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

01 August 2022

What I Didn't Know Then (Pretty Much Everything)


I was nine when the Mickey Mouse Club serialized the first Hardy Boys book. For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me the first five in the series, and I devoured the rest of the 36 in print over the next year or so. I read the Rick Brant series and the Ken Holt books, too. I just discovered that those books still exist on Kindle. Who knew?

With those tales as my model, I wrote my own mystery stories. One chapter took both sides of a wide-ruled tablet page, and they usually ended with the burning car plunging over the cliff or someone getting hit on the head and "everything went black." My mother, who had been a secretary before she married my father, typed the stories, and when I saw my words in print, there was no going back. I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Over the next ten or fifteen years, that idea always lurked in my subconscious even though my parents discouraged it. They were probably afraid I'd starve, and they were probably right. I started college as a pre-dentistry major, hated it, and changed my major to English. In grad school, I took a course on the American short story that unleashed the urge to write again. That fall, I picked up Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, and the opening set-up--combined with a scandal in my own senior year of high school--gave me an idea for a novel of my own.

By then, I'd taught English for two or three years and was working toward my Master's. I knew how to write a decent sentence and an effective paragraph, so I thought I knew how to write a book. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Steve Liskow

Yes, I could write a paragraph, but I couldn't tell a story. Plot and pace were unexplored terrain. Over the next three years, I used summers (around more grad courses) and Christmas vacations to finish that first book. I had no outline and only a vague idea where I was going. At one point, I went back and discovered I had named over 150 characters, most of whom only appeared in one particular scene. I cut most of them. I bought the collection of writers' markets from The Writer and sent my MS out to publishers I knew were waiting with palpitating hearts and bated breath.

I didn't know about a synopsis or a query letter. I simply sent out the whole MS (I did know about the fourth-class postal rate for books) and was disappointed when it came back unread. I put the book away for two or three years, then took a writing workshop at a local college and got some advice. I did a massive revision of the horrible first version and sent it out again, still with no synopsis or query letter. Guess what?

I got another idea and wrote a mystery over the course of the next school year.  I think the characters and some parts of the plot were much better than the first book, but I still didn't know how to approach agents or publishers and I still had no outline. It would never sell now because a crucial plot point was a double-exposure photograph. That was a big deal in 1978, but now you can get the same effect in seconds on a computer.

In 1980– eight years after starting to write that first book– I finagled Wesleyan's Graduate Studies center into letting me use the book as my sixth year project if I could find an advisor. Joseph Reed, the Chair of the English department, remembered me from his Faulkner seminar and when I asked if he'd be interested, he said, "Probably not, but why don't you come in and we can discuss it."

For the first time, I wrote an outline, incorporating the changes I wanted to make. I tightened the plot and cut or changed several characters. That outline was simply a list of three or four events that would happen in a chapter, but it was a lean clean roadmap. Reed studied it, then told me to give him a chapter the following week and he'd make his final decision. Then he offered the best advice I'd had so far.

"You have an outline," he said. "So you don't have to write this in order. If you're stuck on chapter five, write chapter ten. You're going to go back and re-write transitions anyway, so it won't be a big deal. And learn to compose at the typewriter. You're too busy to waste time writing everything out longhand and re-typing it."

He was right. I was teaching five high school English classes a day, taking a political novel class with a heavy reading load that met Thursday nights, and working weekends for a photography studio. I had nine months to write the book, revise it, and type two final copies to submit to the grad center.

I did it. Between 1972 and 1980 (I still have a bound copy of that final draft) the book went through at least six title changes. Almost everything except the main premise changed, too. Dr. Reed encouraged me to send the book to publishers, but ten or twelve of them rejected in seconds. I wonder if someone would have read it if I'd sent a proper query letter or synopsis. We'll never know, will we?

The following summer, using my experience composing at the typewriter, I pounded out a 400-page novel in three weeks. It was awful, but I kept it for a few years, telling myself I'd fix it until sanity prevailed and I tossed it. By then, I'd written five unsold novels in about nine years while teaching full-time, earning two graduate degrees, and going through a divorce.

The followng summer, I got persuaded to take part in a play, and loved it. I dove into theater head-first. Between 1982 and 2009, I acted, directed, produced or designed for 100 productions throughout central Connecticut (and took several graduate courses in theater arts, too). I met Barbara, who still acts, too. When our theater lost its performance space in 2003– the same week I retired from teaching--I pulled out that sixth-year novel to fix it one more time.

This time, I attended writing workshops and read books on how to get published. I learned about a synopsis and a query letter. I learned how to write narration (I depended too much on dialogue, probably because I'd done so much theater) and description. My daughter learned of the New England Crime Bake and the Al Blanchard Story Award, so I submitted a short story. It placed in the top ten and the contest co-ordinator encouraged me to re-submit it to the publisher of an anthology of New England writers. It became my first published story, and I attended the conference the next five years, selling a few more stories and meeting agents, editors, and loads of other writers who helped me do it right. I sold my first novel in 2009.

I self-published the sixth-year novel in 2014, and it averages a 4-star rating on Amazon.

I'm an overnight success.

18 July 2022

Question Number One


Next spring, I'll be part of a panel discussing where writers get ideas. If you're a writer at an event (or anywhere else, for that matter), you can give odds that someone will ask you that question. There are several snarky answers non-writers don't understand: Joyce Carol Oates sends me her rejects; I subscribe to the Idea of the Month Blog and many others. My favorite serious answer comes from Neil Gaiman, who says, "Getting ideas is the writer's job." 

Think about it. If you don't have good eye-hand coordination, you don't become a surgeon. If you're bad at math, you don't become a chemical engineer. If you have a poor memory, you don't become an actor. 

So...you want to be a writer. How do you do Job One?


