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

28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches

 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

18 February 2022

You Should Write...

My brother-in-law started writing. Pushing sixty, he's taken to it with a zeal I had in my twenties. At least he knows what he's writing. I dabbled in someone else's sandbox before sending out the first Nick Kepler short around the time we worried Y2K would end the world. Good times!

Since then, I've discovered I can write crime at a reasonable pace expected by traditional publishers. Holland Bay is done. It's sequel is off to the first reader, and I'm outlining the third in the series. One a year? We can do that. I also found I can spin out scifi pretty much in my sleep. It probably comes from that sandbox I played in during the 90s. The serial numbers are even original, not filed off, though I might rightfully be accused of my one protag aiming to misbehave. (If you've read my stuff and got that reference, you know those two characters would not get along at all.)

So while I've worked in relative obscurity for the past 20 years, I've had a decent output. This inevitably leads to that conversation. I'm not successful enough to get the "Hey, I have an idea. You write it. We split the profits" conversation. I have been in earshot of that conversation, and I cringe every time I hear it. The writer is usually well-known. If I know the person well enough, I can rescue them with, "Hey, [insert writer's name here], Ken Bruen's holding court over at the back table. Let's see if we can figure out who in Ireland he doesn't know." Sidenote: When I was temporarily single and at a mixers event, I rescued a woman who turned out to be a neighbor from a rather obnoxious suitor this way, pretending to be her date instead of using another writer's party as an escape hatch. Five minutes later, I was her date. Who says skills learned as a writer don't apply to real life?

 The version of the conversation I now get when someone looks at the combined output of Jim Winter and TS Hottle is, "You should write..."

Uh huh. Holland Bay took forever to write. And I spent quarantine dictating what is now called the Suicide Arc - 9 books, people. Add to that writing a scene that let me get into the heads of two characters, and last week's output - which was supposed to be a crime short - fell only 2000 words shy of a novella. And yet...

My brother-in-law started text bombing me one night about a character named Mitsuko. Mitsuko plays with swords and automatic weapons and hangs out with space marines. She is a supporting character in the two novels currently out and the star of a novella called Flight Blade. And BIL is a fan.

A huge fan.

I appreciate that. If I had the time to talk up my characters and stories in person, I'd probably sell a lot more books. But BIL took it one step further.

"Hey, I got an idea. You should do a whole series about Mitsuko's kids!"

Um... She's not married at this point or even looking to have kids.

"What if [other character] and her hookup?"

One, they'd kill each other, and two, both would say, "Ew!" at that idea.

It went on like this for about twenty minutes. I had to explain I had the entire arc in the can already, and the stories, including one needing a total rewrite, are pretty much etched in stone. I also explained that Down & Out is expecting a final draft of a novel this spring, and I would like to get a follow-up sliding across the keyboard by then.

And anyway, don't you have a novel to finish, too?

He's not the only one, and part of his enthusiasm comes from discovering writing only last year. It helped him forget a recent health scare, and it's also as addictive as I've found it. Maybe he'll start writing under two names, too. (I hope not. If I weren't married to a woman who's good at refocusing my attention, I'd have no life.)

Someone always thinks I'm the perfect vehicle for their political viewpoint. (Don't do that. It doesn't matter your politics. I hate pundits and will likely hurt your feelings.) Or they really do have an idea but don't want to do the work. Or they don't understand how writing works. It took a month to write Suicide Run but three to write next year's The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Both burned a lot of brain cycles to create. Plus I'm trying to get back into short stories.

Plus, the way publishing works, were I to get enough traction under either or both names, a Baen, a St. Martin's, a Tor, or a Random House is going to want me to send something completely original. At some point, I have to build a new sandbox to play in, maybe two. I have a couple of ideas on the crime side that can go to the next level, maybe allow me to finish Branson's story eventually. Scifi may prove a tad more difficult. I can't seem to extract myself from my sprawling universe. Maybe I won't, just change characters.

But, reader or writer, we've heard that horror story about someone accosting a writer with "I've got this great idea, and you should write it." Many of them back off when they realize that's not how it happens. Others are a bit disheartened when they realize the idea is not what's copyrighted or what the publisher or readers pay for. It's the execution. My next scifi novel will owe a lot to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse: Now. Unlike Copolla, though, I finished mine. But aside from a real piece of work named Kurz and a bunch of soldiers sailing upriver, the novel will bear little resemblance to either Joseph Conrad's novel or the movie. For starters, I seriously doubt either Conrad's gone-native madman nor Marlon Brando's incoherent colonel had cause to say, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids." 

