Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novels. Show all posts

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com








20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


by Steve Liskow

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.


04 July 2020

Political Fiction



Happy Fourth of July, everybody!  But today's column is, alas, not about Independence Day.

I'm also not talking about mystery writing, or about my own stories or books. (I usually stay as far away from politics as possible, when I write.) Today I'd like to feature--and recommend--the work of Christopher Buckley, an author whose novels I've enjoyed for a long time. He's the son of the late William F. Buckley, and writes mostly humorous political fiction.

I should phrase that another way. He writes mostly satire. Not all nis novels are political--but all are humorous. I was doing such heehawing while reading one of his books a few weeks ago, my wife asked me if I was reading something by Janet Evanovich. I said no, but this was just as hilarious, in a more subtle way. Author Tom Wolfe has called Buckley "one of the funniest writers in the English language," and that might be true.

Here are some of his novels, all of which I've either read or re-read over the past year or so, with a quick description of each:


Thank You for Smoking (1994)

Nick Naylor is a spokesman (smokesman?) for the American tobacco industry, and he's so good at being slick and unethical and deceitful, he's made enemies of everyone from the medical and scientific  communities to the FBI to an army of anti-tobacco terrorists. This novel was adapted into a 2005 movie starring Aaron Eckhart, Mario Bello, Sam Elliott, and half a dozen other names you would recognize. (I watched it again last night.)


Little Green Men (1999)

The story of John Banion, a famous Washington talk-show host who is abducted by aliens, becomes a hero to millions of UFO believers, and launches a crusade in favor of full-scale government investigations of extraterrestrial sightings and activity.


No Way to Treat a First Lady (2002)

When Elizabeth MacMann, the First Lady of the U.S. (widely known as Lady Bethmac), is tried for the murder of her husband, her only hope is a notorious defense attorney who also happens to be her former boyfriend from law school.


Florence of Arabia (2004)

Arabian official Florence Farfarletti stirs up Washington by hatching a plan for female emancipation in the Near East, using TV shows and a team that includes a CIA assassin, a flashy PR rep, and a brilliant gay bureaucrat.


Boomsday (2007)

A tale of a young blogger who causes a social uproar when she suggests that Baby Boomers be given government incentives to commit suicide by age 75. The main opponents are the Religious Right and of course the Boomers themselves, but a surprising number of Americans seems receptive to the idea.


Supreme Courtship (2008)

When U. S. President Donald Vanderdamp has a hard time getting his nominees appointed to the Supreme Court, he decides to back a judge already popular with the masses--because she's the star of a hit reality-TV show.


They Shoot Puppies, Don't They? (2012)

Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre sets out to discredit the Chinese by trying to convince the American people that China is plotting to assassinate the Dali Lama, a risky plan that threatens to start another world war.


The Relic Master (2015)

Set in 1517, this is historical satire rather than political satire: the story of Dismas, a relic hunter who--with the assistance of artist Albrecht Durer, three thugs-for-hire, and a maiden Dismas has rescued from assailants--conspires to replicate and sell Jesus Christ's burial shroud. USA Today described it as "Indiana Jones gone medieval." I think this one's my favorite, of all Buckley's novels, and amazingly accurate, historically.


The Judge Hunter (2018)

The thrilling adventures of an inept Englishman named Baltasar (Balty) St. Michel, who's dispatched from London to the New World in 1664 to bring in (to justice) two judges who helped murder a king. Probably my second favorite.



One of Buckley's novels I'm looking forward to reading is Make Russia Great Again, to be released next month. I'm told it features Herb Nutterman, President Trump's White House chief of staff, who finds himself embroiled in both Russian intrigue and Trump's reelection campaign. (Talk about current events . . .)



Again--don't worry, you're not at the wrong blog. Even though these are not mysteries, they include crimes galore, from ancient to modern-day, and they're fun to read. Anybody else a fan of this kind of fiction? Of humorous fiction in general? Of Christopher Buckley? Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satirical stories/novels?

Thanks for indulging me. Next time, in two weeks, it's back to more mysterious topics . . .






02 June 2020

Outside the Three-Mile Limit


by Paul D. Marks

As many regular readers here know, I’m fascinated with Los Angeles history. I post about various aspects of it from time to time. I use it as background in much of my fiction. And one of the most fascinating aspects of L.A. history are the gambling boats that used to anchor off the shore, just outside the three mile legal limit.

