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

22 November 2021

Lights! Action! Murder...


 by Steve Liskow

A week ago, I did something I haven't done since 2004.


Proof, that last audition, 2005

I auditioned for a play at a local community theater. From the early 1980s until 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for over 100 productions in central Connecticut, but I pretty much left theater in 2010. It was a combination of burnout and signing my first contract for a novel, and it seemed like time to turn from stage to page. Since then, I've acted in one show where the director invited me to take the role, and directed a couple of one-act plays where friends I'd worked with before asked me to step in.  
Me as the cop in Miller's "The Price," my last role in 2013



I seldom read plays anymore. At my age, I don't see a lot of interesting roles I could do, anyway. But this particular play needed a sixty-five-year-old male who is a former literature professor, and it's a substantial role, the only male with four women. 

When I arrived at the theater, I met four other men; I'd worked with three of them before--often--and knew the fourth. All of us were over 60. Coincidence?

I didn't get cast, but Barbara, my wife, will play the matriarch lead. She still performs in three or four productions a year. In fact, she closed in a production Saturday night, and her first read-thru for this new show will be tonight.

I don't mind not getting cast (I can stay home watching the UConn Women basketball games), but it started me thinking about my overlapping interests/careers.

One novel and fifteen of my short stories use music as an important component of the story. Two of my novels involve teachers, my day job for three decades. I've only used theater in one story, and it didn't involve the actual play at all. Upon further reflection, I couldn't remember a single story involving theater by ANYBODY that strikes me as better than mediocre. I haven't read everything out there, of course, and Linda Barnes, a former teacher and actor herself (and also from Michigan), used an actor/amateur sleuth for several novels before creating Carlotta Carlyle. She left the actor behind because she decided his propensity for showing up where people died might affect his chances of getting cast again. 


I've never read any of Barnes's theater stories, but most of the others--and I can't think of many--betray the writer's lack of knowledge or experience in theater. The performance spaces, characters, and technical aspects of the show all sound like they're out of the 1950s, and the actors and other theater people are little more than comedic stereotypes. The last light board with those immense levers like Frankenstein's laboratory disappeared by 1990. For the last show I directed at Hole in the Wall in 2008, my lighting designer sat in the auditorium and programmed 104 light cues involving about 70 instruments on her laptop. For all I know, today she might use an app on her phone. 

The lessons I learned in theater carry over to writing, though. Both my acting and directing mentors quoted Sanford Meisner's dictum about monologues: nobody has to watch the person speaking a monologue unless the actor MAKES him pay attention. That doesn't mean over-the-top histrionics (which are hard to do on paper). It means being real and showing what is at stake. High stakes is what story-telling is all about. 

And that got me thinking again, always a dangerous thing. I haven't written a new story in a few weeks because I've been trolling for ideas.

Maybe it's time to go back to that other part of my life and try a mystery based on theater.

(...Fade to Black...)

08 November 2021

Halloween: The (Literary) Flip Side


 by Steve Liskow

As crime/mystery writers, we've all probably written our share of Halloween-themed stories. Even if they don't sell, they're a convenient writing prompt when the cuboard is otherwise bare. Halloween, a week before Guy Fawkes Day for the British and only another week to Veterans' Day. Halloween and Samhain have become the autumnal duet, the night before All Saints' Day.

But what about the B-side, exactly six months earlier? Many writers have used that one, too, even though we may not notice it as readily.

Christianity has borrowed (Okay, stolen) from other religions since the beginning. Christmas and the Winter Solstice have merged. The vernal equinox, the myth of Mithras, Beltane, and various fertility rites have become Easter. But the writer's favorite may be Walpurgisnacht, April 30. Walpurga (various spellings) was a Polish priest canonized by the Catholic church centuries ago. Tradition asserts that the supernatural forces roam free on that night, and celebrants in parts of Europe light bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay. And many writers have mixed the elements into stories we all know.

In the early English calendar, "Midsummer," which we'd expect to be in early August, was actually May first, a fertility rite (As in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"), with the Maypole that Nathaniel Hawthorne erected in Merrymount for one of his short stories.


Midsummer day followed Walpurgisnacht (April 30, remember?) and A Midsummer Night's Dream chronicles the night on which Shakespeare's young lovers get lost in the woods outside Athens so Oberon, Titania and Puck can cast spells upon them and the rude mechanicals. It all leads to a happy ending, though. Theseus marries Hippolyta, Lysander marries Hermia, and Demetrius marries Helena, all on May 1, presumably fruitful unions. I directed  the play in 1993 and played Wall in another production in 2001.

Sometime between those two productions, I worked with a director and a co-producer to wrestle Goethe's Faust, the two-part epic, down to a manageable length for a one-night presentation. The work is over 11,000 lines, nearly three times as long as Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, and we managed to cut over half of it and remain coherent. Goethe names a scene in Part I  "Walpurgisnacht," and a scene in Part II "Classical Walpurgisnacht." It was appropriate for our production, a summer show in a non-air-conditioned factory. With the stage lights, it was hot as hell. 

That same Walpurgisnacht is the day Bram Stoker sends the unsuspecting Jonathan Harker to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula's castle. Several beautiful women approach him with bad intentions, but the Count stops him before they can enjoy the fresh young blood he wants for himself.

More recently, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has three acts, and Albee called the second one "Walpurgisnacht." It follows "Fun and Games," in which Geroge and Martha welcome the unsuspecting Nick and Honey into their home. It's where the brutal psychological battle takes place, leading to "The Exorcism," in which George finally gets the upper hand on Martha and demolishes their own life of lies and delusions. The first act has lots of humor, but people tend to forget that when the demons come out to dance later on. I directed the play in 1996, one of my favorite projects. 


Last, and probably least, a case I only discovered last week when I was researching this post, Black Sabbath's perennial FM hit "War Pigs" was originally titled "Walpurgisnacht." I'm guessing they changed it because Ozzy Osbourne couldn't pronounce it.

Have you ever tried a Walpurgisnacht story? What other tales have I missed?

25 October 2021

Here and Now


by Steve Liskow

A few weeks ago, I gave a short story one last read-through before submitting it, and I found myself wondering, "Would this work better in present tense?"

I've written nine of my sixteen novels in present tense, mostly the ones that take place in Connecticut. The Detroit stories with "Woody" Guthrie use past tense except for scenes in Megan Traine's POV. She lives in the present. Both the short story that was a finalist for the Edgar and the novel that was short-listed for the Shamus were in present tense, too. 

Some of my Sleuthsayers mates say present tense takes them out of the story, and I know at least one publisher has guidelines on their website warning writers not to use it. OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here.

I don't think the average reader notices whether you use past or present tense. I don't believe that most of them think about why they like a story or not, except in terms of the character or the plot. They probably don't notice point of view, either (Unless it's done badly). Writers, of course, pay attention to those things, but how many "civilians" even notice that Bright Lights, Big City uses both present tense and second-person point of view? 

