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

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?


The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?



15 March 2021

The Waiting


 by Steve Liskow

Lately, I've seen writers posting at various sites that they're having trouble writing now. The lockdown has made them stir-crazy or they miss their friends or the family is becoming too needy. They need interaction to get ideas or to keep the energy flowing, and their output has suffered.

I'm not writing much now, but for a different reason. Up until last year, I usually produced a novel and three or four short stories during the year. Last year, for the first time since about 2004, I wrote no novel. I wrote a novella and sixteen short stories. This year, I wrote two short stories in January and have finished a novella, but I haven't writen any other fiction in several weeks.

I have vague ideas for two or three anthology calls, but they aren't coming together the way they usually do, and I think I know why. At least, I know where I'm casting the blame.

Last year, I sold more short stories than usual.

BUT...

Sanford Meisner once defined acting as characters responding to each other's actions. When there's nobody out there reacting, it's hard to act...or write. You write a story, polish it, send it out, then...nothing.


Waiting for a response that never comes is like playing racquetball into Jell-O. If someone rejects a story, I can react by sending it somewhere else, but when nobody responds, I can't do anything. Since last July, I have sent out 22 submissions (a good week for John Floyd or Michael Bracken). Four were rejected and four were accepted, but after eight months, fourteen are still in limbo and it's paralyzing me. 

I used to work on a novel between submissions but  without that big project to occupy me, time crawls by like a glacier. I respect the markets that say "no simultaneous submissions"--which may be stupid or naive, and is certailnly counter-productive--so I don't send a story out again until I get that first response. A few stories are at anthology markets where the deadline is still in the future, so I won't hear about them for a while. And a few are at a market that is notorious for slow responses. Others are at a market that only responds "if interested." 

Significantly, both those two are PRINT markets. I usually send stories to them first, then sent the stories to other markets if they're rejected. That's going to change soon, though.

Two online markets that reply quickly--and have bought several of my stories--have raised their pay rates significantly in the last few months. I've moved them to the top of my submissions list. It's also true that many stories I write for anthologies get picked up elsewhere. 

Yes, I sold two stories ten days ago (A personal first: two sales in one day), but it's even worse than when I used to audition for roles in theater. Then, if you didn't hear anything in a week or so, you could assume you weren't cast and move on. 

As Tom Petty said,  


The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard/

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part.

01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

15 February 2021

More About First Person


 by Steve Liskow

I've discussed point of view before, mostly about the unreliable narrator. That's someone who tells the story but whose word is suspect. That person my be lying to cover his own guilt over some event, or maybe he is biased or misunderstands a situtation. Nelly Dean, the caretake in Wuthering Heights, hates Heathcliff and glosses over her own responsibility for many of the things that go wrong in that book, including the elder Catherine's death. Lockwood, the twit who rents the estate and listens to her account, is too self-centered and dumb to understand the significance of what she says. 

Huckleberry Finn was raised by an illiterate drunken racist, so he doesn't recognize his own racist attitude toward Jim.


He comes to understand through the adventures he and Jim share. Critics often compare The Catcher in the Rye with the emotionally shattered Holden Caulfield to Huck. Others point to Chief Bromden, the paranoid schizophrenic Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All these books gain their power from a narrator who doesn't tell us the truth, expecially since he doesn't lie on purpose.

Many other books, both classic and newer, continue this tradition: The Great Gatsby, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Gone Girl...

But what about books where the narrator tells us the truth? That's a staple of the classic mystery story. I remember being told that a mystery should always use first person point of view, a dictum I tossed as soon as I read The Maltese Falcon, which uses third person through Sam Spade. 

Poe used an unnamed narrator to highlight the brilliance of C. Auguste Dupin. Maybe that's where Conan Doyle got the idea for Dr. Watson, who narrates all except one of the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Hastings, who sounds a lot like Watson, shares his own awe of Hercule Poirot.

Once challenge of using first person point of view is that the narrator needs an interesting voice or persona to keep the reader engaged. If we're going to listen to someone tell an entire book, they have to be interesting, right?

That's true of the unreliable narratiors I mentioned above, but Watson and Hastings are, frankly, boring. They're nice, dull, unimaginative men of a certain age and class, and that narrow mindset exists to make their sleuths seem even more brilliant and dynamic. It also allows us to forgive (as they do) those detectives' personality quirks and shortcomings. Poirot is an arrogant ass, more concerned with his moustaches and his little gray cells than with anyone around him. Holmes is an off-again-on-again cocaine (or morphine, it changes from story to story) user who practices his marksmanship by shooting holes in the wall of his London flat. Apparently, zoning laws were different then.

Another advantage of having these characters as narrators is that Christie and Conan Doyle could hide clues from the reader because Hastings and Watson didn't recognize their importance. It's not really cheating. It's more like slight of hand where the magician makes you look at the wrong hand while the other one palms the ace. 

But Hastings and Watson and a whole generation of Golden Age narrators were dull. Their only reason to exist was the genius of the character solving complex plots that resembled higher calculus. I read a lot of those books and tolerated them, but at some point I lost interest because the characters were incidental to stories that were little more than the word problems in my math book. 

