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

13 June 2024

The Timeless Advice of Dylan Thomas


We have all run across people who ask us the damnedest questions, sometimes so stupid they beggar belief:

"How do I write a bestseller?" Look, if I knew, I'd be doing a tour of morning news shows.

"Do you have Stephen King's address and phone number?" No, and I doubt if he has mine, either.

"Could I make more money writing spy thrillers or horror stories?" Flip a coin, flip a coin.

"I have a great idea - do you know a good agent?" No. The only people who get to pitch ideas are Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, James Patterson, et al, and all they have to do is whisper, and the contract shows up.

"I have a great idea - you could write it, and we'd split the profits 50/50." Better yet, you write it and I won't read it.

Sigh…

But sometimes someone writes the most brilliant response to all these questions. Back in 1951 or thereabouts, the editor of "Circus" asked Dylan Thomas "to describe the steps which help to establish a popular poet in England today. It was an opportunity for irony which he has not wasted."

Enjoy.

How to Be a Poet or the Ascent of Parnassus Made Easy
by Dylan Thomas

Let me, at once, make it clear that I am not considering, in these supposedly informative jotrhythmic, Poetry as an Art or a Craft, as the rhythmic verbal expression of a spiritual necessity or urge, but solely as the means to a social end; that end being the achievement of a status in society solid enough to warrant the poet discarding and expunging those affectations, so essential in the early stages, of speech, dress, and behavior; an income large enough to satisfy his physical demands, unless he has already fallen victim to the Poet’s Evil, or Great Wen; and a permanent security from the fear of having to write any more. I do not intend to ask, let alone to answer, the question, “Is Poetry a Good Thing?” but only, “Can Poetry Be Made Good Business?"

I shall, to begin with, introduce to you a few of the main types of poets who have made the social and financial grade.

First, though not in order of importance, is the poet who has emerged docketed “lyrical,” from the Civil Service. He can be divided, so far as his physical appearance goes, into two types.

He is either thin, not to say of a shagged-out appearance, with lips as fulsome, sensual, and inviting as a hen’s ovipositor, bald from all too maculate birth, his eyes made small and reddened by reading books in French, a language he cannot understand, in an attic in the provinces while young and repellent, his voice like the noise of a mouse’s nail on tinfoil, his nostrils transparent, his breath gray; or else he is jowlcd and bushy, with curved pipe and his nose full of dottle, the look of all Sussex in his stingo’d eyes, his burry tweeds smelling of the dogs he loathes, with a voice like a literate Airedale’s that has learned its vowels by correspondence course, and an intimate friend of Chesterton’s, whom he never met.

Let us see in what manner our man has arrived at his present and enviable position as the Poet who has made Poetry Pay:

Dropped into the Civil Service at an age when many of our young poets now are running away to Broadcasting House, today’s equivalent of the Sea, he is at first lost to sight in the mountains of red tape which, in future years, he is so mordantly, though with a wry and puckered smile, to dismiss in a paragraph in his “Around and About My Shelves.” After a few years, he begins to peer out from the forms and files in which he leads his ordered, nibbling life, and picks up a cheese crumb here, a dropping there, in his ink-stained thumbs. His ears are uncannily sensitive: he can hear an opening being opened a block of offices away.

And soon he learns that a poem in a Civil Service magazine is, if not a step up the ladder, at least a lick in the right direction. And he writes a poem. It is, of course, about Nature; it confesses a wish to escape from humdrum routine and embrace the unsophisticated life of the farm laborer; he desires, though without scandal, to wake up with the birds; he expresses the opinion that a plowshare, not a pen, best fits his little strength; a decorous pantheist, he is one with the rill, the rhyming mill, the rosy-bottomed milkmaid, the russet-cheeked rat-catcher, swains, swine, pipits, pippins. You can smell the country in his poems, the fields, the flowers, the armpits of Triptolemus, the barns, the byres, the hay, and, most of all, the corn. The poem is published. A single lyrical extract from the beginning must suffice: —

The roaring street is hushed!
Hushed, do I say?
The wing of a bird has brushed
Time’s cobwebs away.
Still, still as death, the air
Over the gray stones!
And over the gray thoroughfare
I hear — sweet tones! —
A blackbird open its bill,
— A blackbird, aye! —
And sing its liquid fill
From the London sky.

A little time after the publication of the poem, he is nodded to in the corridor by Hotchkiss of Inland Revenue... Hotchkiss, lunching with Sowerby of Customs, himself a literary figure of importance with a weekly column in Will o’ Lincoln’s Weekly and his name on the editorial list of the Masterpiece of the Fortnight Club (volumes at reduced rates to all writers, and a complete set of the works of Mary Webb quarter-price at Christmas), says casually, “You’ve rather a promising fellow in your department, Sowerby. Young Cribbe. I’ve been reading a little thing of his, ‘I desire the Curlew.’” And Cribbe’s name goes the small fetid rounds.

He is next asked to contribute a group of poems to Hotchkiss’s anthology, “New Pipes,” which Sowerby praises — “a rare gift for the haunting phrase” — in Will o’ Lincoln’s. Cribbe sends copies of the anthology, each laboriously signed, “To the greatest living English poet, in homage,” to twenty of the dullest poets still on their hind legs. Some of his inscribed gifts are acknowledged. Sir Tom Knight spares a few generous, though bemused, moments to scribble a message on a sheet of crested writing paper removed, during a never-to-be-repeated week-end visit, from a shortsighted but not all that shortsighted peer. “Dear Mr. Crabbe,” Sir Tom writes, '’I appreciate your little tribute. Your poem, ‘Nocturne with Lilies,’ is worthy of Shanks. Go on. Go on. There is room on the mount.” The fact that Cribbe’s poem is not “Nocturne with Lilies” at all, but “On Hearing Delius by a Lych-Gate,” does not perturb Cribbe, who carefully files the letter, after blowing away the dandruff, and soon is in the throes of collecting his poems to make a book, “Linnet and Spindle,” dedicated “To Clem Sowerby, that green-fingered gardener in the Gardens of the Hesperides.”

The book appears. Some favorable notice is taken, particularly in Middlesex. And Sowerby, too modest to review it himself after such a gratifying dedication, reviews it under a different name. “This young poet,” he writes, “is not, thanks be it, too ‘modernistic’ to pay reverence to the shining source of his inspiration. Cribbe will go far.”

And Cribbe goes to his publishers. A contract is drawn up, Messrs. Stitch and Time undertaking to publish his next book of verse on condition that they have the first option on his next nine novels. He contrives also to be engaged as a casual reader of manuscripts to Messrs. Stitch and Time, and returns home clutching a parcel which contains a book on the Development of the Oxford Movement in Finland by a Cotswold Major, three blank-verse tragedies about Mary Queen of Scots, and a novel entitled “Tomorrow, Jennifer.”

