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

03 April 2022

Tattwo Parley


In 2005, a Chicago man opted for a tattoo to honor his home city. It was a great tat with ornate lettering. He went for it, Chi-town. Except when he returned home, he discovered it read Chi-Tonw.

Chi-Tonw

Oops. He sued the tattoo business, but since he’d signed off on the template (made with antique transparency machines!), some sort of settlement was reached. Curiously, it started a fad with other Chicagoans getting their own Chi-Tonw art.

Me, I think bare skin is beautiful, but I may be an exception. I knew a guy who had trouble paying his rent, but he estimated he’d paid out $20,000 for his skin art. He claimed it was an investment.

You might think a tattoo would be something to proofread twice over, but alas, spelling seems to be that last thought, not the first. Chinese lettering is especially troublesome where a single stroke can completely change a meaning. Just because your artist might look Asian, it doesn’t necessarily imply he knows Chinese. Apparently the following means ‘hooker’.

Prostitute

The following guy preempted questions with the wording: “I don’t know. I don’t speak Chinese.”

Undecorated: I don’t know. I don’t speak Chinese. Decorated: I don’t know. I don’t speak Chinese.
“I don’t know. I don’t speak Chinese.” Fully decorated. © NextShark

As Ray Bradbury demonstrated, everyone has a story. Unfortunately, many students weren’t paying attention in Mrs. Henshaw’s English class. In the following, the contraction you’re seems especially troubling.

Your blood, Mrs. Henshaw’s tears.

Know Your Alive

When in doubt, double down.

The Cards Your Delt

Aww…

I'm Awsome!

And sometimes we make the wrong Choises.

Life is a Choise

That's no excuse.

Everyone Elese Does

I'm soooo jalous of the punctuation.

Are You Jalous&

God and Mrs. Henshaw

ONly God Will Juge Me

Except lack of a spell-checker.

Regret Nohing

Stating the Obvious.

Somke Weed

Revolutionary 101, it's Systsemic.

ƒ the Systsem

As the James Bond franchise wore on…

Tomarrow Never Knows

Now that's just sad.

Tradgey • Comedy

Uh, okay, I get it. I'm outta here.

Your Next
neutered male symbol, male with bar through it

But wait, there’s more.

While researching, I came across a charming story about a guy who’d adopted a rescue dog from a pound. The dog had been tattooed, and the new owner felt badly for it. In solidarity with his new pet, he had the same tattoo burned into his skin. Aww, sweet!

Normally the story would end there, but the innocent owner hadn’t checked out the meaning of the tattoo.
It meant ‘neutered’.

Unless otherwise noted, pictures © Sverige2

21 April 2021

The Devil You Don't Know


So you want to write a short story, but you can't think of an idea.  Is that what's troubling you today, Bunkie? 

I have a suggestion.  Specifically, here's a writing exercise that might help you out.

I assume you read a lot of short stories.  (If you aren't reading what you want to write you are doing it wrong.)

So, the next time you are really enjoying a story, stop reading halfway through.

Painful?  You need to know what happens!  How does it end?

Good question.  So sit with it a while.  What happens next?  Is there a twist?  Does the protagonist get what she wants?  Work it out in your head.  Maybe write a paragraph or two.

Once you have decided how the plot is going to turn out, go ahead and finish reading the story.  Did you guess the ending?  If so, bravo to you for your discernment.

But if you guessed wrong - congratulations!  Now you have a story idea.

I'm not suggesting you should copy the first half of the original.  There's a name for that and it rhymes with "majorism."

But you can build on the original idea and take it in a new direction.


For example: Mensje van Keulen wrote a story called "Devil's Island," which appeared in Amsterdam Noir.  The narrator's friend can't get over his break-up with a girlfriend.  One evening in a nightclub he says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me.  And then a stranger arrives, asking for a light for his cigarette...

It's a fine story and made my best of the year  list.  But the key thing is that I thought I knew how it would end.   Turned out I was wrong.