Rex Stout came along, too. I haven't read all the Nero Wolfe stories, but I don't know which ones I missed.


Stout realized that Nero Wolfe was insufferably vain. He weighed "a seventh of a ton," bred orchids, drank innumberable bottles of beer daily (keeping track by the bottle caps on his desk), and never left his brownstone residence. The traditional dull sidekick would have disappeared in his ego and rendered the books unreadable.

But Stout gave us Archie Godwin. Archie is a good PI in his own right. He's charming, loves the ladies (And Lily Rowan and others reciprocate), and can take care of himself in a fight. He's smart. He's also funny and constantly needles Wolfe and deflates him. The relationship between the two characters has more depth and complexity than their predecessors, and it makes for more interesting reading

.After World War II, Lew Archer and Phillip Marlowe came along to relate more character-driven stores with more complex people as narrators and investigators. I don't know if it's significant that they're both American while Christie and Conan Doyle were British. I do remember Chandler's snide comment in "The Simple Art of Murder," though. "The English are not necessarily the best writers, but they are unquestionably the best dull writers." 

In the seventies, Sara Paretsky gave us V. I. Warshawski. A few years later, Linda Barnes gave us Carlotta Carlyle and Sue Grafton gave us Kinsey Milhone. Three feisty, intelligent women PI narrators.

It's probably simplistic to give Stout credit for the rise of the detective teams who appeared in the 1990s, but I'll do it anyway.


Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are smart and damaged. They explore the dark depths of the human condition and come away even more deeply scarred. They finally married between the last two books in the series, and Patrick left investigating for a nine to five while Angie became a terrific mom to their daughter.

Robert Crais's Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are both military veterans (Vietnam, which would put them both at 70 now) and their youths were littered with emotional fallout that give them a deeper understanding of the people they both help and hunt. Elvis can be funny, too. 

I appreciate them more because I grew up with Archie Godwin's voice and vision coloring my own tastes and guiding my reading. When I started writing seriously (who writes frivolously?), Stout was one of my biggest influences.


01 February 2021

Another Good Year: The Invisible Shift


 by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed the singles that nourished my summer of 1966. 1967 was another good year for pop, but we didn't notice how things were changing until two or three years later.

In mystery terms, it was like moving from cozies to noir. We didn't see it at the time, but by 1969, FM radio gained more traction and played longer album cuts while AM singles began to lose their influence. The whole phenomenon was like clues hidden in a complex golden age mystery plot.


The top SELLING albums of 1967 were overwhelmingly pop. The Monkees' first four LPs topped Billboard's chart for 28 weeks during that year, and their first two albums ruled from New Year's Day into June. Herb Alpert and the TJ brass were up there, along with Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and the soundtrack for The Sound of Music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Petula Clark all had big albums, too, and Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 was required listening for all the folkies in my dorm.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band rode the top of the charts from early July to October, and we didn't appreciate how it would change the landscape. Other bands were experimenting, too, both musically and chemically, and their work burrowed into our consciousness along with the Fab Four.

In January, the Doors released their first LP. It didn't sell until Elektra released a shorter single version of "Light My Fire" that got lots of AM airplay. It even got banned in Detroit during the July riot. This may have been the beginning of bands releasing a single and a different version of the same song with a long instrumental break on an album. The San Francisco bands, who began to make their presence known in '67, played long breaks for the dancers at the clubs, and it began to catch on. 

That same January, Cream released their first LP, Fresh Cream.


They put out Disraeli Gears in December, and by then the "Clapton is God" buzz was almost as deafening as their Marshall stacks. They were British, but echoed the San Francisco trend to long instrumental breaks (Jack Bruce even said that started when they played the Fillmore West). When I saw them live in '68, they filled a 75-minute set with five songs. 

Jefferson Airplane gave us Surrealistic Pillow in February, and it charted in March. Their first album was a competent collection of mostly covers before Grace Slick (Vocals) and Spencer Dryden (Formerly the drummer with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy) joined on this record, for which band members wrote all the songs. Those songs ranged from folk-rock to full-bore psychedelia (White Rabbit, 3/5 Mile in Ten Seconds) and it may have been the rest of the country's introduction to Haight Ashbury chic. Only weeks later, the Grateful Dead released their first album. It collected covers, too, but two of them featured extended jams like "Light My Fire." The Airplane LP had two hit singles, so it got AM attention. Not so the Dead.

Buffalo Springfield's first album came out in December '66, but Atlantic added their (only) hit single "For What It's Worth" and re-released the record in May, about the same time the band appeared on The Smothers Brothers TV show. FWIW was the band's big hit, but "Sit Down, I Think I Love You" made Billboard's top 20 for the now-forgotten Mojo Men, and several other songs deserve more respect. The Springfield was one of the great coulda-shoulds-woulda bands that didn't make it, but Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to produce more fine work. Like the Airplane, the Springfield record was a combination or rock, country, folk, and ballads. Nobody was looking at a unified concept for an album...yet.


In June, the world turned upside-down. The Beatles unleashed Sergeant Pepper, and AM radio stations played every song because EMI didn't release a single. This may have been the beginning of album-oriented programming.