There are stories that come from headlines, from those documentaries on A&E and Netflix, and from stories I hear driving Uber that give me story germs of my own. Many who don't do what we do, and even quite a few who do, think that writing is typing. You can write 1000 words an hour, so you should have a novel in two weeks.

I wish it did work like that. For every Road Rules, though, which I wrote in 13 days, there's a Holland Bay, which I started in 2007, rewrote multiple times over the next 12 years, and finally published in November. Those are extremes. Road Rules was a clearly defined story written on a dare. Holland Bay needed a couple of drafts just to finish the world building. Yes, even crime stories need world building.

The stock answer, which has the answer of usually being genuine, is "Why don't you write it?" Sometimes, they take the bait, and off they go down the rabbit hole.

Like my brother-in-law did. He's on Book 2 and is still revising Book 1. Took me a few years to learn that.

12 February 2022

What a Decade of Story Writing Does to You

You should write something.

Probably every writer heard that whisper in their head. Come on. Do it. Write something. After all, how hard can it be?

I'd heard that butt-in-chair siren song. In 2010, I answered finally the call. I wrote something. It stank. I wrote something else. It also stank. The stinking continued a while, but I am a dedicated learner. 2012 brought my first story acceptance, from an obscure Canadian lit journal that folded soon after. A good journal, though, and I felt a million miles tall.

10 candles, y'all
Some ways I've changed since that first acceptance:

#1: I've met the best people.

Most folks probably have friends or family trying their hands at fiction writing. I didn't, back when. Not one. I didn't personally know another living soul who was writing fiction. Non-fiction authors, yes, and everyone's English professor has a chapbook or like that. I've even lived next door to incredibly successful songwriters. But I didn't travel in fiction circles.

So--once my introvert side relented--I started showing up places: meet-up groups, local events, writing conferences, Sisters in Crime. Like everybody who sticks with it, I've since come into dear friends from all walks of life and with a wide variety of publishing goals. I'm happier about that than any publications.

And a special shout-out to crime authors. You would think that people intent on plotting murders and heists would be trouble. You would be wrong. I've never moved in a community more top-to-bottom generous than crime writers. All that plotting must purge negative impulses. 

#2 -- Travel is a whole new world. 

Camargue, 2018 -- We ride after lunch
It's no accident I put my butt in the writing chair soon after I began traveling more adventurously. These days, travel can give me something or somewhere to write about. And to write about a place honestly, I have to travel better. Immerse myself deeper into a place's vibe and culture, into what they eat and drink, the hours they keep.

A quick count shows 12 of my 38 accepted stories emerged from an overseas experience. Museum exhibits (first AHMM sale!), rainforest hikes, wine cave tours. Once, I walked myself to mush in Montparnasse. Had to. I needed to understand the neighborhood feel and how a stranger would take it in if I was pulling off a story idea. Much of that walkathon detail was cut from the accepted version, but that vibe and character perception survived.

Side note: I also kissed the Blarney Stone in 2010. The story ideas began improving soon after. I; not saying coincidence is causality, but I'm not not saying it, either.

#3 -- I have become a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

It's true. A main character in my great shelf novel was British and a devout football supporter. He needed an English team to support. Now, I was an okay soccer player until everyone else got a bunch larger and faster. As a fan and semi-informed person myself, I went through the various big clubs and decided Tottenham Hotspur was the most fun to say. Go on. Say "Tottenham Hotspur." You just had fun, didn't you? Unless you're an Arsenal supporter.

A character can't just claim to back Spurs. He had to rattle off club history, past great players, the few high years and their lowest lows. I researched it. I watched their games. And kept watching. That manuscript is many years abandoned, but I'm still watching Tottenham's few highs and sudden lows.

 #4 -- Reading is harder. Except when it isn't.

Early on, experienced writers warned that I might never read fiction the same way again. Truer words. Once I understood the base mechanics of fiction--and that fiction must have those mechanics--my reading turned over-focused on a given author's tactical choices. Dialogue tag spacing, word patterns, sentence construction. Nothing kills joy like analysis. 

So I stopped analyzing. I learned to turn off critical thinking and be a reader who digs reading. 

