Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

08 July 2021

I've Got This Great Character In Search Of A Story


(Still on a deadline—in fact I'm behind. So I'm updating and reposting this blog post from 2014 about character, and how it's where you find it! Back in two weeks with all new content!) 

So I know this guy.

70 years old.

Recently retired elementary music teacher for the past two decades.

Married three decades. Father of two.

He is one of the most interesting characters I know.

Really.

Seriously.

He is.

Go back and re-read the thumbnail I just gave you.

Now let me elaborate.

All of the above AND...

Thirty years a professional musician (including opening for the Grass Roots at age 15 in 1965!).

So, these guys. And yes, the dude second from the left really is Creed Braxton from "The Office."

So of course I ask him, "What were they like?"

("They" being the aforementioned Grass Roots.)

He smiles and says, "They were dicks."

He doesn't dance. Ever.

When I ask him why not, he says, "I never had to."

"Why not?"

"I'm the drummer. I never needed to dance to get girls."

(Note: the guy's wife is a knockout and they have been happily and faithfully married for the above-referenced THREE DECADES)

He once took a gig in Guam for four weeks that wound up lasting six months.

He knows an uncle of mine who is the amazingly-not-yet-dead black sheep (and then some) of our family. Their paths crossed years before I got to know him, back during his playing days. I'll leave it to your imagination how he knows him.

(And you're RIGHT!)

I once referred to someone we both know as a "hot mess." His response?

"I played in a band called 'Hot Mess'..." followed by reminiscences about same.

(This has happened more than once and is always entertaining.)

He once hid out in Alaska for over a year. This after getting stranded in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way there. I infer that there was a girl (or several) involved.

I convinced him to go to a Rush concert with me (I'm a HUGE fan). He is the only drummer I've ever known who attended a Rush concert and came away much more interested in what Alex Lifeson (the guitarist) was doing onstage than in what the then-world's greatest living rock drummer (Neal Peart) was doing behind his drum kit.

He's clean and sober now, and has been for years, if not always continuously.

He is one of the most painfully honest, most loyal and gentlest souls I have ever met.

I have seen him with blood in his eye and murder in his heart over the treatment of our society's most vulnerable members. I am hardly a conservative, and yet he makes me look like William F. Buckley.

And yet he lives on a golf course (It's a long story!) and sports a significant handicap.

All of the above is true.

I started this blog posting intending to wrap it up by saying that I had a great idea for a character based on this friend of mine, but no story in which to insert him. And then a funny thing happened.

I remembered a story he told me once about this woman he met, who turned out to be married, and....

...oh, forget it.

Wouldn't want to give away the ending!

Characters can come to us from the strangest of places and by the most indirect of routes sometimes, can't they?

See you in two weeks!

18 June 2021

Still Writing in the Dark


In my April 2019 SleuthSayers’ posting, I mentioned how writers evolve. Most of this posting is a repeat of what was posted before.

When I began writing novels, I made detailed outlines and after completing the books, I saw I always deviated from the outline to make the story work. No problem. I also wrote a detailed synopsis of each book to satisfy agent/editor/publisher.

That was then. Now, I begin with a character with a problem. Add setting, time and a couple conflicts listed in sketchy notes so I don't forget. Sometimes the character walks off in another direction and the sketchy notes are ignored. I follow the character and write what he/she says and does.

Writing in the dark. I'm not alone in this. Better writers have been doing this for a while. Me, only recently. When it is time to get back to Lucien Caye, to rejoin his world, go back to 1951, I put him in motion and tag along. I miss him and that world so it is great to be back. Same with my other series characters.

I follow in the footsteps of James Sallis and Dean Wesley Smith and many other good writers.
James Sallis – DRIVE (made into a movie with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan out of this novel), the Lew Griffin New Orleans novels – THE LONG-LEGGED FLY, BLACK HORNET, MOTH, BLUE BOTTLE, EYE OF THE CRICKET, GHOST OF A FLEA – and many other novels, books of poetry, non-fiction books, and essays.

Sallis explains "After years of writing the well-made story," he became disaffected and bored and if he was bored, possible his readers would be bored. He sometimes goes back to Raymond Chandler's – when in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. He decided to challenge himself and improvise.

Sallis says, "I would start with a scene. I would start with a bit of conversation, with a plot point and would see where it took me. And I would try to surprise myself." He goes to to explain writers go every way with their writing, some have to have it all clocked out and some can't do that. There is a danger to all creative work. Sallis adds how writing this way can be like throwing yourself off a cliff.

LINK to Sallis interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuXCz2gv3pc

Dean Wesley Smith has over a hundred published novels and more than 17 million copies of his books in print. Dean wrote a book about this: WRITING INTO THE DARK: HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL WITHOUT AN OUTLINE.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-into-Dark-without-Outline-ebook/dp/B00XIPANX8/

Dean says it will start with a scene or conversation and he sees where it takes him looking for a surprise. When addressing writing into the dark, he explains, "To be vital you have to change." He goes on to remind us, "You are the God of your book."

Here is a great interview of Dean Wesley Smith:
LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zjl66ZnrC7g/

I still like starting with the story running and catching up with the characters. Endings can be a surprise and when it works, it is like the satisfaction a homicide detective gets when the killer looks you in the eye and confesses.

That's all for now.

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

11 June 2021

Writing Soundtrack


 I wrote a few weeks back about being on a jazz kick. It's what I listen to while I work in the morning, when I drive Uber, and sometimes when I write. In fact, on Sunday mornings, I have the Morning Jazz playlist on while everyone else is asleep. Yes, I'm that guy, the one who gets up early even on Sundays.

But what is good music for writing?