Only weeks later, Moby Grape appeared on the scene. Their album also has folkish ballads, countryish twang and petal-to-the-metal rock and roll. All five members sang, composed, and played like monsters. They recorded the entire album, including overdubs, in five days of studio time. Guitarist Skip Spence played drums on the first Airplane LP, but he was a guitarist at heart, and here he was in his element. The Grape is another great "might-have-been" band, but Columbia released five singles on the same day, cancelling each other out and offending the hippy following. Bad drugs and bad karma haunted the rest of the band's short career. 

The Association gave us Insight Out in June, too. It had two legit singles, "Never My Love" and "Windy," but the song everyone remembers is "Requiem for the Masses," the choral anti-war song. I saw the band perform it at Yale Bowl a year later, all the stadium lights turned off as Terry Kirkman played the horn solo at the end. It gave me chills. This is the beginning of the end of albums with lots of singles.

To finish off the Summer of Love, Jimi Hendrix produced Are You Experienced? in September. Like the Beatles, Hendrix forced the engineers to dub, overdub, and re-overdub eight or twelve guitar lines onto four-channel boards. The recording industry had to make technical strides to accommodate the new music, and eight, twelve, and even sixteen-channel boards became common, the biggest advance since Les Paul perfected tape delay in the early 50s. Hendrix gave us a hybrid of blues, jazz, rock, and everything else combined with effects pedals and volume like the eruption of Krakatoa. This record did release a couple of singles in England, where it was recorded, but American stations played every song, especially late at night.


Speaking of Krakatoa, The Who released The Who Sell Out in December. It's a full-concept album (Their next release will be Tommy) with tongue-in-cheek commercials mixed among terrific songs. It's my favorite Who album, especially in the expanded CD. Townshend comes into his own as a lyricist and composer on this one, and it features "I Can See For Miles" with the all-out volume assault that's been the band's trademark forever...and the reason Townshend still suffers from tinnitus. 

December gave us the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, their most psychedelic work. It had a three-dimensional cover and no singles, and it proved Mick and Keith could do far-out, too. Then they went back to blues-rooted rock for their best work over the next several years.

December also saw Paul Butterfield reinvent himself. The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw has Elvin Bishop replacing the departed Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, and it's Butterfield's first record with a horn section. He's learning to share harmonica solo duties with the saxes and trumpet, and it works. Nobody else I know owns this record, but it's one of many resons Butterfield is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Al Kooper was turning to horns at the same time with Blood Sweat & Tears, and Bloomfield left Butterfield to form his own horn band, The Electric Flag. 

Sergeant Pepper is the only album here to top the charts. Several of the others barely dented the basement, but their influence was huge. Think of what will emerge in the next three years: 

Led Zeppelin, Yes, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Chicago Transit Authority, Bitches Brew...

Not so cozy anymore.

18 January 2021

A Very Good Year


I've heard it said that the music we hear in our teens defines our taste because those are such formative years in our lives, and I won't argue. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in my junior year, but for me the biggie was 1966.

After my freshman year of college, I scored a night shift job at a sheet metal plant. My hours were 6:30 pm to 5 am Monday through Thursday and 3:30 pm to midnight on Friday. There were only nine of us, a 31-year-old foreman, four welders, and four machine operators, three of us college kids. I worked a two-man shear with Al, who was missing an upper incisor and smoked a pack a night.

The 52-hour week meant 12-hours of overtime. I still lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work, so that summer paid for the remaining three years of my undergraduate degree. It put me on "normal" time for the weekend, which meant I could have a social life...except that my midnight lunch break made it hard to call a girl for a date. It let me play golf almost every day, too, and that was the summer I broke 80 for the first time.

Swell, you say. So what?

Well, we played the radio most of the time, but all the metal around us interfered with reception so we could only pick up one local station, WSGW, which had a trasnmitter two miles away. At midnight, the DJ piled singles on the spindle. After they all played, he'd lift them, read the news headlines, and play that same stack again. And again. Between lunch break at midnight and punch out at five, we'd hear the same songs ten or twelve times. That was the year my first girlfriend dumped me and the year I fell in love for the first time, so those singles trigger a lot of emotional baggage.

Were they all great songs? Not by a long shot, but some were. The Rolling Stones released "Paint It, Black" and the Beatles gave us "Paperback Writer/Rain." The Hollies offered "Bus Stop," The Kinks "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," and Paul Revere and the Raiders were "Hungry." The Mamas and the Papas released "Monday, Monday." But the local DJ promoted home-grown groups selling their new single at the Battle of the Bands at Daniel's Den on Saturday night.

The Rationals at Daniel's Den, Saginaw's teen hot spot


Southern Michigan's music picked up the heavy metal thunder of the automotive plants, where Dad could make enough money to buy his kid an electric guitar and amplifier. Those kids formed bands and practiced in their garages, the DIY movement that became the flagship of garage rock, the grandfathers of Punk. It was democratic music, the kids stealing their licks and lines from the songs they heard on the radio, so simple ANYONE COULD DO IT. And if you got a fuzz-tone for your birthday, even better.