But informed analysis is also a new life skill. Life's too short to read stuff you can't drop into or, better still, wallow next-level in extraordinary work. Last year, I (finally) read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I marveled as Vonnegut alternately nailed and broke conventions and at how he made the sum of those breezy-seeming choices into a beautiful gut punch. It wouldn't have resonated unless I had developed that sort of eye.

#5 -- New York City will never be the same. In a good way.

My first crime story acceptance was to the MWA Cold War anthology, Ice Cold (accepted 2013, published 2014). MWA does anthologies right, with name authors as editor--Jeffrey Deaver and Raymond Benson for this one--and as headliner contributors. The launch party was set for Mysterious Books, and I would've sold a kidney to get there. As it was, I'd had to negotiate a new job offer to include immediate time off for a New York City trip. Smash cut: I made NYC with best wishes and two kidneys, and I sat at the signing table with far more seasoned authors and wondered how the hell I'd made it there. That will always be my first NYC memory. 

#6 -- I had an empathy switcheroo.

Personality assessments over the years said I abound with empathy. I guess so. True, I can step outside myself and sense how others feel about what's going on around us. That's limited by my own experience, but I am not without experience. We're all three-dimensional folks, neither entirely angelic nor irredeemably bad in all things. We all have our own cocktail of ambitions, fears, disappointments, hidden injuries. My sympathy tank is drier than it was ten years ago, but good old empathy is hanging around. 

Writers need a high dose of empathy. It's part and parcel with building characters and forging reader connections. What's happened, though, is the act of writing has become a two-way pipeline. That hard work of empathizing for the page channels understanding back my way. Now my psyche expects the exchange--and I'm disjointed when it doesn't happen. I'm more easily frustrated. Staying in a writing routine gives me more sunshine. Can't explain it, but there it is.  

You should write something. 

Well, I did. If the first decade taught anything, answering that call brings one heck of a journey worth taking.

29 January 2022



MacGuffin, according to Wikipedia, is "an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrevelant in itself."

I like that definition, and I like MacGuffins. I like them so much I used them as the basis for my story "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart," which appears in the current (January/February 2022) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The original name for this story, in fact, was "MacGuffins." And by the way, this is the only story, of the two dozen I've sold to AHMM, that involved a title change. Editor Linda Landrigan sent me an email in October asking if I'd mind changing it from "MacGuffins" to "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" because they wanted to use it for the cover of the Jan/Feb issue and the other title could be more easily used in the cover art. I of course said that'd be fine with me, and it was--but MacGuffins are still the heart of the tale.

Here's a quick summary of the story. Two brothers in the deep south who run a web-design business and love movies are taking a one-day break from work to go fishing together. On their way to the lake they amuse themselves in the car with a game in which one of the two describes a MacGuffin and the other tries to name the movie that features it. When they stop at a filling-station/convenience-store to gas up and grab some snacks, they interrupt a robbery-in-progress by a man who, according to what they heard earlier on their car radio, has already robbed and murdered an attendant at another mini-mart nor far away. And, as it turns out, the movie guessing-game they've been playing is the way they save themselves, and save the day.

At 2300 words, it's a fairly short story--a lot shorter than most of those I've sold to AHMM--and the first half is almost entirely dialogue between the two brothers. That, and the movie theme, made it great fun to write. As for its sale to AH, I suspect it didn't hurt that the term "MacGuffins," although it originated with a film guy named Angus McPhail, was adopted by Alfred Hitchcock and became a common plot device in storytelling. 

With regard to the definition, Wikipedia also describes a MacGuffin as something that is revealed in the first act, then declines in importance, and might reappear at the end of the story. One of the things I like most about the technique is that a MacGuffin serves as a way to link the entire story together, and is sometimes so important to the characters that it drives the plot. Examples: the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy, the magical suitcase in Fantastic Beasts, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.

Anyhow . . . to steal from the text of my story and to include a few other movies I also remember fondly, here's a list of some MacGuffins and the films that used them.

