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

13 September 2021

The Challenge of Exposition


If you write mysteries, you need to pass information to your readers. If your protagonist is a cop or private eye, this usually involves the victim or client explaining everything at the beginning. That's easy, but it involves flat telling with no tension, which means you have to jumpstart the action after laying the foundation. It's even more urgent in plays, where a static opening scene (think Chekhov, Ibsen, or lots of Shakespeare) means the actors have to start over again in scene 2.

All those scenes depend on a particular dynamic: one character has information the other one lacks, so the informed one explaining everything is logical even if it isn't very exciting. But there are better ways to do it.

You can start with ACTION instead of telling. Don Winslow opens California Fire & Life with the fire destroying an estate and burning a woman to death. That will be the focus of Jack Wade's insurance investigation. The play Extremities opens with a man attempting to rape a woman, who manages to blind him with a can of insecticide and set up the rest of the play. These actions grab the audience's attention more effectively than dialogue would.

If you can't use such extreme action, look at other ways to present dialogue. If two people are arguing about who is going to get Dad's old Chevy, it suggests that Dad won't be driving it any more. If a woman in a wedding gown and veil is sobbing to an older douple about "that slimy jerk," it's a fair guess that she's been dumped at the altar.

In both those cases, explanation will sound artificial. "Well, Diane, now that Dad is dead/incapacitated, one of us should take his classic '57 Impala, and it should be me because I love such cars" is what we call "As you know, Bob" dialogue. The characters both know what's going on and talk only for the sake of the audience instead of resolving an issue. My wife gave me the ultimate example years ago after doing a staged reading of several new plays: "I was talking to John, who is your brother."  We couldn't stop laughing.

The car and the abandoned bride illustrate what playwright Jeffrey Sweet calls "High-context exposition." When both characters have the information, they don't explain anything. They use jargon, context, and references to people or events the audience doesn't know yet. This immerses the audience/reader in the event so they gradually absorb what they need. "Low-context exposition," where someone lacks the necessary info, like the mystery sleuth, justifies more explicit backstory and explanation.

Steel Magnolias is not a great play (although it's a great acting vehicle for six women), but we get involved as the women name over 20 characters (mostly men) who never appear on-stage. The Cover of Life refers to three husbands who have been drafted during World War II and never show up, but we know about them from their wives. David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a Chinese restaurant with two men arguing about "leads," "closing," and other terms they never explain. Eventually, we figure out that they work in a real estate office. Since they're arguing, it adds energy to the scene and draws the audience in.



I tried to use that tactic in my novels. Run Straight Down opens with a shooting in an urban high school, and the teachers use their ed-speak and in-jokes to draw readers in as they watch the chaos. We join their world in small increments. There's a student teacher for when I need a larger explanation, too. 



The Whammer Jammers takes place in the world of roller derby, and my daughter, former captain of the Queen City Cherry bombs in Nashua, helped me develop questions so I could interview skaters, coaches, announcers, and boyfriends at matches in Connecticut. Scenes in the book involve practice sessions and bouts (matches) so the reader gets involved early. That was a lot of fun, too.


Using action or high-context exposition is harder to do, but it pays big dividends. You'll find ways to create more tension early on, which gives you something to build upon later. 

Your readers will love you for it.

30 August 2021

Where Do Characters Come From?


Last week, Barb Goffman talked about how your best characters are desperate. A character who doesn't want or need something  serves no purpose in your story except to drag things down. If nothing is at stake, why should we keep reading? 

Only days before Barb's post appeared, a friend at the health club (Yes, I have friends. I pay them.) asked me if I've used any real people in my stories. I said I had, but that he wouldn't recognize them.

Interviewing classmate, later to be Megan Traine

High school classmate Susie Kaine Woodman, whom I met at a reunion, inspired Megan Traine, the female protagonist in the Woody Guthrie series. I changed her appearance, but the important music details made her recognizable. She's the exception. Real people inspired characters in many of my other stories, but not as they really are.

A character is a combination of yourself, people you know, and stuff you make up. Someone told me once the ratio should be about 1/3 for each facet, but I disagree. I make up more details than I copy.

Using yourself helps you understand how a character might react to certain issues and situations, and you know your backstory and quirks. But nobody needs to know about 99% of that. Using yourself has two dangerous traps, too. First, you will take many details for granted and not explain them to readers even if they are important, which means the reader might not understand something. 

