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

23 May 2022

Writing Outside the Outlines


Two weeks ago, I attended an interview with Don Winslow at which he was autographing his new novel. During the Q & A, someone asked about his process, which is almost sure to be a question at such events. 

Winslow said that he doesn't outline. Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and many other major writers don't, either. About half the crime writers I know don't, and the other half do, but in different ways. The debate can get pretty heated, but I don't really think it matters.

"Outline" has different meanings for people in different parts of the writing world. I suspect that's part of the cause of many arguments.

Practically everyone who graduated from high school wrote at least one research paper, certainly in English class, and possibly one or more in a social studies class, usually history. I remember having to hand in an outline during the process, in that format with Roman number I, two or more subdivisions, cleverly called "A" and "B." If those were also subdivided (which they usually were), they had to have at least two subdivisions, "1" and "2." If those were subdivided again…

Getting flashbacks yet? I'll bet you took the same ride yourself.

When I taught English, I required an outline, too. The point was to make sure the student worked through the assignment steadily over the six or eight weeks instead of throwing everything together the night before it was due. None of us ever did that, of course.

That outline form is very rigid, good for a persuasive or factual piece with a logical linear organization. Unfortunately, fiction isn't always linear. Stories can involve flashbacks, tangents and misdirection, and they muddy the waters.

Sue Grafton used to write a journal/outline/ideas book while she worked on her novels. She may have worked that way because, before she sold the Alphabet series with Kinsey Milhone, she wrote screenplays for TV movies. She said that her workbook sometimes ended up longer than the actual novel.

Robert Crais oulines, too. Like Grafton, he started in television, writing for Hill Street Blues and being a major force behind Cagney & Lacey. Story boards were routine and he stayed with what he knew. Obviously, it works for him. 

When I began my first novel fifty years ago, I didn't outline. I wrote stop and start for a few months, then got busy with grad school and teaching again. When I returned to that 60-page draft several months later, I decided to make a list of characters for the first time. Those 60 pages had over 100 characters, many who only appeared once, and my "story" was a series of tangents, more clang association than plot. I eventually finished that manuscript in about three years, and it was resoundingly, excruciatingly awful.

So were the next two.

When I decided to rewrite the first book as my sixth-year thesis at Wesleyan, I had to convince a professor to become my advisor. For the first time, I built an outline of what I thought that heavily-revised book would become. I listed the four or five events that would occur in each chapter. Years later, I discovered that it resembled Charles Dickens's outlines. Since Dickens serialized his novels in magazines, he need to know where he was going. Below is a sample of his outline for Bleak House.

I used the same format for several unpublished novels. When I attended writing workshops and met other writers years later, I learned of the "outline" agents and editors expected with a query, which isn't an outline, but a summary. Some people called it an outline and some called it a synopsis, but they were basically the same except that an outline is longer. I hated writing a two-page synopsis of the entire novel and I hated a ten-page outline just as much. For years, when people asked why I turned to self-publishing, I told them it was because I didn't want to write another damned synopsis. Ever.

By 2010, I'd published a few short stories but five or six novels accumulated 400 rejections. Then I read John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which is geared toward screenwriting. I began to view an outline as a story board, and I suspect that Crais's outlines resemble that, too.

The form is especially helpful if you use several POV characters, and my novels often have five or six. Truby's form makes it easy for me to keep track of how much information a character has at any particular moment. It also make it easy to know how much time has passed because I incorporate it into the sequence. I first use the form for The Whammer Jammers, which I saw as a potential film.

Below is the first page of my final outline for Words of Love. The POV character for each scene is in caps. The first version usually took me about two months because plotting is the hardest part of writing for me. I don't have a linear thought process and have to write stuff out before I can tell if it works in that order. I move scenes around and cut them and add new ones as I discover what the story needs. This sample is "I," the ninth version. Some books went as far as version "M" or "N," and I often was halfway throught the first draft of the MS before I had the final chronology set.

There's no right way to outline or NOT outline. But if something isn't working for you, maybe this will give you a plan B or even a plan C.



09 May 2022

Crime Hits Home (An Exercise in Shameless Self-Promotion)


Last Monday, Liz Zelvin posted about Edgars week and the whirlwind of activities in New York. Otto Penzler hosted the launch/signing for MWA Presents Crime Hits Home at the Mysterious Bookshop, and I practiced spelling my name for a week before attending.

I hoped I would meet more of the other contributors (Six of twenty appeared), but people are being cautious in the Age of Covid. Believe me, I get that; I'm immuno-compromised myself. I still got to meet Liz, Michael Bracken, Stacy Woodson, and Brendan DuBois, all of whom were on my bucket list.

Michael Bracken, Andrew Hearn

MWA has published about twenty previous collections, all edited by a marquee author who brainstorms with the publisher for a theme, then invites ten other authors to contribute stories. The remaining ten slots are filled by blind submissions from active members of MWA.

I have answered six submission calls, and this is the second time I've had a story selected. For the record, all the other stories eventually sold elsewhere. In fact, one will appear later this year in Mickey Finn 3: 21st-Century Noir, edited by Michael Bracken. 

I knew two other contributors to Crime Hits Home. SJ Rozan, who edited the collection, has been one of my favorite writers for over a decade, and we've met before, once when she was Guest of Honor at Crime Conn. The other might have been the launch and signing for Vengeance, the other MWA anthology with one of my stories.

Connie Hambley, SJ Rozan and me

Connie Hambley, a former chapter President of Sisters in Crime New England, and I have done writing events together. We agreed that this collection may be the best anthology yet. There are two reasons for that, and they work together.

First, the collections all use a common theme, and "Home" may be the most flexible idea so far. Previous books had less wiggle room. Vengeance, for example, required that someone do something bad and someone else provide payback. I liked several stories in that volume, but even Bach or Beethoven would have been hard-pressed to produce 20 variations on the idea. Other books worked with marriage, legal thrillers, the supernatural, or the Cold War, but I think "Home" offers more possibilities.

