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

22 June 2020

A Matter of Trust


A few weeks ago, a novice writer reached me through my web site. He said he went to the high school where I taught, but I never knew him. He told me had done "lots of research" on a crime or crimes in our city and wanted me to help him turn it into a real book.

The email had lots of problems. First, he attached a word doc instead of simply writing the message. I suspected he was recycling the letter, but most of it was specifically aimed at me. He said his MS was 100K words long, but I couldn't tell if he had a non-fiction book or a novel, and it makes a difference because my comfort zone is fiction.

I asked a few questions for clarification and told him to send me a five-page synopsis of his entire MS, then a one-page synopsis of each of the three shorter sections he identified in his first message. I warned him that was very difficult, but I needed a clearer overview of what he had. He also mentioned podcasts, and I said if that was his choice, it might be a good idea, but he needed a scriptwriter or someone with more experience in radio. I quoted an estimate and told him that could change when I knew more, and that I wouldn't commit yet.

The next day, he replied and made my decision easy. He said his lawyer wanted me to sign a one-year non--disclosure agreement for our work together. I told him he had just closed the negotiations.

Everything in the creative arts, especially writing, is about trust, and the non-professionals don't get that. If you send a query or manuscript to an editor or agent, don't put the copyright symbol on it. They aren't going to steal it for several reasons, lawsuits and a ruined reputation topping the list. They have to keep working with other people, remember? Besides, if they can't do better than something they find in the slush pile, they're in the wrong business anyway.

Do session musicians sign an ADA before performing on someone else's recording? Do museum curators sign one before displaying someone's painting or sculpture? Do actors sign one while rehearsing the first production of a play, when the playwright may still be revising the script as they go along?

Nope, nope and nope.

The same is true of writers to agents, editors, and readers. Writers ask people to read their work, so they have to create something worth a reader's time and effort. A reader doesn't pick up a book to be bored by stale plots, cliched characters, or mountains of description. That's why editors and agents reject such submissions. The publishers trust them to bring quality (salable) products to the table, and if they betray that trust, it goes away.

Agents and editors read enough so they remember something good when they see it, especially when they see it again. Yes, we hear stories about plagiarism, but they're rare, especially with a well-known writer as either the victim or the perpetrator. There's too much at stake to take such a stupid risk.

I used to teach senior English classes with students who read four to six years below grade level. I always thought it was an oxymoron and that we should have helped those kids much sooner, but go figure. Those kids, who didn't know better, frequently handed in rap lyrics as their own poetry. They were always amazed when I caught them. They didn't understand that people who need a rubber stamp to spell their own name on the paper (Make sure it's right-side-up!) probably won't use a beautiful extended metaphor (Which they thought was a sports injury, anyway).

Those kids were trying to fool me, but it was how they tried to survive in a world where they'd been set up to fail. I never told them I found "their " poems by Googling the first line because I wanted to perpetuate the myth of the omniscient teacher. I made them rewrite the stuff into something more their own. These kids weren't aiming at Harvard or Oxford, they just wanted to get out of a really ugly building and find a full-time job. OK, no harm, no foul.

But it's different in the writing world, which is sort of like golf, where you call a penalty on yourself if you accidentally drag your club in the sand trap. There's a lot of money out there, but most of us aren't getting any of it, so it's all about the handshake and who buys the beer.

And, except on really bad days, not about the lawyers.

15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths


by Steve Liskow

That's the anthology coming out June 18 with one of my stories in it. John Floyd has one in it, too, along with several other people I know. Kate Flora, who founded Level Best Books, accepted my first short story for publication fifteen years ago. K.M. Rockwood suggested the name of a band that appears in one of my novels. Crime writing is a small world.

The back cover copy gives you a good sense of what's in store:

Lovers and losers. Whether it's 1950s Hollywood, a scientific experiment, or a yard sale in suburbia, the twenty-two authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "heartbreaks and half-truths" in their own inimitable style, where only one thing is certain: Behind every broken heart lies a half-truth. And behind every half-truth lies a secret.

According to my spreadsheet, "Ugly Fat" received fourteen rejections between the end of 2008 and early this year when Judy Penz Sheluk selected it for the anthology. One market told me to re-submit it--and rejected it again. That did wonders for my self-esteem. I assume another market rejected it because I sent it in April 2018 and haven't heard from them yet. That's not unusual, though. I still have seventeen unanswered queries from agents to whom I sent The Whammer Jammers in 2011. That's a major reason I started self-publishing my novels.

I've always loved short stories but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writer's Conference in summer of 2004. Alex Chee, Roxanna Robinson and Chris Offutt were all excellent teachers. Chris also gave me helpful feedback on an early version of what eventually became Blood on the Tracks (Interestingly enough, so did Kate Flora at Crime Bake a year or two later, on a very different draft). I wrote eight or ten short stories in the months after that one-week workshop, and four stories that have seen print came from writing prompts or other suggestions I picked up there.

"Ugly Fat" is different from many of my stories, but similar to a lot of them, too.

Like many of my stories, it has a female protagonist. I worked theater with strong, organized, creative stage managers for thirty years, and most of them were women. My wife is smarter than I am, too (Yes, I grant you, that's no big deal). My novels feature strong women like Valerie Karr, Megan Traine, "Shoobie" Dube, and Svetlana Melanova. Weak or dumb women don't do it for me, and that bias shows up in my writing.