In all honesty, it depends on the writer. This came up on the Liminal Fiction scifi group about a week ago. What do we listen to when we write? The answers were all over the place. Some want absolutely no sound whatsoever. Others want ambient or classical, something unobtrusive. Jazz fits that bill when I also want something quiet and in the background. (And then my curated jazz playlist includes Herbie Hancock's "RockIt" and a couple of selections from Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell. Not exactly quiet jazz.)

This being a primarily science fiction and fantasy group, it did not surprise me that many of those responding liked soundtracks. Not playlists of classic and obscure tunes like Cruella. More like Marvel, Star Trek, or Apollo 13. This is definitely mood music, a concept I truly understand. I wrote Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion with a lot of Metallica and Alice in Chains as Nick was a very angry man in those stories.

But when I wrote Northcoast Shakedown all those years ago, I channeled a lot of blues and blues rock. Some of this came from an author friend giving me two Rory Gallagher CD's. It was also a time when most of us in the crime community, even some cozy writers, fell head over heels for the music of Tom Waits. So, Northcoast and a lot of the short stories I wrote in the 2000 had an earthy feel to them, like someone was in the background playing wailing blues solos or wooden acoustic. 

These days, I write first thing in the morning. I have about two hours before I have to help my wife start her day and make my way downstairs to the office. I work at home. During breaks I give myself to write, I play jazz in the morning and vinyl in the afternoon. The vinyl ranges from Sinatra to the Beatles to AC/DC. 

For me, music is brain juice. I write well enough in silence, but a lot of that has to do with the two hours I spend at the beginning of the day. I also read then. But when full time in the office was a thing, I would go to Starbucks on my lunch break. It had music, coffee, and best of all, no coworkers. (Sorry, coworkers, I love ya, but I really need to put our shared day job aside and reboot.)

So what do you listen to when you write? Do you listen to anything? Anyone listening to the sounds of cicadas as they get words in? (Spoiler alert: I'm not. My ears hurt.)

24 May 2021

YOUR Way


Writing is the hardest subject to teach. It's not information like history or science, and it's not a manual skill like carpentry or shooting lay-ups. It's a combination of knowledge (Vocabulary and grammar) and synthesis, combining that knowledge with the writer's own experience, emotions, skills and interests. When you have 25 or 30 students in a class or online with different cultures, environments, and DNA, trying to teach them the same skills the same way at the same time and expecting to absorb it at the same rate is a sure way to fail.

This is why so many graduate not only as mediocre writers, but as people who hate writing. Writing is a personal, even intimate skill, and the cookie-cutter approach doesn't work. I see and hear writers at workshops proclaiming that their method is the only way to write, and it always annoys me.

I was a panelist at a workshop a few years ago where one audience member asked if we outline our novels and I was the only one who said, "Yes." Before I could even explain that I used the term loosely, two other panel members screamed at me as though I had relieved myself on the table.

I told one of them later that if her method produced writing like hers, NO ONE should want to know how she did it.

Teaching writing should be less about getting the actual words right and a lot more about finding the way that works best for YOU. Schools need deadlines so teachers can grade your early stumbling efforts, but it doesn't help anyone. Teachers look at spelling, grammar and punctuation because that's easy to evaluate. Structure, style, pacing and rhythm, on the other hand, need larger samples than time permits. My senior honors English class gave me six weeks (It might have even been eight) to produce a research paper of 1000 words, and the teacher checked our footnote style (Remember Turabian?) with a microscope. Now, I expect to write that much on any given day (I produced the first draft of this essay, 1050 words, in about 35 minutes).

I don't know a single writer who uses precisely the same process that I do, and I claim that it works for me because I'm satisfied with most of the 15 novels and 30-some short stories I've published so far. But several writers on this blog have published hundreds of short stories and three times as many novels as I have. I have only a general idea of how most of them work, and it doesn't matter.

When I conduct my NANO workshops, I tell students that the important goal is not really producing 50,000 words, it's learning HOW TO produce those 50,000 words. If they've never tried to write a substantial amount before, it's a great chance to learn how to do it.

I suggest ideas you can use for outlining (Or simply listing scenes). I demonstrate the structure of a scene, how and why some characters work better for a story than others, how setting may help your story by creating obstacles or a context for your character, and how conflict enhances your plot. You need to find your own way to reach those goals.

Here are the questions schools can't help students answer, mostly because they're also doing math, science, social studies, foreign language and art homework, too, so their time is crowded. Never mind a social life.

How do YOU write the most effectively?

Do you write better in large blocks of time (Two hours or even more) or in short bursts of ten or fifteen minutes? Does that change if you're in an early stage of planning or actually working on the last pages of your story? I tend to go faster as I find a story's details and rhythm.

Do you need an outline or do you write a lot of junk then go back to save and expand the good stuff? I know a few major wirters who outline (Robert Crais and the late Sue Grafton among them), but Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and Carl Hiaasen don't. I wish I could write like any of them.

Do you need quiet, or can you listen to music or the traffic outside your window?

Do you need an deadline to motivate you? For me, one advantage of being unpublished and without a contract was that I could work at my own speed. I could go back and rewrite pieces and learn how to make them better without worrying about meeting someone else's deadline. I did 30 years of THAT in theater.

Are you better off writing your first draft with a pencil (John Steinbeck, with legal pads), crayon, rollerball, or fountain pen (Tess Gerritsen's preference), or typing into a computer? How about talking and recording your ideas first?

Do you have to write everything in order? Can you jump ahead to write a scene you expect to use later, and if so, do you need an outline to know that?

Steve Liskow
Steve Liskow

What gives you your ideas? Neil Gaiman answered this question better than anyone else I know when he said that writers get ideas because it's their job. Just like carpenters need to handle tools, actors need to learn lines, and musicians need a good sense of pitch and rhythm. If you can't get ideas SOMEHOW, you're not going to be a writer.