The other strength of the collection is Rozan's choice of contributing authors. Crime Hits Home features two African-American authors, two Asian authors, a Hispanic, a transgender, and a gay. Eleven are female and nine are male, and eleven stories use first-person POV.

Those diverse cultures and viewpoints exploit that wide-open theme, and several stories never would have occurred to this transplanted midwestern WASP. Some stories were funny, several were poignant, some were downright creepy, and all of them moved the goalposts. I assumed that many submissions would involve home invasions, and other writers thought the same way. Only two stories involve anything even vaguely resembling such an idea. Brendan DuBois, one of the judges, said they received 300 submissions for the ten open slots, so standing out from the pack counted heavily.

I'm thrilled to be in a collection with Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley and Jonathan Santlofer, and I'm even happy to be the next-to-last story in the book, just before SJ Rozan's, which has a premise that brought back memories of my own childhood with a less-sinister subtext.

I feel like I'm the opening act for Led Zeppelin.

25 April 2022

Style NEVER Goes Out of Style


Years ago, I gave my honors American Lit students a summer writing assignment that was a little outside the lines. I had them read Kerouac's On the Road and selections from Thoreau's Walden, then write the flogged-to-death essay on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" twice, once imitating Kerouac's style and the other imitating Thoreau.

Some people did brilliantly, capturing Kerouac's riffs and imagery like a Wardell Gray sax solo and Thoreau's pseudo-King James majesty. Others wrote essays so interchangeable that I don't think the writers could have told me which was which.

We fail to teach students an important lesson about style. The style must fit the mood of the piece, which is determined by the content. If style, mood, and content don't work together, that story, essay, or letter will fail.


I can't find the quote now so I may be paraphrasing, but Sinclair Lewis once gave my favorite definition of style. Style is how the writer conveys emotion in his writing. It depends upon two factors: the ability to feel, and the vacabulary to express those feelings. 

When readers say they don't like a book, they often mean that they don't like the style. Style is voice, and it carries the narrator's attitude and feelings about the material. If you don't like the feeling, it's fair to expect that you won't like the story. 

How do you create style? You don't. You just write the truth about how you (or your story-teller) feels.

Extreme examples make it clearer. Read a paragraph by Ernest Hemingway and notice the generally short words a child can understand, combined into short punchy sentences that are equally clear. Hemingway could convey deep feelings and ideas, but in a deceptively simple style. It's hard to write so many short sentences without sounding choppy and abrasive, sort of like riding in a car when the transmission drops out. I see lots of writers try it and fail.


Now, read a paragraph from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I have three graduate degrees and taught for over 30 years, but McCarthy often sent me to the dictionary. His words were always precise and conveyed his meaning more exactly than the synonyms I knew, and they never felt forced. McCarthy loved language and used it to serve his own purposes. I can't imagine anyone trying to imitate him.


Style is the way you use words to tell your story. We expect certain moods in certain kinds of stories, too. Noir writing is pessimistic. The weather is rainy or will be soon. Peopole will die and justice may not be served. Fairy tales usually have a happy ending and whatever ogres occupy the landscape may be frightening, but the hero will prevail with wit and courage.

The writer's job is to help the reader experience the events and emotions that the characters go through. It doesn't matter how clever or creative or beautiful the writer is. If the writing calls attention to that instead of the story, it fails. 

Most of my writing is revision. I want the reader to see the events as my character sees and feels them, so I tend to use first person or detached third person POV and avoid opinion adjectives like "Nice," "Kind," "Beautiful" or "Evil" unles they get filtered through the character. Short stories don't have room for generalities, so it's vital to convey mood/attitude briefly. Mood matters. A few days ago, I decided a story I was writing for one publication didn't work because the story was supposed to be a cozy and the narrator was a gambler. Gamblers aren't cozy, they're noir.

Modern writers use more narration and less exposition than writers up until about 100 years ago. Think of long passsages of backstory and explanation in Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes or Hawthorne, then look at how Lehane, Lippman, Alison Gaylin or Don Winslow handles the same material.

I pinpoint the beginning of the change with Fitzgerald's description of the Buchanans' yard in chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby. Instead of static visual details, Fitzgerald makes the yard come to life so it runs from the beach, up the hill, jumps over a birdbath and sundial, and drifts up the walls of the house as "bright vines."

You can look at a picture as Hawthorne would describe it, but you can experience Tom and Daisy's yard. The average reader won't notice the difference, but he or she will feel it.

That's style at its best.

11 April 2022

Workation


Late last year, my health went on hiatus and I found that everything became a challenge. I couldn't go anywhere or do much of anything. Between the cold weather and the accelerating family arthritis, playing guitar and typing were difficult, and naturally, that interfered with my writing. Now that the effects of the steroids are diminishing and warmer weather is creeping back, my hands are regaining some flexibility.

Thursday night, I played my first open mic since mid-November. I didn't drive people screaming toward the exits, and I loved seeing old friends and hearing good tunes for the first time in oh so long.

More importantly, it means I can write again.

Non-writers have the image of the writer as some kind of agoraphobe, hunched over a desk in a dimly-lit garret, pen in hand, scribbling by the hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water and a bit of gruel. The modern version is a keyboard and oceans of coffee or diet coke. Most artists, whether they're writers, painters, actors, or musicians, dispute that vision.

You need to get away from the work or you'll get weird. Early in my writing career, I forced myself to produce 2000 words a day because I read somewhere that Stephen King did it. In an interview, Jodi Picoult said that writers need to develop the ability to write on demand. That's the purpose of the 2000-word quota. Once you can do it, the job gets a lot easier. Now I know I can produce 1000 words in an hour or less. It doesn't matter if they're junk, because if there's that much, there's enough to fix.

