more short stories and one that feels like another novella.

If it gets to a point where it's not fun anymore, there's always piano.