Connie, the protagonist in "Ugly Fat," has been dumped by her cop boyfriend and is now visiting the gym to get back in fighting trim. She stops at a tag sale and finds that her problems are nothing compared to the woman running the sale. Molly's husband dumped her for his secretary and they eloped to Mexico. Now Molly is selling all the guy's clothes, books, and sports gear. She divorced his sorry ass and refers to it as a great diet, in which she lost 170 pounds of ugly fat in one day. Connie sympathizes, but figures out there's more to the story than meets the eye.

The story has dark humor, which I like, and a few music references, also a staple. Telling more would spoil it.

Now, you ask, how is it different from my other stories?

If you don't ask that, you missed your cue.

Well, it's only 2400 words long, one of my shortest published stories. My comfort zone seems to be about 3500--or, if you include my two novellas--about 4300. Excluding the novellas, my two longest stories are roughly 6000 words.

I've always been a process kind of guy, maybe because I taught for so long. More often than not, I know when, where, why, and how I got the idea for a story. I've discussed that before. I try to help people in my workshops realize that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, sometimes several places and ideas at once.

I remember nothing about when or where this story came to me. The draft I sent for the anthology is "Version S," which would be the 19th version. That's far more than usual, and I don't know why there were so many. I usually do five or six drafts over a span of three or four months. Since I sent the story out the first time around Thanksgiving 2008, I probably wrote the first draft in July, most likely after seeing a tag sale or ten within walking distance of my condo any given weekend.

Who knows? Who cares?

Connie's found a home. And she's in good company.

25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain

"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


by Steve Liskow

Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.

Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

13 April 2020

Spare Time and Spare Parts


by Steve Liskow

We all need to fill much too much spare time right now, but social distancing is easier for a writer because it's part of our life anyway. Unfortunately, I may have domesticated Zach Barnes and Woody Guthrie too much and fear that I'll turn them into family sitcoms, so, for the first time since 2003, I have no novels in progress. I have a few ideas for short stories and a novella, but a few weeks ago I turned to the Nostalgia Plan, AKA Recycling 101.

I store pretty much everything I cut on flash drives or external hard drives: a line of dialogue or description, scenes I cut from novels or short stories, an interesting character, projects I abandoned, and even stories rejected so often I ran out of places to send them. I cannibalize enough to make it worthwhile.

I published Blood on the Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, in 2013, but I wrote the first version of that story late in 2003. In various forms, revisions, and under at least four titles, the book(s) received over 110 rejections.

Sifting through the wreckage, I found a complete MS called The Cheater, an earlier version of what eventually saw print. Between 2006 and 2008, I pitched it to 58 agents. Interestingly, three of them asked for a full MS, another asked for 100 pages, and two others asked for 50 pages or the first three chapters. They all turned it down, usually without comment, but one with the kind of rejection that makes writers crazy: "You're a good writer and there's a lot to like here, but I can't sell this."

No further explanation.

Eleven years later, I still don't know why that MS was rejected, but I suspect that it was because I changed genre in mid-story. The premise was that the PI who would later become Woody Guthrie met Megan Traine at their high school reunion and they teamed up to solve a murder that involved one of the their classmates. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were important themes, and I suspect agents freaked when the cozy went south.

A few weeks ago, I went through the book again. I even found two pages of revision notes from 2010, when I considered revising that 78K-word story for my then-publisher, who had a 70K-word limit.

The cozy high school reunion idea is autobiographical. I met the inspiration for Megan Traine at my own reunion. Although we graduated together (Our class graduated 691 students), we never met in school, and she became a session musician in Detroit. The reunion idea was the crux of several versions of the book, but I finally decided that was the problem and abandoned it for Blood on the Tracks. 

The Cheater, which I also sent out twice as Alma Murder, presented another problem. The PI was from Connecticut and his name was Erik Morley, but Megan Traine was constant through all  versions of the book. Her character deepened, but changed very little between 2003 and her real debut ten years later. I figured if I put her in Detroit with a different lover, she'd look a little slutty, so I decided to change her name and background. The plot would still work, and I liked the POV of the classmate, a woman accused of killing her abusive husband. She was a lawyer and a functioning alcoholic. So much for the cozy, right?

I studied my revision notes, revised them some more, added new ideas, and rewrote about 40 pages of the book. I changed Megan Traine's name and background and cut all the music scenes from earlier versions (Erik Morley still played guitar, another constant with Woody and one of the few things he had in in common with me).

It was like sticking my hand into a garbage disposal.

The more I read, the more I realized that Meg and music generated some of the best scenes in that book. Changing her would force me to re-write or cut parts that gave all the characters more depth.

Fourteen years ago, I loved the book and the characters and we were a team. The rewriting. . . not so much. It became a chore instead of a passion. I stuck it out for about three weeks, then remembered the advice all doctors have at the top of the list.

First, do no harm.

I was mutilating something I loved and the changes would make it different, but not better. I decided to leave the book alone.

Maybe I'll publish it someday as an eBook, and UR-version of Blood on the Tracks. If I do, Alma Murder still works as a title. Or, maybe, I'll just leave it sleeping on the hard drive where it's happy.

