Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts
Showing posts with label storytelling. Show all posts

30 September 2019

End of the Long Strange Trip


Last Tuesday, Robert Hunter died at age 78 with his family around him. Unless you were part of the counterculture of my generation, the name means nothing to you. But Thursday night, an entire room sang along when I performed one of Hunter's songs at an open mic--even though I didn't identify the song before I played it.

Hunter was the chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He played several instruments himself, but wrote most of his songs in collaboration with Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir, and never performed with the band. I'd say he wrote most of the Dead's greatest hits, but they only had two legitimate hits 15 years apart. They released few singles and built their rep on long and often improvised concerts. They seldom performed with a set list and would segue from song to song by jamming. Some nights worked better than others.

Hunter's songs often feature a turn of phrase that sticks in you mind. "Truckin'" has the line about "What a long strange trip it's been," often quoted by people who don't know the source. That same song mentions a drug bust in which the band is "set up, like a bowling pin." In another of my personal favorites, "Sugar Magnolia," Hunter says of the woman in question "She comes skimming through rays of violet/ She can wade in a drop of dew."

 Hunter combined word play with concrete detail to tell stories. In "Cumberland Blues," his miner tells his beloved, "Gotta get down to the Cumberland Mine/ Make good money, five dollars a day." Because of his details, he could make his work sound like whatever time period worked best to convey his ideas. He once told of attending a Dead concert anonymously and having the man sitting next to him comment about how weird it would be if the guy who wrote "Cumberland Blues" a century before (!?!) could know now that the Grateful Dead were performing it that day.

Even though the Dead seldom showed up on radio ("Truckin'" and "Touch of Gray" are exceptions), many of their songs get play at open mics. A friend plays "Eyes of the World" regularly. Bluegrass bands often perform "Friend of the Devil," which originally featured a mandolin break in the acoustic recording. "Uncle John's Band" and "Sugaree" get lots of stage time, too. "Brown-eyed Woman," on my own set list. has a strong story-line and the comment about moonshine "The bottle was dusty, but the liquor was clean."

"China Doll," "Casey Jones," (Riding that train/ High on Cocaine) and "Operator" aren't rare, either.

When I played "Ripple" last week, with nature images that seem to combine the Romantic Poets and a Zen feel, the whole room joined in on "Let there be songs to fill the air" at the end of the second verse. More voices joined in from there until the "la da da da da..." fade out. They even dropped out so I could play the last line as a harmonized guitar riff.

Hunter's "Terrapin Station" Suite is an homage to story telling and creative vision. It's on the album or CD of the same name and has the invocation, "Inspiration, move me brightly."

Every writer knows about THAT. Or should.

21 June 2017

First Words


by Robert Lopresti

If you haven't read B.K. Stevens' most recent blog I recommend you do so now.  This is partly because it is very interesting and also because it inspired today's wisdom-dump.  I am referring specifically to the unfortunate remark the older policeman makes to the returning homeowner.

It reminded me of this scene from the classic police sitcom Barney Miller.  You want the bit that begins around 2:20.




I think it was after seeing that show that my wife and I formulated what I think of as the First Words Rule.  It states when you have to tell a friend or loved one about a bad situation that has just occurred (a car accident, a house fire, the atomic defibulator crushing the emoluments boot) the first words out of your mouth should be: Everybody's okay.  Assuming that is true, of course

Now, how does that relate to writing?  (This is a blog about writing and reading and crime, remember?)

Glad you asked.  We are looking at the difference between telling a story and telling the news.  It is natural for a storyteller to want to build up suspense, or to tell things in chronological order.  But the journalist knows that it is bad form to "bury the lede."  If you are reporting on a city council meeting and one of the members accidentally drops a bloody axe out of her purse, that's probably where you begin your piece, even if it didn't happen until New Business, way at the end of the evening.

Of course, years later when you are telling your grandchildren about your career you might want to build slowly up to the axe-drop.  But that's story-telling, not journalism.

These days fiction writers usually begin in the middle of the story, not with the journalistic lede, but as far in as they think they can go without baffling the reader.  To pick one favorite at random, here is how Earl Emerson opened Fat Tuesday:

I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man.  The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.

