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

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension

by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.




But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…

29 October 2018

I'm Only Fakin' It

by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, one of my favorite writing workshop venues announced that they're offering a four-week class in songwriting to start in November. It required no knowledge of music (Always a plus in my case), but said voices and instruments were welcome. How many of each will show up is an intriguing question--I love synecdoche-- but I won't be one of them.
Bill Arnold on the keyboard is a real musician and songwriter. Beldon the bass player is a multi-intrumentalist. I'm just trying to stay out of their way as we rehearse Bill's musical.


I play guitar adequately and have a keyboard I punish occasionally but can't really play. I have a basic understanding of music theory, too, but songwriting is a mystery to me, like brain surgery, drawing, and serious cooking. I have two recipes, and one of them is coffee. I already have enough skills I'm poor at without tormenting people with bad songs, too.

Oddly, I've written three stories with a fictitious song that's crucial to the plot. In Blood on the Tracks,
I wrote enough lyrics for a song so people could understand how Woody Guthrie put two and two (or maybe that should be four-four) together and tied the song to two characters he was investigating. I knew just enough theory to figure out how a good musician could make a mistake playing that song in the studio, too. I have a vague idea what the song might sound like, but that's all. It was enough.

A few years later, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom" used a non-existent tune, too. Someone claims the song was plagiarized from him and he ends up dead mere paragraphs later. That happens in my stuff. I didn't write the music, but I discussed the rhymes and rhyme scheme in the verses so people could fill in the blanks. I know most of the words but have never really thought about the melody or chords.

I have another story that's out looking for a home and gathering rejections along the way that has my most complete non-song yet. I wrote five verses that tell a story nobody understands (I was channeling the Sherlock Holmes story "The Musgrave Ritual") and the characters have to figure out the music by listening to an old cassette. The song is loosely based on old Appalachian ballads and I know the chords and melody pretty well. If that story ever sells, maybe I'll try to put the whole thing together and play it at an open mic--and see if I can pass it off as an obscure oldie.
Bill again, in the hat. Kit Webb, in red, plays about five instruments well.

I'd love to have people think it was a "real" song. I don't see myself writing any more of them unless I come up with another story idea that calls for it.

A little learning may be a dangerous thing, or it may be just enough to get by. What do you think?

15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine

by Steve Liskow

Saturday, I led a workshop on developing plot. It was the second half of my program on preparing for National Novel Writing Month, and I'll do a slightly expanded version (I have an extra fifteen minutes) at the same venue next week.

I know several people who do decent workshops on plot, and I can name more good books about building your plot than any other facet of writing fiction, but there's one idea almost everyone has trouble grasping. In fact, only two of the eight or nine books I often cite even mention it.

Concept and Premise.

Almost everyone understands that a plot is the stuff that happens to or around your protagonist, and most of them understand the idea of cause and effect. Most of them grasp structure and increasing tension, too. But making someone see that his or her premise needs more focus or oomph is hard. Maybe that's because everyone knows it when he sees it, but it's hard to define except by example.

Every story has a concept and premise, but unless it captures the reader's attention, the story won't sell. In fact, it won't even be read.

A concept is simply an idea. It can be a setting, a character, a story line, an imaginary world or practically anything else. But it has to develop into a premise, and that's tricky. The premise usually involves the "what if..." idea, the thing that "goes wrong." Michael Crichton's concept for Jurassic Park is that you can use the DNA from fossils to clone prehistoric dinosaurs. His premise builds on that: What if those dinosaurs get out of control and start eating people?

From that simple but specific foundation, you can build your plot because you have a conflict, setting and characters. You also have the beginning of your elevator pitch to an agent or editor. It even gives you a head start on your cover copy, which I always find hard to write.

I tell my classes that if you can put your premise into language a fairly bright ten-year-old can understand, you've got it.

Two of my books use Roller Derby as a loose concept. The premise of one of them is that a disgraced police officer finds redemption by protecting a group of women who help victims of domestic abuse, and, by extension, help themselves. That's more specific. More importantly, it helps me determine what will happen in the story. There will be roller derby and there will be at least one character who is being abused. The cop will help her. Sure, other things will happen, too, but that's the foundation.