Now Cribbe, until his contract, has never thought of writing a novel. But, undaunted by the fact that he cannot tell one person from another—people, to him, are all one dull, gray mass, except celebrities and departmental superiors — that he has no interest whatsoever in anything they do or say, except in so far as it concerns his career, and that his inventive resources are as limited as those of a chipmunk on a treadmill, he sits down in his shirt sleeves, loosens his collar, thumbs in the shag, and begins to study in earnest how best, with no qualifications, to make a success of commercial fiction.

He soon comes to the conclusion that only quick sales and ephemeral reputations are made by tough novels with such titles as “I’ve Got It Coming” or “Ten Cents a Dice,” by proletarian novels about the conversion to dialectical materialism of Palais-de wide boys, entitled, maybe, “ Red Rain on You, A If,” by novels called, maybe, “Melody in Clover,” about dark men with slight limps. And he soon sees that only the smallest sales, and notices only in the loftiest monthlies of the most limited circulation, will ever result from his writing such a novel as “The Inner Zodiac,” by G. H. Q. Bidet, a ruthless analysis of the ideological conflicts arising from the relationship between Philip Armour, an international impotent physicist, Tristram Wolf, a bisexual sculptor in teak, and Philip’s virginal but dynamic Creole wife, Titania, a lecturer in Balkan Economics, and how these highly sensitized characters react a profound synthesis while working together, for the sake of One-ness, in a Unesco Clinic.

No fool, Cribbe realizes, even in the early stages of his exploration, with theodolite and respirator through darkest Foyle, that the novel to write is that which commands a steady, unsensational, provincial and suburban sale and concerns, for choice, the birth, education, financial ups-and-downs, marriages, separations, and deaths of five generations of a family of Lancashire cotton brokers. This novel, he grasps at once, should be in the form of a trilogy, and each volume should bear some such solid, uneventful title as “The Warp,” “The Woof,” and “The Way.” And he sets to work.

From the reviews of Cribbe’s first novel, one may select: “Here is sound craftsmanship allied to sterling characterization.” “English as Manchester rain.” “Mr. Cribbe is a bull-terrier.” “A story in the Phyllis Bottome class.” On the success of the novel, Cribbe joins the N.I.B. Club, delivers a paper on the Early Brett Young Country, and becomes a regular reviewer, praising every other novel he receives— (“The prose shimmers”) and inviting every third novelist to dine at the Servile Club, to which he has recently been elected.

When the whole of the trilogy has appeared, Cribbe rises, like scum, to the N.I.B. committee, attends all the memorial services for men of letters who are really dead for the first time in fifty years, tears up his old contract and signs another, brings out a new novel, which becomes a Book Society choice, is offered, by Messrs. Stitch and Time, a position in an “advisory capacity,” which he accepts, leaves the Civil Service, buys a cottage in Bucks (“You wouldn’t think it was only thirty miles from London, would you. Look, old man, see that crested grebe.” A starling flies by), a new desk and a secretary whom he later marries for her touch-typing. Poetry? Perhaps a sonnet in the Sunday Times every now and then: a little collection of verse once in a while (“ My first love, you know”). But it doesn’t really bother him any more, though it got him where he is. He has made the grade!




But let us look, very quickly, at some other methods of making poetry a going concern.

The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach. This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential. Before you swoop and burst upon the center of literary activity — which means, when you are very young, the right pubs, and, later, the right flats, and, later still, the right clubs — you must have behind you a body (it need have no head) of ferocious and un-understandable verse. (It is not, as I said before, my function to describe how these gauche and verbose ecstasies are achieved. Hart Crane found that, while listening, drunk, to Sibelius, he could turn out the stuff like billyho. A friend of mine, who has been suffering from a violent headache since he was eight, finds it so easy to write anyway he has to tie knots in his unpleasant handkerchief to remind him to stop. There are many methods, and always, when there’s a will and slight delirium, there’s a way.) Again, this poet, must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo’s hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and — most important of all, this can never be overestimated — a home to go hack to in the provinces whenever he breaks down.

White Horse Tavern (NYC)
The White Horse Tavern in New York City
where Thomas was drinking before his death

Of the poet who merely writes because he wants to write, who does not deeply mind if he is published or not, and who can put up with poverty and total lack of recognition in his lifetime, nothing of any pertinent value can be said. He is no businessman. Posterity Does Not Pay.  

Also, and highly unrecommended, are the following: —

The writing of limericks. Vast market, little or no pay.

Poems in crackers. Too seasonal.

Poems for children. This will kill you, and the children.

Obituaries in verse. Only established favorites used. Poetry as a method of blackmail (by boring). Dangerous. The one you blackmail might retaliate by reading you aloud his unfinished tragedy about St. Bernard: “The Flask.”

And lastly: Poems on lavatory walls. The reward is purely psychological."

Thomas' writing shed
Dylan Thomas' writing shed.
photo by Richard Knight

To read the whole article, go HERE.

30 May 2024

Voices, Voices, I Hear Voices...


So many of my fellow SleuthSayers have written such excellent articles on writing that I feel like it's got to be my turn to give it a go. But all I can really say about writing is: 

Read a lot, stare out the window a lot, and, when possible, sit down in your chair and write. 

Get up and go for a walk. Read some more. Stare some more.  Sit down and write some more. 

Repeat endlessly, until the damn thing is done.   

So much for the actual process of physically putting words on paper.  (There used to be more cigarettes involved, but I quit smoking in 2010.)

As for all the endless stuff that goes into getting to the point where you want to put words on paper, well, I'm certain that insanity runs in my family, and that we all hear(d) voices. 

Like so many writers, of course I have notebooks crammed with things I spot, things I hear, conversations I overhear, etc.  For example:

  • The other day I was driving down a street I hadn't been down before and spotted a decorative rock in the front yard, about 3 foot tall and shaped like a crouching monkey.  Hmm...
  • Or the time I was at a 12-Step Conference and overheard someone at breakfast explaining that they'd do a Step Five, but they were never going tell a sponsor everything they did "because there's no damn way I'm going to prison, okay?"  Hmm...
  • In Italy, watching as a resident's little dog pissed on a tourist’s suitcase; the resident kept walking, muttering “scuzi” without stopping. Hmm...
  • On a recent news feed scroll, "TSA finds small bag of snakes in man's pants." Hmm...

Any detail counts. You never know when you'll use it.

Now I will admit, freely, that plots are not my strong point. In fact, I have to claw plots out of thick clay with my bare hands.  But one trick I have learned is that, if you know your characters, they will tell the story themselves.  Especially if you can see them walking, know some of their habits, and hear their voices as they speak.