Letters of transit -- Casablanca

The body of a boy hit by a train -- Stand By Me

A giant emerald -- Romancing the Stone

Microfilm of secret government documents -- North by Northwest

A glowing briefcase -- Pulp Fiction

A tattooed map to Dry Land -- Waterworld

A clause from a secret peace treaty -- Foreign Correspondent

Rosebud -- Citizen Kane

A Persian rug -- The Big Lebowski

A WWII soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action -- Saving Private Ryan

A rabbit's foot -- Mission Impossible III

Secret plans for the Death Star -- Star Wars

A black statuette -- The Maltese Falcon

A harmonica -- Once Upon a Time in the West

A coded message in a piece of music -- The Lady Vanishes

Walley World -- National Lampoon's Vacation

An audiotape of a summit-meeting speech -- Escape from New York

A silver necklace with a blue heart -- Titanic

A necklace with a gold-and-red heart -- Vertigo

Radioactive uranium in wine bottles -- Notorious

A red stapler -- Office Space

A consignment of diamonds from a jewelry shop -- Reservoir Dogs

An empty Coke bottle -- The Gods Must Be Crazy

A boy who'll save the world in the far-distant future -- Terminator 2

A baseball bat carved from the wood of a tree -- The Natural

Plans for an aircraft engine -- The 39 Steps

The Holy Grail -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (among others)

Project Genesis -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A pocket watch that plays chimes -- For a Few Dollars More

A child's doll stuffed with heroin -- Wait Until Dark

Do you agree with these? (MacGuffins can sometimes be vague.) Can you think of others? Have you ever used MacGuffins in your own fiction? There's a chance you probably have and didn't realize it--I know I've done that.

One last point: I've heard that the key part of the word MacGuffin is "guff," which means utter nonsense. And maybe that's true.

But it works.

24 January 2022

Seven Steps

Nancy Pickard is a U.S. crime novelist. She has won five Macavity Awards, four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, and a Shamus Award. She is the only author to win all four awards. She also served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

I don't remember exactly when I met Nancy Picard, sometime in the early 90's is my guess. That was when I began to first be published and Elmer & I opened our mystery bookstore in Austin in 1990. I remember she & both were very early members of Sisters in Crime and Nancy is a past National President of S-in-C. I do know I've always admired her mystery novels. Reading Nancy's books are like peeling an onion back to  add to the story and destroy your early guesses. Naturally, you must keep turning pages and peeling layers until you get to the end & the solution. 

When I read this article about Nancy's book: Seven Steps on a Writer's Path, I knew I wanted to share this information with all of you. Her book is available in both Paperback & Kindle formats. Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition.                                                                                                                — Jan Grape

As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.

"And thus was born the Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. At first it was a workshop given   by me, then it was a retreat presented by Lynn, and now it is a book written by both of us." p. xii


by Nancy Pickard

Starting Out

"Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see. There are so many ominous shadows, unpredictable gusts of wind, unexpected blinding shafts of sunlight. It’s easy to get lost, to trip over our own hidden roots, or plunge unaware into unexplored caverns in our psyche. As writers, we hardly ever know where we’re going. The only thing most of us know how to do is to keep putting one foot after the other in the darkness and trust that eventually we’ll get there." p. 1

When Lynn and I each started our own writing careers, we didn’t even know there was a path, much less that there are steps along it. We hope that knowing these things will give you an advantage that writers who came before you didn’t have.

Step One: Unhappiness

"Call this step in the creative process what you will, according to your own experience of it. Name it the 'creative urge,' if you like. Call it an 'itch' or 'creative tension' or 'restlessness' or 'discontent.' Regardless of what label any of us gives this step, it’s a common state and the first step for all of us.

"Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins." p. 9

What a way to start a book, with unhappiness! But we had to, because that’s where the writing starts… or the drawing… or the music… or any other form of creativity. We discovered early on that the steps in this book apply to any creative person, not just to writers.

Step Two: Wanting

"It sounds so simple. All you have to do is want. But it must not be that simple in real life, or else why wouldn't more people be writing what, where, when, as much, and as well as they want to? Instead, they're still languishing in a state of unsatisfied desire. They're stuck back in step one, Unhappiness, and they can't seem to get out of it, no matter how bravely they face it or how honestly they acknowledge what they want from writing.

"The trouble may be that most of us tend to assume that wanting is only about feeling. Certainly, depth of desire is part of the answer, but what we're missing when we stop there is the second part of wanting, the action part…" pp. 38-39

This chapter required Lynn and me to be excruciatingly honest with ourselves and our readers about what we really want in our lives and our writing. It was good for us. It'll be good for you, too.

