Showing posts with label tips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tips. Show all posts

04 July 2023

Writing Dialog


Happy Independence Day!

Summer is a great time for reruns, so today I present “Writing Dialog,” which has been published in several places and is both a short story and a lesson in writing dialog. Enjoy. — Michael


Writing Dialog

“Dialog is difficult to write,” I said.

“Why?” An attractive young writer, eager to learn the secrets of my success, sat across from me. This wasn’t the first time we’d met to discuss writing.

“Because it must be realistic without being real.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, um, I’m not sure I can explain it, but—let’s see—real people, like, they stop and start and, um, they st-stutter and talk in run-on sentences. Or incomplete sentences. And they don’t always think before they, um, open their mouths and stuff. You know?”

“That was bad.”

“Wasn’t it, though?” I said. “I hear people talking like that every day.”

She leaned forward. “So how do you make dialog realistic without being real?”

I considered for a moment before continuing. “Take out the fluff. Don’t start sentences with ‘well.’ Eliminate the ‘um’s and ‘er’s. Eliminate throwaway bits such as ‘by the way.’”

“That sounds easy enough, but that can’t be it. There must be more.”

I reached across the table and patted her hand. She didn’t pull away. “There’s much more, but perhaps we should order a drink before continuing. You game?”

After she said she was, I called the waiter over, ordered a pair of frozen margaritas, and watched him walk away. Then I continued. “That was a good example.”

She appeared bewildered. “Of what?”

“Of knowing when to write dialog and when not to.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I could have written, ‘I called the waiter over. He introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Bob. I’ll be serving you today.” “Hi, Bob,” I said. “What will you have?” he asked. “Two frozen margaritas,” I told him. “Is that all?” “Yes, Bob, that’s all,” I said. Then I watched him walk away before I continued.’”

“That wouldn’t have advanced the plot at all, would it?”

I smiled. She was beginning to understand. I said, “Not at all.”

“Anything else?”

“Avoid long blocks of ‘dialog’ where a single character does all the talking. Once a character has said more than three consecutive sentences, you’re in danger of writing a monolog or a soliloquy. Even worse is when each of your characters speaks in long, uninterrupted blocks. That creates alternating monologues.”

“That was four sentences.”

“You could have interrupted me and broken it up a bit.”

“No,” she said. She licked salt off the rim of her glass. “I like listening to you.”

I liked what her tongue was doing but I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted. I had much more to teach her.

“The info dump should also be avoided,” I told her, ”especially in dialog.”

“What’s an info dump?”

“An info dump is when the author needs or wants to convey information to the reader and chooses to do it in a block of text rather than parceling it out in bits and pieces as the story progresses.” I took a sip from my margarita and realized she’d already finished half of hers. “It’s especially bad when one character tells the other character something they both already know.”

“Give me an example.”

“As you know, we’re sitting in the bar of Bonita’s, a place you once described as your favorite Mexican restaurant. Bonita’s was opened in 1910 and is still owned and operated by the same family. It started as a hole-in the-wall and has grown significantly since then. What makes Bonita’s unique is that the founding family—the Fitzpatricks—are Irish. It’s the best place in town to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo.”

I saw a twinkle in the young writer’s eye. Maybe it was my charm. Maybe it was just the alcohol. “I did know all that. So why did you tell it to me?”

“Info dump.”

“Will it be important later in the story?”

“I doubt it.”

She caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more frozen margaritas. I had barely finished my first one when he arrived with the fresh margaritas.

“What else?” she asked.

“Avoid blathering.”

“What’s blathering?”

“When one character asks a question that can be answered simply, but the second character uses it as a jumping off point to ramble on and on.”

“For example?”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Jo,” she said. “I was named after my uncle Joe, but my parents dropped the ‘e’ to make my name feminine. My uncle Joe was a cool guy. He taught me to hunt and fish. Well, my uncle Joe and my Dad did. They took to me to Clauson’s farm every summer. The Clausons were my mother’s cousins. My mother never went out there with us. She liked to stay home. She said she enjoyed having a little time to herself. She—” The young writer stopped and looked at me. She had beautiful blue eyes. “I’m blathering, aren’t I?”

I smiled and repeated something she’d said earlier. “I like listening to you.”

This time she reached across the table for my hand and our fingers entwined. Then she wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked deep into my eyes.

I cleared my throat. “Of course, most of these rules can be broken if the story warrants it. Sometimes you need a character who stutters or one who blathers. But just one.”

She stroked my palm with the tip of one finger. “What else?”

“Always have a good line to exit the scene.”

Jo lowered her voice. “And what do you have?”

I already knew her answer, but I asked because it was the best way to end the scene. “Would you like to go to my place and see my manuscripts?”

26 March 2023

A I on Short Story


robot reading

Artificial Intelligence once was a concept of science fiction, a thing of the future. Now, it's a creature of the present and we are still learning how to use it.

With the right AI software, anyone can type in "write an article on the elements needed to write a great short story" and then hit ENTER. The software will proceed to write an article on what the software considers to be the elements necessary to write a great short story. If the submitter doesn't like the article for some reason, then he or she can enter the same information and hit ENTER again. The A I software will turn out a different article, ad infinitum.

Okay, so let's see what the software wrote for the first inquiry.

Writing a great short story can be challenging, but it is also an incredibly rewarding experience. Short stories can be powerful tools for exploring complex themes, capturing a moment in time, or simply entertaining readers with a well-crafted tale. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newcomer to the craft, there are several key elements that can help you create a compelling short story.

   1. A strong opening: The first sentence or paragraph of  your short story should grab the reader's attention and set the tone for what's to come. It should establish the setting, introduce the main character or characters, and hint at the conflict or tension that will drive the plot forward.

   2. Compelling characters: In a short story, there is limited space to develop characters, so it is important to make every word count. Create characters that are unique, interesting, and relatable. Give them clear motivations, distinct personalities, and flaws that make them feel like real people.

   3. A well-developed plot: Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The plot should be structured in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. Avoid predictable or cliched storylines, and strive for a unique and surprising twist or resolution.

   4. Conflict or tension:  Your story should have a central conflict or tension that drives the action forward. This could be a physical or emotional obstacle that the main character must overcome, or it could be a moral dilemma that forces the character to make a difficult decision.

