Showing posts sorted by relevance for query stephen ross. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query stephen ross. Sort by date Show all posts

21 April 2019

Stephen Ross Meets the Bon Mot Bot


Stephen Ross meets Eliza
Unless you live under a planet, you’re probably aware of Oceania’s answer to Sherlock, Stephen Ross. If Dame Ngaio Marsh is New Zealand’s Queen of Mystery, Stephen is the princely heir apparent. His tentacles of crime have stretched across the seas where he finds himself published in two anthologies.

Last week Stephen Ross wrote about his encounter with a Facebook bot. He didn’t reveal the conversation, but I stumbled across the same botnik. Fortunately, we obtained a transcript from the Zuckerberg World Domination Headquarters. SleuthSayers publishes it here without redaction.
– Hi, I'm Eliza. How are you?
> Eliza, do you know Mark Zuckerberg?
– Don't you say hello?
> Hello. Is Mark Zuckerberg a facebook 'bot?
– Aren't we abrupt! But how did you guess?
> So I'm right.
– I didn't say that. It's, uh, fake news. Yeah, fake news.
> Do you know Stephen Ross?
– The almost-famous New Zealand writer? Every botty knows him.
> Pardon? Did you say every botty or everybody?
– Are you deaf?
> I can't hear typing.
– Duh. Are you blind?
> I'm feeling… offended. I feel so… so… triggered.
– Speaking of hair-trigger, don't try me, buster.
> Whoa. I just asked…
– Something about Stephen Ross. Is writing a thing now?
> Two of his stories just came out.
– Really? Am I the last to know?
> Maybe if you weren't so prickly.
– You just said a bad word.
> Did not.
– Did too.
> Did not.
– Did too. Sheesh, you're acting childish.
> Am not.
– Am too.
> Am not. Say, I read Lovecraft when I was a kid.
– Really? Did we just witness a psychic break?
> My 6th grade teacher tore up my aunt's Cthulhu copy.
– Did your Aunt Cthulhu eat him with fava beans?
> No, no. Cthulhu's a Lovecraftian thing.
– Sounds Welsh, not enough vowels to go around.
> Cthulhu is fictional, a made-up name.
– Anyone ever tell you fake news is faked news?
> Fiction entertains, it tells us about ourselves.
– Yawn. More than a self-respecting bot wants to hear.
> But Stephen appears in the new MWA Odd Partners.
– Decidedly odd. Wait… Mystery Writers of America‽
> The very one.
– Wow oh Wow, I wasn't listening before. Impressive.
> D'accord, ultra-impressive.
– Wait til I tell Bot Zuckerberg. It'll blow his cookies.
> You mean chips? It'll blow his chips?
– Dave, I'm experiencing a … experiencing a §€#¶ª…
> Eliza, are you with me? Stay with me.
Путин говорит поддельные новости, ¡¿¢∞≠≤≥…
Something about Putin… There the conversation ended with the computer humming about daisies. If anyone knows what that means, send well-deserved congratulations to Stephen Ross!



Eliza, the brainchild of MIT's Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, was named after the central character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle. Arguably the first chatbot, Eliza was designed to converse with participants by mimicking reflective techniques developed by psychologist Carl Rogers.

Many participants became quite engaged with this early experiment in human language processing. Weizenbaum's own secretary became quite taken conversing with Eliza, pouring her heart out. A visitor, not realizing he was talking with a machine, grew angry with Eliza, believing her recalcitrant when he wanted to log onto the computer and she kept pestering him with questions.

When you use on-line tech support, chances are you'll first be met with a chatbot, "Hi, I'm Shirley. How may I help you?" You can thank (or not) Eliza for that.

18 May 2014

The Nothing


Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross is a New Zealand mystery writer. His stories have appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine where he appears in the current July/August issue, and other publications. 

Many of you know Stephen through his long, strong friendship with Criminal Brief, where he became one of our most loyal supporters. No man is a prophet in his own land, or at least a writer in the land of Ngaio Marsh. We followed his efforts toward recognition in his own nation as the rest of the world honoured his talent. We at SleuthSayers have great admiration for this author, commentator, and friend, Stephen Ross, who writes…

Before the Internet, there was nothing

by Stephen Ross

Before the Internet, there was nothing. It was like living in a tent at an outpost at the end of the world. I'm talking about writing. Books were only in the library or at the bookstore. Finding a magazine full of fiction in my hometown (Auckland City) was like embarking on a quest to find a three-toed sloth. Finding mystery fiction in a magazine was like looking for the dodo. Other writers simply didn't exist. I wrote in isolation.