Step Three: Commitment

"Some people might joke that writers need to be committed, rather than to have commitment, and sometimes we feel as if we can only agree with them. It’s probably true that we're all at least a little bit crazy. But then, truly committed people usually look a little-or very–crazy to the outside world. If you don't look just a little bit nuts, you’re probably not committed enough. Writers like L. Frank Baum -- whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected dozens of times -- who keep sending their manuscripts to publishers look like crazy fools to people who will be only too glad to tell them so." p. 70

Step Four: Wavering

"Wavering tends to arrive when it’s least expected and least welcome. Certainly, you'd never willingly invite it, but surprise, here it is. Such as when you're forty pages into a book and you thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, but now you’re stuck. Or like when you’ve submitted your poems to magazines and you're feeling really good and hopeful about them–and the rejection letters start coming in. Or like when you've arranged to write for a couple of hours every day, and then other responsibilities crop up, just when you thought you had them beat down." p. 103

This is one of those steps where it's truly wonderful to know that you have lots of company. You're not alone. You're not the only crazy one. I'm there with you many days. So is Lynn. So is every writer we know and all of the ones we don’t know. We all waver. We all hate it. We all get through it, one way or another, and having each other's hands to hold is a big help and comfort.

Step Five: Letting Go

"Letting go is the magic moment when you step off into space, trusting that you won't fall on your face. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, when we make a leap of faith, it is the actual act of stepping out that creates a bridge to see us safely to the other side." p. 137

This is my favorite step of all. I adore this step. This is where miracles happen. This step sometimes terrifies me. A lot of times in my life I have wanted, oh how I have wanted, to take this step, but I just couldn’t do it. And then sometimes I do take it, and oh, the joy of that!

Step Six: Immersion

"… be loyal to your writing. Be just as loyal as you are to your dearest friend or loved one. If your friend or your child really needed your attention, would you let your attention wander? Or would you ignore the telephone, put everything else on hold, and turn fully toward him or her? Your writing deserves that kind of loyalty and attention, too. If you can't or won't manage to show as much loyalty to your writing as you show to your friends and family, we guarantee that while you may experience moments of writing bliss, you'll never experience the satisfaction of going all the way.

"Be loyal." p. 177

It's hard for a lot of people, some women especially, I think, to be loyal to their writing, or even to think of it in that way. They let everything and everybody pull them away from it, as if they couldn't care less. But they do care, we know they do, and they suffer for it. If only they knew, their writing wants their love and attention, too!

Step Seven: Fulfillment

"So we have to ask you: where’s your cart, and where’s your horse?

"Here are some telltale things that writers say that alert us to improper horse/cart placement. You'll have to pardon us if our answers sound a bit jaded; we've heard these more times than you'd care to know: 'Should I copyright it first?' (You should write it first.) 'What if I send a query to several publishers and they all want it?' (You should only have such problems. Just worry about writing it.) 'What if somebody steals my ideas?' (Just write the damned thing. If you're worried about burglars, get a gun.) 'I've written three chapters of a novel. Should I start sending it out to agents now?' (No, you should write Chapter 4 now.) 'I was thinking of sending my poems out now and waiting to do my rewriting after I hear what the editors have to say.' (We're thinking you should rewrite them now, or you will never hear from any editors.)" p. 208

Dare to dream big, we say in this chapter, but keep dreaming small at the same time. Go ahead and visualize your name on a best-seller list, but also visualize yourself writing that next sentence, paragraph, and page.

11 December 2021

Shelf Inspirations

I'm not superstitious. Much. For example, if I stopped keeping mementos on certain shelves that may or may not increasingly qualify as shrines, no writing gods will descend to strip my creative powers. Maybe. Proof would require my not keeping those mementos, and that sounds rash.

Over my desk are two glass shelves, each with a mishmash of smile-bringers. Who is up there? Bigfoot. Got his sticker in Oregon one year. Isn’t a Bigfoot sticker on your shelf? 

There’s Bigfoot, Zoltar, a screaming goat. There's Hamish, a Highland bull we met near Loch Lochy. You gave Hamish a carrot, and he was your man. Once, driving through the Painted Desert, no other human in theory for miles, here comes the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile bound west for glory. Or at least Winslow. A mini Weinermobile abides on my shelf. I have Twain’s “The Million Pound Note,” Westlake, and pets who shared this space. 

And there are, I should mention, other shelves.