Distance is important, too. I can start a horrific rough draft (that 1000 words, or maybe only a few paragraphs), and if it's not going well, the norm for a first draft, I can step away and play guitar, make a fool of myself on keyboard, or go to the health club. I still do my best planning and editing on an arc trainer.

When you don't have to think about what you're doing, the ideas sneak into view like shy kittens. Ignore them, and they'll come close enough to pet.

Now that I can perform and get away from the writing, it's much easier. The added perspective helps me see why something isn't working and find ways to fix it.

I know actors, athletes, and musicians who tell me the same thing. I often see one of my actor friends at my health club, usually punching a heavy bag. One of my favorite guitar players has composed dozens of songs (he has two CDs out), but when the music isn't flowing, he turns to piano for a week. When he's broken out of the ruts, he reunites with his Martin and sparks fly.

I used to direct plays, and I got my idea for re-interpreting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as a western while ironing. Didn't Agatha Christie plot her complex novels while washing dishes?

It still works.



28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing


Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.

Why?

Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.



14 March 2022

Guys Writing Girls


Last week, my short story "The Bridesmaid's Tale" appeared in Black Cat Weekly, and I shared the news with all three of my friends. Later that same day, one of them congratulated me on how well I captured the thought process of the female lead/narrator. I thanked him, but I'm not sure I really did it that well.

His comment made me curious enough to go back and look at all my published work, though, which took about five minutes. Most of my novels use multiple-third point of view, and the majority of those characters are male. There are exceptions, of course: both Roller Derby novels have several scenes in the POV of various skaters, and Megan Traine and Beth Shepard get screen time in the novels with their partners. Words of Love has three female POV characters, more than any other book, but if you read it, you'll see why.

Strong female characters abound in my short stories, whether they're the POV character or not. I grew up in a family of strong intelligent women, and during my theater years, I usually worked with a female stage manager and often a female producer. My favorite lights designer was a woman who began as a stage manager and became a good director, too. She also wrote at least one good play that I remember.

Women are more interesting because the still prevalent glass ceiling forces them to be more resourceful and flexible to succeed in various professions. They also need more sense of humor to cope with the crap. Many of my characters take a hard look at themselves and understand how they have to change to solve the current problem. Medically, we know women have a higher threshold of pain and a higher resistance to disease (Otherwise, the race would have died out long ago), and they may have a higher IQ.

I've sold sixteen short stories with a female narrator (four not yet published), and many others have a woman who drives the action even if she doesn't tell the story. Women narrate five of the ten stories currently floating in Submission Limbo, too. 

It's easier to masquerade as a woman in a short story because the length gives you less room to make a mistake. I try to convey an attitude through dialogue and thought process, and sometimes using kinesthetic perceptions makes that easier. That's psych and teacher jargon, so let me mansplain here.

We process information through one of three primary modes. About 80% of the population is visual, so they watch and look and read to gain their information. Another 10-12% are auditory and listen well. These people remember a lecture or can follow instructions easily (Many of them become teachers). The remaining few are kinesthetic, who learn from doing, a combination of muscle memory and experience. These are the kids who take the game or toy apart on Christmas morning without reading the instructions and figure out how it works by trial and error. Many of them can call up the emotions they felt during an experience long after it happened. These people are often dancers, athletes, or actors. 

Most of my women characters are empaths and have a kinesthetic streak. They're aware of their bodies and feel emotions and slights deeply.

Angie, narrator of "The Bridesmaid's Tale," knows that her older sister Bethesda (the Bride) is taller and curvier than she is, AND is Daddy's favorite. Angie accepts that she'll look terrible in the bridesmaids' gowns Bethesda selected for her taller, bustier friends, and takes the hit for the team. Unlike Bethesda, though, Angie doesn't live off the family fortune. She's in med school at Tufts, studying to become a veterinarian, and her academic strengths help drive the plot.

So does her attitude. She and Bethesda have been at each other's throats since they were old enough to walk, but blood still trumps everything else. Angie won't let her sister be put in danger. She's resourceful, devious, and funny. She tells us she was in her teens before she learned her sister (Whom she refers to as "Bitch-G," for "Bitch-Goddess") was named after their mother's city of birth. Before that, she checked the family medicine cabinet to see if she was named after a pill. She learned that "Bitch" was a handy word in a girl's vocabulary when she saw Mom's reaction to it the first time she said it.

My list says nine stories have been sold that will probably appear by the end of 2023, three of them by June of this year. A woman drives the plot in five of them, solving the mystery,  doing bad stuff, or sometimes narrating.

Using a person like yourself as the protagonist (or narrator) runs the risk of taking values and ideas for granted and omitting them from the story. Barnes and Guthrie have elements of me, but not many. Featuring women forces me to pay attention. For what it's worth, readers know more about the families (we've met both of them) and backstory of Beth Sehpard, Tori MacDonald and Megan Traine than they do about Zach Barnes, Trash Hendrix, or Woody Guthrie.



P.S. My wife (wearing the green jacket in the photo) closed Saturday night in The Trouble with Space Cannibals, a weird and wacky play, sort of Star Trek meets The Office. The male playwrights made all the officer on the starship LeVAR BurTONNE female and mentioned the glass ceiling that holds men down. My wife played Science Officer Wendy Mansplain…

28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches


 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

14 February 2022

Love and Carnage


 by Steve Liskow

Valentines' Day. Flowers, candy, champagne, diamond rings and bended knees. Murder.


Love and Death are the two most important themes in art because once they happen, you can't take anything back. That goes double for mystery writers, both for the crime (motive) and context. A series romance is hard to pull off. Robert Parker had trouble keep Susan meaningfully occupied, and Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Don Winslow and other writers have ended relationships sadly. If both members don't have a stake in the case, someone has nothing to do.

