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

09 July 2018

DCS (Dumb Cop Syndrome)

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I was critiquing a manuscript and found myself making the same comments over and over.

"Check Police Procedure."   "Check Crime Scene Procedure."  "Check Legalities."

The story was a thriller that relied heavily on two homicide detectives as supporting characters because they suspected the protagonist of a series of murders. That's been done before, and it still works...if you make the details believable. Unfortunately, the writer seemed to base her knowledge of police procedure on Mack Sennett films and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

Maybe the idea of the dumb cop started with Lestrade, the bumbling Scotland Yard officer in the Sherlock Holmes series, or the ineffectual Surete officer in Poe's stories starring C. Auguste Dupin, both of whom would make a rag doll look smart.

Remember the Keystone Cops? Lots of running and jumping and high-speed chases, but not much to show for it. The police in the early Hardy Boys books had names that showed they were the comic relief: Detective Smuff (I almost wrote "Smurf"), for example, and Chief Collig. They both exhibited epic laziness and slightly less impressive stupidity, but little else. They needed the teenagers to drag them in the right direction and hand them the solution to the case they didn't want to investigate in the first place.

Alas, the trope of the dumb cop has become a tradition more admired in the breach than in the observance. Too many contemporary stories still portray the police as idiots, and I stop reading when I encounter the first instance in a MS. Sometimes, I continue reading and suspect that these guys will turn out to be working with the bad guys. That still happens a lot, too, and it's legit if you do it well. But I will only keep reading if the writing up to that point is good. If the prose and the hackneyed idea seem to be a matched set, Sayonara Kid, have a nice day.

If the power of your story comes from the strength of your antagonist, it's no less true of the police as supporting characters. If they are going to be adversaries, major or minor, make them worthy ones. If they overlook major clues, contaminate crime scenes, fail to follow up on conflicting testimony and perform illegal searches, they undermine both your plot and your credibility. Your protagonist deserves better.

If the police are this stupid, how brilliant does your sleuth have to be to solve the case for them (See Holmes and Dupin, above)?

Remember the film version of The Fugitive with Harrison Ford? Tommy Lee Jones was the cop pursuing him after the train wreck, and I wouldn't have wanted him chasing me. Jones was smart, thorough, patient and funny. He looked at everything and missed nothing. We hear his admiration when Kimble (Ford) jumps off the dam into the roiling water hundreds of feet below to escape his pursuers. He even gets a funny sidekick who asks, "Can we go home now?"

He kept his mind open and recognized more and more evidence suggesting that maybe Richard Kimble didn't kill his wife. And he helped the innocent man clear himself.

Jones's character strengthens the story in several ways. First, he adds another layer of tension because Kimble is caught between two forces, the strong and capable law enforcement officers and the hidden evil of the real killer. He gives the story more credibility, too. If a smart cop like this guy thought Kimble was guilty, the evidence that convicted him had to be pretty damning, didn't it? That strengthens the real killer again. Kimble, an escaped convict looking at a death sentence, still doesn't kill anyone to escape, and that makes him look more noble, too.

Imagine how different the story would be if Detective Smuff or the Keystone Cops were on the case.

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)

by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.

I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

28 May 2018

School's Out...A Belated Thank You

by Steve Liskow

Many of my Sleuthsayers colleagues are or were also teachers, and as the school year winds down with proms, exams and commencements, it seems like a good time to remember those people who got me to where I am.

 We hear about test scores and teacher evaluation and lots of other concepts, so it's easy to forget that the basic goal is to help students learn more and better so they can become responsible adults. Teachers don't make a lot of money and their popularity is always fickle (especially in America, where they've been political whipping posts for as long as I can remember), but they wield enormous impact. I retired fifteen years ago next month, and about seventy former students are now Facebook friends (We get along better now that they don't have to laugh at my jokes). A few even read my books.