I was surprised that a 14-year-old MS still felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Now, the biggest change would be a global edit to replace the double-space after end punctuation. And maybe to eliminate a few semi-colons.  I have several short stories on that same disc that don't merit reworking. I guess this particular story was more important to me.

Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason other than money. But sometimes money's not enough, either. Sometimes we do it for love.


What do you have in your closet?


30 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue III: Dialogue and Plot


by Steve Liskow

Last time, we discussed how dialogue can deepen character, so today we'll look at how it can advance your plot.

Obviously, we need to understand the situation and what is at stake, and we learn that through exposition. An information dump or obvious explanation too early in your story kills pace and energy, and may drive your readers away. Playwright Jeffrey Sweet shows us there's a right way and a wrong way to convey information.

Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" presents a man and a woman arguing over her having an operation. Since they know what the operation will be, they never explain it to us, but it's clear and drives the story. The opening scene of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross shows two men using jargon they never explain, but eventually the audience has enough context to understand that they're real estate agents. Both examples show Private Exposition, so-called because the characters don't share it. It gives information, but provides tension and doesn't slow the action. As long as your characters speak to each other and not to the reader, you're fine.

Public Exposition has the people explaining things so the reader knows them, too. This means at least one character in the scene has to be brought up to speed. It's typical in mysteries when someone has to explain the situation to the sleuth. Be sure someone in the conversation doesn't know what's going on or this can become heavy-handed and smothering.

"I was talking to John, who, as you know, is your brother."

Ibsen and Chekhov used to load their first scenes with servants discussing what their masters were up to, and it was like watching ice melt. Ira Levin even pokes fun at it in his play "Critic's Choice."

The test is simple: if both characters know what they're talking about, don't explain it to the audience. If at least one character is in the dark, add details, but sparingly.

Jodi Picoult talks directly to the reader in House Rules when Emma explains what it's like to live with a child who has Asperger's Syndrome. She puts it in the context of incidents that have happened, which gives it conflict and more life than a lecture.

If you're not sure about what you've written, read it aloud. If you hear yourself lapsing into a monotone, it needs more conflict or energy. And maybe less telling.

Plot points involve your characters doing things or discovering information that changes the situation. Dialogue can make that happen. The easiest way is to have one character tell someone else what's going on. This is good if you're trying to move your plot in a new direction. Jeff tells his wife: We're not going to Atlantic City this weekend after all. I just got laid off.

Dialogue can introduce new obstacles, which is a variation on the new information. showing how a character reacts or perceives that new problem deepens your characterization as it moves your plot along, so you get double action for the same low price. You can increase the tension if one character realizes that things aren't what they seem to be, too. Maybe Beth tells Martha that the company has decided to interview someone else for that supervisor slot that she expected to get.

Dialogue can create conflict either directly or indirectly and sometimes the indirect approach is better. One person resists, but is subtle about it.

James Scott Bell offers several ways to avoid dialogue that is so agreeable that it becomes dull.
The second person changes the subject, answers a question with a new question, counter-attacks, or interrupts. All those tactics can lead to a more open confrontation or even an explosion, but they don't have to. It's like watching Congress. Nothing gets resolved, so it increases the tension. If you use all these methods through the first two-thirds of your story, your tension will keep growing until it's time for your big release.

Dialogue can use emotions to manipulate people, too.

There are only two basic ways to make people do something: Force and Manipulation.

Force is the threat of physical, mental or emotional violence, and verbal violence can be very effective. If your parents or an older sib constantly belittled you, you know how much it hurts.

Manipulation plays on the emotions of the other character and may involve an attempt to instill an emotion, generally a negative one like Guilt, Fear, Jealousy, Anger, Lust, Envy, Greed...

You can show angers through pouting, accusing, name-calling, sarcasm or evasion to create tension, too. Action tags can help, too. They show instead of tell, and they can move a scene along without calling attention to themselves.

"What makes you think I'm jealous?" Melissa's fists tightened until her knuckles turned white.
"You are so beautiful..." Tom buried his face in Clytemnestra's raven curls.

Use "said" and not some showy synonym from a thesaurus. And remember that people cannot shrug, nod, snort, smile, wink or laugh a line of dialogue. I know, amazing, isn't it?

If you have only two people in a scene--which makes life easier--you may be able to write the dialogue by itself and leave out most of the tags, especially if the two speakers have different speech patterns, which we discussed last time. If you use a tag occasionally to help people keep track, it's enough. The Hemingway story I mentioned above does this.

It's easy to speed up the pace of the scene by limiting the length of sentences and speeches, too. Cut description, narration, and tags. Interruptions are good, too. Increasing the tension makes the pace feel faster, too. To slow down a scene, do the opposite. Add introspection and analyzing from the POV character and use longer sentences with more qualifiers.

Dialogue can give information through response or suggestion, too, instead of telling.
"Why do you want to talk to that jerk?" means "I don't like him."
"You actually live here?" suggests "It's a dump."

And finally, a line of dialogue can be a transition into a new scene.
"What are we doing here?" Jack stared at the seedy motel and reached for his gun.

I love dialogue because it offers you so many good choices.