Dennis Lehane may have done it better than anyone else. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro knew each other before they became investigators in A Drink Before the War, so their adventures have a deeper contet and the relationship enriches both characters as they make terrible mistakes before they get it more or less right. I wish I'd learned from the instead of painting myself into a corner.

Between 1994 and 1999, Patrick and Angie loved and lost their way through five novels. Patrick is the son of a South Boston fireman who abused the family, and it left lasting scars on the boy. Patrick is a working-class smartass with a chip on his shoulder and a resentment for the rich. He understands that, though, which makes us like him and gives him insight into the people around him. He's very loyal and cagey, lessons he learned by living to grow up.

Angie's grandfather is a ranking member of the Boston Mafia, and she looks at that as little as possible. She's lovely, clever, tough, and lost her virginity to Patrick in high school--after which he dumped her. Since then, they've made every mistake you can imagine. Angie married an abusive husband. Patrick married Angie's sister. Angie divorced her husband, who died. When she and Patrick tried to get back together, she was shot and nearly died, too. During that same book, Darkness, Take My Hand, Patrick faced the demons of his childhood abuse. When Angie's external wounds healed, she went to Europe to figure things out.

Sacred, the third novel, puts the duo in a case involving dysfunctional families that make their own youth resemble Sesame Street. They become lovers again, the case shreds their psyches one more time. Psyche makes context. Patrick and Angie don't live in a vacuum, they interact with people and places, some of them even worse off than they are themselves. Even while you watch them screw up again, you have to give them extra points for effort. 

Gone, Baby, Gone deals with  abused and neglected children, something they know too well, and ampified because by now they are talking about having a baby themselves. Lehane gives us some of the most insidious characters you can imagine. Nobody is "bad," but they're self-centered, stupid, or worst of all, ineffectually well-meaning. The book's ending may be the most emotionally wrenching moment I remember since I walked home from the Court Street Theater after watching Tommy Kirk shoot Old Yeller. 

Prayers for Rain brings the pair together again for the first time in over 18 months. They're older and miserable, finally deciding that being together is better than being alone. Patrick has a hit put on him and Angie does something she's never done before: she asks her Mafia grandfather for a favor. By story's end, Patrick is in the hospital after being shot again. 

At that point, Lehane says that Patrick stopped talking to him (Can you blame him?). He left the couple behind and wrote Mystic River and The Given Day, maybe his two best novels, and let the couple slowly recover. 

Moonlight Mile appeared in 2010. Patrick and Angie are the same people, but the wounds are catching up and they're slowing down. After ten years, it's almost like meeting them at the high school reunion. That context is still there, and many characters from Gone, Baby, Gone come back. Some of them wiser, but most have merely perfected their own ways of screwing up. Patrick and Angie are married and have a daughter. Patrick thinks of joining a larger firm. The first few chapters are as good as anything Lehane wrote before, but the pace and craziness gradually resolve into something like closure, or maybe what Kubler-Ross would consider acceptance. 


Lehane always said that he was afraid that he would kill one of the two--maybe even both--before he got to the end, but they deserved better, and he found a way to give it to them.

Happy Valentine's Day.

31 January 2022

Gettin' Back My the Mojo


I used to outline my novels but not my short stories. For them, I'd jot down the basic idea and let it ferment for a few days until the main points worked themselves out. Then I started writing. I usually had a fairly clear idea of the solution if it was a mystery, but I always struggled with how the sleuth would figure it out. That's still one of my biggest problems, and may explain why I write more "crime" stories than true mysteries with a solution.

Recently, an idea tapped on my shoulder, and the more we got acquainted, the more she felt like a novella, which meant I needed a subplot to flesh out her figure. One plot is tough, and subplots, variations on the major theme, are exponentially tougher. In my Zach Barnes series, Barnes's girlfriend Beth Shepard is a writer in her own life, but she also makes book appearances as "Taliesyn Holroyd," who writes over-the-top bodice-ripper romance novels. The real writer is male, but his publisher pays Beth to dress to thrill at signings and pose for pictures on the website because everyone "knows" romance writers are women. The pen name is an in-joke, too: Taliesyn was the legendary bard of King Arther, and even though the name sounds feminine, the guy, if he really existed, was a man.


Consequently, every Barnes story that involves Beth also has a subplot revolving around identity. The most compicated of those, The Night Has 1000 Eyes, involved a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we civilians call "Multiple Personality," and I used Beth's experimenting with different names (Elizabeth, Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Elspeth, etc.) as she grew up to amplify that same idea.

You see where this is going, right?

Well, I overthought the new idea so much that I painted myself into an intellectual corner. A short story or a novella is short enough so I can go back and tweak detals later to make everything fit instead of micro-planning. The novella is neither fish nor fowl, or maybe both fish and foul play, so it falls between. 

When that idea appeared to me several weeks ago, I knew it required some research, and the sources of the info I needed were close at hand. Unfortunately, I fell down the rabbit hole and got so interested in the research that it got in the way of my half-formed plot. It crowded out the mystery and I couldn't find a way to connect them. It got so bad I even developed a chronological list of scenes (My version of an outline), which I've never done for a short story or novella. The 8000 words in eight or nine scenes kept bouncing off one wall and into another like a racquetball on steroids. I finally put all my ideas and scenes and fragments into a separate file and stuck it in a dark corner so I could go on about my other copious and crucial business. 

Two weeks later, that same idea started nagging again, like the six-year-old in the back seat demanding, "Are we there yet?"

Last week, I decided to attack the story from the opposite direction and introduce the research idea later, which turned it into a subplot without further effort. I spread all those old notes and jottings across my desk and went to work with my favorite fountain pen (A Parker Sonnet, if you care).