For years, I claimed that the teacher mattered less than the student's drive to learn, maybe even aided and abetted by his or her parents. I still think that test scores are a bogus way to measure a teacher's worth. My belief stems from having several mediocre teachers along the way but two well-read and decisive parents whose DNA included a strong work ethic.

But now I remember the handful of excellent teachers vividly and the others are a generic blur, and it's changed my opinion.

My first really good teacher, June Roethke, was the sister of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she taught ninth-grade English at South Intermediate School. Miss Roethke ("RETT-key") cared nothing about self-esteem or understanding her students, and most of us had nightmares when we learned that we would be in her class. She made us keep a loose-leaf notebook exclusively for her class, divided into homework, vocabulary, reading, grammar, spelling, and several other sections I no longer remember. She mandated that we open the rings at the beginning of class and leave them that way because she didn't want to hear that infernal clacking for the next hour.

She read us poetry and made us memorize poems to recite to the class (I learned "The Glove and the Lions" by Leigh Hunt). She would berate us for a wrong answer in discussion. She divided the room into teams and asked arcane grammar questions (I didn't know an appositive is always in the same case as the word with it is in apposition until I guessed wrong in front of my henchmen) to earn extra credit on a quiz. She demanded that we all be better than we dared to dream we could ever be. After surviving her class, I have yet to learn anything new about American grammar. Because I got a "B" (Her last reported "A" was reportedly when MacArthur  signed the treaty with Japan), I was placed in honors English in high school even though I didn't sign up for it.

Sophomore year gave me three great teachers. Edith Jensen retired after teaching me biology, and she was even tougher than Miss Roethke. The week before exams, she told me in front of the class that I had a solid "B" average, which would excuse me from taking the exam (Most teachers liked the chance to grade fewer papers), but she told me I had to take it anyway. Old mimeographed handouts and charts and worksheets lay all around the room, and I took them all to complete again. When the diagrams of crayfish, frogs, and the heart turned out to be the bulk of the exam, I finished fifteen minutes before anyone else. I put the paper on her desk and walked back to my seat, turning back just in time to see her wink at me. I never told anyone because I knew they wouldn't believe me.

Sharon Hunter, a history major and English minor, became my honors English teacher in 1962, and made us use writing prompts and what is now called "free-writing" and peer editing a decade before anyone else even mentioned it. Miss Roethke taught me correctness, but Ms (Actually, she was still "Mrs.") Hunter helped me find my own writing voice. She called me "Step-on" just to bust my chops--which she did to everyone else, too, because she had no favorites. I think we all suspected that we were her favorite, though, and we all loved her back...or at least, didn't give her too much grief.

Rose Marie (Mudd) Nickodemus was a direct descendant of the Doctor Mudd who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg. She and Mrs. Hunter were young and attractive in a school with an average faculty age of somewhere around the half-life of U235. I had a terrible time in algebra, repeating the class in summer school, but Mrs. Nickodemus, who taught plane geometry, knew that some of us could visualize better than others and urged us to use colored pencils or soda straws to construct the figures in our proofs and move them around to test our ideas. Without knowing it (Maybe...), she also gave me the basis for the five-paragraph essay form nobody would talk about until years later, too.

Marjory Jacobson, who had a PhD in math from the Sorbonne, taught me first-year French in eleventh grade. she insisted you don't know a language until you think in it, and made us define the vocabulary words in French even though we were starting from scratch. A Saginaw Michigan native like me, she'd lived in France long enough to teach us idioms the textbook omitted. For example, always refer to a girls as a "JEUNE fille" (YOUNG girl) because a "fille" was a streetwalker. Imagine a group of sixteen-year-olds reacting when she dropped that one on us. Fifteen years after taking her class, I could read the French portions of Mann's The Magic Mountain well enough to get the substance if not the nuance.

