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

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.

28 September 2020

Bam, Scam, Thank you, Ma'am


Every six weeks, or so, my wife Barbara says to me, "Isn't your big break about due again?"

It's a standing joke, going on for so long we no longer remember when it began.

The phone rings and when one of us answers, we hear a young female with an Asian accent asking for "Step-on Leez-cow." This young woman, whose name is always "Mumble" and who works for "Mumble Mumble" promotion group (both of those change from call to call, by the way), is very ex-site-ted about my new book, Post Cards of the Haing-Ging. They would like to promote it and hope I will send (usually 50 or 100) copies to some book event that also changes with each call and which I've never been able to find through an Internet search.

I haven't stayed on the line long enough to learn how much money I'm supposed to invest in their enterprise, but I know it will be enough to make their phone call worthwhile… for them.

My "new" novel Postcards of the Hanging, appeared in February 2014. I have received this phone call at least a dozen times in the last three years and I look forward to it along with offers to update the warranty on my 2004 Honda Accord.

If you're new to writing, you'd probably be thrilled to receive a call like this. Don't be. Ask  how the "Company" heard about your book. Ask what they noticed about your website. Ask where else they have looked to find information about you. It's fun to listen to the dead air before they guess. Sorry, Ms., no lifeline here.

A month ago, I heard from a new caller and was in a bad mood (Surgery does that to me), so I played with him more than usual.

"Kevin" called from some mumbled promotion group, and they were palpitating about Words of Love, which I published "recently." It was late 2019, so props to them for being more up-to-date than Ms Bangkok (Who is due to call again next week). Kevin wanted to promote my book so we could boost the sales enough to bring it to the attention of major publishers and renegotiate a deal. We would split the profits. He didn't say whether it would be an even split.

I interrupted to ask how much he expected me to invest, and he answered, "10 or 15 thousand dollars" (Cue hysterical laughter). After that, like a basketball player who turns the ball over and compounds the error by committing a foul, he asked if I was familiar with traditional publishing.

My first novel was with a small traditional publisher. They peeled me like an apple, partly because I signed a bad contract and partly because they were blood-sucking vermin. Other writers had similar experiences and the company has long since disappeared because word got around, as it always does. Remember, we're writers. We tell stories. That company is one of the reasons I self-publish my novels now.

Then Kevin went for the Trifecta, asking me what I've done to promote my book. This is my answer, pretty much verbatim:

I'm a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. I have served on panels for both MWA and SinC, usually at libraries, but at both the New England Crime Bake and Crime Conn, too. I conduct fiction workshops in libraries and other venues, and have a video workshop available online. I have done radio and TV interviews,  podcasts and print newspaper feature stories. I have won several awards, which are listed on my Website and Facebook Author page. My daughter updates my website frequently. I have also published about thirty short stories (traditionally) and have several others currently under consideration.

Kevin was amazed. I told him he hadn't done his homework or he would have, at the very least, Googled me and found all that stuff--along with reviews of various books and stories.

I didn't bother to point out what would happen on the one in a trillion chance that a traditional publisher decided to take on my book. I simply told Kevin I don't give large sums of money to amateurs.

These are scams. 

Because of the Covid-19 lockdown, many people who have threatened to write "That Book" have actually used the time to do just that. The scammers smell fresh meat and are coming out of the dunghills to take advantage of it.

huckster

The Short Mystery Fiction Society posted a scam letter a few weeks ago, and when I first started out, I might have fallen for it. Now, I got about one sentence beyond the salutation before I knew it was fake. Less than two weeks ago, SMFS published a warning about a questionable literary agency that wanted to put writers in touch with Hollywood to sell their novel as a screenplay. I get email offers like that about once a month. They never name the novel they're looking at.

The problem is, if you're starting out, you're learning to write and query and create a synopsis and do an elevator pitch and revise your novel and create a website, a Twitter feed and a dozen other things. You're already swamped without having to learn to spot the grifters out there. There are a few websites to warn people, but they need to know a scam is active before they can pass the word. That means someone has to spot it and alert them.