There are as many answers as ther are writers, but they fall into a few basic categories. You get a plot idea, or you get a character idea. Rarely, you might get a setting idea (think London's "To Build a Fire").

When I conduct my writing workshop on plotting (or on NANO, which incorporates plot and character), I tell people you need a CHARACTER who WANTS something. Give him or her a backstory that explains why the goal/quest is important, and invent obstacles to prevent him or her from achieving that goal. The obstacles form the plot, but the plot grows from the character. I could go on at great length, but I think you get the idea and I want to spend more time here on plot. When you can do something easily, you don't think about it. When it's hard, you have to figure out how you do it. Plotting is very hard for me because my usual thought process is far from linear.

Plot is a series of events during whch a character meets and overcomes obstacle to achieve a goal (or not).

In 1895, French critic Georges Polti published The 36 Dramatic Situations, a book delineating all the plots he had found in literature to that time. He examined the drama and stories (and maybe opera) in existence at that time and claimed every story followed one of his basic templates. Actually, when I cited the book in my creative writing classes, I pointed out that many of Polti's plots were variations on the same theme. Family feuds could be father-son, mother-daughter, brother-brother, and so on, and he considered each one a distinct plot. I disagreed and felt there were only about a dozen individual situations. 


The book is over 125 years old, and nobody has found a new plot since then. Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Story Structure Architect is a modern reworking of Polti's book and adds new variations, some of them involving changing time. I recommend her book because she includes open-ended questions that generate ideas and plot twists. I'll take all the help I can get.


My point here is that THERE IS NOTHING NEW. You won't create a brand-new idea at this point. You can change the names, the setting, or the time period, but that's all. The same story works with knights in armor, as a western, as a contemporary crime story, or as a future sci-fi tale, all with a change of props and setting. Your job is to find the new twist that works for you. 

Maybe you find a story in the news or overhear gossip at the mall. It's going to turn into one of those basic plots just because that's all there is/are. Maybe you remember an incident from your own life that mattered for some reason. I have published 16 novels, and six or seven of them were inspired by real events. I changed them from "truth," but the original events really happened. One of my short stories grew from recalling the worst summer job I ever had, one where I quit after one day.

The Greek and Roman playwrights took their inspirations from the myths (I wonder who came up with THEM). Recently, I've read Laura Lippman's Dream Girl, which she tells us up front is her re-working of Stephen Kin'g Misery. Both books involve a writer who is badly injured and at the mercy of a crazy nurse. Last week, I read Don Winslow's new novel City on Fire. It's a crime novel based on gang wars in Providence, Rhode Island in the late 1980s, and it's Winslow's retelling of The Iliad. If you know that work, you can identify the modern versions of Helen, Cassandra, Priam, Patroclus, Hector, and Paris. 

How many films and TV shows are spin-offs, borrowing a character or thread from a previous story? Look at the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman or Marvel Comics franchises. Look at the various incarnations of NCIS and other forensic dramas. Nothin' new here, Jack, but we know how to sell it.

You want to write? Stop beating yourslef up because you don't have a shiny new idea. Take what you like and give it a new paint job. 

One of my favorite writing quotes has so many different variations and is attributed to so many different authors that it makes my point yet again:

Poor writers imitate. Great writers steal.

04 July 2022

What Are The Odds


Over the past 15 years, I've won a couple of awards and not-quite won a few others. RT's discussion of his Edgar-winning story last week made me think about what that really means. This is a completely unscientific assessment, but maybe there's something you can take away from it anyway.

If you're barely published, some of these figures may apply to your chances of making a sale as well as your winning an award. The salient feature in either case is that you have to write the best story you can. You've heard that before.

Gamblers know the odds before they toss money on the table, and here are some of the numbers for publishing. They keep changing, but this will give you the idea.

Years ago, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine received over 40,000 story submissions a year, and published about 75 of them. If all the stories were of equal quality, which, of course, is not the case, your chance of being selected was one in 533. I don't know how many stories come in now, but the magazine now publishes six issues instead of ten, and roughly the same 75 stories. If there are fewer submissions, the odds are slightly better. 

This morning, the Mystery Writers of America Edgars site lists 173 books eligible for the Best Novel of the year and 166 stories for the Best Short Story. The eligibility period runs from December 1 to December 1, so it's slightly more than half over. The year I was a finalist, there were 408 short stories, which meant the chance of becoming a finalist (again, all things equal, which they aren't) were 81 to 1. Theoretically, the chance of winning from those finalists was five to one. Getting there was the problem. The weeding out is the same in other awards, too, the Agatha, Derringer, Shamus, and all the others.

In the 1990s, Connecticut introduced the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) in high schools. I've never been a fan of standardized tests, but the Language Arts portion of that test had the clearest and most concrete set of criteria I've ever seen for evaluating writing. When my colleagues and I used it for grading practice tests, we almost never disagreed on a score. I liked it so much I've used something like it for a rubric when I edit or judge even now. 

Several years ago, I was a judge for the Al Blanchard Award, sponsored by MWA New England. I read all of the 141 stories submitted because only a few came in early and 41 were submitted the last day of the three-month deadline. Really. I rated each story from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and kept a spreadsheet of why: too much backstory, unbelievable or impossible ending, inconsistent character, good/bad dialogue, etc. It was inspired by the CAPT test from the 90s.

I gave 50 stories--over 1/3 of the entries--a grade of 1. Only a dozen earned a grade of 7 or higher, one of them an 8.

Now, the important part. I was one of four judges who had to turn in their top ten stories so the others could read the top 40. I'd already read every story (No, I don't have a life), so I already had notes on the other stories already. I looked at my notes and re-read the stories, but changed no scores. NONE of my top twelve stories made the cut from any other judge. In fact, the eventual winner only got a five from me. 