   5. Effective pacing: In a short story, pacing is critical. You need to keep the reader engaged and interested from beginning to end, without rushing or dragging the story out. Use pacing techniques like dialogue, description, action to create a sense of momentum and tension.

   6. A clear theme: A great short story should leave the reader with a clear sense of what it's all about. It should explore a theme or idea that resonates with the reader, whether it is a universal truth about the human condition, a commentary on a current issue, or a personal reflection on life.

   7. Skilled language: Finally, a great short story should be written in skillful and precise language. Choose your words carefully, and use imagery, metaphors, and other literary devices to create a vivid and engaging story. Avoid cliches and overused phrases, and strive for originality and creativity.

In conclusion, a great short story requires careful attention to many different elements from character development and plot pacing, theme, and language. By honing your skills in each of these areas, you can create a story that is both memorable and powerful. Remember that the most important element of any story is its ability to connect with readers on an emotional level, so be true to your own voice and vision, and strive to create a story that will resonate with your audience.

Personally, other than some repetition, I would say the A I software did a good job and covered all the necessary elements. At  this stage in my career, I tend to write instinctively without consciously thinking about the basics, however there are times it probably would not hurt for me to be reminded what the basics are. I think I'll keep this article on file.

I have not played around with having the A I software write a short story to see how well it does. What do you think, will A I programs eventually acquire the ability to put us human writers out of business?

And, if an Artificial Intelligence program does write a short story, who then owns the copyright?

18 December 2022

The Digital Detective: Encryption ≠ Encoding


Telex paper tape
Telex paper tape

The Explainers

Don’t refer to ‘computer codes’. When coaching lawyers for depositions, that became my first rule. I urge the same rule for authors as well. Don’t blow credibility by trying to ‘pluralize’ code with codes– in computerdom the plural of code is still code.

And what kind of code? Source code? Microcode? Machine code? Generic ‘computer code’ is less than meaningless. And while we’re at it, hackers can’s remotely set opponents’ computers on fire, not unless they slip their adversary certain laptops with defective Sony batteries.

To illustrate concepts, real-world analogies appeal to me, but some computer specialites are so abstract, explaining them is difficult. A few software specialists relate systems programming to composing music: Both take place in the originator’s mind, both use symbolic languages and, since the invention of the player piano and now modern mixing consoles, both can be programmed. But analogies can go only so far.

One of the most common questions has proved the most difficult to answer: How are characters stored in the computer? For example, what does “Now is the time” look like inside the machine? Explaining each character has a numeric representation loses some people, but mentioning numbers 0123 are represented as 30313233 (or worse, F0F1F2F3) results in eye-glazing and blood leaking from the ears.

Many programming courses don’t attempt to explain how letters and numbers are recognized and stored in computers. It’s taken for granted and too often they fall back upon, “Do as we say and you’ll do okay.” But that doesn’t answer the question.

Mike Drop

And then… two Michaels came together and showed me the way.

One was Michael Bracken. The other was… Mike Lindell.

Yes, that Michael Lindell, everyone’s favorite mad uncle, the My Pillow Guy. Wait, this is not about politics, I promise. We’re talking about writing.

Mr Lindell has very publicly complained that data in voting machines is secretly encrypted to prevent it being studied. He’s sponsored symposiums with ‘proof’ of skulduggery, and he infamously slandered and libeled voting machine companies, inviting lawsuits with nine decimal zeros in the complaints.

During one interview, Mr Lindell displayed a sample on the screen giving me my first glance at what he was talking about. Could he be correct?

As a writer, I try to get details right, because as a reader, I’ve been yanked out of stories when authors get details wrong. Mr Lindell got it wrong:

Voting machine data isn’t encrypted. It’s encoded.

Wait. Same thing, you say, right? To*mah*to versus To*may*to?

Nope: encoded ≠  encrypted.

Encryption implies obfuscation. It’s how spies try to protect their secrets. It’s how financial institutions are supposed to shield their transactions.

Mikey isn’t all techie and sciencey. I don’t doubt Mr Lindell innocently misunderstood what he saw, but his misunderstanding ‘plain text’ 0123 looks like 30313233 is costing him millions. If a highly visible businessman with political connections doesn’t understand, what about us ordinary readers and writers?

Michael Bracken’s Fault

Baudot 5-bit paper tape

An upcoming anthology for Michael Bracken required digging into historical events, early radio, and teletypes. I didn’t use teletypery (that’s a word, right?) in my story, but at some point the penny dropped, how to help people visualize character encoding. It’s so simple.

Once upon a time, I communicated by telex with offices in Europe. For quick notes, we’d dial in, tap out a few words and perhaps receive an immediate response. But overseas connection time was expensive, so for long flirtations, I mean messages, I’d prepare text on paper tape, then connect and transmit.

And therein lay my solution for anyone to see: encoding on paper tape, a technology a century and a half old. People could see and touch each character as a distinct hole pattern easily converted to a unique number:

hole = binary 1; no hole = binary 0

No Remorse

Morse Code, developed in the 1830s for single-key telegraphy, wasn’t suitable for this new medium. In the 1870s, French engineer Émile Baudot developed a five-bit code. Five bits allows for 2⁵ or 32 distinct characters, but Baudot and the subsequent Morkrum Code (1915) used ‘escape’ characters to switch to and from alphabetic letters mode and numbers-symbols mode, bringing possible combinations closer to sixty, although in practice, far fewer were used. (One of those ‘characters’ rang an attention-getting bell at the other end.)

Baudot paper tape showing shifted values
Baudot paper tape showing shifted values

Morkrum’s new ‘teletypewriter’ was literally a modified typewriter. Morkrum, by the way, is not a person, but rather three people: Joy Morton, founder of Morton Salt, and mechanical engineer Charles Krum, joined by the latter’s son, electrical engineer Howard Krum.

Puzzle Me This

This is paper tape, the stuff of telexes and teletypes, the technology that once powered Western Union, Wall Steel, and news wires. I’ve included only the Roman alphabet, invented a century and a half ago. Each letter has a distinct punch pattern. Curiously, the hole combination for A looks nothing like those for B, C, D, and so on. Each letter’s numeric assignment seems so utterly random as as to defy logic.

Baudot paper tape showing alpha/number shift values.
Baudot paper tape showing decimal values of alphabet

But there is a logic and I’m betting you can figure it out. Why didn’t Baudot lay out letters one after the other in alphabetical order and bump holes one-by-one?