The Rex
Bobby in the just-released (yesterday) The Blues Don’t Care has more than his share of adventure on one of those gambling ships. In the novel, Bobby and the band he’s in get a gig on the Apollo, one of the gambling ships off the Los Angeles coast. They find more than a little trouble there that really sets the plot in motion.

Cops dumping slot machines off the Rex
The Apollo is based on the real gambling ships that used to lay off the SoCal shore, just outside the three-mile limit. I’ve taken a few liberties with the Apollo. It’s much nicer than the real gambling ships, which, while they had their amenities, weren’t always as glamorous as you might think. But when gambling was illegal I guess they were good places to go and get your fix.

                  The interior of the Lux
The most famous of the real gambling ships was the Rex, run by Tony Cornero, A.K.A. The Admiral. Cornero had a checkered career, to say the least. During Prohibition in the 1920s he was a rum-runner (I wonder if he knew Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.?). He moved much of his illegal booze on ships, so had a background on the bounding seas for when he decided to open up the gambling ships later on.



When Prohibition was repealed, Cornero made the easy slide over to gambling. In 1931 when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas, he and his brothers set up there, opening up The Meadows Casino and Hotel, beating out Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas venture by over a decade. Unfortunately, Lucky Luciano got wind of it and, since Cornero wouldn’t pay extortion money, the Meadows was torched. Hmm, no connection to old Lucky there, right?

Tony Cornero aboard the Lux
So back to L.A. Cornero went. And in 1938 he bought two ships, the SS Rex and the SS Tango and converted them into gambling boats. By running them outside the legal limit he could skirt US law. The ships included gourmet chefs, gunmen to keep the peace, waiters, waitresses and—wait for it—orchestras. And that’s where Bobby and the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra come in.


Cornero was a constant thorn in the side of authorities, but things went along swimmingly until The Battle of Santa Monica Bay—yeah, that’s a real thing. The authorities tried raiding the ships. The Rex held them off for nine days, but eventually lost and Cornero, to make a long story short, hightailed it back to Vegas, where he built the Stardust Casino and Hotel, which I stayed at many times. At the time, way back when, I knew it was mob-connected, but I didn’t know then about the Cornero connection, which I find intriguing.

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay
And, of course, some pivotal scenes in The Blues Don’t Care are set on the Apollo, just a water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier:

“A fine briny mist bit Bobby’s skin as he waited in the throng of people on the Santa Monica Pier for the water taxi that would take him to the gambling ship Apollo. The little cartoon-like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawing glared at him from the water taxi shack. Kilroy was everywhere these days. He had to shield his eyes from the fiery late afternoon sun, wished he had a pair of sunglasses. Only movie stars and musicians wore sunglasses. Maybe he’d get a pair of shades.”

Below, Bobby describes seeing the Apollo’s ballroom for the first time:

“Bobby peered over the sea of faces in the ballroom—white faces in expensive suits and chic dresses. The Apollo wasn’t the biggest or fanciest or the most seaworthy ship in the world. But if she went down, half of Hollywood, the Los Angeles political establishment, and business movers and shakers in the Southland would disappear into Davy Jones’ Locker. That didn’t stop the people who ran her—gangsters everyone knew—from decking out the main ballroom as if it were Versailles. The ceiling was tall and sparkled with lights under a false ceiling with a gauzy, azure-painted sky. Below it, the dance floor in the center of the room, surrounded by gambling tables—craps, roulette, blackjack, and the like. And in rows behind the gambling tables, dining tables.”

The La La Land gambling ships also make appearances in one of my favorite books and a movie from one of my favorite series.

Raymond Chandler talks about them in Farewell, My Lovely. In the novel, Philip Marlowe is told that Moose Malloy might be hiding out on one of the gambling ships outside the three mile limit. Marlowe sneaks aboard and persuades Brunette, the gangster who runs the ship, to get a message to Malloy. Farewell, My Lovely was made into the movie Murder, My Sweet (1944). The 1942 B movie The Falcon Takes Over is also based on the plot. And in 1975 Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.

