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

07 December 2020

Historical Fiction (Or Not)


 by Steve Liskow

I've started using open submission calls as writing prompts and it seems to work; I've finished more short stories in the last six months than in any other year since I started writing seriously. I've noticed many of the calls want historical fiction, which I usually avoid. 

Why?

I can do research, but I try to avoid it because I'm a trivia junkie. If I see an interesting factoid, or, even worse, a link, I'll follow it to another link...and another. Three hours later, I might have 25 open links on the monitor, all of them fascinating, and none with any connection to my original quest. I'm the walking embodiment of research as the best way to avoid actually writing.

Besides the trivia distractions, I find that too much historical fiction uses exposition ("Lessons?") instead of story-telling. A few years ago, I heard of a book by another local author, and the premise intrigued me, so I downloaded a sample. The "dialogue" was "As you know, Bob," information dumps that sounded like a seventh-grade history text. Description of the setting and characters was even worse, and even more plentiful. The first 25 pages, the whole sample, had almost no story, but constant scene-setting in turgid prose. The writer was so proud of her research that she gave us all of it. 

Another danger stems from involving a major historical event. If you write about Columbus, Gettysburg, or Prohibition, you'd better get every detail correct or you'll smother in the messages from readers who spotted your mistake.

There are exceptions, of course. Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger is a terrific novel about an English prostitute in the cholera epidemic of 1831. The setting and exposition stay in the background like good harmony singers and keep the plot and characters in the spotlight. If all historical fiction were this good, I read a lot more of it. 


I've written a little--very little--historical fiction myself. Those works sprang from personal experience so the only research was confirming dates and checking the spelling. 

Run Straight Down isn't really historical; my experience as a teacher inspired it. While I taught at the largest public school in the State of Connecticut during the 1990s, I lost students three consecutive years in gang shootings. A lawyer suggested I change all the details to protect myself from potential lawsuits, so I changed the town, all the names, and the geography. That meant I didn't have to do much research, but I still saw those boys' faces every time I sat down at the keyboard.

In 1967, I attended summer sessions at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, 30 miles north of Detroit. In late July, we crowded around the TV set in the lounge of Fitzgerald House and watched Army tanks rumble down Woodward Avenue.


Two other residents of the dorm lost their houses in fires set by protestors, and one received the news over the house phone while the rest of us watched his face crumble. My kinesthetic memory holds those tiny details because they connect to real people. 

My other exception is Postcards of the Hanging, which I published in 2014. A judge for a contest praised my research and use of details to establish the mood and setting without being forced or obvious. Neat, huh? Now for full disclosure...

The story takes place during the 1964-65 school year, and it wasn't historical at the time. I began the first draft in 1972, and it was inspired by a sex scandal involving a high school teacher during my senior year. I changed all the names and details, but if I needed to check on music or dress styles, I looked at my high school yearbook. 

I remembered the Beatles and Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, the football and baseball games (We had a terrific football team and our weakest basketball team in years), struggling to talk to girls, slang, adolescent angst, local bands and everything else, only seven years earlier. I taught myself to write by producing three distinctly different versions of the book, and the third one became my sixth-year project in 1980. Those three manuscripts gained my first 40 rejections.


When I decided to self-publish the book, I kept all those topical references because they helped me remember that world AND they defined my characters. I actually named minor characters after the streets in my neighborhood. I changed the sequence and used flashbacks to build more tension, but I was amazed how little rewriting I had to do. Someone suggested adding a prologue and epilogue to show the book wasn't really a YA novel, and those two sections, about 25 pages, contain most of the new writing. I added transitions to move in and out of flashbacks, but I think I only did major revisions to one or two existing scenes. 

I don't know if I'll ever try another historical novel or story.

Maybe if I lived a more adventurous life...


23 November 2020

Fixing The Wheel


 by Steve Liskow

America has a long tradition of belittling teachers and education. Washington Irving may have started with Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but it has continued unabated.


The closest I remember to a real depiction was the 80s film Teachers with Nick Nolte, and that featured a brilliant substitute who had escaped from a mental hospital. That message was underlined in the film's closing dialogue.



Now, in Jill Biden, we have a champion of education in the White House instead of Betsy DeVos, who expanded the leaks in a sinking ship. The American public school system began its decline decades ago. It became apparent under Reagan when A Nation At Risk was released, but I'm sure my own teachers despaired about how much dumber their new students were, and I will be the first to admit there are many subjects I should know much more about. I looked at a New York Regent's exam from 1920 recently, and I could answer three questions. That was the high school standard a century ago. 

What can we do about it? I've argued the topic with other teachers and normal people for at least 30 years, changing my ideas as I see problems and shortcomings, and I still get more blowback than hugs. But here is my comprehensive plan. Remember, I am addressing ONLY public education. I know some of it would cause other problems, but that's OK. Government exists because it can handle complex programs and address issues private enterprise can't encompass. 

We wouldn't know if these ideas work for at least a decade, and that's a problem in itself. As a culture, we worship the Quick Fix. Some things take time, though, or we would have found a cure for cancer, solved world hunger, and obviated climate change long ago. Political ideology is a major hindrance, and I have no answer for that, even though it would certainly rear its ugly head in this project. OK, enough disclaimers. Now brace yourself.

