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

19 July 2021

The Changing Landscape


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 July 2021

Back in the Saddle




by Steve Liskow

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

21 June 2021

Nice Shoes...NOW WHAT?


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

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

It's the same with writing stories.

That first pitch…

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

Openings should accomplish several things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I poisoned your drink."

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

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

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

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

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

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 June 2021

Warren & The Werewolves


 by Steve Liskow

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Enjoy Every Sandwich.

24 May 2021

YOUR Way


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do YOU write the most effectively?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Liskow
Steve Liskow

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

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

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

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

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

10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

26 April 2021

No, No, No, No-no, No-no-no...Banned Books


 by Steve Liskow

I'm jumping the season a little. This year, Banned Books Week will be late in September. During that week, we are reminded how many of the classics are or were on somebody's hit list in an effort to protect innocent (?) minds from the corrupting influence of new ideas. If you're of a certain age, you probably read many of these in school or even on your own. I did.

Obviously, the list expands as new authors produce new work, especially work challenging our assumptions about issues like race and sexuality. Unfortunately, few books get removed from that list, even if it's only in some miniscule township or school district ten miles east of Oblivion. 

I directed the play with this poster. 

I don't like censorship and have been known to push the envelope myself. I understand the concerns, but hate the blind fear that often inspires it. When I student-taught in a suburb of Detroit, the school system had a standard form a parent had to fill  out if he/she objected to their child's reading a particular text. I wish I had a copy of it now, but I still remember the first two questions on the form:

1. Have YOU read the entire book?

2.  Are you aware of the critical responses to the book?

I still think that's a good starting point.

I found a list of the most-banned books over the last ten years. I've only heard of two of the books currently in the top ten and haven't read either of them. That makes sense because parents tend to focus on YA books to "protect" their children, which means the books show up in the classroom. I assigned several older titles still in the top 50, including Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, The Things They Carried, and that constant target, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When I started teaching, the only systemic censorship I encountered was for Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Someone complained about the book (To this day, I don't see the problem) and the school's principal, never one to take a stand, ordered the English teacher who maintined the book inventory to burn all the school's copies. Really. That teacher explained why he thought it was a bad idea and donated the books to the local veteran's hospital and various other venues. The principal had him removed and I got his job the following year. True story.

That was fifty years ago. Over the following years, I encountered a few parents and students who objected to certain books, but it was never an organized group effort. 


My first full year, two classes voted to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and buy it from one of the many paperback book clubs common at the time. I'd never read it, and when I opened  the first page, I saw trouble brewing and turned to the seasoned veterans for advice. One told me to compose a letter to all the parents explaining why I thought the book merited study and have them sign and return it to confirm their approval. Only one parent objected, and when I invited her in to discuss her concerns, she signed the letter instead.

I taught in a town with a population that was about 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 black, with a few Asians, too. The students in our district spoke seventeen different languages at home. Given that demographic, it's amazing I didn't start more brushfires, but the only other battle, which became routine, concerned Huckleberry Finn. Some of my black students refused to read it because of the 214 uses of the "N-word."

I gave those kids a choice of three alternative texts, and they could write a two-to-four-page essay about their experience reading the book OR present a five-minute oral discussion to the rest of the class. The three books were Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. All three writers are black, and two of those books are considerably longer than Huckleberry Finn. Invisible Man is also pretty complex. I used this approach for six or seven years, and it worked well. After about three years, more and more kids decided to read Huckleberry Finn after all. 

When I retired from teaching, both Wright and Hurston were part of the curriculum. 

I actually objected to one book myself. In 1999, Robert Fagles produced a new translation of The Odyssey to enthusiastic acclaim. My school had been using the Lattimore translations of both The Iliad and The Oddysey for decades, and at the first department meeting of the new year, a younger teacher (pretty much anyone in the department was younger than I was) suggested replacing the older translation. I raised my hand.

"Has anyone besides me read the Fagles?" I asked.

No one had.

"OK," I said. "It reduces the poetry to informal chat and weakens the majesty of the Lattimore. That may or may not matter to you. But let me point out that 3/4 of the teachers in this department are female. Odysseus always addresses Circe and Calypso, the two women he has sex with while he's away from his wife, as 'Bitch.' If that works for you, I'd like to visit your classrooms to watch you discuss it with your teen-aged students." 

The suggestion died then and there.


It reminded me of the commotion years ago over Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. His original publisher rejected the MS because of the violent and misogynistic content, and people rushed to both sides of the debate. Finally, one critic--I wish I remembered who--pointed out that the violence and ideology were secondary issues. 

