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

17 January 2022

Next to Last Step


I always read my work aloud as the last step in my editing/revision, but there's one last step I take before that. It's the "Readability Statistics" in the review menu of Microsoft word. When I "Review" with "spelling and grammar check," this chart appears after I've made or ignored all the corrections. This is after my final pass-through on the most recent Woody Guthrie novel, Words of Love.

We see a word count, character (letter) count, sentence count, paragraphs, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters (letters) per word. I don't pay much attention to these, but Microsoft uses them to determine the values below them: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level. The grade level is in grade and months as a decimal : 7.3 means seventh-grade, third month.

The Reading ease is the percentage of readers at that grade level who can understand that passage. Basically, long sentences and long words are harder to understand, especially if they appear in a long paragraph. My average paragraph is probably five or six sentences. But sometimes, you want something longer.

This is the same tool applied to a long paragraph at the beginning of the late Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which tells how she rebuilt her life after both her husband and grown daughter died unexpectedly within months of each other. John Gregory Dunne suffered a heart attack, and she called 911.

This paragraph is 310 words, or 23 sentences long, more what I think of as Henry James or James Joyce terrain. You could "correctly" divide it into several shorter ones, but Didion uses one long paragraph to show how the events and her thoughts jumble in a huge confusing rush. Her last understated sentence wraps everything up like a hammer blow to the chest.

That long paragraph is short words, averaging four characters each, and 13 words per sentence. It works out to fifth-grade-seventh-month reading level, and 77.9 % of readers at that level being able to understand it.

Reading level is somewhat arbitrary. It uses the number of syllables in a 100-word sample to measure level with no regard to content. Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time occasionally sounds like My Weekly Reader because the text tries to reduce complex math and quantum physics to layman's terms.

All of this is interesting, but SO WHAT? Well, look at the last statistic on the chart. I care about it because it shows how your writing will "sound." It's the percentage of PASSIVE verbs in your selection. Didion's is 8.6, which is very high, but it's appropriate because she is powerless in the scene, at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Strunk and White say to use the active rather than the passive voice, but Strunk made that same distinction.

My novels are usually at about a 4th grade reading level (It doesn't sound dumb, trust me) and I strive for no more than 2% passive verbs. Summaries and shorter selections tend to be higher. Most of my blogs are more, but I can live with it. For fun, type about 200 words from Hemingway, Crane, King, Fitzgerald, Lippman, Rozan, or Child into your computer and see what their stats are.

The newer Microsoft programs include the readability stats in the review. If you have an older Microsoft program, you can add that command in your editing. I'm not sure you can do it with a MAC, because I've never used one. Here's how:

Click on the little carat to the right of your command icons, and you'll see the drop-down menu. Click on the top line "customize quick access toolbar." (Picture on the left).

Then highlight "More commands," at the bottom of the drop-down list. That's the picture below this paragraph.

When you choose "More commands," you'll get another screen with "quick access toolbar" highlighted, and a long list of commands to the right of that.

At the top of that list, the picture below this paragraph, you'll see "popular commands." Click on the arrow to the right of it, and you'll get three choices. Click on "All Commands."

This is what you'll see, a very long list. Scroll down to Readability Statistics (It may have a new name now, Microsoft keeps changing it, so I have to look for it every time I get a new computer. It might be Reading View Research now, or something else).

When you find it, highlight it, then click "Add," the button in the middle between the two columns. The command will appear in the right hand column, which is the commands you use, and you're ready to go.

Obviously, since this is a computer program and we all use idioms in our writing, it's not foolproof. But I like to have a sense of how active or passive a work is before I do the final read-through-aloud. If I see a lot of passive verbs, I make a point of changing some to active. I don't take the reading level too seriously because it's so arbitrary. Once upon a time, the New York Times read at about a tenth-grade level, but that was decades ago. I have no idea what it– or any other publication– reads at now.

The stats give me a sense of how my writing SOUNDS, and that's crucial to me. I want it to sound like a human voice speaking.

Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

03 January 2022

Look It Up


 by Steve Liskow


Last week, Barb Goffman discussed details that make or break your work, and many people chimed in with stories or authors that had lost them by making a careless--and avoidable--mistake.