Here is the back cover copy of The Whammer Jammers, which grew out of that concept and premise:

Chicks on wheels, dirty deals, and everything you never dared ask about roller derby. Suspended after a "questionable" shooting, Hartford cop Tracy "Trash" Hendrix hires on to protect the local skaters from vandals while they prepare for a match to fund a women's shelter. He suspects a skater's ex-boyfriend, but the guy has an alibi when that shelter gets torched--and an even better one when he turns up dead. Then a skater is killed in a drive-by, and Hendrix knows someone plays rougher than the roller girls. Unless he can figure out who it is before the match begins, the wheels really will come off.

The fire and the drive-by aren't in the original idea, but they grew out of it and raise the stakes.

Your premise has to generate conflict, and this one does. In my case, that matters because my thought process is far from linear. I can come up with dialogue or character traits on demand, but plot is hard. That's why I need a concrete--but flexible--concept I can turn into a premise. And it needs to promise the reader something she or he hasn't seen before.

Most people stare at me when I tell them there are currently seven women's roller derby teams in Connecticut, but it works. I self-published The Whammer Jammers in 2011. Two weeks ago, I sold out every copy I brought with me to an event because people still want to hear about it.

That's your ultimate test.

01 October 2018

Doing It Right

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I joined fourteen other authors at a fund-riser for the New Britain (CT) Public Library. I taught high school English in the town for thirty years and some of my former students showed up, one of them as a fellow author (see? I did something right). Another former student works at the library, and several of my books are set in central Connecticut, so I had some sales advantages.

I usually avoid events with more than five or six authors because we tend to cancel out each other's sales. Such affairs generally offer "exposure" (try paying your dentist with "exposure" and let me know how it works) instead of a fee, too. Selling books is always iffy, but this event gives the authors better odds.

Literary Libations occurs every other year, and the organizers host authors in various genres who have released a new book since the previous event. I only knew three of the other writers (including my former student) and only two others write mysteries. I was between a young poet (who had a great sense of humor and made out like Charlie Sheen) and a college professor with a new textbook. No competition there, right?

The organizers charge a hefty admission fee--in advance--because it is a fund-raiser (authors get in free and they even feed us). That large fee conditions people to spend money on new books. A local caterer offers everything from hors d'oeuvres to pasta to ice cream, and they have a cash bar. If you've never worked an event where alcohol flows, you won't believe how it can spike your sales.

This year, the librarian greeted me by asking, "Have you seen your gift basket?"

I had no idea what she was talking about, so she showed me the prize table.

Fifteen people assembled gift baskets as raffle prizes, and one couple liked my first novel Who Wrote the Book of Death? (set in New Britain, of course, and mentioning local landmarks) so much they gathered the various wines and snacks the book mentioned into one lavish gift. That floored me, and it got even better when I learned that same book was the topic of the library's book group the following week.

Guess what? I sold a lot of books (ate well, too). The picture shows Alderman Don Naples and his wife, who assembled the gift basket, along with Arnaldo Perez, the lucky winner. The seedy-looking guy on the right  autographed the book for him.

Within two days, the organizers sent me a thank-you note for appearing and asked for suggestions to make the next event even better. I told them I wished every event went as smoothly as this one had, and hoped they made as much money as their planning and hard work deserved. Then I suggested that the library discuss another one of my books in two years.

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?

by Steve Liskow

When an anonymous "senior administration official" published an op ed in the New York Times two weeks ago, he (or possibly they ) set off another firestorm in the current presidency. Countless articles and online posts have tried to identify the author(s) and the suspects range from Mike Pence to Dan Coates to Steve Bannon, and one even suggests Trump wrote it himself, which I seriously doubt.

Hand-writing analysis has been with us for even longer than the "forensic linguistics" that people are using to identify this writer. But there are stumbling blocks to the approach in this case. It's a small sample and we don't have anything else we can compare it to. We need another article on a similar subject of about the same length by each of the 100 (I love that!) suspects to make a meaningful decision.

The experts look at how certain words are used, how a writer punctuates and uses paragraphs, and many other clues. The good ones claim the science is almost as solid as DNA, but that may be pushing it. More than one expert has pointed out that we don't know how much the Times altered words, phrasing or punctuation to bring the piece in line with its own style guides.

