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

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


by Steve Liskow

Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

28 October 2019

Playing Fair, or the Death of Logic


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I was reading a novel I'm supposed to review, and I encountered a dialogue exchange that brought me to a screeching halt. The protagonist and his sidekick were talking abut a new discovery in the case, and the sidekick said, "Well, that proves that we've been right all along and X did Y."

I re-read the previous few pages three times because I thought I must have missed something, but no, the passage proved nothing of the kind. That conclusion couldn't possibly come from the information in the scene. It was the third or fourth time that happened in the book, and I'm going to mention it when I post the review. I see this problem and the ever-popular Deus ex Machina more and more in recent novels, and it bothers me.

 What bothers me even more is the frequency with which it's creeping into my own life. And maybe yours, too.

I try to keep my personal politics out of this column even though my leanings are no secret. Last month, a very conservative musician I've known for years made a comment and I disagreed. He brought up a point I'd never heard before and I asked for his source. He replied, "Clinton."

"No," I said. "You say that Clinton did A, but that's not your source. Where did you get the information?" Bad mistake. He went off on a rant that added more information that was so obviously false that I walked out of the open mic without playing. Back home, I browsed for two hours, looking for confirmation of his claim, and the closest I came was a site labelled by Media Bias as "A propaganda site that uses false or misleading data to promote a far-right agenda." The post in question used the key words from the musician's assertion, but didn't make the claim he repeated. And that post was over a year old.

This is the level of discourse we have reached. Large segments of the population no longer treat science, mathematics, history or other intellectual disciplines as valid, and it has damaged--if not eliminated--rational discussion.

When I was in high school, several friends were on the debate team, with an adviser who was respected throughout the region as an exemplary teacher. I didn't take the class because I was so shy, but I learned second-hand about reductio ad absurdum, begging the questions (Which does NOT mean "motivating or giving rise to the question"), ad hominem arguments, false premises, and many other specious rhetorical techniques. Years later, I presented those techniques in my composition classes as faulty was to support a thesis.

I even used to tell my kids that the best class I ever had in learning to support an argument was plane geometry. We used axioms to prove theorems and theorems to solve equations, and we could support every statement we made. We also learned how to build the sequence concisely and clearly.

All that is fading. Too many people now invent data or facts on the spot to win an argument that may not even be worth having. It has infected fiction writing, too. More and more, I see language used poorly by major writers, and they can't build a logical argument/plot to lead to the solution of their mystery. Rex Stout used to drive me crazy with Nero Wolfe's passionate love of inductive instead of deductive reasoning, but it was a supportable discipline. Now, far too often, I know you walk to school because the tissue paper is orange on Tuesday.

We need to go back to teaching rhetoric and insisting that our students say what they mean, mean what they say, and understand the difference. Dreyer's English, Garner's Modern American Usage, a good dictionary and a good grammar book should be on every writer's desk. When Humpty Dumpty said he used a word to mean what he wanted it to mean, it used to be a joke. Now it's a fact of life.

And it's dangerous. Ask Greta Thunberg.

14 October 2019

Writers Blocks Build Stories


Dennis Lehane is one of many successful crime writers who doesn't outline. He writes his novels on a legal pad (as did John Steinbeck) and types what he's produced into a computer at the end of the day (not like John Steinbeck). He says that when he gets stuck, rather than considering himself blocked, he knows he's made a wrong choice earlier in the manuscript and goes back through it to find what he did that shut down the action later on. When he finds the problem, he fixes it and surges ahead.

Many writers--lots of them practicing or formal journalists--point to the value of a regular deadline as motivation. The don't have time for writer's block and will produce on demand. I have written most of my life, but didn't sell my first story until I was 60. By then, I had several rejected novels and stories I could return to and play with if I couldn't find a "new" idea. Now that I've recycled most of those ideas that merited a second look, I find that I do get stuck sometimes.

Writer's Block actually comes in two versions. The one most non-writers mean is the lack of ideas to write about. Most of the writers I know agree that the people don't really lack ideas; they fail to recognize useful ones or set their sights too high. They have the seed of a good short story or poem, but they're looking for a blockbuster novel. Unfortunately, nobody, including publishers, can see these coming. Dan Brown wrote several mid-list novels before The Da Vinci Code caught his publisher and bookstores around the world by surprise.

The second version is the idea that doesn't work with your other ideas. Years ago, I interviewed several people to get the details right for what I thought would become the third Woody Guthrie novel...even though I hadn't sold the first one yet. Those notes sat on a floppy disc (remember those?) for several years until I thought the time was right. By then, the story had moved from Detroit to Connecticut and become a Zach Barnes story. Then it changed into a police procedural featuring Trash and Byrne. Six or seven years and several title changes later, I finally sat down to write.

Normally, when I write a first draft, I produce a scene or two daily, going faster as I get deeper into the book and know my way around better. My average scene is about 1600 words. Four weeks into this story, I only had about 50 pages, a quarter of my usual output, and none of it felt right. I put it away and tweaked a few other stories. When I came back, I saw something akin to Lehane's experience.

The story had two crucial premises that contradicted each other. Writer's Block, version 2.0.