One gift I do have - and it may be having been adopted so young from Greece, so that I had to learn a new language (English) quickly, along with a variety of accents - is that I memorize voices.  I watch a lot of Britbox and Acorn TV shows, and I'm always turning to my husband and saying, "That's the guy in New Tricks [or some other show], but at least 30 years younger."  Because I recognize the voice.  

This is why I am infuriated at the common soap opera device of having someone getting plastic surgery to look exactly like someone else - and somehow the surgeon managed to get the voice exactly the same too...  No.  No, no, no, no.  A really good impersonator has a special gift all  their own.  

And I also memorize accents: I can reel off a variety, at least in my head, from various American accents to Australian to Scots to Irish, etc.  Some I can actually reproduce myself.  Since my mother's family came from Kentucky, and I spent my summers there, I can do a dead-on impression of Mitch McConnell that I can proudly say has made many Southern friends snort coffee out of their nose.    

The result is that I can and do take someone's voice and/or accent and listen to them talking, interacting, in my head, and, as I say, a lot of the time they'll tell me what's going on, especially (please tell me I'm not the only one...) when I get really stuck. 

And I get stuck a lot.  Like I say, I have to dig for plots the way other people have to dig for buried treasure.  

Lot of work.  

Another gift I have is research.  Remember, I'm a retired historian, from an age when, as a graduate student, if you wrote a paper or a thesis or a dissertation, you damn well better be able to show every reference for every statement you made.  And I do love research.  For example, my first post this May began with an anonymous tip about RFK Jr.'s arrest for heroin in Rapid City back in 1983.  Well, researching that led to me finding the story about RFK Jr. and Riverkeeper and the bird smugglers, and next thing you know it's testosterone and sex diaries...  You never know where you're going to end up, or, again, how you'll use it.  

The result is my head is crammed full of trivia:

  • The most popular cafe in post-WW2 Vienna was the Gasthaus Kopp.
  • It's not "the man in the moon" but the "rabbit in the moon" in both East Asian and indigenous American cultures.
  • The nobility in Heian Japanese culture painted their faces white but blackened their teeth, and were apparently (diaries abound, not to mention "Genji") highly promiscuous. 
  • In France, cold cream is called cérat de Galien ('Galen's Wax') after the 2nd century Greek physician who invented it.
  • The primary translator of Edgar Allan Poe in French was Baudelaire, whose translation is still in common use.
  • Etc., etc., etc...

But all of that is the preliminary work, which (let's admit it) sometimes is the most fun.  For the actual writing, well...

Read a lot, stare out the window a lot, and, when possible, sit down in your chair and write. 

Get up and go for a walk. Read some more. Stare some more.  Sit down and write some more. 

Repeat endlessly, until the damn thing is done.  

I'd go back to smoking, but I'd just have to quit again...

24 May 2024

Good Sentences


If the sentence is "the fundamental unit of a work of literature," then a good sentence should be the goal of a good writer. But what is a good sentence?

Found another excellent lesson for writers online, entitled HOW TO WRITE A GREAT SENTENCE. What I like most about the article is what we know – there is no definite way to write a great sentence.

Beginning with an explanation of "style" by the use of "creative devices, grammar, diction, tone, rhythm and cadence," the article says all of those elements "taken as a whole" is "style."

For examples to compare styles, the article chose William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

Faulkner wrote purple prose with long, convoluted sentences. Whereas Hemingway wrote short, clipped, concise, pithy sentences capturing, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, "the flicker of modern life.”

The tempo of the writer's sentences reflect the speed of the lives they depicted. "Faulkner basks in the heat of south" while "Hemingway flits at life in the city." While Faulkner lounged, Hemingway rushed.

Faulkner said of Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

Hemingway said of Faulkner, "Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

Faulkner house
Faulkner House, 624 Pirate Alley, New Orleans
where Nobel laureate William Faulkner
wrote his first novel Soldiers’ Pay, 1925

The article illustrates examples of each writer's work, chosen as they serve "the acute ends of he spectrum of sentence structure."

Long sentences? Short sentence. Medium length sentences. Vary them to turn your writing into music, let your writing sing, give it a pleasant lilt, a harmony.

OK, I knew a lot of this but the article is a good reminder. I recommend it, expecially to beginning writers.

 
   
  © The Written Word

 

That's all for now,

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

28 March 2024

Forget "Time to Write" – What About Headspace?


 Hello fellow Sleuthsayer Faithful!

Feels like forever since I jumped into the swirling maelstrom of thought and discussion which is our beloved Sleuthsayers blog!

Anyway, let's get to it.

I was thinking just today about this passage I read a long time ago, I'm not sure where:

"On the 49th day there under the fig tree, the Buddha finally silenced his mind."

I'm certain the quotation isn't exact, but "mindfulness" and the benefits Buddhists believe accrue from protracted periods of silence really aren't the point I hope to address today.

I'm talking, of course, about headspace.

Heh.... I wish.

I once took just eight weeks to write 80,000 words. I had a two-book contract on which I was past deadline: word count for each? 40,000 words. The only reason I was able to pull it off is that both books were nonfiction.

I currently find myself close to missing another deadline. The reason?

How long have you got? Excuses? I have none.

Reasons? I'm positively lousy with 'em.

I probably ought to add that when I wrote two books in two months, I was single, between girlfriends, no mortgage, and aside from a serious falling out with the editor originally assigned to me by publisher (new to the business. I was her first "project." Talk about GREEN!), I was pretty much the definition of "care-free." Just me, the day-gig (For those of you playing at home, I teach history), and my writing time. Oh, and my crippling student loans. That's what I wrote all that nonfiction for. To supplement my paltry day-gig income and help stay on top of my student loans. So, still mostly "care-free."

That was then.

Next week I turn 59. And although I have never been happier in my life than right now, this moment, I am no longer "free from care."

I'm happily married to one of the best people I know. I'm the father of an 11-year-old boy who by turns both delights and confounds me.

And because I'm a parent now, and a husband, and a devoted son to parents staring down the onset of their 80s, and brother to a great guy currently living and working out of state, I worry.

I know some guys feel it somehow unmanly to admit to worry, or even to talk about things like anxiety, but the older I get the more I've come to think that's hogwash. If you're a private person, that's one thing. Keeping a lid on what's going on with you emotionally is just a recipe for a stroke.

Anyway, the worst part?

I used to be able to silence my mind. Not like the Buddha. Forty-nine days to get it done and find enlightenment? That guy was a boss for that alone. Mad respect.

But I could shut everything out when I had to and just do, as the late G.M. Ford so often put it: "Ass. Chair. Write."