With the Internet, billions of bits of information are only a click away. That's both good and bad, especially for someone like me. I'm a trivia junkie and even as my memory fades, I can bring up details no healthy person would know, usually about music. I often use music in my stories because I already  have enough context so I can write a story and know exacty what I still need to check or verify. Usually.


Several years ago, I wrote "Hot Sugar Blues" about a folk and blues singer who became popular when he turned to rock and roll. I based him on Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, The Blues Project, and several other real artists, and I had him mention the Cafe Au Go-Go in Greenwich Village. The anthology editor, whose job was to verify such details, said the venue didn't feature live bands until later that year. 

Oops. My knowledge fell short. Fortunately, the date wasn't crucial for the story, so we became less specific. 

I can do research, but I prefer not to for a short story because it feels like more effort than it's worth for a few thousand words. Old school research--books and magazines--wasn't a problem because wandering off on a tangent took more effort.


But when you're online, it's easy to open a link, then another one and another one until the top of your monitor looks like a string of beads. I can be waist-deep in irrelevant trivia that has nothing to do with my original quest, and two hours have passed. 

Novels, of course, are different because they demand more information. 

Lately, though, I've found myself writing stories for specific times or places that fall outside my usual turf. That's good because it's expanding my repertoire, but it means yes, I do need to do research. Sometimes, it's amazing what you already have at hand that you didn't think about. 

This spring, one of my stories will appear in Groovy Gumshoes, a collection of PI stories set in the Sixties, edited by Michael Bracken. The guidelines recommended using an historical event from that period, and I happened to take summer classes at Oakland University in 1967. The college is thirty miles north of Detroit, and two of my dorm mates watched their homes burn in the television coverage of the West Side Riot. My roommate at the time is now a Motor City attorney, and I asked him to email me a few photographs. I also have a street map of Detroit, and a lot of music from that era: The Stooges, the MC5, the SRC, Motown...

I'm doing research for two other stories, too, and I already know enough so I can recognize the specific gaps in my background. My parents loved to dance, and they loved the music of the  20s through the 50s. My mother had dozens of remastered compact discs of that music, and I've used them in plays I directed and now I know the major hits of the years in question. They give me a context for a story set during Prohibition. 

The other story may not happen, but I think it will involve a Mark Twain artifact somehow. My wife conducts tours at the Mark Twain House in Hartford and everyone there is a trivia junkie and Twain nerd. I'm creating a list of questions, and the answers will determine how--or maybe if--that story develops.

The only novel that took as much research was The Whammer Jammers, my first roller derby book. I only knew what I remembered from television back in my deformative years, nothing about the modern sport. Fortunately, my daughter was Hazel Smut Crunch # Bake 350, captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs, and she helped me create a questionaire I sent to skaters, coaches, referees, and promotors. Everyone knew "Haze" because she also wrote the grant for the non-profit league. And one of my former theater buds knew two local skaters, so I got comped into events in New Haven and set up a few interviews. 


Having friends in high places makes the job a lot easier.

The hardest part of research isn't getting the answers. It figuring out the right questions.

20 December 2021

Looking Back


Between the lockdown and various health issues, I lost track of time for most of 2021 (although I have managed to finish my Christmas shopping. Wrapping? Um, no way), so let's try to put the clock back on the wall.

2020 was a blur. I had a mis-diagnosed stroke (I told them is was only a pinched nerve!) in January, then got my second cancer diagnosis in March, only days before the lockdown commenced. Between heavy meds, stress, and lockdown agoraphobia, I could no longer concentrate on complex projects like planning a novel anymore and turned exclusively to short stories. I wrote over a dozen in the last six months of 2020. Before then, I never produced more than four or five in one year. 

I published four stories, two of which I'd written years before and finally found submission calls that they matched.

Now 2021, very good and very bad, swinging like Poe's pendulum. The cancer, apparently vanquished through chemo and surgery the previous summer, staged an encore in March. Doctors, including one of my former students, inserted a stent in my kidney and started me on immunotherapy treatments every three weeks in April. They've worked, and I generally feel pretty good. No diet restrictions, I can drive  to the health club two or three times a week in a futile effort to restore my rippling six-pack abs, and I can still play guitar badly and piano even worse. Age, the family arthritis, and getting needles stuck in both arms every three weeks make music and typing harder, but I can still do them. The worst part of the year was saying good-bye to Ernie, our Maine Coon, who lost his four-year battle to kidney disease and left us in June. 