But just because van Keulen didn't use the ending I dreamed up didn't mean it was not worth using.  So I wrote a story about an actor, sitting in a nightclub and complaining that an upcoming movie has a part that would be perfect for him, but he can't even get a try out.  "I'd sell my soul for a chance," he declares.

And up pops a helpful stranger.  "Call me Nick…"

My story, "The Fourth Circle," is in the current, May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Here's another example, which I wrote about here last year. Janice Law wrote a story called "The General," about a deposed dictator who fears he is losing the love of his son. 

I guessed wrong as to where Janice was leading and that gave me the idea for "Worse Than Death," about a dictator very much in power, whose son is kidnapped.  

You get the idea.  Will the exercise work for you?  Beats me.  If you try it, let me know.


01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

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

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

Why?

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

14 February 2021

The Pandemic: Babies and Stories


With so much time together with our lovers, many expected a pandemic baby boom, but it is looking more like a bust.

I get it.

My writing fantasy is to have stories - the ones that reveal the places we live and breathe, the dark places, the places of joy - and also the time to write them. 

I now have the time but the onslaught of stories is just too much. The edits on my book are not a boom but a bust. A total bust.

Normally, when I work I shut out the world. Ignore it. However, this is a time in history when absorbing what is going on in the world is needed.

When I sit down to write, my head swirls from the page outward. Perhaps my characters are talking on the phone - I think of all the people isolated by #COVID19 who can only talk to those they love by phone. When my characters sit for coffee, I think of all the lonely people unable to gather and the small coffee shops struggling to survive in this pandemic.

Then there are the elderly in long term care homes, isolated and at times suffering with dementia - how do they make sense of the long days when no familiar faces come? Do they forget them? Do they remember them in their dreams?

The children who once rushed up to playgrounds to do what we have forgotten to do - play with abandon with children they have just met. Now, they are masked and are asked to keep their distance. Will they play with abandon when the virus is gone or will they grow up too soon into the far more distanced adults that surround them? Hell, we are asking them to keep their distance so it would be a small wonder if they don’t.

The lovers, the ones that had planned romantic trips, weddings and parties - what happens when none of that is possible? Do they put that spontaneous side - the most romantic moments - on hold. Can they return?

And then there are those who don’t return at all.  Their families watch them disappear into the bowels of an ambulance or hospital and then can’t see them, hold them before they die. 

I’m bombarded by stories of my colleagues in the #COVID ICUs. They have so many tools to save people but now, their tools are often useless against Covid-19. Death after death. It's everything they've been trained to fight and yet they lose the battle constantly. They are tired and demoralized when one patient dies, the numerous deaths are just too much for them.

And, perhaps a few blocks from these ICUs, people are gathering without masks, perhaps in homes, to have a drink, laugh and spread this damn virus around another room.

Will all the pandemic stories raging around demanding attention finally settle when the worst of this pandemic is over? Will we have time to write them when life returns to normal?

My hope is that these stories will be written and we will take the time to pay tribute to each person we can. There have never in my lifetime been so many stories crying out to be told. There are also so many people who are now no longer with us to tell their story and we need to honour them by telling it.

I have practiced medicine. I have written. Both involve a similar process.

In medicine, the key to a diagnosis is always the story - the more fulsome the story, the more likely the diagnosis will be accurate. And after diagnosis, following the story allows us to assess the treatment and, more importantly, how the patient is doing. 

With writing, the key is always the story and the more fulsome, the more accurate. 

With the pandemic stories that will be written, I hope that that they will be about how we recover, or don’t, from this terrible time in our history. Like a medical story, we need to follow this up. 

At this point in time I have no idea how the story ends for us all.

Oh, and babies. We need to see more babies please. We need a new generation to whom we pass on our stories, because this has been a time of such important stories. But until we pass on our stories, we need the joy of a new beginning.

24 January 2021

Tell Me a Light Story, Tell Me a Tale


Your Job: Write us a story of mystery and intrigue.

It’s a box, just an ordinary carton for a light bulb. At $25, the lamp is a bit expensive, but it’s an LED ‘smart bulb’ with motion and light sensors. It also communicates with Google Home automation, which activates it at sundown and disables it at sunrise. The flood lamp supposedly lasts 22 years and uses less than $2 a year in electricity.