In any case, while there are writers who had a distinctive and usually recognizable style, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom had contests involving people writing a pastiche of their work, there are others who change style and voice often. Laura Lippman comes to mind. Some writers have been identified even when they use a pseudonym. Patrick Juola, presently at Duquesne University, used forensic linguistics to prove that J. K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, even though the name on the book cover was Robert Galbraith. Gary Taylor boosted his reputation as a Shakespearean by identifying an unattributed (and not very good) poem to the Bard.

When I was still directing plays, I had a reputation as a minor-league expert on Shakespeare. I have read most of the plays several times, acted in a dozen of them, and directed still others. While teaching, I assigned fourteen different plays at one time or another.
 In 1990, Charles Hamilton published a text that he claimed was Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, basing his conclusion on handwriting analysis, which is problematic because authorities argue over which of several samples really is Shakespeare's hand--if any of those samples we have really is his own. Hamilton said The Second Maiden's Tragedy, credited to Thomas Middleton, was really the text of Cardenio, possibly co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

I read the play and disagreed. Thomas Middleton wrote a play called The Witch, which Shakespeare borrowed heavily from for the witch scenes in Macbeth. Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated near the end of Shakespeare's career, and Cardenio--inspired by a section of Don Quixote, which was published in English in 1612--didn't fit what Shakespeare was producing at that point. I say this as someone who devoured John Barton's and Cicely Berry's books on how Shakespeare used language because they helped me direct. So does the First Folio.

Cardenio was supposedly written between The Tempest and All Is True (Henry VIII), just after The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.  I've acted in and directed separate productions of The Winter's Tale (about 20 years apart) and participated in two productions of The Tempest. Compared to them, the language in Cardenio is clumsy and immature. The cast is much smaller than in any of Shakespeare's other plays (remember, bit players often played several roles), and the structure is even more truncated than Macbeth, which is complete but always feels like something's been cut. Even on his own, John Fletcher was better than this. So was Kit Marlowe. So were the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon.


Truthfully, the authorship is fine topic for yet another graduate thesis, but I don't care who wrote the plays as long as good directors and actors continue to perform them for the rest of us.

Same with the New York Times op ed.

I don't care as much about who wrote the piece as I do about the admission that the White House staff is undermining Trump's actions out of self-interest instead of taking the appropriate steps to invoke the 25th Amendment for the Greater Good.

03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know

by Steve Liskow

One of the time-worn chestnuts about getting ideas is "write what you know," and many people point out that staying on familiar ground will limit you. Obviously, it depends on what you know. It certainly didn't hurt Tom Clancy, did it? Or maybe Xaviera Hollander. If you have the right experience, you're golden.

The shared experiences some people think are mundane will be fresh if you put YOUR slant on them. And if they're shared experiences, you already touch a shared nerve that will affect many readers.

Everyone has a first job, first day of school, first date, first heartbreak and dozens of other rites of passage. One of the great literary themes is loss of innocence, which fills a lot of the high school literature reading list. "The Girl in the Red Bandanna," which I published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last spring, revisits a summer job I only held for one night.

I've played guitar since the mid-sixties and one of my favorite stories was inspired by seeing the
Muddy Waters Blues Band when I was still heavily into the Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. My musical world changed that night, but the story has had over 20 rejections and I've run out of places to send it. Oh, well...

Most of my titles are also song titles because Woody Guthrie, my wannabe rock & roller PI, came from meeting a classmate at my high school reunion. She was now a full-time session musician in Detroit. Blood On the Tracks, Woody's first adventure, was a long time coming, but he now appears in four novels and a few short stories, all of which take their names from songs.

My wife insists that Hell is really middle school. WE all have nightmares about it except the kids whose voices never changed, never had a growth spurt, or never went through puberty. Judy Blume is one of many writers who turned the angst into a gold mine. My own Postcards of the Hanging grew out of a scandal that rocked my school senior year.

Bel Kaufman had a huge bestseller recounting a first year of teaching in Up the Down Staircase, and Braithwaite fared nearly as well with To Sir With Love. My own Run Straight Down comes from my teaching, too, but has a little darker perspective.