Behind me are twin bookcases with favorite authors and reference books. In a tight spot, and I get in those, it helps to re-read how a master handled a particular situation. Shakespeare is back there, as annotated. He splits a shelf with Colin Dexter and a Poirot smattering. There are past travel reminders, a Bond / Steve Zissou mash-up, and my Mysterious Shelf. It's vaguely foreboding after sundown. 

Look, both Peter Pan and hard science would back me on my shelves. Psychologists have shown that centering rituals improve related task performance—if you believe it enough. 

The Mysterious Shelf

Consider: Baseball hitters go through a whole scratch, sniff and soft shoe routine before they step into the box. Keith Richards--that Keith, of the eternal high-energy run--reportedly threatens not to take the stage unless he’s had the first slice of a fresh shepherd’s pie. Picasso wouldn't throw out his trimmed fingernails. He swore the clipping yet held his essence. Artists, pilots, sailors, religious ceremonies, yoga, if people have doing it long enough, people have rituals to get themselves feeling empowered and connected to the job. 

Why would creative writing be any different? 

Writing can be editing drudgery or unruly ideas or heartbreak when a manuscript doesn’t sell. Any list of now-revered authors also says who navigated a snootful of frustration while producing that revered fiction. The troughs are unavoidable. I need reminding the high points are worth the lows.

Rituals can be discarded when their purpose is served. I've done it, but I've kept three and recommend them however they might work for you. First, pre-session exercise, whatever you can do. Holding and fashioning ideas requires brain sharpness and surprising endurance. I need treadmill time or a brisk walk before writing, along with whatever music I associate with the work. This gets both my circulation and intentionality firing before I hit the chair. Even stretches can do pre-session me a solid. 

Second, a success celebration. After any first draft is hauled forth, I go about adopting it into the files, introducing it around, giving it a row on my Excel tracker. I sip on a nice wine that night. Writing a complete story, any story, is a big deal. If that story ever sells, a huge deal. I descend into a flurry of refiling and list-checking and much rejoicing that another one got over the line. 

Which brings me back to my third keeper ritual: the arguable shelf-shrines. Wins need celebrating for a long time, not just on rare days. My shelves have writing milestones and covers from AHMMs that ran a piece of mine. Past sales tell me, “Look, you’ve done it before.” Past sales tell me, “Listen, man. Don’t let us down.” The shelves know if I'm phoning it in. They totally know. Quality control is also why Stadler and Waldorf are up there stage left. Grade A heckling like theirs ensures my head only balloons so much. 

There it is. I have a shelf ritual. It helps me care about the process, about seeking my best mindset. To smile when the going is hard. When the trick works, I’m a better and more dedicated writer. 

Is there risk in putting this much writing faith in Bigfoot and a fainting goat? Hey, it’s my ritual, and I'm sticking with it. 

Not that I’m superstitious or anything.

Patterson-Gimlin, via the CBC

28 August 2021

Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers

Melodie here.  No one writes a more entertaining and informative blog than my pal Anne R. Allen.  If you only read one post on writing this year, make it this one. And if that last example doesn't put a smile on your face, I'm not Bad Girl.  (Which I am.) 

 Chekhov's Gun - Why It's Important to Fiction Writers

by Anne R. Allen

 Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, also wrote short stories, essays and instructions for young writers.  Probably his most famous writerly advice is this admonition:

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.  Otherwise don't put it there."

In other words, remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If chapter one says your mild-mannered reporter heroine won a bunch of trophies for archery which she displays prominently alongside her handmade Mongolian horse longbow, she better darn well shoot an arrow before the story is done.

"Mood and Setting"  Details vs. Chekhov's Gun

Yeah, but what if that longbow is there to show us what her apartment looks like?  It's good to show her decor, because it gives an insight into her character, right?

It depends.  Yes, we do want to use details to set tone and give depth to our characters, but the key is how you stress those details when you first present them.

If there's a whole paragraph about those archery trophies, or the characters have a conversation about the Mongolian horse longbow, you need to shoot some arrows.  But if there's just a cursory mention, "her apartment walls were decorated with an odd assortment of personal trophies and exotic weapons" then you can leave them on the wall.

So not every lampshade the author mentions has to show up two chapters later on the head of a drunken ex-boyfriend, but you need to be careful how much emphasis you put on that lampshade.

What about Red Herrings?

Wait a minute - what if you write mysteries?  Mysteries need irrelevant clues and red herrings.  Otherwise the story will be over before chapter seven.

