Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

01 July 2020

Steal This Vote


STEAL THIS VOTE

by Leopold Longshanks

I'm honored to be your guest blogger today.  I understand that this would usually be Robert Lopresti's turn, but he is apparently too busy to write something.

Don't ask me what he's filling his hours with.  He somehow managed to write while carrying on a day job, but now that he's retired he seems to be too busy to do his duty.

But enough about him.  As I said, I am happy to talk to you about my latest adventure, which appears in Low Down Dirty Vote 2, a new anthology of crime stories.  It will be published this Saturday, the Fourth of July.

Of course, the date is no coincidence. Voting is basic to what this country is supposed to be about, part of what we celebrate with dangerous fireworks, rowdy parades, and suspiciously undercooked hamburgers every Independence Day.

Each story in this book involves a violation of that most precious right.  And Mysti Berry, who conceived and edited this book, is putting her money where her mouth is.  The first volume raised more than five thousand dollars to help the American Civil Liberties Union fight voter fraud.  Funds from the second book go to the Southern Poverty Law Center for the same purpose.  I am proud to be involved in such a good cause.

And I am not alone. Among the authors contributing are Gary Phillips, Travis Richardson, Sara Chen, and James McCrone, to name a few.

You may notice I am not on the author's list.  Make no mistake: I am a distinguished author of crime fiction, in my world.  But in your universe I exist only through the work of that other guy, lazy Lopresti.  My story in the book is his 17th effort at recording my adventures, and I admit he got the details right this time.  Most of them, anyway.  That makes a nice change.

"Shanks Gets Out The Vote" concerns an election for the board of the nonprofit that runs the World Theatre, a beautiful depression-era opera house in my New Jersey town. My wife, Cora Neal (award-winning author of women's fiction), ran for president and, as you no doubt guessed, dastardly deeds were afoot.


This may seem like small potatoes compared to other crimes in the book.  I haven't read all the stories yet, but I assume some are about elections to government offices.  I am perfectly okay with being on the trivial end of the scale.

First of all, the subtitle of this book is "Every stolen vote is a crime," so my story fits in beautifully.  Second, I firmly believe that amateur sleuths should stick to the small stuff.  I can modestly admit to helping the police with a couple of murders, but I much prefer the tales in which I solve puzzles too minor for our noble law officers to deal with.  I have explained my preferences to Lopresti, but does he listen to me?

Seldom.

Well, I need to get back to my own work.  I am told writers at SleuthSayers are not supposed to give the hard sell, so I will merely say that if the second volume of Low Down Dirty Vote is as good as the first you will enjoy it a lot. And it's for a good cause.

If you see Lopresti before I do, tell him to put his butt down and write me something to do.

LEOPOLD LONGSHANKS is the award-winning author of the Inspector Cadogan series, as well as standalone novels such as A MAN OF YOUR AGE.  His books are available in the imagination of Robert Lopresti.

17 June 2020

Fancies and Goodnights


The July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine hit the newsstands yesterday (are there still newsstands?) and I am delighted to report that I have a story  in it.  (After I typed that I saw the cover.  Wow!  AHMM has really been on a roll the last few years with great covers.  I am proud to benefit from that again.)

"The Library of Poisonville" is full of literary references, appropriately enough.  The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges' great story "The Library of Babel," which inspired my piece, and also to a work by Dashiell Hammett.  Most of the references are obvious, but I thought I would write about an author who my story only touches on tangentially.

John Collier was born in London in 1901.  He was reading Hans Christian Andersen by age 3.  As a teenager he told his father he wanted to be a poet.  Believe it or not, that was fine with dear old Dad, who never required him to get a job or even go to university.  (His work contains several  odd father-son relationships.)

By age thirty he had switched his emphasis to fiction which gave him the chance to show off his, um, unique imagination.  (In what way unique?  Well, his first novel was entitled His Monkey Wife, or I Married A Chimp.)  His story collection Fancies and Goodnights won both the Edgar Award and the International Fantasy Award.    And how often has one book scored both of those?

My favorite Collier story - which I list among my all-time favorite fifty crime tales - is "Witch's Money." In spite of the title this is no fantasy, but rather a tale of cross-cultural misunderstanding in which the arrival of an American painter in a village in southern France leads, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, to utter destruction.

His writing style tended toward the flowery and sardonic, reminding me of Saki, Roald Dahl, Avram Davidson, and James Powell.  His work has been adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays for the Hitchcock show and movies; most importantly he was part of the team the wrote The African Queen.

Of all of his works the one that has been adapted for other media the most is probably "Evening Primrose," about a poet who rejects society by living what might be the ultimate consumer dream: dwelling secretly in a department store.  It was even turned into a TV musical starring Anthony Perkins, with songs by Stephen Sondheim!

"I sometimes marvel," Collier once wrote, "that a third-rate writer like me has been able to pass himself off as a second-rate writer."

Here are some of my favorite lines from this first-rate writer:

"Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture.  In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code." - Over Insurance

"How happy I might be if only she was less greedy, better tempered, not so addicted to raking up old grudges, more affectionate, with slightly yellower hair, slimmer, and about twenty years younger!  But what is the good of expecting such a woman to reform?" - Three Bears Cottage

Actress and screenwriter: "I think I'd like to play Juliet."
"It's been done."
"Not as I shall do it.  You shall write a new script, especially for me." - Pictures in the Fire

"So Mrs. Beaseley went resentfully along, prepared to endure Hell herself if she could deprive her husband of a little of his Heaven." - Incident on a Lake

"Annoyed with the world, I took a large studio in Hampstead.  Here I resolved to live in utter aloofness, until the world should approach me on its knees, whining it apologies." -Night! Youth! Paris! And the Moon!