Do you edit as you go along, or do you write a complete first draft before you revise, or a combination of these? Is your process the same for short stories and novels (Mine isn't)?

Do you know other writers who can read and critique your work? How do you give and take criticism? I've been in three writing groups, and none of them helped me very much. I know several writers in the area whose work and judgment I respect, but at this stage I seldom bother them for anything except occasional feedback.

What do you do when the writing isn't flowing or you're overwhelmed? I read, do jumbles and crossword puzzles, play guitar, or praactice piano. I used to work out at the health club because mindless physical repetition helps me release my unconscious, the best editor. That went away during the pandemic.

What did I leave out? I don't know, but maybe THAT's what you need to answer.

03 May 2021

Sources of Historical Fiction: Trivia and Iconia vs Writing What You Lived


In a December 2020 post titled "Historical Fiction (Or Not)," SleuthSayer Steve Liskow made the case for Not by revealing he's a "trivia junkie" who must avoid research because for him it's "the best way to avoid actually writing." He then described the historical fiction he's written, all set in periods he lived through and drawing on powerful, even traumatic experiences of his own.

I was going to write a comment on Steve's post when it occurred to me that it provided several jumping off points for an essay of my own. For one thing, when I do research, I don't stray far afield of my topic, though I love collecting relevant information. I came to my Mendoza Family Saga after a lifetime of hating research. I was charmed by what I learned about my subject matter—the Jews of the Sephardic Diaspora, the Taino of the Caribbean, and the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. And I was astonished at how much I enjoyed learning it. For example, my mystery short story protagonist Rachel Mendoza is a kira in Istanbul. The kiras were Jewish women who served as purveyors or personal shoppers to the ladies of the Sultan's harem in the 16th and 17th centuries. I learned about them in a footnote in a book I found a reference to in another book I found in a bibliography I was given by a professor at my alma mater whom I contacted. Academics respond nicely to emails saying, "I'm an alumna; may I pick your brains?"

I googled "1950s trivia." In one multiple choice test, I had no trouble remembering that M&Ms "melt in your mouth, not in your hand"; Animal Farm was written by George Orwell; Audrey Hepburn played the princess in Roman Holiday; Dr Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus; and Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute mile. But I was stumped by the questions about the history of cars and credit cars and have no idea what year Disneyland opened. In another, I knew that JD Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye; that Nixon's "Checkers" speech referred to his cocker spaniel; that Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt Everest; that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix of DNA; that Brown vs Board of Education prohibited school segregation; and that Congress added "In God We Trust" to American currency in (if they say so) 1953. I flunked the ones on cars, TV, where the Brinks Robbery took place, which general said, "Old soldiers never die," and the ad for Burger King. I wouldn't use any of these in a novel or short story.

Rosa Parks, the only name on both lists, was and is not trivial.

I don't necessarily think historical writers who look for their background material in books are looking for trivia. For a long time between the era of ancient Rome and that of modern quiz nights, the term connoted information of little value. That's not the same as detail. But besides detail, writers outside their own period and setting are looking for iconia (my own word—I googled it, and it's not there, except as a formerly inhabited planet in the Beta Quadrant). If you set your novel in ancient Greece, you'll look up the Parthenon and the Oracle at Delphi. If your period is 19th century San Francisco, you'll focus on the Goldrush, Chinatown, and Nob Hill.

But when you write what you know—the past as it occurred within your own lifetime—you can supply a unique perspective that can't be found in books.

I've reached an age when I'm willing to let others consider my high school years, the late 1950s, "historical" and enjoy writing about them. What it was like for me is similar to and different from what they say the 1950s was like. I googled "1950s fashion." I found plenty of poodle skirts. I didn't have one. There were plenty of saddle shoes. I didn't have those either, though I know they were hell to polish, white fore and aft and black in the middle. How a girl felt about her mother buying her brown oxfords instead of saddle shoes like the other girls– now that starts to get into territory that might interest a writer. Or let's consider Elvis and rock 'n roll. In my house, it was folk and union songs. My short story, "The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat," drew on an event that affected many and had haunted me for decades—the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. I couldn't write it until I was old enough to write about the 1950s as a historical period; mature enough to put it into the context of the Queens I grew up in; and skilled enough as a writer to weave it into a story that added a memorable protagonist and themes of domestic violence and betrayal.

12 April 2021

Anthologies, Pro and Con


When I started taking writing seriously, I aimed to produce a novel every year or so, along with three or four short stories. When I published my first novel, I had five more in my files and I revised them and built off those early ideas for the next decade. In late 2019, I finally exhausted that back inventory, and in the interim, I published 15 novels, but seldom more than two or three short stories a year.

For reasons I've discussed before, that changed in 2020. I haven't even considered writing another novel, but I wrote about fifteen short stories in the last half-year and sold five of them, more than usual. Right now, I have a dozen stories under submission at some market or another, and I owe that to anthologies.

Looking over my records, I see that over half my sales have been to anthologies, which I never realized before. In fact, five of the submissions currently out there are either at anthology markets or were inspired by an anthology call.

What happened?

Well, sometimes I write a story and it turns out to be a perfect match for an anthologoy that appears later. That happened with "Ugly Fat." I wrote the story years ago and many markets turned it down, but I knew it would find a home eventually. Sure enough, Heartbreaks and Half-Truths sought stories about love gone wrong, and "Ugly Fat" was perfect. When I sent it, I was sure it would sell.

I like anthologies more and more now because the guidelines serve as a writing prompt. The general premise and a context generate enough of an idea to get me started. If I get an idea right away, it tells me it's too obvious and other people will think of it, too. If that happens, I usually write a couple of pages and put the story in a file until I find a better idea or a new twist that will make it stand out. Having that basic plan gives me a more specific understanding of where to look for that difference.