Senior year, I had Don McPhee for trig and solid geometry, not long before he left to become the math chair at a nearby community college. Brilliant, patient, and hilarious, he wrote a foot-tall "E" on the wall to the left of the chalkboard to remind us that "left" was "east" when we plotted coordinates on graphs. Round;faced and balding with Clark Kent glasses, he divided the class into groups of five for the second semester and made us teach each other solid geometry. He visited each group every day or two to monitor us and clear up confusion, but he showed us that we understood the material well enough to stand on our own. Without his help, I doubt that I could have passed physics, presented by a teacher who should have retired before I was born.

I left high school planning to be a dentist, but hated my first year. Half-way through my sophomore year, I considered switching to English because Miss Roethke and Mrs. Hunter showed me I could handle it. Later on, I stole the peer teaching and writing prompts from them. I borrowed the three-dimensional (now called "learning modalities") from Mrs. Nickodemus and Mr. McPhee, and the high standards from Mrs. Jacobsen and Miss Jensen. What was left, I worked out myself. There wasn't much.
Arthur Hill High School, my alma mater

I graduated in 1965 and left Michigan for Connecticut two years later. Two of those teachers retired by the time I moved, and I know four had passed away when I returned for my reunion in 2000. If the other two are still alive, they're nearly 80.

But they aren't really dead as long as I remember what they gave me.

I wish I could tell them that I hope some of my students think of me the way I've come to think of them.

14 May 2018

Seeing Eye To Ear

by Steve Liskow

When I was young, I wanted to play piano but my parents wouldn't drive me across town to my great aunt's house to practice on her Steinway baby grand. They let me study violin instead, and I quit after one year. Years later when the British Invasion hit, I was one of thousands of guys who saw girls go crazy over the Beatles. In 1966, I spent twenty-five dollars on a Stella Harmony guitar with strings thicker than coat hanger wire and set about cultivating terrible technique and a crop of blisters.



Since then, I've bought, sold or traded at least twenty guitars and a half dozen amplifiers. Right now, I own five guitars, two of which are for sale. Around the Millennium, I bought a used Roland keyboard and have wasted lots of time and a little money on books that promised to turn me into the next Glenn Gould, Otis Spann or Dave Brubeck. None of them did.


A few months ago, I saw a series of DVDs on playing piano at a ludicrously low price and decided to bet on one more losing hand. Surprise, the videos are excellent. After watching the first three, I understand the keyboard and music theory better than I ever have before. Piano gives you a fuller understanding of what is going on in a song because you play two separate lines. It's changing how I look at and hear the guitar, too.

The old blues players often used alternate guitar tunings, which I avoided until I bought a resonator guitar and started playing slide more often. Different tunings change the sound of a chord you've heard for years, and it forces you to think about what those tones mean. I'll never be great on either guitar or piano, but I'm thinking a lot more about what I'm doing.

Looking at your writing from a different perspective can have the same effect.

In 2005, I wrote a short story featuring Woody Guthrie (under a different name) and Megan Traine and a rock band. It was a complicated story and one of my friends commented that he had trouble keeping all the characters straight. The story was almost 7000 words long, which meant few markets would look at it, and when I cut characters and words, the whole thing became incoherent. I ran out of places to send it, and it languished on a floppy disc for about four years.

In 2009, someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Among other requirements, entries had to be between 15 and 20 thousand words. Could I expand that short story into a novella and introduce the large cast more gradually?

Over the next four days, I added nine thousand words and nothing felt padded! I'd never considered writing a novella because at that time the market was non-existent. But now I had one on my hands and I sent it out. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2010. I was so used to thinking "short story" that I couldn't see it was really a novella waiting for its growth spurt.

A few years later, something felt wrong near the end of a WIP and I couldn't figure out what it was. I swapped manuscripts with another writer, who suggested that I change the point of view in one of the last scenes. Both characters had POV scenes throughout the book, so the change was feasible. It also made the ending much stronger. Someone with more distance could see that right away.