It's all laid out there, just waiting for us, right?..... RIGHT?

Not anymore. I have more and more trouble shutting out the things that worry me. Plus, I have a lot going on: family members with a variety of ailments, concerns that arise at the day gig, the thousand course corrections required of a responsible "middle school parent" these days.

Don't get me wrong, I still have my good writing days. And my wife, who knows me better than anyone (which is as it should be), has said many times that I "thrive with a deadline."

Which reminds me....that deadline....yeah.

If you read this far hoping that I'd reveal my discovery of some magic bullet that could help grant instant, deep, abiding and never-ending headspace, sorry to disappoint you. In fact I wrote this post hoping to crowdsource my dilemma.

So how about it, friends? Got any semi-secret tips on getting into and remaining in a writing headspace? Or not-so-secret ones, for that matter? 

If so, please feel free to drop a suggestion into the comments. And failing that, if you're a fellow traveler on this perplexing road of perpetual distraction, feel free to come to the comments if only just to commiserate!

And that's it for me this go-round. 

See you in two weeks!

12 January 2024

Rookies


In the past two years, I've become a professional editor in addition to writing. I'm still good at writing as a writer, editing as an editor, and reading as a reader. When I'm doing any one of these things, my brain doesn't want to do the other.

But after fifteen books for Down & Out plus a couple of freelance jobs, some things do make my inner editor scream. One is the inevitable neophyte writer's rant online about "The Rules." We're all familiar with Elmore Leonard's list. 

It's a good list. It's also written based on how Elmore Leonard wrote. Ever read Elmore Leonard? This is how he got good. But his rules and Lawrence Block's rules and Stephen King's rules are all different lists. I'm not talking about those lists. I'm talking about the temper tantrum of a newer writer getting frustrated with the editing process. I recently ran across such a list. My wife found my own "Get off my lawn!" rant toward it quite entertaining. Really, it showed the writer's lack of experience. And it's not unfamiliar to me. I used to think the same way. What were they complaining about?

  • No head hopping - Now this one infuriates me, even if it took me the longest time to understand it. What brought it home was Tom Clancy, an unrepentant head hopper. Clancy would give you whiplash starting in Jack Ryan's head, bopping over to some sonar technician's POV, then ending with some admiral's or politician's. I can't read it anymore. Head hopping is disrespectful to the reader, who has to follow the writer's ADHD-inspired point-of-view shifts. Now, I violently disagree with the "One POV Per Chapter" rule. I always thought that was stupid because it makes for short, short chapters. But one POV per scene should be an ironclad rule. Only four writers I know of since World War II have managed to head hop smoothly: Frank Herbert, Stephen King, George Pelecanos, and SA Cosby. Everyone else needs to remember someone's gotta read this at some point, and more people will if they can follow along.

  • No adverbs. Okay, editors need to really chill about this one, but outright rebellion? That needs to be stamped out aggressively. Mind you, I'm spoiled. I've only beta'd (but not fully edited) one neophyte writer, so the adverbs are usually at a minimum. By the time I get them, they're invisible. But my first professional editing job came from a guy who's been writing longer than I've been alive. (And my puberty began to the strains of Blondie, which was not a bad way for a pre-teen boy to get his hormones flowing. I digress.) So by the time I get most manuscripts, I'm not treated to a flood of "ly."

  • No repeated words. Now let's be clear. I don't have long lists of overused words. I do a crutch word check. I'll leave about 33% of passive voice intact, either for context or because it's been about three pages since the last instance. But repeated words. Yes, you'll use a word multiple times in a manuscript. That's a given. But let's take a word like "peculiar." Unless it's a verbal gambit, that word shouldn't appear again for at least another page. Twice in the same paragraph? There's a reason we do multiple drafts. While I'm not a big fan of thesauruses--I've seen them abused too many times--you may want to pick one up if you find yourself leaning on one word to say the same thing.

  • Show, don't tell. I've got a whole rant about why editors and veteran writers really need to give this one a rest. But I saw this on one of those "lists" and realized writers like this are never going to let editors or veteran writers give it a rest. My problem with show-don't-tell is overzealous beta readers who love rules lists too much and people who can't sell their fiction selling writing courses. (You know who you are.) But ignoring this rule leads to lazy writing. "I don't need to describe Sarah's reaction. I'll just say she was angry.)

    Oh, no. That's precisely why editors and more experienced writers won't ease up on this. The inexperienced writer tends to use this as an excuse to write less. If Sarah's reaction is a minor detail, then yes, just say she's angry. Better yet, cut the anger altogether. It will likely become obvious further into the scene. If Sarah is the POV character, we need to see her jaw clench or fists tighten, hear her growl, see her vision turn red.

There are others. Passive voice, which is abused by experienced writers as well, including this one. The fact that some writers use "that" to join dependent clauses too often. 

But when a writer says they're going to ignore all these rules? That just shows inexperience. I know. I used to say this myself. And a friend who started writing a couple of years ago needed to be guided, particularly in POV issues. He's now an editor for Running Wild Press. And he calls me when he gets overwhelmed by a neophyte writer who thinks the rules are, "Like, oppression, man!"

 The rules exist for a reason. They work when they're applied with nuance, which means you have to know how to use them to know how to break them.  Ignore them at your own risk.

18 December 2023

Writing, writing, writing.


            You really don’t have to write every day.  You can avoid writing for a week, and then spend two days developing carpal tunnel by writing non-stop.  It’s up to you.  The point is to write a lot, because not writing is not writing.  Writing a lot is like playing the guitar a lot.  The more you do, the better you’ll get.  That’s the only advice I feel confident giving. 

            No one has the exact formula.  For you.  Read everything all the writing coaches have to say, then set your own course.  

            In the same way, listen to all the advice from other writers (including this blog post), take it seriously, then do what you think you should.  You’re the goddess, or god, or you own work.  Only you know what will make it work.  And where you’ll do it.  You can have a quiet, private place somewhere in your apartment or house.  Or you can go to a loud bar.  It can be your back porch or your Uncle Bennie’s basement.  It’s yours to discover.  What other writers do is irrelevant.  Their proper place is probably not yours.

             You can try to game the market by writing what you think will sell.  You might hit it, you might not.  Some have done this, and they are now wealthy.  Most have not.  By most, I mean 99.999%.  Some of us win the lottery, some get fricasseed by lightning.  Ignore the press on these matters.  They only focus on the unicorns. 

            Expect to fail.  It’s a lot easier on your mental health than you think it is, because every failure is a lesson.  When you do make it, and you will if you try and have the talent, and don’t give up, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.  But don’t sit there thinking about how your work will succeed in a material way.  Or any way.  Don’t think at all about the idea of writing.  Just do it. 