For example, Michael Bracken is editing an anthology that will appear next year. "Groovy Gumshoes" showcases PI stories set in the 1960s, and the guidelines encouraged authors to use an historical event from the period. I thought of Woodstock; Vietnam; civil rights; the British music invasion; and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. Two other events spoke to me more personally, though. The Detroit riot erupted less than 30 miles south of where I was in a summer session at Oakland University. The following year, the Detroit Tigers became the first team to come back from a 3-1 game deficit and win the World Series. The riot suggested urban grit, and I used that setting. The story sold.

I have submitted stories to seven Mystery Writer of America antholgies because their themes are concrete enough to generate an idea but open enough to provide wiggle room. So far, only one story I wrote made the anthology in question, but all the others eventually sold somewhere else. I can live with that.

Yes, many anthologies pay a royalty share instead of a flat rate, and that share may be tiny, but anthologies have a longer shelf life than a magazine. Last December, I received (another) royalty payment for an MWA anthology published in 2012.That means the book and my name are still out there, and the exposure builds cred for the next story I submit somewhere else. 

As anthologies proliferate, there are more potential markets...and more potential ideas.

It's all about keeping the keyboard warm.

29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?


The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?



26 March 2021

The Zone can be elusive


In October 2017, I put up a post here entitled In The Zone, where I spoke about The Zone, a sort of Twilight Zone, a separate existence, a Zone where I wrote stories and novels with such focus the story flowed like a swollen river.

My wife bought me a T-shirt which read: Poor Listener. It had taken her a white to realize I wasn't listening to her because she talked too much, I wasn't listening because I was somewhere else. I was in The Zone.

The pandemic changed so many things, including making The Zone elusive to me for the first time. The scenes still play out. I still watch and listen to the characters but the distraction of living in fear keeps intruding. I still daydream but they are shorter and grow unfocused. At least I know it and can bear down and still write but I miss The Zone.

When I wrote my epic historical novel BATTLE KISS (320,000 words) and the follow-up USS RELENTLESS (234,000 words) I could step in and out of The Zone at will and everything was there.

The deaths (relatives, former co-workers, old friends) take a toll.

OK, the vaccines are here but every time I go out so many people, too many people, are unmasked and not following distancing protocols. It's frustrating.

So I rarely leave the house, which should help me to enter The Zone. And I do, but not as easily. The election took a lot out of me, the great anxiety fearing we were slipping into a fascist state.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see it yet, but it has to be there.

The lessons I learned when I started writing have taught me how to narrow my focus and to keep writing, no matter what. I hope beginners listen to the lessons we sometimes give here on SleuthSayers. I learn something new here all the time.

Y'all take care. Gotta go Zoning.

www.oneildenoux.com

13 March 2021

Don't Make Me Turn This Car Around


I’ve convinced myself–against all experience–that Asheville is four hours from my driveway. Every trip, I’m cranking the music and thinking about the Blue Ridge fading off like haze, line after line in their peek at eternity. Yep, just four hours away. As a scientific fact, the trip from south Nashville is five hours minimum–with luck and a heavy foot. You get the Lookie Lous gawking around Pigeon Forge, then flatbeds loaded with timber crawl up the steep grades. Next, a malingering road construction project where I-40 tunnels into North Carolina. I've become certain it isn’t a construction project at all. There’s never actual construction. No, it’s a social experiment to document how drivers come unglued when jammed together into one lane for zero reason. Another time chunk gone. I pull into Asheville ruing whatever the hell happened to that quick escape east.

My writing works the same way. I set out after a shiny idea, but the problems start soon enough. The tone is off. The POV isn’t working. The plot takes a bad turn. All that can be fixed, but also like those Carolina trips, it’ll take longer than I think.

My first published crime story was in MWA’s 2014 anthology Ice Cold. I had a shiny idea indeed, plus a Shakespearian body count and key death at the end. I edited it mercilessly. And quickly, as I recall it today, except I count seventeen manuscript versions on my hard drive. My story in next month's AHMM clocks in at a svelte thirteen versions. My max on a published story? 75 versions on my hard drive.

Some process lessons from along my journeys:

Begin with the End in Mind

Yes, this old saw. Bear with me. I’m not talking killer twists but personal intentionality. What does a writer want out of writing a story? Creative bliss? Cool. My hard drive also has those stories. The pure joy of that is an amazing gift. Or is a piece meant for an audience? How competitive or specific an audience? Once a potential editor and their readers get involved, they become your boss. They deserve edits with their quality standards and enjoyment in mind, edits that may wilt creative bliss into drudgery. 

Drudgery also describes minutes lost to Knoxville traffic if you hit it at the wrong time. Maybe I have hard feelings about that.

This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Written

I considered it a healthy sign as writing growth when I stone cold understood that an early draft wasn’t anywhere near as groovy as my creative high believed. I might’ve had a great concept, say like to get to Asheville in four hours, but reality and hard work comes around as it must.

Take that story in Ice Cold. I believed that key death made for a Frankly Amazing Ending until an editor demonstrated--mere days before the deadline--that it was a Terrible Ending and also Physically Impossible. Cue more versions, the fast kind. 

Unobjectively loving a piece is my signal that the draft objectively stinks. It means I’m still thinking about me, not a reader. It means I haven’t pushed an idea enough to risk hating it.

Be Constructive with Your Readback

At some point, I find myself tweaking a manuscript here and there, but the creative momentum is kaput. Either it needs more critique or else a deeper think. Surgical procedure deep, and if so, I’ll print the thing and read it aloud. Many times. As an earth-friendly step, I’ll let Word’s readback feature sub in for an occasional cycle. Typos and clunky sequences ring plain. Missing layers and connections emerge. That’s the story finding its core. Oh, darling passages will remind me that of course I can’t cut them, and in a joy-crushing grind, out they go. I’ll keep iterating until I do hate the piece and might pitch the computer out the window rather than read one more word.