The good news is that the time away also gave me a way to handle the problem. I recycled several of the characters, and the book turned into The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation. I was revising an early unsold Woody & Meg story from about 2004. A dozen years later, I understood why that premise didn't work and the book never sold, but I thought I'd learned enough to fix it.

After three days of pushing The Great Pyramid up a vertical slope, I finished page 4.

The notes, outline, character list, and pages went into seclusion on a flash drive. But, again, something else with a vaguely similar idea bubbled underneath. A week later, I recognized that bubble. I finished the first draft of a novella, 16,000 words in eight days. It became "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

Now I'm struggling with yet another idea that seems to be circling the drain.

I'm going to put it away for a few weeks...and hope history will repeat itself.

30 September 2019

End of the Long Strange Trip


by Steve Liskow

Last Tuesday, Robert Hunter died at age 78 with his family around him. Unless you were part of the counterculture of my generation, the name means nothing to you. But Thursday night, an entire room sang along when I performed one of Hunter's songs at an open mic--even though I didn't identify the song before I played it.

Hunter was the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He played several instruments himself, but wrote most of his songs in collaboration with Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir, and never performed with the band. I'd say he wrote most of the Dead's greatest hits, but they only had two legitimate hits 15 years apart. They released few singles and built their rep on long and often improvised concerts. They seldom performed with a set list and would segue from song to song by jamming. Some nights worked better than others.

Hunter's songs often feature a turn of phrase that sticks in you mind. "Truckin'" has the line about "What a long strange trip it's been," often quoted by people who don't know the source. That same song mentions a drug bust in which the band is "set up, like a bowling pin." In another of my personal favorites, "Sugar Magnolia," Hunter says of the woman in question "She comes skimming through rays of violet/ She can wade in a drop of dew."

 Hunter combined word play with concrete detail to tell stories. In "Cumberland Blues," his miner tells his beloved, "Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine/ Make good money, five dollars a day." Because of his details, he could make his work sound like whatever time period worked best to convey his ideas. He once told of attending a Dead concert anonymously and having the man sitting next to him comment about how weird it would be if the guy who wrote "Cumberland Blues" a century before (!?!) could know now that the Grateful Dead were performing it that day.

Even though the Dead seldom showed up on radio ("Truckin'" and "Touch of Gray" are exceptions), many of their songs get play at open mics. A friend plays "Eyes of the World" regularly. Bluegrass bands often perform "Friend of the Devil," which originally featured a mandolin break in the acoustic recording. "Uncle John's Band" and "Sugaree" get lots of stage time, too. "Brown-eyed Woman," on my own set list. has a strong story-line and the comment about moonshine "The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean."

"China Doll," "Casey Jones," (Riding that train/ High on Cocaine) and "Operator" aren't rare, either.

When I played "Ripple" last week, with nature images that seem to combine the Romantic Poets and a Zen feel, the whole room joined in on "Let there be songs to fill the air" at the end of the second verse. More voices joined in from there until the "la da da da da..." fade out. They even dropped out so I could play the last line as a harmonized guitar riff.

Hunter's "Terrapin Station" Suite is an homage to story telling and creative vision. It's on the album or CD of the same name and has the invocation, "Inspiration, move me brightly."

Every writer knows about THAT. Or should.

16 September 2019

The Play's the Thing


by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, I saw an audition call for a production of a play I performed in years ago, a mystery called Wait Until Dark. It's a rarity, a good mystery play that began as a play instead of being adapted from either a book or a film. There are several good mysteries on film, but most of them began as films or novels. My wife Barbara, who still acts in five or six plays a year and impersonates an 1890s British maid at the Mark Twain House, and I spent the rest of the evening trying to think of other good mystery plays that aren't adaptations.

It's a short list, and I don't like several of them for crochety reasons of my own. Obviously, many of Shakespeare's plays involve crime or mysteries: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Caesar. I won't include them. Aeschylus gave us The Oresteia 2500 years ago, only a few years before Sophocles graced us with Oedipus The King, maybe the earliest detective story. I won't include those, either.

All those plays involve stage conventions we now consider "unrealistic" or "old-fashioned." The mystery form has conventions itself, and some of them are artificial, too. Red herrings, delaying a discovery, the impossible crime, and multiple suspects are pretty much standard procedure. Maybe that's why a script that leans heavily on staginess is effective for many of the plays I include below.

Investigating a mystery often involves moving from place to place, so a challenge in a mystery play is limiting scene/set changes that slow down the action. There are two ways to do this, one a staple of Shakespeare and the Greeks. That's the lack of a stage set at all. The audience has to imagine a different place for the action, often given the cue through dialogue ("What woods are these?"). The other is to construct a play that happens in one location. That's tough.

Barb and I have been involved in productions of most of these plays, which colors my judgment.

Book of Days by Lanford Wilson. Wilson passed away in 2011 after producing a body of work that equals Miller or Williams. He wrote roles for William Hurt, Christopher Reeve, Richard Thomas, Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Judd Hirsch, among others. I directed this play about ten years ago, and Barb acted in it. In fact, I lost an actor less than a week before opening and had to step into his role myself. 