When Glenn Frey was an aspiring rock musician he was befriended by Bob Seger.  Seger told him. “You know, if you want to make it, you’re gonna have to write your own songs."  And Frey said, "Well, what it they’re bad?”  And Seger replied, “Well, they’re gonna be bad.  You just keep writing and writing and eventually, you’ll write a good song.”           

Do the work you want to do.  What moves you, what makes you feel good to compose.  This is way more fun than trying to write about something you don’t care very much about.  And much more productive.  “Write what you know”, then, is good advice, but it’s not the whole story.  Sometimes writing what you simply imagine can be just as fruitful.  Science fiction is often the result.  But not always.  You can be interested in something you know nothing about, say high school curling competitions in Northern Minnesota.  All it takes is a little effort doing research (Googling, reading, watching a lot of curling matches, interviewing the Minnesota State Junior Curling Champion).  This can also be a lot of fun, and chances are good you’ll learn things that you never imagined, things about the subject that launch you in a totally  unexpected direction. 

           Writing begets writing.  It’s one of the magical things about it.  The very act of composition tends to generate ideas and plot moves, fresh characters, and voices and insights you didn’t know you had.  These are all unavailable to people who think about writing, but rarely actually write. 

When it comes to flexing the muscle, it doesn’t matter what you write, because everything is exercise.  So if you don‘t feel like advancing the novel, there’s nothing wrong with starting a short story.  Or finally writing to your Cousin Francine in Duluth (where they do a lot of curling.)  Essays are good practice.  And letters to the editor.  And outdoing your siblings for Funniest Birthday Card to Mom. 

Charlie Parker played the sax every day, all day and into the night.  His roommates report removing the instrument from his lips when he fell asleep.  Jimi Hendrix, from all accounts, was rarely seen without a guitar hanging from his shoulder.  Stephen King has written about 8 million words worth of novels alone.

It worked out for them.

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 May 2023

They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore


With apologies to Greg Kihn.

I just finished listening to The Iliad on audio. Read by Dominic Keating of Star Trek: Enterprise fame, one got the sense one was listening to Homer riffing in front of a crowd in some Athenian public space. Keating had to read a fairly new English translation, but The Iliad and its companion piece, The Odyssey, are really epic poems. Keating's dramatic read hewed closer to Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan doing Shakespeare. Homer, especially after listening to some of the translator's background in the intro, probably sounded like Jack Kerouac to those ancient Greeks.

Except I've read Kerouac's On the Road. Incidentally, that, too, is meant to be performed, not read. But I digress. Kerouac's prose is the beat poetry of the fifties laid over the prose of the day, which, like today, has Hemingway in its bones. He's into a scene, and he's out, and the flourishes come from spending short snatches of time in Sal Paradise's bizarre mind.

Homer, on the other hand, does things in The Iliad no editor, even the most forgiving of editors, would let out of the slush pile, let alone into print. The goddess Athena is referred to not merely as the goddess of wisdom or daughter of Zeus, nor does Homer limit himself to the epithets like Pallas Athena. No, she is "Athena, she of the bright, shining eyes." Achilles, who spends most of the story sulking in those final days besieging Troy, is "Achilles of the fleet foot." These are not one offs. Homer uses this or a similar phrase every. Single. Time. 

Mind you, it's an epic poem, and Keating's reading, even after taking out the supplemental material, is almost twenty hours. (Also, Homer likely never ended with "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program.") And we don't see a lot of epic poems these days. Even its spiritual descendant, rock's concept album, is a bit of a dinosaur. Its last adherent seems to be Roger Waters, and lately, most people wish Rog would just shut the hell up.

These days, if you're going to ramble, as Homer does without anyone really noticing, you have to be Stephen King about it. Going off on a tangent? Tell a story within the story, then circle back to the point. Most editors won't allow that these days. (And I really think current editing dogma is too rigid. Says the editor.)  Otherwise, get to the point (says the guy who likes writing lean prose.) So when a character walks into a scene, the most extreme example of modern description is to find a trait, use that trait as a placeholder, and only change it when their name is revealed. Robert B. Parker did this throughout his career, but it began all the way back in The Godwulf Manuscript. The one I remember best is where Spenser's attempts to rescue Susan Silverman overlap a government black op. Spenser says the agent looks like Buddy Holly, and for a page or two, refers to him as Buddy Holly. I don't remember the guy's name or if he even had one, but I remember him, his job, and most of what he did.

Even Dickens, one of the most verbose writers in modern English, stuck with names or something descriptive, like the Artful Dodger. His name was actually Jack Dawkins, but how many Jacks are their in novels set in 19-century England or America? Hell, Jean-Luc Picard's son is named Jack, named for his half-brother's father. Sometimes, the title or job sticks better. But for all Dickens's wordiness, Artful Dodger is a short, powerful shorthand for a character in Oliver Twist. Contrast that with Dickens's American counterparts, Hawthorne and Melville. One of the reasons I found The Scarlet Letter so unreadable, at least at the age of 15, when I'd discovered King and Tom Clancy, was the constant refrain of "It seemed as though Hester Prynne..."  (And in 2023, my inner editor is going, "HEY! STOP BEATING THAT DEAD HORSE!") On the other hand, Melville scores points for being more episodic in Moby Dick and hanging genius labels on Ishmael's shipmates, such as Starbuck or the cannibal (who ironically doesn't eat anyone in the story.)

Much of this is the function of the culture. Even if we write stories about Greek or Roman or Norse gods, they come off as aliens or superheroes (or supervillains) or both. Marvel built a big chunk of its mythos around Thor and Loki. As far back as Twain's era, we didn't want Athena of the Bright Shining Eyes or Zeus Who Holds the Aegis. Nowadays, we want Wonder Woman's sister or Liam Neeson shouting, "Release the kraken!"* In Homer's day and even into Shakespeare's time, we wanted heroes. Mythical heroes. Of course, until the Enlightenment, we weren't quite as sciencey as we are now. Hence, even Harry Potter has to follow some sort of rules and most conspiracy theories are based on bad science skimmed while scrolling the phone in the bathroom. When we pay closer attention, ignoring Newton and Einstein without an explanation is what writers call "a plot hole."


*Fun fact: He meant the rum, of which I have a bottle, actually. Too bad I don't drink much anymore.

03 March 2023

I'm In The Story, Part Deux:
This Time It's Personal. Or Maybe Not.


Last time in this space, I talked about one of my least favorite types of story: the roman à clef. I used Valley of the Dolls as my example. Roman à clefs are usually bad because they try to force fit real people, dialog, and events into a fictional narrative. Either the disguise doesn't really work, or you get flat characters and wooden prose.