"As soon as Einstein declared that space was finite, the price of building sites, both in Heaven and Hell, soared outrageously." -Hell Hath No Fury

"The young man was greatly taken aback to hear a gorilla speak.  However, common sense reminded him that he was in a city in which many creatures enjoyed that faculty, whom, at first sight, or at any hearing, one would hardly credit with sufficient intelligence to have attained it." -Variation on a  Theme

"It is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves."  -Sleeping Beauty

"The first cognac is utilitarian merely.  It is like a beautiful woman who has, however, devoted herself entirely to doing good, to nursing, for example.  Nothing is more admirable, but one would like to meet her sister." - Old Acquaintance

If you have read this far I have an offer for you.  As I said, my reference to Collier's work in "The Library of Poisonville" is obscure, but it should ring clear to any fan of the man.   If someone can tell me which of his stories I referred to - and where - I will send that person an autographed copy of the magazine or something of equally dubious merit.  First responder only!


15 June 2020

Heartbreaks & Half-Truths


by Steve Liskow

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.

03 June 2020

Time Share


I have a story in the June issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, and for that I must thank Barb Goffman, who was my inspiration.  Sort of.

I came up with the idea and the title for the story decades ago but I couldn't see a market for it so I never bothered to write it.  Then, last year, Barb announced that she was going to edit an anthology called Crime Travel, featuring crime-related tales of time travel.

And I realized my old idea fit. Sort of. It was about a physicist who hoped to invent time travel, only to discover that that is impossible - however, it turned out that he could travel through an apparently infinite number of universes.

I asked Barb if that concept might fit in her book, and she said it might.  So I wrote the story.  And Barb rejected it, as she had every right to do.

But heck, I had my story now.  Might as well look for a market.  Mystery Weekly Magazine had published one of my stories last year, a tale with a science fiction bent.  So I sent it to them and voila.  Decades after it was first dreamed up, "In Praise of my Assassin" is available now for your reading pleasure.

It's about time.

29 April 2020

Robbing Victor to Pay Shanks



As I mentioned  here not too long ago, I think one of my writing strengths is premises and one of my weaknesses is plots.  A result of that is a notebook full of ideas which will probably never bloom into short stories.

Several pages of said notebook are devoted to Shanks, the crime-writing character who has appeared in a bunch of my stories.   Years ago I dreamed up this idea: Shank is on a committee trying to restore a Depression-era opera house in his city.  It would be called the World Theatre, which would let me use the title (snicker) "Shanks Saves The World."

I liked it a lot.  Only problem: What would my hero do to get the money for the restoration?

Sort of a big plot gap, right?  And so the story sat in my notebook for years.  But then I had a breakthrough.

I have mentioned before here that I also wrote a series of stories about Uncle Victor.  He is the elderly, eccentric relative of a crime boss.  His nephew reluctantly tolerates him because doing so was the last request of  the previous godfather.  So when Victor decides to become a private eye, nephew Benny pulls strings to get him a license.

Several stories about this odd duck made it into print but then my market for them, Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, went the way of all periodicals and I moved onto other things.

However, I remembered that I had written a story in which an aging music producer hires Victor to hunt down some musicians he cheated and now wants to do right by  The draft was still sitting in my files.

So what if we offer Uncle Victor a well-deserved retirement and send Shanks to the producer instead, asking for a big donation for the theatre where, by a wonderful coincidence, some of the old man's bands used to perform?  And the producer says, to get my money you have to find these musicians I ripped off decades ago...

Suddenly I had a plot.  The result, titled (as you probably guessed) "Shanks Saves The World," is featured in the current (May/June 2020) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  It is my 31st appearance there, and Shanks' tenth.


I am especially glad the story made it into this issue because another Shanks story, a sort of sequel to this one, will coming out this summer in an anthology.  More on that in a later installment.

And speaking of more, if you want to read a completely different essay I wrote about "Shank Saves The World," you will find it at Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.

And I hope you enjoy the story.  Now back to my notebook...

04 April 2020

Creating "Rhonda and Clyde," Issue #5, BCMM





Last month I posted a column here about the writing of one of my recent short stories, "Crow's Nest" (EQMM, Jan/Feb 2020 issue), and during that post I explained that I usually come up with the plot first, then invent the characters, give them a setting to live in, etc. I'm not saying that's the best way to write short stories--I'm just saying that's the way I write short stories.

Not long ago, though, I wrote a story about a pair of modern-day bank robbers called "Rhonda and Clyde," and for this one I made up most the characters first. I had a blurry picture of the plot in my head, but at the beginning it was just a heist-and-pursuit idea with not much detail. Long story short (pun intended), I then wrote the story and sent it to Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and they bought it and published it in their Issue #5, November 2019.

I think the first glimmer of an idea for this story struck me after a re-watching of Bonnie and Clyde. I've always been fascinated with them anyway, and I had recently talked with a journalist friend of mine who'd just returned from visiting the site in northwest Louisiana where the two were ambushed and killed in August 1934. This happened about the same time I was finishing up a story I'd been working on, and since I seem to write these stories like a chain-smoker, as soon as I typed THE END on that previous story I immediately lit up this one.


A character-building experience

I remember first creating my protagonist, who was a woman originally from the south but was now the sheriff at a small town in Wyoming. I wanted her to be strong and level-headed and happy in her job but also a duck-out-of-water, and I wanted her to have a deputy who was also an outsider but who wasn't happy, with either the job or his boss or his location. One of my reasons was that their mild but mutual dislike for each other added a level of conflict to the story before the plot ever really got going. And the more conflict you have in a story, the better. (More on that, later.)

I also came up with a sweet, lonely, and gullible bank teller with the everyday name of Helen Wilson, who gets duped by a married couple named Rhonda and Clyde Felson. Clyde's nickname for Rhonda was Ronnie, which worked well for a pair of lovebirds who robbed banks, and I remember stealing their last name from Fast Eddie Felson, Paul Newman's character in The Hustler. It seemed appropriate. I then added a police dispatcher, a few elderly and Native-American townsfolk, several more bank employees, a motel manager, an old couple on vacation, two state police detectives, and so on. More characters than my stories usually have--and some of the main players, as you might imagine, wound up changing their ways a bit in the course of the tale. I'm not a "literary" writer, but sometimes I try to think like one.