The Whammer Jammers introduces Hartford detectives Tracy "Trash" Hendrix and Jimmy Byrne exploring the world of roller derby. I interviewed skaters, referees, coaches, boyfriends, announcers, spectators, and Hartford police officers before I developed an outline and started writing. After about sixty pages, I felt like I was hip-deep in quicksand.

That night, I watched a baseball game on TV, the announcers giving the play-by-play in present tense, the way they always do. It dawned on me that Roller Derby is a sport, so what if I went back and changed the book from past tense to present? Bingo. I finished the rough draft in six weeks.

I did lots of research for what I thought would be the third Woody Guthrie novel, too. The more I played with it, the more it felt like it would work better with Zach Barnes in Connecticut. From there, it evolved into a police procedural with Trash and Byrne again. Once I have an outline, I usually produce eight or ten pages a day, but this beast needed three weeks to reach page fifty. I put it aside for a month, and when I looked at it again, I saw that two crucial premises actually contradicted each other. Oops. I recycled about half the characters into The Kids Are All Right, a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

When you revise, you become more committed to what you already have on paper. You tweak, but you don't rebuild. Looking at it from a different angle helps you see other possibilities. What if the other person is the main protagonist? What if you try it as a comedy instead? Should you expand that short story? Could it become a play, or maybe even a screenplay?

Going back to music for a minute, I remember Leonard Bernstein discussing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and saying that the original opening, the da-da-da-DUM, included a flute in the score. Beethoven, one of music's great revisers, realized that a flute didn't belong in that "strong masculine utterance" (Bernstein's words, not mine) and removed it.

Learn from the masters. And maybe pick a different instrument.

30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain

by Steve Liskow


By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.

It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.


As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.

16 April 2018

Two (Or Three, Or Four) Trains Running

by Steve Liskow

Back when I started reading grown-up mysteries like Ed McBain and Rex Stout, their books weren't much longer than the Hardy Boys books I'd recently left behind. If I pick up one of those books now, they feel very linear. We go from point A to point B, C, D and so on and eventually we can predict the next bead on the string. Maybe that's why some of the heroes of mystery who started in pulp could churn them out so quickly. Even if they offered surprises along the way, they built the stories on one logical progression.

Today's stories, especially bestsellers and blockbuster thrillers, are much longer, and new writers often complain to me that they can't come up with enough events to go on that long.

Use subplots.

Subplots spread the workload among characters and help with pacing by changing the point of view. They can help you hide information, too. One character discovers something, but he can't tell someone else right away. This builds tension because the reader knows something the Good Guy doesn't.
 
Subplots work best if they connect to the main theme of your novel. That helps you create a unified story instead of a bunch of different strands the don't have much to do with each other. Random stuff risks ending up like Boccaccio's Decameron, a hundred stories you can put in any order and they won't affect anything else.

In The Whammer Jammers, I focused on subplots because all my research on roller derby (My daughter
was Captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire) showed me there was more to the sport than chicks on wheels. When I started my interviews, I had no plot idea, but talking with a squadron of intelligent, funny, and very together women inspired several characters who demanded stage time.

The main plot follows Tracy "Trash" Hendrix, suspended from the Hartford Police Department after shooting a suspect. He's hired to do security for a roller derby team. He didn't even know the sport still existed (I didn't either), but he admires the women's supporting each other to do more and better. That came from my research, where several women told me they were more self-confident and assertive at work because of the encouragement and affirmations they gained from hanging with strong friends.
My subplots all involve female empowerment. Annie Rogers, AKA "Annabelle Lector," is trying to break up with an abusive boyfriend, and two other skaters, divorce lawyer "Roxie Heartless" and social worker "Tina G. Wasteland," help her file a restraining order to break the cycle of abuse. Danny Keogh, a local contractor, sponsors the team and helps organize a fund-raiser for a local women's shelter. He's also romancing a skater who works at a bank. Bad guys plan to stage a riot at the derby event to distract police while they rob that same bank. Even though the separate threads involve different characters, they have a common denominator and resolve together at the end of the book.