16 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue II: Dialogue and Character


Last time, we talked about linking dialogue so the characters interact with each other, and that's especially important in drama because it helps actors remember their lines. But dialogue isn't just "people talking." It enhances your story-telling by deepening your characters and enriching your plot.

Today, we'll look at characterization.

Screenwriter Tom Sawyer, who oversaw Murder, She Wrote among other projects, says that if you can give a line of dialogue to a different character without rewriting it, it was badly written anyway.

I use what I call the CAWS test (Hey, everybody's got to have a gimmick):

Would this CHARACTER, speaking to this AUDIENCE, say these WORDS in this SITUATION?
If the answer to any part of the question is "NO," you need to rewrite the line.

Each character talks like himself or herself, which enables readers to "hear" them. Think of old radio plays, where an actor may have been chosen to play a role because his voice sounded appropriate for the character.

That means each CHARACTER needs specific images, rhythms and vocabulary (Another good reason to keep your cast in a play as small as possible) to create his or her voice.

If you treat the person as an archetype (Hero, Warrior, Magician, Temptress, Mentor, Lover, etc.), his purpose in the story will help you find his speaking style. Reformers want to improve things, so they often give advice. Leaders want to appear strong and self-reliant, so they give orders. Mentors/Coaches/Teachers usually start with the good news and move to the problems that need to be addressed.

Shakespeare demonstrates this for us. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice uses more aggressive verbs than other characters, and Portia and Nerissa discuss marriage in terms we might use for a business deal.

Romeo & Juliet presents five teen-aged males. Tybalt always has the subtext, "Wanna fight?" Mercutio is funny and often bawdy. Benvolio reports and tattles. Paris is polite and courtly, the kid moms all wish their daughter would bring home. Romeo constantly moans about love, so over-the-top you want to smack him until Juliet makes him grow up.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Nobles (Blank verse and very logical), Mechanicals (Prose, except for the hilarious Pyramus & Thisbe farce), Lovers (Rhymed couplets and cliches about love), and Fairies (Blank verse with images of power [Oberon] or nurturing [Titania]) all have different speaking styles.

Think about your character's goal, too. If you understand what she or he wants--money, power, love, answers--that can help you decide the tactics she will use, such as demanding, pleading, lying manipulating, or threatening.

Now think about the AUDIENCE. Maybe your character will curse or discuss sex, but not in front of his grandmother. Maybe a child won't understand the issue so he has to simplify his language. Maybe the stockholders want the bad news delivered in a positive way.

WORDS are all we have, and we need to get them right. A character's vocabulary shows his education level, religion, family, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, occupation, and maybe biases.

Many people have favorite expressions or jargon from their jobs: computer, sports, medical, business.
Think of regionalisms. Margaret Maron's Knott family often uses the expression "might could," which has a rhythm that slows the pace and captures their Southern drawl.

Be careful with dialects or accents, though. Most editors tell you to avoid phonetic spelling and think what you're doing. I encountered "oncet" in a speech and it stopped me cold. The better spelling would have been "wunst." I grew up in an area where under-educated people referred to their relative as a cousint, with an audible final "T." Your best bet is to use a few key words to suggest everything, or mention that your character has a French accent and go on about your business.
To Kill A Mockingbird needs the accent and mind-set of the characters

You can give the impression of an accent by avoiding contractions or changing word order, too. American English is all about rhythm, so putting an adjective after a noun or using a participle instead of the verb makes the sentence sound foreign, like Yoda. I have an Eastern European character in one series, and I compare her consonants to scissors snipping paper. Blue Song Riley in my Woody Guthrie series is half-Asian, and when she uses a long word, all her syllables have equal stress. I only mention this once or twice in her first scene and let people fill in the blanks.

Maybe your character has a speech problem. A stutter, lisp, or spoonerism is fun, but don't over-do it. Ellery Queen wrote a short story decades ago ("My Queer Dean," if you can find it) in which the solution depends on the victim inverting initial consonants ("My Dear Queen").

Maybe the character has favorite expressions or cliches, or mispronounces words. I grew up struggling with "Refriger-E-ator," and my cousin (No "T") called those things with two slices of bread "Smitches."

Mangling cliches can be fun, too.

A few novelists and playwrights use profanity well. Years ago, my local theater presented Glengarry Glen Ross and referred to the writer as "David Effing Mamet," minus the euphemism. If you're not comfortable with cursing yourself, don't try it. It will sound fake. If you have to use it, emphasize the NOUN, not the participle. It's an effing FORK, not an EFFING fork.

Remember your SITUATION or setting, too. People talk differently at a funeral, job interview, a first date, or in a bar. Are there props at hand: a pool cue, salad bar, golf club, or AK-47? Setting involves mood, too. Someone might be excited, remorseful, sad, jealous, terrified, or confused. Let their words convey this. Situation or setting involves time, too, so beware of anachronisms. Servants in Regency England did NOT say "No problem."

Lastly, dialogue can help you show how a character grows or changes. This is common late in a story, maybe in one long scene. If you want to show it with minimal narration, try having your character paraphrase, change, or even contradict something he said earlier in the story. If her opinion has changed, she has, too. Louise Penny does this in her Inspector Gamache novels, where certain characters will repeat a line, often a literary allusion, that gathers or changes implications throughout the story.

Next time, we'll look at how dialogue can advance your plot.