In the weird category, the name of one of my characters came from a highway sign I'd seen as my wife and I drove home from a Bouchercon conference a few years ago. It was one of those big green signs above the interstate--I-85 in this case, heading southwest between Greensboro and Charlotte--announcing the exit for the tiny towns of Spencer and East Spencer, North Carolina. The sign said (and probably still says):


SPENCER
E SPENCER

1 MILE


For some reason I remembered that--my brain works in mysterious ways--and when I needed a quirky name for my bank manager in this story, he became Spencer E. Spencer.


Plot, setting, etc.

Locationwise, the characters started out in North Dakota in my mind, and timewise I wanted it to be winter, which turned out well because the cold weather became a factor in the plot. I soon changed the setting to Wyoming, possibly because I've spent so many hours watching the Longmire TV series. The image I had of Sheriff Marcie Ingalls's office looked amazingly like Sheriff Walt Longmire's, minus a few mounted deer heads. Maybe her decorator watched that show too.

Now that I had the setting nailed down and most of the characters in costume and waiting patiently behind the curtain, I started thinking more about what they were going to do. And once I really got going on the plot itself, that turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I've always found that to be fun, the mechanics of storytelling, the trying to make sure everything flows smoothly and fits together and is satisfying in the end.

I also enjoy plot twists. Some of my favorite short stories, novels, and movies have huge twists and turns, not just at the conclusion but throughout the story. A couple of examples are John Godey's novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and William Goldman's novel Marathon Man. One scene in particular in Pelham (involving a passenger on the subway) and several chapters in Marathon Man (involving the hero's brother) are designed to completely fool the reader and then delight him shortly afterward when the real situation becomes clear. And these happen in the middle of the story. I love that kind of deception. For one thing, it keeps the reader alert and off-balance, wondering when and whether it might happen again.

What most inspired me to try some of that in "Rhonda and Clyde" was a scene in the final act of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I first saw on an IBM trip almost thirty years ago--I even remember the city and the theater. It's the scene where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is going door-to-door seeking information about the case. One of the front doors she knocks on turns out to be that of the serial killer they're all looking for, Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb, but she doesn't know that because nobody knows what he looks like, and when he invites her inside we (the audience) are thinking don't go in don't go in, but she does. Meanwhile, her mentor and his team at the FBI are closing in on the house, and in back-and-forth cuts we see the armed and vested assault team crash through the door and we think they're about to save Clarice. But they find no one home, and only then do we realize that oh my God they're at a different house. Now that's suspense. And it's just one of the reasons Lambs swept the Oscars that year.

I tried to use some of that kind of misdirection in this story, along with some instances of redemption, which I mentioned earlier. It's always satisfying to me as a reader, and a writer, when characters wind up changing, as a result of what happens in the story, their attitudes and the way they look at life.


Info for Otto

One of the nicer things to happen to me this year was being notified that "Rhonda and Clyde" has been selected for inclusion in the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, to be published this fall. As he always does, series editor Otto Penzler asked for a short piece about the story to accompany my bio in the anthology, and part of what I wrote goes along with the how-to-construct-a-story subject I've been discussing here today.

The following will appear in the "Contributors' Notes" section of B.A.M.S. 2020:


If I recall, my first inspiration for "Rhonda and Clyde" came on a bitterly cold day. (We don't have many of those here in the south, thank God.) It probably put me in a Fargo frame of mind, because when I created Wyoming sheriff Marcie Ingalls that morning, the image of the movie character Marge Gunderson sort of jumped into my head, and it stayed there throughout the planning of the story. That choice of a protagonist wasn't surprising; I've always liked stories about strong and smart women in law enforcement, and the way their colleagues (and the criminals) often make the mistake of underestimating them.

I also remember wanting to (1) give her a deputy she didn't particularly like and (2) make the villains a husband-wife team, maybe because I especially enjoy writing dialogue and I knew both those partnerships would give me a lot of opportunity for that. This line of thinking was a bit different for me, because I usually start with the plot and only then come up with the characters. In this case I created my players first and then dreamed up something for them to do, with some twists and reversals along the way. Anyhow, once I had all that in mind, I sat down and wrote the story in a couple of days' time--and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Maybe an occasional cold snap isn't a bad thing . . .




The truth is, if the elements of fiction--plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, setting--are all in place and effective in a story, it doesn't much matter how they got there. All of us approach the planning and writing of a story in different ways, and whatever works, works. This is just how it happened this time.

How do you do it? Plot first? Characters first? Setting first? Theme first? A mix of several of these? Do you always do it the same way, or vary from time to time? What's been most successful for you?


In closing, I want to again express my thanks to John Betancourt and Carla Coupe at Black Cat M.M. for accepting and publishing this particular story and to Otto Penzler and C. J. Box for choosing it for inclusion in the 2020 edition of B.A.M.S. It's always gratifying to see something that you've written show up in magazines and anthologies that you respect and admire.


Best to all of you, writers and readers alike. Stay safe!

14 March 2020

How It All Happened For Me


After work and dinner one night, I sat down in my bedroom, door closed, and wrote in longhand for one hour on a novel I’d begun years earlier. Several months later, when I wrote “the end,” it came out to 105,000 words. I transcribed it onto a computer, and then did nothing for a couple of years.

Finally, I decided to try writing some more, this time directly onto the computer. I also decided to write short stories because they were short. And for me, a lot easier and more fun to write. I also thought it would be a good way to try out different types of stories, using male protagonists as well as female, occasionally even stepping away from mystery to write a speculative story, or even something “literary.”

The local newspaper had a short story contest—1,000 words. I wrote one, submitted it, and didn’t win first place, but was one of four other authors out of fifty submissions who won a dinner at a fancy local restaurant. To say I was surprised and pumped is a huge understatement.

Next I decided to look for a critique group. I ended up joining two. One had three short story published writers who had all attended a community college class together and then started the group. I ate up all their knowledge about point of view, adverbs, other good advice, and specific thoughts about my stories.

I ended up placing a few of my stories, all work-shopped by either or both of the groups, and started on another novel. That also went through one of the groups, and within eight years, I had many short stories and three novels written.

I tried getting an agent for each of the novels. No luck. Then my husband retired, and we hit the road in a motorhome to travel to the United States lower 48. In eleven years, we hit all but four.

