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

13 May 2019

The Ones That Went Away

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I got a new computer and did what all writers do before getting rid of the old one. I scoured it for files worth keeping, mostly on flash drives or another external hard drive. I remembered some of those files originally being on floppy discs (Why do I still have them?), possibly from Windows 97.

When I retired from the classroom in 2003, I had five deservedly unpublished books to my credit, but I thought one of them merited another rewrite. I spent the next couple of years reading dozens of books on craft, attending workshops, making new mistakes with new writing, and figuring out most of what I'd done wrong. I went back to that book, my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in (gasp) 1980, and tried to revise it into a marketable product.
My bound project, in Wesleyan's library as "Patchwork Guilt." We've used it as a theatrical prop in productions of Faust and Bell, Book & Candle, hence the pentagram (note the open corner, just in case)

After 60 rejections, I self-published it in 2014 as Postcards of the Hanging, my seventh published novel . Many of the books I released earlier grew from that same work, though, until I learned more about what I was doing. Most of those Ur-books and Ur-characters appear on the flash drives and floppies, and I had forgotten about some of them.

Originally, Woody Guthrie was Robbie Daniels from Postcards, and he met Megan Traine at their high school reunion, a sequel to that book 25 years later. I met a classmate who inspired Meg's character at my own reunion, but by the time the book received its 115th rejection, I bagged that premise because it sounded like Lifetime TV. The story became much darker, too, which may have scared away the agents who thought they were reading a cozy. In my original draft, Robbie Daniels was a journalist, not a private detective, but that changed early in the process.

Characters changed names, and they came and went like professional athletes during free-agency. I found versions of the book under three different titles, and the story moved from 1991 to 2008.

I saw Robbie/Eric Morley/Some other name I don't even have in my notes anymore/Woody Guthrie as a series character and wrote two more books while that first sequel met increasing apathy. Most of the things that changed will never work again, but maybe they prove I actually learned something.

When I looked at old stories to respond to Barb Goffman's post about openings last week, I found a story with Marina Santini, who was Rob's girlfriend in the first version of the reunion novel. He dumped her for Megan Traine. I felt I'd treated her badly so I gave her a starring role in a short story. That ended happily, and she's never come back.

Megan lives in a duplex, the other half inhabited by Blue Song Riley, the chiropractor daughter of an African American soldier and a Vietnamese mother. Blue played a much larger role in two or three planned novels in the series. She even met a boyfriend through her brother Miles Davis Riley, who was in the service with the guy.

That boyfriend and Miles have never appeared, and Blue has never moved beyond cameo appearances, but one novel involved both men--and Blue--helping Meg find the sniper who shot Woody. I have a rough draft of a scene in which Meg shoots the man who is trying to kill her, too. I found notes for a sequel to that book, about 20 scenes, in which Woody kicks the addiction to painkillers that he developed after being shot. Both those fragments are dated 2005, and his name is still Eric Morley. My great aunt's married name was Morley, and I liked the suggestion of "morally."

Rasheena Maldonado was in the shooting book, too, originally a Detroit cop with Max and Lowe. The second Guthrie book was about teen prostitution, and I wrote a novel in which the first half was an inchoate mess and the second half worked well. When the Barnes series took off, I moved the story east and let Barnes investigate along the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious trafficking area. That book became Cherry Bomb. The new setting made everything else work, including Sheena as a juvenile officer.

Sheena  got traded to the East for Shoobie Dube, originally Robbie/Eric's secretary in Hartford until he met Megan at the reunion. I have scenes of Shoobie and Megan meeting in Connecticut, but no longer remember where they might have gone, probably in early drafts of the reunion novel that eventually became a non-reunion novel, Blood on the Tracks.
Both Shoobie and Sheena were too much fun to leave behind, and Shoobie now has a major role in the Guthrie WIP. In Connecticut, Sheena and her lover are house-hunting.

Before You Accuse Me, which appeared in 2018, shows up with that title in notes dated 2004. Chris Offutt and I discussed it at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference that spring, when he critiqued my current version of the reunion novel. I told him the title and he replied, "Take a good look at yourself," which told me I was on the right track. I already knew it would be the fourth in Woody's series, but I no longer remember why. Most of the major ideas are intact, but I didn't write the new second and third (one replaced Cherry Bomb when it moved east) for several years.

Valerie Karpelinska, AKA Karr, was a bit-part bimbo in an early version of that reunion novel, but I augmented her part in revisions. She has appeared in all four Guthrie books and shares major face time with Shoobie in the current WIP. Her IQ and bust size have traded numbers, and she now has a boyfriend and a job with a more stringent dress code than when she first showed up as a stripper.

Detroit homicide cops Jack "Max" Maxwell, who is perpetually trying to quit smoking, and Everett Lowe, the best-dressed detective on the force, appeared in early versions of three short stories that didn't sell until I revised them out of them. I thought Jack would have a daughter who got involved in a story along the way, but I no longer have any notes about it. Max and Lowe still show up in the Guthrie stories, but not as much as I thought they would because Shoobie became more important.