I've had a similar experience judging the Derringers for the last two years. I read many of those stories before they're nominated because I subscribe to several of the source magazines. Stories that I consider brilliant seldom make the cut. Obviously, I have tastes that run outside the lines. But in judging the Flash Fiction (the only length I can judge because I don't write in it), three of my top five stories have been finalists both times I've judged because the other nine judges agree. 

We can objectify and quantify only so much, and it's true of both judges and editors. People with experience and (maybe) training can narrow down a group of stories that are "better" or "worse" than others, but within that select sample, it's a matter of individual taste and preference. One person doesn't like noir. Another wants a surprising plot twist. Yet another pays more attention to prose style than the others. And so on.

How do you stand out? You write a damn good story. MAYBE you include something a little exotic that readers can latch on to. RT's Edgar winner involved a landmark in Hawaii. People know it and it's unusual. That's not the only reason he won, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Remember to add a little bit of yourself. THAT will make the story unique so the editor or judges notice it. You've got to be noticed.

Easy, huh? Sure it is.

Now forget about all the odds and go write that damn good story.

20 June 2022

Xena, The Heroine/Villain


 by Steve Liskow

When Ernie, our 13-year-old Maine Coon, died a year ago after a long battle with kidney disease, Barb and I agreed he would be our last cat. We've been together for almost 38 years and shared space with at least one cat for 36 of them, so we may have been kidding ourselves.

Two months ago, one of our neighbors had far too many cats because her tom has fathered half the cats in our condo complex. She offered us a small tuxedo girl. We agreed to meet her, but that was all. Then we said we'd pet her, but nothing else. Then I held her for a minute. You see where this is going, don't you? She snuggled under my chin and purred.

Well, we decided she could visit our place on Monday for an hour or two and see if she was comfortable. She was. We arranged another visit on Thursday for a longer period of time to check things out more thoroughly. So thoroughly that she hasn't left yet. That was six weeks ago.


I've said before that animals, especially cats, inspire great human characters, and Xena exemplifies that even more than Ernie and Jewel did.

Like most cats, she's probably somewhere on the spectrum. She isn't really a lap cat, but she likes to cuddle. That and her sense of humor make her a great sidekick. But she still refuses to differentiate between our recliner and her scratching post, and she plays rough. She's made friends with the plant mister and fears nothing except the hair dryer. This makes her a great villain, too. She's smarter and faster than we are and can move from room to room--or floor to counter--so quickly we don't have time to say, "Xena, NO! Oh, never mind."


She's very social. She met Barb and me with no hesitation and explored our place with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old in Toys R Us. Unfortunately, her social skills extend to other cats, too. At 18 months, she's already birthed two litters. When she's in heat (which seems to be more frequently than your average porn star), she announces her needs loudly enough so most of the complex can hear her. Two of her former boyfriends have taken to hanging out on our front steps. Every well-developed character needs a weakness, and that's hers. 


Living with several other cats, she had to fight her way to the food. For the first two weeks in our place, she emptied her dish so quckly she spent the next hour crying with a stomach ache. Now, she's figured out that there's no competition and she can slow down. Sometimes. She still sticks her head in the can while I'm trying to spoon food into her dish. 

Today, she will meet her veterinarian for the first time. She's had none of her shots yet and we want to make sure she's as healthy as she seems. She's the smallest cat we've ever had, especially apparent because our last two cats were a Himalayan and a Maine Coon, and we don't expect her to get much bigger at 18 months. 

But she already likes to curl up on my left foot while I type, so she'll probably become another writing partner and character inspiration. The female leads in both my Connecticut and Detroit series have cats already, and maybe there's room for another tuxedo.


06 June 2022

Crime Conn '22


Last Saturday, I attended a writing conference for the first time in much too long. The in-person attendance was sparse, but many people chose to attend on Zoom. I considered that, but I knew a few writers attending and wanted to catch up. Besides, Tess Gerritsen was the Guest of Honor and Alison Gaylin was on a panel and I wanted to meet them both, especially since Gaylin's The Collective may be the best book I've read so far this year.

The "Changes" panel getting ready

Crime Conn is now a regular event (barring the pandemic) at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, about 35 miles west of New Haven. That makes it an hour's drive for me, and I got there in time for coffee and donuts and greeting a few friends before the presentations began. The program offered five 45-minute panels with time in between to buy books and get them signed. You can never have too many books and never meet too many crime writers, who are among the most generous people on earth.

The theme of this year's conference was The End of the World As We Knew It, complete with the REM track introducing the festivities. For the music buffs, the panels were "Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes," examining what's different for writers now; "The Eve of Destruction," discussing whether or not this is the Apocalypse; "Forever Young," presenting three YA authors explaining how they help young readers navigate the New Crazy; "Psycho Killer," three current or former law enforcement officers and a death investigator from the CT State Medical Examiner; and "I'll Be There For You," looking at how the last two years of isolation, hostility, and shifting rules have helped writers create or maintain relationships. The final presentation, "Doctor My Eyes," featured John Valeri, a Connecticut book critic and one of mystery writingt's best friends, interviewing Tess Gerritsen.

MWA Chapter Pres Al Tucher
welcomes the guests

I'm pretty sure Chris Knopf, one of the organizers, came up with the titles. That night, he would be playing bass in a band. He and I shared tales of how arthritis affects our guitar playing, but he's still probably much better than I am.

Rather than discuss each panel in depth, here are a few pithy comments from the writers.

From the Changes panel: Multi-racial and gender identity are important in this changing world. Roughly 10% of today's kids are multi-racial, but only 1% of the books out there have a multi-racial character. We have to represent "Different" accurately.