And I hardly wrote at all.

But in 2004, I decided to submit one of my novels to a new, small publisher. Several people I knew had signed with the press and were raving about it. I was given a contract for three novels. They first published Sara’s Search on time and with a cover I loved.

Sara's Search
When the month of June came around to publish the second novel, though, it didn’t happen. Several months went by. Promises were made to publish it in October. It had a cover (I didn’t love it as much as the first one, though), it had been edited, and the galleys had been proofed. Christmas came and went, and all of January. I found out that several other writers with the same publisher were having problems. Royalty checks stopped. The publisher no longer answered phone calls or emails.

We all, about fifty of us, became quite concerned. And unfortunately, as a group, we decided to pull our books and ask for the rights back to those already published. Of course, the publisher’s reputation was ruined, but he did the right thing and gave us the rights back, and even gave me the rights to the cover for Sara. All but one author left, sadder but wiser.

Some writers went with other small presses, and several had bad luck with them, as well. I wrote some more novels. I sent them to NY agents. Nothing happened. I was reluctant to try another small publisher. (Another one, WriteWay, had shown interest in another of my books before I placed Sara’s Search, but they went bankrupt before any contracts were signed, so I was leery—authors there, as far as I know, never got their rights back. If they ever did, it took years.) By this time, I had the one published novel and over fifty short stories as publication credits. Didn’t matter.

Revelations
Then something unexpected happened. Electronic books, thanks to Amazon, started to become popular. Writers who had no luck with NY publishing decided to strike out on their own and get their books up for ebook readers. This was not too difficult to do. I watched and waited. I saw that some readers were unhappy with the books coming out because they were poorly written, had glaring spelling and grammar mistakes, and were badly formatted. I also noticed that many of the covers did not look very professional, and many were too dark to be able to read the title and/or authors’ names on the tiny thumbnails used online. So I decided to hire a professional cover artist, and between us, this is what we came up with:

I still like it. Next, the authors I read about who were successful hired professional editors and proofreaders to go over their manuscripts. And finally, if they couldn’t do a good job themselves, they hired yet a third person to format the work for them.

Someday I may change the cover for Sara’s Search because it’s too dark to show up well in a thumbnail. I also want a new paperback version, so that would need to have a back cover

Now I have eleven novels published and over seventy short stories (only one of those self-published). Beginning is the hardest part. After that, persistence and patience will do the job.


And that’s how it all started. I’m open to questions, and if they’d need a long-enough answer, that could become another blog post. So, ask away.

My website: www.janchristensen.com and find me on Facebook: https://bit.ly/2QfNNIr

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.

07 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner, Part Two


I published the first half of this story on Wednesday.   Better start there or you won't have any idea what's going on.

Here is the big finale...


The widow agreed to talk to them, against Wyngood’s adamant objections, but she insisted that Forillo had to be present too.

“There must be some mistake.”

“You figure this was somebody else’s death card that your husband just happened to tuck into his safe? Have you and Mr. Forillo killed other people?”

“No! But Arthur told me—“

“Did you ever see his death card?’

“No, but—“

“Did you, Mr. Forillo?”

The assistant shook his head. He hadn’t said a word since the safe had opened.

“But you knew he was supposed to died in a fall,” said Staney.

“That’s what he told us.”

“And where were you when your employer died?”

“We already told you. Ms. Duplessis and I were in one of the anterooms on the other side of the hall, finishing the paperwork.”

“That’s what you said,” agreed Merritt. “Funny thing is the techs didn’t find any sheets of paper in that room. They did find a bed sheet in the closet. Apparently it had been on the couch and there were bodily fluids on it. We’ve got a court order to see if the fluids belonged to you and Ms. Duplessis.”

‘They did,” said Forillo.

“Ed,” said the widow, alarmed.

“We’re in love,” he said. “Her husband was a viscious old bastard, but we didn’t kill him.”

Wyngood said “If they were together there they obviously didn’t push someone down the staircase.”

“I don’t know how long they were spreading fluids,” said Merritt, “but we have a twenty minute hole for Mr. Duplessis to die. That’s plenty of time. Plus, Mr. Forillo found the body.”

“Speaking of fluids,” said Staney, “have you two used the death machine?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the lawyer.

“We’ve already got a court order for blood, counselor. The courts say we can run it through the death-box.”

“Diabetes,” said Forillo, still blank-faced.

“Breast cancer,” said Ms. Duplessis. “Are you happy now?’

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” said Staney. “But the question remains: If you didn’t kill him, how did your names get on that card?”

“Oh god,” said the widow. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t you see what happened?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Arthur must have found out that we were having an affair. He killed himself out of jealousy. That’s what the death card meant.”

“That makes sense,” said Wyngood. “The machine meant he killed himself because of Talia and Sam.”

“Nice try,” said Merritt. “The problem is juries don’t like complicated stories. If the machine says shot by your uncle the jury is going to assume your Uncle Mike came with a gun, not that Uncle Sam came with a tank.”

“That makes no sense,” said Wyngood.

“Then try this. You’re both under arrest.”



“Machine-gunned by rebels.” Merritt was driving.

“No.”


“Sex with beautiful twins on your ninetieth birthday.”

“That’s it.”

“Hah. You wish. Drowned in a butt of malmsey.”


“A what of what?”

“Barrel of cheap wine. Some English king killed an enemy that way. Katy’s studying Shakespeare.”

“Smart kid. She must take after her mama.”

“Thank God for that.” Merritt pulled into a parking space.

Staney tapped his fingers on the plastic envelope that held the death card. “Give me a couple of minutes. I want to drop this at the lab.”


They decided to let Talia and Ed, as they called them now, stew in separate rooms at the station. After two hours they decided it was time.

“Divide and conquer,” said Merritt. “I’ll take the stud.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Staney and entered the widow’s room.

She looked like hell. Her eyes were red, her face was grim. “I’m not saying a word until Charlotte gets back. She’s arranging bail.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Duplessis. I don’t have a single question for you. I just want to tell you what’s going on. Detective Merritt is in the next room talking to your lover, who has not reached a lawyer yet. Merritt will tell him that there are two ways this can go. Either the jury is going to hear about the poor abused wife who was seduced by her husband’s evil assistant--”

“That’s not true!”