Sometimes, I can get away with recycling. A Detroit novel about a mass murderer didn't work, so I moved it to Connecticut, from Woody Guthrie to Zach Barnes, then to Trash and Byrne. It didn't work there, either, but I managed to use several of the characters with only minor changes in The Kids Are All Right, which became a finalist for the Shamus Award.

Someday, maybe I'll figure out how to do the rest of this stuff. I still have a full version of the Reunion novel and a revision (two different titles, two different major plots) on flash drives. I don't see them ever appearing unless someone does their doctoral thesis on my work.

There's probably a better chance of my winning the Powerball.

What are the first draft skeletons in your closet?

29 April 2019

The Way We Talk, etc.

by Steve Liskow

Back in the early eighties, I dated a social worker who worked at a clinic dealing with hardcore juvenile offenders. Her colleagues regarded her as a walking miracle for her ability to connect with kids who had severe issues of all kinds: emotional, behavioral, learning, you name it. She could get them to talk to her and reveal information they wouldn't tell anyone else, and she often put them on the path to recovery.

I taught at an inner-city school where a lot of my students had the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree, and I asked her how she could do what she did. She told me about a book by Bandler and Grinder called The Magic of Rapport. I find that title by Jerry Richardson on Amazon now, and other books by Bandler and Grinder, but the book I read forty years ago seems to be out of print. I'm sure Richardson's book covers the same material.

Briefly, people process information in one of three ways, and they prefer one over the others.

Roughly 75% of all people are VISUAL, which means they learn by "seeing" or "watching." Show them a diagram or picture, act something out, and they will grasp and retain what you what them to know. This is why teacher write on the board and why PowerPoint has become so popular.







Another 10 to 15% are AUDITORY. These people understand what they are told and can process verbal instructions well. Unfortunately, even though it's a small portion of the population, it's an overwhelming majority of TEACHERS, which is why you may have sat through classes with instructors who lectured you to death.




The rest of us are KINESTHETIC. They learn a skill by practicing it over and over and handling the objects in question, literal "hands-on" teaching. They may retain information by remembering the sensations during an activity: temperature, smell, or even their emotional response to what happened.

Thanks to that girlfriend whom I haven't seen in decades, I started experimenting with this information. Professional development workshops on the concept, called "Perceptual Modes," began to appear in my school system in the mid to late 1990s--fifteen years later.

You can see why the concept could be important in the classroom, but I use them in writing, too.

"How?" you ask with bated breath (I get this reaction a lot. I put it down to my dynamic presentations).

Well, people tell or show their preferred mode through their behavior. They way they talk, stand, or move all give you clues, and you can use the traits to make your fictional characters more varied and specific. The concept helps you create more personalized dialogue, too.

Let me SHOW you how (see the visual cue there?).

VISUAL people tend to dress neatly and have good posture. They look at you when you speak.
When they talk, they tend to use visual metaphors, too. They'll say "That LOOKS like a good idea."

Auditory people often tilt their head when they listen to you. They may speak more softly and they would state the idea above as "That SOUNDS good," or maybe even refer to music or harmony. These people gravitate to professions where listening is a valued skill: teaching, translating, sound recording, social work.

KINESTHETIC people are at home with their bodies. They may (not always) appear a little heavy, but they move gracefully. They value comfort and often dress more casually (I, for example, almost always have my sleeves rolled up). Many of them are dancers, athletes, or actors. They are empathetic (care-givers) and may touch you while they talk. Many of them hold an object to ground themselves. Remember Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny? I often unconsciously twirled my wedding ring or a ballpoint pen during class discussions.

Kinesthetic people can sense the atmosphere and moods of other people in a room. They're aware of senses beyond sight, often noticing the temperature or a smell that nobody else does. They will say "That FEELS like a good idea" and learn quickly from mistakes. They seldom read instructions, but they are the actors who can use "Sense Memory" and "Emotional Recall" to rehearse a scene or develop a character in a play.

Beth Shepard, Zach Barnes's girlfriend in my Connecticut series, is kinesthetic. She's gorgeous but prefers to dress casually. She's a former dancer and high school majorette, very in touch with her body. I gave her contact lenses because she's legally blind without them. Someday, I may let her have lasik surgery.

Zach Barnes is auditory. We know that because he's a good listener. One of my books hinges on his hearing a clue in conversation that nobody else "heard."

Zach's friend and and researcher, Svetlana Melanova Thirst, is kinesthetic, too. She's sinfully sybaritic, and a self-taught computer hacker. She learned by doing.

I also use this information in my dialogue workshops. If you have five people in a scene and they all are visual (the most common perceptual mode), you need more speech tags to help the reader keep track of who's speaking. On the other hand, if a man and a woman are visual, another man is auditory, and the last man and woman are kinesthetic, their speaking styles may be all you need.

"It looks to me like the butler did it." Tome leered at Pam's perfect latex ensemble.

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Pam admired the cut of Tom's jodhpurs and winked back. ("Seems" is the passive version of "look," too)

"Sounds wrong to me," Walt said, leaning toward the window where he thought the butler and maid were eavesdropping.