Here are the four sides of this curious box:

box front
box left
box back
box right

The box features the specs, a picture of the light and two additional images, one of them a girl who’s apparently joyously toying with her cell phone. The other graphic also pictures a girl… but… what the hell?

blowup of panel picture

The well-lit house appears to be in a forest. This night, two lawn chairs sit empty on the deck. Wood pallets on one side rest against a tree.

But why is the girl on the ground? What is she reaching for? Or pointing at? Or warding off? Why is her pose so peculiar?

Imagination might suggest an Andrew Wyeth painting gone wrong. Or perhaps the girl has been kidnapped, captured and held in the woods. Perhaps she’s trying to escape.

But who’s taken her? Seven little guys with names like Flippy, Flappy, Floppy, and Dorky? Or a weird prince with delusions of Roquelaure? Or aliens? Or a boyfriend in a consensual game of hide and seek? Or she twisted her ankle when three bears chased her? Are those bears hiding beneath the deck or behind the pallets? Enquiring minds want to know.

So click on the picture below to expand it for any grainy detail you can discern, then tell fans a story about the scene.

Strange scene on Sengled light bulb box
*click* the picture to enlarge

Mystery number two: Pray tell us what the hell the package designer was thinking.

20 January 2021

2020 Was A Big Improvement


Note: I reivsed this column on February 27th, because I needed to add the story by Thomas Perry, which appeared in a magazine with a 2020 date which I didn't receive until last week. 

I had better explain that title before you send for the nice folks with the strait jackets.  2020 was better than 2019 only in the sense that more stories made my Year's Best list.  Last year, my eleventh, 12 stories made the list.  This year it's 17, a 41% increase.  Am I just feeling generous as the world dips into chaos?  Who knows?

For the second year in a row the big winner was Akashic Press, with three stories.  They send me their anthologies for free, by the way.  Following with two were Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, LB Productions, Mystery Writers of American, and Superior Shores Press.

That last one requires a bit of explanation.  Publisher Judy Penz Sheluk asked if I would read an advance copy of Heartbreaks and Half-Truths and give it a blurb if I thought it worthy.  I did so and was happy to write said blurb but, since I read the stories long before the book came out, I didn't feel I could list one as my Story of the Week.  Therefore this is the first time since I started reviewing at Little Big Crimes that tales make the year's best list without appearing there first.


Eleven stories are by men; six by women.  Five are humorous; four are historical; and two have fantasy elements.  

Ready?  Let's go.

Barlow, Tom, "Honor Guard,"  in Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Akashic Press, 2020.

The narrator is the only child of Tommy, a former navy man turned plumber. The old man's dementia is turning him violent, profane, and racist  On Veterans Day there is a violent confrontation with tragic consequences.  Some stunning surprises follow.

Cody, Liza, "My People,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020.

This is Cody's second appearance on my list.

Shareen Manasseh is  a Jewish woman whose family came to Britain from India.  She joined the police force and, without much training, was assigned to infiltrate the climate change activists - she calls them rebels.  Her work her rethinking her allegiance.  Did she become a cop to get "black-and-white certainty" or because it was better "to be with the bullies than against them?"

Dixon, Buzz.  "Tongor of the Elephants." Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Here, lemme show you something you've never seen before.  The nameless narrator has film of an actor called "J. Cecil Revell, the Million Dollar Profile," being smashed to death by a grumpy elephant while filming a very bad serial.  It's a charming tale of villainy, revenge, and, of course, elephants.


Foster, Luke, "Seat 9B,"  in Mystery Weekly Magazine, June 2020.

The narrator  is an investigative journalist, covering true crime for TV news shows.  On a flight from Los Angeles he suddenly realizes that the man he is sitting next to is the unknown serial killer the country's cops have been looking for.  And since he has "the world's worst poker face," the killer immediately knows he knows...