The other problem with a selfie character is that we often demonize people who disagree with us. If "We" are the hero, the villain becomes an ogre instead of a fully-developed foil or antagonist. I only use myself for a reality check. Would this situation shock or upset me? Would a particular injury handicap me (At my age, a hangnail is a major concern)? The character's reactions might be different, but would that be believable?

Somerset Maugham had a stammer. When he wrote Of Human Bondage, which was thinly-disguised autobiography, he gave his main character a club foot instead. I play guitar, but Woody Guthrie plays much better (We share musical tastes). It didn't occur to me until years after creating him, that he nearly lost his left leg in a shooting, and I blew out my left knee playing football. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into The Night is his own family, which explains why the play was not produced until after his death.

People you know, the second part of the equation, can include relatives, childhood friends, teachers or coaches, and colleagues from work. They can supply physical mannerisms, speech tics, and maybe quirky behavior. Be careful, though. Sinclair Lewis used people from his home town in Main Street, and they recognized his portrayal of them as narrow-minded idiots and wrote angry, and in some cases, even threatening letters. Change enough so the person won't see himself or herself. It also prevents lawsuits, which is another reason not to base a villain on someone you know.

If it won't affect the plot--or will enhance the conflict in some way--I change the character's gender. If that's not possible, give him or her a different hobby, or job. I gave one character glasses and another one became left-handed. Give a single person a spouse, or vice versa. Many of the real people I've used have been composites of two or three people, too. 

Made up details are best because that is where you can create what you really need. If your character struggles with guilt, it's better to make it up. Woody Guthrie survived a shoot-out as a cop--that leg injury I mentioned above--but his partner, who had a wife and two children, died. Guthrie met the widow and the kids, and his survivor guilt is part of what drives him as a PI.

Give your character a fear of heights, dogs, or speaking in public. Karin Slaughter's Will Trent has severe dyslexia that he tries to conceal from everyone else while finding ways to investigate cases. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an alcoholic. The protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke is a sex addict (Who doesn't see that as a problem).

I usually begin building a character with Barb's advice. She or he must desperately want or need something. It's life or death. Once I know what it is, I can explain why it's so important, and it's better to make that up, even if something in real life inspires it. If you can't manipulate a detail in service to the story, you need a different detail. 

The need builds the character because it dictates action and behavior. That drives the plot. I seldom describe characters in any detail. Readers won't remember the character's physical appearance unless she's seven feet tall or has six fingers on one hand, but they will remember that Megan Traine loves children because she miscarried several times, and the last time nearly killed her. 

Characters are looking for something that they think will make them "whole." That's why villains need money or power and why protagonists must fix a problem this time that they failed to fix before.

It all sounds so easy…

16 August 2021

Trash Talking: When Dialogue Goes Wrong


 by Steve Liskow

In the summer of 2004, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Converence. I'd written five unpublished novels in the 70s and thought one of them could still sell--if I could figure out how to fix a few problems. I began a completely new novel in the fall of 2003--actually a sequel to that long-buried MS--and sent the first two chapters to the conference for a critique. I was lucky because Chris Offutt looked at them. He turned out to be a terrific critic and mentor, and his fiction-writing class was packed.

We met over coffee and a Danish, and he held up my chapters.

"You write good dialogue," he said. "And you probably know it. That's both good and bad."

"I did a lot of theater," I told him. "Maybe that has something to do with it. Why is it bad?"

"Well," he said, "you know you write good dialogue, so you try to use it too much as if you're writing a play instead of a novel. But it can't carry the whole load in fiction. You need narration and description and exposition, too."

In theater, that usually means stage directions, set description, and lights or sound for mood. 

I remembered that conversation a few days ago while I pumped away on an elliptical trainer in front of a TV at my health club. A soap opera was on, and I don't follow soaps, so I don't know what it was. Eight or ten men and women were in the scene, all well-dressed, and ranging from  early 20s to about 50. From reading the subtitles, I figured out that one attractive young couple was going to marry soon, and the groom's mother, the older woman in the tasteful ensemble, had a history including enough dysfunction to serve in the Former Guy's cabinet. She arrived unbidden (like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty) and threw the meeting into a quandary. I couldn't decide if she was violating a restraining order or not.