? & The Mysterians



That summer, "96 Tears" was huge. ? & The Mysterians, a Saginaw band, played Daniel's Den and the Blue Light constantly. Terry Knight and the Pack (Later to morph into Grand Funk Railroad) had a cover version of "Lady Jane," but it got pulled because the Rolling Stones hadn't released theirs yet. DJ and the Runaways had "Peter Rabbit," featuring the octave riff they lifted from "Wooly Bully." The Bossmen (Never big, but members went on to play with Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper) released "Thanks to You." The Standells from LA had their biggest hit with "Dirty Water" and the 13th Floor Elevators gave us "You're Gonna Miss Me" with the full-bore reverb and an electric jug. Really.
The 13th Floor Elevators, Tom Hall on Jug...



Bob Seger and the Last Heard scored their first single, "East Side Story," recycling the riff from "Gloria" into flash-fiction noir. Seger wouldn't hit nationally for several more years, but he was probably the biggest act in Detroit behind the Motown groups (Where Stevie Wonder was also from Saginaw). He would have several more hits that don't appear on any of his greatest hits collections, too, maybe because they were on the tiny Lucky Eleven label, swallowed up by Cameo Parkway, which submerged in the late sixties.
Young Bob Seger



The Rationals from Flint had the first version I heard of Otis Redding's "Respect." Contrary to local myth, Glenn Frey was NOT a member of the band, but he did hail from Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. 

The Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl" came out then, too, along with the Music Machine's "Talk, Talk," and Love's take on "Little Red Book." Composers Bert Bacharach and Hal David preferred Manfred Mann's version of that song and loathed Love's take on it. The Shadows of Knight put out "Oh Yeah," the follow-up to their cover of "Gloria."

Those were the songs I heard while a two-man shear pounded out the rhythm for my summer. I bought my first guitar a few months later. When I look back at these songs, they evoke a very good year, and I can play pretty much all of them now without even thinking about it. The only surprise is that I've never used any of those songs as story titles. 

04 January 2021

Blurbs Too


by Steve Liskow 

If you read John Floyd's discussion of blurbs a few days ago, you found his usual Fort Knox worth of wisdom. Since we have so much in common (We went to different high schools together), I was thinking about blurbs, too.

Does a blurb really help your sales? I don't know. But if a well-known writer says nice things about one or two of your early books, it gives you more street cred, and that shouldn't hurt, should it?

John and I agree that it's best to ask friends for blurbs, especially if they're well-known and you have compromising photographs. But John prefers email, and I like to ask people in person on the theory that it's harder for most people to say "no" face-to-face than it is to send an email. 

Usually, that well-know writer and I have a common theme in our writing. Sometimes, the connection is a little more arcane.


Jeremiah Healy and I met at Crime Bake in 2006. I admired his books, but I also read his blogs about his diagnosis and treatment for prostate cancer. I was diagnosed with the same condition only weeks before the conference, and we spent time at the hotel bar discussing his experience and the options. When I sold my first novel a few years later, he remembered the drinks I bought and asked for my outline and first 30 pages. Then he wrote a blurb I have recycled at least twice.

After that first novel, for reasons that don't bear discussion here, I decided to self-publish, and that made getting blurbs more difficult. Many established writers are forbidden by their contract from blurbing a self-published writer. At least, that's what they told me. Luckily, I was a member of MWA and SinC and often appeared on panels or at workshops, so I could make other connections.

Chris Knopf and I did a panel together in White Plains, New York on the night of an Old Testament cloudburst. 85 people signed up to hear the four-person panel, but only 7 showed up. Chris and I both drove about 80 miles from Connecticut (He got detoured by a washed-out road), and the four of us didn't sell a single book to the small audience. The shared misery brought us together, though, and Chris agreed to blurb my first self-published novel, The Whammer Jammers. He used to work in advertising, so he wrote me a blurb so good I even put it on my bookmarks.


I only have two blurbs from writers I didn't personally know, and their books shared a theme or subject I was writing about, too. 

Cherry Bomb is about teen trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious stretch of Connecticut blacktop that connects Hartford and New Haven. Another writer had written books about troubled teens, and she gave me a blurb that showed up on three of my books.

I got the other blurb for that book through sheer synchronicity. Browsing at Border's (Remember them?), I discovered a nonfiction book about trafficking on the Berlin Turnpike. Even better, author Raymond Bechard was going to do a signing the following week. I bought the book and burned through it so we could discuss it later. When we met, I discovered that his girlfriend's cousin was one of my English-teaching colleagues. Sometimes, it just works out...

By the time I wanted to publish Blood on the Tracks, I'd run out of famous writer friends, and a few others declined my request for a blurb because I was still self-publishing.

Then I remembered Raymond Bechard and the friend connection.

Blood on the Tracks is about a rock and roll cold case in Detroit. By happy coincidence, a high school classmate became a session musician in Detroit. When I met her at our reunion, her escort was the former drummer from Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. She had been married to the drummer in a band fronted by Dick Wagner, who later played behind Lou Reed, Aerosmith, and a host of other stars. He also wrote many of the songs that became hits for Alice Cooper. Susie said I could drop her name into the discussion, so I asked Wagner, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, and Mark Farner (Who briefly played bass in Wagner's first band). Wagner, who had recently published his own rock and roll memoir, said sure.