Goldberg, Tod, "Goon #4," in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

Goon #4 (his mama named him Blake) is an ex-military thug, now specializing in high-risk assignments.  Having made enough money to retire he decides to go to college and winds up, more or less by accident, in a class on radio performing.  He has some abilities there, it turns out, but more important is the attitude he brings from his previous profession.


Grafton, Sue, "If You Want Something Done Right...," in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

Lucy Burgess has reason to think her hubby is planning to get rid of her.  So she plans a preemptive strike, so to speak.  A lucky mistake puts her in touch with a hit man, and this fellow's way with words is a good deal of the charm of the story.

"Keeping my remarks entirely famatory, every matrimonial association is defeasible, am I right?  ...So what I hear you saying is that you and him are engaged in a parcenary relationship of which you'd like to see his participation shifted to the terminus."


Guthrie, C.C., "Cahoots,"  in Cozy Villages of Death, edited by Lyn Worthen, Camden Park Press, 2020.

Alan Peterson is a banker, and son of the wealthiest man in a small East Texas town.  The story opens with him running into Beulah's diner in a panic because his beautiful wife TeriLyn has disappeared.  

But things don't seem to add up.  She's only been gone a few hours.  And isn't Alan supposed to be out of town?  And why is he claiming she has been having mental problems?

Henderson, J.A. "The God Complex," Heartbreaks and Half-Truths, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk, Superior Shores Press, 2020.

Turns out you can't time travel exactly, but you can view time.  The problem is you tend to see what you expect to see.  And quantum physics is right: observation  changes the thing observed.  That means the ideal observer of the past is someone with no emotions. What's the other term for someone with no emotions?  Oh yeah: sociopath...


Hunt, Alaric, "Borrowed Brains,"  in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, May/June 2020.

Daniel McLaren, an aging West Virginian rumrunner, is happy working as a messenger in New York City, but when he gets beaten and robbed of a half-million dollar package the cops decide that the ex-convict is obviously guilty - or at least convenient to blame.

Fortunately McLaren has a buddy in the city, a fellow native of the Mountain State named Clayton Guthrie.  And Guthrie is a private eye.  Together they start to unravel a complicated fraud scheme that is going badly wrong, with possibly deadly consequences.


McCormick, William Burton.  "Night Train to Berlin,"   Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2020. 

This is McCormick's third appearance here.  It is 1939 and Stalin and Hitler are playing footsie.  As part of their nice-making the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are exchanging prisoners.

Moller is a German-born Communist.  He has lived in the USSR since its origin but is now  being shipped back to his homeland in exchange for some unfortunate Russian the NKVD wants to get their hands on.  He knows that the vehicle he is about to board "might as well be my funeral train."  But there are plots within plots  and an unlikely ally might  help him out.


Moore, Warren, "Alt-AC,"  in The Darkling Halls of Ivy, edited by Lawrence Block, LB Productions, 2020.

This is the second appearance here by Warren Moore.  It ranges between the amusing and startling.

Roger  possesses a newly minted PhD. in medieval English.  He is desperate for work in a crowded  market but he has a plan to avoid teaching at "the Swamp County School of Mortuary Science and Transmission Repair,"

Oltvanji, Oto, "Underneath it all Runs the River of Sadness,"  in Belgrade Noir, edited by  Milorad Ivanovic, Akashic Press, 2020.

Ranko and Kozma are neighbors and old friends.  Kozma is the troublemaker.  As a cop he did little but paperwork and now, in retirement, he is desperate to actually solve a crime for once.  His attempts to find villainy where there may be none has gotten him into hot water with the police and the neighborhood.

But now, just maybe, he could be onto something.  There's a man on the fourth floor who keeps bringing young women to his apartment.  Nothing wrong with that, except they never come out...

Perry, Thomas,  "Katerina Goes to Studio City," in The Strand Magazine, LXII, 2020.

Katerina is a teenager leading a miserable life in Moscow with no hint of a better future.  Then her best friend escapes to the United States and Katerina, a very resourceful girl, arranges to go as well.

Naive as she is, she does not realize why a Russian oligarch ("He's like a king,") would be willing to help a beautiful young girl come to California.  He sends a different man  to her apartment every night and Katerina develops a wide assortment of tricks and games to keep them out of her bed.  Does this begin to sound familiar?  Are you perhaps humming a few bars of Scheherazade?  