The book simply wasn't very well-written.

That still strikes me as the line we don't cross. Is it violent? Sexy? Political? Disturbing? Maybe, and maybe it hits a few of your personal buttons. But those things matter less if the author does his or her job well. I don't read some books because I don't like them. But that doesn't mean I won't let you read them. I wish more people felt like that. I still remember a comment Maurice Sendak made years ago in a writing workshop I attended.

"We teach children taste. What do we teach them when we give them bad books?"

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?


The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?



15 March 2021

The Waiting


 by Steve Liskow

Lately, I've seen writers posting at various sites that they're having trouble writing now. The lockdown has made them stir-crazy or they miss their friends or the family is becoming too needy. They need interaction to get ideas or to keep the energy flowing, and their output has suffered.

I'm not writing much now, but for a different reason. Up until last year, I usually produced a novel and three or four short stories during the year. Last year, for the first time since about 2004, I wrote no novel. I wrote a novella and sixteen short stories. This year, I wrote two short stories in January and have finished a novella, but I haven't writen any other fiction in several weeks.

I have vague ideas for two or three anthology calls, but they aren't coming together the way they usually do, and I think I know why. At least, I know where I'm casting the blame.

Last year, I sold more short stories than usual.

BUT...

Sanford Meisner once defined acting as characters responding to each other's actions. When there's nobody out there reacting, it's hard to act...or write. You write a story, polish it, send it out, then...nothing.


Waiting for a response that never comes is like playing racquetball into Jell-O. If someone rejects a story, I can react by sending it somewhere else, but when nobody responds, I can't do anything. Since last July, I have sent out 22 submissions (a good week for John Floyd or Michael Bracken). Four were rejected and four were accepted, but after eight months, fourteen are still in limbo and it's paralyzing me. 

I used to work on a novel between submissions but  without that big project to occupy me, time crawls by like a glacier. I respect the markets that say "no simultaneous submissions"--which may be stupid or naive, and is certailnly counter-productive--so I don't send a story out again until I get that first response. A few stories are at anthology markets where the deadline is still in the future, so I won't hear about them for a while. And a few are at a market that is notorious for slow responses. Others are at a market that only responds "if interested." 

Significantly, both those two are PRINT markets. I usually send stories to them first, then sent the stories to other markets if they're rejected. That's going to change soon, though.

Two online markets that reply quickly--and have bought several of my stories--have raised their pay rates significantly in the last few months. I've moved them to the top of my submissions list. It's also true that many stories I write for anthologies get picked up elsewhere. 

Yes, I sold two stories ten days ago (A personal first: two sales in one day), but it's even worse than when I used to audition for roles in theater. Then, if you didn't hear anything in a week or so, you could assume you weren't cast and move on. 

As Tom Petty said,  


The waiting is the hardest part

Every day you get one more yard/

You take it on faith, you take it to the heart

The waiting is the hardest part.

01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

15 February 2021

More About First Person


 by Steve Liskow

I've discussed point of view before, mostly about the unreliable narrator. That's someone who tells the story but whose word is suspect. That person my be lying to cover his own guilt over some event, or maybe he is biased or misunderstands a situtation. Nelly Dean, the caretake in Wuthering Heights, hates Heathcliff and glosses over her own responsibility for many of the things that go wrong in that book, including the elder Catherine's death. Lockwood, the twit who rents the estate and listens to her account, is too self-centered and dumb to understand the significance of what she says. 

Huckleberry Finn was raised by an illiterate drunken racist, so he doesn't recognize his own racist attitude toward Jim.


He comes to understand through the adventures he and Jim share. Critics often compare The Catcher in the Rye with the emotionally shattered Holden Caulfield to Huck. Others point to Chief Bromden, the paranoid schizophrenic Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. All these books gain their power from a narrator who doesn't tell us the truth, expecially since he doesn't lie on purpose.

Many other books, both classic and newer, continue this tradition: The Great Gatsby, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Gone Girl...

But what about books where the narrator tells us the truth? That's a staple of the classic mystery story. I remember being told that a mystery should always use first person point of view, a dictum I tossed as soon as I read The Maltese Falcon, which uses third person through Sam Spade. 

Poe used an unnamed narrator to highlight the brilliance of C. Auguste Dupin. Maybe that's where Conan Doyle got the idea for Dr. Watson, who narrates all except one of the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Hastings, who sounds a lot like Watson, shares his own awe of Hercule Poirot.

Once challenge of using first person point of view is that the narrator needs an interesting voice or persona to keep the reader engaged. If we're going to listen to someone tell an entire book, they have to be interesting, right?