The Eve of Destruction panel asked "Will pandemic books sell?" The idea reappeared in other panels, but the prevailing wisdom is that 9/11 books still don't (the only exception I know might be SJ Rozan's Absent Friends), and we're still too close to Covid. When asked about upping the ante in today's world, the authors stressed that the best approach is not to amp up the crime, but to become more human. I was one of many who appreciated that emphasis on character over "stuff."

The YA writers (I bought books by two of them because they impressed me on the panel) pointed out that backstory informs character NOW. What in the past will make them afraid in the present?

The law enforcement officers explained, among other things, how Covid has changed policing. The New Haven detective observed that the streets were much quieter at first, and that she became leery of interacting with the public. All three panelists tried to minimize arrests and bringing people into enclosed cells. They agreed they'd seen an increase in domestic violence. One officer-turned-writer has not yet included Covid in his work and commented, "It's easier to read and write about adversity after it's over."

Audience at left. The tables of books for sale
in the background

Wendy Corso Staub and Alison Gaylin shared many writers' problems with trying to write when they were no longer alone all day because their hsuband was working from home and the children were learning online instead of in a school. Staub reverted to early morning writing as she did years ago. She would feed her infant child, then stay up and write for several hours before going back to bed. Over the last two years of lockdown, she has completed four novels. 

Tess Gerritsen wanted to write from the time she was seven, but her parents encouraged her to study other fields. She majored in anthropology as an undergrad, became a physician, and plays several musical instruments between writing now. She said, "It doesn't matter what you study, it matters what you LIVE."

The gathering was small enough so writers and audience mingled easily. There was a writing workshop during the lunch break for those who were interested, too.

I sat at a table with Lynn, now working on her first nonfiction book, and Chris, who has not written anything… yet. They both attended the writing workshop. As the conference wound down, they weren't the only ones who looked eager to get back home so they could resume writing.

That's what a good conference does.

23 May 2022

Writing Outside the Outlines


Two weeks ago, I attended an interview with Don Winslow at which he was autographing his new novel. During the Q & A, someone asked about his process, which is almost sure to be a question at such events. 

Winslow said that he doesn't outline. Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and many other major writers don't, either. About half the crime writers I know don't, and the other half do, but in different ways. The debate can get pretty heated, but I don't really think it matters.

"Outline" has different meanings for people in different parts of the writing world. I suspect that's part of the cause of many arguments.

Practically everyone who graduated from high school wrote at least one research paper, certainly in English class, and possibly one or more in a social studies class, usually history. I remember having to hand in an outline during the process, in that format with Roman number I, two or more subdivisions, cleverly called "A" and "B." If those were also subdivided (which they usually were), they had to have at least two subdivisions, "1" and "2." If those were subdivided again…

Getting flashbacks yet? I'll bet you took the same ride yourself.

When I taught English, I required an outline, too. The point was to make sure the student worked through the assignment steadily over the six or eight weeks instead of throwing everything together the night before it was due. None of us ever did that, of course.

That outline form is very rigid, good for a persuasive or factual piece with a logical linear organization. Unfortunately, fiction isn't always linear. Stories can involve flashbacks, tangents and misdirection, and they muddy the waters.

Sue Grafton used to write a journal/outline/ideas book while she worked on her novels. She may have worked that way because, before she sold the Alphabet series with Kinsey Milhone, she wrote screenplays for TV movies. She said that her workbook sometimes ended up longer than the actual novel.

Robert Crais oulines, too. Like Grafton, he started in television, writing for Hill Street Blues and being a major force behind Cagney & Lacey. Story boards were routine and he stayed with what he knew. Obviously, it works for him. 

When I began my first novel fifty years ago, I didn't outline. I wrote stop and start for a few months, then got busy with grad school and teaching again. When I returned to that 60-page draft several months later, I decided to make a list of characters for the first time. Those 60 pages had over 100 characters, many who only appeared once, and my "story" was a series of tangents, more clang association than plot. I eventually finished that manuscript in about three years, and it was resoundingly, excruciatingly awful.

So were the next two.

When I decided to rewrite the first book as my sixth-year thesis at Wesleyan, I had to convince a professor to become my advisor. For the first time, I built an outline of what I thought that heavily-revised book would become. I listed the four or five events that would occur in each chapter. Years later, I discovered that it resembled Charles Dickens's outlines. Since Dickens serialized his novels in magazines, he need to know where he was going. Below is a sample of his outline for Bleak House.

I used the same format for several unpublished novels. When I attended writing workshops and met other writers years later, I learned of the "outline" agents and editors expected with a query, which isn't an outline, but a summary. Some people called it an outline and some called it a synopsis, but they were basically the same except that an outline is longer. I hated writing a two-page synopsis of the entire novel and I hated a ten-page outline just as much. For years, when people asked why I turned to self-publishing, I told them it was because I didn't want to write another damned synopsis. Ever.

By 2010, I'd published a few short stories but five or six novels accumulated 400 rejections. Then I read John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which is geared toward screenwriting. I began to view an outline as a story board, and I suspect that Crais's outlines resemble that, too.

The form is especially helpful if you use several POV characters, and my novels often have five or six. Truby's form makes it easy for me to keep track of how much information a character has at any particular moment. It also make it easy to know how much time has passed because I incorporate it into the sequence. I first use the form for The Whammer Jammers, which I saw as a potential film.

Below is the first page of my final outline for Words of Love. The POV character for each scene is in caps. The first version usually took me about two months because plotting is the hardest part of writing for me. I don't have a linear thought process and have to write stuff out before I can tell if it works in that order. I move scenes around and cut them and add new ones as I discover what the story needs. This sample is "I," the ninth version. Some books went as far as version "M" or "N," and I often was halfway throught the first draft of the MS before I had the final chronology set.

There's no right way to outline or NOT outline. But if something isn't working for you, maybe this will give you a plan B or even a plan C.