This Is the Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written

It’s not.

Despair and loathing are signs the piece is nearly ready. I step away for a bit until I’m all planed out emotionally.

The The

Recently, a critique partner highlighted where I’d used the verb “amble” three times over a few hundred words. Nobody ambles that often, not even cowpokes. I’ll search for crutch repetition like that.

One crucial word gets a special check: “The.” Such a weak word, the. Any cluster of it correlates to undercooked prose. I comb through anything with those three letters in that order, like “Then,” “they,” “other,” and so forth. Those buggers aren’t power words, either (Note: “Either” is a “the” word). Once my excess “the” and crutch stuff is out, no kidding, the piece has another level of energy. It’s found its style.

Lock Down

And I’m not done yet. Sure, I’m done with it mentally and spiritually, but it’s spit and polish time. I’ll let Word read a last cycle while I check along on my master document. I’m looking to confirm those final changes sound and work how I want. Darlings and typos can sneak back in. When I’m satisfied (exhausted) with a page, I mark it as locked down. When all pages reach lockdown, I scream or weep or drink wine, whatever gives me permission to get off the hamster wheel.

Such are my steps to submit something that makes me proud. Someday, maybe I’ll get more efficient. Until then, it’s like with the Asheville drive. I may get there in a bad mood, but I get there. Soon enough, I’m happily lost in those Blue Ridge lines like haze. The mistake isn’t underestimating the travel time but not completing the trip.

13 February 2021

How It's Done These Days


napping red panda

It’s 8:00am Saturday, writing day, and I’m so not ready to write. I’d been up late watching That Space Action Buddy Movie That Is Always On. TSABMTIAO sucks me right in. That’s what I do now on weekend nights, stare at a screen and not think much because I’ve been staring at smaller screens all damn week and thinking my brain into mush. I’m Zoomed out. A year now—a year—since home became not just the retreat and writing space but also the day job desk and social distancing fort. I’m still seeking balance.

Anyway, I can’t just dive into “That Flash Idea Thing,” no matter what the schedule pressure and creative guilt says. Have to get my blood pumping first. A pre-writing walk has launched the process since forever. Core to the ritual. Writing itself is an endurance feat, right? Hard to push through mentally if the body isn't primed.

Step 1: Walk and think; Step 2: Buy cold Diet Coke at the convenience store. Step 3: Go home and write. Works every time– except when it doesn’t. But I can’t skip the warm-up, that’s for sure. Off I go, and hey, what if I walk another block to the grocery? They sell Diet Coke at the grocery. Variety of route, the spice of life.

munchies

I walk to the grocery. Buy that Diet Coke. Hang on. You know what would make for top snacking later? A bag of Munchies. You know the mix, with like everything Lays swept off the packaging floor jumbled together feed bag-style. I buy the Munchies and of course sliced mangos. Writers need vitamins. Now I’m walking back home, and I should be mulling over outline problems with “Flash Thing,” but iTunes keeps playing the Stones and seriously, here is a car with legit U.S. Virgin Island license plates. Anyone alive would wonder what other fantastic license plates are in this parking lot of curiosities.

I get home with a decent U.S. state count and the Diet Coke gone. I’m totally getting my steps in, y’all. I secure the Munchies and check the phone for the usual grim news and English football scores. Start the laundry. It doesn’t start itself, does it? Done, done, and done, and folks, it is time to write. No, wait. Pollen season. Important to shower off the sinus fiends. That also done, the writing session has arrived, except how did it get to be 11am already? I can’t get going on “Flash Thing” with lunch time looming around the corner. I’ll feel distracted, disjointed. I’ll make hangry choices sure to summon rejections and the eternal silence of the hard drive. What I’ll do, I’ll outline a few goals for the day’s session as an intentionality exercise.

And bam! A key decision appears on my scratch pad. The POV will be the son. Bam! No, the mother. Bam! No, a surrogate mother figure. I decide that the piece will be about 700 words. 800 sounds longish. So, 700 hundred words and a mom-like person. I’ve earned my tuna salad, thank you very much.

writing desk

I have the tuna salad. No Munchies yet. Those are for special snack occasions like big game watching or nine o’clock. I check the news. Switch the laundry. Here we go. I’m at the computer, and I write a working title. Add the by-line. Seven words already. I try a first sentence. It stinks, but I move it around and then I move that around, and after the moving stops, there is a paragraph. There may not be another one, though. I’m stumped, and no amount of staring at my shelf inspiration deals seems to help. I’m downstairs again fetching more Diet Coke, and my path takes me past the TV. They play football in England like all Saturday long. Also, I haven’t doom-scrolled the news since the tuna salad. I have a few mango slices because the struggle is real.

It used to be, back when, I wrote in morning flurries. By afternoon, I faded into this same grind, except with victories already notched. I could recharge and hit it again later. Now, I have the grind. But hey, my word count is showing 220 words, and “Flash Thing” is tracking the general idea on the general pace. The story is leading me more, and I blow past my old 2pm hard stop and then past 3pm, and at some point, and with a spin on the treadmill, it’s dark out and I blow past my old evening stop time. Then there is a full draft right here on this monitor screen. As if the writing gods have spoken, the word count is 702.

I break open the Munchies. Turn on the TV.

There was an old process, and I’m managing through a rebalanced one, mainly to bear down and make it work. Plus, I get major laundry done.

12 February 2021

The Covid-19 Year


2020 and the beginning of 2021 in review.

The damn Cover-19 Year. I've been on lockdown (except for occasional armed excursions to grocery stories and doctor's offices). Armed with mask and face shield and avoiding the non-maskers. Got a lot of writing and reading done in my home office.