“Let me finish. The other choice is that the jury will hear that the black widow talked the innocent young man into killing her hubby.”

He shrugged. “Whoever confesses first frames the story and gets the best deal. My partner is telling your partner that Ms. Wyngood will convince you to sell him out before his lawyer finds the precinct house.”

Talia banged her hands flat on the table. “But we didn’t do anything!

“The death machine says you did and no one has proved one wrong yet.”

“Ed is not going to betray me. I have faith in him.”

“The real question,” said Staney, “is whether he has faith in you.”



Wyngood came back, swearing about the evil incompetence of judges, none of whom apparently saw the wisdom of holding emergency bail hearings for wealthy murder suspects. The lovers were still holding out an hour later when the detectives stopped for a coffee break. Staney had just had a first sip when his phone buzzed. He read the ID and looked at his partner. “Back in a few.”

He hurried to the crime lab where Roma, the questioned document man, was waiting for him.

“Why this one?” Roma held up the envelope with the death card. “You see hundreds of these things a year. Why did you send this one to me?”

“First tell me what you found.”

Roma shrugged. “Card stock is one hundred percent legit. Ditto the ink and font.”

Staney scowled. “So it’s real.”

“Not so fast. It’s time to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

“Who’s he? A coroner?”

“Nope. He was an English dude who wrote dictionaries hundreds of years ago. But he also reviewed a book – not a dictionary – and he said ‘this is a good and original book, but the good parts are not original, and the original parts—”

“Are not good. I get it. But what does that have to do with the death card?”

Roma brandished the item again. “The card stock is used by all the Cassandroid machines. The ink and font are standard for the Mortellis Corporation.”

“So they shouldn’t be on the same card.”

“Bingo. This is the first serious forgery of a death card I ever saw. It took someone with access to good equipment.”

“How about a publisher who also owns art galleries?”

“Jackpot.”



“About time you got back,” said Merritt. “Forillo’s lawyer says he’s ready to cop a deal. You’ll never guess, but it turns out it was the widow’s idea and he was practically an innocent bystander.”

“No deal on the deal,” said Staney. “Get him into Conference Room C. I’ll fetch the ladies.”

The widow was crying and her lawyer looked ready to commit grievous bodily harm on somebody.

“Your partner was just in here, gloating,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of lie you talked Mr. Torillo into—“

“Ms. Duplessis can walk out of here with a clean slate in half an hour,” said Staney. “Or you can lecture me. What’s your pleasure?”



Room C had a long table, but it wasn’t long enough for the former lovers, who wanted nothing to do with each other. They sat at opposite ends, refusing to look in each other’s directions.

Wyngood and Forillo’s lawyer – fresh from the bar exam, by the look of him – were at their clients’ sides. Merritt sat between like a referee.

Staney stood. “You were right about one thing, Ms. Duplessis. Your husband somehow discovered you two were having an affair. He decided to kill himself.”

“Out of jealousy?” asked Merritt.

“I imagine that was the last straw. Did you know he had MS?”

Talia’s eyes went wide. “The doctor’s office called once about a test for MS. He said it was a mistake.”

“We can check his medical records, but I think we’ll find that he did. He knew it wouldn’t kill him – I’m guessing his death card really did say he would die in a fall – but out of a desire for vengeance, he decided to frame you two for murder.”

“Actually,” said Ed, “I’m surprised the old bastard didn’t try to kill us.”

Staney shook his head. “Breast cancer. Diabetes. Remember? He already knew how you were going to die.

“So he printed a false death card and killed himself where there would be plenty of people to notice that you two were conspicuously absent. I’m guessing he waited until he saw you sneak off to your hideaway. Then he headed for the staircase.”

“What about the blow to the head?” asked Merritt.

“Did it himself with his cane. One blow, hard enough to draw blood. Takes determination but he had enough hate in his heart for it, don't you think? Then the tumble down the stairs, which he had every reason to believe would be fatal.”

“So that’s it?” said Wyngood. “They’re free to go?”

“With thanks for their cooperation.”

Ed stood up, moving toward the widow, arms outstretched.

Talia stepped back like had had rabies. “Don’t come near me, you – you – backstabber! You were ready to perjure me into prison!”

Ed stammered something. It didn’t do any good.

“Listen,” said Staney. “Listen!”

Everyone turned to him,

“Mr. Duplessis’s last wish was that you two would be miserable for the rest of your lives. Are you going to going to give him the satisfaction?”

Talia turned to Ed, who was ready and waiting.

“Guess not,” said Merritt.



“What made you think it was a frame?” Merritt asked. They were at their computers, closing up files.

“A matter of character, I guess. We were supposed to think Duplessis knew his wife and assistant were going to kill him, but that he didn’t tell them, or try to do anything about it.” Staney frowned. “From what we knew about the guy, I didn’t think he would go that route. Frankly, I don’t think most people could. I mean, knowing someone close to them was going to be the cause of their death and going on like nothing was wrong? That’s got to be hard as hell.”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t sound so difficult.”

“When was the last time you went to a domestic disturbance?”

“Okay, you’ve got a point. I admit that was a good piece of detective work. Just don’t get a swelled head over it. Hey! There’s your cause. Swelled head.”

“No.”

“Nibbled to death by ducks.”

“Seems like it sometimes.”

26 January 2020

Record Keeping



Two weeks ago, Travis posted his spreadsheet method for keeping track of his writing and his submissions. I can see how his method works for him.

My system developed gradually as I saw the need to record certain information, therefore it became a conglomeration of Word documents. But then, authors go about their writing differently, so maybe authors keep their writing records differently. In any case, here's a brief look at my system.

Naturally, I have a Bibliography document. This allows me to at least consider myself as a semi-successful, short-fiction author on the commercial side of writing and serves to collect some handy-to-have statistics. And yes, there are some duplicate entries from one document to another.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
R.T. Lawton
(as of 01/17/2020)

11/1976   1 "Dead End Alley" Easyriders Magazine ($250) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman] 
                 NOTE: DEA agents weren't allowed 2nd occupations, thus the double alias.