And much of Song of the Thin Man, the last Thin Man movie (co-written by my friend Nat Perrin) is partially set on one of the ships. A benefit is happening on the gambling ship Fortune. The bandleader is murdered. Guess who has to figure it out. Song of the Thin Man should be called Farewell, My Thin Man as it’s the last in the series and unfortunately not the best by far, but it has its moments.

Mr. Lucky
Another movie that takes place on a gambling ship is the Cary Grant-Larraine Day flick Mr. Lucky. Not his best, but I like it. And you can check out my close encounter of the first kind with Cary Grant at my website.
The book was released yesterday. Hope you’ll want to check it out. Here’s what some people are saying about it:

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."
    —DeathBecomesHer, CrimeFictionLover.com

“Award-winning author Paul D. Marks hits it out of the park with this finely-written novel bringing WWII-era L.A. alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended.”
     —Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author

“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40's L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. There's sex, drugs, and jazz and an always surprising hero who navigates the worlds of gambling, music, war profiteers, Jewish mobsters, and a lonely few trying to do the right thing. Marks has an eye for the telling detail, and an ear that captures the music in the dialogue of the times. He is one helluva writer.”
      —Michael Sears, award-winning author of Tower of Babel, and the Jason Stafford series


"While The Blues Don't Care is a complex, sometimes brutal, story, it also has its glimmers of beauty and joy. Those glimpses come from Bobby's passion for music, and his awe when he sees celebrities such as Clark Gable and Billie Holiday. Wander into Bobby Saxon's world in Paul D. Marks' latest book. It's a world you won't easily forget."
      —Lesa's Book Critiques, lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com



~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

03 May 2020

20 to Go


The Rule of Four (novel)
Experts suggest the COVID-19 coronavirus took root in the US sooner than believed, possibly as early as January. Personally, I believe it infected state and federal executive branches much, much earlier.

I’ve been astonished to learn of deep-seated efforts to fire Dr Anthony Fauci. Thus explaineth the lovely Haboob:
Far left and right conspiracy theorists reach remarkably similar conclusions. Both insist Dr Fauci masterminded a Clinton Foundation-funded Deep State effort to develop a virus fabricated in a Wuhan lab. Their profit motive was to make lots of money selling the world a co-developed vaccine, but the virus got away from the Chinese. Parting from the left’s hypothesis, the ultra-right maintains that the greatest intellect the White House has ever known leapt into action, averting an Obama-driven disaster in which tens of victims might have perished were it not for this great man who saved the planet. Or something like that.
We don’t do politics or low crimes and misdemeanors, just death and destruction. It takes great writing to top the tales coming out of national and state capitals. Gathered here are twenty exquisite murder mysteries, some new, some classics, some unusual, many recommended by others (thanks Sharon), most lengthy for that immersive read.

As viruses simmer in the summer cauldron, enjoy reading in a cool arbor bower.

The Cartel Don Winslow
Cult X Fuminori Nakamura
The Eighth Girl Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
The Historian Elizabeth Kostova
The Honourable Schoolboy John le Carré
L.A. Confidential James Ellroy
The Last Tourist Olen Steinhauer
The Luminaries Eleanor Catton
The Man Who Loved Dogs Leonardo Paduro
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Natchez Burning Greg Isles
The Rule of Four Caldwell & Thomason
The Secret History Donna Tartt
Shantaram Gregory David Roberts
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama
Three Hours in Paris Cara Black
What’s Left of Me is Yours Stephanie Scott
The Witch Elm Tana French
2666 Roberto Bolaño
and the novel that started it all…
A Study in Scarlet Arthur Conan Doyle

What are your favorites?

11 April 2020

First Thoughts about Writing a Story


Last Saturday, John Floyd talked about how he starts writing a new story. A very interesting post. Check it out if you missed it.

John said he usually starts with a plot.

I’m different. I usually start with a character, then fix on a setting, and finally decide on the inciting incident which often includes a crime. I never outline but simply start a story and keep writing most every day to finish it. If I do get stuck, I make a list of what could happen next, pick what I think is the best situation, and continue writing.