Some of the characters would still work, and different details blended with them I found a crime that could logically connect to the research eventually, too. Even better the subplot would become a red herring.

I started writing again with more energy than I've felt in months, no outline, beginning in a completely different place, and using some different people, except for Zach Barnes. I quit every night knowing what the next scene would be. 

Last night, as I lay in bed listening to the wind whipping our foot of new snow, the idea crawled under the covers and spoke to me again. A soft voice whispered, "He didn't do it." That hasn't happened since Megan Traine told me her huge sad secret when I was struggling with Woody Guthrie over a decade ago. The best thing was that I wouldn't have to change any of the new stuff to find the right culprit; adding four or five sentences to a couple of early scenes would fix everything.

When the story starts telling you where you're wrong, you know you're REALLY on the right track. I don't know when I'll finish this first draft. It's not aimed at any deadline, so I don't even care. But it feels like it might actually happen.

Jimi Hendrix once said, "I play a whole concert, some nights I'm just trying to find that one pretty note."

Well, I found that one neat twist.

I've been away a long time. 

How do YOU know when it's really working?

17 January 2022

Next to Last Step


I always read my work aloud as the last step in my editing/revision, but there's one last step I take before that. It's the "Readability Statistics" in the review menu of Microsoft word. When I "Review" with "spelling and grammar check," this chart appears after I've made or ignored all the corrections. This is after my final pass-through on the most recent Woody Guthrie novel, Words of Love.

We see a word count, character (letter) count, sentence count, paragraphs, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters (letters) per word. I don't pay much attention to these, but Microsoft uses them to determine the values below them: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level. The grade level is in grade and months as a decimal : 7.3 means seventh-grade, third month.

The Reading ease is the percentage of readers at that grade level who can understand that passage. Basically, long sentences and long words are harder to understand, especially if they appear in a long paragraph. My average paragraph is probably five or six sentences. But sometimes, you want something longer.

This is the same tool applied to a long paragraph at the beginning of the late Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which tells how she rebuilt her life after both her husband and grown daughter died unexpectedly within months of each other. John Gregory Dunne suffered a heart attack, and she called 911.

This paragraph is 310 words, or 23 sentences long, more what I think of as Henry James or James Joyce terrain. You could "correctly" divide it into several shorter ones, but Didion uses one long paragraph to show how the events and her thoughts jumble in a huge confusing rush. Her last understated sentence wraps everything up like a hammer blow to the chest.

That long paragraph is short words, averaging four characters each, and 13 words per sentence. It works out to fifth-grade-seventh-month reading level, and 77.9 % of readers at that level being able to understand it.

Reading level is somewhat arbitrary. It uses the number of syllables in a 100-word sample to measure level with no regard to content. Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time occasionally sounds like My Weekly Reader because the text tries to reduce complex math and quantum physics to layman's terms.

All of this is interesting, but SO WHAT? Well, look at the last statistic on the chart. I care about it because it shows how your writing will "sound." It's the percentage of PASSIVE verbs in your selection. Didion's is 8.6, which is very high, but it's appropriate because she is powerless in the scene, at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Strunk and White say to use the active rather than the passive voice, but Strunk made that same distinction.

My novels are usually at about a 4th grade reading level (It doesn't sound dumb, trust me) and I strive for no more than 2% passive verbs. Summaries and shorter selections tend to be higher. Most of my blogs are more, but I can live with it. For fun, type about 200 words from Hemingway, Crane, King, Fitzgerald, Lippman, Rozan, or Child into your computer and see what their stats are.

The newer Microsoft programs include the readability stats in the review. If you have an older Microsoft program, you can add that command in your editing. I'm not sure you can do it with a MAC, because I've never used one. Here's how:

Click on the little carat to the right of your command icons, and you'll see the drop-down menu. Click on the top line "customize quick access toolbar." (Picture on the left).

Then highlight "More commands," at the bottom of the drop-down list. That's the picture below this paragraph.

When you choose "More commands," you'll get another screen with "quick access toolbar" highlighted, and a long list of commands to the right of that.

At the top of that list, the picture below this paragraph, you'll see "popular commands." Click on the arrow to the right of it, and you'll get three choices. Click on "All Commands."

This is what you'll see, a very long list. Scroll down to Readability Statistics (It may have a new name now, Microsoft keeps changing it, so I have to look for it every time I get a new computer. It might be Reading View Research now, or something else).

When you find it, highlight it, then click "Add," the button in the middle between the two columns. The command will appear in the right hand column, which is the commands you use, and you're ready to go.

Obviously, since this is a computer program and we all use idioms in our writing, it's not foolproof. But I like to have a sense of how active or passive a work is before I do the final read-through-aloud. If I see a lot of passive verbs, I make a point of changing some to active. I don't take the reading level too seriously because it's so arbitrary. Once upon a time, the New York Times read at about a tenth-grade level, but that was decades ago. I have no idea what it– or any other publication– reads at now.

The stats give me a sense of how my writing SOUNDS, and that's crucial to me. I want it to sound like a human voice speaking.

Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

03 January 2022

Look It Up


 by Steve Liskow


Last week, Barb Goffman discussed details that make or break your work, and many people chimed in with stories or authors that had lost them by making a careless--and avoidable--mistake.

With the Internet, billions of bits of information are only a click away. That's both good and bad, especially for someone like me. I'm a trivia junkie and even as my memory fades, I can bring up details no healthy person would know, usually about music. I often use music in my stories because I already  have enough context so I can write a story and know exacty what I still need to check or verify. Usually.


Several years ago, I wrote "Hot Sugar Blues" about a folk and blues singer who became popular when he turned to rock and roll. I based him on Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, The Blues Project, and several other real artists, and I had him mention the Cafe Au Go-Go in Greenwich Village. The anthology editor, whose job was to verify such details, said the venue didn't feature live bands until later that year. 