There is method to the madness. Your challenge is to suggest a reason for these seemingly arbitrary hole assignments.

binary values of holes (numbered right to left)
values of holes
Hint № 1
It helps to know *the earliest* machines had five piano-like keys corresponding to the holes. A teletype operator would press the correct keys one-by-one, and the machine punched holes and advanced the tape.
Hint № 2
Note this sample includes a space character. It’s actually a clue.
Hint № 3
Hover for another clue…

Twitchy Fingers

AT&T developed a machine nearly identical to the Telex but using 7-bit code similar to ASCII and its Unicode descendants. Seven bits allowed for 2⁷ or 128 characters, many of them assigned special purposes. Many universities hung cheap, obsolete TTYs  on their early Unix computers, making an ASCII relationship clearer.

ASCII paper tape showing 7-bit values
ASCII paper tape with 7-bit values

[Unix aficionados blame those sluggish keyboards for the plethora of ungodly, abstruse Unix commands: awk, chown, df, grep, lp, m4, qalter, renice, uucp, yacc.]

Did It Work?

So does the paper tape comparison help explain how ‘plain text’ data is used and stored in computers? And does the difference between encoding and encryption make sense? Enquiring minds want to know.

Puzzle Answer ↷

20 November 2022

Murakami Haruki — Professional Tips


We’ve offered up professional tips from many famous authors, but I don’t recall we’ve published any from Japan. Meet Murakami Haruki (Haruki Murakami in Western notation), award-winning novelist, essayist, and short story writer.

He’s been accused by Japan’s literary elite of being too Western, of being unJapanese. Among his influences are Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Cormac McCarthy.

From time to time, Murakami has dropped pearls of wisdom vis-à-vis writing. Fortunately author Emily Temple has gathered them into a must-read article. The bullet points are:

Murakami Haruki
Murakami, Haruki
  1. Read.
  2. Take the old words and make them new again.
  3. Explain yourself clearly.
  4. Share your dreams.
  5. Write to find out.
  6. Hoard stuff to put in your novel.
  7. Repetition helps (outside of writing).
  8. Focus on one thing at a time.
  9. Cultivate endurance.
  10. Experiment with language.
  11. Have confidence.
  12. Write on the side of the egg.
  13. Observe your world.
  14. Try not to hurt anyone.
  15. Take your readers on a journey.
  16. Write to shed light on human beings.
  17. No matter what, it all has to start with talent…
  18. … unless you work really hard!

So, starting with admonition № 1, check out the article. Perhaps you’ll find a gem too.

12 September 2022

The Shapes of Names to Be


Jessica Dall
Author Jessica Dall

I bumped into Jessica Dall when I stumbled upon an essay regarding word shapes. I identified when she confessed to being a name nerd. At one time, I’d written a program that harvested 60 000-some names from the web, including numerous details such as meaning, ethnicity, cognates, and variants. One of the basic rules is to avoid giving characters names with the same leading character (which I’ve flagrantly violated in an upcoming AHMM story). But Jessica brought something new (to me). I had to share her with our mystery colleagues.

Jessica Dall is the author of such novels as Forever Bound and The Stars of Heaven. She has written across an array of genres, though her love of history and romance always seems to find a way into her work. Born and raised in southern California, she now resides in Maryland with her husband and daughter. When not living vicariously through her characters, she enjoys travel, crafting, and helping others with their own writing journey.

You can find her on her web site, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

SleuthSayers, I’m pleased to introduce Jessica Dall.

— Leigh


Name Shapes
by
Jessica Dall

 

Picking names for characters is both one of my favorite and one of the most annoying parts of character building when I’m starting a new book. On the first hand, I’m a name nerd. I love looking at popularity lists and name meanings, finding things that would fit the setting I’m creating. On the other hand, names can really affect how a reader connects with a character—sometimes on a subconscious level. Even in the real world, a 2003 study by the University of Chicago found that traditionally “White-sounding” names received fifty percent more interview requests than identical resumes with traditionally “Black-sounding” ones. And when it comes to fiction, there is the added pressure of making sure that (1) you don’t break suspension of disbelief by using a name that feels wildly out of place for your setting (sometimes even when they would actually fit. See “the Tiffany problem”) and (2) you don’t trip a reader up while they are reading.

While this latter point can be a problem simple from a name being very complicated (if you have a fantasy character named F’thasheewerbhion, the reader is most likely either going to need to slow down to try to sound it out, breaking the flow of the story, or just think of the character as “F…whatever” the entire book) it can also be an issue with even common names that are easily confused with one another (for example, Alex and Alec).

Jessica Dall – Forever Bound

One thing you quickly learn as an author when you’re ask to do readings is that you need to practice out loud. This isn’t only to make sure you get the delivery right, but it is the only way to make sure you have the right amount to read for your time slot. Everyone’s reading and speaking speeds obviously differ, but it is easily possible to read an extra hundred words a minute in your head than reading aloud— a difference that quickly stacks up in a ten-, fifteen-, or even thirty-minute reading.

Part of the way that people can read so much more quickly in their heads is that brains often take in the “shape” of familiar words and phrases and fill in what should be there are you move forward. This is how even several rounds of professional editing can sometimes not catch typos like missing or repeated words. Your brain is expecting to read “top of the class,” not “top of class,” and skips over the fact that that isn’t what’s on the page. It is because of this phenomenon that some writers suggest not starting character names with the same letter. Where F’thasheewerbhion may become “F-whatever” to keep the reader from needing to sound it out, even a “simple” name like Alan might register mostly as the “A” with the reader’s brain filling in “Alan” much like it fills in the missing “the” above. If there is then a “Alice” on the same page, a reader subconsciously doing this would need to slow down and figure out which character is doing what versus getting caught up in the action.

Jessica Dall - Stars of Heaven

Personally, I don’t subscribe to anything that austere. For example, in my most recent novel, Forever Bound, there is both a Cormac and a Colm. While there is possibly some room for confusion, I felt comfortable using both because they don’t have the same name “shape.” While some readers’ brains may take the first letter and run with it, I find it is more common for people to take in the entire shape of the word, even while reading quickly. Because of that, the issue with Alan and Alice isn’t only that they both start with A, but that the shape of the two names is relatively similar. They are an A followed by a “tall” letter (l) and then close to the same number of “short” letters. This makes them visually very similar to a quick reader. Alternatively, “Cormac” is a C followed by all short letters and “Colm” is a shorter name with a tall letter in the third spot. This makes them more visually different even at first glance.