Some people in the comments, however, objected, saying they either read or wrote characters based on real people. I countered that Frederick Forsyth often inserted real historical figures - Well, they were more like present-day notables at the time of the writing - into his work. That's not the same thing. Nor is using a real person as inspiration for a character. That's pulling ideas out of the ether.

In the first novel I wrote, Northcoast Shakedown, I based a few people on neighbors and friends. A couple people read it and picked out who immediately. But George, the apartment complex manager, was not Lee, the neighbor across the way. For starters, I think Lee would have fainted dead away with some of the stuff George had to do. The landlord who died might have looked like my landlord, but his demise was inspired by a neighbor he hired to redo the balconies in our complex. And the building itself just lent itself to the storyline. My coworkers at the time tied themselves in knots trying to guess who, at Terminal Tower Insurance, was really someone among us. I told them I didn't do that because, again, using real people as characters often backfires for one reason or another: bad writing, hurt feelings, or those damn characters doing whatever they wanted.

My stepson had trouble understanding this when I wrote the TS Hottle novella Flight Blade. I had my two pilots try to cover the one's oversleeping by saying they had miscommunicated and did not realize they were leaving early. The flight commander aboard their starship was named for my stepson and a lieutenant commander. "Why am I not an admiral?"

"I named the character after you. He's not you."

"But why am I not an admiral?"

It took a few go 'rounds to explain it. Then I read him the passage.

"Oh. I like that."

To quote said stepson, "Uh-huh."

What a lot of non-writers don't understand is characters are easy enough to pull from the ether. Someone else said every person is actually a hundred people, only one or two coming out in certain situations. The writer is a person who can pull all one hundred onto the page at the same time. One could actually look at a real person and spin four of five characters from them if they know that person well enough.

More often, the real-life inspiration is either an actor or a notable figure. Actors' performances sometimes crystalize an idea. I once wrote a character I pictured as Bill Pullman after seeing Independence Day. However, the way I wrote the character, someone else suggest Denzel Washington. Today, it would probably be Ryan Gosling and Idris Elba. (Actually, Idris would be the better fit if I still wrote that person. He has the same sense of humor, but can turn on the Luther/Stringer Bell intensity when needed. Plus the English accent would totally work.)

Notables are either ones with larger-than-life personas, or compelling life events that may inspire the story itself.

If you must know, I pilfered a couple of names from real life for Holland Bay, though the characters are not their real-life counterparts. I based one character on Ken Bruen after he gave me some input. But then Ken blurbed that book, so now the character is named Kearny. There's no Jack Taylor in Kearny. The others might have taken cues from real people, but they evolved on their own. Branson, Murdoch, and Armand Cole are all cut from whole cloth. Rufus had some television inspiration, as did Baker, who is what another character from another story would be like if the original wasn't a manipulative idiot. In reality, I liked the actor. The original character I couldn't stand. One has to be careful when using fictional inspiration. The gap between custom archetype, homage, and plagiarism is painfully small.

Using real people as a basis for a character is not roman à clef. It might surprise you to learn there was a real-life Beavis whom Mike Judge used as a model for his monumentally stupid creation, Beavis. However, the real Beavis had the name, the voice, and apparently in sarcastic moments, the laugh. But the hideous appearance, lack of intelligence, and disturbing fascination with fire all came after Beavis and Butthead had a few episodes under its belt. Let's hope the real Beavis had a sense of humor. Since he used to hang out with Mike Judge (whose normal voice is that of Butthead without he lisp and a larger vocabulary), I'm going to assume he got a big laugh out of it. A real one, not "Huh huh. Huh huh huh huh huh."

Of course, again, the difference here is the real person - notable or familiar - is the starting point. Once the character is in the story, they're going to do what they want, including flesh out an entirely new backstory. Which is what they're supposed to do.


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.

24 June 2022

The Sound Of Music


Music can be a powerful motivator for a writer. Years ago, I heard Annie Lennox's cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The image of a dead man lying at the side of a highway as semis (or "lorries," as Young puts it in his lyrics) at sunrise crystalized a series of unconnected scenes. Years later, after putting it on the shelf and dusting it off again, that project became Holland Bay.

Of course, you hope a song exploding in your brain like that pays off sooner. Holland Bay took so long to write that I spun up an entire trilogy and adjacent arcs of novellas by the time I sent it to Down & Out Books. In fact, I had no idea I would be getting back into science fiction when I started.

In the early days, when I wrote about PI Nick Kepler, I wanted a series of prompts to keep short stories flowing. In my misspent youth, I had an obsession with, along with Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, heavy metal gods Deep Purple. I decided I wanted a short story named for a song title from each of their (ever-growing) list of studio albums. That was a start. But "Hush," which spawned a short story about hush money, became "Just Like Suicide," as the hush money involved a murder made to look like suicide. The obscure "Chasing Shadows" involved a witch and a graveyard (the former making a return appearance in the novel Bad Religion) became "Full Moon Boogie," another obscure song by a later iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. So music led to music. But some were obvious.

Deep Purple's second hit, an instrumental called "Wring That Neck," has a title that calls to mind chickens meeting an untimely demise before ending up in a bucket with eleven herbs and spices. Nick Kepler was a creature of Cleveland and its suburbs. However, I had lived briefly in what I now dub Amish Mafia territory, specifically Holmes County, Ohio, where my parents spent their final years. I remember I was culture shocked being fifty miles from anywhere. So Nick went looking for a Romeo and Juliet couple who run off to more rural than rural Ohio. It ends a bit better than Willy Shakes' tragic tale, but Nick is a fish out of water, even slipping in chicken poop at one point. He is less than charitable to his client after that.

Then there's "Flight of the Rat," written about two years after 9/11. Many of us struggled to deal with that event without hitting the reader over the head with it. The song, from Purple's In Rock album, gave me an obvious title. Nick chases a bail jumper into Cleveland's Hopkins Airport on 9/11 and gets away with things he would not be able to do twenty-four hours later. That one, I played the source song over and over while writing it.

Lately, one song came up on Tidal, my streaming service of choice. "Last Plane Out" by one-off band Toy Matinee has shown up several times on Daily Discovery. While inspired by Yes, UK, and, to some extent, Asia, the band featured Guy Pratt, aka Roger Waters' replacement in Pink Floyd. The song, however, has more in common with Radiohead and Coldplay but doesn't take itself nearly as seriously. "Last Plane Out" begins with the line "Welcome to Sodom. How we wish you were here." It goes on to tell the tale of someone living in a land of decadence and vice but hoping for a seat on the titular last plane out. Edge of the apocalypse stuff.