Last week, I stumbled upon The Storytellers, Mark Rubinstein's collection of interviews with several dozen crime, suspense, and romance writers. His conversation with Don Winslow, one of my favorites, was the longest interview in the book, and Winslow says he turned to preent tense the same way I did. He was writing a book in past tense, and, at some point, he found himself getting bored. As an experiment, he wrote the next page in present tense and it was like the entire world opened up before him.


That happened to me, too. Fifty or sixty pages into the first draft of The Whammer Jammers, I hit a wall. After struggling for a few days, I decided that since the book had lots of action, I'd treat it as play-by-play, like the sport announcers I listened to growing up in the 1950s. 

Bingo.

Winslow has an astonishingly varied background, our only shared experience being directing several Shakespearean plays, and when I read his comments on working with the Bard's language, I felt like I was listening to myself. Theater is ALWAYS in the present, and Shakespeare's images and rhythms delineate the characters and guide the movement in the scene.

Winslow points out that using present tense helps the reader participate in the story and "experience" all that is happening because it removes a barrier between reader and story. If the story is in the past, it suggests that it's already over and can't be changed. Present tense removes that safety net. MAYBE you can still change something, and that raises the stakes. 

In present tense, it's more natural to use active verbs and avoid state of being ("to be") constructions and passives. Instead of static visual imagery, tactile and olfactory details filtered through the POV character bring the scene to life. Description becomes the verbal equivalent of a long tracking shot that becomes a landscape painting, but when you offer the character's reaction/response to the place in present tense, you eliminate that problem. 

Dialogue can help carry the load, too. Winslow writes excellent dialogue and vivid internal monologues in the voices of his characters. How a person says something shows more about him or her than description. Look at these two passages:

She looked down at the cute kitten.

"Aren't you adorable." She picked up the kitten, which buried its nose in her neck and purred.

We see both actions, but HEAR the second one, and almost FEEL the cuddling, so it includes us in the scene.

Here are the opening lines of several novels and short stories in present tense. See how they involve the reader in the action?


I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood. Something's wrong with it. (
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places)

They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)

The baby is dead in his mother's arms. (Don Winslow, The Power of the Dog)

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City)

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. (John Updike, "A & P")

A screaming comes across the sky. (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow)

"I poisoned your drink." (Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde)

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. (Hank Phillippi Ryan, Air Time)

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. (Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club)


They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool. (
Laura Lippman, The Most Dangerous Thing)

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch. (Steve Liskow, The Whammer Jammers)

By the way, I eventually sent out that short story in past tense because I  decided the rhythms worked better. But it's a case by case issue, like all writing. 

What rules do YOU like to break?

18 October 2021

Seeds of a Writer


Every story you write is merely a fictionalized piece of autobiography. We spend our lives trying to make bad stuff better, good stuff perfect, and maybe make sense of it all.

During my senior year of high school, a former swimming coach was arrested for running a "Summer Camp" where he photographed boys naked and forced some of them into sexual acts. I changed all the details, but that scandal inspired Postcards of the Hanging, which I finally self-published in 2014. I started writing it in 1972 and submitted several revised versions before it became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan University in 1980. Between then and my self-publishing, it gathered dozens of rejections under various titles and uncountable rewrites. 

Other experiences have inspired stories, too, but only one of them has sold...so far.

After my freshman year of college, I needed a mental break. I'd worked retail in a drug store the previous summer, which was convenient becasue it was within walking distance of my house. But it only paid minimum wage and I wanted more.

Early in May, the local labor council told me a company was hiring college students at $2.25 an hour, a whole dollar above minimum wage. I found myself working in a pickle processing plant (say that five times fast). They told me to wear a hat to protect my hair, and after one night (six PM to five AM), I understood why.

Dozens of women from their late teens to considerably older and mostly Mexican, stood a floor above me as a conveyer belt carried pickles by their stations. They sorted them and dorpped them down chutes to dozens of wheelbarrows below, where I waited along with four other "college students." Then we trundled those loaded barrows out through the warehouse to vats of brine. There were different vats for different kinds of pickles. 

They wanted college students because college freshman were 18, so there was no legal limit on how much we could be told to lift. A full wheelbarrow of saturated pickles weighs about 130 pounds, and we each moved about 200 per night. The salt brine filled the air; by break time at ten, my eyes burned like I'd been reading barbed wire and I had blisters the size of dimes at the base of all my fingers. 

I quit after one night, but I used that job for a story that won Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Story Award several years ago and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: The Girl in the Red Bandanna.

While my hands healed, I turned down an invitation to work at the drug store again. A week later, I found a job in a sheet metal plant. On my first day, the foreman said they were adding a small night shift and asked if I was interested. There was a five percent bonus, so I said yes.

I became half the team running a two-man sheer, a beast with a ten-foot blade that dropped with 15 tons of force to cut sheet metal. Al, who drove a '58 Ford, was missing three front teeth, and chain-smoked Chesterfields, teamed with me to cut roughly 3000 sheets of 18-gauge galvanized steel per night into smaller pieces for various farming implements. We worked from 5:30 pm to 5 am, with a ten-minute break at 9, another at 3, and a half-hour for lunch at midnight. Friday was 3:30 to midnight with supper at 6. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Believe me, it was wonderful.

I was one of nine people on the entire shift, three of us college kids, and four welders. One of the welders added a piece of scrap metal to the back of my putter to give it more weight and help my golf game. When things were slow (rarely), another sheet metal guy taught me to drive a fork lift. 

 Friday, the foreman, a cousin of Detroit Tigers outfielder Jim Northrop, ordered takeout fish or chicken for our supper. A good humor truck saw us hanging out on the loading dock and started coming by so we could get ice cream for dessert. I returned home late Friday night as if I'd been on a date, so my weekend was a "normal" schedule.

Weekdays, I slept until about noon and played golf in the afternoon. Between lugging four-by-eight sheets of galvanized steel and wearing steel-toed shoes, I worked into the best physical condition of my life, and my golf game benefitted from it. I added about 40 yards to my drives and broke 80 a dozen times over the next few months, many of them during competitive play in a summer weekend league.

I lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work. That work week was 52 weeks, which meant 12 hours of overtime. My living expenses consisted of keeping gas in the car and buying my own groceries. That summer before my sophomore year, I earned the money to pay for the rest of my undergraduate education. 

Yes, my social life was non-existent. The girls I knew weren't up at midnight to take a phone call for a possible date. All the metal in the building interfered with radio reception, so we could only get WSGW, which had a transmission tower two miles away. At midnight, they put a stack of singles on the spindle, played them, read the news, then played the same stack again. Between midnight at five, we heard those songs a dozen times in the same order.

But what a great summer for rock. "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." "Paint It, Black." "96 Tears" by our own local ? & the Mysterians. "Dirty Water," "Bus Stop," "Monday, Monday," "Hanky Panky," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," California Dreamin'," "Wild Thing," "Summer in the City," "Sunshine Superman." Local versions of "Farmer John," "The Kids Are Alright (another one of my novel titles),"

and my introduction to the 13th-Floor Elevators, "You're Gonna Miss Me." That was the last summer where singles ruled. The following year would begin the shift toward albums that finally took hold about 1969-70. The Monkees premiered on TV two weeks after I quit that job. 