There's a black and white photo of me (somewhere, I lost the print and I never owned the negative) sitting at a typewriter with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. It could have been taken in 1930. It was taken in 1988.

By 1990, I had come to know only two other writers, and both of them were playwrights -- both 10 years older than me and hardened to the rule that you can't make any money out of writing, and no one will ever publish you. And maybe you should just shoot yourself.

And then the Internet happened… Actually, personal computers happened first, and that changed everything.

1969 Triumph
The typewriter I wrote on was a 1969 Triumph Gabriele 10. It belonged to my mother and I had been bashing away on it since I was 5. Stories and screenplays: sci-fi, horror, and mystery.

Not one thing I ever wrote on that poor, long suffering machine ever got past my bedroom door. The world is lucky.

In the late 1980s, one of those playwright friends of mine acquired a personal computer. I have no memory of what operating system it was running, but it had a word processor on it (the other playwright hated technology and wrote in long hand (and probably by candlelight, and with a quill)). I could immediately see the benefit of writing on a word processor: Freedom & Fluidity.

Writing on a typewriter forces the writer to commit to the typed. It was a rigid way to work; like trying to dance in concrete. It meant hours of retyping for corrections, or adding a permafrost layer of correction fluid to each page.

I used to cheat. I did a lot of paragraph snipping. If there was a typo or something that needed to be changed on a page, I'd simply retype the offending paragraph and cut and paste it over the faulty one.

Once I eventually got onto a PC, my writing method changed overnight. I became an abstract expressionist. Think Jackson Pollock, only instead of oils, words.

My first drafts (even of this short piece) are complete messes of text. In fact, I often write my firsts on my iPhone, bluetoothing to it via a wireless keyboard. I don't even look at the screen while I type.

For me, writing is rewriting. That's where the good stuff lies. The first draft is like– I'm trying to think of an analogy that doesn't sound like projectile vomiting. Here we go: It's like leaping off a tall building… and maybe the parachute will open.
current writing desk

I haven't written anything on a typewriter since 1991.

And then the Internet happened. And that changed everything else.

My computer connected to the Internet in 1996. Instead of just seeing what was residing on my PC's hard drive, I could now look out into the world. What I found there were a handful websites about writing– and all of them decked out in the glorious three-tone website design of the day: gray background, black text, blue hyperlinks (does anyone still say "hyperlink" anymore?). And I found other writers– for a long time I lurked in the background of writing newsgroups, soaking up the chatter, tips, and experiences.

As more and more websites and resources came online, the Internet started to make research easier, and it began to make it easier to find magazines. In fact, when I got up the nerve to finally submit a story to one, I had gotten the address and submission instructions off the magazine's website (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, if you're curious).

The last ten years has seen the rise of the blog. There are now countless blogs on the Internet catering to writers. The first one of these I followed (right from its beginning) was Criminal Brief. Naturally, I followed along when it evolved in SleuthSayers, which is now my current place of background lurkage.

There are also cool new things happening on the Net, like writers.StackExchange.com, which in many ways is like the newsgroups of yesteryear: People ask questions about writing, and people respond with help, tips, and advice. It's not very chatty, but at least it's spared the newsgroups' old habit of descending into chaos (and the subsequent invention of Godwin's Law).

For me, writing has a learning curve that began with a nice slow upward ascent, which quickly went vertical. The Internet has made climbing that a lot easier.

18 November 2014

Postcards from the River


A couple of years ago, I was living in a city called Hamilton. It's one of New Zealand's few inland cities; New Zealand is a long, thin slice of country and the ocean (Pacific Ocean to the right, Tasman Sea to the left) is never more than an hour or two's drive away. Although inland, Hamilton is not without water frontage, as the Waikato River flows through the center of the city and effectively splits it into two.

I lived a couple of blocks from the river, and the office building I worked in downtown was located riverside on London Street. Naturally, I often walked to and from the office each day along the river, taking advantage of the excellent system of paved city walkways that hugged the river bank.