09 May 2022

Crime Hits Home (An Exercise in Shameless Self-Promotion)


Last Monday, Liz Zelvin posted about Edgars week and the whirlwind of activities in New York. Otto Penzler hosted the launch/signing for MWA Presents Crime Hits Home at the Mysterious Bookshop, and I practiced spelling my name for a week before attending.

I hoped I would meet more of the other contributors (Six of twenty appeared), but people are being cautious in the Age of Covid. Believe me, I get that; I'm immuno-compromised myself. I still got to meet Liz, Michael Bracken, Stacy Woodson, and Brendan DuBois, all of whom were on my bucket list.

Michael Bracken, Andrew Hearn

MWA has published about twenty previous collections, all edited by a marquee author who brainstorms with the publisher for a theme, then invites ten other authors to contribute stories. The remaining ten slots are filled by blind submissions from active members of MWA.

I have answered six submission calls, and this is the second time I've had a story selected. For the record, all the other stories eventually sold elsewhere. In fact, one will appear later this year in Mickey Finn 3: 21st-Century Noir, edited by Michael Bracken. 

I knew two other contributors to Crime Hits Home. SJ Rozan, who edited the collection, has been one of my favorite writers for over a decade, and we've met before, once when she was Guest of Honor at Crime Conn. The other might have been the launch and signing for Vengeance, the other MWA anthology with one of my stories.

Connie Hambley, SJ Rozan and me

Connie Hambley, a former chapter President of Sisters in Crime New England, and I have done writing events together. We agreed that this collection may be the best anthology yet. There are two reasons for that, and they work together.

First, the collections all use a common theme, and "Home" may be the most flexible idea so far. Previous books had less wiggle room. Vengeance, for example, required that someone do something bad and someone else provide payback. I liked several stories in that volume, but even Bach or Beethoven would have been hard-pressed to produce 20 variations on the idea. Other books worked with marriage, legal thrillers, the supernatural, or the Cold War, but I think "Home" offers more possibilities.

The other strength of the collection is Rozan's choice of contributing authors. Crime Hits Home features two African-American authors, two Asian authors, a Hispanic, a transgender, and a gay. Eleven are female and nine are male, and eleven stories use first-person POV.

Those diverse cultures and viewpoints exploit that wide-open theme, and several stories never would have occurred to this transplanted midwestern WASP. Some stories were funny, several were poignant, some were downright creepy, and all of them moved the goalposts. I assumed that many submissions would involve home invasions, and other writers thought the same way. Only two stories involve anything even vaguely resembling such an idea. Brendan DuBois, one of the judges, said they received 300 submissions for the ten open slots, so standing out from the pack counted heavily.

I'm thrilled to be in a collection with Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley and Jonathan Santlofer, and I'm even happy to be the next-to-last story in the book, just before SJ Rozan's, which has a premise that brought back memories of my own childhood with a less-sinister subtext.

I feel like I'm the opening act for Led Zeppelin.

25 April 2022

Style NEVER Goes Out of Style


Years ago, I gave my honors American Lit students a summer writing assignment that was a little outside the lines. I had them read Kerouac's On the Road and selections from Thoreau's Walden, then write the flogged-to-death essay on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" twice, once imitating Kerouac's style and the other imitating Thoreau.

Some people did brilliantly, capturing Kerouac's riffs and imagery like a Wardell Gray sax solo and Thoreau's pseudo-King James majesty. Others wrote essays so interchangeable that I don't think the writers could have told me which was which.

We fail to teach students an important lesson about style. The style must fit the mood of the piece, which is determined by the content. If style, mood, and content don't work together, that story, essay, or letter will fail.


I can't find the quote now so I may be paraphrasing, but Sinclair Lewis once gave my favorite definition of style. Style is how the writer conveys emotion in his writing. It depends upon two factors: the ability to feel, and the vacabulary to express those feelings. 

When readers say they don't like a book, they often mean that they don't like the style. Style is voice, and it carries the narrator's attitude and feelings about the material. If you don't like the feeling, it's fair to expect that you won't like the story. 

How do you create style? You don't. You just write the truth about how you (or your story-teller) feels.

Extreme examples make it clearer. Read a paragraph by Ernest Hemingway and notice the generally short words a child can understand, combined into short punchy sentences that are equally clear. Hemingway could convey deep feelings and ideas, but in a deceptively simple style. It's hard to write so many short sentences without sounding choppy and abrasive, sort of like riding in a car when the transmission drops out. I see lots of writers try it and fail.


Now, read a paragraph from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I have three graduate degrees and taught for over 30 years, but McCarthy often sent me to the dictionary. His words were always precise and conveyed his meaning more exactly than the synonyms I knew, and they never felt forced. McCarthy loved language and used it to serve his own purposes. I can't imagine anyone trying to imitate him.


Style is the way you use words to tell your story. We expect certain moods in certain kinds of stories, too. Noir writing is pessimistic. The weather is rainy or will be soon. Peopole will die and justice may not be served. Fairy tales usually have a happy ending and whatever ogres occupy the landscape may be frightening, but the hero will prevail with wit and courage.

The writer's job is to help the reader experience the events and emotions that the characters go through. It doesn't matter how clever or creative or beautiful the writer is. If the writing calls attention to that instead of the story, it fails. 

Most of my writing is revision. I want the reader to see the events as my character sees and feels them, so I tend to use first person or detached third person POV and avoid opinion adjectives like "Nice," "Kind," "Beautiful" or "Evil" unles they get filtered through the character. Short stories don't have room for generalities, so it's vital to convey mood/attitude briefly. Mood matters. A few days ago, I decided a story I was writing for one publication didn't work because the story was supposed to be a cozy and the narrator was a gambler. Gamblers aren't cozy, they're noir.