ELIMINATE ALL STANDARDIZED TESTS. There are organizations (Tutoring scams and test prep shills) with a huge stake in kids failing, and all the money we spend there could be used for pre-school or reading readiness classes, teacher training and hiring, equipment, and infrastructure. If a million students take the SAT every year, there's 60 or 70 million dollars right there. How many teachers or books or buildings is that? More teachers can mean smaller classes. Besides, a good teacher can tell you if your kid can read, write, count, or handle other material at the appropriate level without those tests anyway. A teacher doesn't have to be a genius, but he or she does need to have common sense and understand the students.


WE NEED A NATIONAL CURRICULUM. I resisted that idea for years, but it's necessary. You'll see why in a minute. We would need teachers from all states and at all levels to cooperate in designing the program. It would make writing the Constitution look like a lunch break, but it's vital. Remember, we only need to get the first two or three years in place right away. We can tweak those and learn from them while we develop the rest, based on the latest knowledge and understanding of learning theory, child development, and the subjects themselves. The content must be factual. No, there was never an effing "War of Northern Aggression." Get over it.

WITH THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM, THERE IS ONLY ONE LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY. Honors, Advanced placement, college prep, general, commercial, etc. go by the wayside. Everyone studies the same material and skills and attains the same degree of proficiency or understanding. This means schools don't need to purchase four sets of books for each grade or subject, saving more money. I recommend a passing grade of 80% and there is no social promotion (Would you like to know that the surgeon operating on you got through med school with extra credit?). The student achieves the grade before advancing. Period. 

THE CURRICULUM. I admit, this is much more rigorous than I encountered, but there are tremendous gaps in my knowledge that I'm still beginning to recognize. There are still people who consider me smart, too.

LANGUAGE ARTS. Composition and literature, multi-cultural and diverse. Students must also be able to speak, read, and write fluently in at least one language besides English. Young children learn easily, so introduce a second language in kindergarten. In the U.S., I suggest Spanish or maybe French. Later, maybe an Asian language and an African language, too (Which mean learning different alphabets), with other languages optional. This also introduces different cultures, value systems, and ways of thinking. A subset of this topic is rhetoric and public speaking (debate?) and maybe journalism. The goal is to instill critical thinking skills and include fact-checking and research.

MATHEMATICS. Start with practical math like making change and advance at least through Trigonometry, preferably Calculus. My math background is a disgrace, and my weakness with algebra forced me to leave my pre-dentistry major for English because I could cope with words, but not numbers.

NATURAL SCIENCE. Biology, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, meteorology. Teach the scientific method and lots of lab time.

SOCIAL SCIENCE.  World history and American history from several perspectives (Maybe the expansion of the United States from the Native American and Spanish side?). Psychology, sociology, anthropology, civics, economics. Maybe the history should include popular entertainment in the other cultures. My history background is even worse than my math. And I made National Honors Society.

COMPUTER SCIENCE. 

ART. Maybe a better name would be "Aesthetics." Both appreciation and hands-on, including painting, sculpture, and maybe film/video. Performance wouldn't require proficiency, but it will foster understanding and appreciation. Music (history, appreciation, performance on at least one instrument). Again, proficiency isn't vital, but it helps appreciation. Theater arts and drama.

PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Exercise and nutrition and healthy lifestyle. I assume school sports will exist, but with free college tuition (see below), there may be less emphasis on some kids getting into the "right" college for scholarship and turning professional later. Athletic scholarships will be unnecessary and free more funds for other concerns. 

HOME ECONOMICS. Cooking and nutrition and housekeeping skills for all genders. Maybe also sewing and tailoring? Even a guy should be able to iron and sew a button on his shirts and do laundry.

MANUAL ARTS. Carpentry, drafting, mechanics, etc. I'm not asking for a generation of skilled artisans, but everyone should be able to change a fuse or a flat tire. A woman I know makes extra money changing her neighbors' automotive oil and mounting their snow tires. 

THE STUDENT MUST GRADUATE.  There's nothing magic about the age of 16 or 18. A very gifted and motivated student might master all this material at 15. Someone else may be challenged and not finish until 25. It doesn't matter how long, only how well. A responsible citizen can make contributions to the society, and that means education. 

UNTIL A PERSON CAN PRODUCE A DIPLOMA, HE CAN NOT VOTE, DRIVE A CAR, OR GET WORKING PAPERS.  One of my friends suggested that he shouldn't be able to drink alcohol, either. The car and job are the carrot to keep the student working. There is a big reward at the end. It's called adulthood. The national curriculum means someone can't move to another state or town and get an easier school. Everyone leaves with the same skills and knowledge, but certainly with different strengths, interests, and weaknesses. Life will be easier for future employers, and students have more information to plan the rest of their lives. 

One drawback: There might be a criminal industry in forged diplomas, the equivalent of academic bootlegging. See? I even give you a new plot idea.

A STUDENT WITH A DIPLOMA FROM THIS CURRICULUM ATTENDS COLLEGE FREE. At least through a Baccalaureate degree. Students won't need the remedial work so many colleges are forced to offer today. That frees up more funds, and might mean fellowships or financial aid for graduate degrees or extra training.