Writer's organizations are important because they protect their members.

That's another thing mystery writers do besides tell stories. We try to look out for each other.

18 September 2020

Steinbeck's Writing Tips


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

John Steinbeck

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

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

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

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

www.oneildenoux.com

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

14 September 2020

Rules of the Game


Before the lockdown, I played guitar and sang at three local open mic venues regularly. About a dozen other people played those venues, too, and I rated myself near the bottom as both a musician and singer. Now that I occasionally do Zoom performances with several of those same people, I feel better about myself. I've learned to select songs that work well as solo acoustic pieces in my particular style.

A few weeks ago, a very good jazz player--one of the few who sings even worse than I do--performed a song it took me two verses to recognize because he changed both the melody and the rhythm so much that they no longer matched the mood or content of the song. It was Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and he combined a guttural growl reminiscent of Charley Patton with guitar riffs worthy of Les Paul, Pat Martino, and Joe Pass. My microphone was muted so he didn't hear my reaction. Luckily.

My first memory of such a gaffe was Jose Feleciano's unfortunate treatment of the Doors' "Light My Fire." I was never fanatical about the Doors, but Feleciano turned a rock song about hot sex into a lounge ballad about...something. The only other disaster that gives this one competition is Frijid Pink's heavy-metal version of "The House of the Rising Sun." You can find it on YouTube, but don't say I didn't warn you.
The first ten minutes of a play teach the audience how to watch what's going on. Will the lighting, sound, and acting be realistic or avant garde? Will the actors speak to each other or directly to the audience? Is the set realistic or abstract? Is the language formal, poetic, or profane? Years ago, I saw a production of Steel Magnolias in which M'Lynn's final monologue (Spoiler alert) about watching her daughter die featured the rest of the cast and set disappearing into darkness while the actress playing M'Lynn stepped into a spotlight. The entire play to that point used naturalistic lighting, and this shift pulled the actress out of the story and the audience out of the event. Two other directors and a light designer saw the performance along with me, and we agreed it was the kind of mistake a first-time director would make. We found out later that we were correct.
If a story is comedy, we need to understand what the author means by "funny." Chuck Palahniuk and Christopher Durang may not be everyone's shot of bourbon. I directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?years ago with two actors whose rapport and timing turned the first act into a routine worthy of Abbott and Costello. It made the play's darker turns later even more disturbing. I tried to explain this to someone who didn't see the production, and he was appalled that I thought anything in the play was funny.

These dissonances occur in stories, too. Every work--poem, short story, novel, essay, or play--has its own rules and boundaries, and the writer has to recognize them as he or she creates them. Science fiction on a different world needs to explain the crucial differences, maybe gradually, or maybe (Heaven help us) in an early information dump. Think of the opening scene of Huxley's Brave New World. A cozy mystery needs to establish the language and lack of graphic detail before we start holding the characters to the wrong standard. A romance needs to introduce at least one of the potential lovers quickly so we know who to care about (or not).
Once you've established those rules, follow them. Otherwise, the book, story or song becomes an incoherent mess. If you give us 25 pages of people who only say "Gosh" or "Drat" and put their beer glasses on coasters, we are in a certain world. When the heroine and the handsome stranger get together 200 pages later, we'll be shocked to see them naked and the woman displaying certain skills and using specific vocabulary to explain what she wants and enjoys. If the story includes a murder, we won't be looking for a graphic medical description of the damage, either.

The Beatles who wrote and performed "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are younger and less worldly than the quartet who gave us "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" We had several years to watch them grow and experiment so the second one was less a shock. The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things always had a different image. Later on, so did the Sex Pistols. And with a name like that, who would expect the group to release "Ave Maria" as a single?
Be careful what you promise a reader. You'll have to deliver it.

25 August 2020

The Next Best Thing to Being There


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

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

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

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

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

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

https://www.instagram.com/p/CC3_3gxAZq6/
                           


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10 August 2020

The Writer Diaries


Joseph Pittman
introducing…
Joseph Pittman is a friend from about the time we opened bookstore in Austin, called Mysteries and More. I was writing a column for Mystery Scene magazine called Southwest Scenes. I had also started going to Mystery Cons in order to meet authors, agents, booksellers, editors, publishers in person, because I used their information for my column.