"It doesn't feel right to me, either." Jack rubbed his fingers over the blood-stained carpet.

"Something smells fishy to me, too." Patty scratched her nose and walked around the room, picking up the various heavy objects that might have bludgeoned Mr. Corpus to death.

A few years later, I stumbled on The Art of the Possible by Dawna Markova, which expands the original concept to show how people use all three modes, but in different combinations. The writing is less than lyrical, but it can help you understand how different types of thought processes will develop an idea or behavior. That book was the first one that proved many of my apparent inconsistencies really make sense.

My wife still doesn't think that's true.

Now for the BSP: My story "Par for the Corpse" appears in the first April issue of Tough.

And congratulations to Art Taylor, who won the Edgar Award last Thursday for best short story.


15 April 2019

Dyslexics Untied

by Steve Liskow

Even though I have never officially been diagnosed, I'm mildly dyslexic. I've know for about 40 years, mostly because when I taught, I noticed characteristics in students' writing that I'd learned were red flags...and I had them, too. Nobody noticed them in me because I read well enough so my teachers paid little attention to me unless they needed someone to read a long passage in our primer aloud.

My writing didn't display many of the usual signs until I reached my late 30s. By then, I wore bifocals and my astigmatism was also a problem. I became aware that when I was tired, my cursive writing ran words together if the last letter of one word was also the first letter of the next one: thevening or sociallimits, stuff like that. It wasn't an issue when I typed.

My main problem comes out with numbers. The usual term is "dyscalculia," but that's not accurate in my case. I have little trouble with math or arithmetic facts. I still do calculations (accurately) in my head, and I loved plane and solid geometry in school. But I'm apt to reverse digits if I write a series of numbers. Credit card numbers, account numbers on invoices, and other such financial documents become a true adventure.

When I was in grade school, I often had one wrong answer on the weekly arithmetic tests, and with the benefit of 50-plus years of hindsight, I understand that the problem was always written at the extreme far side of the chalkboard so I saw it at an angle. My arithmetic was correct, but I would copy one digit inaccurately and the teacher marked the answer wrong without looking at my work.

Years later, when I became a teacher and we used computers in the classroom, students would come to me early in the year and say they couldn't find their grades on the printouts I posted. I posted by ID number to maintain anonymity (although everyone knew who got the best and worst marks), and I found that I reversed digits in the six-digit student numbers. Oops. Once I knew that, it became standard for me to warn kids the first day of class. In fact, it became one of my popular stand-up routines.

Now that I'm retired from teaching, I've discovered a new twist to my dysfunction. I'm trying to teach myself to play piano (pause for uproarious laughter) and I occasionally play the wrong staff with one hand or the other. Since the notes occupy different positions on the respective clefs, it creates some frightening harmony. Some jazz buffs or Schoenberg fans might love it, but my ear is good enough to recognize dissonance when I hear it. (Years later, I wonder if dyslexia helped Victor Borge play piano compositions upside down, which I often saw him do.)

I've played one instrument or another since age 10, but I don't read music well (although my grasp of theory is solid--go figure). Part of that could be lack of practice. As a guitar-playing friend says, "If God wanted us to read piano music, He would have put our eyes above one another." The good news is now that I'm trying to read music more often, I seem to learn new songs more quickly.

Another small bonus to dyslexia is my passwords on various sites. I often use names or quotations BACKWARDS and seldom have to think about them because spelling backwards is not a big deal. Think of palindromes. "Able was I ere I saw Elba," for example. My wife needs a printout of all of them because she can't spell that way (pause to gloat). However, she can read printed material upside down.

By the way, if you recite

the alphabet backwards, you'll discover that the rhyme and rhythm are even more lyrical and easier to remember than the "correct" way:

Z Y X and W V,    U T S and R Q P,     O N M, and L K J,   I H G, F E D C B A.

Since you asked....

01 April 2019

Cats and Writing

by Steve Liskow

I've had a few weeks to adjust to Daylight Savings Time now. I like driving to and maybe even home from an open mic with some light in the sky. At my age and with cataract surgery several years behind me, night vision isn't one of my strengths. And getting up in the morning isn't an issue because our bedroom isn't on the sunny side of our condo.

Besides, the time on the clock isn't an issue. We arrange our lives around our cat.

Ernie came to us as a rescue nearly ten years ago, along with his adopted sister Jewel. Ernie was just over a year old--he'll be eleven in April--and Jewel was seven months older. They were a bonded couple and amused each other--and us--constantly with their telepathy. Unfortunately, as often happens, they both had health issues. Jewel died about sixteen months ago and Ernie, who had been with her since he was eight weeks old, was even more devastated than we were. He's a Maine coon, which means he pretty resilient, but he needed about a month to reinvent his bearings. Fortunately, he's also creative and social.