This is true.  But mystery writers need to manage their red herrings.  If the deceased met his demise via arrow, probably shot by a Mongolian horse longbow, then Missy Mild-Mannered Reporter is going to look like a very viable subject to the local constabulary.

Only we're sure she didn't do it because she's our hero!  Okay, that means the longbow and the trophies are red herrings.

But they still need to be fired.  Maybe not like Chekhov's gun, but they need to come back into the story and be reckoned with.  Like maybe the real killer visited her apartment earlier when delivering pizza, then broke in to "borrow" the longbow in order to make Missy look like the murderous archer.

The Chekhov's Gun Rule Applies to Subplots

I've been running into this problem in a lot of fiction lately - both indie and traditionally published.

That's what inspired this post.

I sometimes find myself flipping through whole chapters that obviously have nothing to do with the main story.  That's because the subplot isn't hooked in with the main plot.  It's just hanging there, not doing anything.

The subplot has become the unfired Chekhov's gun.

For instance, one mystery had the protagonist go through endless chapter of police academy training after the discover of the body.  The mysterious murder wasn't even mentioned for a good six chapters.  I kept trying to figure out how her crush on a fellow aspiring policeperson was going to solve the mystery.

I finally realized it wasn't going to.  None of the romance stuff had to do with the mystery. When I finally flipped through to a place where the main plot resumed, the hot fellow student didn't even make an appearance.  He'd already gone off with a hotter female recruit.

It's fine to have a romance subplot in a mystery - in fact, that's my favorite kind.  But that romance has to take place while some mystery-solving is going on.  And hopefully it will provide some hindrances to the proceedings, and maybe some comic relief.

But if that romance doesn't "trigger" a new plot twist or reveal a clue, then it's an unfired gun on the wall.  It's just hanging there, annoying your reader, who expects it to be relevant.

Naming a Character Creates a Chekhov's Gun

Another "unfired Chekov's gun" situation often comes up with the introduction of minor characters and "spear-carriers."

You don't want to introduce the pizza delivery guy by telling us how he got the nickname "Green Arrow" followed by two paragraphs about his archery expertise - unless he's going to reappear later in the story.  And he better be doing something more archery-related than delivering another pie with extra pepperoni.

This is a common problem with newbie fiction.  In creative writing courses we're taught to make characters vivid and alive.  So every time you introduce a new character, no matter how minor, you want to make the memorable.  You want to give them names and create great backstories for them.

Don't give into the urge, no matter what the creative writing teacher in your head is saying.

If the character is not going to reappear or be involved with the plot or subplot, don't give him a name.  Don't even give him a quirky outfit.  Just call him "the pizza guy" or "the Uber driver" or "the barista." 

A named character becomes a Chekhov's gun.  The reader will expect that character to come back and do something explosive.

Beward Research-itis

A lot of unfired guns come from what I call research-itis.  That's when the author did a heckuva lot of research, and goldernit, they're going to tell you ever single fact they dug up.

You'll get three chapters on the historical significance of the Mongolian Longbow...and how Genghis Kahn used a smaller bow...which in the 17th century was replaced by the Manchu bow...And how the Manchu bows have larder siyahs and the presence of prominent string bridges...

None of which has anything to do with the dead guy in the living room with the arrow in his back.

If the reader doesn't need to know it to solve the mystery and it's not a red herring, keep it to yourself. 

Although a lot of that research will come in very handy for blogposts and newsletters when you're marketing the book, so don't delete all those research notes!

Beta Readers and Editors Can Take Chekhov's Gun Off the Wall

It's tough to weed out all those unfired guns in your own work.  You're sure you absolutely need to tell us that our heroine won those trophies when she was on her college archery team where her nemesis, Renee Rensinger, once stole her glasses before a meet...and she found out she could shoot better without them and didn't need glasses after all, which was great because her glasses made her look so dorky and after she stopped wearing them, Jake Hawkins noticed her for the first time.  Jake turned out to be a creep, but...

Your editor will tell you different.  And eventually you will thank her for it.

So will your readers.


Anne R. Allen (@anneallen) is the author of ten humorous mysteries, plus the bestselling writing guides The Author Blog - Easy Blogging for Busy Authors, and How to Be a Writer in the E-age, co-written with Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anne blogs with NYT bestselling author Ruth Harris at

Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris.

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