Joe Pittman was one of the big name editors I telephoned on a regular basis. He would tell me which books were ready for release. Joe was always helpful, giving me reliable info and we usually spent a few extra minutes chitchatting. We finally met in person in St Louis, MO when Bob Randisi put together and hosted a PWA CON, the first ever conference for private eye writers.


I knew Joe had left publishing because he wanted to write and write he does. He's published more than a few books. We reconnected on FB a couple of years ago. Then, a little over a year ago, Joe and his husband Steve adopted Shadow. And Shadow, a black lab youngster, soon learned to type on Daddy Joe's computer. Shadow began a diary. Talked about settling into a new home with a nice back yard to play in and how he's learned new words and how to play with other families, making friends with other dogs. And especially learning about love. Daddy Joe compiled Shadow's diaries into a book, and Daddy Steve did the cover artwork. It's a small but very entertaining and charming book for all animal lovers.  I highly recommend it.
— Jan Grape

Joseph Pittman is the author of over 40 novels in various genres under his own name and pen name Adam Carpenter. He has written comic crime, noir, small-town sweetness, intrigue, and erotica. His current series features private detective Jimmy McSwain.
Shadow is a beautiful 2-year-old Black Lab / Greyhound mix who has lots to say. His first book, The Shadow Diaries, has just been published. Funny, poignant, insightful, it’s a full-year in the life of a rescue dog. Follow him on Instagram at theshadowdiariesbook.

The Writer Diaries – Volume 32

by Joseph Pittman
Hey, Pittman here. It’s midnight while I write this. The moon owns the night. There’s a pretty dame walking down a dark avenue. A handsome lad in a fedora trails her. My eyes don’t judge either. They just wonder what each is hiding. Probably truth.

Whoa, what’s going on? Have we finally gotten to a diary entry that focuses on the classic American detective novel? Is it noir week? Yeah, sweetheart, it sure is.

You can do a wayback and think about Chandler, Hammett, Cain. They created a genre steeped in language people hadn’t read before. Grit, gumption, a different way of seeking justice. I’ve read ‘em but was never involved in any reissues of their iconic novels.

But I did get to work with some of the giants of the mystery world. it’s interesting to think how they helped shape me as a writer. So, I’m going to focus on four authors, some you may have heard of, all who bring a unique spin to the crime genre. What they have in common? They always let you know whodunit.

I’m gonna start with the Grandmaster. The one and only Mickey Spillane. Back before publishers did hard/soft deals, back before all the mergers, a hardcover publisher would sell the softcover rights to a paperback publisher. And one of the most loyal arrangements was that between E.P. Dutton and Signet. Their star author? The great Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer. I, The Jury put all three on the map. Hammer was tough. Spillane’s language was hardened poetry.

In the 1990s, Mickey, after a silent period, resurfaced with a new novel, Black Alley, the return of Mike Hammer. I had the privilege of working on this book, but more than that…I got to meet Mickey. He was being named Grandmaster from the Mystery Writers of America, their highest honor. Mickey came to the office that day for a champagne toast.

I remember him telling me I wasn’t born when Hammer was taking his first punch. It was the perfect introduction. He’d brought along with him “the dame,” a lovely woman who had starred with him in those Lite Beer commercials in the 70s. Then we all went to the Edgar Awards banquet, NAL having secured a table to celebrate our Grandmaster. I couldn’t believe I was his editor.

But I experienced that feeling a lot over my career, which brings me to a twist in the noir. Lawrence Block (another Grandmaster) is a gentleman, a scholar, and a bit of a schemer! I’d known his Matthew Scudder detective series, but he also had a lighter side. Enter Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and thief, into my life. Dutton/Signet, now fully merged, was offered the opportunity to revive this comic crime series, starting with the first book in ten years, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams.