I've never figured out how to use that job for another mystery, but I'm still trying. I got hired because the previous operator of that sheer got careless and lost three fingers. I quit just as I was losing fear of the machine, which seemed prudent. I dated a few times before returning to college. I had my heart broken for the very first time by a girl I'd known in high school. I haven't lived in Michigan outside of a dormitory since 1967 and she and I haven't attended the same reunions. There are definitely stories here, but maybe I remember the details so clearly I don't know how to tweak them. If they were still fresh and not history, maybe I could do more. 

I still have a few short stories that come from the next couple of years in college. They all involve music, which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads my stuff. Someday, I'll find a home for them, too.

What's in your garden?

27 September 2021

Female of the Species



Last week, Rob Lopresti posed an intriguing question on the Short Mystery Fiction Society thread. He wanted the titles of peoples' favorite noir-ish short story with a female protagonist. Many people responded with stories I will check out if I haven't read them already, but it made me think long and hard before I answered. Many of my favorite novelists are women, and I read so many short stories that it's insane to keep track. 


Rob's question made me look at my own work, too, because I prefer strong female characters. According to my spreadsheets, over half of my short stories feature women who do bad things (often very well), even if it's in the name of "justice." Nearly a third of them are the protagonist of their particular tale, but only four are narrators. There's some overlap, of course. I made an arbitrary decision that unless the woman was the 1st-person narrator or the story used detached-3rd person through her, she wasn't technically the protagonist. 

Six of my sixteen novels involve women who resort to violence, sometimes for the home team, but sometimes for personal gain. I suspect that male and female writers might have different percentages on that issue, and mine lean more toward women than some other male writers would. On the other hand, several of my favorite male crime writers introduce women who kick serious ass, too. 

I've been around strong women my entire life. My grandmother still drove at age 86, and my mother kept control of her finances until a stroke incapacitate her at age 83. My sister and I didn't know she was a millionaire until I gained power of attorney only months before she passed away. My sister was the valedictorian (and ace softball pitcher) at her private school--where she won the state Latin prize twice--and graduated from Harvard law School. The family joke when she's out of earshot is that she got the brains and I got the looks.

Those are the role models I grew up with, not to mention several of my teachers.


When I drifted into theater, I met many strong and intteligent actresses (my wife, of course), one of whom I met through her brother, who was a member of Mensa. I directed twenty productions in several theaters, all with a female stage manager and several with a female producer. If you don't do community theater, you should know that the stage manager is the absolute boss in the building while a show is in production, and that the producer oversees finances and all personnel working on a show, although I hand-picked my tech crew.

My favorite lighting designer, lights technician (also a great actress), and sound technician were women. So was our theater photographer for several years. That lights designer started as one of my favorite stage managers and became an excellent director, too. And wrote a couple of short plays.

Women tend to be smarter than me--the men on the blog are an exception, of course--possibly because the last several centuries have forced them to find creative and flexible ways to get around restrictive rules made by men (See me avoid getting political here). The could shop, take care of the house and kids, maybe even balance the household budget and pay the bills, and maybe haold a part-time job, but they couldn't vote. Directly.

These women certainly influenced my writing. I can't take a bimbo character serioulsy, and the helpless damsel makes me squirm. My characters like puppies, kittens, cooking (within reason) and sex, but several of them have concealed-carry permits.


Shoobie Dube, Rasheena Maldonado and Valerie Karpelinski are or were police officers at one time. Valerie stripped to earn her college tuition, and that helped her learn to read people, especially men. She and Rasheena are also bi-lingual. Severa of my favorite characters skate in roller derby under names like Annebelle Lector, Grace Anatomy, Ginger Slap, Denver Mint Julep, Raisin Cain, or Desolation Rose. 

Few of my short stories really qualify as "noir," and two that feature viewpoint female protagonists are still awaiting publication, one not for about another year. But my first seven published short stories all feature a woman who commits a crime. Sometimes, it's not murder...exactly.

I have interesting imaginary friends.

13 September 2021

The Challenge of Exposition


If you write mysteries, you need to pass information to your readers. If your protagonist is a cop or private eye, this usually involves the victim or client explaining everything at the beginning. That's easy, but it involves flat telling with no tension, which means you have to jumpstart the action after laying the foundation. It's even more urgent in plays, where a static opening scene (think Chekhov, Ibsen, or lots of Shakespeare) means the actors have to start over again in scene 2.

All those scenes depend on a particular dynamic: one character has information the other one lacks, so the informed one explaining everything is logical even if it isn't very exciting. But there are better ways to do it.

You can start with ACTION instead of telling. Don Winslow opens California Fire & Life with the fire destroying an estate and burning a woman to death. That will be the focus of Jack Wade's insurance investigation. The play Extremities opens with a man attempting to rape a woman, who manages to blind him with a can of insecticide and set up the rest of the play. These actions grab the audience's attention more effectively than dialogue would.

If you can't use such extreme action, look at other ways to present dialogue. If two people are arguing about who is going to get Dad's old Chevy, it suggests that Dad won't be driving it any more. If a woman in a wedding gown and veil is sobbing to an older douple about "that slimy jerk," it's a fair guess that she's been dumped at the altar.

In both those cases, explanation will sound artificial. "Well, Diane, now that Dad is dead/incapacitated, one of us should take his classic '57 Impala, and it should be me because I love such cars" is what we call "As you know, Bob" dialogue. The characters both know what's going on and talk only for the sake of the audience instead of resolving an issue. My wife gave me the ultimate example years ago after doing a staged reading of several new plays: "I was talking to John, who is your brother."  We couldn't stop laughing.

The car and the abandoned bride illustrate what playwright Jeffrey Sweet calls "High-context exposition." When both characters have the information, they don't explain anything. They use jargon, context, and references to people or events the audience doesn't know yet. This immerses the audience/reader in the event so they gradually absorb what they need. "Low-context exposition," where someone lacks the necessary info, like the mystery sleuth, justifies more explicit backstory and explanation.

Steel Magnolias is not a great play (although it's a great acting vehicle for six women), but we get involved as the women name over 20 characters (mostly men) who never appear on-stage. The Cover of Life refers to three husbands who have been drafted during World War II and never show up, but we know about them from their wives. David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a Chinese restaurant with two men arguing about "leads," "closing," and other terms they never explain. Eventually, we figure out that they work in a real estate office. Since they're arguing, it adds energy to the scene and draws the audience in.



I tried to use that tactic in my novels. Run Straight Down opens with a shooting in an urban high school, and the teachers use their ed-speak and in-jokes to draw readers in as they watch the chaos. We join their world in small increments. There's a student teacher for when I need a larger explanation, too. 



The Whammer Jammers takes place in the world of roller derby, and my daughter, former captain of the Queen City Cherry bombs in Nashua, helped me develop questions so I could interview skaters, coaches, announcers, and boyfriends at matches in Connecticut. Scenes in the book involve practice sessions and bouts (matches) so the reader gets involved early. That was a lot of fun, too.


Using action or high-context exposition is harder to do, but it pays big dividends. You'll find ways to create more tension early on, which gives you something to build upon later. 

Your readers will love you for it.