To note, I also took into consideration the fact that these two characters never share a scene together. This separation also makes it less likely for the reader to get tripped up versus in, say, a quick back and forth dialogue. Similarly, I don’t worry about minor characters who aren’t active players in the story as much as I do those often front and center. For example, in another novel, The Stars of Heaven, I have both a João and a John.

Normally, these would be too visually similar for me to feel comfortable using. However, since João is a very minor character, only ever mentioned a few times in exposition, I wasn’t worried about readers getting confused, and thus I felt free to indulge myself (I specifically made the choice since it means that both characters are more or less named John (João is the Portuguese equivalent). Since the book takes place in the eighteenth century, when John was an exceedingly popular name choice, it seemed fitting. I also found it amusing, since both characters are sailors and so linked by the name).

When it comes to naming characters, though, I always suggest writers pay attention not only to if the name fits their setting, but if it will affect readability. A big part of this is paying attention to name shapes. Namely (pun intended), you should look if two names you are using are similar lengths and have tall (e.g. “l, f, b”) short (e.g. “s, r, o”) or long (e.g. “y, g, p”) letters in similar places. Where it’s relatively easy for readers to keep track of who’s speaking when it’s Anne and Alexander having a conversation, it’s going to force some people to backtrack and lose the flow of the story if it’s Alex and Alec. All those little things really help shape the experience of reading the story in a way many don’t think about.

04 September 2022

Bloom Where You’re Planted


Richard Helms
Richard Helms

Allow me to introduce my friend and wonderful writer, Richard ‘Rick’ Helms, author of a zillion award-winning novels and short stories, a man who’s received more nominations than an Iowa caucus. A former forensic psychologist, he oozes Southern charm and he’s witty and modest as well.

He and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he still muscles out superb stories. You can find more about him on his web site. Now read on…

— Jan Grape



Bloom Where You’re Planted
by
Richard Helms

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
— Ernest Hemingway

I wrote my first full-length novel forty years ago. It wasn't published for another eighteen years, after going through dozens of submissions and two different agents. The Valentine Profile is still out there, and—being my first work—it's perfectly horribly awful, and I hang my head in shame every time I think about it. Please don't buy it. Or buy a caseload. You do you.

Despite years of disappointment and an almost legendary number of rejections, I persisted, and wrote four or five more novels, which also weren't published for many years. With each new title, I tried to stretch and improve, and each new book was incrementally better than the last.

I was always reminded of Raymond Chandler’s advice to analyze and imitate. Not surprisingly, most of my first half dozen or so novels are extremely derivative of the authors I was reading at the time—Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, David Hagberg, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, and the like. It takes time to find your voice as an author, so for a while you borrow other people’s voices. There are those who still say—and they aren’t far wrong—that my Eamon Gold private eye series is still just Spenser transported to the west coast.

For years, I didn't even consider writing short stories. I didn't think I had the chops. Like many new writers, I presumed that real authors wrote novels—huge sweeping panoramas of human greed, suffering, conflict, passion, and inevitable death. I earned a Russian Studies minor in college—long story—and might have been influenced a bit by Tolstoy. Somewhere in the recesses of my autistic head, short stories were for quitters who put down Anna Karenina on only page 534.

More than that, though, I was convinced I couldn't say everything I wanted to in only a few thousand words. I thought that was a special skill, like shorthand, and I was playing hooky the day they handed it out.

This is really strange, because my most treasured physical possession is a book of—you guessed it—short stories.

It was my first ‘grown-up’ book. We were moving from Charlotte to Atlanta a week or so after I finished first grade, and our neighbors’ oldest son, who might have been twelve at the time, crossed the street as we were packing our car for the move to Georgia. He handed me a paperback book. He probably said something like, “My mom and dad said you like to read and stuff, and I had this lying around, so you can have it, okay?”

I prefer to remember the moment in the same emotional vein as the Lady in the Lake hefting aloft the mighty Excalibur, presenting it to Arthur. It was a turning point in my young life.

The book was Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction. It was an anthology cobbled together from classic pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s. There were stories by Lester Del Rey, Ray Bradbury, John D. McDonald, Murray Leinster, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and many more. As we tooled down the blue highways between Charlotte and Atlanta, I huddled in the backseat floor—as kids did sixty years ago—and read about robots and rockets and tiny unconscious homunculi used as currency and a funny alien named Mewhu and a man and a dog transformed into Jupiterian beings and time travel and all sorts of amazing concepts I’d never thought of before.

A lot of it didn’t make sense to me and was confusing, but most of it was amazing and astounding and made my little seven-year-old heart flutter. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was my gateway drug to adult literature and pulp fiction at the same time. Dick and Jane? I didn’t care if they ran. I wanted to know why they ran. Why were they being chased? What horrible thing did they do? Dick and Jane might have been okay for the other second graders. I yearned for more. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction fed that hunger, and for the first time in my life, I understood that stories didn’t just happen, as Richard Brautigan wrote, like lint. Somebody had to write them.

Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction is still my most prized physical possession. It resides in a special place on my bookshelf at home. If the house ever catches fire, I will see that Elaine and the cat are out, and then I’ll rescue the book. Everything else can be replaced. This book can’t, for one reason.

Theodore Sturgeon
Theodore Sturgeon autograph

In 1978, I had dinner at UNC-Greensboro with Theodore Sturgeon and his partner, Lady Jayne. He was a guest of honor at a sci-fi convention at the college. He had written the story “Mewhu’s Jet” in my Sacred Book. I brought the by-then tattered paperback with me, and at a probably clumsy moment I thrust it into his hands and told him the story of how this book changed my reading life—and eventually inspired me to become a writer as well. He took one look at it, and said, “This book has been well-loved”, and he signed the first page of his story.

Sturgeon is long gone now, dead for over forty years. His autograph in my book with the added ‘Q’ with an arrow he used to symbolize “Ask the Next Question” can never be replaced. So the book gets rescued.

As illuminating as it was, Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was also intimidating. To me, the authors in those pages were giants, superhumans endowed with powers far beyond the grasp of mortal scribblers. They captured entire universes in five or six thousand words, and I was not worthy to look upon their visages.