Some students with a physical handicap or emotional/mental challenge may not be capable of mastering this curriculum. Their care and special needs should be taken care of until they reach adulthood. What happens next is a question government needs to address. It's beyond the scope of my plan, but it has to be acknowledged. 

If the students are all in school, jobs go to adults. When the students graduate, they are equipped to fill more jobs and have more choices.

Is this perfect? Of course not. It's idealistic and I've overlooked or omitted many issues and problems.  We can finance practical solutions if we really want to. I think it would take two or three years to develop the primary curriculum and to create reading lists. Use this system for 13 years or until a substantial number of people graduate with the new standards to determine how well it works and to shore up problems that we find. 

The definition of the school day and year are open to discussion, but it would be convenient if the entire country followed the same calendar. Remember, we aren't an agrarian society anymore that needs summers off so kids can help tend the crops. I'd like to see more flexible scheduling. Maybe five eleven-week sessions with students attending four of them. That's only one example. 


How badly do we want it?



09 November 2020

Sin & Syntax


by Steve Liskow 

I encountered Strunk and White's The Elements of Style in my senior year of high school, and have worn out several copies since then. Practically every writer I know quotes its advice about active verbs and various other nuggets, and that's both good and bad. Strunk geared the book to students writing expository essays for college (He taught at Cornell). It's not good for writing fiction because it encourages a stripped-down style that makes for strong concrete statements at the expense of a unique voice. All writing should sound like it comes from a human speaker, especially fiction writing.

The adults who read to me when I was young included teachers, actors and journalists who loved words and language. Because of them, I hear what I read (and write), and I hear bad writing instantly. It's like having perfect pitch and listening to someone playing a piano that's out of tune. Jack Kerouac said, "It ain't whatcha write, it's the way atcha write it," and he's right. I can name several best-selling authors who tell good stories in prose that would not have survived my tenth-grade comp and lit class. Sadly, some of them label themselves "literary."

These are the books on writing that I've KEPT

Facebook and various websites often present lists of the best books for writers (I even distribute my own list at workshops), and they generally mention the same handful of books.

I disagree with several of the choices, and one book that should top them off like a good head on a beer never shows up.

Go-to books for editing 


Here it is.


Hale published it in 1999 and produced this revised edition in 2013, updating examples and adding exercises and activities that expand your ear and your mind. It's a rare book that examines style concretely and completely. It's fascinating, funny and tough.

Hale divides the book into three parts: Words, which discusses the eight parts of speech; Sentences, which explains subject, predicate, phrases, clauses, length and tone; and Music, which examines melody, rhythm, lyricism and voice. The last section matters because I can't name another book that touches on these issues.

Each chapter has five parts. "Bones" talks about the essential grammar and the logic it's built upon. "Flesh" gives lessons on good writing and offers examples of creative and effective prose. Hale's examples come from mythology, "great" literature, advertising, children's stories and almost anything else you can name. "Cardinal Sins" points out real errors in usage and shows why and how they are bad. "Carnal Pleasures" shows how to break the rules and make language beautiful and effective. The "Catechism" section is new to this edition. It provides exercises, activities and writing prompts that force readers to think about what the words on paper or on the screen are supposed to do.

The book offers five over-reaching rules that encourage flexibility and critical thinking. 

Relish every word. Aim high, but be simple. Take risks. Seek beauty. Find the right pitch. 

The rest of the book shows how to follow them without becoming a drudge.

This is from "Cardinal Sins" discussing pronouns:

Speaking of whose, the one truly unforgivable sin that haunts the use of pronouns is the confusion of whose with who's and its with it's. Pronouns, when they get possessive, act weird. We do not say I's, you's, he's, or she's to indicate possession, so why would we write who's or it's? Possessive pronouns are all apostropheless: my, you, his, hers, its. Who's and it's are contractions of who is and its (or who has and it has). Learn this or die.

Her adverbs discussion includes what she calls "Valley Girl trash adverbs" that "reflect the mindless banter of surfers, Valley Girls, and adolescent mallmouths." "Unless you want to sound like a lightweight," she warns, "stay away from them."

She then quotes "Casino Kaiser Donald Trump" (Remember, this was written in 2013) turning on New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman during her reelection campaign. "I was totally a good friend to her, and she showed totally no loyalty."

Hale's treatment of Cardinal Sins with interjections is both brutal and hilarious. She wreaks havoc on "like," among other verbal tics. She cites British comedian Catherine Tate's entire monologue built from Valley Girl one-word interjections. It's on YouTube, so check it out for yourself.

The section on Music goes where most writing books fear to venture, and it's worth the price of admission all by itself. Written language should sound pleasant or unpleasant to help convey the ideas and meaning, so these chapters show how those devices we learned when studying poetry (alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.) can carry the ball in prose, too. Her examples and exercises raise the bar on prose writing to new highs.

If I had time for 50 rewrites, I might be able to get there.




26 October 2020

Stratford Redux


 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.


Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"



I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.

12 October 2020

It's Better When It Moves


Last week, Rob Lopresti offered "The Inspiration Panel," a short play that was both funny and terrifying. I told him if he could write two companion pieces to make it a trilogy, I'd direct them. Now I think about how much my early misadventures in theater taught me about writing.