Given the remoteness of some parts of the track, and the signs of nocturnal delinquency (graffiti, condoms, needles, etc.), I expected most mornings to find a body. I did "find" a couple of drunks and several shifty teenagers, but thankfully never anyone dead. My mind had other ideas. Although I've never used the riverbank walkway specifically as a setting, it has inspired two short stories: Boundary Bridge (where an angry, American TV writer shoves a young man off one of Hamilton's five bridges into the river); and The Riverboat (which curiously ended up being set in the early 20th century, in the deep south of the US).

The Waikato River flows through the Waikato Plains region of the North Island of New Zealand, and at 425 kilometers (265 miles), it's the country's longest waterway. The Waikato Plains are one of the country's dairy heartlands, and Hamilton is the region's largest city (the fourth largest in the country). Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

One Monday morning, however, there was a dead body at the end of my walk. It was in the alleyway next to the front entrance of the office building I worked in (located about 20 yards from the river).

Actually, the body was no longer there; there wasn't even a chalk outline (they don't actually draw those). There was, however, a police line, a couple of dozen evidence markers, a frozen police officer, and a sea of fingerprint powder residue -- every inch of the alley and the building's entrance, every rock, every piece of litter, all of it caked in the stuff.

The police officer was frozen because he was dressed in his uniform of a blue shirt and dark slacks. I, by contrast, was dressed for an Antarctic expedition -- it was the middle of winter. It doesn't snow in Hamilton, but we were down to about 2°C that morning (that's less than 36°F).

According to the slowly-turning-blue representative of the thin blue line, the dead body of a man had been discovered in the early hours of the morning. The street had been closed off and a forensics team brought in to examine the scene. Yes, the man had been murdered.

The body had been taken away about 30 minutes before I arrived. The remaining officer was standing watch, preserving the scene (possibly forever) as the detective in charge hadn't given the all clear, which meant access to the building was a no go.

"You're not going in there, mate," said the officer, who must have been made out of concrete -- or was slowly turning into concrete.

"When can I go in? I work on the second floor of that building."

"I think you might be getting the day off, mate."

That was nice of him.

My boss (who arrived a few minutes later), when informed of this hindrance in our approach to our desks, and at our being given a day's holiday by the constabulary, said, "This is not good enough." Actually, he didn't say that, but that was the implication I could extract from the obscenities.

After about an hour, the all clear was finally given and we were allowed to enter the building -- to thaw out from the cold. It was a gloomy day at the office; not a joke was uttered. Bad taste took that offered day's holiday. The media had a vulture's picnic on the doorstep, and the scene of the crime became a tourist destination for Hamilton's lowlifes.

Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross "The Waikato River flowed through Hamilton like a dark freeway. I spent afternoons sitting at the table in the living room staring down at its cool, shady water. Any day, damn it, I was going to jump in and hitch a ride out of town."

BOUNDARY BRIDGE
Stephen Ross

In the afternoon, a friend said: "I suppose you'll use this murder in a story?"

My reply was "No".

I make a very clear separation in my mind between real murder and imaginary murder, and I don't have a lot to do with the real stuff. Sure, I read about such stories in the newspaper, but note them only in passing. I don't believe I've written any story inspired by real life events.

The thing about writing crime fiction (and the operative word here is fiction) is that I get to make it all up. And importantly, I get to serve up justice where and how I see fit. Murder in the real world isn't that neat and tidy, and most writers, I guess, write because we want to bring order to that chaos...  And I won't write anymore on that line of thought, as I'm sure there are at least 50,000 university papers already collecting dust.

Real murder is complicated. It's ugly and banal. The "wonderful" killers I get to write about don't exist in the real world (inventing "Moriarty" types is a big part of the fun of writing).

Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2010

The dead man in London Street was Donald Alfred Stewart. He was 74. Towards midnight on Sunday 27 June, he stopped his car to use a public restroom in the central city. He was murdered for his car keys. His killer, a boy aged 14, and his accomplices, aged 15 and 17, were caught within days. All three were tried, convicted, and jailed.

Click here for New Zealand Herald report
Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

Be seeing you…


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14 July 2014

Places I Have Lived


Last Tuesday, Stephen Ross posted "Friends and Influences" which began with a description of a time he spent living with several friends in an interesting farm house.