Oops. My knowledge fell short. Fortunately, the date wasn't crucial for the story, so we became less specific. 

I can do research, but I prefer not to for a short story because it feels like more effort than it's worth for a few thousand words. Old school research--books and magazines--wasn't a problem because wandering off on a tangent took more effort.


But when you're online, it's easy to open a link, then another one and another one until the top of your monitor looks like a string of beads. I can be waist-deep in irrelevant trivia that has nothing to do with my original quest, and two hours have passed. 

Novels, of course, are different because they demand more information. 

Lately, though, I've found myself writing stories for specific times or places that fall outside my usual turf. That's good because it's expanding my repertoire, but it means yes, I do need to do research. Sometimes, it's amazing what you already have at hand that you didn't think about. 

This spring, one of my stories will appear in Groovy Gumshoes, a collection of PI stories set in the Sixties, edited by Michael Bracken. The guidelines recommended using an historical event from that period, and I happened to take summer classes at Oakland University in 1967. The college is thirty miles north of Detroit, and two of my dorm mates watched their homes burn in the television coverage of the West Side Riot. My roommate at the time is now a Motor City attorney, and I asked him to email me a few photographs. I also have a street map of Detroit, and a lot of music from that era: The Stooges, the MC5, the SRC, Motown...

I'm doing research for two other stories, too, and I already know enough so I can recognize the specific gaps in my background. My parents loved to dance, and they loved the music of the  20s through the 50s. My mother had dozens of remastered compact discs of that music, and I've used them in plays I directed and now I know the major hits of the years in question. They give me a context for a story set during Prohibition. 

The other story may not happen, but I think it will involve a Mark Twain artifact somehow. My wife conducts tours at the Mark Twain House in Hartford and everyone there is a trivia junkie and Twain nerd. I'm creating a list of questions, and the answers will determine how--or maybe if--that story develops.

The only novel that took as much research was The Whammer Jammers, my first roller derby book. I only knew what I remembered from television back in my deformative years, nothing about the modern sport. Fortunately, my daughter was Hazel Smut Crunch # Bake 350, captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs, and she helped me create a questionaire I sent to skaters, coaches, referees, and promotors. Everyone knew "Haze" because she also wrote the grant for the non-profit league. And one of my former theater buds knew two local skaters, so I got comped into events in New Haven and set up a few interviews. 


Having friends in high places makes the job a lot easier.

The hardest part of research isn't getting the answers. It figuring out the right questions.

20 December 2021

Looking Back


Between the lockdown and various health issues, I lost track of time for most of 2021 (although I have managed to finish my Christmas shopping. Wrapping? Um, no way), so let's try to put the clock back on the wall.

2020 was a blur. I had a mis-diagnosed stroke (I told them is was only a pinched nerve!) in January, then got my second cancer diagnosis in March, only days before the lockdown commenced. Between heavy meds, stress, and lockdown agoraphobia, I could no longer concentrate on complex projects like planning a novel anymore and turned exclusively to short stories. I wrote over a dozen in the last six months of 2020. Before then, I never produced more than four or five in one year. 

I published four stories, two of which I'd written years before and finally found submission calls that they matched.

Now 2021, very good and very bad, swinging like Poe's pendulum. The cancer, apparently vanquished through chemo and surgery the previous summer, staged an encore in March. Doctors, including one of my former students, inserted a stent in my kidney and started me on immunotherapy treatments every three weeks in April. They've worked, and I generally feel pretty good. No diet restrictions, I can drive  to the health club two or three times a week in a futile effort to restore my rippling six-pack abs, and I can still play guitar badly and piano even worse. Age, the family arthritis, and getting needles stuck in both arms every three weeks make music and typing harder, but I can still do them. The worst part of the year was saying good-bye to Ernie, our Maine Coon, who lost his four-year battle to kidney disease and left us in June. 

The sunny side:

This year, I wrote eleven new short stories and self-published Alma Murder, an early version of the book that eventually evolved into Blood on the Tracks about 70 rejections later. Five short stories appeared, and I sold seven others, a new career high.

Two will appear in Spring 2022, maybe within days of each other. The new MWA anthology Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan, will feature one of them. SleuthSayers' own Michael Bracken edited the other.

The rest will appear over the next year or so, but I don't have definite release dates. Fourteen submissions are still active, and I suspect that two or three have been accepted even though I don't have official word from the markets. 

I helped judge the Derringer Awards last year and will do it again this year. The best way to learn to write good stories is to read good stories, and I read a lot of them. I only judge flash fiction because I never write that short, but it's good training in what you can leave out of a story. It also means that if I stumble on a useful idea, I have to treat it very differently anyway.

The most positive change this year is that two different editors approached me about submitting work for an upcoming anthology. One was because of a Sleuthsayers blog I wrote earlier this year. Talk about an ego boost. I'm doing research on two other stories, too. If those stories don't sell to the anthologies, they're flexible enough that I can send them to other markets, too. Always a good thing. 

Am I getting rich (Cue uproarious laughter)? Of course not. But I'm getting somewhere, and that beats the alternative.

So, Merry Christmas, happy Channukah, Kwanzaa, and new year. Oh, and a belated happy birthday to Keith Richards.

06 December 2021

No Longer the Golden (Age) Standard...


A few days ago, I read the newest issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and realized something I've been aware of for some time but never thought through. 

Few of those stories met the old Golden Age definition of a "mystery." Yes, there was a crime, which Otto Penzler cites as the crucial requirement for a mystery, but few of the stories provided clues to help the reader solve the puzzle. A lot of the "detecting" happened off-stage. and some stories showed the "bad guy" getting away with something in the name of "real" justice.