02 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue Part 1


My wife Barbara claims she has acted in about 80 productions, but I'd say it's at least twice that many. Since we met, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, several Shakespearean roles including Feste in 12th Night and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (I directed both of those) and one of the neighbors being spied upon in the Hartford Stage Company's world premiere of the stage adaptation of Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon. She also had a cameo in the remake of that film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Since she also has a reputation for being very good at learning lines, we found ourselves trying to explain what makes dialogue effective...or not.

Last Wednesday, we earned a little extra cash by acting in a training video for caregivers. We've worked with the director and crew before, and they're great: patient, organized, funny, and very good at what they do.

We met the "nurse" in our scene Tuesday for a read-through and shot the six-page, eight-minute scene the next morning. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for make-up (They had to age me ;-))) and finished a little after noon.

People who aren't used to the routine say, "JEEZE, why so long for eight minutes?"

Well, we had to do five camera set-ups, one on all three of us at a table, one of Barb and me, and one of each of us, which will be edited together later for the best flow. That meant moving the camera and furniture in a small space and tweaking the lights and microphones for each different angle.

Another problem was that because the video is for training caregivers to follow specific guidelines, the nurse's lines had to correspond to the language on a checklist and a training manual. They don't flow trippingly off the tongue and they get repetitive. That means actors can get lost, especially when you start and stop a few times.

I had two speeches that were completely different, but my cue lines were 22 and 20 words, 18 of them the same. For one take, the director wanted to start at one of those cues, and I had to ask, "Is this my first or second response?" because that was the only way I could keep them straight.

If you're writing a short story or novel, that's not a big deal, but if you write for the stage, it becomes crucial. You need to write lines the actors can learn. Remember, we had only one rehearsal and a four-hour shoot to get everything correct five times.

Most of what we say today is geared toward plays, but you can apply it to stories and novels, too.

There are two ways to link (connect) lines so an actor can remember them. When Character A reacts or responds to Character B, it draws the audience into the scene and gets them involved. You can do this with either an ACTION CUE or a LINE CUE.

An ACTION CUE is an event that prompts the character to speak. For example, there's a knock on the door, and the character asks, "Who is it?" If you're writing a story, you can use an action tag here.

When she heard the knock on her locked door, Sarah asked, "Who is it?"

A LINE CUE is the word or sentence the actor talks back to. KIND playwrights (They are rare) often repeat key words in consecutive speeches between two characters. Repetition is best if it's an important verb or noun in the first sentence. If it's not a repeat, a synonym will help.

Sometimes, Character B's speak begins with a sound or letter that was prominent in Character A's speech.Strong Consonants like "P" "T" or "S" are common because they're so audible.

Questions and answers are usually easy to remember. So is cause and effect, where B says something as a response to what Character A did or said. This is a lot like the ACTION CUE.

Chris Knopf uses repetition and synonyms when his series character Sam Acquillo talks with local cop Joe Sullivan. The two paraphrase and mangle each other's previous lines, sometimes turning them into puns or malapropisms. It's funny, but it also adds tension and energy because it shows the two are listening to each other while they butt heads.

American English gains its meaning and nuance from rhythm. In dialogue, the two strong positions are the beginning or the end of a sentence, especially the end. That's where you should put the speech's main point (see what I just did there with the slightly unusual word order?).

I'm afraid the case is past human skill. Prayer is our only resource now, John.

That's weak. The important word (prayer) gets buried in the middle. Try this instead:

I'm afraid the case is past human skill, John. Our only resource now is prayer.

Can you hear and feel the difference?

I saw another such face a year later is weaker than A year later, I saw another such face. 

If you use names--usually direct address--in dialogue, a name at the beginning of a speech tends to make a stronger line, probably because it focuses attention more quickly. It helps indicate the relationship (power) between two characters without the audience being aware of it.  A name at the end tends to be weaker because it creates a falling rhythm.

Henry, please pick up that book      is stronger than      Please pick up that book, Henry. 

If you're writing comedy, put the point or punch at the end. If you want a laugh, you need the joke in a strong position.

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was my wife; that was no lady.                                    (Why aren't you laughing?)

Let's be practical, too. If, in spite of the weak position, the punch gets a laugh early, that laugh will drown out the rest of the line. The audience might miss information. It's also hard on the actor. Think about the action/line cue when you're setting up a joke, too.

Dialogue helps everyone understand what the goal is and how the character tries to achieve it. It also can show the nature and magnitude of the obstacles.
A:  What time is it?
B:  Two thirty.                      
A asks the question to get information. B answers because she has the information and wants to help. There MAY be more going on here– flirting, a power game, whatever. Maybe one character is suggesting that the other one is late...again.
A:  Are you hungry?
B:  Yes.
Is A a nurturing mother, a sadistic torturer, a waiter, or something else?
Is B a child, a captive, a customer, or a potential love conquest?

An indirect answer can add tension.
A:  Can I go in and see him?
B:  Over my dead body. (Or, Not without a warrant, Or, Not until he regains consciousness, Or, Haven't you done enough damage already?
Using specific words and images will make it easier for an actor to learn his lines and develop his or her character, too.

We'll talk more about dialogue and character next time.