The song is quite catchy, but the lyrics suggest the second season of Jack Ryan, as Ryan and Greer seek to navigate a fictionalized Venezuela. Currently, I'm pondering either going with a thriller and accessing my inner Lee Child or making this a second outing for my science fiction space spy Eric Yuwono, who may return to the land of sin and vice already in a pending novel. "Welcome to Sodom," the Biblical land of violent hedonism, seems an irresistible jumping off point for either a present-day character or a futuristic spy finding himself on a planet about to implode under the weight of its own over-indulgence.

These aren't the only examples. Our own Brian Thornton edited two anthologies inspired by the music of Steely Dan while the same publisher just released one based on Warren Zevon's. (How can you not do crime fiction with a title like Lawyers, Guns, and Money?) And music is all through Stephen King's books, quoted, as themes, and even in the meta fiction. (The Dark Half's main character wrote a literary novel called Purple Haze that may or may not have had an intrusion by his violent dead twin pseudonym, but clearly channeled Hendrix in its tone.)

And why wouldn't music weave its way through our writing? Some writers listen to specific music to set the mood for a scene. Others want a wall of sound to keep the world out so they can concentrate. And sometimes, it just helps you think.

23 April 2022

Enough with the Murderer's Point of View, Already!


Some people may not like this post.  Some might even call me a 'cranky author.'  And that's just fine, because I'm all about open discussion when it comes to fiction writing.  In fact, I think the main thing wrong with the world these days is too many people want to shut down open discussion on every subject.

So here goes:

Was gabbing by phone with my friend Cindy, another writer, about the usual Covid-Writer fare.  What are you writing… what are you reading… what disasters have befallen your publisher, etc.

(And just to give you an example… Remember last November, when all the ships were crowded around the docks off California for weeks and weeks, unable to unload their goods in time for Christmas.  Well, remember at the same time there was one container ship foundering off the coast of Vancouver, that dumped 117 containers into the ocean?  One of those containers contained the second reprint of my 16th book with Orca Book publishers.  Yes, I couldn't make this up.  Hope the fishes enjoy eating my royalties.)

Back to the main beef of today.

This discussion with Cindy inevitably led to what 'What do we hate' in fiction these days.  Cindy surprised me by saying: "You know what I really hate?  Books written in third person, that all of a sudden dump the murderer's point of view in the middle of everything!  In first person, no less.  Drives me nuts."

"Me too!"  I said, delighted to find another fellow cranky writer.  "Not to mention, it breaks all viewpoint rules."  (Okay, the cranky college prof can't resist the opportunity to lecture.)

What are we talking about?  You're reading a book - police procedural, usually - that starts with the protagonist - a cop - in third person.  The book carries on very nicely in third person for several chapters, and then suddenly, you get a chapter written in first person, by some unnamed character, that is completely self-focused.  Gradually you figure out it must be the murderer talking, because he's going on and on about his awful childhood.  Oh Sweet Jesus.  How the heck did that get in there?

It's like they wrote the whole book and then thought, I'll just go back and plop in some chapters of a completely different book into random spots.  The critics will love it!

I say police procedural because the last book I read - Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler - did exactly this thing.  Now normally, I love the Bryant and May detective series by Fowler.  (The Peculiar Crimes Unit takes place in England.)  It's a hoot.  But I didn't like this added 'device'.

I say police procedural, but I've also seen it done with an amateur detective novel.  In fact, I read a recent book by a very well known Canadian author who used the same 'device' (note how nice I am in calling it 'device' instead of the words I am really thinking.)

'Recent' is the key word here.  The first time I came across this was about five years ago.  Really threw me the first time. Who the hell was speaking?  I thought it was a misprint.  No, truly.  I thought the printer had made a mistake and inserted part of another book into this book.

"Why do they do that?" said Cindy.

Believe it or not, being in the middle of writing my 18th novel, I had a logical explanation for that.

"Word count," I said confidently.  "They finish the novel at 70,000 words, and they've got to get it to 80,000.  I know from wence they came."

Some famous crime writer - it may have been Spillane - said that most crime books are perfectly written at 50,000 words.  In other words, a lot of mystery or crime stories end themselves naturally at that word count.  And that pushing them to 70 or 80 thousand means adding stuff that doesn't have to be there (which is a nice way to put it, I think.)

I ascribe to the Spillane school of thought.  My own work settles nicely between fifty and sixty thousand words.  I have to work hard to get it to 70,000.  And my agent and publisher usually push it to 75,000 in the editing process.

So I figure these writers who slot in the murderer's point of view are doing so to add word count.  What a nice way to avoid thinking of another plot twist.  Problem is, these chapters are usually static.  They are internal monologue.  All narration.  They interrupt the story.  And worse, they don't exactly move the story forward.

Not to mention, they break viewpoint and drive me and other cranky veteran authors crazy.

Not that we have far to go.

How about you, Sleuthsayers?  What do you think about this newfangled device in fiction?

Melodie Campbell sticks to the viewpoint rules in her otherwise loopy crime fiction that almost always involves the mob.  You can find her books at all the usual suspects.

26 March 2022

In which our Heroine asks the Question: Why Bother?


I read in the paper today that divorces and job resignations were way up in 2021, the conclusion being that Covid is causing us to revisit all the important things in our life.  So it was almost serendipitous that this week I was put to the challenge to defend (or at least, assess) my continued feverish predilection for writing fiction.

Someone (a real person, not my wayward alter ego) asked me the other day, why do I write.  Or more specifically, why do I continue to write.

Now, this was not meant to be a slight in any way.  The person who asked was another writer facing the same sort of future I see for myself.  That is, he is also:

  • A mid-list author with a respected traditional house, putting out a book every 12 to 18 months.
  • An author with 15-plus books and dozens of short stories published in respected magazines.
  • A thirty-year history of writing.
  • Some awards on the mantel.

And - wait for it -

  • Slim to no chance of getting rich or achieving best-seller status on the New York Times or Globe and Mail bestseller lists at this point in the career.

So… writer friend asked, "Why do we still do it?  What can we possibly achieve now that we haven't already?  Because that Top 20 list is probably never going to be within our reach."

(Wait a minute.  Was I supposed to be on some list?  Another thing I failed to do?  I felt like I was one of the wise men - the 4th one you never hear about, Irving the Unwise - going to see Baby Jesus in the manger.  "I didn't know we were supposed to bring gifts.  Nobody told me we were supposed to bring gifts!")

But I digress.  My friend wasn't through.  "How many books do I need to have published to feel like I'm kind of a success?  When will I have enough?"

Poo.  I had no answer.

This fall, I signed a contract for my seventeenth book.  It comes out next fall (if Covid doesn't kill the presses for lack of paper worldwide, sigh.)  And then the question will be, is that enough?  Will an eighteenth book make any difference at all to me or to the world?