The conversation among these people consisted of seven or eight sentences that they repeated over and over with a few variations. The older woman had some culpability in the deaths of two other people. Everyone else loathed her. I could tell by the gritted teeth and tight expressions in all the close-ups (Soaps love close-ups). The gist was "We don't want you here," and "I don't care. I had to come." There were vague references to past misdeeds, and if there had been any real content, I would have accused the writer of using "As you know, Bob," dialogue. Since no real information was passed, I guess it was OK. Except for one issue.


Even dialogue needs conflict

I was on that elliptical trainer for twenty minutes, and that conversation was in progress when I started. It lasted through two commercial breaks and finally concluded with the older man putting his arm around the mother's shoulders and firmly escorting her out. The exit happened thirty seconds before I finished my workout. 

Nothing was settled, nothing new was introduced or revealed, we got no characterization or backstory, but they filled most of a half-hour program. The dialogue was so artificial and unbelievable that none of the actors could do more than grimace or look stern, what my director buddies and I used to call "Actors' Studio Angst." The story may have to move slowly because the writers are only a few episodes ahead, but this was excruciating. 

Sometimes, actions say enough

In real life, the woman would have appeared, been told she was unwelcome, and either left or refused to do so. If she refused, a security guard would have removed her or someone would have dialed 911 and police would come to do the same. The dialogue would have used more vernacular, too.

This is the lesson Chris Offutt gave me. Sometimes, dialogue is the wrong choice, and when it is, you can't make it work. The scene would have been more effective with about 90% less talk and some mild physical action. That would also eliminate the talking head problem. 

"Clytemnestra tried to crash the pre-wedding supper, but Orestes kicked her out."

See how easy that is?

Dialogue is like everything else in your story. If it doesn't matter, it doesn't belong there.

An epilogue: The chapters I showed in 2004 went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. The book appeared in 2013 as Blood on the Tracks, with little except the basic premise and onc character name intact. The book I wanted to salvage also changed title three times, emerging as Postcards of the Hanging in 2014. Between them, the books received 162 rejections.

Thanks, Chris.

02 August 2021

If Once Is Good...


Early in my teaching career, a student handed in a composition that blew my socks off. It was by far the best work she produced all year, and the next day, I read it to the rest of the class. The day after that, three different female classmates all showed up with the same essay...copied from Judith Viorst in Redbook. I gave the writer the choice of writing another paper and taking a low grade for its lateness, or taking an outright zero. She wrote another paper, nowhere near as brilliant.

Years later, when I was more in touch with the student grapevine, I taught two senior English classes of "Low-level" students. That's EdSpeak for "Seriously challenged." Most of those 18-year-olds read at about sixth-grade level. Occasionally, someone would hand in a paper with brilliant imagery or a sophisticated extended metaphor. By then, the Internet existed, so I would type a particularly vivid line into the search field and find a rap lyric or hip-hop song on the first hit. After several months of calling kids out, I found fewer and fewer offenses. The word got around that the old guy in Room 240 had phat street cred, yo. 

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can come back to bite you. Copiers abound, some of the cases blatant to the verge of slapstick, but some more subtle.

We all know about Melania Trump's stealing from Michelle Obama's speech to nominate her husband (Because Barrack Obama and Donald Trump have so much in common, I guess).


Bob Dylan--long accused of recycling any lyric or lick that wasn't nailed down--allegedly stole part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the SparkNotes summary of Moby Dick. Joni Mitchell is only one of many who say Bob is the embodiment of the old dictum that if you steal from one person, it's plagiarism, but if you steal from everyone, it's research.

Dan Brown faced charges of stealing ideas from another novel for The Da Vinci Code, and J.K. Rowling encountered similar charges for elements in the Harry Potter series. J.R.R. Tolkien was accused of stealing elements of the Lord of the Rings from Wagner's Ring Cycle. This one strikes me as frivolous because, if you can't use the template for the Hero's Journey, most myths are off the table and Hollywood would be even more bereft of ideas than it seems already. So would novelists who use the same template. 

Emma Cline published The Girls in 2017, and her ex-boyfriend claimed she stole his emails for material. She denied it, but did admit to selling him a computer on which she had installed spyware, but only to find out if he was cheating on her. Really. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used Literary Hub and Powered by Orange for lots of the information I'm passing on here...