I think there are two reasons it’s so much easier for me than other writers to not plot. First is to read. A lot. Stephen King says we should read the same amount of time every day as we spend writing. Sounds about right to me. But I started reading early (with Nancy Drew—I’m a cliché!), and average two books a week, and have for years and years and years. I know there have to be terrific authors out there who do not read much. But if you are struggling, I suggest you read more in your genre to get a feel for how good writers do it. And maybe get some insight into why you consider some writers amateurish and not be that way yourself.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 1) by [Becca Puglisi, Angela Ackerman]
For some reason I am highly focused. You can even interrupt me when I’m writing, and I will get right back to where I was and continue on when you leave me alone. How do I do that? I SEE in my mind’s eye the setting and what’s happening. I HEAR what the characters say and how they say it. And I FEEL their emotions as I write about them. I even find myself making faces, which I can use for dialogue tags. But the seeing and hearing are the most important things. Because I’m THERE, when I get back to writing, I can continue with little trouble. If you “see” everything, you will prevent mistakes such as having someone sitting and a while later, standing without showing it happening. You can imagine the gestures the characters are making and use them to make tags. You can describe the setting the same way every time you need to mention a table or a chair.

So, it’s all a snap for me, right? Of course not. I have other problems. The first and worst is character names. I wish I had all the time back spent messing with them. For a novel, I average about five or six name changes. Thank goodness for Find and Replace in Word although that can be both amusing and frustrating. For my current work, I decided to change a character’s name from Slack to Novak. I forgot how many characters wore slacks. This is about a 75,000 word novel. My fear is that I haven’t corrected all of them because you can’t totally depend on Replace to work correctly. I can only hope my beta readers find any of my characters wearing Novaks. Then I changed Mark to Aaron, and there was Maker’s Aaron instead of Mark. <sigh>

I learned early to make a list of characters in a chart that can alphabetize rows. First and last names each receive their own rows, and I also have ones for age, car, and description and other details I need to remember. So, as soon as I have several names, I alphabetize them by first name, try to have others with a different first letter, then do the same with the surnames. When writing series, these are really handy to look back at when I forget a minor character’s name or description, age, or make of car.

Because I am more interested in characters than the actual plot and setting, I have a lot of dialogue and people’s reactions to what’s going on. I find myself repeating certain reactions. Each novel seems to generate it’s own particular reaction. The last one was “shrugged.” This one has too many folks gasping. Fortunately, I own a terrific book called THE EMOTION THESAURAS—A writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They have a whole series of books like this one, but for me, this is the most useful. Pick any emotion, go to the index, and choose things like anxiety, denial, happiness, surprise (gasp), and so forth.

That’s not all. I sometimes put in characters that in the end do not add much or anything to the plot, so I have to kill them off. And sometimes I leave stuff out that needs to be there and it can be difficult to find a place to impart the information needed during edits. I might even have to add a character or two.

Each story is different, so of course, each one has its own idiosyncrasies and needed fixes. For some reason, I don’t hate editing like a lot of authors do. Which is a good thing. My average is about five passes for novels and sometimes even more for short stories because every detail in those needs to work extra hard.

All that said, I do pay a lot of attention to plot. I try to have interesting starts and finishes to each chapter and to the story as a whole. I enjoy making up twists and unusual situations. But for me, the characters drive the plot. They act and react. I need to put some hard or uncomfortable situations in front of them and see how they handle them.

Who else usually comes up with a character? I suspect it’s probably a tie between character and plot coming first, with setting coming in last. But if you choose setting first, I’d love to hear how that works for you. 

I hope everyone is doing okay staying inside most of the time and maybe getting lots of writing and reading done. I certainly am. Take care!

07 March 2020

Pure Goldman





The name William Goldman might or might not be familiar to you. It's probably familiar to me only because I watch, and have always watched, a lot of movies. All of us are familiar with Goldman's movies.

I intended to write this column more than a year ago, shortly after I heard about his death, but I just never got around to it. There is general agreement that screenwriter William Goldman was a man of incredible literary talent, and I've long been a fan of not only his screenplays but his novels and memoirs. (I think Adventures in the Screen Trade should be "must" reading for all writers of fiction.)

Very quickly: William Goldman was born in Chicago in August 1931 and died in New York in November 2018, and over the course of his long career he won two screenwriting Oscars (for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Men), won two Edgars (for Harper and Magic), and received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writer's Guild of America.

I won't go into a lot of detail about his life; if you want that, there's plenty of information available. What I'd like to do here is give you a list of some of his accomplishments. He was the author of the following screenplays, novels, and books.

Note: I have not included any of his plays, TV scripts, unproduced movie scripts, or short stories. And--not that it matters--the asterisks indicate my favorites in each category.