 If Raymond Chandler had written Our Town, the result might have been Book of Days. On a bare stage, 12 characters interact with each other and the audience to discuss how Walt, one of the small town's leading citizens, dies in a freak hunting accident. Apparently, a tree fell on him during a tornado and his shotgun went off. But there are inconsistencies, and by the play's end, the audience understands who killed Walt, how and why it was done, and that the killer will get away with it.
Book of Days, my wife at lower right, me 4th from right
The play uses a bare stage but has over 90 scenes in 17 locations. We used light changes and a few basic props to keep the story going, just like the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Agnes of God by John Pielmeier uses the same black box strategy and for the same reasons. The artificiality is effective because we don't KNOW exactly what happened even though we understand the broad outlines. On a set consisting of two chairs and a standing ashtray, a female psychiatrist tells of being called in to evaluate the competence of a young nun. Agnes is accused of killing a newborn baby she claims she bore after an immaculate conception. If she is ruled rational, she faces a trial for murder. Otherwise, she will go to an insane asylum. The only other character is the Mother Superior who accuses the psychiatrist of bias against the Catholic Church. Barbara was learning the lines for Agnes as we went on our honeymoon.

I've seen two other productions, and all three had problems. It's hard to strike a balance between the characters and the story, but some scenes--a hypnotized Agnes reliving the agony of giving birth, for example--will keep you awake at night. She's clearly crazy, but does that automatically mean she's lying?

The less said about the film starring Jane Fonda, the better. Why anyone thought that stripping the play of its theatricality and trying to present literal reality on film is a bigger mystery than the play itself.

Equus by Peter Schaeffer also uses several locations with only the barest of furniture, and for the same reasons. Schaeffer passed away in 2016 at age 90 after writing many other acclaimed works, including Amadeus, which is also sort of a mystery.

The play gives us another psychiatrist treating a young patient, this time a teen-aged boy accused of blinding several horses in the stable where he worked. My wife played the boy's mother and a mutual friend played the psychiatrist (Shrinks are big in mystery drama: at least one of the plays I left off this list also has one). Actors wearing elaborate wire-frame heads play the horses. The nightmare moment of the play comes on a completely dark stage when all the horses' eyes light up, little red pilot lights across the back of the stage...and advance to surround the boy. Unlike Agnes, this play answers all our questions. Lucky us.
Equus cast & crew. Horse's head at bottom

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott appeared on Broadway in 1966, and Lee Remick earned a Tony nomination as the blind woman who knows killers will break into her apartment that night. She smashes all the light bulbs in the apartment so she can fight them on equal terms. Robert Duvall played the ringleader in that production, and I wish I had seen the moment when he shows Susie the one light she forgot to smash: the bulb in the refrigerator (In theater parlance, we refer to this as the "Oh &$%# Moment").

The film version, a year or two later, drags badly. It allows us to see outside, too, which removes the claustrophobic feel of being trapped in the apartment. Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are excellent as the bad guys, but Audrey Hepburn's weepy and whiny blind girl is annoying. She's all wrong for the role. I played the Crenna role years ago, and now Jeffrey Hatcher has reworked the play and set it in the 1940s. The play has to be done in an older time period because a photographic dark room is vital, but I don't understand why someone felt it needed to be rewritten.

Death Trap by Ira Levin. Levin, who wrote many other works, including the novel that became the film Rosemary's Baby, saw this 1978 drama become the longest-running comedy-drama on Broadway. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Another very stagy work, it involves two playwrights, a newcomer and a seasoned pro, who work together on a project that won't make it to the stage. The play-within-a-play structure works, and the script abounds with dark humor and theater in-jokes, including using a crossbow as a weapon. Done well, it's wonderful. Don badly, it's...well, deadly. I saw a local production with the same friend who played the psychiatrist in Equus as one lead and a former student as the other. The excellent film starred Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. Hard to go wrong there.

That's it. If the plays don't work, the fault, dear Brutus is not in our star actors, but in ourselves.


02 September 2019

Taking Stock


by Steve Liskow

When I was in kindergarten, we started school the day after Labor Day, and somewhere in the next few years, we backed off a day until Wednesday. when I was teaching, we retreated to the week before Labor Day. Now, most of the kids in Connecticut have been back anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

For most of my life, the first day of school was my "real" New Year. After grad school, summer became sort of mental hibernation until early August when I practiced cursive writing on vertical surfaces again and thought about updating my reading lists. I still consider autumn a new beginning and tend to take stock of the year up to this point.

Other people have shared less than radiant news about how the writing landscape is becoming more barren and challenging. Climate change, indeed.

Me, too.

Over the last several years, I have conducted eight to ten writing workshops a year. This year, I have done five and have two more scheduled. But one slated for this coming weekend with three other writers needs several more people to sign up or it will be cancelled tomorrow. I've already had three events cancelled this year because of low attendance. My only previous cancellation was in 2010, and it was because of a blizzard.

I've published stories since 2006, but the bulk of my income (cue the laughter) has never come from sales. It has been from workshops and editing. I haven't had a new editing client in about 18 months, and I'm reading more and more work online that tells me I'm probably not the only editor who is increasingly idle.