The sunny side:

This year, I wrote eleven new short stories and self-published Alma Murder, an early version of the book that eventually evolved into Blood on the Tracks about 70 rejections later. Five short stories appeared, and I sold seven others, a new career high.

Two will appear in Spring 2022, maybe within days of each other. The new MWA anthology Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan, will feature one of them. SleuthSayers' own Michael Bracken edited the other.

The rest will appear over the next year or so, but I don't have definite release dates. Fourteen submissions are still active, and I suspect that two or three have been accepted even though I don't have official word from the markets. 

I helped judge the Derringer Awards last year and will do it again this year. The best way to learn to write good stories is to read good stories, and I read a lot of them. I only judge flash fiction because I never write that short, but it's good training in what you can leave out of a story. It also means that if I stumble on a useful idea, I have to treat it very differently anyway.

The most positive change this year is that two different editors approached me about submitting work for an upcoming anthology. One was because of a Sleuthsayers blog I wrote earlier this year. Talk about an ego boost. I'm doing research on two other stories, too. If those stories don't sell to the anthologies, they're flexible enough that I can send them to other markets, too. Always a good thing. 

Am I getting rich (Cue uproarious laughter)? Of course not. But I'm getting somewhere, and that beats the alternative.

So, Merry Christmas, happy Channukah, Kwanzaa, and new year. Oh, and a belated happy birthday to Keith Richards.

06 December 2021

No Longer the Golden (Age) Standard...


A few days ago, I read the newest issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and realized something I've been aware of for some time but never thought through. 

Few of those stories met the old Golden Age definition of a "mystery." Yes, there was a crime, which Otto Penzler cites as the crucial requirement for a mystery, but few of the stories provided clues to help the reader solve the puzzle. A lot of the "detecting" happened off-stage. and some stories showed the "bad guy" getting away with something in the name of "real" justice.

I've always had trouble writing a mystery puzzle as they existed in the time of Van Dine, Christie, Sayers, Gardner, and the other "Golden Age" writers. I have been told that my right brain is more active than my left, which means that my conscious thought process recognizes patterns or similarities more easily than it does a linear "logical" patter. Clues involve deduction, and I could do it for plane geometry, but not so much in real life. 

That's the major difference between modern mysteries and the Golden age. The older plots were complex as rocket science, but many of the characters were chess pieces moved around a generic landscape in the name of the puzzle. Newer mysteries tend to examine character more deeply. The needs and foibles of people with more depth drive the story.

With that in mind, I looked at my own published work. Only two of my novels involve following clues that appear along the way to lead to the final solution. Both of those were early books, too. None of the Woody Guthrie novels work like that.

Roller Derby Book 1

When I turned to my published short stories, only a dozen fit that "Golden Age" template. Two of those were novellas, and I worked hard planning those out, which I seldom do with a short story now. I used to plan them out carefully, but it felt like overkill, especially with my right-brain running things.

More than twice as many of my short stories show someone getting away with a crime for one reason or another, and some of those are my very favorites. Plots are difficult for me because I care less about them than I do about the characters. 

Originally, I had no idea what The Whammer Jammers would be about except that it would involve roller derby. My daughter captained the Queen City Cherry Bombs in Nashua, New Hampshire, and she helped me develop a questionaire to send out to skaters online. But my main source of information was interviews with local skaters, coaches, referees, announcers, and spectators, usually the women's partners. Those gave me different perspectives that book "research" never would have shown me. I understood the people more deeply.

The interviews constantly resonated with the idea that the women loved the sport because they found it empowering. They gained a sense of self-worth and found supportive comrades. The confidence carried over into their work or personal relationships, and they felt more complete. That idea became the foundation of the book, both the main plot and the subplots.

Roller Derby Book 2

That's still the way I work. I usually start with a character who wants or needs something, and the plot develops around the obstacles he or she faces. This shows me why the person is doing something and, more importantly, it shows me why it matters, which means why I (and readers) should care. 

If I can't figure out why a reader should care, I stop right there.

I'm not sure what to call the Post Golden Age (Bronze? Aluminum? Digital?), but it's how I plot.

Which matters more to you? The story or the people living it?



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.