Modern writers use more narration and less exposition than writers up until about 100 years ago. Think of long passsages of backstory and explanation in Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes or Hawthorne, then look at how Lehane, Lippman, Alison Gaylin or Don Winslow handles the same material.

I pinpoint the beginning of the change with Fitzgerald's description of the Buchanans' yard in chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby. Instead of static visual details, Fitzgerald makes the yard come to life so it runs from the beach, up the hill, jumps over a birdbath and sundial, and drifts up the walls of the house as "bright vines."

You can look at a picture as Hawthorne would describe it, but you can experience Tom and Daisy's yard. The average reader won't notice the difference, but he or she will feel it.

That's style at its best.

11 April 2022

Workation


Late last year, my health went on hiatus and I found that everything became a challenge. I couldn't go anywhere or do much of anything. Between the cold weather and the accelerating family arthritis, playing guitar and typing were difficult, and naturally, that interfered with my writing. Now that the effects of the steroids are diminishing and warmer weather is creeping back, my hands are regaining some flexibility.

Thursday night, I played my first open mic since mid-November. I didn't drive people screaming toward the exits, and I loved seeing old friends and hearing good tunes for the first time in oh so long.

More importantly, it means I can write again.

Non-writers have the image of the writer as some kind of agoraphobe, hunched over a desk in a dimly-lit garret, pen in hand, scribbling by the hour, occasionally stopping for a sip of water and a bit of gruel. The modern version is a keyboard and oceans of coffee or diet coke. Most artists, whether they're writers, painters, actors, or musicians, dispute that vision.

You need to get away from the work or you'll get weird. Early in my writing career, I forced myself to produce 2000 words a day because I read somewhere that Stephen King did it. In an interview, Jodi Picoult said that writers need to develop the ability to write on demand. That's the purpose of the 2000-word quota. Once you can do it, the job gets a lot easier. Now I know I can produce 1000 words in an hour or less. It doesn't matter if they're junk, because if there's that much, there's enough to fix.

Distance is important, too. I can start a horrific rough draft (that 1000 words, or maybe only a few paragraphs), and if it's not going well, the norm for a first draft, I can step away and play guitar, make a fool of myself on keyboard, or go to the health club. I still do my best planning and editing on an arc trainer.

When you don't have to think about what you're doing, the ideas sneak into view like shy kittens. Ignore them, and they'll come close enough to pet.

Now that I can perform and get away from the writing, it's much easier. The added perspective helps me see why something isn't working and find ways to fix it.

I know actors, athletes, and musicians who tell me the same thing. I often see one of my actor friends at my health club, usually punching a heavy bag. One of my favorite guitar players has composed dozens of songs (he has two CDs out), but when the music isn't flowing, he turns to piano for a week. When he's broken out of the ruts, he reunites with his Martin and sparks fly.

I used to direct plays, and I got my idea for re-interpreting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as a western while ironing. Didn't Agatha Christie plot her complex novels while washing dishes?

It still works.



28 March 2022

Looking For the Next Best Thing


Several years ago, I met another local writer at a conference. He was unpublished, but his business cards and website bore the legend "Website of Future Bestselling Author..." 

A few weeks later, he posted on Facebook. He had won Honorable Mention for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine contest that invites readers to write a flash story to accompany a photograph in the magazine. He felt his story deserved more than a mere honorable mention. My wife and I looked at the photo before we read his story, and we both immediately thought of the same premise he used.

I'm going to guess he's not a bestselling author yet, partly because he hadn't learned one of the basic lessons.

When you're writing fiction, your first idea may or may not be good, but the SECOND one is usually better. If you can find a THIRD, that might be even better. Use it.

Why?

Guidelines for magazines or themed submissions often include examples, usually an obvious first choice, and many writers try to follow those examples. That means the editors may see several submissions using that same idea. Even if the writing is superb, those stories have less chance of being selected because they'll cancel each other out.

But something DIFFERENT will catch the screener's and editor's attention.

Some time ago, Michael Bracken posted a call for private eye stories set in the 1960s. He mentioned that stories involving an historical event from the period would have preference, and gave examples. I don't remember what those examples were, but they might have been Woodstock, the Bay of Pigs, and Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon. He probably got several stories using each of them.

I wrote a story set in the Detroit riot of 1967. I attended summer classes at Oakland University, a mere 30 miles away, so I remembered many of the details without research. I hoped no other writer would use that event and that I'd have less competition. Sure enough, "Kick Out the Jams" (Remember the MC5?) will appear in Groovy Gumshoes this April. Far out, man.

The upcoming MWA anthology Crime Hits Home also arrives in April. I assumed many submissions would reflect a "Home Sweet Home" idea and might involve a home invasion. I tried to think outside the box, and "homeless" led me to other places. "Jack in a Box" found a home.

A few months ago, I had an idea for a novella, but when I started writing, I locked up after about 3000 words. I tweaked the idea and tried again, but hit another wall. When I realized that my mian idea could function as a red herring instead of the main plot, I tried again.

That third version had more potential surprises. I finished the first complete draft last week, and since I wrote several bad ideas out of my system in the early versions, it's much better. It still needs revision, but I have more to work with. 

Years ago, Georges Polti wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, describing every plot premise he could identify in (mostly classic) literature and drama.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt updated it a few years ago in her own book, Story Structure Architect, which I highly recommend. She adds a few more situations– premises, if you prefer– and several open-ended questions that nurture creativity. But both books make the same point.

There are a finite number of situations and ideas. If you take one that is used frequently (this year's trend), you set yourself up against all those other works. If you create a new twist or combination, your story will stand out and has a better chance of being noticed.

And selected.