Deborah Grabien also writes mysteries involving a musician.
She's one of only two strangers I've asked for a blurb.

He had serious health issues at the time, and he was preparing for what he probably thought would be his last tour. I dedicated the book to my classmate for all her help and published the book with Wagner's shout-out. Two days before I received my first copies so I could mail him one, Susie posted on Facebook that Dick's health problems caught up with him and he passed away.

That was the last time I asked someone for a blurb. Reviewers said a few nice things about me and spelled my name right, so I re-cycle those comments, too.

I don't get asked to write a blurb for anyone very often, but it always thrills me. 

Golly, someone actually thinks I'm famous.

21 December 2020

Report to the Shareholders


In 2020, I wrote 16 stories and sold seven. That's nothing compared to several other SleuthSayers, but it shows how I reinvented myself in the year of Covid and other misadventures. I received 14 rejections, too, which means I'm not submitting often enough. 

In spring of 2004, I was struggling with two different novels and heard that you could get attention from agents and publishers by selling a few short stories. I've always liked shorts, but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writers' Conference that summer. Alexander Chee, Roxanne Robinson and Chris Offutt gave me good advice and great writing prompts, so by year's end I submitted seven stories to various markets. None of them sold, but they taught me a new process. The following year, I wrote and submitted ten more stories. None of those sold, either, but each rewrite sucked a little less.

Between then and 2017, I only submitted 13 new stories, mainly because I sold my first novel late in 2009 and published it in 2010. By then, I had six or seven versions of various other novels on my hard drive. I sent some of the older stories out in revision (some sold), but I concentrated on those novels in various degrees of development.

Late in 2019, I published Words of Love, my 15th novel, and it changed my landscape. For the first time since 2003, I had neither a new idea nor an old manuscript loitering on the computer. My writing workshops earned more than my book sales, anyway.

Then came 2020. In late January, I had a minor traffic accident that aggravated a pinched nerve in my neck. My left arm went numb, and the ER doctors thought I'd had a minor stroke. They prescribed blood thinners, pain-killers and other meds for a month, then decided it wasn't a stroke after all. I'd said as much, but the drugs scrambled my concentration. I went off them at the end of February, but by then the pandemic was shutting us down and I had two workshops cancelled. I wrote a novella for a contest, but that was the only fiction I produced in the first half of the year. More about that in a minute (Like the foreshadowing?).

In March, I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time (I hate reruns). Between April and July, I had eight sessions of chemotherapy, followed by surgery in August. The chemo didn't give me the nausea I heard so much about, but my hairline is higher now, and my remaining silken silver locks are a lot thinner. I also have enough unused meds in the bathroom to stock a small CVS.

Fatigue and the new pills disrupted my thought process even more. By May, I didn't think I could plot out a novel again even if I had a decent idea, and it seemed clear that I had to write shorter.

So I did.

Since May, I have written 15 new stories, and the seven sales doubles my personal best for the year.

Between chemo treatments, I self-published a novella that won Honorable Mention for the Black.

Orchid Novella Award last December. Last week, I learned that the novella I wrote last spring earned Honorable Mention again for 2020. The announcement will appear in the Wolfe Pack newsletter, but I receive no certificate or any other proof of the honor. It won't even be mentioned in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which publishes the winner. Novellas are a hard sell, which is why I self-published last year's near-miss in July. Both other markets turned it down...

I also won my fourth Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Again, no money or publication, but I get an impressive certificate and I was recognized at this year's virtual New England Crime Bake, where I've appeared often enough so they know I pronounce my name with a long "O." Eventually, I sold all three of my previous winners, so this story should find a good home, too. 

Since I'm reinventing how I write, I've examined my output for this year much more carefully than I would have a few years ago.

Four of the sales were to anthologies, one a story I wrote in 2007 and another in 2009. Both those stories were fewer than 3000 words, short for me. Another story will appear in a bundle next year, and two stories became only the third and fourth I've sold on the first submission.

Excluding the novella, my average word length was about 4700 words, which didn't surprise me. For years, my comfortable length has been between 4K and 5K. That seems to be my attention span.

Three new stories are between 3K and 4K, seven are in my usual 4K to 5K, and two fall between 5K and 6K. One is over 7K, and the novella is not quite 17K.

All those stories involve a crime but only six of them involve someone solving a mystery. The others feature the protagonist getting away with something or deciding that justice has already been served. I don't describe myself as a noir writer, but many of my stories tilt in that direction.

It's been that kind of year, hasn't it?

I'm doing a desultory edit on a novel that received 50 rejections between 2006 and 2008. Five different agents asked for the full MSS and passed on it without explanation, but I think I finally figured out the problem. If I publish it, it will only be as an eBook.

I am working on two more short stories and one that feels like another novella.

If it gets to a point where it's not fun anymore, there's always piano.