Theater audiences pay more to see a live play than they do for a movie, so you better give them their money's worth; small audiences mean you might not get to direct again. Sitting in the audience when my first baby hit the stage taught me a lot that you can apply it to stories and novels.

Years ago, I showed Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder to a high school class. The first 45 minutes of the film show Ray Milland and another actor sitting at a table talking. That's it. My sixteen-year-olds went crazy. The long stretch of nothing happening was brutal. Do you have long passages like that in your book? Audiences need movement, emotion and/or action to keep them grounded.

Action perks up a static scene 
If they don't get the stimulation they need, they'll drift away. Good dialogue is fine, but does it go somewhere that the reader can notice? Nobody includes the set design in the program, so maybe you can cut back on description, too. 

If I directed that play today (I can't think of any reason I'd want to, including a large check), those two actors would mix a drink, go to the telephone, size up the room, and laugh at each other. Movement.

Twelve Angry Men was originally a teleplay, and it works better that way because the camera cuts and close-ups give the illusion of motion. Watching the play on-stage is akin to watching gangrene move up your leg. The only successful staging I've ever seen was when the director seated the audience around the jury table so the actors could move naturally and address each other without have to face front in an awkward pose. I still don't care for the play, but that made it much more watchable.

Inertia is bad, but so is too much movement. If we see lots of action early, we get lost without a context to show us whose side we're on. That guy in the cape might really be a bad guy, not a super hero. Think of the James Cagney film White Heat (1949), which opens with ten minutes of car chases and gunfights, but includes dialogue and character background so we understand what we're watching. It's good exposition without becoming static. Can your book do that, too?

Unrealistic set that HELPS actors
tell the story: Book of Days

Bill Francisco and John Hawkins, my directing and acting mentors at Wesleyan, both pointed out that nobody watches an actor or scene unless the actors make him watch it. If the audience doesn't feel like they're getting something out of it, they'll check their watch, fan themselves with the program, or play with the change in their pockets. Earn the attention. That goes for your story, too.

Beware of special stage effects. Arcane sets, odd lighting, and bizarre sound effects may work for Richard Foreman (or not), but unless they help the actors tell the story, they'll pull attention away from action and dialogue.

If you need bells and whistles to make it work, your plot or characters can't stand on their own. Fix it. It makes a better story and saves money on the special effects budget.

Think of last Wednesday night. Did you really pay attention to what Mick Pence was saying while that fly sat on his head?



28 September 2020

Bam, Scam, Thank you, Ma'am


Every six weeks, or so, my wife Barbara says to me, "Isn't your big break about due again?"

It's a standing joke, going on for so long we no longer remember when it began.

The phone rings and when one of us answers, we hear a young female with an Asian accent asking for "Step-on Leez-cow." This young woman, whose name is always "Mumble" and who works for "Mumble Mumble" promotion group (both of those change from call to call, by the way), is very ex-site-ted about my new book, Post Cards of the Haing-Ging. They would like to promote it and hope I will send (usually 50 or 100) copies to some book event that also changes with each call and which I've never been able to find through an Internet search.

I haven't stayed on the line long enough to learn how much money I'm supposed to invest in their enterprise, but I know it will be enough to make their phone call worthwhile… for them.

My "new" novel Postcards of the Hanging, appeared in February 2014. I have received this phone call at least a dozen times in the last three years and I look forward to it along with offers to update the warranty on my 2004 Honda Accord.

If you're new to writing, you'd probably be thrilled to receive a call like this. Don't be. Ask  how the "Company" heard about your book. Ask what they noticed about your website. Ask where else they have looked to find information about you. It's fun to listen to the dead air before they guess. Sorry, Ms., no lifeline here.

A month ago, I heard from a new caller and was in a bad mood (Surgery does that to me), so I played with him more than usual.

"Kevin" called from some mumbled promotion group, and they were palpitating about Words of Love, which I published "recently." It was late 2019, so props to them for being more up-to-date than Ms Bangkok (Who is due to call again next week). Kevin wanted to promote my book so we could boost the sales enough to bring it to the attention of major publishers and renegotiate a deal. We would split the profits. He didn't say whether it would be an even split.

I interrupted to ask how much he expected me to invest, and he answered, "10 or 15 thousand dollars" (Cue hysterical laughter). After that, like a basketball player who turns the ball over and compounds the error by committing a foul, he asked if I was familiar with traditional publishing.

My first novel was with a small traditional publisher. They peeled me like an apple, partly because I signed a bad contract and partly because they were blood-sucking vermin. Other writers had similar experiences and the company has long since disappeared because word got around, as it always does. Remember, we're writers. We tell stories. That company is one of the reasons I self-publish my novels now.

Then Kevin went for the Trifecta, asking me what I've done to promote my book. This is my answer, pretty much verbatim:

I'm a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. I have served on panels for both MWA and SinC, usually at libraries, but at both the New England Crime Bake and Crime Conn, too. I conduct fiction workshops in libraries and other venues, and have a video workshop available online. I have done radio and TV interviews,  podcasts and print newspaper feature stories. I have won several awards, which are listed on my Website and Facebook Author page. My daughter updates my website frequently. I have also published about thirty short stories (traditionally) and have several others currently under consideration.