That's true of the unreliable narratiors I mentioned above, but Watson and Hastings are, frankly, boring. They're nice, dull, unimaginative men of a certain age and class, and that narrow mindset exists to make their sleuths seem even more brilliant and dynamic. It also allows us to forgive (as they do) those detectives' personality quirks and shortcomings. Poirot is an arrogant ass, more concerned with his moustaches and his little gray cells than with anyone around him. Holmes is an off-again-on-again cocaine (or morphine, it changes from story to story) user who practices his marksmanship by shooting holes in the wall of his London flat. Apparently, zoning laws were different then.

Another advantage of having these characters as narrators is that Christie and Conan Doyle could hide clues from the reader because Hastings and Watson didn't recognize their importance. It's not really cheating. It's more like slight of hand where the magician makes you look at the wrong hand while the other one palms the ace. 

But Hastings and Watson and a whole generation of Golden Age narrators were dull. Their only reason to exist was the genius of the character solving complex plots that resembled higher calculus. I read a lot of those books and tolerated them, but at some point I lost interest because the characters were incidental to stories that were little more than the word problems in my math book. 

Rex Stout came along, too. I haven't read all the Nero Wolfe stories, but I don't know which ones I missed.


Stout realized that Nero Wolfe was insufferably vain. He weighed "a seventh of a ton," bred orchids, drank innumberable bottles of beer daily (keeping track by the bottle caps on his desk), and never left his brownstone residence. The traditional dull sidekick would have disappeared in his ego and rendered the books unreadable.

But Stout gave us Archie Godwin. Archie is a good PI in his own right. He's charming, loves the ladies (And Lily Rowan and others reciprocate), and can take care of himself in a fight. He's smart. He's also funny and constantly needles Wolfe and deflates him. The relationship between the two characters has more depth and complexity than their predecessors, and it makes for more interesting reading

.After World War II, Lew Archer and Phillip Marlowe came along to relate more character-driven stores with more complex people as narrators and investigators. I don't know if it's significant that they're both American while Christie and Conan Doyle were British. I do remember Chandler's snide comment in "The Simple Art of Murder," though. "The English are not necessarily the best writers, but they are unquestionably the best dull writers." 

In the seventies, Sara Paretsky gave us V. I. Warshawski. A few years later, Linda Barnes gave us Carlotta Carlyle and Sue Grafton gave us Kinsey Milhone. Three feisty, intelligent women PI narrators.

It's probably simplistic to give Stout credit for the rise of the detective teams who appeared in the 1990s, but I'll do it anyway.


Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are smart and damaged. They explore the dark depths of the human condition and come away even more deeply scarred. They finally married between the last two books in the series, and Patrick left investigating for a nine to five while Angie became a terrific mom to their daughter.

Robert Crais's Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are both military veterans (Vietnam, which would put them both at 70 now) and their youths were littered with emotional fallout that give them a deeper understanding of the people they both help and hunt. Elvis can be funny, too. 

I appreciate them more because I grew up with Archie Godwin's voice and vision coloring my own tastes and guiding my reading. When I started writing seriously (who writes frivolously?), Stout was one of my biggest influences.


01 February 2021

Another Good Year: The Invisible Shift


 by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed the singles that nourished my summer of 1966. 1967 was another good year for pop, but we didn't notice how things were changing until two or three years later.

In mystery terms, it was like moving from cozies to noir. We didn't see it at the time, but by 1969, FM radio gained more traction and played longer album cuts while AM singles began to lose their influence. The whole phenomenon was like clues hidden in a complex golden age mystery plot.


The top SELLING albums of 1967 were overwhelmingly pop. The Monkees' first four LPs topped Billboard's chart for 28 weeks during that year, and their first two albums ruled from New Year's Day into June. Herb Alpert and the TJ brass were up there, along with Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and the soundtrack for The Sound of Music. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Petula Clark all had big albums, too, and Peter, Paul & Mary's Album 1700 was required listening for all the folkies in my dorm.

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band rode the top of the charts from early July to October, and we didn't appreciate how it would change the landscape. Other bands were experimenting, too, both musically and chemically, and their work burrowed into our consciousness along with the Fab Four.

In January, the Doors released their first LP. It didn't sell until Elektra released a shorter single version of "Light My Fire" that got lots of AM airplay. It even got banned in Detroit during the July riot. This may have been the beginning of bands releasing a single and a different version of the same song with a long instrumental break on an album. The San Francisco bands, who began to make their presence known in '67, played long breaks for the dancers at the clubs, and it began to catch on. 

That same January, Cream released their first LP, Fresh Cream.