07 December 2020

Historical Fiction (Or Not)


 by Steve Liskow

I've started using open submission calls as writing prompts and it seems to work; I've finished more short stories in the last six months than in any other year since I started writing seriously. I've noticed many of the calls want historical fiction, which I usually avoid. 

Why?

I can do research, but I try to avoid it because I'm a trivia junkie. If I see an interesting factoid, or, even worse, a link, I'll follow it to another link...and another. Three hours later, I might have 25 open links on the monitor, all of them fascinating, and none with any connection to my original quest. I'm the walking embodiment of research as the best way to avoid actually writing.

Besides the trivia distractions, I find that too much historical fiction uses exposition ("Lessons?") instead of story-telling. A few years ago, I heard of a book by another local author, and the premise intrigued me, so I downloaded a sample. The "dialogue" was "As you know, Bob," information dumps that sounded like a seventh-grade history text. Description of the setting and characters was even worse, and even more plentiful. The first 25 pages, the whole sample, had almost no story, but constant scene-setting in turgid prose. The writer was so proud of her research that she gave us all of it. 

Another danger stems from involving a major historical event. If you write about Columbus, Gettysburg, or Prohibition, you'd better get every detail correct or you'll smother in the messages from readers who spotted your mistake.

There are exceptions, of course. Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger is a terrific novel about an English prostitute in the cholera epidemic of 1831. The setting and exposition stay in the background like good harmony singers and keep the plot and characters in the spotlight. If all historical fiction were this good, I read a lot more of it. 


I've written a little--very little--historical fiction myself. Those works sprang from personal experience so the only research was confirming dates and checking the spelling. 

Run Straight Down isn't really historical; my experience as a teacher inspired it. While I taught at the largest public school in the State of Connecticut during the 1990s, I lost students three consecutive years in gang shootings. A lawyer suggested I change all the details to protect myself from potential lawsuits, so I changed the town, all the names, and the geography. That meant I didn't have to do much research, but I still saw those boys' faces every time I sat down at the keyboard.

In 1967, I attended summer sessions at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, 30 miles north of Detroit. In late July, we crowded around the TV set in the lounge of Fitzgerald House and watched Army tanks rumble down Woodward Avenue.


Two other residents of the dorm lost their houses in fires set by protestors, and one received the news over the house phone while the rest of us watched his face crumble. My kinesthetic memory holds those tiny details because they connect to real people. 

My other exception is Postcards of the Hanging, which I published in 2014. A judge for a contest praised my research and use of details to establish the mood and setting without being forced or obvious. Neat, huh? Now for full disclosure...

The story takes place during the 1964-65 school year, and it wasn't historical at the time. I began the first draft in 1972, and it was inspired by a sex scandal involving a high school teacher during my senior year. I changed all the names and details, but if I needed to check on music or dress styles, I looked at my high school yearbook. 

I remembered the Beatles and Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, the football and baseball games (We had a terrific football team and our weakest basketball team in years), struggling to talk to girls, slang, adolescent angst, local bands and everything else, only seven years earlier. I taught myself to write by producing three distinctly different versions of the book, and the third one became my sixth-year project in 1980. Those three manuscripts gained my first 40 rejections.


When I decided to self-publish the book, I kept all those topical references because they helped me remember that world AND they defined my characters. I actually named minor characters after the streets in my neighborhood. I changed the sequence and used flashbacks to build more tension, but I was amazed how little rewriting I had to do. Someone suggested adding a prologue and epilogue to show the book wasn't really a YA novel, and those two sections, about 25 pages, contain most of the new writing. I added transitions to move in and out of flashbacks, but I think I only did major revisions to one or two existing scenes. 

I don't know if I'll ever try another historical novel or story.

Maybe if I lived a more adventurous life...


23 November 2020

Fixing The Wheel


 by Steve Liskow

America has a long tradition of belittling teachers and education. Washington Irving may have started with Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but it has continued unabated.


The closest I remember to a real depiction was the 80s film Teachers with Nick Nolte, and that featured a brilliant substitute who had escaped from a mental hospital. That message was underlined in the film's closing dialogue.



Now, in Jill Biden, we have a champion of education in the White House instead of Betsy DeVos, who expanded the leaks in a sinking ship. The American public school system began its decline decades ago. It became apparent under Reagan when A Nation At Risk was released, but I'm sure my own teachers despaired about how much dumber their new students were, and I will be the first to admit there are many subjects I should know much more about. I looked at a New York Regent's exam from 1920 recently, and I could answer three questions. That was the high school standard a century ago. 

What can we do about it? I've argued the topic with other teachers and normal people for at least 30 years, changing my ideas as I see problems and shortcomings, and I still get more blowback than hugs. But here is my comprehensive plan. Remember, I am addressing ONLY public education. I know some of it would cause other problems, but that's OK. Government exists because it can handle complex programs and address issues private enterprise can't encompass. 

We wouldn't know if these ideas work for at least a decade, and that's a problem in itself. As a culture, we worship the Quick Fix. Some things take time, though, or we would have found a cure for cancer, solved world hunger, and obviated climate change long ago. Political ideology is a major hindrance, and I have no answer for that, even though it would certainly rear its ugly head in this project. OK, enough disclaimers. Now brace yourself.