Movies:

Masquerade (1965)
Harper (1966)
*Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Hot Rock (1972)
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
*Marathon Man (1976)
*All the President's Men (1976)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Magic (1978)
Heat (1986)
*The Princess Bride (1987)
Twins (1988)
*Misery (1990)
A Few Good Men (1992)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Year of the Comet (1992)
Chaplin (1992)
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Last Action Hero (1993)
Malice (1993)
Maverick (1994)
Delores Claiborne (1995)
The Chamber (1996)
*The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Fierce Creatures (1997)
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Absolute Power (1997)
The General's Daughter (1999)
*Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Wild Card (2015)

Novels:

The Temple of God (1957)
Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow (1958)
Soldier in the Rain (1960)
Boys and Girls Together (1964)
No Way to Treat a Lady (1964)
The Think of It Is . . . (1967)
Father's Day (1971)
*The Princess Bride (1973)
*Marathon Man (1974)
*Magic (1976)
Tinsel (1979)
*Control (1982)
The Silent Gondoliers (1983)
*The Color of Light (1984)
Heat (1985)
Brothers (1986)

Nonfiction:

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969)
The Story of A Bridge Too Far (1977)
*Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)
Wait Till Next Year (1988)
*Hype and Glory (1990)
Four Screenplays (1995)
Five Screenplays (1997)
*Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000)
The Big Picture (2001)


William Goldman was, along with screenwriters like Kubrick, Sorkin, Wilder, and a few others, one of the very best in the business, and the three movies he adapted from his own novels--Magic, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride--are, in my opinion, among his finest. There are things about all three (ventriloquists' dummies, dentists' chairs, giants who like rhymes, etc.) that'll probably stay in my head forever. And his nonfiction was especially interesting to me because of the way he wrote. He presented facts as if he were sitting in the chair next to you, chatting instead of lecturing. Those of you who've read him know what I mean.


Goldman once said, of himself: "I don't like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I've ever written, not that I'm proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."

Author Sean Egan once said, of Goldman: "He was one of the late twentieth century's most popular storytellers."

I know which I'd rather believe.

All of us, writers and moviegoers alike, can learn from his work.








02 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue Part 1


My wife Barbara claims she has acted in about 80 productions, but I'd say it's at least twice that many. Since we met, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, several Shakespearean roles including Feste in 12th Night and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (I directed both of those) and one of the neighbors being spied upon in the Hartford Stage Company's world premiere of the stage adaptation of Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon. She also had a cameo in the remake of that film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Since she also has a reputation for being very good at learning lines, we found ourselves trying to explain what makes dialogue effective...or not.

Last Wednesday, we earned a little extra cash by acting in a training video for caregivers. We've worked with the director and crew before, and they're great: patient, organized, funny, and very good at what they do.

We met the "nurse" in our scene Tuesday for a read-through and shot the six-page, eight-minute scene the next morning. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for make-up (They had to age me ;-))) and finished a little after noon.

People who aren't used to the routine say, "JEEZE, why so long for eight minutes?"

Well, we had to do five camera set-ups, one on all three of us at a table, one of Barb and me, and one of each of us, which will be edited together later for the best flow. That meant moving the camera and furniture in a small space and tweaking the lights and microphones for each different angle.

Another problem was that because the video is for training caregivers to follow specific guidelines, the nurse's lines had to correspond to the language on a checklist and a training manual. They don't flow trippingly off the tongue and they get repetitive. That means actors can get lost, especially when you start and stop a few times.

I had two speeches that were completely different, but my cue lines were 22 and 20 words, 18 of them the same. For one take, the director wanted to start at one of those cues, and I had to ask, "Is this my first or second response?" because that was the only way I could keep them straight.

If you're writing a short story or novel, that's not a big deal, but if you write for the stage, it becomes crucial. You need to write lines the actors can learn. Remember, we had only one rehearsal and a four-hour shoot to get everything correct five times.

Most of what we say today is geared toward plays, but you can apply it to stories and novels, too.

There are two ways to link (connect) lines so an actor can remember them. When Character A reacts or responds to Character B, it draws the audience into the scene and gets them involved. You can do this with either an ACTION CUE or a LINE CUE.