Now, even more than before, Ernie decides when it's time to get up. During the night, he'll knock my alarm clock off my nightstand because it's redundant, and he walks across me and chirps when he wants attention. He doesn't need that clock or sunlight to know when it's time for breakfast because his stomach is more accurate than the Naval Observatory. At 6:45, he tells me he's hungry, even though it's not true.
He munches on prescription dry food all night so the dish is practically empty when I go downstairs. I'll refill it and put out prescription canned food (He has stage two kidney disease, which he's held at bay for two years now), but he won't come downstairs until my wife does so he can help her read the newspaper. Since he's a guy, he prefers the sports section, but he'll settle for the comics.

 After that, he wants me at my desk writing.

That's not negotiable. An hour later, he wants me to run a cup of water for him in the bathroom. Yes, he has a fountain downstairs, but now's not the time for that. He wants me at my desk for between 60 and 90 minutes, then he want either me or Barb to lie on the bed so he can cuddle for about 15 minutes. It recharges both of us.

In the afternoon, if I'm typing, he'll try to crawl into my lap between 1:50 and 2:10 because that's snack time. No argument. He may not have even been downstairs all morning, but now we put out dry food. He wants his non-prescription canned food (Which contains the cleverly-crushed blood pressure pill) at 4:30, but we try to stall until 5:00.

After that feeding, we get by without further guidance or supervision. He'll hang out in the office if one of us is at the computer, or he may come down to join us if we're watching TV (He doesn't get the point of women's basketball at all), but the evening is basically our own.

The plus side of this, besides having a very affectionate cat who likes to take care of us, is that we've learned to work in increments of 75 to 90 minute and then take a short break to replenish the energy. Granted, if I'm in the middle of a scene, I don't want to stop, but he's trained me to keep thinking about what I'm writing while he walks across me, and sometimes that few extra minutes gives me time to think of that snappy comeback that you always think of after losing the argument. If I'm not going to the health club or an open mic or shopping that day, I can do five or six 60-to-90 minute stretches of writing. Getting out of the chair to move helps my less than pristine back, too.

When Barb is rehearsing lines for a play (She averages about five productions a year), he's willing to sit and listen to her. He never gives her direction, but if she can't hold his interest, he'll curl up, tuck his tail over his nose, and go to sleep. Tough critics, cats.

But they train us well.

I know O'Neil has a cat or cats, and I think other writers on this blog have dogs, cats, or both. How many of them help you write?











18 March 2019

Terra Incognita

by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I saw a submission call for "Detective Mysteries" in the 2000 to 4000-word range, and with what now passes for a generous pay rate. Alas, the deadline was only two weeks hence, and I know how I work well enough to know I couldn't produce a salable story in such a short time. My stories rarely go out in less than the sixth draft, and the first one usually takes me about a week.

I went through my colossal file of unsold stories and WIP. Of 23 unsold stories (some of which were heavily revised into something that did sell), several were "crime" stories, but only two or three involved detection and a sleuth. That holds true for my published short stories, too. Two or three feature Trash and Byrne, who star in my roller derby novels and support Zach Barnes in his series. Two others feature Woody Guthrie from my Detroit series. But most of my stories, sold or not, are one-offs, and they tend to focus on people who get away with something...or not.

My novels include six featuring Connecticut PI Zach Barnes, four featuring Woody Guthrie (a fifth is in a complete second draft), two roller derby novels with Trash and Byrne, and two standalones, one a quasi-police procedural and the other a coming-of-age novel that revolves around a crime.

The point was brought home to me strongly this past weekend when I presented my short story workshop, one of my most popular offerings.

In that workshop, I point out that one of the advantages of the form is that it gives writers the chance to experiment with new characters and techniques without committing a huge amount of time or effort. A novel takes me about 15 months in several installments, and with revisions, between 1200 and 1500 pages. That's a major undertaking.

My average short story runs about 4000 words, between 15 and 20 pages. Even with revision, that's several weeks and maybe 100 pages. I seldom print ANYTHING out until the third or fourth draft because it's not worth the paper yet.

That means if you don't want to use the same characters or setting and try something different, this is your chance to do it. Try that unreliable narrator with the odd speech pattern. Try the factory or sports setting you've avoided. Introduce that young, old, or opposite-gendered point of view. Try humor or present tense. Try second person or a new genre.

"Little Things," which eventually won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award, came from a failed story featuring Max and Lowe, two homicide cops from the Woody Guthrie series. The first part was in the point of view of a seven-year-old boy and the rest came through Maxwell. It didn't work, but the kid was a revelation. He was bright, but he lacked the life experience and sophistication to understand what was happening. Not long after that, I overheard two children arguing at a miniature golf course and Brian and Amy, two bright kids who don't understand the significance of Amy's innocent chatter, materialized on the spot.

"Susie Cue" was an experiment that came from meeting a former classmate at my high school reunion. None of the characters is at all like a real person, but the name "Susie Cue" popped into my head after meeting a real Susie. Johnny, a mentally challenged 19-year-old, fought his way to the front of the line, and he had a crush on Susie. It took me a long time to find what made him tick, and eventually I found that all his images were either tactile or edible. A fellow writer praised me for giving him such a limited internal life, and it worked. Nobody seems to notice that the 3600-word story only has ten words that are more than two syllables long, and that four of them are proper names. The story took me over a year because I didn't recognize Johnny's potential at first.