Several of my friends (well, two. I don't have many) ask when I'm going to write a story revolving around theater. Well, Linda Barnes wrote an amateur sleuth series featuring Michael Sprague as an actor who solved mysteries. She gave the series up because, as she pointed out, if people got killed in every production Sprague joined, eventually nobody would cast the guy anymore. Barnes and I both grew up in Southern Michigan, moved to New England, and taught English and theater. She's younger and taller than I am, and much nicer. She also went back to theater for her standalone The Perfect Ghost a few years ago. If you have any familiarity with Hamlet, you might check it out.

Three days ago, I finished a first draft of my first attempt to use theater as a background for a story. I  only had to look up one detail that I no longer remembered after several years. It was fun to write, too, a refreshing break from my usual rock and blues.
My favorite poster from when I was directing...

Everybody knows something nobody else does. And maybe it's so obvious we don't even know we know it.

Now for the BSP. John Floyd and I both have stories in the newest issue of Mystery Weekly, now available at your favorite website.

20 August 2018

Blues and Clues

by Steve Liskow

In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


06 August 2018

Show Time!

by Steve Liskow

About a month ago, I joined eighteen other writers from Sisters in Crime (two others were men, too--we've learned not to call ourselves "male members") at the University of Connecticut branch of Barnes & Noble.

I've been trying to crack Barnes & Noble's resistance to self-published authors for several years, so I would have joined this event in any case, but there were a few planning glitches, probably because this particular store is quite new and the staff probably hasn't done anything of this scale before.

Obviously, getting 19 writers from three states together demands a weekend slot, but with a perfect beach day and thousands of people protesting the current administration's immigration policy only blocks away, I'm not sure we saw a dozen patrons in the three hours we were there. The store wanted us to introduce ourselves and read from our works, taking fifteen minutes each. That's 45 minutes longer than the event was scheduled to run. We convinced the store that five minutes each was better, and I cut my own slot to three minutes by explaining where I got the idea for my newest book, reading the cover blurb, and sitting down. I sold two books that day, and I'm not sure anyone sold more than that.

Everyone either learned or confirmed something from the experience.

I participate in three types of author events.

The mass author bash like the one above is my least favorite. If you put a lot of genre writers together, they nullify each other and nobody sells much. The readers have trouble keeping the writers straight, too, so they don't really connect with anyone, and that's the whole reason I do any event: to make friends with my potential readers.

When the day turns into a carnival, it's hard to remember that you're selling yourself more than you're selling your books. If people like you, they're more apt to buy your books, so I chat with as many  as I can. I bring lots of flyers, bookmarks, and business cards to plug my editing and workshops and make sure my roller ball has a fresh blue cartridge for signing copies. Swag is advertising, the sales pitch I don't have to make out loud.

In two weeks, I'll join four other Connecticut writers on a panel, but we represent cozy, historical, PI, and suspense stories so we don't get in each others' way. The library is beautiful and the staff is worth their weight in uncut cocaine. Unless we get a cloudburst (which happened two years ago), we'll have an enthusiastic audience full of thoughtful questions. We may even sell a few books on the spot. We'll certainly sell some in the aftermath.

Next month, I'll do a local author fair as a fund-raiser for another local library, and they do it up big. They charge a solid admission fee so the people are already prepared to spend money. The evening event features catering from an excellent local restaurant so patrons (and authors) get fed. They also have a cash bar, which seems to stimulate sales (heh-heh-heh). Two years ago, I shared a table with a former student who had a self-help book for sale, and we traded war stories between chats with friends of the library. Best writer's fair I've attended.

The second type of event, which I like marginally more, is the single-author appearance. Sinclair Lewis said that audiences attend events like this to see if the author is funnier in person than he is to read. After 35 years of teaching and community theater, I can do stand-up, but no matter how clearly (or not) the venue promotes you, half the people are upset to discover that you don't write poetry, history, memoir, romance, or cook books, or whatever their favorite happens to be.

I don't like reading from my books either, brilliant as they are and scintillating as I am in person. I prepare passages of about five minutes each, cutting as much description and exposition as I can so they're heavy on action and dialogue, but reading puts the pages between you and your audience. I'd rather take lots of questions and turn the event into a big conversation. Naturally, I bring all the Fabulous Parting Gifts to these events, too.

Workshops rock. They satisfy my teaching jones, they give me money whether I sell books or not, and people tend to talk them up to their aspiring writer friends...and come back for more.