An ACTION CUE is an event that prompts the character to speak. For example, there's a knock on the door, and the character asks, "Who is it?" If you're writing a story, you can use an action tag here.

When she heard the knock on her locked door, Sarah asked, "Who is it?"

A LINE CUE is the word or sentence the actor talks back to. KIND playwrights (They are rare) often repeat key words in consecutive speeches between two characters. Repetition is best if it's an important verb or noun in the first sentence. If it's not a repeat, a synonym will help.

Sometimes, Character B's speak begins with a sound or letter that was prominent in Character A's speech.Strong Consonants like "P" "T" or "S" are common because they're so audible.

Questions and answers are usually easy to remember. So is cause and effect, where B says something as a response to what Character A did or said. This is a lot like the ACTION CUE.

Chris Knopf uses repetition and synonyms when his series character Sam Acquillo talks with local cop Joe Sullivan. The two paraphrase and mangle each other's previous lines, sometimes turning them into puns or malapropisms. It's funny, but it also adds tension and energy because it shows the two are listening to each other while they butt heads.

American English gains its meaning and nuance from rhythm. In dialogue, the two strong positions are the beginning or the end of a sentence, especially the end. That's where you should put the speech's main point (see what I just did there with the slightly unusual word order?).

I'm afraid the case is past human skill. Prayer is our only resource now, John.

That's weak. The important word (prayer) gets buried in the middle. Try this instead:

I'm afraid the case is past human skill, John. Our only resource now is prayer.

Can you hear and feel the difference?

I saw another such face a year later is weaker than A year later, I saw another such face. 

If you use names--usually direct address--in dialogue, a name at the beginning of a speech tends to make a stronger line, probably because it focuses attention more quickly. It helps indicate the relationship (power) between two characters without the audience being aware of it.  A name at the end tends to be weaker because it creates a falling rhythm.

Henry, please pick up that book      is stronger than      Please pick up that book, Henry. 

If you're writing comedy, put the point or punch at the end. If you want a laugh, you need the joke in a strong position.

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was my wife; that was no lady.                                    (Why aren't you laughing?)

Let's be practical, too. If, in spite of the weak position, the punch gets a laugh early, that laugh will drown out the rest of the line. The audience might miss information. It's also hard on the actor. Think about the action/line cue when you're setting up a joke, too.

Dialogue helps everyone understand what the goal is and how the character tries to achieve it. It also can show the nature and magnitude of the obstacles.
A:  What time is it?
B:  Two thirty.                      
A asks the question to get information. B answers because she has the information and wants to help. There MAY be more going on here– flirting, a power game, whatever. Maybe one character is suggesting that the other one is late...again.
A:  Are you hungry?
B:  Yes.
Is A a nurturing mother, a sadistic torturer, a waiter, or something else?
Is B a child, a captive, a customer, or a potential love conquest?

An indirect answer can add tension.
A:  Can I go in and see him?
B:  Over my dead body. (Or, Not without a warrant, Or, Not until he regains consciousness, Or, Haven't you done enough damage already?
Using specific words and images will make it easier for an actor to learn his lines and develop his or her character, too.

We'll talk more about dialogue and character next time.

24 February 2020

The A List in Paperback




I'm very excited to have as my guest author today, J.A. Jance. She gave me permission to reprint this piece from her blog.   I'm not sure I've read all her books, but I've read most including her stand alone thrillers. 


I first met Ms Jance at a Bouchercon in Scotsdale AZ. And  recently was able to spend a few steps with her in Dallas at the 50th Anniversary B'Con. If you've never read J.A. Jance, I suggest you rush right out and get several copies. You will enjoy the time you spend in AZ or in Seattle, Washington  I guarantee you.


She did a drive-by signing at Mysteries & More bookstore, that my late husband, Elmer and I owned in Austin from 1990 to 1999. At that signing, not advertised except to our customers, Ms Jance read from one of her books and opened my eyes to a new and better way to do this. She'd read a little bit, then she'd stop and talk about what she'd been thinking about for that scene or why her character acted in such a way. There were about 12 to 15 people there and at least two were writers and we learned a lesson in keeping people interested and not get into that boring  task of just reading your book. I hope you enjoy this article.
Photo by Mary Ann Halpin Studios

 -Jan Grape


THE A LIST IN PAPERBACK

by J.A. Jance

Yes, The A List, Ali Reynolds # 14, is due out in paperback on January 28, 2020. I may have typed 2020, but my fingers still want to start out with 19 something. Get used to it!