ELIMINATE ALL STANDARDIZED TESTS. There are organizations (Tutoring scams and test prep shills) with a huge stake in kids failing, and all the money we spend there could be used for pre-school or reading readiness classes, teacher training and hiring, equipment, and infrastructure. If a million students take the SAT every year, there's 60 or 70 million dollars right there. How many teachers or books or buildings is that? More teachers can mean smaller classes. Besides, a good teacher can tell you if your kid can read, write, count, or handle other material at the appropriate level without those tests anyway. A teacher doesn't have to be a genius, but he or she does need to have common sense and understand the students.


WE NEED A NATIONAL CURRICULUM. I resisted that idea for years, but it's necessary. You'll see why in a minute. We would need teachers from all states and at all levels to cooperate in designing the program. It would make writing the Constitution look like a lunch break, but it's vital. Remember, we only need to get the first two or three years in place right away. We can tweak those and learn from them while we develop the rest, based on the latest knowledge and understanding of learning theory, child development, and the subjects themselves. The content must be factual. No, there was never an effing "War of Northern Aggression." Get over it.

WITH THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM, THERE IS ONLY ONE LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY. Honors, Advanced placement, college prep, general, commercial, etc. go by the wayside. Everyone studies the same material and skills and attains the same degree of proficiency or understanding. This means schools don't need to purchase four sets of books for each grade or subject, saving more money. I recommend a passing grade of 80% and there is no social promotion (Would you like to know that the surgeon operating on you got through med school with extra credit?). The student achieves the grade before advancing. Period. 

THE CURRICULUM. I admit, this is much more rigorous than I encountered, but there are tremendous gaps in my knowledge that I'm still beginning to recognize. There are still people who consider me smart, too.

LANGUAGE ARTS. Composition and literature, multi-cultural and diverse. Students must also be able to speak, read, and write fluently in at least one language besides English. Young children learn easily, so introduce a second language in kindergarten. In the U.S., I suggest Spanish or maybe French. Later, maybe an Asian language and an African language, too (Which mean learning different alphabets), with other languages optional. This also introduces different cultures, value systems, and ways of thinking. A subset of this topic is rhetoric and public speaking (debate?) and maybe journalism. The goal is to instill critical thinking skills and include fact-checking and research.

MATHEMATICS. Start with practical math like making change and advance at least through Trigonometry, preferably Calculus. My math background is a disgrace, and my weakness with algebra forced me to leave my pre-dentistry major for English because I could cope with words, but not numbers.

NATURAL SCIENCE. Biology, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, meteorology. Teach the scientific method and lots of lab time.

SOCIAL SCIENCE.  World history and American history from several perspectives (Maybe the expansion of the United States from the Native American and Spanish side?). Psychology, sociology, anthropology, civics, economics. Maybe the history should include popular entertainment in the other cultures. My history background is even worse than my math. And I made National Honors Society.

COMPUTER SCIENCE. 

ART. Maybe a better name would be "Aesthetics." Both appreciation and hands-on, including painting, sculpture, and maybe film/video. Performance wouldn't require proficiency, but it will foster understanding and appreciation. Music (history, appreciation, performance on at least one instrument). Again, proficiency isn't vital, but it helps appreciation. Theater arts and drama.

PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Exercise and nutrition and healthy lifestyle. I assume school sports will exist, but with free college tuition (see below), there may be less emphasis on some kids getting into the "right" college for scholarship and turning professional later. Athletic scholarships will be unnecessary and free more funds for other concerns. 

HOME ECONOMICS. Cooking and nutrition and housekeeping skills for all genders. Maybe also sewing and tailoring? Even a guy should be able to iron and sew a button on his shirts and do laundry.

MANUAL ARTS. Carpentry, drafting, mechanics, etc. I'm not asking for a generation of skilled artisans, but everyone should be able to change a fuse or a flat tire. A woman I know makes extra money changing her neighbors' automotive oil and mounting their snow tires. 

THE STUDENT MUST GRADUATE.  There's nothing magic about the age of 16 or 18. A very gifted and motivated student might master all this material at 15. Someone else may be challenged and not finish until 25. It doesn't matter how long, only how well. A responsible citizen can make contributions to the society, and that means education. 

UNTIL A PERSON CAN PRODUCE A DIPLOMA, HE CAN NOT VOTE, DRIVE A CAR, OR GET WORKING PAPERS.  One of my friends suggested that he shouldn't be able to drink alcohol, either. The car and job are the carrot to keep the student working. There is a big reward at the end. It's called adulthood. The national curriculum means someone can't move to another state or town and get an easier school. Everyone leaves with the same skills and knowledge, but certainly with different strengths, interests, and weaknesses. Life will be easier for future employers, and students have more information to plan the rest of their lives. 

One drawback: There might be a criminal industry in forged diplomas, the equivalent of academic bootlegging. See? I even give you a new plot idea.