Who Wrote the Book of Death? uses connected subplots, too. Zach Barnes agrees to protect Beth Shepard from death threats. He soon learns that Beth is the stand-in for a man who writes bodice-ripper romances under the pseudonym "Taliesyn Holroyd," and she appears at events because people expect a romance writer to be female. Both Beth and Barnes are recovering from trauma: Beth was raped in college and never reported it, and Barnes was a police officer whose pregnant wife died in his arms after a traffic accident.
He started drinking and lost his badge. Beth and the male writer bring up identity issues, and the stalker targeting Beth seems to use disguises, too. Barnes and Beth become lovers, as do Svetlana (Barnes's associate) and Jim Leslie, the real writer.

Simple, huh?

Seriously, plotting takes me a long time because I try to work subplots with supporting characters into the mix, but it deepens those characters. Now I carry certain issues along with each series. Zach and Beth have appeared in five books so far, and now they own a house together. Trash Hendrix and his partner Jimmy Byrne ("Trash & Byrne") now appear in two roller derby novels and are supporting characters in several Barnes books. They also appear in the fourth Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Woody and his companion Megan Traine are divorced 40-somethings who play music and are trying to find variations on their previous Bad Love Blues.

Some concerns recur as subplots in several of my stories. I don't know if that's because of my own personal peccadilloes or whether I hardwired them into the characters. Probably some of both.

How do you use subplots?

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains

by Steve Liskow

Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

19 March 2018

Genre-ly Speaking

by Steve Liskow

When I retired from teaching and returned to writing after a hiatus of over twenty years, I found myself turning to crime fiction without a second's thought. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, and most of the other golden age writers, and I grew up on The Hardy Boys, so it made sense to me.

On the other hand, my theater cronies knew me only as an English teacher with three graduate degrees, and they kept asking "why mysteries?" They obviously thought I should be producing something "more serious," which I guess meant "literary."

Many people still look down at mysteries and romance as something you scrape off your shoe, but I don't know why. Keep in mind that the idea of genre or non-genre writing is a fairly new distinction. I'm too lazy to research, but I'd guess that it began either between the two world wars or after World War II. Book stores began sorting the books to guide customers to their preferences. I'm sorry about that because you never know what you'll find if you dig through everything instead of just what you'd ordinarily read. I still remember my ninth-grade teacher chiding a classmate for reading only books about basketball. With a straight face, she urged him to try football or baseball, too. Most of us got her point.

As for the larger issue, I think it was Samuel Johnson who first said that only a blockhead writes for something other than money, which means that you want to produce something that will sell enough to make your effort worthwhile. If it happens to survive beyond the first press run, that's even better. A good story will last, and those are the books that used to show up in school. We teach or taught very few books that didn't sell because if they didn't sell, they didn't survive. The Great Gatsby is a notable exception. Several years after Fitzgerald's death, his publisher found over half the original first press run sitting in a warehouse, some twenty years after the original lukewarm reviews.

Between 1970 and 2003, I taught all levels of tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade English at two high schools and a community college. We updated the curriculum at least three times during that stint, and all these books appeared in classes at one time or another. We generally called them classics then even though some were contemporary. Look how many are really mysteries, sci-fi, romance, or westerns.



A good story is always a good story. So there.