30 August 2021

Where Do Characters Come From?


Last week, Barb Goffman talked about how your best characters are desperate. A character who doesn't want or need something  serves no purpose in your story except to drag things down. If nothing is at stake, why should we keep reading? 

Only days before Barb's post appeared, a friend at the health club (Yes, I have friends. I pay them.) asked me if I've used any real people in my stories. I said I had, but that he wouldn't recognize them.

Interviewing classmate, later to be Megan Traine

High school classmate Susie Kaine Woodman, whom I met at a reunion, inspired Megan Traine, the female protagonist in the Woody Guthrie series. I changed her appearance, but the important music details made her recognizable. She's the exception. Real people inspired characters in many of my other stories, but not as they really are.

A character is a combination of yourself, people you know, and stuff you make up. Someone told me once the ratio should be about 1/3 for each facet, but I disagree. I make up more details than I copy.

Using yourself helps you understand how a character might react to certain issues and situations, and you know your backstory and quirks. But nobody needs to know about 99% of that. Using yourself has two dangerous traps, too. First, you will take many details for granted and not explain them to readers even if they are important, which means the reader might not understand something. 

The other problem with a selfie character is that we often demonize people who disagree with us. If "We" are the hero, the villain becomes an ogre instead of a fully-developed foil or antagonist. I only use myself for a reality check. Would this situation shock or upset me? Would a particular injury handicap me (At my age, a hangnail is a major concern)? The character's reactions might be different, but would that be believable?

Somerset Maugham had a stammer. When he wrote Of Human Bondage, which was thinly-disguised autobiography, he gave his main character a club foot instead. I play guitar, but Woody Guthrie plays much better (We share musical tastes). It didn't occur to me until years after creating him, that he nearly lost his left leg in a shooting, and I blew out my left knee playing football. Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into The Night is his own family, which explains why the play was not produced until after his death.

People you know, the second part of the equation, can include relatives, childhood friends, teachers or coaches, and colleagues from work. They can supply physical mannerisms, speech tics, and maybe quirky behavior. Be careful, though. Sinclair Lewis used people from his home town in Main Street, and they recognized his portrayal of them as narrow-minded idiots and wrote angry, and in some cases, even threatening letters. Change enough so the person won't see himself or herself. It also prevents lawsuits, which is another reason not to base a villain on someone you know.

If it won't affect the plot--or will enhance the conflict in some way--I change the character's gender. If that's not possible, give him or her a different hobby, or job. I gave one character glasses and another one became left-handed. Give a single person a spouse, or vice versa. Many of the real people I've used have been composites of two or three people, too. 

Made up details are best because that is where you can create what you really need. If your character struggles with guilt, it's better to make it up. Woody Guthrie survived a shoot-out as a cop--that leg injury I mentioned above--but his partner, who had a wife and two children, died. Guthrie met the widow and the kids, and his survivor guilt is part of what drives him as a PI.

Give your character a fear of heights, dogs, or speaking in public. Karin Slaughter's Will Trent has severe dyslexia that he tries to conceal from everyone else while finding ways to investigate cases. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is an alcoholic. The protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk's Choke is a sex addict (Who doesn't see that as a problem).

I usually begin building a character with Barb's advice. She or he must desperately want or need something. It's life or death. Once I know what it is, I can explain why it's so important, and it's better to make that up, even if something in real life inspires it. If you can't manipulate a detail in service to the story, you need a different detail. 

The need builds the character because it dictates action and behavior. That drives the plot. I seldom describe characters in any detail. Readers won't remember the character's physical appearance unless she's seven feet tall or has six fingers on one hand, but they will remember that Megan Traine loves children because she miscarried several times, and the last time nearly killed her. 

Characters are looking for something that they think will make them "whole." That's why villains need money or power and why protagonists must fix a problem this time that they failed to fix before.

It all sounds so easy…

16 August 2021

Trash Talking: When Dialogue Goes Wrong


 by Steve Liskow

In the summer of 2004, I attended the Wesleyan Writers Converence. I'd written five unpublished novels in the 70s and thought one of them could still sell--if I could figure out how to fix a few problems. I began a completely new novel in the fall of 2003--actually a sequel to that long-buried MS--and sent the first two chapters to the conference for a critique. I was lucky because Chris Offutt looked at them. He turned out to be a terrific critic and mentor, and his fiction-writing class was packed.

We met over coffee and a Danish, and he held up my chapters.

"You write good dialogue," he said. "And you probably know it. That's both good and bad."

"I did a lot of theater," I told him. "Maybe that has something to do with it. Why is it bad?"

"Well," he said, "you know you write good dialogue, so you try to use it too much as if you're writing a play instead of a novel. But it can't carry the whole load in fiction. You need narration and description and exposition, too."

In theater, that usually means stage directions, set description, and lights or sound for mood. 

I remembered that conversation a few days ago while I pumped away on an elliptical trainer in front of a TV at my health club. A soap opera was on, and I don't follow soaps, so I don't know what it was. Eight or ten men and women were in the scene, all well-dressed, and ranging from  early 20s to about 50. From reading the subtitles, I figured out that one attractive young couple was going to marry soon, and the groom's mother, the older woman in the tasteful ensemble, had a history including enough dysfunction to serve in the Former Guy's cabinet. She arrived unbidden (like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty) and threw the meeting into a quandary. I couldn't decide if she was violating a restraining order or not.

The conversation among these people consisted of seven or eight sentences that they repeated over and over with a few variations. The older woman had some culpability in the deaths of two other people. Everyone else loathed her. I could tell by the gritted teeth and tight expressions in all the close-ups (Soaps love close-ups). The gist was "We don't want you here," and "I don't care. I had to come." There were vague references to past misdeeds, and if there had been any real content, I would have accused the writer of using "As you know, Bob," dialogue. Since no real information was passed, I guess it was OK. Except for one issue.


Even dialogue needs conflict

I was on that elliptical trainer for twenty minutes, and that conversation was in progress when I started. It lasted through two commercial breaks and finally concluded with the older man putting his arm around the mother's shoulders and firmly escorting her out. The exit happened thirty seconds before I finished my workout. 

Nothing was settled, nothing new was introduced or revealed, we got no characterization or backstory, but they filled most of a half-hour program. The dialogue was so artificial and unbelievable that none of the actors could do more than grimace or look stern, what my director buddies and I used to call "Actors' Studio Angst." The story may have to move slowly because the writers are only a few episodes ahead, but this was excruciating. 

Sometimes, actions say enough

In real life, the woman would have appeared, been told she was unwelcome, and either left or refused to do so. If she refused, a security guard would have removed her or someone would have dialed 911 and police would come to do the same. The dialogue would have used more vernacular, too.

This is the lesson Chris Offutt gave me. Sometimes, dialogue is the wrong choice, and when it is, you can't make it work. The scene would have been more effective with about 90% less talk and some mild physical action. That would also eliminate the talking head problem. 

"Clytemnestra tried to crash the pre-wedding supper, but Orestes kicked her out."

See how easy that is?

Dialogue is like everything else in your story. If it doesn't matter, it doesn't belong there.