Kevin was amazed. I told him he hadn't done his homework or he would have, at the very least, Googled me and found all that stuff--along with reviews of various books and stories.

I didn't bother to point out what would happen on the one in a trillion chance that a traditional publisher decided to take on my book. I simply told Kevin I don't give large sums of money to amateurs.

These are scams. 

Because of the Covid-19 lockdown, many people who have threatened to write "That Book" have actually used the time to do just that. The scammers smell fresh meat and are coming out of the dunghills to take advantage of it.

huckster

The Short Mystery Fiction Society posted a scam letter a few weeks ago, and when I first started out, I might have fallen for it. Now, I got about one sentence beyond the salutation before I knew it was fake. Less than two weeks ago, SMFS published a warning about a questionable literary agency that wanted to put writers in touch with Hollywood to sell their novel as a screenplay. I get email offers like that about once a month. They never name the novel they're looking at.

The problem is, if you're starting out, you're learning to write and query and create a synopsis and do an elevator pitch and revise your novel and create a website, a Twitter feed and a dozen other things. You're already swamped without having to learn to spot the grifters out there. There are a few websites to warn people, but they need to know a scam is active before they can pass the word. That means someone has to spot it and alert them.

Writer's organizations are important because they protect their members.

That's another thing mystery writers do besides tell stories. We try to look out for each other.

14 September 2020

Rules of the Game


Before the lockdown, I played guitar and sang at three local open mic venues regularly. About a dozen other people played those venues, too, and I rated myself near the bottom as both a musician and singer. Now that I occasionally do Zoom performances with several of those same people, I feel better about myself. I've learned to select songs that work well as solo acoustic pieces in my particular style.

A few weeks ago, a very good jazz player--one of the few who sings even worse than I do--performed a song it took me two verses to recognize because he changed both the melody and the rhythm so much that they no longer matched the mood or content of the song. It was Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and he combined a guttural growl reminiscent of Charley Patton with guitar riffs worthy of Les Paul, Pat Martino, and Joe Pass. My microphone was muted so he didn't hear my reaction. Luckily.

My first memory of such a gaffe was Jose Feleciano's unfortunate treatment of the Doors' "Light My Fire." I was never fanatical about the Doors, but Feleciano turned a rock song about hot sex into a lounge ballad about...something. The only other disaster that gives this one competition is Frijid Pink's heavy-metal version of "The House of the Rising Sun." You can find it on YouTube, but don't say I didn't warn you.
The first ten minutes of a play teach the audience how to watch what's going on. Will the lighting, sound, and acting be realistic or avant garde? Will the actors speak to each other or directly to the audience? Is the set realistic or abstract? Is the language formal, poetic, or profane? Years ago, I saw a production of Steel Magnolias in which M'Lynn's final monologue (Spoiler alert) about watching her daughter die featured the rest of the cast and set disappearing into darkness while the actress playing M'Lynn stepped into a spotlight. The entire play to that point used naturalistic lighting, and this shift pulled the actress out of the story and the audience out of the event. Two other directors and a light designer saw the performance along with me, and we agreed it was the kind of mistake a first-time director would make. We found out later that we were correct.
If a story is comedy, we need to understand what the author means by "funny." Chuck Palahniuk and Christopher Durang may not be everyone's shot of bourbon. I directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?years ago with two actors whose rapport and timing turned the first act into a routine worthy of Abbott and Costello. It made the play's darker turns later even more disturbing. I tried to explain this to someone who didn't see the production, and he was appalled that I thought anything in the play was funny.

These dissonances occur in stories, too. Every work--poem, short story, novel, essay, or play--has its own rules and boundaries, and the writer has to recognize them as he or she creates them. Science fiction on a different world needs to explain the crucial differences, maybe gradually, or maybe (Heaven help us) in an early information dump. Think of the opening scene of Huxley's Brave New World. A cozy mystery needs to establish the language and lack of graphic detail before we start holding the characters to the wrong standard. A romance needs to introduce at least one of the potential lovers quickly so we know who to care about (or not).
Once you've established those rules, follow them. Otherwise, the book, story or song becomes an incoherent mess. If you give us 25 pages of people who only say "Gosh" or "Drat" and put their beer glasses on coasters, we are in a certain world. When the heroine and the handsome stranger get together 200 pages later, we'll be shocked to see them naked and the woman displaying certain skills and using specific vocabulary to explain what she wants and enjoys. If the story includes a murder, we won't be looking for a graphic medical description of the damage, either.

The Beatles who wrote and performed "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are younger and less worldly than the quartet who gave us "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" We had several years to watch them grow and experiment so the second one was less a shock. The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things always had a different image. Later on, so did the Sex Pistols. And with a name like that, who would expect the group to release "Ave Maria" as a single?
Be careful what you promise a reader. You'll have to deliver it.