I've published three stories this year, one of which sold last fall. True to my New Year's resolution (the real new year), I have submitted five others to various markets and will send two more out in the next few weeks. Four of the five submissions have been out five months and several would appear in anthologies, which means my fee would be a share of the royalties.

Four independent bookstores have opened in the state within the last two years--three of them in the last year--but they all favor traditional authors. The one that will carry self-pubbed and indie writers charges a fee for shelf space and takes a 45% consignment cut.

What is on the horizon?

Well, I will publish a novel around the end of this year when my beta readers and I agree that's it's ready. The cover is complete, but I have regretfully told my designer that even though I love his work--which is true--I can't afford to pay him after this book. I have no novel in any stage of development: research, outline, drafts. The last time that was true was 2003 before I retired from teaching.

Because of Draconian budget cuts, I have conducted only two workshops at a library since 2017. I used to sell a book for about every three attendees, but sold two books TOTAl at workshops in the last two years. Significantly--and more about this in a minute--my digital sales are climbing.

That upcoming novel is the last work I expect to publish on paper. If I write other novels, they will go directly to digital format. Maybe because of the new year's resolution, or maybe because my attention span is shrinking, I'm thinking much more in short story mode. But as deteriorating advertising revenue, rising print costs, and sagging subscription sales decimate the print markets, I look seriously at going straight to digital for short stories, too. I'll submit them to those vanishing markets, but the increasingly long wait for a response means I have time to find stock photos and learn to design covers...at a fraction of the cost of my designer.

I'm not a presence in bookstores, and while I may not make much on the digital sales, it costs nothing to upload material, so selling one or two copies puts me in the black. Now that's depressing.

It's easy to assign blame for this state of affairs, but it's pointless. Everything changes, and sometimes progress comes with unexpected costs. You can only figure out how to work with them.

At my health club a few days ago, a woman wore a tee shirt that captured the situation perfectly. It wasn't about writing, but it applies to almost every aspect of life that I can name.

Science doesn't care what you believe.

19 August 2019

Robert Johnson and the Hell Hound


by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, August 16, was the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. It was also the 81st anniversary of the death of an even more important music figure. On the same date in 1938, Robert Johnson, often called the King of the Delta Blues, died after drinking a bottle of poisoned whiskey. The story could become a great true-crime book if I had the bent for the massive research necessary, but I don't. Johnson's saga has already fueled works in various genres anyway.

Born May 8, 1911, Johnson was the guitar hero around the Mississippi Delta, standing on a pinnacle with Charley Patton, Son House, and nobody else. He only recorded 29 songs over the course of two sessions, one in a San Antonio hotel room in November 1936 (22 tracks in two days) and a Dallas hotel room over a weekend the following June (20 more tracks). The recording logs say 17 more tracks were recorded, but nobody knows what happened to them. We have 42 surviving tracks, one or two takes of 29 iconic blues songs.

Columbia released a vinyl LP of 15 songs in 1961, and among the musicians who heard Johnson for the first time were Eric Clapton,
Eric Clapton, circa 1968
Keith Richards, Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page with the Yardbirds
Brian Jones, and Mike Bloomfield.
Mike Bloomfield
That spark fanned the flame of the American blues revival and the British Invasion. An LP of the remaining songs appeared in 1970 and stoked the earlier frenzy. There have been three remastered CD sets of Johnson's work. The last two went platinum, the latter in less than a week.

What did Johnson give us? Well, Eric Clapton played "Ramblin' on my Mind" with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers after he left the Yardbirds. He still considers "Cross Road Blues" his trademark song since he recorded it live with Cream in 1968. That trio also covered "From Four Until Late." Elmore James had a 1951 hit with his slide version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." Delaney and Bonnie and Johnnie Winter each recorded "Come on in My Kitchen." Led Zeppelin played "Traveling Riverside Blues" in their live sets. I first heard "Walkin' Blues" on a Paul Butterfield album (Mike Bloomfield played guitar), and the Grateful Dead often played it live. The Rolling Stones did a killer version of "Love in Vain," mostly when Mick Taylor was their slide maestro. The Charlatans covered "32-20" on an early LP, and I can't begin to count the artists who have performed "Sweet Home Chicago."

That's a pretty good showing for a man who died three months after turning 27.

We have only two existing photographs of Robert Johnson, and they both show him holding a guitar in his amazingly long fingers, which may account for his virtuosity.
Along with that skill, sometimes attributed to his selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads, Johnson earned a reputation as a lover of both whiskey and women, not always single. He carried on publicly with ladies who wore another man's ring, and it caught up with him in July of 1937.

He and Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards were performing at the Three Forks Store & Jook House when someone sent up a bottle of scotch for Robert. Edwards noticed that the seal was broken and knocked it out of his friend's hand with the warning "Don't never take a drink when the seal's broke."
The Jook joint where Johnson probably drank the poisoned
bottle of scotch, served by a jealous husband.

Johnson didn't listen. Another bottle appeared shortly and he drank heavily while playing. By late in the evening, he was very ill and showed symptoms of what was probably arsenic poisoning. He was making time with the wife of the man who owned the roadhouse, and since rats were around, so was poison. Johnson suffered for several days and contracted pneumonia, passing away on August 16.