They put out Disraeli Gears in December, and by then the "Clapton is God" buzz was almost as deafening as their Marshall stacks. They were British, but echoed the San Francisco trend to long instrumental breaks (Jack Bruce even said that started when they played the Fillmore West). When I saw them live in '68, they filled a 75-minute set with five songs. 

Jefferson Airplane gave us Surrealistic Pillow in February, and it charted in March. Their first album was a competent collection of mostly covers before Grace Slick (Vocals) and Spencer Dryden (Formerly the drummer with the Peanut Butter Conspiracy) joined on this record, for which band members wrote all the songs. Those songs ranged from folk-rock to full-bore psychedelia (White Rabbit, 3/5 Mile in Ten Seconds) and it may have been the rest of the country's introduction to Haight Ashbury chic. Only weeks later, the Grateful Dead released their first album. It collected covers, too, but two of them featured extended jams like "Light My Fire." The Airplane LP had two hit singles, so it got AM attention. Not so the Dead.

Buffalo Springfield's first album came out in December '66, but Atlantic added their (only) hit single "For What It's Worth" and re-released the record in May, about the same time the band appeared on The Smothers Brothers TV show. FWIW was the band's big hit, but "Sit Down, I Think I Love You" made Billboard's top 20 for the now-forgotten Mojo Men, and several other songs deserve more respect. The Springfield was one of the great coulda-shoulds-woulda bands that didn't make it, but Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to produce more fine work. Like the Airplane, the Springfield record was a combination or rock, country, folk, and ballads. Nobody was looking at a unified concept for an album...yet.


In June, the world turned upside-down. The Beatles unleashed Sergeant Pepper, and AM radio stations played every song because EMI didn't release a single. This may have been the beginning of album-oriented programming.

Only weeks later, Moby Grape appeared on the scene. Their album also has folkish ballads, countryish twang and petal-to-the-metal rock and roll. All five members sang, composed, and played like monsters. They recorded the entire album, including overdubs, in five days of studio time. Guitarist Skip Spence played drums on the first Airplane LP, but he was a guitarist at heart, and here he was in his element. The Grape is another great "might-have-been" band, but Columbia released five singles on the same day, cancelling each other out and offending the hippy following. Bad drugs and bad karma haunted the rest of the band's short career. 

The Association gave us Insight Out in June, too. It had two legit singles, "Never My Love" and "Windy," but the song everyone remembers is "Requiem for the Masses," the choral anti-war song. I saw the band perform it at Yale Bowl a year later, all the stadium lights turned off as Terry Kirkman played the horn solo at the end. It gave me chills. This is the beginning of the end of albums with lots of singles.

To finish off the Summer of Love, Jimi Hendrix produced Are You Experienced? in September. Like the Beatles, Hendrix forced the engineers to dub, overdub, and re-overdub eight or twelve guitar lines onto four-channel boards. The recording industry had to make technical strides to accommodate the new music, and eight, twelve, and even sixteen-channel boards became common, the biggest advance since Les Paul perfected tape delay in the early 50s. Hendrix gave us a hybrid of blues, jazz, rock, and everything else combined with effects pedals and volume like the eruption of Krakatoa. This record did release a couple of singles in England, where it was recorded, but American stations played every song, especially late at night.


Speaking of Krakatoa, The Who released The Who Sell Out in December. It's a full-concept album (Their next release will be Tommy) with tongue-in-cheek commercials mixed among terrific songs. It's my favorite Who album, especially in the expanded CD. Townshend comes into his own as a lyricist and composer on this one, and it features "I Can See For Miles" with the all-out volume assault that's been the band's trademark forever...and the reason Townshend still suffers from tinnitus. 

December gave us the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, their most psychedelic work. It had a three-dimensional cover and no singles, and it proved Mick and Keith could do far-out, too. Then they went back to blues-rooted rock for their best work over the next several years.

December also saw Paul Butterfield reinvent himself. The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw has Elvin Bishop replacing the departed Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar, and it's Butterfield's first record with a horn section. He's learning to share harmonica solo duties with the saxes and trumpet, and it works. Nobody else I know owns this record, but it's one of many resons Butterfield is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Al Kooper was turning to horns at the same time with Blood Sweat & Tears, and Bloomfield left Butterfield to form his own horn band, The Electric Flag. 

Sergeant Pepper is the only album here to top the charts. Several of the others barely dented the basement, but their influence was huge. Think of what will emerge in the next three years: 

Led Zeppelin, Yes, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Chicago Transit Authority, Bitches Brew...

Not so cozy anymore.