Looking back, I wrote one and a half novels in 2020. Wrote six short stories. Had one novel published. Had five original short stories published and two stories reprinted. Sold four new stories. One of my stories was awarded the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Short Story.

It was a good year for my writing but Covid-19 overshadowed everything. A number of my former police buddies succumbed to it, so did a few of their wives. We're all up in age. Other friends have died that horrible death as well.

On the blog front today, I have nothing.

I'm tapped out of writing advice for the moment. I looked back at my previous postings on SleuthSayers and think I've said just about everything I know about writing. But I could be wrong. I've been wrong before. But for the moment, I'm tapped out.

Gave y'all the one about the dead woodpecker and the riverfront expressway and the confederate statues (which I'm still catching flak over). I did one on cemeteries and American police and a number about other writers and books by other writers.

On the ficion side, I just finished writing a novel and already started on a short story with another novel waiting impatiently to be written. Wait, I still have to do the final read-through of the novel set to be published in spring. So I'm busy. It's a process.

Maybe, by writing so much fiction, my mind doesn't have room at the moment to write a piece of non-fiction, a blog. So I'll fudge along and try to think of something for the future. The way my mind works at the moment is – if I think about something to write, it defaults to fiction.

Oh, I just thought of something to mention. My dislike of social media. Not all social media, just the mundane, repititious junk (like I care what someone's birthday cake looks like). There I go. I'm being a jerk. That might be the most important thing in that person's life at the moment. Just scroll down and GET OFF SOCIAL MEDIA and write or read or go around and pet all the cats (which annoys most of them as they are sleeping).

Hey, I do have a piece of advice for beginning writers.

Daydream. Daydream and turn your daydreams into stories. This sounds trite but it works.

That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.

Old Audubon Park Zoo, New Orleans, ©1976 O'Neil De Noux

www.oneildenoux.com


09 February 2021

The Fountain Pen of Youth


As writers we are always looking for ways to expand our readership and obviously sell more books. One way to do that is to try to reach younger readers. When we’re young we never think we’re going to lose our cool, but inevitably it happens. The music and other things we once thought so cool have little relevance for young people today.

As many of you know I’ve spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital in the last few months. And in that time I came across a lot of different nursing teams. The people on these teams are from everywhere and in all age ranges. But almost all of them have one thing in common as compared to me. They’re young. The vast majority are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

I had a lot of pleasant conversations with them, but in talking to them I realized they don’t relate to the same cultural touchpoints that I do. And I don’t think it’s because of our different ethnic backgrounds, I think it’s because of our ages. For me the Beatles are everything. Most of them can’t relate to that. Some of them may even like the Beatles, but it’s not the same for them as it is for me.

I watch movies from the 30’s and 40's on Turner Classics and think of them as “old” movies. They think of movies from the 90’s as old. And black and white movies are ancient to them—might as well be cave drawings.

The point here is that if you want to reach this audience you have to write about things they relate to not only what you and your peers relate to. We need to include references to the things that are important to them. The music they like, the movies they like, the characteristics they admire or despise in a hero or villain.

They say write what you know but sometimes you have to write what you don’t know. 

In The Blues Don’t Care there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t relate to personally as it’s set in another era, World War II, but I found myself relating to more and more of it as I got deeper into the subject. If we can do that with stuff from a previous generation then we should also be able to do that looking toward the future too. And hopefully pick up some new readers along the way.


~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

I just sold my short story "A.K.A. Ross Landy" to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Stay tuned for more.




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

22 January 2021

Still Collecting Names


This writer has lifted character names from sidewalks, signs, name tags in grocery stores, the Olympics, and from live television. There's a new source of names for villains and other despicable characters – the Trump Insurrection.

Just as the bad year 2020 was behind us, we started 2021 with more Americans dying each week in a pandemic many still believe is a hoax – "It's just like the flu." And an insurrection. As the investigations continue, the names of people who desecrated the US Capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the orderly transition of power, their names surface.

I have a NAMES document on my computer where I collect names for characters in my fiction. Lot of names of good people to use and many names of bad people from Nazis to murderers and now – insurrectionists. NOTE: I never use their full name so as not to further display their name so I switch first and last names but despicable is despicable.

NOTE: The FBI's postings seeking information for Assault on Federal Officers and Violence at the United States Capitol draws me to faces. So far I've recognized none of my relatives or friends.

flag
Flag above the Battle of New Orleans, Chalmette, Louisiana

I've more names of good people to use than bad.

I've used names of friends after asking them, never using their full name. Most like it and brag about it.  I have a writer friend whose name will remain confidential who has used the last names of his three wives for villains many times.

I've named a few characters from intersections. Julia Street intersects Carondelet in the New Orleans CBD, hence the character Julia Carondelet.Robertson intersects Bartholomew so we have a Bartholomew Robertson. Dante Street intersects Joseph Street, so we have a Joe Dante.

Naming characters is a ritual I relish. I work hard at it. I believe nearly every other writer does as well. Or they should.


That's all for now.

Stay safe, everyone. This pandemic is far from over.

10 January 2021

B2020 and A2020: How 2020 has influenced what we want to read and what we will write.


As we are bombarded with news of COVID-19 deaths, the rising unemployment and the latest attack on Capital Hill - many of us wonder how this can happen and why do some people not care?

More and more we are hearing stories from the frontline, from the unemployment line, from lines at food-banks and, from homes where seniors live. We are hearing about policies that thoughtlessly harm others and we ask - didn’t they even think about these people’s lives?

After living through 2020 – and face it, 2020 might just be a prologue to the book  “The Horrors of 2021” - we will never be the same and I suspect that what we want to read is forever changed. 

Literature changes because readers change. 