This was in Greenwood, Mississippi. the local white sheriff didn't give two hoots about some dead colored singer, and while there were many witnesses and people who knew the situation, nobody ever followed up. Johnson's death certificate doesn't even give a cause of death.
Johnson's death certificate. Notice that the right side is blank except for the notation "No Doctor."

Months later, John Hammond wanted Johnson to play at his Spirituals to Swing concert (Dedicated to Bessie Smith, who had also died recently) at Carnegie Hall. He sent Don Law, who supervised Johnson's recording sessions, to find him. Law eventually learned of Johnson's death, but found another musician to take Johnson's slot in the show and revive his own flagging career: Big Bill Broonzy.

Johnson's playing was the stuff of legend, and his life and songs have inspired novels, plays and films. Elijah Wald explores Johnson and the Delta blues in Escaping the Delta, which points out that blues wasn't even recognized as a separate genre until the 1930s.

David Sheffield's "Love in Vain" is a short story told from the point of view of the coroner examining the body of a dead blues singer. I first found it in an anthology called, fittingly, Delta Blues.

Sherman Alexie's early novel Reservation Blues is a whimsical tale of a man who picks up a black hitchhiker in Idaho and finds a guitar in his back seat after dropping the guy off. Johnson was the hitchhiker who faked his death to cheat the devil out of his soul. He leaves the guitar behind so he can't be tracked, but the magic instrument enables a group of Indians to form a rock band. I assigned the book as a summer reading text one year and encouraged the students to track down Johnson's recordings. It turned out there were two guitarists in the class. Those young men will never be the same.

Thunder Knocking on the Door, a play by Keith Glover, premiered at Yale Rep in the 1990s with Johnson's music front and center. The script is good and the acting was fine, but the loudest applause went to the blues band that made the songs come to life.

Then there's the forgettable film Crossroads. The premise is that an old black harp player knew Johnson and learned a thirtieth song from him that he never recorded. The script and acting don't do it justice. The best part of the film, no surprise, is the soundtrack, created and performed by Ry Cooder and a host of surviving blues legends including Blind Sonny Terry on harp. Cooder and Albert King performed the title song live on TV at (I think) the Grammies that year.

My own novel Dark Gonna Catch Me Here takes its title from a line in "Cross Road Blues." The whole line is "Sun goin' down, dark goin' catch me here/ I ain't got no woman to love and feel my care." When I heard the line for the first time, my reaction was, "What a great image!" Then I thought it could be a title. My cover designer loved it too, and started working before I even wrote the book. He said, "You better go darker than usual, because I am."

I did. By now, the book has probably sold dozens of copies.

Johnson has been dead three times longer than he lived, and he's still fertile ground for musicians. The songs are haunting and evocative and push guitarists to try the impossible. And his archetypal existence and lifestyle continue to inspire legends and stories. Someday, maybe someone will write the work that does him justice.







05 August 2019

Bending The Bar


by Steve Liskow

I attended high school so long ago that my class used Roman Numerals. My ninth-grade English teacher was the sister of Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, and she was one of the best--and toughest--teachers I ever had. Because of her, I finished what was then called Junior High School with a better understanding of grammar than any healthy person should have to admit. I earned a "B" from her and was put into the honors English classes in high school because nobody else had earned a "B" from her since the Korean Conflict.


The honors classes all took a diagnostic grammar and usage test the first day, we all scored 177 of a possible 177, and the teacher called that our grammar for the year. We read lots of books, of course, and we did lots of writing, which was graded on our grammar, spelling, punctuation and general usage.

My senior class demanded a research paper of 1000 words, and we had to put footnotes at the bottom of the page and include a bibliography. The teacher promised us she would check our form carefully. I don't remember now whether we had six weeks to complete the assignment, or maybe even eight.

Six weeks, maybe eight, to complete a 1000-word essay. It works out to about 170 words a week, roughly 25 words a day. And we were graded on "correctness," with not a word about style or creativity. I don't remember anything changing in English classes until the 1980s.

In the mid 80s, I found several books that changed my teaching landscape. Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers brought the free-writing idea to daylight. Rico's Writing the Natural Way gave students stylistic models to emulate. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain amplified both Elbow and Rico. Adams's The Care and Feeding of Ideas and Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience set up the ground rules for how this stuff all worked.

Nobody else in my school seemed to notice these books, but they actually taught writing the way writers write: Say something, THEN worry about saying it more effectively or even "correctly."
Clarity and voice came first. For decades, we'd been trying to teach kids to say it right the first time, when we know that doesn't really happen.

Most of the English teachers I know are poor writers because they know grammar and punctuation so well that it gets in their way. When I retired from teaching, it took me about three years to accept that sometimes a sentence fragment works better than being correct.

One of the popular in-jokes was a facsimile lesson plan about teaching children how to walk. It buried the topic in medical jargon and psycho-babble and evaluation buzzwords until it became incoherent and impenetrable. The point was that if we taught kids basic life skills the way we taught them lessons in school, the human race would have died out long ago. (I'm carefully avoiding any mention of sex education here, maybe the only class that should be a performance-based subject...)