05/1977  2 "...to ashes,...to dust" Easyriders magazine ($225) [aka Pockets/ R.E. Silverman]

10/1984  3 "Jeffrey" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

12/1984  4 "Peer Pressure" Time Out & Recess [aka Arthur Twillinger/R.T.]

NOTE: Yes, I did write 22 children's stories for two different state-wide elementary school newspapers at the same time as writing three biker stories, but I had to be careful writing on two different levels simultaneously because there are some words bikers don't understand.

*   *   *  skip to end of document  *   *   *

09/14/19 9 Holiday Burglars, KDP Paperback (all stories previously published in AHMM

09/22/19 31 Mini-Mysteries, KDP Paperback (31 mini's, plus 1 previously unpublished "And the
               Band Played On" as a bonus story.

11/01/19 137 "A Loaf of Bread" #7 PU 40 AHMM ($370)

12/01/19 138 "The Job Interview" Mystery Weekly ($35.86 minus $1.88 fee)

Bought, but not yet scheduled:  "Reckoning with your Host" #6 SA 41 AHMM ($360) + "A Matter of Values" 42 AHMM ($430) + "A Helping Hand" #8 PU 43 AHMM ($410) + "The Road to Hana" 44 AHMM ($340) + "Gnawing at the Cat's Tail" #7 SA 45 AHMM ($340)

a total of 143 published short stories
(and below this line is a list we'll skip of published writings in other categories, such as cowboy poems, articles, etc., plus a compilation of short story statistics.)

Some of the number codes above are easy to figure out, some aren't.  For instance, "A Loaf of Bread" is the 137th published short story, the 7th in my Paris Underworld series and the 40th story bought by Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The next document is my SUBMISSION LOG kept in 4 year increments. It keeps track of when and where a story was submitted, what happened to it, when the contract and check came and when the story got published. This document lets me know how long some processes take and if something is overdue. Here are some samples of entries:

10/01/19  "The Job Interview"                                         Mystery Weekly
  10/02/19  e-mail acceptance, signed e-contract
  10/03/19  payment via PayPal
  12/01/19  published
11/12/19  "The Release Factor" #8 SA                             AHMM # 903457

01/17/19  "The 14K Assassin" #9 SA                               AHMM # 994625

Any time there is a blank space between the lines above, that means there is pending action and my eyes are quickly drawn there.

Lastly, there is an UNSOLD STORY TRACKER where I can tell at a glance which stories are still in inventory and who rejected them. Here's a short example:

WAS: "Taking Down the Room"                                        AHMM, EQMM
WAS: "Slipping into Darkness" (long version)                   MWA anthology
WAS: "Down in Jersey"                                                      Deadly Ink
SOLD: "Slipping into Darkness" 750 word flash sold to  Flash Bang Magazine

WAS: "Mom's Day"                                                            AHMM
NOW: "Mum's Day"                                                           Weekly News

"The Queen"                                                                       Blue Cubicle Press (casino issue)

If an anthology or other call for submissions comes out with a short deadline, I can refer to the above document and instantly know if a story languishing in inventory has the right ingredients for their writer's guidelines.

Those three record-keeping documents are the main ones I'm concerned with. However, I do have a tendency to make lists and also keep various writing statistics. For instance, a list I'll skip showing here is my AHMM stories sold, how much was paid for each one (with a running total) and the word count in each story (with a running total). I only made this list up in order to use the stats as a means to argue my point of view in a blog article I wrote a couple of years ago about short stories vs. novels.

So, there it is. I'm open to any and all ideas. It may not be a glamorous side to writing, but how do you keep your writing records?

24 January 2020

Ten Pin Alley


Riley Fox
Riley Fox
Riley Fox is my oldest grandchild. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  He's been writing or telling little fiction stories ever since he was five years old. For past ten years he has done stand-up comedy writing his own jokes. This is his first fiction story to be published.     — Jan Grape


TEN PIN ALLEY
by Riley Fox

There’s something about the smell of a bowling alley that is hard to define. From the coat of mineral oil on the wooden lanes, to the inescapable presence of cigarette smoke that clings to the brick walls like a memory that refuses to leave you alone in the dead of night, to whatever it is they spray into the insides of those cheap rental shoes that always seem to be too big and too small at the exact same time, it’s a smell that you can only identify in fragments. But that’s exactly what Earl loves about it. Sometimes you can only appreciate a full image by its parts.

Earl has owned this bowling alley for so long that many frequent visitors greet him by name. Even the ones who don’t know his name recognize his ever-present smile peeking from beneath his thick white mustache and his piercing blue eyes that seem to see into your heart without seeing through it. He asks them about their days, their families, their lives, and he remembers the details. He delights in their successes and commiserates in their failures, and usually throws in a free game or, depending on the circumstances, a free alcoholic beverage to long-time regulars. He never sees them beyond the bowling alley, so they are the closest thing to friends he has, but he doesn’t mind. He’s happy to have the repeat business.

Each night, when the hour strikes eleven, Earl switches off the neon sign outside, and after escorting the night’s final patrons to the exit, he locks the doors, goes behind the bar to pour himself a glass of Coors Light, plays the Hotel California album by The Eagles on the jukebox, and opens a lane to roll a single solitary game. Some nights go better than others, but he doesn’t think nor care about the score. Instead, Earl uses the nightly ritual to meditate and reflect, to wander and get lost within the vastness of a mind that has vicariously lived hundreds of lives in a single day. The bright crackle of pins being knocked around by a speeding ball is an intoxicating sound, itself a repetitive rhythm that soothes the soul and ignites the synapses to look into the past, present, and future. Some nights he imagines the ball rolling on forever until it becomes the size of a speck of dust and then disappears into nothingness. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see.