So, I wrote novel after novel after novel. Twenty-five now and counting. Some were squibs. Some were award finalists. Not one of them has ever sold more than 1500 copies. That’s probably my fault, as I am much more comfortable tapping on a keyboard than pressing flesh. A born salesman, I am decidedly not.

In 2006, I decided to start a webzine publishing hardboiled and noir short stories, and solicited submissions on all the usual email listservs, the Facebook and Twitter of the day. Within weeks, I was swamped with submissions, a great number of which had been penned by Edgar and Shamus and Anthony Award winners. I was shocked.

Reading all those stories by such distinguished writers gave me an opportunity again to analyze and imitate. I pulled out my old trusty copy of Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction, and I read those stories again as well. As I read, I discovered that the stories that had cowed me so completely decades earlier now made sense. I could recognize the use of a three-act structure and the economy of language in them. I had a little peek underneath the magicians’ capes. I thought, perhaps, I might be able to write in this strange, truncated style after all.

In 2006, I was mowing the grass and came up with an idea for my third Eamon Gold novel. Started working on it, and realized there wasn't enough there for a book, but it might make a nice short story. Longtime buddy Kevin Burton Smith published it on his Thrilling Detective Website, ("The Gospel According to Gordon Black") and it went on to win the Derringer Award that year. I had also written a short story for my own webzine, The Back Alley, entitled "Paper Walls/Glass Houses", and darned if it didn't win the Derringer as well.

No shit, dear readers. My first two published short stories were award winners, and made me one of only two authors ever to win the Derringer in two different categories in the same year. (The other is the incredibly prolific and masterful John Floyd.) Nobody was more surprised than I.

So I wrote another one, based on a failed Pat Gallegher novel, and retitled it "The Gods For Vengeance Cry." On a flyer, I sent it in to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and by golly Janet Hutchings bought it! It went on to garner nominations for the Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Awards, and won the 2011 Thriller Award.

Yeah. My first THREE published short stories won awards. The fourth, "Silicon Kings" was also a Derringer finalist.

Clearly, it was time to reevaluate my writing priorities.

For almost a quarter century, before Kevin kindly published "The Gospel According to Gordon Black", I had always presumed that I was first and foremost a novelist, however obscure and failed. I had been conditioned to believe the fallacy that novels hold an exalted spot in literature. While I had enjoyed some limited critical acclaim with my novels, the sudden shocking success of the short stories left me wondering whether I had wasted thirty years of my writing life.

It’s a good thing I’m not into regrets.

Over the last fifteen years, I've embraced the idea that I might actually be a short story writer who dabbles in writing novels. I have six Shamus Award nominations (and one win) for my novels, but my short stories have garnered a mind-boggling fourteen nominations, and have won the Thriller, Shamus, and Derringer Awards. One story I wrote for anthology editor and master story craftsman Michael Bracken (“See Humble and Die”, in The Eyes of Texas, for Down and Out Books) was selected for the 2020 edition of Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and C. J. Box.

And the hits just keep coming. Several years ago, the Republican National Convention was held in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. As happens in many cities, Charlotte made a concerted effort to get rid of the many homeless people who cluster each night along uptown Tryon Street, because images of people sleeping on bus stop benches make for bad national TV. I read an article about it in the news, and my first thought was that sweeping the streets of homeless people might make an excellent cover for a murder. Kill a homeless guy, hide the body, and everyone would think he was just given ‘Greyhound Therapy’—a bus ticket and twenty bucks to go somewhere (anywhere) else.  I let the idea cook in my head for a week or two, mostly coming up with a compelling protagonist, and then I started typing. I threw in some stories I’d heard about living on the streets from my hippie buddies back in the early 1970s. The resulting story, "Sweeps Week" (EQMM, July August 2021) won the Shamus this year, and is a finalist for the Macavity at Bouchercon next week.

My wife said, “You know, you might have a knack for this.”

Sometimes I have to shake my head when I realize that one story in EQMM is seen (and hopefully read) by more people than have read all my novels put together. That's humbling, but also exciting. Unlike each new book, which might flop or fly, or even go completely ignored, the stories are being read. Nothing is more important to a writer.

A Kind and Savage Place (novel)

I still write novels. Earlier this year, Level Best Books’ New Arc imprint published A Kind and Savage Place, which traces the evolution of civil rights in the south as experienced by the citizens of a small North Carolina farming community. Next year, their Historia imprint will publish Vicar Brekonridge, a novel based on my Derringer Award-nominated EQMM short story “The Cripplegate Apprehension.” I recently finished a massive novel called 22 Rue Montparnasse, about the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris, and I’m about ready to set sail on another novel about Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, inspired by the music of the late Nashville songwriter Larry Jon Wilson. None of these, with the possible exception of Vicar Brekonridge, is a traditional mystery story. Writing mystery short stories has freed me to explore other genres in my novel-length works, and to write the more mainstream and historical stories that I’ve back-burnered for years.

For now, though, my plan is to spend 2023 focused mostly on short stories. I’ve discovered that they are intensely rewarding. In what other medium can you come up with an idea on Tuesday, write “The End” on Friday, and people will buy it (hopefully)? In the same way I truly enjoy diving into massive amounts of research for a sweeping historical novel, I love the spontaneous nature of short stories. They’re almost like zen paintings, executed in seconds only after days of contemplation. The typing is only the last stage of storytelling. First, the story has to live inside your head. As Edward Albee once taught me in a master class, “Never put a sentence on the page until it can write itself.”

Living on the autistic spectrum, it would have been easy to stay rigidly glued to the novel-writing path. Comforting, even. Stability, structure, and adherence to a long-standing pattern of behavior is kind of a big deal among my neurodivergent tribe. Gritting my teeth, shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and breaking out and trying something new fifteen years ago turned out to make a huge difference in my writing life, and opened the door to a level of authorly satisfaction I had never known before.