Bob Dylan isn't the only musician to recycle, of course. Many early rock and roll acts used riffs or lyrics from earlier songs and even from each other. Some lines appear in many blues songs, and some rock riffs are part of the vocabulary because everyone uses them. Chuck Berry modified figures from Robert Johnson, Elmore James and several other blues poineers, and they were picked up by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and almost anyone who has plugged in since then.

Some borrowing is too blatant, though. Led Zeppelin shares writing credit with Chester Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") for "The Lemon Song," which Burnett recorded years earlier with similar lyrics as "Killin' Floor."


In one of the most astonishing verdicts ever, Led Zepp was acquitted of stealing the introduction of "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's earlier "Taurus." The two bands toured together, and the members of Spirit claimed that Jimmy Page copied Randy California's guitar part note-for-note. In Page's defense, I've heard that he couldn't read music, which meant he had to have a fantastic memory. He might have remembered the notes and not realized he was copying.

No, I don't buy it either. Listen to Spirit's song on YouTube, beginning about 45 seconds in, and decide for yourself. Zepp also now shares writing credit with Memphis Minnie for "When the Levee Breaks." "Dazed and Confused" appears on Led Zeppelin II, but first surfaced on a late Yardbirds album as a reworking of a song written and performed by Jake Holmes.

The Rolling Stones usually gave credit to the people whose songs they covered: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, et al. The Let It Bleed LP correctly credits Robert Johson with writing "Love In Vain," but a two-volume collection of Rolling Stones songs published in 1980 gives the byline to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Oops. "Gaucho" bears the byline Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and Keith Jarrett because the first two used a Jarrett piano line for their Steely Dan recording. 

My favorite music story concerns George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." He paid $400,000 for "unintentionally" copying the three-note figure from "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons. I don't think three notes is enough to call it copying, but maybe that's just me. I don't hear the copying, either. In any case, years later, Harrison purchased the publishing company that held the rights to "He's So Fine." Not long after that, the Chiffons recored a cover version of "My Sweet Lord."

What goes around, comes around...

19 July 2021

The Changing Landscape


Fifteen years ago, I could send my stories to about thirty potential markets. A few were literary, some were supernatural or sci-fi, a couple were romance. Most of my work was crime/mystery, but I had those other options.

Many of those markets are gone now. The landscape changes more quickly than we can keep track of it, especially since the pandemic, but keep track of it we must.

I currently have at least one submission at each of the mystery markets that still takes stories year-round. I have stories ready to send to the markets that open sporadically, too. I used to write a novel and three or four short stories a year, but, in the last year, I have produced twenty-three short stories and no new ideas for a novel. The changing market is a factor, and I've started paying attention to the territory more than the map.

Fifteen years ago, if I got an idea for a short story--which didn't happen often--I wrote it and looked for a place to send it because there were so many potential markets. Now, I look at the markets and submission calls first and use those submission calls as writing prompts.

Yes, I'm looking for novella markets, too, even though I only write one novella a year, and that's for a contest I have won twice. Are there more anthologies now, or am I simply paying more attention?

In the last year, I have sold twelve stories, five still due to be published. Ten of those twelve sales are to anthologies.

Anthologies often have a specific theme, the idea that I use as a prompt. Last year, one story appeared in Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, about love gone bad.

Another was in Mickey Finn: 21st-Century Noir. A third ws in The Killer Wore Cranberry, a collection of humorous murder stories involving Thanksgiving. There is at least one Christmas anthology looking for material, and one of my unsold stories was rejected by another holiday collection.

I've always been able to write fairly quickly to a prompt. It's no different from the years of essay tests in high school and college, expecially grad school.

But there's another reason I'm paying more attention to anthologies now, too. Time for a brief history lesson.

When the Mystery Writers of America added short stories as an Edgar Award category in 1951, the award went to the best collection of short stories for the year. In 1955, an individual story won for the first time, Stanley Ellin's "The House Party," which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Before the mid-1970s, "mainstream" magazines often printed the Edgar-winner. The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker, and McCall's all featured a winning story, some of them several times. So did Argosy, Esquire, and Story. Between 1976 and 1998, Playboy published four of the Award-winners, three of them written by Lawrence Block.

After about 1975, the winners seldom appeared in mainstream publications and tended to show up in magazines that catered to the mystery reader. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine printed the earliest individual story to win, and has published 21 winners since then. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has published three.