An epilogue: The chapters I showed in 2004 went through dozens of revisions and several title changes. The book appeared in 2013 as Blood on the Tracks, with little except the basic premise and onc character name intact. The book I wanted to salvage also changed title three times, emerging as Postcards of the Hanging in 2014. Between them, the books received 162 rejections.

Thanks, Chris.

02 August 2021

If Once Is Good...


Early in my teaching career, a student handed in a composition that blew my socks off. It was by far the best work she produced all year, and the next day, I read it to the rest of the class. The day after that, three different female classmates all showed up with the same essay...copied from Judith Viorst in Redbook. I gave the writer the choice of writing another paper and taking a low grade for its lateness, or taking an outright zero. She wrote another paper, nowhere near as brilliant.

Years later, when I was more in touch with the student grapevine, I taught two senior English classes of "Low-level" students. That's EdSpeak for "Seriously challenged." Most of those 18-year-olds read at about sixth-grade level. Occasionally, someone would hand in a paper with brilliant imagery or a sophisticated extended metaphor. By then, the Internet existed, so I would type a particularly vivid line into the search field and find a rap lyric or hip-hop song on the first hit. After several months of calling kids out, I found fewer and fewer offenses. The word got around that the old guy in Room 240 had phat street cred, yo. 

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can come back to bite you. Copiers abound, some of the cases blatant to the verge of slapstick, but some more subtle.

We all know about Melania Trump's stealing from Michelle Obama's speech to nominate her husband (Because Barrack Obama and Donald Trump have so much in common, I guess).


Bob Dylan--long accused of recycling any lyric or lick that wasn't nailed down--allegedly stole part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the SparkNotes summary of Moby Dick. Joni Mitchell is only one of many who say Bob is the embodiment of the old dictum that if you steal from one person, it's plagiarism, but if you steal from everyone, it's research.

Dan Brown faced charges of stealing ideas from another novel for The Da Vinci Code, and J.K. Rowling encountered similar charges for elements in the Harry Potter series. J.R.R. Tolkien was accused of stealing elements of the Lord of the Rings from Wagner's Ring Cycle. This one strikes me as frivolous because, if you can't use the template for the Hero's Journey, most myths are off the table and Hollywood would be even more bereft of ideas than it seems already. So would novelists who use the same template. 

Emma Cline published The Girls in 2017, and her ex-boyfriend claimed she stole his emails for material. She denied it, but did admit to selling him a computer on which she had installed spyware, but only to find out if he was cheating on her. Really. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used Literary Hub and Powered by Orange for lots of the information I'm passing on here...

Bob Dylan isn't the only musician to recycle, of course. Many early rock and roll acts used riffs or lyrics from earlier songs and even from each other. Some lines appear in many blues songs, and some rock riffs are part of the vocabulary because everyone uses them. Chuck Berry modified figures from Robert Johnson, Elmore James and several other blues poineers, and they were picked up by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and almost anyone who has plugged in since then.

Some borrowing is too blatant, though. Led Zeppelin shares writing credit with Chester Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") for "The Lemon Song," which Burnett recorded years earlier with similar lyrics as "Killin' Floor."


In one of the most astonishing verdicts ever, Led Zepp was acquitted of stealing the introduction of "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's earlier "Taurus." The two bands toured together, and the members of Spirit claimed that Jimmy Page copied Randy California's guitar part note-for-note. In Page's defense, I've heard that he couldn't read music, which meant he had to have a fantastic memory. He might have remembered the notes and not realized he was copying.

No, I don't buy it either. Listen to Spirit's song on YouTube, beginning about 45 seconds in, and decide for yourself. Zepp also now shares writing credit with Memphis Minnie for "When the Levee Breaks." "Dazed and Confused" appears on Led Zeppelin II, but first surfaced on a late Yardbirds album as a reworking of a song written and performed by Jake Holmes.

The Rolling Stones usually gave credit to the people whose songs they covered: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, et al. The Let It Bleed LP correctly credits Robert Johson with writing "Love In Vain," but a two-volume collection of Rolling Stones songs published in 1980 gives the byline to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Oops. "Gaucho" bears the byline Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and Keith Jarrett because the first two used a Jarrett piano line for their Steely Dan recording. 

My favorite music story concerns George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." He paid $400,000 for "unintentionally" copying the three-note figure from "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons. I don't think three notes is enough to call it copying, but maybe that's just me. I don't hear the copying, either. In any case, years later, Harrison purchased the publishing company that held the rights to "He's So Fine." Not long after that, the Chiffons recored a cover version of "My Sweet Lord."

What goes around, comes around...

19 July 2021

The Changing Landscape


Fifteen years ago, I could send my stories to about thirty potential markets. A few were literary, some were supernatural or sci-fi, a couple were romance. Most of my work was crime/mystery, but I had those other options.

Many of those markets are gone now. The landscape changes more quickly than we can keep track of it, especially since the pandemic, but keep track of it we must.

I currently have at least one submission at each of the mystery markets that still takes stories year-round. I have stories ready to send to the markets that open sporadically, too. I used to write a novel and three or four short stories a year, but, in the last year, I have produced twenty-three short stories and no new ideas for a novel. The changing market is a factor, and I've started paying attention to the territory more than the map.

Fifteen years ago, if I got an idea for a short story--which didn't happen often--I wrote it and looked for a place to send it because there were so many potential markets. Now, I look at the markets and submission calls first and use those submission calls as writing prompts.

Yes, I'm looking for novella markets, too, even though I only write one novella a year, and that's for a contest I have won twice. Are there more anthologies now, or am I simply paying more attention?

In the last year, I have sold twelve stories, five still due to be published. Ten of those twelve sales are to anthologies.

Anthologies often have a specific theme, the idea that I use as a prompt. Last year, one story appeared in Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, about love gone bad.

Another was in Mickey Finn: 21st-Century Noir. A third ws in The Killer Wore Cranberry, a collection of humorous murder stories involving Thanksgiving. There is at least one Christmas anthology looking for material, and one of my unsold stories was rejected by another holiday collection.

I've always been able to write fairly quickly to a prompt. It's no different from the years of essay tests in high school and college, expecially grad school.

But there's another reason I'm paying more attention to anthologies now, too. Time for a brief history lesson.

When the Mystery Writers of America added short stories as an Edgar Award category in 1951, the award went to the best collection of short stories for the year. In 1955, an individual story won for the first time, Stanley Ellin's "The House Party," which appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Before the mid-1970s, "mainstream" magazines often printed the Edgar-winner. The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker, and McCall's all featured a winning story, some of them several times. So did Argosy, Esquire, and Story. Between 1976 and 1998, Playboy published four of the Award-winners, three of them written by Lawrence Block.

After about 1975, the winners seldom appeared in mainstream publications and tended to show up in magazines that catered to the mystery reader. Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine printed the earliest individual story to win, and has published 21 winners since then. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has published three.

The terrain took another shift at the turn of the century. Since 2000, Ellery Queen has published three Edgar winners, but all the others come from an anthology or a collection of stories by one author (Laurie Lynn Drummond in 2005 and Stephen King in 2016). For mystery writers, this is both good news and bad news.