A STUDENT WITH A DIPLOMA FROM THIS CURRICULUM ATTENDS COLLEGE FREE. At least through a Baccalaureate degree. Students won't need the remedial work so many colleges are forced to offer today. That frees up more funds, and might mean fellowships or financial aid for graduate degrees or extra training.

Some students with a physical handicap or emotional/mental challenge may not be capable of mastering this curriculum. Their care and special needs should be taken care of until they reach adulthood. What happens next is a question government needs to address. It's beyond the scope of my plan, but it has to be acknowledged. 

If the students are all in school, jobs go to adults. When the students graduate, they are equipped to fill more jobs and have more choices.

Is this perfect? Of course not. It's idealistic and I've overlooked or omitted many issues and problems.  We can finance practical solutions if we really want to. I think it would take two or three years to develop the primary curriculum and to create reading lists. Use this system for 13 years or until a substantial number of people graduate with the new standards to determine how well it works and to shore up problems that we find. 

The definition of the school day and year are open to discussion, but it would be convenient if the entire country followed the same calendar. Remember, we aren't an agrarian society anymore that needs summers off so kids can help tend the crops. I'd like to see more flexible scheduling. Maybe five eleven-week sessions with students attending four of them. That's only one example. 


How badly do we want it?



09 November 2020

Sin & Syntax


by Steve Liskow 

I encountered Strunk and White's The Elements of Style in my senior year of high school, and have worn out several copies since then. Practically every writer I know quotes its advice about active verbs and various other nuggets, and that's both good and bad. Strunk geared the book to students writing expository essays for college (He taught at Cornell). It's not good for writing fiction because it encourages a stripped-down style that makes for strong concrete statements at the expense of a unique voice. All writing should sound like it comes from a human speaker, especially fiction writing.

The adults who read to me when I was young included teachers, actors and journalists who loved words and language. Because of them, I hear what I read (and write), and I hear bad writing instantly. It's like having perfect pitch and listening to someone playing a piano that's out of tune. Jack Kerouac said, "It ain't whatcha write, it's the way atcha write it," and he's right. I can name several best-selling authors who tell good stories in prose that would not have survived my tenth-grade comp and lit class. Sadly, some of them label themselves "literary."

These are the books on writing that I've KEPT

Facebook and various websites often present lists of the best books for writers (I even distribute my own list at workshops), and they generally mention the same handful of books.

I disagree with several of the choices, and one book that should top them off like a good head on a beer never shows up.

Go-to books for editing 


Here it is.


Hale published it in 1999 and produced this revised edition in 2013, updating examples and adding exercises and activities that expand your ear and your mind. It's a rare book that examines style concretely and completely. It's fascinating, funny and tough.

Hale divides the book into three parts: Words, which discusses the eight parts of speech; Sentences, which explains subject, predicate, phrases, clauses, length and tone; and Music, which examines melody, rhythm, lyricism and voice. The last section matters because I can't name another book that touches on these issues.

Each chapter has five parts. "Bones" talks about the essential grammar and the logic it's built upon. "Flesh" gives lessons on good writing and offers examples of creative and effective prose. Hale's examples come from mythology, "great" literature, advertising, children's stories and almost anything else you can name. "Cardinal Sins" points out real errors in usage and shows why and how they are bad. "Carnal Pleasures" shows how to break the rules and make language beautiful and effective. The "Catechism" section is new to this edition. It provides exercises, activities and writing prompts that force readers to think about what the words on paper or on the screen are supposed to do.

The book offers five over-reaching rules that encourage flexibility and critical thinking. 

Relish every word. Aim high, but be simple. Take risks. Seek beauty. Find the right pitch. 

The rest of the book shows how to follow them without becoming a drudge.

This is from "Cardinal Sins" discussing pronouns:

Speaking of whose, the one truly unforgivable sin that haunts the use of pronouns is the confusion of whose with who's and its with it's. Pronouns, when they get possessive, act weird. We do not say I's, you's, he's, or she's to indicate possession, so why would we write who's or it's? Possessive pronouns are all apostropheless: my, you, his, hers, its. Who's and it's are contractions of who is and its (or who has and it has). Learn this or die.

Her adverbs discussion includes what she calls "Valley Girl trash adverbs" that "reflect the mindless banter of surfers, Valley Girls, and adolescent mallmouths." "Unless you want to sound like a lightweight," she warns, "stay away from them."

She then quotes "Casino Kaiser Donald Trump" (Remember, this was written in 2013) turning on New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman during her reelection campaign. "I was totally a good friend to her, and she showed totally no loyalty."

Hale's treatment of Cardinal Sins with interjections is both brutal and hilarious. She wreaks havoc on "like," among other verbal tics. She cites British comedian Catherine Tate's entire monologue built from Valley Girl one-word interjections. It's on YouTube, so check it out for yourself.

The section on Music goes where most writing books fear to venture, and it's worth the price of admission all by itself. Written language should sound pleasant or unpleasant to help convey the ideas and meaning, so these chapters show how those devices we learned when studying poetry (alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) can carry the ball in prose, too. Her examples and exercises raise the bar on prose writing to new highs.

If I had time for 50 rewrites, I might be able to get there.




26 October 2020

Stratford Redux


 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.


Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"



I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.