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


by Steve Liskow

My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

10 February 2020

My Own Medical Thriller


by Steve Liskow

I don't write medical thrillers because I only like to do research up to a point, and the amount of research I'd need to write in that field is well beyond that point.

We all can name a few biggies, though. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer each wrote several. I first met Michael Crichton through The Andromeda Strain, and learned years later that he won the Edgar for A Case of Need, originally published under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson. Tess Gerritsen, also a doctor, wrote several thrillers before she unleashed the Rizzoli and Isles series.

I'm now involved in my own medical thriller without planning it at all. So far, it has a happy ending.

Two Sundays ago, I finished my workout at my health club and returned to my car. I had found a space ten feet from the entrance, and now I was sandwiched between two SUVs, each slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Looking behind me was like looking through a soda straw.

The entrance driveway lay at about 7:00 to my space. The driveway is narrow, especially when cars park on both sides of it, so a sign proclaiming "One Way [right turn only]" guards the entrance. It was almost directly behind me. Another sign says "Do Not Enter" and stands to the left. This makes sure all traffic in that narrow driveway moves counterclockwise. Theoretically.

I eased out, looking to my left, where traffic should come from, and a driver who decided to turn around and take the short way back hit my car. Damage to both vehicles was minor--I have a broken taillight and a dented quarter panel--and I got the worst of it. We exchanged insurance information and notified the appropriate people, then went on our way.

Several hours later, my left arm felt heavy and weak. I've hosted a bad back since 1971, and this felt like the mild collision aggravated the long-standing problem. Oh well. Then my wife noticed I was having trouble using that hand to type at the PC and insisted that we go to the hospital.

The staff looked at my symptoms and medical history (both my mother and grandmother had strokes) and sent me for a CAT scan. Over the next several hours, I got lots of practice telling various doctors, nurses, interns, nurses, technicians and administrators my age (72), the month (January) and that we were in New Britain, Connecticut. I became expert at repeating "Today is a sunny day" and touching my index finger to my nose the other people's fingers in turn.

Every two hours, a nurse or tech asked me for an encore. I had to resist their pushing and pulling with my left hand, which was discernibly weaker. I had no indicators of being a stroke risk: I weigh 15 pound more than when I graduated from high school in 1965, I quit smoking about 15 years ago, my cholesterol level has pleased my primary-care physician for years, and I don't use cocaine. I average about half the "tolerable(?)" amount of alcohol allowed to men my age, and women are more prone to strokes anyway.

So what? The staff decided to treat the issue as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short period of time and produces symptoms that resemble a strok. In my case, that was the weak arm.

My listening station for The Eagles
 By about 5 am the following morning--roughly 17 hours after the accident and ten hours after my arm first felt weak--I felt fine. But the night felt like I was a shooting scene with police scouring me for shell casings, blood spatter, footprints, and a partridge in a pear tree. I lost count of how many people asked me to answer those questions again and tested my arm and leg strength and coordination. They were like different detectives asking the same questions to see if my story changed.

By early afternoon, they also gave me an MRI, which is kind of cool if you're not claustrophobic. The kids running the machine both looked like former students. Truthfully, when you teach in the area for 33 years, everyone looks sort of like a former student. These two guys let me choose the music to listen to while they ran me through the tube. I picked the Eagles over Katy Perry, Adele, and someone else I'd never heard of.

Back in my room, I talked to two more doctors, three more nurses, had my sixteenth and seventeenth blood pressure checks, and told my age, location and the month again. Finally, the lead doctor told me he was pretty sure I did not have a TIA, but they wouldn't definitely say my troubles were related to the fender-bender, either.

The MRI and CAT scan ruled out a thrombotic stroke, but he wanted to be sure I didn't have an embolic stroke (a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain instead of originating in the brain itself) and ordered an echocardiogram, basically a heart sonogram. It was fun and the woman administering it was young, attractive, ultra-competent, and hilarious. She let em hear what my heart sounded like during the procedure, more of a gurgle than the lub-dub I expected. She also apologized for the coldness of the gel she spread on my chest and for having to rip the sensor contacts off my chest and taking all three chest hairs with them.
An echo-cardiogram (posed by model)

They finally discharged me about 24 hours after Barb drove me in. I spend the next month taking Plavix, Lipitor (They both sound like Superman villains, don't they?) and aspirin. They don't think I had a TIA, but they're taking no chances.

I still blame the minor accident. On the other hand, it was cool watching a bunch of people who really knew their stuff give me a first-hand tutorial on medical mystery research.

20 January 2020

Santa Noir


by Steve Liskow

Everybody has too many Christmas parties and get-togethers in December, so the Connecticut MWA members threw a procrastinator's bash on January 11 in Middletown. Middletown is, of course, in the middle of the State, home of Wesleyan University and several fine restaurants, so we gathered at Esca, three blocks from the college and on a main intersection.
Chris Knopf addresses the motley crew. He mostly obscures Mark Dressler.
Bill Curatolo and Mike Beil are at the upper right.

Chris Knopf and Jill Fletcher, who organized the event, suggested that in addition to the usual gift grab bag, drinks and meals and catching up on everyone's accomplishments for the year, people write a 200-word story on the theme of Santa Noir to share with their accomplices. Alas, loud hungry patrons mobbed the eatery on a Saturday evening, so we abandoned the readings. Some of our recent predictions on this blog have made the upcoming year look a little bleak, and I agree, so the stories seemed like a definite counterbalance.