So I asked myself, "Self - why are you doing this?  At a time when so many people are retiring to the golf course, why are you still torturing yourself with plot lines and deadlines and tedious social media promotion?  Why are you putting up with endless Amazon reviews and online trolls who couldn't find a plot hole if they were pushed into it?  (Note to alter ego:  always carry a shovel.)

Then a strange thing happened this morning.  A reader in the States sent me a notice she received from the West Virginia Library System, that the audiobook version of my title Worst Date Ever, was available for lending.

Well, that's cool, I thought.  Maybe it won't seem like a lot to you, but I live in suburban Toronto - that's in Canada, the other big country on the top end of North America.  The one that invented hockey fights and slurps maple syrup.

I can't begin to tell you what this email did for me.  We've all had a hard year.  But the thought that my renegade book (a loopy romantic comedy - I usually write crime) could perhaps put a smile on the face of a reader an entire country and several states away did something to my heart.

Like the Grinch, I think my heart grew several sizes.

God Bless that reader.  Because the answer to my friend's question became clear to me.  I write so that I might put a smile on someone's face - someone who might need it.  Someone who has seen hard times, is longing for escape, and needs a little lift that doesn't cost anything more than a library card.

That's why I write. That's why I continue to write. How about you?

May 2022 bring you smiles.

Here's that little book in the West Virginia Library.  Who says I can't write romance?  (Okay, so they asked me to write a romance, and I wrote about a series of bad dates.  Give me a break.  It has a happy ending, doesn't it?)

Available at all the usual suspects…



18 March 2022

Out of The Zone


There's a lesson in here. I think.

In October 2017, I posted an article about a writer writing in The Zone in which a writer's narrow focus on a novel or story is sustained through the interruptions of working a full time job and other distractions. It's like being on another plane.

After retiring, I've been able to work nearly 10 hours a day on writing and remained in The Zone – focused like a laser beam – writing in a near trance – characters interrupting meals with their conversations. Scenes interrupting sleep.

In March 2021, during the pandemic, The Zone became elusive. Fear of family, friends, of my wife and myself going into a hospital and never returning. I narrowed my focus and managed to write but not as much.

Now, in March 2022, I feel out of The Zone and must work hard to focus. The lesson here for writers is to keep pushing, keep writing, even if it is only for a short time each day, even if you only get one sentence down. Stay with it and it will come. Over the last year the short stories and novel I wrote crawled out of my computer, but they came and came better than I thought they would going into each. Maybe I'm on automatic. Maybe a writer who has been writing for nearly forty years has developed an inner focus that gets me through.

Face it, writing is hard. I'm talking about the composition, putting fingers to keys and creating a story. Don't give up on a story and especially a novel. If it seems to die on you, let it sit and go back to it but never give it up.

I have always found the solution and if a little old guy like me can, any of you can.

It's not the inspiration but the work put in to get from the opening line to THE END. Others have said it more eloquently, but that's the way it is.

That's all for now.

ONeil DeNoux
www.ONeilDeNoux.com

08 March 2022

Writing Lessons from Top Chef


I recently became addicted to Top Chef, a cooking competition program that airs on Bravo, and I’ve been binge-watching the program during the past several weeks. I started watching with episode one of season one when I found reruns of the series on Hulu, and I’ve almost reached the end of season eleven. (Bravo recently began airing season nineteen, so, please, no spoilers.)

The season begins with twelve to nineteen chefs competing to be the last chef standing and to be named the “Top Chef.” Sometimes the chefs compete singly and sometimes they compete in teams, and each episode typically features two competitions: a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge. The winner of a Quickfire Challenge is often granted immunity in the Elimination Challenge and may win a prize. Though the winner of the Elimination Challenge may also win a prize, the loser of the Elimination Challenge must leave the show.

Much like publication editors, the host (Padma Lakshmi ) and judges (Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and a rotating cast of guest judges) issue a “call for submissions” in the form of a challenge. They provide the competing chefs with a description of what they want, the parameters of the task, and a deadline.

A Quickfire Challenge is much like a flash fiction call for submissions: Create an appetizer using a Milky Way, a prawn, and a kumquat, and do it in twenty-seven minutes. The judges then taste the food, tell the chefs who prepared the worst dishes, who prepared the best dishes, and who won the challenge.

The Elimination Challenges are more complex. The competing chefs must prepare one or more dishes, often to a theme, and often for a crowd of diners. At some point during the season, the chefs are encouraged, or specifically instructed, to “tell a story” with their food.

HOW THIS RELATES TO WRITING

At some point during the first few episodes of season eleven I began to see a parallel to what we encounter as writers. Editors provide us with guidelines that define what genre of stories they want to see, what elements the stories must have, and how many words we’re allowed to use to tell the stories. Sometimes the guidelines are quite specific, and other times they are vague or even nonsensical.

But the parallels become even more apparent when watching what happens at the Judges’ Table after the Elimination Challenges, both the conversations among the judges and their conversations with the competitors when trying to determine which chef gets the boot.

The chefs’ dishes are judged for adherence to the parameters of the challenge, creativity, and technical proficiency. Editors—though the debates are more often internal than among a group of editors sitting around a table—judge submissions much the same way. Does a particular submission meet the guidelines? While adhering to those guidelines, how creative is the final product? And, has the author displayed technical proficiency through proper spelling, punctuation, formatting, and so on?

And one dilemma that the chefs often face when a challenge involves preparing food for several hundred diners: Should they cook for the crowd or should they cook for the judges? During the seasons I’ve watched, food that seemed well-liked by diners has scored poorly with the judges. The lesson, repeated often through the seasons, is that pleasing the judges is critical to winning, just like pleasing editors is critical to getting published.

IT’S JUST A REALITY SHOW

Top Chef is a reality show, so we know the stories told over the course of each episode and over the course of each season must be taken with a large grain of salt. How much is real, how much is staged, and how much of what we see has been manipulated to feed viewers particular story lines? Does it matter?

Maybe not.

But what does matter is something Tom Colicciho says, in one form or another, at least once each season: “We can only judge by what’s on the plate.”

Editors make publishing decisions much the same way. They can only judge your work by what’s on the page.

Ensure that it’s appetizing.


Black Cat Mystery Magazine 11 was released at the tail-end of February, and it contains new stories by Mike Adamson, Lis Angus, Marlin Bressi, Mark Bruce, Leone Ciporin, Veronica Leigh, Anita Murphy, David Rudd, Max Devoe Talley, and fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti, O’Neil De Noux, and Elizabeth Zelvin. It also contains a classic reprint by Richard S. Prather.