When I was a child, I would often rummage through my father’s extensive library. I remember some old books, where the room would be meticulously described, from the sun dappled curtains to the chair with slightly worn arms. These descriptions would often be a page long. I remember wondering if I was simply less observant than most people or if these descriptions were simply overdone. Being a curious child, I watched my friends and family carefully. I decided that none of them spent enough time observing to be able to write a page of details and that the people in these books had a different life, were different people or the author just made up stuff. I would still read some of those books but with a stern skim over the sun dappled this, the intricate patterns of that and any other such useless info. 

There are many takes on the immense suffering we have seen in 2020, but I suspect many readers will be drawn to different writers. Just as none of us have patience for a page long descriptions as characters enter a room, I believe we will have less patience for characters who wander the world doing things, noticing things but failing to empathize with people. Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes was delightful, but who is going to write a book today where the characters notice the hair, that came from a rare species of cat, owned by only two families in the city, coupled with a smudge of brown dust from a particular type of stone, found in the statues of lions that sit by the doorway of one of those families? Yep. No one. Most of us read it, but we don’t write like that anymore. 

I think that many readers who have lived through this year - and the worse year that is coming - will demand characters with empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. 

The definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This stands in contrast to sympathy defined as: sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

If 2020 has made many of us yearn for anything, it is for people who have empathy and can imagine and feel what someone else is feeling - without having to be explicitly told and without having to have felt it themselves. Why? Because we are not all 90-year-old women, living alone in a care home, unable to see anyone. We are not all a single mother, with children to feed but with no money to feed them after we lost our job. We are not all ICU doctors, struggling to cope with losing patient after patient nor are we those who have to transport body after body to refrigerated trucks. We are not any of these people but we want someone, any one, to care about these people and tell us about them. 

What about sympathy – understanding the feelings that we actually have? This feels a little self-centred and, these days more than ever, the self-centred are at best unpopular and at worst, the villains of 2020: from anti-maskers to those who care only about staying in power.

I suspect many of us, who read voraciously,  and who have lived through this time , will want books with more characters who understand and feel what others are feeling and put us in their shoes. Detective novels highlighting not merely action but also empathy might become much more popular. I suspect this is true for all types of writing, from news stories to medical writing. I suspect we might have had our fill of self-centred characters, and I also suspect that they will often be cast as villains because, goodness knows, it feels ugly now. I have found that news stories, articles and - one could argue - political choices seem to already incorporate empathy more than before this dreadful year.

One could argue that good writing has always put us in the shoes of others, immersing us in their worlds. Somewhat true - but it is about the weight one gives to certain things. Do we devote pages to describe a room when a character enters it? Not anymore. So writing may have many elements in common but weight given differs. Weighting empathy heavily would change what we read. 

This may just be my new perspective but I doubt it. However, from a personal point of view, I am eager to read the new types of articles, books and characters born from 2020. I also look forward to new ways of telling the news, writing medical articles - any type of writing that tries to reach people who have lived this terrible year and await, with some trepidation, the unveiling of 2021. 

Whatever happens with various forms of writing, I believe that there will be fundamental changes in what writers write and readers read because we will never be the same after 2020.

01 January 2021

Debris


Sometimes it all falls together, like debris kicked up in a sandstorm falling into the places missing in the story. Sometimes, in the middle of a novel or in the middle of writing a short story as you go along, the little nuggets, the little twists and turns of plot, the little comments of characters, the smart talk brings it all together so the story becomes neatly packaged like a Christmas gift.


Most of the time writing a short story and especially a novel, it’s like working in a rock quarry, chiseling blocks of granite into something recognizable. If you hammer long enough, if you stick to it – never give up – it’ll come. Maybe not the way you originally planned but the characters, storyline, setting, dialogue, conflict will come together.


But the debris which comes along and fills the piece with a touch of dialogue so right for the piece, a touch of unplanned drama, the brush of an eyelid against a face when they kiss, a passion which grabs you, a pain which grabs your heart because Robert Frost was right when he said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”


It works in mysteries as well as mainstream fiction.


Been noticing the debris the older I get, the more I write, like my subconscious peeking in and whispering to my fingers as I type and there it is, the debris collecting, the little nugget in the story.


Wrote a story a few months back as a Christmas present for my wife. Been doing that for the 29 years we’ve been together. Sold most of them. The one this year is the best I’ve written, maybe one of the best I’ve ever written, a mystery. We’ll see if a magazine editor or anthology editor agrees. If not, we’ll put it up on Amazon Kindle.


Back to the novel, back into the quarry. It’s coming together as well. In slow motion, like everything in 2020.


Happy New Year, everyone. 2021’s gotta be better than 2020.


No words necessary
 
 






 


www.oneildenoux.com


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.




01 November 2020

From Pauper to King


Stephen King
Stephen King,
serious disguise
’Tis the day after Halloween, and I wanted to share a nugget I learned about our favorite modern horror-meister, Stephen King. As a reader, I never considered much about authors except their alphabetic location on my library’s shelf. I didn’t know about that bleeding vein, I thought writers magically appeared fully formed like Botticelli’s proverbial Venus.

Certainly I encountered bad books and terrible tales, but libraries and the book market filter and curate. Same with museums, that’s why we don’t see early sketches of Botticelli’s Birth of Karen.

Not to compare myself to either Botticelli or Stephen King, I had grave doubts about my first story. Who wants to read about alligators and mosquitoes? Only after it was nominated for an award and I found myself sitting in traffic, I finally internalized it, saying to myself in awe, “They liked it! They really liked it.”

Carrie poster
Thus I was surprised to learn about the Master of Misery’s angst about his first novel, Carrie.

The Story Behind the Story

Raised by a single mother, King understood hardship. He earned and then unwillingly returned money in school by selling stories to other students, but eventually a short story, ‘I was a Teenage Grave Robber’, was professionally sold.