So yes, to my loyal paperback readers, The A List is finally coming out in a mass-market, pen-and-ink edition. I’m sure you think it’s high time, and it is. So today, I’d like to take this opportunity to give you a little background on not only the book but also on how that book in particular has intersected with my life.

In December, a little over a year ago, I was busy putting the final touches on the manuscript. In the story, we encounter Ali Reynolds as she is now, but also as she was while still a news anchor in LA and dealing with one of the biggest stories of her TV newscasting career.

Writing the manuscript hadn’t been easy. In July I developed a frozen shoulder, and in October my husband had back surgery. Initially he recovered well, but by mid-November, the recovery process had stalled out. He wasn’t eating properly. Nothing I cooked suited him, and he wasn’t at all himself. He was grumpy and not quite with it mentally. The only good thing about the situation was that, since he wasn’t eating, he was losing weight which he dutifully posted each morning on a weight-management app on his phone. On December 17, shortly after he posted his weight for the day, the app sent him a text: YOU ARE LOSING WEIGHT TOO FAST. CALL YOUR DOCTOR!

Bill is a retired electronics engineer. This was the computer speaking to him, and having the God in the Machine tell him to do something was a lot more effective than having someone else … namely his wife … tell him the same thing. He called his doctor and made an appointment for the following day. After an examination, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. As soon as he saw the results, the doctor said, “Go directly to the ER!” which we did. By the time we got there Bill, was suffering from acute kidney failure with his kidney function at 14%. Whoa! Had it not been for the app—had we waited one more day—I might well have lost him.

But I didn’t. It’s been a long slow process. He’s recovered enough that we’ll be going on a cruise the end of March. YAY. I love cruises. By now, you’re probably thinking, she’s really flipped her lid this time. Nice story, but what on earth does this have to do with The A List?

For one thing, although the book is a murder mystery, a major subplot is all about … well … kidney disease. In creating the story, I read about kidney disease. I researched kidney disease. I wrote about kidney disease.

Between Christmas and New Years, days after we ended up in the ER, my editor sent me a second pass of the galleys for The A List. I had already done the first pass, but there had been so much chaos in our lives at the time that I thought they deserved a second go-down. In the book there’s a scene where a bereaved mother tells Ali about losing her daughter to kidney disease. In the process she relates the daughter’s symptoms shortly before she died of acute kidney failure. As I read through that passage, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I had been describing a fictional character’s symptoms without recognizing that the very same real life symptoms were sitting beside me, right here in our family room!

So, if you’re a paperback reader, by all means, go out and pick up a copy of The A List. But thank you, too, for reading this combination newsletter/blog all the way through, because I want to get the word out. Kidney disease is dangerous and subtle. The symptoms sneak up on you, and sudden unexplained weight loss is one of them. I always thought that questions on physicals about sudden weight changes in the past six months was nothing but a sneaky way of finding out if people were sticking to their diets. Properly functioning kidneys sort out and dispose of all kinds of poisons that pass through the human body. When kidneys quit working, bad things happen. You lose mental acuity right along with losing your appetite. Your personality changes. And it’s not something where a physician can prescribe a medication and you’re suddenly good to go.

So, if you’re reading this through and if any of the above mentioned symptoms seem to fit what’s going on with you or with someone you love, CALL THE DOCTOR and ask to be tested for kidney function. This isn’t your wife or husband speaking—it’s the VOICE IN THE MACHINE, SO PAY ATTENTION!

Thus endeth the daily reading. As for coming attractions? I’m currently doing copy editing on Ali # 15, Credible Threat and working on the next Joanna Brady book, Missing and Endangered, due out this fall. So I’m still writing, and I’m incredibly grateful that so many of you are still reading. 

07 December 2019

More Experiments





In last week's column I talked a bit about experimental writing, and gave as an example one of my recent stories, which was told in such a nonlinear way almost the whole thing flowed backward. In that post I mentioned (and most of the readers' comments agreed) that trying new writing techniques can sometimes pay off, not only in sales but in the enjoyment of writing these "different" kinds of stories.