Read, Cornelia, "The Cask of Los Alamos," in Santa Fe Noir, edited by Ariel Gore, Akashic Press, 2020.

The thousand injuries of Richard Feynman I had borne as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

It is World War II.  The Manhattan Project is toiling away in New Mexico and Thurston has taken a deep grudge against his fellow physicist.  Read draws details from Feynman's real life into the fictional  plot which is, of course, modeled on Poe's.  

Rozan, S.J., "Chin Yong-Yun Sets The Date,"  in Deadly Anniversaries, edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, Hanover Square Press, 2020.

This is the third appearance here by my friend S.J. Rozan and the second by the formidable Chin Yong-Yun, mother of  Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin, and quite a character herself.  She notices that Chu Cai, the son of a friend, seems unhappy, even though he has just gotten engaged.  She cleverly arranges for him to come to her apartment to tell his problem to Lydia -- who, alas, is not there.  Perhaps, Mrs. Chin says, she can do the groundwork, although she is not quite sure what ground has to do with the detection business...


Simon, Clea, "No Body,"  in Shattering Glass, edited by Heather Graham, Nasty Women Press, 2020. 

Before she even spoke she knew her body was gone. It had been a struggle, losing it. 

At first I thought the protagonist was a ghost, but no, she is a person in trauma experiencing, as some people do in such a situation, the sensation of being outside her own body. In fact, she was drugged and is being raped.  This story is so much about style that I was not expecting the very clever ending.                                                          

Wishnia, Kenneth.  "Bride of Torches,"  in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazine, March/April 2020.

My friend Ken Wishnia has  retold a story from the Book of Judges.  He does a lovely job of showing the Hebrews at war with an enemy who has superior technology. Ya'el  commits the crime (?) which is the centerpiece of our story.  The main thing Wishnia adds to the Bible tale is giving her a motive.  In fact, he offers two, one of which feels very modern without being anachronistic.

30 December 2020

Which Came First? The Title or the Egg?


 I belong to the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In fact, I am the current president.  I imagine you can figure out what we discuss there. (And, hey, if you want to join, go to this page and look for Subscribe.  It's free.  But do it by tomorrow or you have to wait until the spring when the Derringer Awards have been decided.)

Recently I sent the following note to the Society's list:

I am about to do something that truly irritates me: starting to write a story with no idea what the title will be. 

How about it?  Do you need a title before you start writing?

And that started quite a discussion.  I am going to reduce a lot of interesting comments to four generalized categories:

Inspiration.  Writers who said their stories were often inspired by titles.

Start. Writers who usually know the titles before they begin.

Later. Writers who don't know the titles until the story is mostly or completely finished.

Varied.  Writers who are all over the map.

And speaking of maps, this chart shows the results.

A number of people agreed with me that it is annoying to start without knowing the title, if for no other reason than: what do you call the file?  When I started the story I was complaining about I called the file "Tunnel," which I absolutely hated.  The next day I changed it to "Underpass," which I like so much it may wind up being the actual title.  A subtle difference, perhaps, but huge to me.

I can think of only two times when the title inspired the plot:

"My Life as a Ghost." This was the first story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They changed it to "The Dear Departed."  They have never changed another title on me, even when I invited them to do so.

Too Dead For Dreaming. I was listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" one day and that line leapt out as a perfect title for a crime novel. So I wrote a book set in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Scare of the early sixties.  Alas, Bob Dylan's publishing company wouldn't permit me to use the line as a title so it became Such A Killing Crime, a line from a traditional song, long out of copyright.  

My story about the Plainfield, New Jersey riots was originally called "Bullets in the Firehouse Door," but before I finished it I changed to "Shooting at the Firemen," which covers the same ground but is shorter and more active.  First readers suggested I drop the "the" so it appeared in Hitchcock as "Shooting at Firemen."  

Do you need a title before you start?  Do they stay the same or change their identity mysteriously?

12 October 2020

It's Better When It Moves


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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