Here are four of them.

Santa Claus and Me by Mark L. Dressler
Jill posted this graphic, which inspired Mark's tale

I stared at that red Santa Claus outfit for several minutes. The lifeless man inside sent an eerie feeling through me matching the bitter night chill. I knew I'd never see that costume again.

Year after year, it was a never-ending journey, make-believe to many, but I knew differently. This was the night it would finally end. No more toys, no more nagging kids, no more workshops with elves, no more agonizing trips to the ends of each continent...and no more reindeer slaves.

I took another glance at that red uniform before walking away. I had no idea who that homeless man inside it was, but his clothes fit me perfectly. It was time for me to find a new home because I couldn't go back to the North Pole. I'd cleanse myself of this long white beard in the morning and become a free man. My name would no longer be Kris Kringle.

(Mark Dressler has published two novels featuring Hartford cop Dan Shields.)

At Burke's Tavern in Woodside, Queens, December 24, 1969 by William O'Neill Curatolo

Recently discharged marine Luis Martinez, high bar champion of the 43rd Street playground, sits alone on the broad windowsill across from the end of the bar nursing his fourth beer. He looks in need of cheering up. It's possible, no, it's certain, that the only advantage of having left his right leg back in Vietnam is that he now never has to pay for a drink, ever, in any of the watering holes up and down the length of Greenpoint Avenue.

Burly cop Georgie Corrigan bursts through the barroom door, dressed as Santa Claus. "Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" Santa Georgie moves along the bar clapping people hard on the back, and turns over to a couple of friends the bags of pot he took from a kid on his beat in Brooklyn a few hours ago. As he makes his way along the bar, he notices his old friend Luis, glassy eyed, staring off into space. Georgie sits down next to him and uses a burly arm to clamp him in a headlock. "Semper Fi, Jarhead!" and then, "Get up off your ass and onto those crutches. We're going outside to smoke a joint. Santa wants to see you smile."

(Bill Curatolo has published two novels.)

Santa By a Nose by Michael D. Beil

Christmas Eve at the Subway Inn, a dive bar that's a dead possum's throw from Bloomingdale's. Beside me is a bag with Isotoner gloves and a faux-cashmere scarf for the old lady. Three stools down is a schmoe in a Santa suit. The line of dead soldiers on the bar tells me the poor bastard is trying to forget how many brats had pissed their pants on his lap. For about a second, I consider sending a drink his way. But when he lifts his head, I realize he's the SOB I've been chasing for a week about a B&E in a bike shop on Second Avenue. No doubt about it. Eight million people in New York, but there's only one nose like that one. Fill it full of nickels and he could buy everybody in the place a drink.

I'm reaching into my coat pocket for my shield when a blast of frigid air blows in a tired dame in a coat that probably looked good during the Clinton administration, with three kiddies in tow.

"Daddy!"

I throw a twenty on the bar and nod to the bartender on the way out.

(Michael Beil was an Edgar finalist for Best Children's Novel for the first of five books in the Red Blazer Girls series.)

I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus by Steve Liskow

Detective Angel Noelle looked at the body, a fat man with a white beard and a red suit, underneath the mistletoe. Wrapped presents, grungy with fingerprint powder, lay under the tree.

"Your first, Noelle?" That was Detective Shepherd.

"Violent night," Angel said. "Got an ID yet?"

"We're waiting on fingerprints, but we've got a suspect and a witness."

Noelle turned to the woman in the green robe, the slit revealing black fishnets--previously hung by the chimney with care--and four-inch stilettos.

"I'm a dancer," she said. "All my son wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth..."

The small boy peeking from the stairs nodded.

"But instead, he brought..." The prancing vixen buried her face in her hands. "He deserved it..."

Noelle turned to the tech filling out the evidence label.  "What was the weapon?"

"Well, right now it looks like a fruitcake."

"Fruitcake?"

"Yeah, been re-gifted so many times it's hard as a Jersey barrier. The label on the can says, 'Do not sell after 2004.'"

Noelle looked at the body, deep in dreamless sleep.

"The contusions fit?" The open fire crackled in the fireplace.

"Yeah. Really roasted his chestnuts."

Outside, the black and whites rolled by.

(Steve Liskow practices piano about fifteen minutes a week.)


06 January 2020

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...


Most of my titles come from songs, generally rock and blues, because I originally saw the PI who became Woody Guthrie as a wannabe guitarist. He and Megan Traine, a former session musician, would solve mysteries with a musical slant to them. The band in an early version of the first book was inspired by a few real bands I knew that never quite made it. Some people remember The Electric Prunes and their one big hit. More people remember the Buffalo Springfield, probably because Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to further success.

But do you remember Moby Grape?

Five solid gigging musicians joined forces in San Francisco late in 1966. Skip Spence wanted to play guitar with Jefferson Airplane, but they already had Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, so Marty Balin turned him into a drummer. Spence played on the band's first LP and wrote several songs they didn't use. They replaced him with Spencer Dryden, whom they stole from The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (remember them?).

Peter Lewis, a skilled finger-picking guitarist, was the son of Loretta Young. He, Spence, and Jerry Miller created a three-way guitar whirlwind with zest to rival the Buffalo Springfield. Bob Mosley played bass and Don Stevenson played drums, but all five sang, and their harmonies will give you chills. All five composed, too.