The more I thought about that, the more I looked back through my old stories, trying to remember other times that I'd broken or at least bent the rules of storytelling. For what it's worth, here are thirty examples that I found:



"Scavenger Hunt" (AHMM, 2018) -- A single story consisting of three different mystery cases and three different crimes.  (This was an installment in a series, so I felt a little safer trying something like that.)

"The Home Front" (Pebbles, 1995) and "Command Decisions" (The Odds Are Against Us anthology, 2019) -- Two stories told only in the form of letters mailed between characters.

"Life Is Good" (Bouchercon 2017 anthology) -- A story told in three scenes about three separate characters, each in that character's POV. All three scenes have similar beginning lines and similar ending lines. (If you've read it you know what I mean.)

"Careers" (AHMM, 1998) and "Radio Silence" (new) -- Two stories told using only dialogue.

"Benningan's Key" (Strand Magazine, 2012) -- A 4500-word story using no dialogue at all.

"Denny's Mountain" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A 20,000-word mystery written in two parts, and sold and published as two separate entities.

"In the Wee Hours" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A story that takes place entirely in a dream.

"Mission Ambushable" (flash fiction contest, 2008) -- A 26-word story told with each word beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, in order, from A to Z. (The link is to a 2013 SleuthSayers post about this story.)

"The Willisburg Stage" (Amazon Shorts, 2007) -- A Western horror story.

"On the Road with Mary Jo" (EQMM, 2019) -- A 4000-word story in which almost half the dialogue is from an Alexa-like device in a self-driving car.

"A Stranger in Town" (Amazon Shorts, 2006), "Over the Mountains" (Dreamland collection, 2016), and "The Miller and the Dragon" (new) -- Three very long stories told only in verse, reminiscent of Robert W. Service's poetry style.

"Lucy's Gold" (Grit, 2002) and "The Donovan Gang" (new) -- Two stories about passengers inside a stagecoach. (The link to "Lucy's Gold" is to a reprint of that story in Saddlebag Dispatches, 2018)

"Christmas Gifts" (Reader's Break, 1998) -- a story about passengers inside an elevator.

"The Red-Eye to Boston" (Horror Library, Vol. 6 anthology, 2017), "Business Class" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2015), and "Creativity" (Mystery Time, 1999) -- Three stories about passengers inside an airplane.

"The Barrens" (The Barrens collection, 2018) -- A children's fairy tale, with witches and monsters.

"Perfect Crime" (Woman's World, 2014) -- The only story in my longest-running mystery series that's told from the villain's POV. This was more risky than experimental. I was surprised they published it.

"The Midnight Child" (Bouchercon 2019 anthology) -- A story told in reverse.

"Dreamland" (AHMM, 2015) -- A present-day mystery/fantasy story using characters based on Robin Hood and his men.

"Mum's the Word" (Flashshot, 2006) -- A 55-word story using only dialogue.

"The Music of Angels" (The Saturday Evening Post, 2018) -- Sort of a romance story whose three main characters have the first names of our oldest son's three children. (This story was written for them; I think they liked it.)

"Dentonville" (EQMM, 2015) -- A story that includes the killing of a pet--something I don't like, editors don't like, and readers don't like. But this pet is a devil-dog whose death is justified (think No Country for Old Men) and necessary to the plot. The story also includes a seven-foot-tall woman, so it's different in several ways.

"Mythic Heights" (Over My Dead Body, 2012) -- A mystery using nursery-rhyme characters: Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, Jack and Jill, etc.

"An Hour at Finley's" (Amazon Shorts, 2006) -- A story told in three equal parts (scenes), with each part "titled" with the name of its POV character.



I admit that these aren't stellar examples of experimental writing, but all are far different from the way I usually write, and--again--all of them were a lot of fun to create.

Having said that, I want to mention once more that almost all my stories are mysteries told the usual way--linear, past tense, first- or third-person, traditional beginning/middle/end, etc. I'm not as adventurous as my characters. I am, however, fond of inserting plot reversals if possible, not only at the end but throughout my stories--because that's something I like to encounter when I read the stories of others.


To continue my questioning from last week: What are some of the rule-breaking stories and/or novels you've written? Are you working on any, currently? When you do write "experimentally," do you know it ahead of time or do you discover, as you write, that doing things differently might be better? Can you give some examples, and maybe even some links to any that might be available online?


Thanks for indulging me, on all this. See you in two weeks.