Stephen King
Hippie disguise
King matriculated at the University of Maine. To finance his studies, he took on odd jobs including laundry worker and school janitor. That turned out a blessing in disguise.

He witnessed a girl relentlessly bullied, an impoverished girl in a holey, worn-out dress. King speculated what it might be like if the girl had abilities, supernatural superpowers to fight back. On his bride’s typewriter, he tapped out a few pages of a bildungsroman featuring a poor girl, Carrie White. Her first menses terrified her. She thought she was bleeding to death while other girls laughed. Annoyed with his own work, he tossed it in the trash.

His wife discovered it in the wastebasket, read those few pages, and wondered what happened next. King didn’t like his own writing, but he was out of sorts and out of ideas. Tabitha urged her husband to take up the story again and, with her help and encouragement, little Carrie became King’s first novel, twice made into movies.

Stephen King
Clark Kent disguise
Tabitha and Stephen were living in a trailer, their phone cut off, so the King’s were surprised by an acceptance telegram and $2500, which they used to purchase a true horror, a Ford Pinto. Weeks later, paperback rights earned him another $200,000.

King still had doubts about his novel, but that sad schoolgirl and Stephen’s spouse made them a very rich couple, not merely monetarily.

Possibly not quite believing their fortune, King continued teaching. You can’t say Boo to that.

30 October 2020

More Quotes from Writers


 To think about—

"When I'm not doing anything else, I'm writing — and I don't like to do anything else." Isaac Asimov

"Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called 'mad' and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called 'writers' and they do pretty much the same thing." — Ray Bradbury

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." — Ray Bradbury

"Readers tend to skip through novels but they won't skip dialogue." — Elmore Leonard

"Characters are much more important to me in my book than plot." — Elmore Leonard

"The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates if important, since there is nothing new to be said." — William Faulkner

"An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don't know why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why." — William Faulkner

"The first duty of a novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone." — Donna Tartt

Jeffty is a big help

"The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new." — Samuel Johnson

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." — Thomas Mann

"Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons." — Robertson Davies

"Writers should read, read, read." — Paul McCartney

"I'll read my books and I'll drink coffee and I'll listen to music, and I'll bolt the door." J. D. Salinger

Scamp is a scamp

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — Anton Chekhov (maybe be paraphrasing what he said, but it sounds spot on)

"Creativity is an all-together personal thing. It's an art that cannot be taught, normally." — Rod Serling

"A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy." — Edward P. Morgan

Harri helps too

"The only reason for being a professional writer is that you just can't help it." — Leo Rosten

"The historian records, but the novelist creates." — E. M. Forster

"For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered." — Harlan Ellison

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com



26 October 2020

Stratford Redux


 by Steve Liskow

Several weeks ago, I got an idea for a short story that needed a little refresher on Shakespeare. During my theater days, I directed six of his plays, acted in nine, and assigned about a dozen more. When I donated most of my acting books to the theater several years ago, I found the Arden, Oxford, Pelican, Penguin, Bantam and Signet editions of plays I directed on my shelves, along with four hard-cover complete collections. I kept those. 

Reading outside your genre makes you see things differently, and revisiting Shakespeare was the writing equivalent of a six-pack of Red Bull. Remember, the majority of his audience--who paid well and often to see his productions--was illiterate. They came for a good story and they got it. He knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. He owned a shared in the theater and retired at age 46, returning to Stratford and buying the second-largest house in town. 

Since looking up what I needed, I've reread The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. Even 2 Gents (Possibly his first produced work) shows us how to tell a story. Only in his late 20s, Will gives us plot and character arcs that are clear and strong. OK, the ending is a little hard to buy, but the structure and dialogue rock.

By the time I'd read the first act of 2 Gents, I understood the language again. Shakespeare wrote in modern English, and his punctuation is surprisingly contemporary. If you don't understand a line, stand up, read it out loud, and let the rhythms show you when and where to move. Trust me, it works. 

In Romeo and Juliet, look how Shakespeare differentiates Paris, Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, all teen-aged boys, by their speech patterns. Notice how everything in the plot is logical and leads to that wrenching finish.


Learn from the constant vivid images that deepen the characters and carry the themes. Shakespeare wrote that play when he was about 30, so his "great" works are still to come.

In the middle of my career, I took an intensive (One-day) workshop on performing the plays from the First Folio text. It was so helpful that I bought a copy of the First Folio, and I kept that, too.

The introduction makes an important distinction. "[This] is not a collection of plays, but a collection of scripts." Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read (remember, most of his audience couldn't read), and the difference matters. His actors often had only their own lines along with the cues (Today, we'd call these "sides"), but they could interpret the writer's verse, prose and rhythms for acting hints. If all English teachers took the workshop I did, students would come out of their classes loving Shakespeare instead of hating or fearing him. A theater group my wife still works with calls this phenomenon "Shakes-fear."

Alas, English teachers need no involvement with theater to get their degree. Most of them have none, and they teach Shakespeare as literature. It makes as much sense as a blind man teaching photography. 

Just as an aside, most editions of Romeo and Juliet put Mercutio's "Queen Mab" monologue in blank verse. The First Folio prints it in prose, and it flows better and is easier to follow. Actors could learn it more easily. 

Will can teach crime writers how to do it better, too.

You want noir? See how Lady Macbeth drives a good guy over the edge, 350 years before James M. Cain penned The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Verbal comedy?
The Comedy of Errors has Antipholus and Dromio discussing the Kitchen Wench with puns and repartee that Abbot and Costello might have cribbed for their "Who's on First?" gem. Foreshadowing? How about "Beware the Ides of March?"



I won't reread all the plays, but I will revisit several others. I've been away a long time.