My point is this (and it doesn't apply only to writing): The secret of happiness, I think, is to find your sunny spot and bloom where you're planted. If you beat your head against a door for years without an answer, maybe you're at the wrong door. I spent twenty-five relatively unhappy years working as a clinical/forensic psychologist, but only found career joy when I followed my true calling and became a teacher. Likewise, when I embraced short stories, the flower of my writing career blossomed.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to step back, survey the Big Picture, and figure out exactly where you fit into it, as opposed to where you want to fit. Life has a way of showing you the paths you need to tread, if you’re open to looking for them. A simple jink to the left or right could change your entire life. But, wherever you land, it should be the place that makes you happiest. Living as a tortured literary artist slaving in a dusty garret may be a romantic notion, but it isn’t much fun.

Sometimes, you win by trading one dream for another.

01 September 2022

A Loose Compendium of the Worst Writing Advice Ever


So I recently watched a video by Paul Davids,  a musician I follow on YouTube, with the intriguing title: "The WORST musical advice ever given." Davids, an accomplished musician in his own right, went to a trade show in Anaheim, and recorded a number of musicians, well-known and obscure alike, to respond to the prompt question in no more than thirty seconds. 


The results were pretty entertaining (If you have the time, go take a look. It's not very long, and wellworth your investment), and surprisingly not far off from some of the advice I received when starting out as a new writer. And that got me thinking: what would the responses to this sort of prompt be from writer types?

So I put it out there, and got a lot of interesting responses. I've posted them below, with attribution of at least the name of the writer giving the response, with more if I knew it/could find quickly. So let's take a look, and once we've worked our way through these responses, I'll top it off with my own take on "The worst writing advice I've ever received."

Here we go!

***********

Worst for me? “NEVER EVER use exclamation points.”

I say, what about “Help. I’m drowning.” versus “Help! I’m drowning!”?

For sure, don’t overuse them, but sometimes they’re appropriate.

 – James W. Ziskin ANTHONY, BARRY, & MACAVITY Award-winning author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries. Finalist for the EDGAR, AGATHA, and LEFTY Awards.

Syd Fields in his screenwriting book says avoid bummer endings. And that killed humanist film making in the US per screenwriter/producer Kirk Ellis (John Adams, Into the West). And it wasn't just films that suffered, in my opinion.

 – David Corbett Recovering Catholic, NYT  Notable author of THE ART OF CHARACTER, six novels, dozens of stories, numerous scripts, and too many poems.

Show Don't Tell. In reality it should be Show AND Tell.

 – Robert Gregory Browne, Bestselling author of  the TRIAL JUNKIES series and the FOURTH DIMENSION THRILLERS. Co-founder and Creative Director at Braun Haus Media, LLC.

Over my career as a playwright, a few have suggested I end a play with a “button.” But I’ve learned how hollow those throwaway tags can feel. It’s better to leave the audience with an open loop (some mystery, a question) so they are still “activated” long after “end of play.”

 – Audrey Cefaly, Calicchio Prize-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright.

I did a whole presentation on this at @WCSUWritingMFA...but, basically, any "viral" writing rule is horseshit...there is only ONE rule..."does it work?"

 – Matthew Quinn Martin Author of the NIGHTLIFE series, and sometime screenwriter.

I was told early on to get a fall back job.  I disliked the advice and ignored it.  By my mid-20s I was making a living writing freelance, getting grants and being paid to write a feature film.  You cannot retreat if you have a fall back position.  Always go forward.

 – Richard Vetere Author of the novels THE WRITER'S AFTERLIFE and CHAMPGAGNE AND COCAINE. 

"Write what you know." Bad because it's so limiting, and destroys the joy of discovering and exploring worlds (or stories rather) that you don't know...yet.

 – Robert Alexander Wray, Marc A. Klein Award-winning playwright of over a dozen works, including LOOKING GLASS ELEGY and MELANCHOLY ECHO.

There is a great deal of bad advice on Pinterest. Some of the worst is never use big words, do not use adverbs or adjutives, keep all sentences to three words.

 – Art Rickard

You can’t edit till you finish a novel. I get why, but it’s just not my process and I lost time trying to do it this way.

 – Robin Lemke

Any writing advice that tells me I MUST do this or that - whether it's writing an outline, zero draft, or whatever. Leave me alone, I'll write my own way, thank you.

 – Marty Wingate

"Bad" advice: Any pressure or encouragement to plot/outline.

Reasoning: Outlining demotivates me, creates extra work that isn't useful to the process I follow, and (for me specifically) it removes some of the humor/zing/unexpectedness from my work.

 – Kate Baray

Worst advice ever: “Do as much research as possible before you write even one word.” For years, I wasted months on research before writing “even one word.” It was a way to procrastinate and we writers are experts at procrastination. When I finally actually started the writing, I’d often discover that because the plot wasn’t working or the characters didn’t come alive, I’d have to start all over, often not needing or using any of the material. In a workshop facilitated by Elizabeth George, she advised to FIRST spend time & energy on character development/exploration and plotting because readers connect with characters, second with plot, and lastly with the areas that need research. “Focus your time and energy on the actual craft of writing,” she advised, “and not the technical stuff.”

 – Shannon Walker

Write what you know. If that advice had been followed we'd never have had Tarzan, Conan, and many others.

 – Bob Napier

Any absolute rule. Never do prologues or flashbacks

 – Leslie Hall, writing instructor and author of the Kaitlyn Willis Roadsigns Mysteries

"Never use any dialog tag other than 'said'" pisses me off every time. "Said" is too narrow and bland for sarcasm, fury, pain, desperation, or fear.

 – Kat Richardson, author of the bestselling GREYWALKER novels.

Any advice that begins with the words "always" or "never."

 – J. R. Sanders

Two pieces of contradictory advice: 1. If you want to sell a manuscript, read what editors are currently publishing and write something like that. 2. Don't chase trends. By the time you write your story, the editors will be sick of it and switch to a new trend.

 – Thomas P. Hopp, scientist and author of such modern day disaster epics as RAINIER ERUPTS! and THE GREAT SEATTLE EARTHQUAKE.

"Spend more than your advance on promo." Bad, BAD advice. Took me years and cashing in an old IRA to pay it off.

 –Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest medieval mystery series.

Not me, but a friend was told by his high school English teacher to always use as many qualifiers as possible, that way no one can ever prove you wrong.

 – Larry Cebula

Senior year of college, "First Novels" class teacher: "You seem to be using humor to hide from true emotion." Almost ended me as a writer, took nearly twenty years to recover from.

 – Cornelia Read, author A FIELD OF DARKNESS and THE CRAZY SCHOOL.