The terrain took another shift at the turn of the century. Since 2000, Ellery Queen has published three Edgar winners, but all the others come from an anthology or a collection of stories by one author (Laurie Lynn Drummond in 2005 and Stephen King in 2016). For mystery writers, this is both good news and bad news.

It's bad news because anthologies usually don't pay much. Generally, the author gets a royalty share divided by the number of writers in the collection. Last year, I made $3.08 from one anthology. Most anthologies don't sell many copies, either, so when you divvy up the take, there's not much to go around.

One glaring exception is the Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance, published in 2012. I received a roylty check last December, and that story– nominated for an Edgar but losing to Karin Slaughter's story in the same collection– has made me more money than all except two other stories, and they both won contests. My story appeared between the covers with stories by Alafair Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and other big names. It's the best exposure I've had since Border's Books went under. The local store displayed mysteries alphabetically, so my novels were on the same shelf with Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and Laura Lippman. Man, I miss that store…

Exposure matters. Yeah, it's hard to pay the bills with exposure, but it beats being a complete unknown.

Some new anthology calls lean toward my music background. Over the last couple of years, we've ssen books of stories inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, the Ramones, or hits from the 1960s. There are more music-themed collections taking submissions as I post this. Now maybe I can write off all those records I've bought as a business expense.

Yes, you have to hear abut the submission call somehow. Maybe you're in a writing group (Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example. Rob Lopresti is the reigning President) that passes the word along. Maybe you're Facebook friends with someone or on a blog site.

The MWAS anthologies have produced the Edgar-winning story four times since 2002. But you have to be an active member of the group to submit a story. The Akashic NAME YOUR CITY Noir series, now numbering several dozen books, is by invitation only. This may be true of many others, too.

But as anthologies proliferate, they give me more writing prompts. Not only are ten of my last twelve sales to anthologies (including next year's MWA collection, Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan), but I have sent five other stories to submission calls. And I'm working on two others.

05 July 2021

Back in the Saddle




by Steve Liskow

 I used to conduct several writing workshops during the course of the year. My normal venue was libraries, moving to a couple of local writing retreats after Connecticut cut library budgets. The pandemic killed those workshops, too. Now, as more people get vaccinated, events are opening up again, some live and some remaining online.


I prefer live events because I like connecting with the audience. It's much easier to have a question and answer session live than online because you don't have to mute or unmute several people. It's easier to conduct writing activities and distribute handouts (I like handouts) or write on an easel for everyone to see. I can sell books, too.


In two weeks, I will join another crime writer for an online workshop through a library. We batted ideas around a few days ago and will have another phone session later this week. We want to come up with a coherent handout and some activities the participants can do online instead of merely listening to an hour-long lecture (Shudder...), but it's still going to be less interactive than a live show. I will hold up one of my books and encourage people to order it. So much for promotion.

What concerns me most is that the audience gets its money's worth. Some people may not figure out how to navigate Zoom, and others may show up late. Several may be the passive TV audience my theater friends and I used to carp about at intermission when we hadn't heard a response through the entire first act. 

When I taught drama, I gave my students a handout on theater etiquette, and I'm modifying it only slightly here for people attending a workshop or reading.

1.  Know what you've signed up for. We are crime writers discussing a pre-chosen topic, so don't ask us about poetry, memoir, or how to set up your website.

2. Show up on time. I once conducted a 90-minute workshop where a man arrived 25 minutes late. When I finished, he wanted me to re-cap what he'd missed. I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home ahead of me, so I declined. Ironically, when he reviewed the workshop, he complained that I didn't discuss the very topics he missed by being late.

3. If you're online, mute yourself except to ask questions. If you're live, silence your phone.

4. Feel free to ask questions. Questions show me where I need to be clearer or more specific if I do the same presentation again. Make your question a question and not an editorial. 


5. I like to provide hand-outs at my workshops, but please don't ask for extras. The libary prints up as many copies as there are people who signed up for the event, or I bring that exact number with me. I don't bring extras, and some of them need explanation anyway. If your friend wanted one, he should have joined you so I could answer HIS questions, too.

6. If you're going to comment on my looks or fashion sense, do it out of my earshot.

7. Try to find it in you heart to buy a book. Or, better yet, persuade the librarian to buy one for the library so other people can find out about me. Yes, I DO take credit cards.