"Teddy Baer's Picnic" is an exercise in low comedy, which you can see from the title. I enjoy irony, but seldom aim at outright humor. Here, puns and rimshots fly like bees in a rose garden. All the characters have names that are puns on different kinds of bears: Bronwyn, Grizelda, Ursula, Kodiak...The story is a comic mass murder. I wrote it for a particular submission call, but the market didn't take it and Mystery Weekly grabbed it last fall. Several readers left positive comments, so maybe I should try something like that again.

Brian, Susie, Johnny and Teddy Baer's daughters and ex-wives couldn't sustain a whole book. Some techniques don't, either. Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights Big City" is a novella rather than a full-length novel because you can only sustain second-person POV and present tense for so long.

But in a short story...

04 March 2019

Support Your Starving Writer

by Steve Liskow

Friday morning, I came to my PC intending to put the final touches on a blog post, but I checked my email first.

A reader who lives in my home town apologized for not attending an event featuring me at a local bookstore and said he'd ordered the first three Zach Barnes books on Kindle. He especially liked figuring out where Barnes had his office (he was right, by the way) and plans to read more of my books. He hopes he can attend a writing workshop I'm conducting in April, too.

As it happens, I ended up not attending the author event for reasons I discussed a few weeks ago. One of the other writers cancelled for the same reasons. But a stranger liked my books enough to buy more of them and tell me about it.

Over the last two weeks, I've had three rejections for various stories, been fighting a cold that seems to last forever and made me stay away from several open mic gigs, and replaced a computer that went down for the Big One.

Someone saying they really liked me made my entire day, and I replied within minutes.

If you're selling hundreds of copies a week, maybe this doesn't mean much to you. But my royalties in a given month won't feed Ernie, our Maine coon, so this was a great boost. Of course I replied to the man. I told him he'd correctly identified Zach Barnes's office site and that I'll make a point of bringing copies of the more recent books to the April workshop.

People talk about supporting their favorite writers, but...I have dozens of former theater friends, many of whom who read, and I know exactly one who has reviewed one of my books. Another gave me technical advice for a novel and a short story, but I'm pretty sure he hasn't read the free copies of either one that I gave him when they appeared. A woman I know bought two of my books at an event last May and hasn't opened either one yet.

Really, people. I know a lot of the reviews on Amazon are bogus. I also know Amazon is trying to crack down on the problem, often throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But give a try, OK?

What else can you do? Well, if you read a book and like it, maybe tell your local library and ask if they will order other books by that author (I offer a discount to libraries in my area, and maybe other authors do, too). Tell your friends about the book. Show it to them. Show them anything else you have, which, in my case, means bookmarks.

Go to the author's website and leave a message saying you liked the book. Like his or her Facebook page. Look for events in your area. Comment on them.

Does it help sales? It certainly doesn't hurt them. And it means a lot.

It's almost as good as the former student who came back to visit me after her freshman year of college and said, "I always thought you were a pain in the butt, but I had a four-point-oh in English this year. Thank you."

Little things keep us going.

04 February 2019

Not Fade Away

by Steve Liskow

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") and Richard Valenzuela ("Ritchie Valens").

Valens, 17, had three hits, the biggest being "La Bamba." In the 60s, dozens of Midwest bands covered his "Come On, Let's Go." The McCoys had a local hit with it. Their lead singer and guitar player Rick Zehringer, AKA Rick Derringer, went on to do session work for Steely Dan and Bonnie Tyler and play behind both Edgar Winter and his brother Johnny.

Richardson's only hit of note was "Chantilly Lace," but he also wrote "Running Bear," a posthumous #1 for Johnny Preston, and "White Lightning," the first chart-topper for country giant George Jones.

Not so with Charles Hardin Holley. A year or two ago, another guitar player I know said, "I could never get the fuss over Buddy Holly." Four other players around the table chewed up one side of her and down the other in less time than it takes to say "Peggy Sue."

Holley (Or, professionally, Holly) was the Real Deal, only 22 when he died, younger than Mozart or Schubert. I still have a six-LP box set of his stuff released around 1980 (Much of it has never appeared on CD; I've considered burning it to CD myself), and it contains a staggering 122 tracks, NOT his complete output! A few are demos or interviews, and a few songs show up in different arrangements, but think about it for a minute. When the Beatles made their first recordings for EMI, John Lennon, 23, was the oldest member of the band and they performed mostly covers.

The youngest of four children, Holly heard his family play guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and who knows what else. They all sang, some professionally, and he heard country, jazz, blues, western swing and gospel music regularly. The kid was a walking melting pot and won a prize for performing on his toy violin...at age five. He was performing regularly before he could shave.

As Buddy Holly and the Crickets or with solo billing, he wrote or co-wrote a slew of rock standards: "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," "Heartbeat," "Oh Boy," "Rave On," "Everyday," "You're So Square," "Words of Love," "Not Fade Away," "It's So Easy," "Well, All Right," and several others. His combo of second guitar, bass and drums invented the rock band template. As John Mellencamp once said, "Listen to the Beatles early records. Take off the vocals and the sound is Buddy Holly."