31 August 2020

Copy-Cat Blues


Back in the sixties, the best guitar player in my dorm couldn't read music. He played the first National steel resonating guitar I'd ever seen and he had old Library of Congress recordings of early blues players like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. He also had a turntable with a 16 RPM setting, which he used to play old LPs at half speed. It lowered the pitch one octave, and he could figure out the notes by ear at the slower tempo. He learned by imitation and nobody else on campus could touch him.


Remember the "Bad Hemingway" and "Faux Faulkner" contests, where participants had to produce writing lampooning the styles of those icons? I was one of two teachers in my department who encouraged students to enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest, too. One of my favorite student pieces is still a parody of Hemingway's "In Another Country" that began, "Most Saturdays, we girls would go to the mall, but this Saturday, we did not go to the mall."

You can learn almost any skill by imitation, but be sure to pick a suitable model. A decade ago, I was in a writing group with six other writers who critiqued each other's work in 40-page sections, and one member always gave us at least 30 pages of pure visual description. We kept telling him he needed more plot and action, but he never changed. After a few months, I told him I stopped reading five pages in because nothing was happening. A few months later, someone asked him to name his favorite novelist.

"Thackeray."

Mystery solved.

If you want to write, read authors in the genre or type you plan to write, too. If you want to publish, you need to understand what an agent or editor will buy. Today, that means models older than five or ten years won't help you. Tastes change and now there are even more distractions to reading than ever before: social media, streaming TV and film, sports, online music, games...the list grows longer every day.

I like some older short stories. When I conduct a short story workshop, I distribute a list that includes the old masters: Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, James, Crane. I stress that "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Young Goodman Brown" are good stories, but nobody would buy them today.

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is 92 years old, but feels much newer. Even that would be iffy. If you want to sell novels, look at books published in your genre or field in the last three to five years. For short stories, look at magazines and anthologies. Join writing groups that post submission guidelines. For mysteries, I like The Best American Mystery Stories because the book lists the market where the story appeared, so you can find places to send your own work when it's ready. Look at Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Mystery Weekly and Black Cat, and anthologies, too. Ditto for Romance, Science Fiction, and Supernatural markets.



Would you go into a sports tournament without examining the other team? Of course not. Think of this as scouting reports for the championship. And don't rush.

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard


I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.


A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


06 July 2020

Second Best


Anybody remember a golfer named Craig Wood, big in the 30s and 40s? He was the first golfer--maybe still the only one, in fact--to come in  second in all four major championships (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship) by losing a play-off. He eventually won two of those tournaments, too, and finished with 21 career victories.

He once said, "It takes a pretty good guy to come in second."

Besides bartenders, who remembers the guy who comes in second?

Writers do.

In 2006, my daughter told me about a short story contest she heard about from, of all people, her ex-mother-in-law. I'd never heard of the Crime Bake Writers Conference or the Al Blanchard Story Award, but mere days before the deadline, I sent them a story.

A few months later, Leslie Wheeler, the coordinator of the contest, emailed to say my story placed in the top 10. She urged me to send it to Level Best Books the following year because that fledgling publisher, which featured the Al Blanchard winner in their annual volume, would surely take it. I did, and after 356 rejections for various novels and short stories, that story became my first published work.

In 2007, I entered another story in the contest and won Honorable Mention. That meant neither money nor publication, but I attended the conference and got my picture taken holding the cool certificate. Over the next year, I sent that story to 21 other markets that turned it down. Then I sent it to Level Best again and they grabbed it.

I hate the way I look in pictures, especially when they shoot before
I even know they're going to do it.  
 In 2008, I entered another story in the contest and won another Honorable Mention. I sent that  second-best to 22 markets, and they all turned it down again.

Are you sensing a trend here?

I sent it to Level Best (again) and they took it (again). At that year's awards ceremony, Leslie announced that I'd placed in the top ten three years in a row. Level Best published my first four works to see print. Since then, I've sold stories and novels elsewhere, but the consistent close calls show how subjective judging is for prizes, or even for regular sales. Once you get beyond basic grammar and formatting, it's all a matter of taste.

Fourteen years later, I have published three stories that won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard, the third appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. That story was also accepted for an anthology that I withdrew from because the contract rang alarm bells. Everyone liked that story, but most of them not quite enough. Go figure.

I've had other near misses. Last winter, I got a letter telling me my third entry in the Black Orchid Novella Award competition (My first two both won) earned--you guessed it--Honorable Mention. I didn't get a certificate (How is that a mention?) and was left with a story nearly 17,000 words long. That's going to be a hard sell somewhere else, but who knows? Opinion and taste, right?

In 2013, Blood on the Tracks won Honorable Mention for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Novel Award. It finished in the top ten of over 1500 entries, but all I received were the judge's glowing comments. No money, no mention in the magazine. I did sell four copies of the book over the next two months, though.

That same year, MWA named me a finalist for the Edgar for Best Short Story. At the banquet, I met Dennis Lehane and Karin Slaughter, who were in the anthology with me, and they both autographed my copy of the book, which made the trip worthwhile all by itself. Lehane, whom I'd met before, won the Edgar for Best Novel that year. Slaughter turned out to be even more fun than Lehane, even though she beat me out for the short story award. There are worse fates than losing a writing award to Karin Slaughter.
I hate this picture even more than the other one, but Karin Slaughter
was fun to talk to. So was Teresa Soldana, who lost to her, too.