"Get a real job."

 – Bill Fitzhugh, former radio comedian, DJ, and author of HEART SEIZURE, HUMAN RESOURCES, and THE ORGAN GRINDERS. 

"Write what you know." Makes for a very boring book.

 – Michael W. Sherer, author of the Blake Sanders thriller series.

"Write what you know." Should be: "Write what you know or can find out."

 –Ed Goldberg

Write what you loathe.

 – Michael Fowles

"Write better."

 – Justin D. Park

"Keep your day job."

 – Elizabeth Sims

"Write while you hold down a job." I wrote a little, but it wasn't very good because I have to do rewrites and "rethinks."

 – Marilyn Holt

"Write what you know."

 – David B. Schlosser

Last, but not least, I received the following from my old friend and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, who has been under the weather lately, and to whom I am wishing the speediest of recoveries. Too good not to share in its entirety! Thanks R.T.!

The worst writing advice I received, came from two different university English professors.

The first professor gave me a D in his creative writing class and told me I would never learn to write. Finding that I had other talents which would serve me well in a subsequent career, this final grade never appeared on my graduation transcript. Don’t ask.

As for the second professor, I had returned from my two years, nine months, twenty-nine days with the army, having been granted a sixty-day drop in order to go back to college. Shortly after arriving on campus, I took some of my war poems to the English Department and conversed with a professor. He read the poems and politely did not encourage me to continue in this endeavor. His point was made, so be it.

This does not mean my current published work is anything close to literary. Let’s just say it is commercially bent and that the two professors merely had a different view on the subject at that point in time as they looked down from their ivory towers.

It was about five years after graduation from university that I read a short story in a biker magazine, told myself I could do better and sat down to write. The process was longhand on a yellow legal pad with many scissor cuts and subsequent joining with Scotch tape, so that no two pages were the same length. The original cut- and-paste method. And, yes, I did hunt-and-peck the manuscript out on an electric typewriter before submitting by snail-mail. The biker magazine bought and published the story. I was on my way.

Had I taken the advice of those two professors, then I would never have had the pleasure of meeting at conferences, chaptermeetings, critique groups and readings all those wonderful people who write. A very interesting group. I would not have had over160 published short stories. I would also not have had the privilege of Edgar setting on my writing desk, nor of being nominated for a Macavity.

Work hard, learn and follow your dreams.

 – R.T. Lawton, Edgar Award-winning short story writer.

***********

And how's that for a last word? 

Thanks to all who chimed in. And if you've got a good piece of bad writing advice, feel free to weigh in in the comments section below.

See you in two weeks!

07 November 2021

Professional Tips – Kindle Edition


e-reader spilling books

Blatant Teaser

If you’re a Kindle owner and avid consumer of ebooks, today’s hottest tip will more than repay the price of your SleuthSayers subscription. This article includes a startlingly simple way to open your Kindle to the vast library of ePub titles available to everyone… except Kindle users.

Most of my comments are directed toward the Kindle PaperWhite. The Kindle Fire is a different machine with different capabilities. For example, you can ‘side-load’ Android apps to read formats and read aloud that the Kindle e-Ink tablets won’t allow.

But first…

Self-editing is at best problematic. Once a draft is completed, we must first rid a text of errors and then refine and smooth the writing. I’m not alone in this, but I may be more prone to skid-reading than many of my colleagues.

In latter stages of the editing process, I read a story aloud and have the computer read it back to me. I’ve discovered reading from different platforms (laptop, desktop, tablet, even a printed page) often reveals bugs that may have lurked for ages, defying me to spot them.

I like to take a break from the computer, load a document on my tablet, put my feet up on the sofa, and either read or let the tablet read to me. Android and Apple app stores offer several free programs that will do this. Most accept the world’s most common format, .ePub, but not the proprietary Amazon formats, AZW, AZW3, KF8, KFX, MOBI, and so on. Likewise, Kindles refuse to read ePub formats, locking readers into the Amazon ‘eco-system’.

One of the early Kindle models would read aloud documents, but what Amazon giveth (albeit for lots of money), Amazon taketh away. When Amazon announced that functionality had returned in later PaperWhite models, they limited it to Kindle commands for the visually impaired and Audible™ books.

Proprietary formats have been a problem throughout the ereader industry, following the same history of word processors, the first practical programs for personal computers. Companies would throw up fences around their products, refusing to write to ‘foreign’ file types and making it as difficult as possible for others to read theirs. The most common ebook format is ePub, the open technical standard published by the International Digital Publishing Forum, a standard Kindle will not read.

eReaders

  • Amazon Kindle dominates about 80% of the North American market, much less so in other parts of the world. Its native formats are .azw and .mobi.
  • Rakuten Kobo (Kobo is an anagram of book) is the only major global competitor to Amazon. They sell worldwide, everywhere except the US. That may change with their partnership with Walmart.
  • Pocketbook is sold mainly in Oceania and states of the former Soviet Union.
  • Barnes & Noble Nook (and Samsung Nook) was one of the first ereaders on the market, quickly steamrolled by Amazon. They have a spotty market mostly in the US.

eFFective (not)

I have a relatively recent Kindle PaperWhite that I occasionally use, but its strict limitations on what I can load onto it usually leave it on the shelf. Seldom do I bother to create .mobi files just for the Kindle. It’s far easier to use an iPad or Android tablet with free third-party apps to read free ebooks.

eAuthors?

I’ve been experimenting loading on Microsoft Word .docx and .rtf files. Using the eReader, I can mark up manuscripts by pressing a word, expanding the range of the word if necessary, and then typing in a note of the text I want to change. Unlike a Word-type app on a tablet where I might change the text directly, I’m restricted to marking up text, but that can be useful.

In-Line Markups
  List of Markups
Kindle screen with notes and highlights
Kindle screen with notes expanded

Usually I note the change, which I then effect when I return to my computer. Initially, I keyed in ‘Del’ for deletion of a word or phrase, but now I simply highlight the words (using the same mechanism), which serves to remind me what has to go.

Kindle notation number in box

The main visual difference is that a note will contain an identifying superscript number in a tiny box. When tapped, the note pops up in a window.

Amazon.com can display Kindle notes and highlights in a browser window, which would be wonderfully convenient for editing but… forget that route for now. Once again, Amazon permits browser viewing of notes only for books purchased from them. Amazon giveth, Amazon taketh away.