It's bad news because anthologies usually don't pay much. Generally, the author gets a royalty share divided by the number of writers in the collection. Last year, I made $3.08 from one anthology. Most anthologies don't sell many copies, either, so when you divvy up the take, there's not much to go around.

One glaring exception is the Mystery Writers of America anthology Vengeance, published in 2012. I received a roylty check last December, and that story– nominated for an Edgar but losing to Karin Slaughter's story in the same collection– has made me more money than all except two other stories, and they both won contests. My story appeared between the covers with stories by Alafair Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and other big names. It's the best exposure I've had since Border's Books went under. The local store displayed mysteries alphabetically, so my novels were on the same shelf with Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, and Laura Lippman. Man, I miss that store…

Exposure matters. Yeah, it's hard to pay the bills with exposure, but it beats being a complete unknown.

Some new anthology calls lean toward my music background. Over the last couple of years, we've ssen books of stories inspired by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, the Ramones, or hits from the 1960s. There are more music-themed collections taking submissions as I post this. Now maybe I can write off all those records I've bought as a business expense.

Yes, you have to hear abut the submission call somehow. Maybe you're in a writing group (Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example. Rob Lopresti is the reigning President) that passes the word along. Maybe you're Facebook friends with someone or on a blog site.

The MWAS anthologies have produced the Edgar-winning story four times since 2002. But you have to be an active member of the group to submit a story. The Akashic NAME YOUR CITY Noir series, now numbering several dozen books, is by invitation only. This may be true of many others, too.

But as anthologies proliferate, they give me more writing prompts. Not only are ten of my last twelve sales to anthologies (including next year's MWA collection, Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan), but I have sent five other stories to submission calls. And I'm working on two others.

05 July 2021

Back in the Saddle




by Steve Liskow

 I used to conduct several writing workshops during the course of the year. My normal venue was libraries, moving to a couple of local writing retreats after Connecticut cut library budgets. The pandemic killed those workshops, too. Now, as more people get vaccinated, events are opening up again, some live and some remaining online.


I prefer live events because I like connecting with the audience. It's much easier to have a question and answer session live than online because you don't have to mute or unmute several people. It's easier to conduct writing activities and distribute handouts (I like handouts) or write on an easel for everyone to see. I can sell books, too.


In two weeks, I will join another crime writer for an online workshop through a library. We batted ideas around a few days ago and will have another phone session later this week. We want to come up with a coherent handout and some activities the participants can do online instead of merely listening to an hour-long lecture (Shudder...), but it's still going to be less interactive than a live show. I will hold up one of my books and encourage people to order it. So much for promotion.

What concerns me most is that the audience gets its money's worth. Some people may not figure out how to navigate Zoom, and others may show up late. Several may be the passive TV audience my theater friends and I used to carp about at intermission when we hadn't heard a response through the entire first act. 

When I taught drama, I gave my students a handout on theater etiquette, and I'm modifying it only slightly here for people attending a workshop or reading.

1.  Know what you've signed up for. We are crime writers discussing a pre-chosen topic, so don't ask us about poetry, memoir, or how to set up your website.

2. Show up on time. I once conducted a 90-minute workshop where a man arrived 25 minutes late. When I finished, he wanted me to re-cap what he'd missed. I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home ahead of me, so I declined. Ironically, when he reviewed the workshop, he complained that I didn't discuss the very topics he missed by being late.

3. If you're online, mute yourself except to ask questions. If you're live, silence your phone.

4. Feel free to ask questions. Questions show me where I need to be clearer or more specific if I do the same presentation again. Make your question a question and not an editorial. 


5. I like to provide hand-outs at my workshops, but please don't ask for extras. The libary prints up as many copies as there are people who signed up for the event, or I bring that exact number with me. I don't bring extras, and some of them need explanation anyway. If your friend wanted one, he should have joined you so I could answer HIS questions, too.

6. If you're going to comment on my looks or fashion sense, do it out of my earshot.

7. Try to find it in you heart to buy a book. Or, better yet, persuade the librarian to buy one for the library so other people can find out about me. Yes, I DO take credit cards.

8. I distribute bookmarks and business cards. They list my website, and the bookmarks have my novels listed on the back. If you don't want them, give them back or to the librarian so he or she can put them on display. Don't simply drop them under your chair so somebody has to pick them up after you leave.

9. Feel free to come up afterwards to say hello or buy a book. But use a little tact or common sense. Years ago, I was selling my first roller derby novel at a roller derby bout, and a man suggested that I write a book about some other topic. I don't remember what that topic was, but I asked if he'd buy it. He told me he didn't read. I had several responses on the tip of my tongue, but I restrained them. I did kill the guy off in a later book, though.


I love writing. I love doing workshops and meeting people even more. Especially the nice ones.

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?


Remember when you started dating? I was shy in high school, and talking to girls was much harder than any test I ever took in a classroom. Except physics.

If I could get beyond the first few sentences– throw the first strike, so to speak– I'd be all right. It took me a long time to get those first few sentences down, though.

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

We all have a list of our favoirte opening lines, and we probably agree on many of them. The first few lines of a story or novel are crucial because they need to make the reader keep reading. That's even more important now than it was years ago because we have so many other distractions. If someone doesn't like your book– which he's reading on his phone– he'll switch to email or social media, and you're gone.

Openings should accomplish several things.

Getting the reader's attention is first, of course, but there are other concerns, too.

An opening should establish the ground rules, how the writer is telling the story and how the reader should make sense of it. That means showcasing the style, especially the tone, mood, and point of view. It should introduce the protagonist and antagonist as soon as possible. If the story is in first-person, it's reasonable to assume that the narrator is the protagonist.

The opening should introduce the basic conflict or problem. If it doesn't do that, at least give the impression that something is "wrong," a dissonance that will become important as we keep reading.

That's a lot to demand of a few words, isn't it? Look at how some writers accomplish all these thngs.

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.

John D. MacDonald sets a tone to open Darker Than Amber. He implies a setting (If there's a bridge, we're near water, so maybe the narrator is fishing. At any rate, he and his companions are outdoors.). We wonder who dropped the girl and why he did it. MacDonald has given us the basic mystery and conflict.

"I poisoned your drink."

This is how Duane Swierczynski introduces "The Blonde." We are probably in a bar, and the conflict is clear. The narrator wants to live, so he (presumably a male) needs the antidote. Who is this blonde, and why has she poisoned this particular person? Curious? I know I am.

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

Circe, Madeline Miller's retelling of The Odyssey, begins with these words. We wonder what particular word Circe has in mind… and who coiined it. We know The Odyssey, so we expect certain other characters to appear eventually, too.

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan probably begins on an airplane. Why is the flight attendant crying? Is the plane going to crash? The tone makes me want to know more about the person who phrases the observation this way, too.

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

This is from my own The Whammer Jammers. We know what kevlar is, so Hendrix is a police officer. He's worn kevlar before and now he's facing a dangerous situation, maybe a raid? Notice that the last two examples are in present tense, too.

MacDonald's book appeared in 1966 and Miller's only three years ago. Some things don't change.

