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

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.

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft

by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.



26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play

by Steve Liskow

15 years ago, conventional wisdom stated that the way to pique an agent's interest was to publish short stories. I love short stories, but writing them makes calculus look easy. I never took calculus.

Nobody even mentioned novellas, novelettes or any of the other hybrid mutants. Nobody even agrees on word counts for any of them. Rex Stout used to publish three novellas and a short story together as a hardcover book, most of them starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but that's about the only consistent example I can name. Granted, the average mystery was much shorter than it is today, and Stout died in 1975. His novellas were probably between 15 and 20 thousand words, and you'll see where I came up with that estimate in a minute. Now, authors occasionally publish an eBook novella between longer works to keep readers aware of them.

 I wrote several unpublished short stories featuring my Detroit PI, rock & roll wannabe Woody Guthrie, although that wasn't even his name yet. One I liked a lot, called "Stranglehold," came in at nearly 7000 words, which was a problem. During 2005, I sent it out to the only five markets I could find that would accept a story of that length, and none of them did.

A writer friend told me he had trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight because they all showed up early in the story. I tried cutting some of them--and the story's overall length--and created an incoherent mess. I didn't see enough potential subplots to make the story into a novel, so it languished for four years.

Then someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack (The Rex Stout Appreciation Society, named after his detective, Nero Wolfe) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The contest wanted stories between 15K and 20K words (see above) and following the general form of Stout's mysteries. Well, I'd read most of Stout's work because he was one of my mystery-reading mother's favorites. Archie's tone was a big influence on my own writing, maybe because we're both from the Midwest.

Could I add words to "Stranglehold" and turn it into a novella? If I expanded the opening, that large cast would appear more gradually and be easier to absorb. Imagine my surprise when I added 9000 words--and only two minor transition scenes--to the story in four days. I had a novella on my hands without even knowing it. I sent it off to the contest, and it won. It appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in summer 2010.

OK, I thought. When you have more detail than you can pack into a short story, think novella. I've never done that again.

Five years later, I struggled with another Woody Guthrie novel. By now I knew his name because he'd appeared in two novels, and so had several of his supporting cast. This time, I had the opposite problem from "Stranglehold." I had a solid main plot and an anemic subplot I couldn't expand without excessive and obvious padding.

My wife suggested that maybe it would work as another novella, and she was right. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Mom" won the award in 2015 and appeared in Alfred the following summer.

Now, I think I know how to write a novella. Step one is don't plan to do it. If you find yourself trapped with no other way out, focus on one main plot and one subplot. You might have a second subplot if it resolves easily. We're talking 60 to 80 pages, so we don't have a lot of introspection, static lyrical description, or technical wherewithall. If two sets of somewhat similar characters work through parallel or related plots, they're easy to bring together at the end. In both novellas I've written so far, each plot involved members of a band and their music.

Both stories have about ten characters, too. The band was a quintet in the first one, and four of the members were suspects in the killing of the fifth (Music fans would call this the "diminished fifth"). In the second story, the remaining members all have something at stake and two of them are suspects again. If you're a musician, you might think long and hard before joining this band.

I'm kicking around ideas for another novella. It doesn't involve Woody or the band or music, but I have about ten characters again. And one subplot.

If it works out, maybe I'll show it to you.

If it doesn't, maybe I really have a bloated short story on my hands...or another anorexic novel.

TIME FOR THE BSP: My sixth Zach Barnes novel, Back Door Man, a light-hearted romp into a cold case involving mass murder, is now available, just in time for your Christmas shopping.


If I'd known it would be ready for the holidays, maybe I would have called it "Violent Night."

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension

by Steve Liskow

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold that thought…

29 October 2018

I'm Only Fakin' It

by Steve Liskow

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine

by Steve Liskow

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

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

Concept and Premise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's your ultimate test.

01 October 2018

Doing It Right

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Same with the New York Times op ed.

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

03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 August 2018

Blues and Clues

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


06 August 2018

Show Time!

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

Everyone either learned or confirmed something from the experience.

I participate in three types of author events.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 July 2018

Why Workshops?

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How can that be?" I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do it because I still love it.

09 July 2018

DCS (Dumb Cop Syndrome)

by Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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