Not the beginning of events, but not the climax either.

You can start your story or novel wherever you see fit.  But when you're telling somebody the news, start with the most important part.
 

03 May 2017

The Story Gene


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

 by Robert Lopresti

This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009.  Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.

I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.

There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?

Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.

First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.

Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.

Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?

Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)

At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.

A very old story

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.

It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.

When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.

Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.

And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.
 

A love story

I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.

Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.

He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.

Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.

It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.

Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)

“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”

Final thought

Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?

Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.

01 May 2017

How Growing Up With a Writer (Inadvertently) Made Me a Marketer


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the third in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
When we talked about inviting family in, I asked both my wife and my daughter if they were interested. Jenn runs my website and Barb, my wife (who declined) used to write ad copy for radio and still acts in several productions a year. Both are better writers than I am, and both are great sources for feedback when I'm stuck. So here's Jenn.
— Steve

by Jenn (Liskow) Waltner

My dad is author Steve Liskow.

When I was growing up, he was English teacher Mr. Liskow at a high school I didn't attend (and really, kids should NEVER have to go to a school where one of their parents teaches).

As a kid, I had no idea how my dad's likes, passions, and aptitudes would influence my own career path. Sure, the ceramic dinosaur collection he had as a boy made me want to be a paleontologist when other kids couldn't even SPELL the word, but then I discovered that science wasn't really my thing and decided I should come up with another plan.

"Content marketer" was totally not that plan.

Here's how it happened. I wanted to go to college for photojournalism, but the school that threw money at me to attend didn't have that major. I figured I'd go for two years, knock off a bunch of core classes and then transfer somewhere with the program I wanted.

I went in as an English major. I figured it was a common major that would transfer easily and I'd do well because I grew up reading voraciously. But more than that, I grew up understanding the different components of storytelling and connecting with an audience--largely thanks to my dad.

It never occurred to me that those skills could lead to a career.

I've been doing this stuff daily for the last two decades as a marketer, mostly for high tech software companies.

When I was little, my dad explained different forms of writing: fiction vs. nonfiction, short stories vs. novels, poetry vs. prose, sonnets vs. sestinas (which I love) vs. haiku vs. blank verse vs. all the other forms of poetry I have forgotten, scripts vs graphic novels...you get the point. When you write, at some point you have to choose your format. The same holds true for marketing. I have to identify the best vehicle for telling each story. Should it be an eBook, a webinar, a blog post, a video, an infographic? Something else entirely? How can I adapt the story to work in different formats?

Next question: who;s the best person to tell the story? I vividly recall my father reading me the opening pages of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to show me how the whole story can change depending on who tells it. In marketing, having a trustworthy narrator is crucial. I often get to decide whether a particular piece of content should come from an internal author or if it works better coming from a customer, analyst, or media partner. Understanding how the choice of narrator influences the audience's perception has proven invaluable in my career over the years.

If you've read any of my dad's work, you know he's a huge music fan. Listening to songs together helped me wrap my head around style. Led Zeppelin covering Willie Dixon, Aerosmith playing Yardbirds songs, the Cramps covering Jack Scott, everyone in the world doing Bob Dylan stuff...two artists may be playing the same song, but with entirely different results. As a marketer, I work to define a brand's particular style and bring it to life. Is this brand sassy or buttoned-up? A little bit country or a little bit rock and roll? It's a fun choice to make.

My father's affinity for Westerns and his experience directing stage plays also helped build my marketing chops. Think visual storytelling. It's not all about words. Go watch the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or better yet, the final gunfight). With no dialog, narrative, or subtitles for a good few minutes, the action and images let the audience know exactly what's going on.

With a theatrical production, the set and the costume choices give the audience critical information about the characters and the mood. I use visual storytelling in almost every piece of content I touch, whether it's choosing an image for a blog post, building a slide deck for sales, working with an agency to create a new product video, or teaming up with a designer to develop an infographic.

Discussions about bad writing and books that didn't work helped me just as much as conversations about books my dad and I both loved--seeing how a plot falls apart is a great lesson in user experience. My dad and I both hate books with deus ex machina endings that leave readers feeling cheated. With a little more planning, the writer could have injected pieces into the story that let the conclusion feel more natural--delivering a better reader experience.