Producer David Rubinson recorded their first album for Columbia over the course of FIVE OR SIX DAYS in March and April 1967. That's demos, arrangements, backing tracks, instrumental overlays, vocals, everything. They were live performers, so they only needed a few takes in a studio with then state-of-the-art 8-track machines.

Columbia released the album in June, about two weeks after the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and three months after the Airplane released Surrealistic Pillow (Which included a song by Spence). The songs ranged from acoustic folk-rock to country-tinged ballads to sparkly pop to blues to weird psychedelia, and every song was a gem.

The first LP cover shot,
with Stevenson's notorious
 finger later air-brushed out
Moby Grape had local fame and fortune, and now world-conquering success was only a tour away.

Then it all went to hell.

Jefferson Airplane had fired manager Matthew Katz (along with Skip Spence), and when he took over the Grape, he conned the members into signing a contract that gave HIM the right to the band name. The legal battles continued into the 21st century and blocked the release of many songs. It also prohibited the band from reunion performances under that name. Katz is why the Grape's set never appeared on the film or recorded versions of Monterey Pop, too. He demanded a million dollars for the rights...in 1967.

Columbia, still basically an "old people's label," dropped every ball they could in promoting the band and the album. The release party at the Avalon Ballroom had garish pink velvet press kits with teeny-bopper bios of the band and all the album's singles--more about THAT in a minute. Thousands of orchids were dropped from the ceiling, and dancers slipped on them and fell all over the dance floor. Columbia supplied 700 bottles of wine labeled "Moby Grape" for the dignitaries, but nobody thought to provide corkscrews. At the end of the evening, police busted three members of the band on their way home...with marijuana and three under-age girls in the car.

What could get worse? Glad you asked.

Columbia, in a fit of stupidity no one has yet explained, released five singles--ten songs from the 13-song album--on the same day. They were all in the press kits. DJs didn't know which songs to play and they cancelled each other out on the airwaves. Local fans thought the band was tying for the big bucks, which cost them their local San Francisco hippie base.

Columbia wanted a second LP to recoup the losses, and brought in a different producer to "shape the band up." Remember, Rubinson got the first album out of these guys in six days.

The band sank into drug use, and Skip Spence, who everyone admitted was a genius but always a bit strange, eventually went after Don Stevenson with a fire ax. He and Bob Mosley underwent treatment for schizophrenia. The other members drifted into marital problems, money problems, and music problems. Mosley was so distraught he quit the band and joined the Marines...in 1969!

Spence died in 1999, two days before his 53rd birthday. Stevenson no longer performs, but the other remaining members have appeared with Spence's son Omar under various names, including--wait for it--The Melvilles.

There are people who will tell you the first LP was one of the great debut albums in rock history. I'm one of them.

But don't take my word for it. Find it and listen to what might have been.

23 December 2019

Christmas (On-stage) in Connecticut


by Steve Liskow

Remember the old seasonal entertainment traditions around Christmas? Growing up, I always watched Perry Como's Christmas program on TV, and there were other holiday specials I came to take for granted, too. The Grinch still guarantees a green Christmas, and the Peanuts special a white one.

In Connecticut, and I assume elsewhere, local theaters bombard us with Christmas-themed productions, some funny, some traditional, some downright scary.

Leading the pack is the Hartford Stage Company's production of A Christmas Carol.
It stays faithful to Dickens with elaborate staging including flying ghosts, spectacular lighting effects and creepy sounds. Students from nearby Hartt College play supporting characters, and local children become the Cratchit family. In this, the production's 22nd season, the four-week run was sold out before the opening show. I only got to see it because my wife, who acted at Hartford Stage a few years ago, still gets comps to most shows. Naturally, we grabbed them.

A newer standby is TheaterWorks Christmas on the Rocks. Artistic director Rob Ruggiero invited local playwrights to create monologues in which well-known characters from various other works sit in a bar and discuss their lives since their moments in the spotlight. This year's production features Ted Lange, formerly known as Isaac, the bartender on The Love Boat, as the bartender. He listens to an older Tiny Tim, Charlie Brown, Zuzu from It's a Wonderful Life, and Clara from The Nutcracker, among others.
The production premiered in 2013 and has become a local tradition, gathering momentum and new characters each year.







Joe Mantello adapted The Santaland Diaries, originally an essay by David Sedaris in 1992, telling of his working as an elf in Macy's Santaland. At least three different productions are now running within driving distance of our condo.

And, of course, last but longest-running, a "radio" play production of It's a Wonderful Life, complete with the foley table for sound effects and old microphones the actors pretend to read into. My wife was in a production of this decades ago and, again, we can find several different versions less than a gas tank away.

Like Perry Como in a previous generation, all of these have come to mean Christmas in Connecticut, almost as clearly as mobbed shopping malls and neighbors singing carols after getting fortified with high-test eggnog.

Only two shopping days left, so remember that books are great gifts. There's a book out there for everyone, they can be re-read and shared, and they're easy to wrap. Just sayin'...

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Oh, and BSP for the holidays, "This Year's Model" won Honorable Mention for this year's Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by The Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I received the news ten days ago.