Holly's style incorporated chords and simple riffs off those chord shapes to build solos that were melodic and rocked like a jeep on a mountain road. They were simple, logical and perfect. He's as vital to the development of rock 'n' roll guitar as Chuck Berry, who was ten years older. I perform lots of blues and folk and sixties rock, but I also play Holly songs because every time I look at a new one, I learn something. I've even used two of his titles for stories (Both currently looking for publishers).

His influence on the British Invasion? The Crickets inspired The Beatles, who covered "Words of Love" on an early LP with George Harrison doing a note-for-note copy of the original. Who can blame him? It's a great riff, and I copy it, too.

Graham Nash formed a band called The Hollies. Oddly, although they covered dozens of rock standards by Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, various R & B acts and other British bands, I can't find a single Buddy Holly Song on their records. But you can hear Holly's influence in those shimmering harmonies.
The Hollies: Graham Nash on Right

The Rolling Stones covered many American R & B And blues acts, and their first single was actually written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But the "A" side of their first American single was Holly's "Not Fade Away," and it benefits from the punchier production, possibly because of somewhat better recording technology than Holly's studio had in 1957.

Linda Ronstadt covered "It's So Easy" and "That'll Be the Day." Blind Faith, the short-lived experiment with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recorded "Well, All Right."

Holly booked that fatal plane to move his band to the next gig because their tour bus kept breaking down on snowy roads in the Midwestern winter. When Valens and Richardson found out about the plane, they begged Holly's band mates to give up their seats. Second guitarist Tommy Allsop "lost" a coin toss and surrendered his seat to Valens. Richardson took the seat intended for a lucky bass player who went on to carve out his own legendary country career: Waylon Jennings.

Sixty years ago yesterday. If things turned out differently, Holly could still be alive at 82, a year and a half younger than Elvis and four years older than John Lennon. He probably wouldn't be doing oldies shows, but he'd see what he started with his '58 sunburst Fender Stratocaster.

Good stuff never gets old.

21 January 2019

Know When To Fold 'Em

by Steve Liskow

Successful poker players recognize when they don't have a winning hand and fold before they toss good money after bad. It's like the Old Kenny Rogers song. Eventually, you learn lessons that work the same way in writing. Some ideas are bad, and repeating them won't make them any better.

 Last year, I participated in three author events that featured a cast the size of a Russian novel. Last March, my library brought 31 authors together, from all genres, and asked us to speak for five minutes each. That's two and a half hours of speakers for an event that would only last three hours. Many of us cut our remarks short or didn't speak at all, but by the time everyone was through, most of the audience left. So did many of the authors. I sold two books and don't know if anyone else sold more than that.

On a beautiful Saturday in June, the first perfect beach day of the season, I joined 18 other mystery writers at a Barnes & Noble. My experience is that if you put more than four writers in the same genre together, they cancel each other out. To make things even worse, this store wanted us to speak for 15 minutes each (Math wasn't the manager's strong suit), and a demonstration against the current immigration policy took off a mile away at the same time we did. We outnumbered the patrons who came into the store, even with a Starbuck's downstairs.

The same results transpired with 15 writers at a local venue in December. We represented several genres, but how many people come to an event planning to buy 15 books? I talked to ten of the other writers (most of us left early), and nobody sold a book.

Was it Einstein who said insanity is running the same experiment over and over the same way and expecting to get different results? Whoever it was, he was right.

Last summer, another library where I'd been trying to get a workshop off the ground for four years invited me to participate in a local event. Pending further details, I said I was interested. The tentative date was April, which gave me time to order books, get a haircut, and iron a shirt, right?

Three weeks ago, the librarian sent the result of four months' planning. They wanted four mystery writers to present a panel (No topic mentioned) from 10:30 to 11:30. Three more panels would follow, and all authors could sell and sign books from 2:30 to 4:00. No refreshments, no activity while panels that people might not wish to attend, no further details.

I decided this was a losing hand and bailed out (See Einstein and Kenny Rogers).

Since November, two indie bookstores have opened within 15 miles of my condo. One offers a consignment split with local authors at 55%-45%, the worst deal I've ever seen. Writers pay a fee to get into the store's data base to sell those books, and the store will only take three copies of a book. Given that arrangement, I can't break even. But if they DON'T sell the three books, they don't refund my fee. As real estate magnate Hollis Norton said back in the 80's "It takes money to make money, but nobody said it had to be your money."

Buh-bye...

The other store requested an email through their site that included a book title, ISBN, synopsis, cover shot, my website, my social media, and a bio. I was tempted to include a blood sample, but couldn't attach it to the email. I don't want to do an author event, but I'd like to know the consignment split. I've sent them three emails over the last month.

They haven't responded yet. This looks like another bad hand.

I only sent a story to one market that didn't pay. They offered to promote my newest book, though. They published a black and white photo with no explanation on pulp paper (the dark cover became three blobs in shades of gray), formatted my story so the right margin looked like a seismograph, and asked me to get two reviews. The people I asked both gave the magazine a two-star review on Amazon and got hate mail in return.