This series became one of my favorite adventures in publishing, and certainly gave me some credibility in the mystery community I loved being a part of. We ended up republishing the first five books, in both hardcover and paperback. Then we published four more new titles. The Burglar in the Rye features a dedication…to me. A treasured moment when I saw that.

To say Bernie inspired my Todd Gleason character is an understatement.

Then there’s this guy, Max Allan Collins. Another genius of detective fiction. I first learned of him when I worked at Bantam. A book called Stolen Away, a historical mystery about the Lindbergh kidnapping. Later, when at NAL, we acquired his Nathan Heller series and went on to publish six titles. Nate was always getting involved in mysteries of the past, helping to solve the unsolvable. His attention to detail, his cleverness, but ultimately his prose, absorbed me.

Lastly, I want to talk about the Gatekeeper of all this history with his devotion to detective fiction. Robert J. Randisi. He is the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America, which awards the Shamus for the best in American detection. I did several anthologies with Bob, memorably a collection of Shamus-winning stories called The Eyes Still Have It. Randisi has published so many books in so many genres, it’s hard to keep track. If I learned anything from him: stay prolific. Finish writing a book, there’s another waiting behind it.

The detective novel is quintessential American. It’s about mood, about voice, it’s about characters who might have been damaged by life, men and women who are looking for solutions on the streets. But ultimately finding their redemption within their own hearts. Motive isn’t just something to uncover in a suspect. It’s something to find within your hero.

At the PWA conference in St. Louis in 1999, I was surprised and humbled to receive a plaque from Bob. “Friends of PWA.” I still am, and I’m grateful to these four talented authors for taking me on their journeys. Truthfully, my P.I. Jimmy McSwain doesn’t exist without any of them.

Thanks for reading.

Love,      
Joseph

04 August 2020

I Write Therefore I Am


Walking the dogs. Buster above.
 Pepper (left) and Buster below.
Sometimes—often—I get tired of the writing grind. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and toil for very little reward, or so it seems. I’ll complain to my wife that I want to quit. I’ll think about doing just that. But then I think about what I would do with all that extra time. Garden? Watch TV? Read? Do hobbies? Spend even more time walking the dog.

Who would I be? My whole identity is wrapped up in being a writer and has been almost my whole adult life. I don’t think I’d recognize myself anymore if I wasn’t writing. One hears about people who retire and have these great expectations of playing golf all the time or doing whatever their fancy is and then getting bored awfully damn quick. But also losing their identity because so much of it was wrapped up in their work.

Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the years to work at being a writer, so obviously it was something that was worth making sacrifices for.

And I like the process of creating something out of nothing, yet it’s too late for me to be a molecular physicist, if that’s the right terminology. Writing fiction is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (something I don’t have the patience for). But like a jigsaw puzzle in writing you have to find all the right pieces and put them in all the right places or it just doesn’t fit.

I write, therefore I am. With my assistant, Curley.

Red Smith famously said: "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  Even when you open a vein for the Red Cross and donate blood they give you juice and cookies.



Most people don't have an appreciation for what we go through as writers.  The hours spent alone, no one to talk to over the water cooler (though that's changed somewhat with the internet, which is a surrogate water cooler).  The opening of our veins to get to the good stuff.

Like I said, it’s a calling. And it called me very young. When I was a kid I used to set up my army men on the bedroom floor.  But often, instead of moving them around pretending they were on a real battlefield I would pretend that they were on a movie set. I was lucky enough to have one little plastic figure of a cameraman and I'd even set up my TinkerToys in such a way to mimic Klieg lights. I'd move the men around the floor, putting words in their mouths, the good guys and the bad. Making sounds of gunfire and other sound effects. That, coupled with having been born in Hollywood, literally, made me want to do something in the movies. So today when I write something I figure I'm just doing on paper what I used to do on the floor of my room, moving around letters and sentences the way I used to move "armies" across the floor. And it really all amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, I am really still playing with (and collecting) toy soldiers. See pic.

Still playing with toy soldiers.