I've always had trouble writing a mystery puzzle as they existed in the time of Van Dine, Christie, Sayers, Gardner, and the other "Golden Age" writers. I have been told that my right brain is more active than my left, which means that my conscious thought process recognizes patterns or similarities more easily than it does a linear "logical" patter. Clues involve deduction, and I could do it for plane geometry, but not so much in real life. 

That's the major difference between modern mysteries and the Golden age. The older plots were complex as rocket science, but many of the characters were chess pieces moved around a generic landscape in the name of the puzzle. Newer mysteries tend to examine character more deeply. The needs and foibles of people with more depth drive the story.

With that in mind, I looked at my own published work. Only two of my novels involve following clues that appear along the way to lead to the final solution. Both of those were early books, too. None of the Woody Guthrie novels work like that.

Roller Derby Book 1

When I turned to my published short stories, only a dozen fit that "Golden Age" template. Two of those were novellas, and I worked hard planning those out, which I seldom do with a short story now. I used to plan them out carefully, but it felt like overkill, especially with my right-brain running things.

More than twice as many of my short stories show someone getting away with a crime for one reason or another, and some of those are my very favorites. Plots are difficult for me because I care less about them than I do about the characters. 

Originally, I had no idea what The Whammer Jammers would be about except that it would involve roller derby. My daughter captained the Queen City Cherry Bombs in Nashua, New Hampshire, and she helped me develop a questionaire to send out to skaters online. But my main source of information was interviews with local skaters, coaches, referees, announcers, and spectators, usually the women's partners. Those gave me different perspectives that book "research" never would have shown me. I understood the people more deeply.

The interviews constantly resonated with the idea that the women loved the sport because they found it empowering. They gained a sense of self-worth and found supportive comrades. The confidence carried over into their work or personal relationships, and they felt more complete. That idea became the foundation of the book, both the main plot and the subplots.

Roller Derby Book 2

That's still the way I work. I usually start with a character who wants or needs something, and the plot develops around the obstacles he or she faces. This shows me why the person is doing something and, more importantly, it shows me why it matters, which means why I (and readers) should care. 

If I can't figure out why a reader should care, I stop right there.

I'm not sure what to call the Post Golden Age (Bronze? Aluminum? Digital?), but it's how I plot.

Which matters more to you? The story or the people living it?



22 November 2021

Lights! Action! Murder...


 by Steve Liskow

A week ago, I did something I haven't done since 2004.


Proof, that last audition, 2005

I auditioned for a play at a local community theater. From the early 1980s until 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for over 100 productions in central Connecticut, but I pretty much left theater in 2010. It was a combination of burnout and signing my first contract for a novel, and it seemed like time to turn from stage to page. Since then, I've acted in one show where the director invited me to take the role, and directed a couple of one-act plays where friends I'd worked with before asked me to step in.  
Me as the cop in Miller's "The Price," my last role in 2013



I seldom read plays anymore. At my age, I don't see a lot of interesting roles I could do, anyway. But this particular play needed a sixty-five-year-old male who is a former literature professor, and it's a substantial role, the only male with four women. 

When I arrived at the theater, I met four other men; I'd worked with three of them before--often--and knew the fourth. All of us were over 60. Coincidence?

I didn't get cast, but Barbara, my wife, will play the matriarch lead. She still performs in three or four productions a year. In fact, she closed in a production Saturday night, and her first read-thru for this new show will be tonight.

I don't mind not getting cast (I can stay home watching the UConn Women basketball games), but it started me thinking about my overlapping interests/careers.

One novel and fifteen of my short stories use music as an important component of the story. Two of my novels involve teachers, my day job for three decades. I've only used theater in one story, and it didn't involve the actual play at all. Upon further reflection, I couldn't remember a single story involving theater by ANYBODY that strikes me as better than mediocre. I haven't read everything out there, of course, and Linda Barnes, a former teacher and actor herself (and also from Michigan), used an actor/amateur sleuth for several novels before creating Carlotta Carlyle. She left the actor behind because she decided his propensity for showing up where people died might affect his chances of getting cast again. 


I've never read any of Barnes's theater stories, but most of the others--and I can't think of many--betray the writer's lack of knowledge or experience in theater. The performance spaces, characters, and technical aspects of the show all sound like they're out of the 1950s, and the actors and other theater people are little more than comedic stereotypes. The last light board with those immense levers like Frankenstein's laboratory disappeared by 1990. For the last show I directed at Hole in the Wall in 2008, my lighting designer sat in the auditorium and programmed 104 light cues involving about 70 instruments on her laptop. For all I know, today she might use an app on her phone. 

The lessons I learned in theater carry over to writing, though. Both my acting and directing mentors quoted Sanford Meisner's dictum about monologues: nobody has to watch the person speaking a monologue unless the actor MAKES him pay attention. That doesn't mean over-the-top histrionics (which are hard to do on paper). It means being real and showing what is at stake. High stakes is what story-telling is all about. 

And that got me thinking again, always a dangerous thing. I haven't written a new story in a few weeks because I've been trolling for ideas.

Maybe it's time to go back to that other part of my life and try a mystery based on theater.

(...Fade to Black...)

08 November 2021

Halloween: The (Literary) Flip Side


 by Steve Liskow

As crime/mystery writers, we've all probably written our share of Halloween-themed stories. Even if they don't sell, they're a convenient writing prompt when the cuboard is otherwise bare. Halloween, a week before Guy Fawkes Day for the British and only another week to Veterans' Day. Halloween and Samhain have become the autumnal duet, the night before All Saints' Day.

But what about the B-side, exactly six months earlier? Many writers have used that one, too, even though we may not notice it as readily.