Your opening should begin to set up your ending, too. That's easier than it sounds. If you're writing a romance, your reader already expects that the lovers will end up together. If you're writing a mystery, we expect to find a solution. If you can put a clue in immediately, that's even better because your reader may overlook it while she or he is getting used to the rules of engagement. Sometimes, you can repeat a line or phrase from the beginning at the end to give structural closure, too, like finishing a song on the tonic. 

All the examples I gave are opening sentences, but the "brilliant first sentence" quest may be a trap. DO NOT use a gimmick. Readers will catch you and feel manipulated. They won't like it and they'll stop reading. A gimmick makes it hard to move on without a jarring shift. 

Instead of obsessing over one great line, give yourself a paragraph or even a page to get things rolling. If you can suggest that there's trouble in River City, you're fine. The characters and setting will help you show more and find your rhythm and tone. 

The best advice I can give is to open your first draft whenever and wherever you want. Tell your story. When you know the plot, setting, and characters more fully, you can find the best way in. Then go back and rewrite your opening when you know the best place to start. My last revision and polish is usually on the opening when I have everything else in place. When I'm finding my way, I often write lots of back-story at the beginning, too. I will cut or move most of it when I revise, but it gives me direction. 

Go back and look at my title and opening paragraph. See what I did?

07 June 2021

Warren & The Werewolves


 by Steve Liskow

I've been incorporating a few songs by Warren Zevon into my open-mic repertoire. I've played "Mr. Bad Example" and a couple of others off and on for several years, but lately I've been polishing "My Ride's Here." It's the title track from the CD Zevon released soon after he knew he had terminal lung cancer. He always had gallows humor.


If he hadn't been a musician (Mostly piano, but also guitar and harmonica), he might have become a hardboiled crime writer. He co-wrote a song with novelist Thomas McGuane and collaborated on a song and novel with Carl Hiaasen, both called Basket Case ("My baby is a basket case/A bi-polar mama in leather and lace"). He dedicated an early album to Ken Millar, AKA "Ross Macdonald," and was good friends with Hunter S Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover may have inspired one of his own covers.


Zevon was born in January 1947, two months before me, and died in September 2003, three months after I left teaching and the same month I returned to writing after a 20-year hiatus. His father was once a bookie for gangster Mickey Cohen and had been a prizefighter before moving from Chicago, where Warren was born. 

In his nearly 40-year career, Zevon met Igor Stravinsky and performed, wrote, or drank with half the rock and roll hall of fame, including the Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lindsay Buckingham, Emmylou Harris, and members of R.E.M. Many of them performed on his last CD, The Wind, released less than two weeks before he died. Two songs on that CD posthumously won his only Grammie awards. The CD also features a cover version of Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" that will give you chills.


Because Zevon's humor was often dark and his stories and imagery jarring or downright disturbing, few of his songs got airplay except "Werewolves of London," but he also wrote songs for the Turtles in the 60s, and Linda Ronstadt covered "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" in the 70s.

"Carmelita," a ballad about a junkie, offers the chorus "I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town." Not quite what they were looking for in Peoria. "Excitable Boy" tells of a young man who murders the girl he takes to the junior prom. Zevon called the victim "Little Susie," a wink at the girl who fell asleep at the movies in the Everly Brothers song. "Werewolves of London" offers this gem of wordplay: "Little old lady got mutilated late last night/Werewolves of London again."

OK, not everyone's bucket of blood...

He played piano behind the Everly Brothers, then worked with each of them individually after their break-up. He co-wrote several songs with Phil (Who may have given him the idea for "Werewolves"). He also filled in for Paul Shaffer as music director for David Letterman, one of his lifelong friends. Letterman had him as his only guest for a one-hour segment after he announced that he was dying.

Zevon told great noir stories, including "Excitable Boy." "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is about a rich screw-up trying to buy his way out of trouble, and one of his most bizarre songs (Which every Zevon fan knows by heart) is "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." It tells of a mercenary who is killed by another mercenary, and his headless ghost comes back to get revenge. "Boom Boom Mancini" is an homage to the boxer, probably inspired by his own father's early boxing career. "Mr. Bad Example" chronicles the life of a perpetual con man and gives an autobiographical nod to his father's carpet store in Arizona. "I got a part-time job in my father's carpet store/laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score." Zevon's son Jordan hypothesizes that the old building may have been where Dad got the asbestos exposure that caused his cancer years later. Taken as a whole, the song feels like a Donald Westlake caper set to music.

He could be tender and sentimental, too. "Keep Me in Your Heart," one of his posthumous Grammy winners, tells his lover, "If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less/ ...You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on you blouse/ ...Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams/Touch me as I fall into view..."

He also wrote one of the great earworms. "Hit Sombody (The Hockey Song)" introduces us to Buddy, who "wasn't that good with a puck."

"Buddy's real talent was beating people up/His heart wasn't in it, but the crowd ate it up.../ A scout from the Flames came down from Saskatoon/ Said, "There's always room on our team for a goon."

The ending is both funny and poignant. Find it on Youtube and accept that it will stick in your head for the rest of the day. I used the title for one of my Roller Derby novels because it captures the raunchy humor of the self-described Bitches on Wheels. If he'd lived longer, Zevon might have written a song about them, too.

My Ride's Here has a cover photo of Zevon peering from the window of a hearse. The title track mentions Jesus, Milton, Shelly, Keats, Lord Byron, and John Wayne (Who also died of lung cancer) and alludes to Elmore Leonard's twice-filmed 3:10 to Yuma


Jordan assembled a songbook of his father's songs that I wish were three times as thick. It gathers most of the cult "hits," but omits a few I've used in my own writing. "Hit Somebody," for example. "Run Straight Down" became the title of my standalone novel about a shooting in a public high school (David Gilmour of Pink Floyd plays guitar). I'd love to find an accurate transcription of "The Hula Hula Boys" about a man with a philandering wife that could be a Raymond Chandler novel. "Ain't That Pretty At All" and "Looking For the Next Best Thing" could be novels or stories, too. And, again, funny...sort of.

I still want to create a story matching the wisdom Zevon shared with David Letterman on that TV segment when Letterman asked him if he'd learned more about life and death since his terminal diagnosis:

Enjoy Every Sandwich.

24 May 2021

YOUR Way


Writing is the hardest subject to teach. It's not information like history or science, and it's not a manual skill like carpentry or shooting lay-ups. It's a combination of knowledge (Vocabulary and grammar) and synthesis, combining that knowledge with the writer's own experience, emotions, skills and interests. When you have 25 or 30 students in a class or online with different cultures, environments, and DNA, trying to teach them the same skills the same way at the same time and expecting to absorb it at the same rate is a sure way to fail.

This is why so many graduate not only as mediocre writers, but as people who hate writing. Writing is a personal, even intimate skill, and the cookie-cutter approach doesn't work. I see and hear writers at workshops proclaiming that their method is the only way to write, and it always annoys me.

I was a panelist at a workshop a few years ago where one audience member asked if we outline our novels and I was the only one who said, "Yes." Before I could even explain that I used the term loosely, two other panel members screamed at me as though I had relieved myself on the table.