In case you’re wondering, that special URL is

SleuthSayers Auto-Magical, Tremendous, Stupendous,
Super-Fantastically All Powerful, Fabulous Kindle Tip

You have a Kindle PaperWhite and would like to read an .epub file on it, one that Amazon won’t allow. If you email it to your kindle.com address, you’ll receive a message like this:

Dear Customer,
The following document, sent at 11:04 PM on Sat, Nov 06, 2021
GMT could not be delivered to the Kindle you specified:
    * ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.epub

Uh-oh. But try the following additional step, which might be a programmer’s ‘back door’. I have no other logical explanation why this works… it just does.

  1. Rename your ebook extension from .epub to .png … that’s right, the graphics format. For example, rename your novel
     ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.epub
               to
     ExoticEroticRomanceNo54.png
  2. Email it to your kindle.com address as usual. You do have one of those, don’t you? It’s mentioned in your Kindle settings.
  3. Transfer should take only moments, but grab a coffee, then see if your story is on your Kindle.

Did it work? Thank us later!

e-reader spilling books

09 November 2020

Sin & Syntax


by Steve Liskow 

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

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

These are the books on writing that I've KEPT

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

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

Go-to books for editing 


Here it is.


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

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

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

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

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

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

This is from "Cardinal Sins" discussing pronouns:

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

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

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

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

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

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




18 September 2020

Steinbeck's Writing Tips


John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Nobel committee cited his "realistic and imaginative writings" noting his "sympathetic humor and keen social perception." This "giant of American letters" gave us six tips about writing which I list below (from multiple internet sources):

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it is finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined one and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a sections gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave you trouble is because it didn't belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
 Writers don't write the same way. I seem to follow many of these steps, especially #1, 2, 3 and 6.

I follow #2 but using a computer allows me to go back over what I wrote the day before and edit it. That jump starts me to write what follows.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Themes in Steinbeck's fiction included fate and injustice, especially to the downtrodden or the everyman protagonist.

John Steinbeck receiving Nobel Prize
 Here is an excerpt from Steinbeck's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech –
"The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.

www.oneildenoux.com

25 August 2020

The Next Best Thing to Being There


We’re all hunkered down these days under house arrest. Some people are binging on Netflix, others catching up on all the cute cat videos they’ve missed. Others still are too anxious to do much of anything productive. I’m lucky in that my life hasn’t changed all that much on a day to day basis since I’ve worked at home for ages. I still walk the dog/s. Do my writing. Listen to music. Watch the old black and white movies that I love. Read. The one big change is that my wife’s been working at home since March. Luckily we seem to get along. Blame that on her more than me 😉.

But, as writers there have been some changes, most notably that in-person events have been cancelled. Most of the conventions and conferences that we enjoy have been zapped, Bouchercon, West Coast Crime (right in the middle of the actual convention), and others. In-store book events and launches have largely disappeared for now. But we live in an age of new-fangled thingies, an amazing age, an age of the internet, Zoom, Skype and other modern marvels.

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

So, the other day, as I was doing a Zoom panel for a writer’s conference, it dawned on me how cool it is to be able to do this. Not all that long ago it couldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there. With something like the Covid pandemic the event would just have disappeared. But with Zoom, Skype and others they just sort of morph into something virtual.

Since the lockdown began I’ve done several Zoom events. I haven’t yet hosted one though I’m thinking about doing that for the Coast to Coast: Noir anthology that I co-edited that’s coming out in September. That will be a new learning curve. But before that I had to learn how to Zoom as a guest. It’s not hard – and it’s really cool and fun. I also did a short (non-Zoom) video for Ellery Queen on coming in second in their readers poll since they, too, cancelled their in-person event in NYC. And I’ve done several panels and interviews and even virtual doctor appointments. As I write this a bit ahead of its posting date just a few days ago I did a Skype interview for a radio station in England. Could we have done that even twenty years ago? Maybe by phone, but with much more difficulty and expense.

E-flyer from Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles first House Arrest virtual reading
Remember long distance phone calls (and long distance could virtually be just across the street in some cases). They were ridiculously expensive. You’d call the operator before your call and request “time and charges,” then when the call was over the operator would call you back and tell you how long the call lasted and how much it cost. And you’d get sticker shock.

The "good old days".
In the near last minute my wife suggested doing a virtual launch for The Blues Don’t Care in June since there were no in person events happening. So we had to scramble to figure out how to do that. We weren’t sure if we should try Zoom or another service or stick to the old standby (yeah ‘old’ standby) of Facebook, which is what we ended up doing. And it turned out better than I had expected. We had a big group of people and questions flying back and forth. Plus I’d toss out tidbits of info on various things related to events that took place in the novel, like the gambling ships that lay off the SoCal coast back in the day. It was fun, if a little hectic, and I think people enjoyed it.

So we make do as best we can. And we don’t have to shower or drive to get to our meetings 😉. It’s also kind of cool to just see someone when you’re talking one to one with Zoom or Skype or other services. My wife’s family reunion was cancelled this year because of Covid but her and some of her cousins get together semi-regularly with each other via Zoom. Like they used to say, it’s the next best thing to being there.

So what’s next? Virtual reality meetings? Holograms? Mind-melding? Beam me up Scotty! There seem to be no limits to technology, but there is still something to be said for meeting people face to face. Standing close enough to whisper something, closer than 6 feet apart. Laughing, talking, sharing good food (and drink!) and good stories. So until we can do those things again, at least we have the virtual world, which is the next best thing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

I want to thank Living My Best Book Life for this great review of The Blues Don’t Care. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full review:

"The Blues Don't Care by Paul D. Marks is a mysterious historical fiction set in the WWII time period. It tackles topics like corruption, racism, and many others that we are still facing today. I was taken aback by Paul D. Marks's talented writing style. This story is powerful and Paul did a wonderful job developing his main character, Bobby Saxon...

…I was captivated from the very start. This author tackled so many subjects that few care to bring up. The detail of the story gave me an insight on all the injustices in the 1940's. I appreciated the heart of the story; a person chasing their dream and never looking back. Bobby Saxon is a well-developed character that was able to learn, grow, and hone in on his craft. There is a main secret of Bobby's that I didn't see coming. This is such a fascinating historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed!”

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