The following year, I asked Laura Lippman for a blurb and mentioned my near miss. She told me that my Edgar nomination was "huge" and that I would surely find someone who was in a position to help me out.

The next year, I was a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel, a category that no longer exists. I lost there, too, but that book sold three copies in the next two weeks.

Since 2006, I have been short-listed for nine awards that I have not won. Seven of those stories sold somewhere else eventually, and the other two are still floating around in submission purgatory. One is that Black Orchid novella.

I currently have stories entered in both the Al Blanchard and the Black Orchid contests. I need one more certificate to fill the top of my book case. And, who knows? Maybe Laura Lippman or Karin Slaughter is dropping my name somewhere...


22 June 2020

A Matter of Trust


A few weeks ago, a novice writer reached me through my web site. He said he went to the high school where I taught, but I never knew him. He told me had done "lots of research" on a crime or crimes in our city and wanted me to help him turn it into a real book.

The email had lots of problems. First, he attached a word doc instead of simply writing the message. I suspected he was recycling the letter, but most of it was specifically aimed at me. He said his MS was 100K words long, but I couldn't tell if he had a non-fiction book or a novel, and it makes a difference because my comfort zone is fiction.

I asked a few questions for clarification and told him to send me a five-page synopsis of his entire MS, then a one-page synopsis of each of the three shorter sections he identified in his first message. I warned him that was very difficult, but I needed a clearer overview of what he had. He also mentioned podcasts, and I said if that was his choice, it might be a good idea, but he needed a scriptwriter or someone with more experience in radio. I quoted an estimate and told him that could change when I knew more, and that I wouldn't commit yet.

The next day, he replied and made my decision easy. He said his lawyer wanted me to sign a one-year non--disclosure agreement for our work together. I told him he had just closed the negotiations.

Everything in the creative arts, especially writing, is about trust, and the non-professionals don't get that. If you send a query or manuscript to an editor or agent, don't put the copyright symbol on it. They aren't going to steal it for several reasons, lawsuits and a ruined reputation topping the list. They have to keep working with other people, remember? Besides, if they can't do better than something they find in the slush pile, they're in the wrong business anyway.

Do session musicians sign an ADA before performing on someone else's recording? Do museum curators sign one before displaying someone's painting or sculpture? Do actors sign one while rehearsing the first production of a play, when the playwright may still be revising the script as they go along?

Nope, nope and nope.

The same is true of writers to agents, editors, and readers. Writers ask people to read their work, so they have to create something worth a reader's time and effort. A reader doesn't pick up a book to be bored by stale plots, cliched characters, or mountains of description. That's why editors and agents reject such submissions. The publishers trust them to bring quality (salable) products to the table, and if they betray that trust, it goes away.

Agents and editors read enough so they remember something good when they see it, especially when they see it again. Yes, we hear stories about plagiarism, but they're rare, especially with a well-known writer as either the victim or the perpetrator. There's too much at stake to take such a stupid risk.

I used to teach senior English classes with students who read four to six years below grade level. I always thought it was an oxymoron and that we should have helped those kids much sooner, but go figure. Those kids, who didn't know better, frequently handed in rap lyrics as their own poetry. They were always amazed when I caught them. They didn't understand that people who need a rubber stamp to spell their own name on the paper (Make sure it's right-side-up!) probably won't use a beautiful extended metaphor (Which they thought was a sports injury, anyway).

Those kids were trying to fool me, but it was how they tried to survive in a world where they'd been set up to fail. I never told them I found "their " poems by Googling the first line because I wanted to perpetuate the myth of the omniscient teacher. I made them rewrite the stuff into something more their own. These kids weren't aiming at Harvard or Oxford, they just wanted to get out of a really ugly building and find a full-time job. OK, no harm, no foul.

But it's different in the writing world, which is sort of like golf, where you call a penalty on yourself if you accidentally drag your club in the sand trap. There's a lot of money out there, but most of us aren't getting any of it, so it's all about the handshake and who buys the beer.

And, except on really bad days, not about the lawyers.

15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths


That's the anthology coming out June 18 with one of my stories in it. John Floyd has one in it, too, along with several other people I know. Kate Flora, who founded Level Best Books, accepted my first short story for publication fifteen years ago. K.M. Rockwood suggested the name of a band that appears in one of my novels. Crime writing is a small world.

The back cover copy gives you a good sense of what's in store:

Lovers and losers. Whether it's 1950s Hollywood, a scientific experiment, or a yard sale in suburbia, the twenty-two authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "heartbreaks and half-truths" in their own inimitable style, where only one thing is certain: Behind every broken heart lies a half-truth. And behind every half-truth lies a secret.

According to my spreadsheet, "Ugly Fat" received fourteen rejections between the end of 2008 and early this year when Judy Penz Sheluk selected it for the anthology. One market told me to re-submit it--and rejected it again. That did wonders for my self-esteem. I assume another market rejected it because I sent it in April 2018 and haven't heard from them yet. That's not unusual, though. I still have seventeen unanswered queries from agents to whom I sent The Whammer Jammers in 2011. That's a major reason I started self-publishing my novels.