And, when I started out as a writer I had romantic notions of what being a writer meant. Images of Hemingway sipping absinthe on the Left Bank. And though Hollywood ain't no left bank it did have Joe Allen's at the time, so I went there for drinks. Or I'd sip some whiskey while writing in my little office. But I found that if I drank while writing—or trying to write—I didn't want to write. I wanted to play. So those romantic visions of the drinking writer (at least while writing) vanished quickly as did the bottle. I also thought writers should hang out at bars and dives and soak up atmosphere or thrown beer. My first adventure out was to a well-known sleazy eatery. I sat at the counter listening for tidbits of dialogue, insights into lives. What I got was a shirt full of beer when two guys playing pool a few feet away got into a fight. Free beer, who could ask for more?  If a cop had stopped me on the way home my shirt-alcohol level would surely have been over the legal limit.  Would they have arrested me or just my shirt?
Cafétafel met absint by Vincent Van Gogh
So, though it can get tedious, though the rewards might not always come, I don’t think I could or would ever give up on writing. Ultimately, we write because we have to. We open those veins because we have no choice. And anything’s better than sitting around watching TV all day, even that vein opening.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
                           



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

25 July 2020

The Best Thing about Writing Short Stories (and it's not the money...)


Beyond the delight of creating a story that swings on a single plot point/twist...

Beyond the excitement of putting together a really professional product in just a few weeks...

Beyond the satisfaction of mastering the craft of the short story in another tautly written tale that speeds along with the impact of a runaway commuter train...

Here is the real reason I love writing short stories.

My 17th book is done.  Sent to agent in New York.  I sit back, awaiting the inevitable comments, rounds of edits, during which I will alternately cry, fume and laugh hysterically.

Then off to the publisher it goes.  After which there will be more edits, more crying, fuming, and possibly, more drinking.  (Okay, that's a cert.)

Which is why I love writing short stories.

To Wit:
I've been a novelist for over 15 years now.  My 16th book came out this February (yes, possibly the worst timing in the history of the human race, with the possible exception of the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, but I digress.)

So I've had two traditional publishers and three series, but believe it or not, I got my start writing short stories.  In fact, I have over 50 of those published, and 24 of those were in print before I even gave a thought to write a crime novel.

Why do I love writing short stories so much?  Short stories come with less stress than a novel because...

Short stories are all mine.

In order to get a novel contract with a medium to big house, you really have to keep the audience in mind.  Sure, you write what you want to write, but with the publisher's audience always in mind.  Then your agent gets hold of it, and makes comments and suggestions.  Next, your house editor will be asking for changes to the manuscript, and possibly even to the story to make it most appealing to their audience. 

All good.  All with the purpose of increasing sales, which I'm sure it does.  All tedious as hell.

Yesterday, I sent my 17th book to my agent.  She really liked the first 30 pages sent months ago.  I probably won't sleep until I hear she likes the next 200.

If she does, it's a sparkling vino moment.  If the publisher does too, then break out the Bolly.  (I do love Ab Fab, by the way.  Just call me Eddie.)

But then the fun starts.  I have to wait for the inevitable tinkering.

I can see now that one of the great joys of writing a short story is there is no interference.  It's MY story, just the way I want to tell it.  I've been published in AHMM, Star Magazine, ComputorEdge, Canadian Living Magazine, Flash Fiction, and others, and no editors have ever suggested substantial changes to the stories they've published by me, or even requested minor changes.

Writing a short story is a more independent project than writing a novel.  I love that.

But back to the title (and it's not about the money):  I have actually made more per word with some short stories, than I have with some novels.  Mind you, if I'm making a dollar per word for short stories, that would translate to $80,000 per novel, and I don't reach that with every book.  

So although we say you can't make a living writing short stories anymore, it is possible to make some Bolly money.  Usually hobbies cost you money.  This is one that allows you to make some!

I've always said that when my novel career wanes, I will continue to write short stories with gusto.

It's true what they say:  you never forget your first love.

Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis and eight more awards.  She didn't even steal them, which will be explained if you look up her wacky Goddaughter books...
www.melodiecampbell.com