Sayanora, Kid. Have a nice day.

Maybe I'm getting grumpy in my old age. Or maybe I've finally figured out that  I can use the time to write another scene or story. Or practice guitar. Or pet our cat. Or...

07 January 2019

Changing All Them Changes

by Steve Liskow

As the year winds down and I still wait for the last microscopic royalty check, I can't help noticing how quickly the publishing landscape changes. Axioms from a few years ago are now irrelevant and all you can do is try to keep up. My one concrete takeaway from 2018 is that I finished in the black for the first time since 2015. As usual, it's not because of book sales, but from events. About 47% of the income associated with my writing comes from workshops and panels.



Self-publishing means you do lots of promotion, which takes away from actual writing time. Tomorrow night, I will join a Sisters in Crime panel on promotion, but I'm not sure I really know anything to pass on. As things change, there's a good chance that I will guess wrong. I  hope that I learn from those mistakes.

My only core beliefs are (1) a good book is your best marketing tool. People will tell other people about it. (2) That same word of mouth is still your best advertising method. That means that you have to write a good book and behave yourself. Don't be a jerk because word gets around, and people don't buy stuff from jerks.

How do you get news of your book out there? That's a tough one. More and more "experts" agree that social media does little unless you're already well-known. Lee Child, Stephen King, Laura Lippmann and a handful of other writers can tweet about their new book and watch it fly off the shelves, but it doesn't work for mere mortals like me.

Every writer I know has a website and most of us have a Facebook page and maybe other accounts like Twitter or Instagram. Even though I post events and invite people on Facebook, they will only buy the same book once, so I can only invite a person to an event once or twice a year unless they like to stalk me (Hey, there's another plot idea!).

I no longer do a "reading" because they don't return much. I used to sell a book for every seven or eight people who attended, and often had fewer than seven attendees. Conducting a workshop means I actually get PAID, and I used to sell a book for about every three attendees. Maybe they felt they owed me because I gave them something back. Maybe they enjoyed the presentation. Maybe I wasn't a jerk (See above). Whatever the case, that number no longer holds true, either.

I used to charge libraries a flat rate for the workshops and draw ten to twelve people. I also used to conduct six or eight workshops a year. Unfortunately, library budgets in Connecticut have been slashed over the last three years, so in 2017 and 2018, I did a TOTAL of two workshops in libraries.


How have I kept up with the changes? Truthfully, I'm still struggling. The Storyteller's Cottage, about twenty miles from my condo, opened late in 2017 and does events almost daily. They promote local writers and do lots of events, including both workshops and signings. The staff is great and they promote like mad. They're worth their weight in uncut cocaine. BUT the Victorian house built in the 1890s has tiny rooms, with a capacity of about six people and my ego. I've done eight workshops there in the last year, but we split the tuition. That means a packed workshop nets me less than half what I made at libraries, and I seldom sell more than one book.

Last November, the cottage began selling local author's books on consignment at a generous split. It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I have several workshops set for next year already, so it's a little something. The good news is that people show up and feel I'm worth having back.

Plan C:

Last spring, O'Neil De Noux invited me to join an eBook package with nine other writers. I sold a lot of eBooks because people had to buy mine to get the Lawrence Block or Dean Wesley Smith book. I've never done that before, and it worked out well. Thanks, O'Neil.

Five short stories were to appear this year, my personal best (I hear several other Sleuthsayers snickering because that's a decent week for them). Four of them are to markets that didn't exist two years ago, which is good because many of the older markets have disappeared. Less advertising revenue is going to print media now, so both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, reliable markets since the late 1940s, have scaled back to six issues a year from their original ten (two double issues, Christmas and Summer). That means they buy fewer stories. Two of the five stories went to quarterly magazines that are still finding their way. One last appeared in May and the other in July, but they both told me their next issues would be out "in about two weeks." That was before Veteran's Day. I like to promote magazines that publish my stuff, but when they don't come out as promised, I look bad and can't help them.

Plan D:

Since June, three indie book stores have opened in my area. I've visited them to discuss consignment sales or events. I've met with with nice people who are still figuring out how things are going to work, so nothing is settled yet, but it's another way to go.

Create Space has become Kindle Direct. The mechanics of publishing Back Door Man were mostly the same, but the few changes were all to my advantage. I received proofs more quickly, so I could OK them and order copies more quickly, too. I can navigate the new site a little more easily to track my sales, too. Someone who understands computers and marketing could do far more than I can, but I'm a little less ignorant than before.

Plan E:

My cover artist didn't like the name of a band that appeared in Back Door Man, so I posted a "Name the Band" contest on my website and Facebook page and with Sisters in Crime. The person who gave me the best new name for the band (I ended up using two because they were both great) became a minor character in the book (not a victim) and received a signed copy. One recipient has already posted a five-star review. The other reviews on a website I had never heard of before...and she has over 1000 followers. As Herman's Hermits said, "somethin' tells me I'm into somethin' good..."

2019 will be different, and differently.