I told one of them later that if her method produced writing like hers, NO ONE should want to know how she did it.

Teaching writing should be less about getting the actual words right and a lot more about finding the way that works best for YOU. Schools need deadlines so teachers can grade your early stumbling efforts, but it doesn't help anyone. Teachers look at spelling, grammar and punctuation because that's easy to evaluate. Structure, style, pacing and rhythm, on the other hand, need larger samples than time permits. My senior honors English class gave me six weeks (It might have even been eight) to produce a research paper of 1000 words, and the teacher checked our footnote style (Remember Turabian?) with a microscope. Now, I expect to write that much on any given day (I produced the first draft of this essay, 1050 words, in about 35 minutes).

I don't know a single writer who uses precisely the same process that I do, and I claim that it works for me because I'm satisfied with most of the 15 novels and 30-some short stories I've published so far. But several writers on this blog have published hundreds of short stories and three times as many novels as I have. I have only a general idea of how most of them work, and it doesn't matter.

When I conduct my NANO workshops, I tell students that the important goal is not really producing 50,000 words, it's learning HOW TO produce those 50,000 words. If they've never tried to write a substantial amount before, it's a great chance to learn how to do it.

I suggest ideas you can use for outlining (Or simply listing scenes). I demonstrate the structure of a scene, how and why some characters work better for a story than others, how setting may help your story by creating obstacles or a context for your character, and how conflict enhances your plot. You need to find your own way to reach those goals.

Here are the questions schools can't help students answer, mostly because they're also doing math, science, social studies, foreign language and art homework, too, so their time is crowded. Never mind a social life.

How do YOU write the most effectively?

Do you write better in large blocks of time (Two hours or even more) or in short bursts of ten or fifteen minutes? Does that change if you're in an early stage of planning or actually working on the last pages of your story? I tend to go faster as I find a story's details and rhythm.

Do you need an outline or do you write a lot of junk then go back to save and expand the good stuff? I know a few major wirters who outline (Robert Crais and the late Sue Grafton among them), but Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and Carl Hiaasen don't. I wish I could write like any of them.

Do you need quiet, or can you listen to music or the traffic outside your window?

Do you need an deadline to motivate you? For me, one advantage of being unpublished and without a contract was that I could work at my own speed. I could go back and rewrite pieces and learn how to make them better without worrying about meeting someone else's deadline. I did 30 years of THAT in theater.

Are you better off writing your first draft with a pencil (John Steinbeck, with legal pads), crayon, rollerball, or fountain pen (Tess Gerritsen's preference), or typing into a computer? How about talking and recording your ideas first?

Do you have to write everything in order? Can you jump ahead to write a scene you expect to use later, and if so, do you need an outline to know that?

Steve Liskow
Steve Liskow

What gives you your ideas? Neil Gaiman answered this question better than anyone else I know when he said that writers get ideas because it's their job. Just like carpenters need to handle tools, actors need to learn lines, and musicians need a good sense of pitch and rhythm. If you can't get ideas SOMEHOW, you're not going to be a writer.

Do you edit as you go along, or do you write a complete first draft before you revise, or a combination of these? Is your process the same for short stories and novels (Mine isn't)?

Do you know other writers who can read and critique your work? How do you give and take criticism? I've been in three writing groups, and none of them helped me very much. I know several writers in the area whose work and judgment I respect, but at this stage I seldom bother them for anything except occasional feedback.

What do you do when the writing isn't flowing or you're overwhelmed? I read, do jumbles and crossword puzzles, play guitar, or praactice piano. I used to work out at the health club because mindless physical repetition helps me release my unconscious, the best editor. That went away during the pandemic.

What did I leave out? I don't know, but maybe THAT's what you need to answer.

10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

Dad said I could write his blog if I promised I wouldn't eat the mouse. It doesn't look or smell much like a mouse, anyway.


My sister Jewel and I met Dad and Mom twelve years ago this week. Our first owner lost his home and we had to go to a shelter. Jewel was really shy and it upset her a lot, but I promised I'd find us a new home. When Dad walked in, I purred and played and let him hold me in his lap. Mom petted me too, and they both liked me. I wouldn't go without Sis, though. The people at the shelter said we were a blonde pair, or something like that. I'm kind of blond, but Jewel was a Himalayan. Anyway, Dad and Mom put us in carriers again--I still don't like car rides because, up to then, they'd all ended up us being somewhere we didn't like--but this time was different.

A basement with two litter boxes and lots of furniture. A nice bright kitchen and two food dishes. Two sets of stairs to run up and down, lots of windows and trees so we could watch birds and squirrels. Jewel hid under the coffee table in the basement that first night, but I trotted back and forth between Mom's chair and Dad on the couch, letting them pet me. By the time they went to bed, I knew we'd scored. And when I jumped ino bed and curled up against Mom, she snuggled me. We still do lots of that.


Dad's a writer. He spends lots of time by the computer talking to himself and shaking his head. Jewel used to read his stuff and tell me what it was, but he never had enough action or car chases for me--except that book about roller derby, and that was girls, so Jewel got into it more than I did. She wanted more love scenes and stuff becasue she's...well, you know...a girl. I'm more into sports. That's my favorite section of the newspaper. Except the comics. 


For our first Christmas with Mom and Dad--I was about a year and a half and Jewel was two, Mom got us a new kitty bed. It was nice, but it was even better when she took the cushion out of it. Then we could fit in it together and groom in a sunbeam. Mom took a picture and used it as a Christmas card one year. There was even a big hanging plant in the room at first, but Dad saw a few teeth marks on leaves and took it away. He never saw me chew it, but what are you going to do?


Mom's an actress, and sometimes she'd walk around in the bedroom talking to Jewel in funny voices. Jewel would always talk back, and sometimes I thought Mom actually understaood what she was saying. Hoomans are pretty smart if you encourage them. Dad practices guitar sometimes, too. It's weird, a guitar doesn't smell alive, but it makes noise like you wouldn't believe. Jewel and I usually went upstairs when Dad pulled it out of its bed. That's when Mom would stretch out on the bed and we'd cuddle with her. Sometimes, she stayed downstairs and did a crossword puzzle. Jewel probably knew more answers, but I usually sat on the back of the chair so I could see the clues better.

During basketball season, Jewel liked to watch the UConn Women, even though they're the Huskies. Go figure. Mom thinks she taught Jewel to say "Maya Moore," but she could say it all along. She just finally let Mom hear her.

Jewel died about three years ago, and Mom and Dad and I held each other a lot. I didn't remember being away from her before, and I looked all over the condo for weeks before I figured out she wasn't coming back. That really hurt. But I'm still taking care of Mom and Dad.

Mom and Dad take care of me, too. Mom even gets up to fill my water cup if I'm thirsty in the middle of the night because I don't like my fountain downstairs. And I still like to sleep between Dad's feet except in the summer when it's really hot.


Dad's not writing as much as he used to now, and I keep telling him he needs more car chases. I don't think he gets it. He still plays guitar, too, and I help him and Mom watch baseball and basketball. I'll take care of them as long as I can, because that's what Maine coons do. We love our hoomans.