I've always loved short stories but never felt comfortable with the form until I attended the Wesleyan Writer's Conference in summer of 2004. Alex Chee, Roxanna Robinson and Chris Offutt were all excellent teachers. Chris also gave me helpful feedback on an early version of what eventually became Blood on the Tracks (Interestingly enough, so did Kate Flora at Crime Bake a year or two later, on a very different draft). I wrote eight or ten short stories in the months after that one-week workshop, and four stories that have seen print came from writing prompts or other suggestions I picked up there.

"Ugly Fat" is different from many of my stories, but similar to a lot of them, too.

Like many of my stories, it has a female protagonist. I worked theater with strong, organized, creative stage managers for thirty years, and most of them were women. My wife is smarter than I am, too (Yes, I grant you, that's no big deal). My novels feature strong women like Valerie Karr, Megan Traine, "Shoobie" Dube, and Svetlana Melanova. Weak or dumb women don't do it for me, and that bias shows up in my writing.

Connie, the protagonist in "Ugly Fat," has been dumped by her cop boyfriend and is now visiting the gym to get back in fighting trim. She stops at a tag sale and finds that her problems are nothing compared to the woman running the sale. Molly's husband dumped her for his secretary and they eloped to Mexico. Now Molly is selling all the guy's clothes, books, and sports gear. She divorced his sorry ass and refers to it as a great diet, in which she lost 170 pounds of ugly fat in one day. Connie sympathizes, but figures out there's more to the story than meets the eye.

The story has dark humor, which I like, and a few music references, also a staple. Telling more would spoil it.

Now, you ask, how is it different from my other stories?

If you don't ask that, you missed your cue.

Well, it's only 2400 words long, one of my shortest published stories. My comfort zone seems to be about 3500--or, if you include my two novellas--about 4300. Excluding the novellas, my two longest stories are roughly 6000 words.

I've always been a process kind of guy, maybe because I taught for so long. More often than not, I know when, where, why, and how I got the idea for a story. I've discussed that before. I try to help people in my workshops realize that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere, sometimes several places and ideas at once.

I remember nothing about when or where this story came to me. The draft I sent for the anthology is "Version S," which would be the 19th version. That's far more than usual, and I don't know why there were so many. I usually do five or six drafts over a span of three or four months. Since I sent the story out the first time around Thanksgiving 2008, I probably wrote the first draft in July, most likely after seeing a tag sale or ten within walking distance of my condo any given weekend.

Who knows? Who cares?

Connie's found a home. And she's in good company.

25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain
"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

11 May 2020

The Sidekick Dilemma


The D Case by Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini presents an intriguing bibliophile premise. They bring the great fictional detectives together at a consortium in Rome to re-read, analyze, and eventually solve the unfinished Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

During the course of the action, we see Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Arsene Lupin, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret, Pirfory Petrovich from Crime & Punishment, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Nero Wolfe, and a few others. The only major sleuths I don't remember seeing are Ellery Queen and the cops of the 87th Precinct.

I remembered my introduction to many of these characters from my parents' bookshelves and coffee table. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Rex Stout. I read all the existing Hardy Boys books between my tenth and eleventh birthday and receieved The Complete Sherlock Holmes for my twelfth birthday. I still have that book. As you can see, the binding is held together by duct tape.



Even at an early age, my reading ear was well-developed and I had definite likes and dislikes. I never liked Agatha Christie much, and I know now that it was because her dialogue sounded wooden and her characters felt like cardboard. The women were all either 12-year-old virgins or latent doms. I liked the early Holmes stories, but felt they went downhill after he went over the Reichenbach Falls, probably because Conan Doyle himself lost his enthusiasm. I discovered Nero Wolfe when I was 12 or 13, and always liked those books more. Now I know that Rex Stout was also from the Midwest, so our rhythms were similar.

Reading The D Case showed me something else that I'd never thought about. Another reason I never cared much for Poirot or Holmes is that Hastings and Watson always came across as so profoundly dull. They were the stereotypical stolid Englishmen with no imagination or creativity, and they bored the hell out of me. They spent page after page in arias extolling the brilliance of their companions, but did little else for the stories. Well, Watson had his service revolver. But they were so dull they weakened their heroes.

It's pretty much axiomatic that a hero gains his stature from the strength of his antagonist. A great villain demands a great hero. But if the people trying to solve the case can barely dress themselves, the guy solving that crime only needs to be able to tie his shoes.

All the cops in the 87th precinct were good detectives who spoke human dialogue and had real-life problems. Ditto Mrlowe and Archer. Nero Wolfe was an insufferable egomaniac like Poirot, but Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, and the other operatives were sharp investigators in their own right, and Archie only  put up with so much of Wolfe's attitude before calling him out on it. I always liked Wolfe more because he really did have to be better than Archie and the Cops. Those cops were a little narrow-minded, but they weren't cretins like Lestrade.

Look at the detectives who had to carry the load themselves without a shuffling minion to look up to them. My current favorites include Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro (now retired), Don Winslow's Boone Daniels, and Karin Slaughter's Will Trent, who has to cope with his dyslexia. All these characters are solid investigators with capable help and no fanboys in sight.

Call me elitist, but I like them a lot better.

27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?