Christianity has borrowed (Okay, stolen) from other religions since the beginning. Christmas and the Winter Solstice have merged. The vernal equinox, the myth of Mithras, Beltane, and various fertility rites have become Easter. But the writer's favorite may be Walpurgisnacht, April 30. Walpurga (various spellings) was a Polish priest canonized by the Catholic church centuries ago. Tradition asserts that the supernatural forces roam free on that night, and celebrants in parts of Europe light bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. And many writers have mixed the elements into stories we all know.

In the early English calendar, "Midsummer," which we'd expect to be in early August, was actually May first, a fertility rite (As in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), with the Maypole that Nathaniel Hawthorne erected in Merrymount for one of his short stories.


Midsummer day followed Walpurgisnacht (April 30, remember?) and A Midsummer Night's Dream chronicles the night on which Shakespeare's young lovers get lost in the woods outside Athens so Oberon, Titania and Puck can cast spells upon them and the rude mechanicals. It all leads to a happy ending, though. Theseus marries Hippolyta, Lysander marries Hermia, and Demetrius marries Helena, all on May 1, presumably fruitful unions. I directed  the play in 1993 and played Wall in another production in 2001.

Sometime between those two productions, I worked with a director and a co-producer to wrestle Goethe's Faust, the two-part epic, down to a manageable length for a one-night presentation. The work is over 11,000 lines, nearly three times as long as Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, and we managed to cut over half of it and remain coherent. Goethe names a scene in Part I  "Walpurgisnacht," and a scene in Part II "Classical Walpurgisnacht." It was appropriate for our production, a summer show in a non-air-conditioned factory. With the stage lights, it was hot as hell. 

That same Walpurgisnacht is the day Bram Stoker sends the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula's castle. Several beautiful women approach him with bad intentions, but the Count stops him before they can enjoy the fresh young blood he wants for himself.

More recently, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, and Albee called the second one "Walpurgisnacht." It follows "Fun and Games," in which Geroge and Martha welcome the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their home. It's where the brutal psychological battle takes place, leading to "The Exorcism," in which George finally gets the upper hand on Martha and demolishes their own life of lies and delusions. The first act has lots of humor, but people tend to forget that when the demons come out to dance later on. I directed the play in 1996, one of my favorite projects. 


Last, and probably least, a case I only discovered last week when I was researching this post, Black Sabbath's perennial FM hit "War Pigs" was originally titled "Walpurgisnacht." I'm guessing they changed it because Ozzy Osbourne couldn't pronounce it.

Have you ever tried a Walpurgisnacht story? What other tales have I missed?

25 October 2021

Here and Now


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I gave a short story one last read-through before submitting it, and I found myself wondering, "Would this work better in present tense?"

I've written nine of my sixteen novels in present tense, mostly the ones that take place in Connecticut. The Detroit stories with "Woody" Guthrie use past tense except for scenes in Megan Traine's POV. She lives in the present. Both the short story that was a finalist for the Edgar and the novel that was short-listed for the Shamus were in present tense, too. 

Some of my Sleuthsayers mates say present tense takes them out of the story, and I know at least one publisher has guidelines on their website warning writers not to use it. OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here.

I don't think the average reader notices whether you use past or present tense. I don't believe that most of them think about why they like a story or not, except in terms of the character or the plot. They probably don't notice point of view, either (Unless it's done badly). Writers, of course, pay attention to those things, but how many "civilians" even notice that Bright Lights, Big City uses both present tense and second-person point of view? 

Last week, I stumbled upon The Storytellers, Mark Rubinstein's collection of interviews with several dozen crime, suspense, and romance writers. His conversation with Don Winslow, one of my favorites, was the longest interview in the book, and Winslow says he turned to preent tense the same way I did. He was writing a book in past tense, and, at some point, he found himself getting bored. As an experiment, he wrote the next page in present tense and it was like the entire world opened up before him.


That happened to me, too. Fifty or sixty pages into the first draft of The Whammer Jammers, I hit a wall. After struggling for a few days, I decided that since the book had lots of action, I'd treat it as play-by-play, like the sport announcers I listened to growing up in the 1950s. 

Bingo.

Winslow has an astonishingly varied background, our only shared experience being directing several Shakespearean plays, and when I read his comments on working with the Bard's language, I felt like I was listening to myself. Theater is ALWAYS in the present, and Shakespeare's images and rhythms delineate the characters and guide the movement in the scene.

Winslow points out that using present tense helps the reader participate in the story and "experience" all that is happening because it removes a barrier between reader and story. If the story is in the past, it suggests that it's already over and can't be changed. Present tense removes that safety net. MAYBE you can still change something, and that raises the stakes. 

In present tense, it's more natural to use active verbs and avoid state of being ("to be") constructions and passives. Instead of static visual imagery, tactile and olfactory details filtered through the POV character bring the scene to life. Description becomes the verbal equivalent of a long tracking shot that becomes a landscape painting, but when you offer the character's reaction/response to the place in present tense, you eliminate that problem. 

Dialogue can help carry the load, too. Winslow writes excellent dialogue and vivid internal monologues in the voices of his characters. How a person says something shows more about him or her than description. Look at these two passages:

She looked down at the cute kitten.

"Aren't you adorable." She picked up the kitten, which buried its nose in her neck and purred.

We see both actions, but HEAR the second one, and almost FEEL the cuddling, so it includes us in the scene.

Here are the opening lines of several novels and short stories in present tense. See how they involve the reader in the action?


I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. (
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places)

They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)

The baby is dead in his mother's arms. (Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog)

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City)

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. (John Updike, "A & P")

A screaming comes across the sky. (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow)

"I poisoned your drink." (Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde)

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. (Hank Phillippi Ryan, Air Time)

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)


They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool. (
Laura Lippman, The Most Dangerous Thing)

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch. (Steve Liskow, The Whammer Jammers)

By the way, I eventually sent out that short story in past tense because I  decided the rhythms worked better. But it's a case by case issue, like all writing. 

What rules do YOU like to break?