After the last roll of his game, Earl waits for the ball-return machine to spit his bowling ball out to him so he can return it to the nearby shelf of in-house balls. Bowling balls are identical in size, but vary in weight. For casual players, this simply means finding the weight you are most comfortable rolling. However, for more experienced players, this can create strategic opportunities: a lighter ball can be spun faster and create a wider-angle trajectory for picking up tricky spares, while a heavier ball creates a more powerful impact to increase the likelihood of a strike. As Earl has gotten older, his preferred weight has dwindled slightly– he currently uses an eleven-pound ball as opposed to the fourteen-pounder he rolled in his younger years– but he still likes a simplistic approach: feet lined up along the center boards (the thin lined rows along the lane), throw it down the middle, between the center head pin and the pin to its right, which seasoned bowlers refer to as “the pocket,” and try to strike. Then, if any pins remain standing, adjust to the left or right along the boards, and angle the throw however necessary in order to attempt the spare. Earl never bowled at a competitive level himself, but after spending so many years watching others, he learned a few things along the way. If he saw someone successfully pick up one of the more difficult spare arrangements, such as a 6-7-10 split, he might pick their brain for a tip.

After placing his ball back on the shelf, Earl sat at a laneside chair and finished drinking his beer as the warm sound of The Eagles continued to fill the room. When the final song concluded, he unplugged the jukebox, performed one final sweep around the alley to turn off all the mechanical machinery that makes a bowling alley operate, turned out the lights, and headed for the exit. Looking out into the parking lot, he saw a handful of vehicles scattered across the moonlit pavement. The air was thick and still. Even though he was the last one to leave, oftentimes visitors left their cars overnight, particularly if they had had too many alcoholic beverages and called a cab home, and later returned to retrieve them the following day. Earl never minded this; he was certainly much happier to allow these vehicles to remain parked in order to prevent someone from driving when they shouldn’t.

Because he remembered what happened that night.

He remembered the glint of shattered glass on the highway beneath the stars. He remembered the grim taste of blood in his mouth. He remembered the overbearing stench of burnt rubber. He remembered the way time itself seemed to slow to a harrowing crawl; every second seemed like a minute, and every hour seemed infinite. He remembered the cacophonous anti-symphony of wailing sirens and shrieks. He remembered not remembering what happened next. He remembered waking up in a bed that wasn’t his own, surrounded by people he didn’t recognize. He remembered a man in a suit standing at the foot of the bed, speaking words that blurred together, a violent collection of syllables twisting into each other until three slashed their way to the forefront.

Manslaughter.

The word sliced through every cell in his body. The man in the suit dryly and methodically recounted the sequence of events, as though he were giving a presentation. Earl did the best he could to keep up despite his disoriented state: torrential rain, low visibility, hydroplaned, lost control, careened into oncoming traffic, female high school student, graduation party, flipped into a roadside ditch, died instantaneously upon impact. Infinity is only bound by the limits of how far one chooses to see, and he had robbed someone of making that choice for themselves. The man in the suit said something about justice for the family. Earl looked at the couple holding each other next to him. They were sobbing. Earl cried with them.

The trial was mercifully swift. Earl pleaded guilty. The girl’s parents asked the judge for moderate leniency on Earl’s sentence, citing the fact that Earl had no prior criminal record, and that living with the guilt of his actions--which he had already begun to experience when he grieved with them in the hospital--would be punishment enough. Earl testified that, while he was grateful for the parents’ kindness and compassion, he felt he did not deserve it due to the nature of the crime he had committed, and asked the judge not to grant any measure of leniency, for he believed that the only thing the family truly deserved was something that was impossible, and therefore anything less than the maximum sentence would still come up short of what he considered to be justice for the family. The judge handed down his sentence: four years in prison, half of the maximum federal sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

Earl’s incarceration was a lonely time. When he slept, he dreamed haunting tales of isolation. When he was conscious, he would read books from the prison library, or he would simply lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling. He thought about the girl. He thought about her parents. He thought about that night. He replayed the details over and over until he made himself sick and vomited into his toilet. He wanted to rewrite her history. Scratch that, he wanted her to live out the rest of her story. His was over anyway.

On the one-year anniversary of the day he entered prison, Earl received a letter in the mail. His first piece of mail since being incarcerated. He looked at the envelope. The return address was from his town, but he didn’t recognize it. Maybe it was from an attorney about his case, or a relative who had heard about what happened. Earl carefully opened the envelope, treating it like some kind of rare gemstone. Inside was a letter addressed to him. Before finishing the opening line, he began to cry. It was from the girl’s parents. His heart flayed open and his soul crawled through the incision, not like someone trying to escape but like an infant emerging triumphantly from a pile of rubble, fully aware of its surroundings and yet without the communicative tools to express itself effectively. He pored over each word, each line, with the studious eye of an academic, while letting every emotion underneath fight its way to the surface.

He learned about the girl, at least as much as the parents were willing to share to the man who stole her from their lives. He learned about her sociopolitical interests (criminal justice reform, the environment, gun safety), her hobbies (binging Netflix shows with her friends, fashion blogging), her favorite authors (Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin), her dreams (she had planned on attending the University of Oregon that fall with the intent to major in journalism, but wanted to wait a year or two before committing). Each new detail was another stroke of paint on a blank canvas, and after finishing the letter, Earl wanted to expand the palette of colors. He wrote back to the parents. He thanked them for being kind enough to write to him, explaining that their letter was the first communication he’d had with the outside world in a year. He asked them to write back, to share more about their wonderful daughter, because he wanted to use the remainder of his life to honor her in whatever way he could. He wanted to lift her into Infinity’s grace, so she could see the precious gifts that lie beyond the limits of space.

For months, Earl heard nothing. Each day the prison guard tasked with handing out mail would pass by his cell without acknowledgement, and Earl would spend each night silently begging the girl for forgiveness, for just a modicum of compassion. He looked out the window of his cell at the sparkling dots of the distant city, each one twinkling at its own tempo. He often wondered if one of them belonged to the home of the girl’s parents. He imagined them attempting to have a meal together, only for it to be derailed when one of them broke down in tears. He often wished he could be there for those moments, in order to comfort them, to hold them tight and tell them he was sorry, that sorry would never fill the permanent void in their hearts, that he shared their feelings of loss, that he hated himself as much as they did, even if they never dared to admit it, because they didn’t want to desecrate her memory with vengeful rage, even if it was a natural part of the grieving process, to feel the impulse to wrap their hands around his throat, to become a self-appointed god of revenge, to hear the croaking struggles of his desperate final breath, to see his eyes become vacant and lifeless, in acceptance of a fate so violent, so primal, knowing he deserved to choke on his own benevolence, such that were he to ask for mercy, he would know the true answer. Every night, he wished for this. And every night, his yearning desires went unanswered, and he would cry himself to sleep. So often the pain of not knowing hurts worse, because there’s no bone to stop the questioning blade from slicing deeper, until your body has become a pile of shredded ribbons where you once stood.