Back when I was in high school, golfers Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer both said that when they were learning the game, they were encouraged to hit the ball hard and concentrate on distance. They learned control and finesse later, and their records prove that it was the best way to learn.

That's how it should be with writing. Until you produce enough words to say something, don't worry about spelling or grammar.

Today, I expect to write 1000 words in an hour or so. My personal record for one day, back on an electric typewriter in 1981, is 42 pages, or about 10,000 words. I only had three weeks between the end of a summer grad school class and the beginning of my teaching year, so I just got stuff down on paper to fix later. The book was terrible and I later scrapped it, but that was ten times as many words as I'd done years before in eight weeks.

My second high, done to finish the first draft of a novel before I entered the hospital for surgery, was 7000 words.

If you're a writer, this probably doesn't shock you. I know many writers who set a 2000-word-a-day goal. If we'd asked that of kids in my generation, they would have all joined the Foreign Legion. That's because we were attacking the project from the wrong side. It's like pumping in the water before you dig the swimming pool.

Maybe this is why so many people say they don't write because they can't find a good idea. They may have perfectly good ideas, but they're afraid to begin because they fear doing it "wrong." It's the age old false equivalency over priorities: is it a candy mint or a breath mint?

If you think of your story, even in general terms with very little worked out yet, and start typing, the ideas will come. You may have to do lots of revision, but that's easy when you have material to work with. You can't fix what isn't there. The only document I get right the first time is a check because all I have to do is fill in the blanks. I take three drafts for the average grocery list.

Writing CAN be taught, but we have to teach the right stuff in the right order. It's no good obsessing abut correctness until you have something to "correct." We teach all the skills and have all the standards, but they're in the wrong sequence.

Don't raise the bar, bend it.

Teach kids the fun parts faster. I still remember teachers reading us stories in elementary school or the excitement of sharing our adventures in show-and-tell. Maybe if we kept the story first and worried about the finesse later, kids would grow into adults with more and better stories to share in the first place.

THEN you worry about style. There are dozens of books on grammar and usage--I've mentioned several of them before--but there are only two books I can mention about style, and Strunk and White is only really good for expository essays and academic subjects.

The other would be a required text in any class I taught. If you haven't read this, find a copy. I'm not going to discuss it because that could be another blog all by itself.

When I see kids reading on their screens or tablets instead of books, and watch them text with their thumbs, I have a few seconds of concern. But then I see how quickly they can type and the worry goes away. If they can produce communication that quickly, they can produce many short works quickly to make a longer one, and they can connect with each other. The phone abbreviations and emojis solve many of the concerns we obsessed over, too, like spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

22 July 2019

When to Enter


by Steve Liskow

Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.

But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

08 July 2019

Why I Write


by Steve Liskow

Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.

Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

24 June 2019

The Times, They Are A-changing


by Steve Liskow

Some time ago, I pointed out that writers have to change with the industry, especially if they're self-pubbed.

About ten years ago, I attended a conference where an agent warned the audience that he and his colleagues wouldn't even look at submissions from writers who had self-published. At that time, prevailing wisdom said writers were self-pubbed because their work couldn't meet industry standards.

Mystery writer Joe Konrath and others disputed that claim, saying they were treated badly by the traditional monopoly and could make more money on their own. That argument gained weight when NYT bestseller Barry Eisler turned down a half-million-dollar advance from his traditional house and began publishing his books himself. It's worth noting that because of his successful track record, Eisler had thousands of followers, an advantage the average writer can't claim.

Everything influences everything else, and sometimes that's not a good thing. Self-publishing continues to grow, and it takes a substantial bite out of traditional sales. Last year, nearly a million self-published books appeared. Even if they each only sold one copy, that's a million books that the Big Five didn't sell, and it affects their bottom line.

Traditional markets have consolidated or disappeared. Since there are fewer paying markets, the remaining ones are swamped, for short stories as well as novels. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine receives over 1000 submissions a week. Even if you read only the first page, 1000 minutes is over 16 hours, which means the slush pile grows more quickly than the rejection letters can go out.

The numbers hamper novelists, too. There are five independent book stores within thirty miles of my condo, and while they all say they support local writers, they do it by charging fees for shelf space and offering consignment splits that range from generous to usurious. They have two reasons for this.



First, self-pubbed authors won't offer the same 60% discount and free shipping and returns for a full refund that traditional publishers do. Bookstores need that break...unless they can stage an event that guarantees lots of sales. If it rains, snows, is too hot, or another event nearby falls on the same day, audience may not show up. a large audience doesn't mean large sales anyway.

Second, traditional publishers take manuscripts that have already been vetted by an agent and will edit them professionally, maybe more than once. It's no longer true that all self-pubbed books are terrible (see Eisler, above), but the only way to find the good ones is to read them. How long would you need to read one million pages to make your choice?

Most libraries follow the same reasoning. I offer a discount and free delivery for libraries that order several of my books, but few accept my offer because their guidelines in the face of annual budget cuts insist they focus on Lee Child and Stephen King because they know the demand is there. It makes sense, but it deprives the patrons of finding new authors to enjoy.