Sherman Alexie:  Reservation Blues                       Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
John Ball:  In the Heat of the Night                         Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights                            Albert Camus: The Stranger
Truman Capote:  In Cold Blood                              Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekhov: The Sea Gull                                Alice Childress: Wedding Band
Kate Chopin:  The Awakening                               Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident
Robert Cormier: After the First Death, The Chocolate War
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Open Boat"
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Euripides: The Bacchae                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, "A Rose for Emily"
Charles Fuller: A soldier's Play, Zooman and the Sign
Edith Hamilton: Mythology                                   Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Castorbridge
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the 7 Gables, "Young Goodman Brown"
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller          Franz Kafka: The Trial, "Metamorphosis"
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining
Jerzy Kosinski: Steps, The Painted Bird, Being There
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird                       Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur
Jerome Laurence & Robert E. Lee: Inherit The Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Babbitt
Carson McCullers; The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible
Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye            George Orwell: 1984, "Politics & English Language"
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country               Mario Puzo: The Godfather
Eric Maria Von Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Jack Schaeffer: Shane                                      Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Antigone
William Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's             Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of       Venice  (During my theater career, I acted in productions of Hamlet, Midsummer, Much Ado,             Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Directed versions of Dream, Much Ado,         Merchant, 12 Night, and ran lights for a production of Macbeth)
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice & Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels              Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-5, Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House
Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men             Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence
August Wilson: Fences                                    Owen Wister: The Virginian
Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son

For good measure, we had the Bible in a history of religions course, too, and that covers pretty much every genre all by itself. People who look down their noses at genre miss the point. I wonder how much enjoyment they really get from reading...if they actually do any of it.

26 February 2018

To Pay or Not to Play...

by Steve Liskow

A contest I used to enter regularly (It was free, see below) now sports the following headline on its web page: "Submissions for the 2017 **** Contest are closed. The 2018 contest will open on January 1, 2018." Today is February 26 and that banner was still there when I uploaded this essay.

Yesterday, I found a website for a magazine with exactly the same message. Their submission period will open "sometime after January 1, 2018."

Not encouraging...

When I was trying to break into publishing (An accurate phrase for a crime writer, right?), people urged me to enter contests. If I won, I'd catch the attention of editors and agents, and they'd take me more seriously.


But not all contests and awards are created equal. Winning a Pulitzer, an Agatha or an Edgar means something. Second runner-up in the Oblivion County Limerick Derby won't raise many eyebrows.

There are a few problems every writer encounters in writing contests--or even submitting to a magazine or anthology--but I've learned to recognize warning signs.

One is a website that's hard to navigate, or that's out of date, like the two I mentioned above. If you can't find details like a theme, length, formatting, or if there's an entry fee (more about that in a few minutes), you should look elsewhere.

Another is weird judging or criteria.
Yes, no matter how much the judges have a rubric, at some point personal preference will come into play. Every time you send something out, subjectivity is a fact of life, but it should be less crucial in a contest than for regular publication...especially if you pay an entry fee. You won't know this until it's too late, but don't make the same mistake twice.

One judge doesn't like profanity, another doesn't appreciate your humor, and a third wants more violence or a sympathetic female character. I have withdrawn stories from two anthologies (Both later published somewhere else) because I discovered the judges didn't understand their own criteria.

I added one sentence to one story to make it fit a theme, and on a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high) the three judges gave me 1, 3, and 4 on how well I adhered to that theme. Not possible. 

In another contest, the sponsors sent me my scores and I saw ratings of 56, 94, and 89. Two judges loved the story and the other gave me low scores on almost every standard. The judge who gave me a 94 total only gave me a 1 (out of 5) for relative quality of the story compared to the others he or she read. Really?

I've mentioned cost a because I'm cheap. If the submission involves a reading fee, look at the prize. I won't pay $25 for a $100 prize. I enter few contests that involve reading fees anymore. There has to be a good return, meaning at least two of the following: money, exposure, prestige.

I avoid one contest because it published the deal-breaker right up front. They offered a $250 prize (not bad) with a $20 reading fee (ummm...) BUT the judges reserved the right to award no prize if they felt on entry deserved it. Nothing was said about refunding the fees.

Oops.

Yeah, I still enter a few contests, but now I need a Plan B, other places I can send a story if it doesn't win. Last summer, I sent a story to an anthology. It wasn't chosen, so I entered it in a contest with a hefty cash prize. I learned last week that it didn't win and sent it to two regular markets. I have three other places to send it if neither of those pick it up.

Prestige is nice, and so is exposure, but in the words of Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?

by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.