A few weeks before Earl was scheduled to be released from prison, the answer he begged the endless sky for arrived. Another letter had come for him, this time with no return address. The envelope was much thinner than the one he had received previously, but he didn’t care. He ripped it open with the same ferocity of a child on their birthday, eager to caress the contents between his fingers but careful not to damage them in the process. Inside was a single piece of paper. It was another note from the parents. They wished him luck with the rest of his life, and asked that he refrain from ever contacting them upon being granted his freedom out of respect for their privacy. Then they reiterated their hope that he would use his remaining days to honor their daughter, like Earl himself had pledged. Unlike the first letter, however, this one ended differently. The first letter had been signed with two names: those of the two parents. This one had a third name added to the signature line.

Sadie.

He read the name over and over. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. Sadie. It rattled around his brain until it hurt. He certainly thought it was a prettier name than his own. For a name without any hard consonants, Earl had a guttural inflection to it that he often likened to human vomit (it didn’t help that his name rhymes with hurl). The name Sadie was soft and delicate, like a rose petal floating gently towards the ground long after the flower itself crashed with a bursting thud. He wanted to keep her name suspended in midair, between the chasm of life and death, where all things can exist forever in Infinity, from the blackest days to the brightest nights, with the dazzling vibrancy of colors, the sonic clarity of sounds, and the neverending collage of the grand tapestry of the universe.

Back in the present, as Earl approached his vehicle in the bowling alley parking lot, he gazed up at the stars as they danced in the moonlight. He turned to take one final look at the pink-and-yellow neon sign in front of the building– which read: Sadie’s Ten Pin Alley--muttered a prayer to himself, and drove into the night as the sign illuminated her spirit into the sky.


25 November 2019

Recycling


by Steve Liskow

One of the first short stories I wrote fifteen years ago featured Maxwell and Lowe, the Detroit homicide detectives who played supporting roles in the still unsold "Woody" Guthrie series. They investigated the death of a wealthy banker who died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. I called the story "Walking After Midnight," a Patsy Cline song. Several markets rejected it and I kept writing more stories because I was teaching myself to write short stories by...wait for it...writing short stories.

I sent out many other stories that got rejected, too, but eventually I sold enough to become an active member of MWA. In 2010, MWA called for submissions on a theme that "Walking" seemed to fit. I expanded it to make the theme more explicit and changed the title. It still didn't sell, so I cut some of that new thematic detail, changed the title again, and kept sending it out. The shot of my spreadsheet tells the story.

By the time the story sold, I had sold seven or eight other ones and was working on my sixth self-published novel. As "Dead Man's Hand," all that remained was the original premise, a blind man who still has a pistol permit and appears to shoot himself to death. I replaced Max and Lowe with different cops, and the POV shifted from the police to the son of the dead man, who didn't even exist in the first version.

Four other stories I sold in that period also changed titles. Two of them changed almost everything else, too. "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009 as a 16,000-word novella, earned seven rejections as a 6700-word short story.

As I write this, eight of my 25 sold stories exist in at least two very different drafts. Sometimes I've cut them, but I usually change the characters or plot to make them better. My premise has only changed in one story, and that story still hasn't sold.

Last week, "Two Good Hands" appeared in Tough, and that story is unique. I added about 100 words after the first rejection because I decided the ending was too abrupt, but the other eleven rejections came with no other changes. I have a story knocking on doors now that is the only story I've never altered even though I'm running out of markets for it. That should tell me something, shouldn't it?

Where do all these versions live? I have a flash drive with a folder called "Stories, Unsold," and it has 34 drafts of 21 stories. They date back to 2004, and some of them are pretty awful, but I never throw anything away. One story exists in four different versions under two different titles.

That same flash drive has notes and outlines and early versions of several unsold novels. Blood On The Tracks earned 112 rejections between late 2003 and 2011. It went out as Death Sound Blues, Killing Me Softly (With His Song), The Cheater, and Alma Murder. The titles alone show how much it evolved. The first version was set in 1991, at Guthrie's 25th high school reunion. All that remains of that version is Megan Traine's name (Guthrie is the PI's fourth name, and he was a journalist in the first take) and the dead singer. That singer even went away in The Cheater and Alma Murder, which teetered dangerously close to Lifetime TV. I resurrected (?) the dead singer when I self-published the book in 2013.

My point is pretty simple. Never throw away ANYTHING. Someday, you will be able to  use the description of an intriguing place, a good line of dialogue, or a character you abandoned years ago. You will recognize that fact because now you've learned to write better and use stuff more effectively.

That flash drive still contains a gunfight I wrote in 2004 for a Woody Guthrie story that was never going to work. It also involved Blue Song Riley's boyfriend, and he never got to first base either. I recycled the idea and the mindset of that gunfight into Words of Love, the fifth Guthrie novel, which came out last week, too. (Last week was a good week.)

Postcards of the Hanging, published in 2014, had 44 rejections under that title, its fourth. I wrote  the first draft of my first novel in the early 1970s. Between then and 1982, it went out under three different titles with increasingly complex characters and subplots. Along the way, I learned how to write a bad novel more quickly and fix it later. The third version became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in 1980, and that version is about 95% of what eventually saw print. I changed from chronological order to  flashbacks to make the book open with more energy. I also added about 12 pages of prologue and epilogue so agents understood that the book was NOT really a YA novel even though the main characters were in high school.

Six unsold novels. 34 drafts of 21 stories.

And people still ask me, "Where do you get your ideas?"