I suggest to those libraries that they buy digital copies of my work because the price is lower and people can borrow several copies simultaneously. That's not making headway either, but I'm trying to offer more options so my work gets read. Besides, if more people read my stuff, I might get more workshop gigs. Those have tapered off because of those same budget cuts.  I'm finding new venues and splitting fees, but nobody is making out like Charlie Sheen here.

If your book is on a shelf somewhere, it needs an eye-catching cover. My cover designer does brilliant work. He's also my largest set expense, and I'm not selling enough books at events to break even.

More change...More adjustments...

My next novel, due out at the end of this year, will probably be my last paper book.

I have four stories at various markets and four more in progress. By the end of the year, I may be releasing the unsold stories in digital format. I'm studying GIMP so I can design my own covers.

When you're a writer, you always live in interesting times.

What are you doing differently now?

10 June 2019

Muddling or Mulling Mueller


by Steve Liskow

Last week, I poured gas on a Facebook fire when I took people to task for bitching about how hard it was to read the Mueller Report. They complained that it was obscure, confusing, drenched in legalese, etc., etc., etc.
 
I disagreed.

I downloaded the cheapest version I could find onto my Kindle. That edition is 770 pages long and has no page numbers. It only tells me how much I have read and how much time I need at my current rate to finish the whole document. When I entered that discussion, I had read 25%, roughly 190 pages, and had more than three hours left in Volume I. Without timing myself or having page numbers to check, I guess I was reading about 60 pages an hour.

I am 72, have acute astigmatism in my right eye, have had cataract surgery in both eyes, and am mildly dyslexic. I also have a condition called "auditory subvocalization," which means that I hear a voice saying the words when I read. I can't read faster than the words in my head can be spoken. I don't know how fast that is, but in spite of all these "issues," I had no trouble grasping the content of the report.

OK?

My perception is that the average American doesn't read enough to be skillful, the academic equivalent of the guy who plays golf once a month and wonders why he doesn't get better. I see many (usually older) people reading at my health club, often on tablets, eReaders, or their cell phones, but few read a "real" book anymore.

Seeing a few words on a small screen changes the impact and effect of the prose because you may not be able to see how long or short a paragraph is, and it makes a difference. A paragraph is a form of punctuation.

Years ago, Chris Offutt warned writers at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference to proof-read and revise from hard copy instead of on a computer. He warned us about the "screen-sized paragraph" because it changes or removes context and rhythm.

As we dumb-down reading lists in schools and people read on smaller devices, they lose the ability to absorb and process words in a larger context. I suspect that's one reason so many people have trouble grappling with Mueller's report. That said, I give them credit for trying to read it at all. I don't know a single other person at my health club who has made the effort. Conversely, two of my musician friends have read more of it than I have (As I post this Friday morning, I have finished Volume 1).

Remember, Mueller was not trying to write a page-turning best-seller. He is a lawyer charged with investigating issues and presenting a report to the legal branch of the United States government. He was constrained by departmental guidelines and the rules of law and evidence. Naturally, the document uses legal jargon. My biggest surprise is that it doesn't use much more of it.

This passage is where I stopped reading to write the first draft of this post:

On February 26, 2017, Manafort met Kilimnik in Madrid, where Kilimnik had flown from Moscow. In his first two interviews with the Office, Manafort denied meeting with Kilimnik on his Madrid trip and then--after being confronted with documentary evidence that Kilimnik was in Madrid at the same time as him--recognized that he met him in Madrid. Manafort said that Kilimnik had updated him on a criminal investigation into so-called "black ledger" payments to Manafort that was being conducted by Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau [REDACTED: Grand Jury].

Manafort remained in contact with Kilimnik through 2017 and into the spring of 2018. Those contacts included matters pertaining to the criminal charges brought by the Office and the Ukraine peace plan. In early 2018, Manafort retained his longtime polling firm to craft a draft poll in Ukraine, sent the pollsters a three-page primer on the plan sent by Kilimnik, and worked with Kilimnik to formulate the polling questions. The primer sent to the pollsters SPECIFICALLY called for the United States and President Trump to support the Autonomous Republic of Donbas with Yanukovych as Prime Minister, and a series of questions in the draft poll asked for opinions on Yanukovych's role in resolving the conflict in Donbas. (The poll was NOT SOLELY about Donbas; it also sought participants' views on leaders apart from Yanukovych as they pertained to the 2019 Ukraine presidential election.)

The Office has NOT uncovered evidence that Manafort brought the Ukraine peace plan to the attention of the Trump Campaign or the Trump Adminstration. Kilimnik continued his efforts to promote the peace plan to the Executive Branch (e.g., U.S. Department of State) into the summer of 2018.

The passage uses long sentences (the average is about 28 words), but few subordinate clauses, appositives, or modifiers (I could do with a few more pronouns, but the repeated proper nouns are clear). It's less convoluted than Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, or most of the other Victorian behemoths we were forced to confront in undergraduate days. In the 20th century, Faulkner, Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are much more complex. In a good translation, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are easy to read, and Mueller's excerpt has a lot in common with the Russians (Yes, I see the irony).