14 March 2022

Guys Writing Girls


Last week, my short story "The Bridesmaid's Tale" appeared in Black Cat Weekly, and I shared the news with all three of my friends. Later that same day, one of them congratulated me on how well I captured the thought process of the female lead/narrator. I thanked him, but I'm not sure I really did it that well.

His comment made me curious enough to go back and look at all my published work, though, which took about five minutes. Most of my novels use multiple-third point of view, and the majority of those characters are male. There are exceptions, of course: both Roller Derby novels have several scenes in the POV of various skaters, and Megan Traine and Beth Shepard get screen time in the novels with their partners. Words of Love has three female POV characters, more than any other book, but if you read it, you'll see why.

Strong female characters abound in my short stories, whether they're the POV character or not. I grew up in a family of strong intelligent women, and during my theater years, I usually worked with a female stage manager and often a female producer. My favorite lights designer was a woman who began as a stage manager and became a good director, too. She also wrote at least one good play that I remember.

Women are more interesting because the still prevalent glass ceiling forces them to be more resourceful and flexible to succeed in various professions. They also need more sense of humor to cope with the crap. Many of my characters take a hard look at themselves and understand how they have to change to solve the current problem. Medically, we know women have a higher threshold of pain and a higher resistance to disease (Otherwise, the race would have died out long ago), and they may have a higher IQ.

I've sold sixteen short stories with a female narrator (four not yet published), and many others have a woman who drives the action even if she doesn't tell the story. Women narrate five of the ten stories currently floating in Submission Limbo, too. 

It's easier to masquerade as a woman in a short story because the length gives you less room to make a mistake. I try to convey an attitude through dialogue and thought process, and sometimes using kinesthetic perceptions makes that easier. That's psych and teacher jargon, so let me mansplain here.

We process information through one of three primary modes. About 80% of the population is visual, so they watch and look and read to gain their information. Another 10-12% are auditory and listen well. These people remember a lecture or can follow instructions easily (Many of them become teachers). The remaining few are kinesthetic, who learn from doing, a combination of muscle memory and experience. These are the kids who take the game or toy apart on Christmas morning without reading the instructions and figure out how it works by trial and error. Many of them can call up the emotions they felt during an experience long after it happened. These people are often dancers, athletes, or actors. 

Most of my women characters are empaths and have a kinesthetic streak. They're aware of their bodies and feel emotions and slights deeply.

Angie, narrator of "The Bridesmaid's Tale," knows that her older sister Bethesda (the Bride) is taller and curvier than she is, AND is Daddy's favorite. Angie accepts that she'll look terrible in the bridesmaids' gowns Bethesda selected for her taller, bustier friends, and takes the hit for the team. Unlike Bethesda, though, Angie doesn't live off the family fortune. She's in med school at Tufts, studying to become a veterinarian, and her academic strengths help drive the plot.

So does her attitude. She and Bethesda have been at each other's throats since they were old enough to walk, but blood still trumps everything else. Angie won't let her sister be put in danger. She's resourceful, devious, and funny. She tells us she was in her teens before she learned her sister (Whom she refers to as "Bitch-G," for "Bitch-Goddess") was named after their mother's city of birth. Before that, she checked the family medicine cabinet to see if she was named after a pill. She learned that "Bitch" was a handy word in a girl's vocabulary when she saw Mom's reaction to it the first time she said it.

My list says nine stories have been sold that will probably appear by the end of 2023, three of them by June of this year. A woman drives the plot in five of them, solving the mystery,  doing bad stuff, or sometimes narrating.

Using a person like yourself as the protagonist (or narrator) runs the risk of taking values and ideas for granted and omitting them from the story. Barnes and Guthrie have elements of me, but not many. Featuring women forces me to pay attention. For what it's worth, readers know more about the families (we've met both of them) and backstory of Beth Sehpard, Tori MacDonald and Megan Traine than they do about Zach Barnes, Trash Hendrix, or Woody Guthrie.



P.S. My wife (wearing the green jacket in the photo) closed Saturday night in The Trouble with Space Cannibals, a weird and wacky play, sort of Star Trek meets The Office. The male playwrights made all the officer on the starship LeVAR BurTONNE female and mentioned the glass ceiling that holds men down. My wife played Science Officer Wendy Mansplain…

28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches


 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

14 February 2022

Love and Carnage


 by Steve Liskow

Valentines' Day. Flowers, candy, champagne, diamond rings and bended knees. Murder.


Love and Death are the two most important themes in art because once they happen, you can't take anything back. That goes double for mystery writers, both for the crime (motive) and context. A series romance is hard to pull off. Robert Parker had trouble keep Susan meaningfully occupied, and Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Don Winslow and other writers have ended relationships sadly. If both members don't have a stake in the case, someone has nothing to do.

Dennis Lehane may have done it better than anyone else. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro knew each other before they became investigators in A Drink Before the War, so their adventures have a deeper contet and the relationship enriches both characters as they make terrible mistakes before they get it more or less right. I wish I'd learned from the instead of painting myself into a corner.

Between 1994 and 1999, Patrick and Angie loved and lost their way through five novels. Patrick is the son of a South Boston fireman who abused the family, and it left lasting scars on the boy. Patrick is a working-class smartass with a chip on his shoulder and a resentment for the rich. He understands that, though, which makes us like him and gives him insight into the people around him. He's very loyal and cagey, lessons he learned by living to grow up.

Angie's grandfather is a ranking member of the Boston Mafia, and she looks at that as little as possible. She's lovely, clever, tough, and lost her virginity to Patrick in high school--after which he dumped her. Since then, they've made every mistake you can imagine. Angie married an abusive husband. Patrick married Angie's sister. Angie divorced her husband, who died. When she and Patrick tried to get back together, she was shot and nearly died, too. During that same book, Darkness, Take My Hand, Patrick faced the demons of his childhood abuse. When Angie's external wounds healed, she went to Europe to figure things out.