8. I distribute bookmarks and business cards. They list my website, and the bookmarks have my novels listed on the back. If you don't want them, give them back or to the librarian so he or she can put them on display. Don't simply drop them under your chair so somebody has to pick them up after you leave.

9. Feel free to come up afterwards to say hello or buy a book. But use a little tact or common sense. Years ago, I was selling my first roller derby novel at a roller derby bout, and a man suggested that I write a book about some other topic. I don't remember what that topic was, but I asked if he'd buy it. He told me he didn't read. I had several responses on the tip of my tongue, but I restrained them. I did kill the guy off in a later book, though.


I love writing. I love doing workshops and meeting people even more. Especially the nice ones.

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?


Remember when you started dating? I was shy in high school, and talking to girls was much harder than any test I ever took in a classroom. Except physics.

If I could get beyond the first few sentences– throw the first strike, so to speak– I'd be all right. It took me a long time to get those first few sentences down, though.

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

We all have a list of our favoirte opening lines, and we probably agree on many of them. The first few lines of a story or novel are crucial because they need to make the reader keep reading. That's even more important now than it was years ago because we have so many other distractions. If someone doesn't like your book– which he's reading on his phone– he'll switch to email or social media, and you're gone.

Openings should accomplish several things.

Getting the reader's attention is first, of course, but there are other concerns, too.

An opening should establish the ground rules, how the writer is telling the story and how the reader should make sense of it. That means showcasing the style, especially the tone, mood, and point of view. It should introduce the protagonist and antagonist as soon as possible. If the story is in first-person, it's reasonable to assume that the narrator is the protagonist.

The opening should introduce the basic conflict or problem. If it doesn't do that, at least give the impression that something is "wrong," a dissonance that will become important as we keep reading.

That's a lot to demand of a few words, isn't it? Look at how some writers accomplish all these thngs.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

John D. MacDonald sets a tone to open Darker Than Amber. He implies a setting (If there's a bridge, we're near water, so maybe the narrator is fishing. At any rate, he and his companions are outdoors.). We wonder who dropped the girl and why he did it. MacDonald has given us the basic mystery and conflict.

"I poisoned your drink."

This is how Duane Swierczynski introduces "The Blonde." We are probably in a bar, and the conflict is clear. The narrator wants to live, so he (presumably a male) needs the antidote. Who is this blonde, and why has she poisoned this particular person? Curious? I know I am.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe, Madeline Miller's retelling of The Odyssey, begins with these words. We wonder what particular word Circe has in mind… and who coiined it. We know The Odyssey, so we expect certain other characters to appear eventually, too.

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan probably begins on an airplane. Why is the flight attendant crying? Is the plane going to crash? The tone makes me want to know more about the person who phrases the observation this way, too.

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

This is from my own The Whammer Jammers. We know what kevlar is, so Hendrix is a police officer. He's worn kevlar before and now he's facing a dangerous situation, maybe a raid? Notice that the last two examples are in present tense, too.

MacDonald's book appeared in 1966 and Miller's only three years ago. Some things don't change.

Your opening should begin to set up your ending, too. That's easier than it sounds. If you're writing a romance, your reader already expects that the lovers will end up together. If you're writing a mystery, we expect to find a solution. If you can put a clue in immediately, that's even better because your reader may overlook it while she or he is getting used to the rules of engagement. Sometimes, you can repeat a line or phrase from the beginning at the end to give structural closure, too, like finishing a song on the tonic. 

All the examples I gave are opening sentences, but the "brilliant first sentence" quest may be a trap. DO NOT use a gimmick. Readers will catch you and feel manipulated. They won't like it and they'll stop reading. A gimmick makes it hard to move on without a jarring shift. 

Instead of obsessing over one great line, give yourself a paragraph or even a page to get things rolling. If you can suggest that there's trouble in River City, you're fine. The characters and setting will help you show more and find your rhythm and tone. 

The best advice I can give is to open your first draft whenever and wherever you want. Tell your story. When you know the plot, setting, and characters more fully, you can find the best way in. Then go back and rewrite your opening when you know the best place to start. My last revision and polish is usually on the opening when I have everything else in place. When I'm finding my way, I often write lots of back-story at the beginning, too. I will cut or move most of it when I revise, but it gives me direction. 

Go back and look at my title and opening paragraph. See what I did?

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.