The excerpt is not difficult to read because of the vocabulary, except for the unfamiliar Russian names. The normal structure is subject, verb, complement, over and over. The four words in bold caps are the only adverbs in the entire passage, and two of them have the common "-ly" ending. If you read the passage aloud, it moves smoothly and quickly. If the names are a problem, substitute "Smith," "Brown" and "Jones" for Yanukovych, Kilimnik and Manafort and listen to what I mean.

Mueller's document illustrates how adverbs weaken prose. Chris Offutt (above) said that adverbs are the weakest words in English, but I didn't appreciate how right he was until now.

Strunk and White bury their advice to "Avoid Qualifiers" on page 73 of my current coy of The Elements of Style, and they discuss "Little," "Pretty," "Rather" and "Very" in one paragraph. They don't expand to explain how and why adverbs in general are weak, but Mueller demonstrates it for us. Adverbs QUALIFY or LIMIT a verb. They don't add, they subtract. A strong verb DOES or IS. When you add an adverb, it DOES or IS only to some extent.

For vigor, Mueller's writing reminds me more of this writer, whom you might recognize:

Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.

This paragraph from Hemingway's "The Killers" averages about 22 words per sentence. The average word in the Mueller excerpt is 5 letters long and in the Hemingway passage 3.8 letters.

I wonder how many people who had trouble reading the Mueller Report are still reading THIS.

27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer


by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, Bob Dylan turned 78, so a bunch of my friends (Yes, I have friends; I pay them) got together to celebrate.

Jane, our hostess, with the whole motley crew
Everyone brought wine or pizza or dessert, and seven of us brought instruments. The hostess assembled a playlist of Bob Dylan songs to play in honor of the occasion, and she stipulated that we would play a few songs by The Byrds, too. I'm the only one of the invitees who has a 12-string, and never one to let good hubris go to waste, I tried to learn "8 Miles High."

I have four books of Dylan songs on a shelf with my other music.
One tome contains over 350 songs, about a quarter of his output. His Wikipedia bio lists 40 albums and CDs, not including collections, and I didn't count how many songs have been recorded or covered by other artists. I first became aware of him through Peter, Paul & Mary, who had the same manager in the early sixties.

Like most artists learning their craft, Dylan borrowed or stole lyrics from other work, some in the public domain, some not. So did Paul Simon, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and a host of others. Some blues lyrics show up so often I could fill in evening performing songs that use a few repeated lines.

Dylan's first album is traditional folk covers, one of which is "The House of the Rising Sun." He copied Dave Van Ronk's version, not long before Van Ronk planned to record the song himself on another label. Their relationship became strained. He kicked Phil Ochs out of his limousine in midtown Manhattan traffic after the latter told him one of his songs would never be a hit. In the 70s, Joan Baez wrote "Diamonds and Rust" as a kiss-off to the guy who dumped her after she helped him get his own foot in the Hootenanny door. Hey, Richard Wagner and Mozart made enemies, too. No one's perfect.
Me (left) with Paul McCarron and Paul Stevens, maybe the 2 best
musicians there. McCarron's wife is one of my former students

Dylan took a huge risk in the mid-sixties when he left folk behind and turned to electric instruments for his more personal and experimental songs. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, among other places. One of the "Bootleg" album collections captures his 1966 concert in Manchester, England, where his backing group is the musicians later called The Band. It's a tense affair with a hostile crowd, culminating in someone from the audience shouting "Judas!"

Dylan responds with a line from one of his own songs. "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Then he turns to the musicians and an open mic captures his command. "Play f#*%ing loud." They launch into their encore, "Like a Rolling Stone," and leave the stage in silence so thick you can chew it.

In the early 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian, having already explored his Jewish roots (His real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) in earlier work. He has never stopped exploring his identity and his world--or ours. I've used his work for two of my own titles. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite albums, and it's the title of the first Woody Guthrie novel. Postcards of the Hanging, a line from "Desolation Row," became the title of one of my standalones.
Jim Roger and his wife, Dylan fans

Dylan's early protest songs told great stories, many of them true crime sagas. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" recounts the case of a black server in a Baltimore club who was fatally beaten by a drunk wielding a cane. The wealthy white man served six months in jail (Sentence deferred so he could harvest his tobacco crop) and paid a $500 fine. Dylan's song showcases his trademark sarcasm, fueled with righteous rage.

"A Pawn in Their Game" is about the shooting of Medgar Evers. Both that song and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring after suffering brain damage, use the common folk device of asking questions and having a series of people claim their innocence by passing the buck. Dylan revisited the genre a decade later in "Hurricane," about middleweight Ruben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up.

My favorite crime song is made up, though. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" features overlapping plots and a cast of characters taken from Western lore to tell of an unfortunate love affair, an unhappy marriage, a bank robbery and murder in about nine minutes (Sixteen verses). The backing band on that song includes the musicians who dubbed the music for the film "Deliverance." If you don't know the song, it's worth checking out on Youtube.

Over the last several years, I've played 25 or 30 Dylan songs live and several titles still fill my list of possible story titles for when I need them.
Former Hartford police officer Jim Howard also plays harmonica

It's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Maureen McFarland for the pix of the whole group and me with the Pauls)