I used to conduct workshops in several libraries around central Connecticut, but library budgets have been slashed over the last few years, so now I do smaller venues that support writing groups. Instead of a flat fee, the venue charges an admission price to each participant and we split. The groups are smaller, but that means everyone gets a chance to ask questions.

Sure, there's some prep involved. I load my workshops with hand-outs and make sure the venue has an easel or dry marker board (I can bring one if necessary). I make a point of including an unsigned evaluation form in the handouts so the participants can turn it in to the venue. That way, I get recommendations and ideas for improvements...or even new programs.

I never sell books directly. I sell myself. If people like me, they're more apt to buy a book, and they're even more likely to buy if they receive something in return (writing instruction). Generally, I sell more books at workshops than at a panel or reading (the fund-raiser I mentioned above is an exception). It used to be that I'd sell a book for every six people at a reading or panel and one
for every three people at a workshop. Both those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, but I seem to sell more eBooks in the few weeks after an event than before.

How do you feel about events? Are your results different from mine?

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

by Steve Liskow

I loved teaching. If it were still about interacting with the kids and helping them grow and develop--as opposed to getting them ready for a pointless standardized test that keeps getting dumbed down and is only used to gauge a teacher's performance instead of the kids it pretends to test--you'd still find me in the classroom, funky tie loose and sleeves rolled one turn below my elbows, 183 days a year. But it isn't and I'm not.

That's why I still conduct writing workshops. Sure, I get paid almost enough to cover my gas to and from the event, but the truth is I still have a major teaching jones. It took me a long time to learn this stuff, so I want to help other people learn from my mistakes.

When I turned in the key to my classroom for the 33rd time, I knew how to write a decent sentence and even a passable paragraph. But I didn't know how to tell a good story. That's harder than it sounds. You probably have at least one friend or relative who can mangle a knock-knock joke or put everyone to sleep telling about something that happened to them, don't you?

Once my writing collected enough form rejection letters to make the point, I went back to what my adviser on my sixth-year project (A novel, by coincidence) told me years before. He directed me to the paperback racks in the local drug store (If you're under about forty, you may have to Google those terms) and read the first chapter of ten or twelve books at random.

 "Don't read Austen and James and Conrad," he told me. "Read Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace and Jacqueline Susanne and Mickey Spillane. Read Michener (He hated Michener). Figure out what they do in those first few pages that you don't. You don't have 'first-chapterness.'"

Plumbers, carpenters and electricians all train apprentices. So do doctors and teachers. People take dancing lessons, music lessons, golf lessons and painting lessons. We know that one-on-one training works. How do fish learn to swim and birds learn to fly? You can buy a bunch of books and read them, but a good writing workshop is even better.

Many writing conferences offer sessions by writers who are also excellent teachers. They may even feature a one-on-one manuscript critique. At the New England Crime Bake, Kate Flora analyzed an early version of my own Blood On The Tracks and turned problems into opportunities. At the Wesleyan Writers Conference, Chris Offutt looked at an even earlier draft of that same book.

When I met him over coffee (We both wanted beer, but we were on campus), he said, "You write excellent dialogue, and you probably know it. But that's both good and bad."

"How can that be?" I asked.

"Well," Offutt said, "it's good because it is good. But it's bad because you know it, so you try to make that dialogue do too much of the work. Have you ever done theater?"

At that time, I was acting, directing, producing or designing for four or five productions a year.

"You need to learn to write better exposition and description. Even plays aren't just the dialogue. The other stuff is the context that gives it meaning. And that's even truer in novels and stories."

My bookshelves sag under the weight of fifty or sixty books on writing, including a few on dialogue. None of them ever said that. The fifteen-minute chat helped more than all those books.

Now I pay it forward. I have five workshops scheduled through mid-November, and I'll share handouts with examples, both good and bad, and leave lots of time for people to experiment with them and ask questions. We do group activities, too: creating characters, punching up plots and premises, sharpening dialogue. Every time we encounter a problem (Which I often recognize in my own stuff, too) we figure out how to fix it. Mistakes are the best teachers I know, and I'm still learning every time I teach.

Most of the venues invite me back, which is great, but I don't do it for the money. Fortunately.

I do it because I still love it.

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.