Sacred, the third novel, puts the duo in a case involving dysfunctional families that make their own youth resemble Sesame Street. They become lovers again, the case shreds their psyches one more time. Psyche makes context. Patrick and Angie don't live in a vacuum, they interact with people and places, some of them even worse off than they are themselves. Even while you watch them screw up again, you have to give them extra points for effort. 

Gone, Baby, Gone deals with  abused and neglected children, something they know too well, and ampified because by now they are talking about having a baby themselves. Lehane gives us some of the most insidious characters you can imagine. Nobody is "bad," but they're self-centered, stupid, or worst of all, ineffectually well-meaning. The book's ending may be the most emotionally wrenching moment I remember since I walked home from the Court Street Theater after watching Tommy Kirk shoot Old Yeller. 

Prayers for Rain brings the pair together again for the first time in over 18 months. They're older and miserable, finally deciding that being together is better than being alone. Patrick has a hit put on him and Angie does something she's never done before: she asks her Mafia grandfather for a favor. By story's end, Patrick is in the hospital after being shot again. 

At that point, Lehane says that Patrick stopped talking to him (Can you blame him?). He left the couple behind and wrote Mystic River and The Given Day, maybe his two best novels, and let the couple slowly recover. 

Moonlight Mile appeared in 2010. Patrick and Angie are the same people, but the wounds are catching up and they're slowing down. After ten years, it's almost like meeting them at the high school reunion. That context is still there, and many characters from Gone, Baby, Gone come back. Some of them wiser, but most have merely perfected their own ways of screwing up. Patrick and Angie are married and have a daughter. Patrick thinks of joining a larger firm. The first few chapters are as good as anything Lehane wrote before, but the pace and craziness gradually resolve into something like closure, or maybe what Kubler-Ross would consider acceptance. 


Lehane always said that he was afraid that he would kill one of the two--maybe even both--before he got to the end, but they deserved better, and he found a way to give it to them.

Happy Valentine's Day.

31 January 2022

Gettin' Back My the Mojo


I used to outline my novels but not my short stories. For them, I'd jot down the basic idea and let it ferment for a few days until the main points worked themselves out. Then I started writing. I usually had a fairly clear idea of the solution if it was a mystery, but I always struggled with how the sleuth would figure it out. That's still one of my biggest problems, and may explain why I write more "crime" stories than true mysteries with a solution.

Recently, an idea tapped on my shoulder, and the more we got acquainted, the more she felt like a novella, which meant I needed a subplot to flesh out her figure. One plot is tough, and subplots, variations on the major theme, are exponentially tougher. In my Zach Barnes series, Barnes's girlfriend Beth Shepard is a writer in her own life, but she also makes book appearances as "Taliesyn Holroyd," who writes over-the-top bodice-ripper romance novels. The real writer is male, but his publisher pays Beth to dress to thrill at signings and pose for pictures on the website because everyone "knows" romance writers are women. The pen name is an in-joke, too: Taliesyn was the legendary bard of King Arther, and even though the name sounds feminine, the guy, if he really existed, was a man.


Consequently, every Barnes story that involves Beth also has a subplot revolving around identity. The most compicated of those, The Night Has 1000 Eyes, involved a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we civilians call "Multiple Personality," and I used Beth's experimenting with different names (Elizabeth, Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Elspeth, etc.) as she grew up to amplify that same idea.

You see where this is going, right?

Well, I overthought the new idea so much that I painted myself into an intellectual corner. A short story or a novella is short enough so I can go back and tweak detals later to make everything fit instead of micro-planning. The novella is neither fish nor fowl, or maybe both fish and foul play, so it falls between. 

When that idea appeared to me several weeks ago, I knew it required some research, and the sources of the info I needed were close at hand. Unfortunately, I fell down the rabbit hole and got so interested in the research that it got in the way of my half-formed plot. It crowded out the mystery and I couldn't find a way to connect them. It got so bad I even developed a chronological list of scenes (My version of an outline), which I've never done for a short story or novella. The 8000 words in eight or nine scenes kept bouncing off one wall and into another like a racquetball on steroids. I finally put all my ideas and scenes and fragments into a separate file and stuck it in a dark corner so I could go on about my other copious and crucial business. 

Two weeks later, that same idea started nagging again, like the six-year-old in the back seat demanding, "Are we there yet?"

Last week, I decided to attack the story from the opposite direction and introduce the research idea later, which turned it into a subplot without further effort. I spread all those old notes and jottings across my desk and went to work with my favorite fountain pen (A Parker Sonnet, if you care).


Some of the characters would still work, and different details blended with them I found a crime that could logically connect to the research eventually, too. Even better the subplot would become a red herring.

I started writing again with more energy than I've felt in months, no outline, beginning in a completely different place, and using some different people, except for Zach Barnes. I quit every night knowing what the next scene would be. 

Last night, as I lay in bed listening to the wind whipping our foot of new snow, the idea crawled under the covers and spoke to me again. A soft voice whispered, "He didn't do it." That hasn't happened since Megan Traine told me her huge sad secret when I was struggling with Woody Guthrie over a decade ago. The best thing was that I wouldn't have to change any of the new stuff to find the right culprit; adding four or five sentences to a couple of early scenes would fix everything.

When the story starts telling you where you're wrong, you know you're REALLY on the right track. I don't know when I'll finish this first draft. It's not aimed at any deadline, so I don't even care. But it feels like it might actually happen.

Jimi Hendrix once said, "I play a whole concert, some nights I'm just trying to find that one pretty note."

Well, I found that one neat twist.

I've been away a long time. 

How do YOU know when it's really working?

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.