I have sold stories to two anthologies that will appear in late 2019 or early 2020, and I'm about 75% through the first draft of another Woody Guthrie novel. Five short stories are under consideration with various editors now and I have two more in progress. I have six events planned and I'm waiting to hear from those indie book stores.
Next week, I will be pitching another workshop at another venue.

If you aren't changing, you're falling behind.

31 December 2018

The World Revolved and We Resolved

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion some of the regular mob here decided to offer a resolution for you to ponder.  Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

It has been an interesting year  at SleuthSayers and we hope it has been one for you as well.  We wish you a prosperous and criminous 2019.

Steve Hockensmith. My new year's resolution is to write the kind of book that I would really enjoy reading but which will also have a decent chance of finding an enthusiastic publisher...which might be the equivalent of resolving to lose 30 pounds by only eating your favorite pizza.

Eve Fisher. Mine is to break my addiction to distracting myself on the internet.  


John M. Floyd.  
1. Read more new authors.
2. Write more in different genres.  
3. Let my manuscripts “cool off” longer before sending them in. 
4. Read more classics.
5. Search out some new markets. 
6. Cut back on semicolons.
7. Go to more conferences.
8. Go to more writers’ meetings.  
9. Get a Twitter account.
10. Try submitting to a contest now and then.  This one’s low on my list—I avoid contests like I avoid blue cheese—but I probably should give it a try. (Contests, not blue cheese.)   

Paul D. Marks. I resolve to watch fewer murder shows on Discovery ID and murder more people on paper.

Barb Goffman.  My new year's resolution is to finish all my projects early. Anyone who knows me is likely rolling with laughter now because finishing on time is usually a push for me. Heck I'm often writing my SleuthSayers column right before the deadline, and I'm probably sending in this resolution later than desired too. But at least I'm consistent!

Janice Law. I resolve to start reading a lot of books- and only finish the good ones.

Stephen Ross.  My New Year resolution is to FINALLY finish a science fiction short story I started two years ago, but have yet to think of a decent ending!

Steve Liskow.  I love short stories but find them very difficult to write. I've resolved that I will write and submit four new short stories in 2019.  My other resolution is to lose 15 pounds. That will be tricky since I don't know an English bookie...

Art Taylor. My resolutions are pretty regular—by which I mean not just ordinary but recurrent; for example, I’m redoubling my resolution to write first and to finish projects—keeping on track with some stories and a novel currently in the works. I fell short on my big reading resolution of 2018 (reading aloud the complete Continental Op stories—still working on it!) but I did keep up with reading a list of novels, stories, and essays set in boarding schools (related to my novel-in-progress) and that’s a resolution that’s continuing into 2019 as well, with several books recently added to the list, including The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert and A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. I know these might seem more like “things to do” than “resolutions” but that’s how I plan, I guess! For a real resolution, how about this one? Be nicer to our cats. (They’re demanding.) 

Robert Lopresti.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for a story about a beat poet named Delgardo, set in October 1958.  I am currently editing his next adventure, which takes place in November 1958.  In 2019 I want to write "Christmas Dinner," which will be set in... oh, you guessed.

Melodie Campbell. This fall, we found out my husband has widespread cancer.  He isn't yet retirement age, so this has been a shocking plot twist.  In the book of our lives together, we have entered a new chapter.

That metaphor has become my new resolution, in that it is a new way of looking at life in all its beauty and sorrow.  I am a writer.  I have come to view my life as a book.  There are many chapters...growing up, meeting one's mate, raising children, seeing them fly the nest.  Even the different careers I've tried have become chapters in this continuing book.  Some chapters are wonderful, like the last five years of my life.  We don't want them to end.  Others are more difficult, but even those will lead to new chapters, hopefully brighter ones. 
May your book be filled with many chapters, and the comforting knowledge that many more are to come.

Leigh Lundin.  Each year my resolution is to make no resolutions.  A logical fallacy probably is involved.

R.T. Lawton.  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions anymore. Why? So as to not disappoint myself. At my age, there are fewer things I feel driven to change, and for those circumstances I do feel driven about, I make that decision and attempt regardless of the time of year.

For instance, there is the ongoing weight concern, but I hate dieting or restricting myself from temptation. Other than working out, my idea of a dieting program these days is not using Coke in my evening cocktails. Instead, I’ll merely sip the Jack Daniels or Vanilla Crown Royal straight or on the rocks. Not many calories in ice. On the days I gain a pound (weigh-ins every morning), I can usually guess why. On the days I lose weight, I have no idea why. My best weight loss (usually five pounds at a crack), mostly comes from some health problem I did not anticipate and which involved minimal eating for a few days. Naturally, I’m eating well these days, so we’re back to the temptation thing.

As for any writing and getting published resolutions, that’s a constantly renewable action, however, I can only control the writing and submitting part. The getting published part is up to other people and beyond my control, except for e-publishing.

For those of you making New Year’s resolutions, I wish you much success and hope you meet your goal. And, to spur you on with your commitment, let me know in June how well you did.

Have a great New Year!

24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit

by Steve Liskow    



"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.