So often simple changes--a scene in Chapter 3, a paragraph in Chapter 17, an extra line of dialog on page 243--can make those transitions easier for the reader. That's the essence of user experience--making things easier. User experience often guides my discussions with web developers, product engineers and graphic designers. Questions like "Can we make that text easier to read?" or "What happens if we move that button over here?" may seem trivial, but can make a huge difference for someone encountering a web page, trade show display or product welcome screen for the first time.

Finally, my dad's teaching background helped me learn how to coach other writers. When I edit, I don't just make changes--I mark up documents with comments so the writer can see what I changed and why. The "why" matters most--good writers learn from my comments and correct similar bits on their own future projects.

Despite my 20+ years as a marketer, I'm still learning my craft--often inadvertently--through discussions with my dad, the writer.

11 December 2016

The Gift of the Maggid


Yesterday, Bonnie wrote about plot twists. She should know– B. K. Stevens practices the twist herself– the literary kind– as I’ve been learning in her short story collection, Her Infinite Variety.

She goes on to mention
“… those irritating people who say, ‘Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits.’ I can't stand those people.”
Uh-oh. I’m one of those people. I even, er, violated at least one of her stories that way. Well, I don’t say it out loud, but you know– the mind leaps ahead – What would I do? – and sometimes hits upon the right result. Do other readers see it the same way? If we manage to figure out where the plot’s headed, then we might see a little self-satisfied glimmer reflected and mumble, “Genius!” And if we can’t, then we take pleasure the author fairly fooled us.

Stevens — Her Infinite Variety
The Girl from Iphigenia

Fact: Once upon a time in a small New England town, a middle-aged woman worked in the data entry department for a shoe company. The story surrounding Edna was that her domineering mother had never allowed her to date, but made her devote herself to caring for her parents and an unmarried aunt. Beyond bringing in an income, it’s possible Edna’s pedestrian workday had become an escape into normalcy. Why do I mention this? Let's talk about Her Infinite Variety.

Last week, I touched upon a trio of the author’s series characters included in two of the book’s eleven stories– Iphigenia Woodhouse, her irascible professor mother, and ‘Little Harriet’ Russo, the assistant who becomes their foot detective. I hinted at the complex relationship: “Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor.”

But there’s a fourth character, the ever-patient Detective Barry Glass, inamorato of the divine Miss Iphigenia, known as That Man by her mother with considerable bile and venom. If she hasn’t already done so, I hope Bonnie publishes a collection of her Woodhouse stories so we might learn if Iphigenia and That Man Glass ever manage to slip into something more comfortable, i.e, the hay mow, the woods, or the bedsheets.

Bonnie’s article yesterday and Leah Abrams’ children’s religious studies gave me the idea for today’s offbeat title. A ‘maggid’ was an often wandering Slavic Jewish storyteller and teacher popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Temp

The author gives us a sample of another series character, Leah Abrams. Family is important to Leah, her husband Sam and daughters Sarah and Rachel. You notice the Biblical names and may rightly assume quiet piety is important within their home.

Leah, with a PhD in communications, constantly researches material for scholarly volumes, which might or might not see the light of day. In these cosies, we see a parody of those books in self-help courses.

To study workplace psychology, Leah takes interesting office jobs such as temping for a psychic hotline company and counseling for a fancy rehab center. Wherever she works, she stumbles upon murders. Naturally, her friend, Lieutenant Brock, ably facilitates her in finding the perpetrators.

The Rest

B. K. Stevens provides seven additional stand-alone tales, including a Mary Higgins Clark winner, ‘The Listener’. All the clues are there for the astute reader.

I’ve still a couple of stories to go, but I admire the collection. For a smart Christmas or Chanukah gift, you’d be hard pressed to shop for better than Her Infinite Variety, or indeed any of the books from our SleuthSayers members.

Many of our friends and followers have books on the shelves and the on-line marketplace for the holidays. (Elizabeth, does that include you?) Rather than accidentally omit one of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I invite you to add your titles in the comments.

Happy reading!