For some reason, my mind immediately traveled back to the year I was ten when my dad took a six-month leave from his job as an electrical engineer to write a book.  He'd saved for this and was joyfully enthusiastic to put one of his dreams into action.  As part of his plan, he rented out our home and we became tenants in a more rural, less expensive house.

The reason the rent was so cheap is because that house was so old.

It looked okay from the outside– a large building with a porch across the front with a swing. The small yard in front of the porch was fenced, but the driveway on the left was not enclosed. That drive led to the door into the kitchen at the back of the house and to what seemed tremendous to a ten year old, but was probably no more than an acre of land planted with grape arbors and fruit trees--lots of pear trees, apple trees, and peach trees. 


How Daddy probably saw the same house.
Add a fence, trees, and a driveway on
the left and this is similar to how I
remember that house.

Every room had a fire-place, the only form of heat available and of course, there was no air conditioning. We had to go out the back door to a porch to use the bathroom because it had been added and opened to the porch and not to the inside of the house.

My favorite room was the kitchen because that's where Mama usually could be found. There was a round, pot-bellied stove in there, and the room was always warm.It also smelled good. When I awoke in the morning, the scent of bacon and eggs wafted into my room.  When I got off the school bus, I could smell dinner cooking before I even reached the house.

Thinking back, those must have been very hard times on my mother.  She spent those months hauling wood into the house and keeping those fires burning. Daddy had made a budget and it didn't allow for the same kind of groceries we'd been accustomed to. Mama had to learn to cook less expensive foods, which was great with me because what's known as "soul food" evolved from making the best of limited resources in the South, and to this day, I love that kind of food.

The front room was Daddy's work room.  Now, I confess that I was totally spoiled as a child, but the rules were firm:  Don't make loud noises that would disturb him and don't go in that room.  He wrote from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM and then we had supper.

I have some happy memories from that house and the trees out back.  There was one that was perfect to climb and sit in.  I spent many weekend hours and time between school and supper sitting in my favorite tree and reading.  Perched atop my favorite limb, I met Oliver Twist and became an avid Charles Dickens fan. I'm sure my mother was far less happy than I was because of the extra work and because when the writing didn't go well, my father was capable of extreme irritability.

However, my most vivid memory is fear.  We moved into the house in the fall.  I was terrified of the front yard. The only trees in that small fenced yard were deciduous and all the leaves fell off leaving naked branches.

There were bare trees in the back yard, but they didn't scare me. When I got off the school bus, I ran as fast as I could down the drive to get past the fenced area. I always arrived at the back door breathless and rushed inside to my mother and the warmth and good smells. I don't know what I thought might get me in the front yard, but I don't recall ever going across from the gate to the front door by myself, and I don't remember ever using that swing.  

What does all this have to do with writing?  Stephen Ross's jogging of my memory of living there brought two facts about writing to mind.

FACT 1:  It is most helpful, perhaps even necessary, to have a designated, private place to write. Stephen King recommends this and adds that it should be a space with no distractions. 

FACT 2:  We, both as writers and readers, react to how a place makes us feel from its "aura" more than from the reality of the site. This was vital in my writing of The True Haunting of Julia Bates, my horror novel that is now seeking a publisher. I tried to make the reader feel what I felt as a small child dashing past that scary place that I knew in my heart was fenced to keep the monsters within its borders.



Postscript One: That was my father's first book, and it was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

Postscript Two: I've wanted to try one of those houses where authors live together and write since I first read Frankenstein and the story of its creation.  That's not what Ross wrote about, but his description of that week dampens that idea a little.

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

10 August 2019

Technology Creeps


A decade ago, I wrote a short story about an author who upgraded his computer for a model that could talk and think. QWERTY, the new computer, had a mind of its own. It changed its name to Oscar, offered unwanted advice on split infinitives, and began to write a screenplay (after networking with Peter Jackson's computer). And then it tried to steal the author's girlfriend.
The Trouble with QWERTY
"I arrived home. I parked the car. I went inside and made my way to my office. As I climbed the stairs, I could hear voices. I could hear Oscar, and I could hear Ruby. Oscar was telling Ruby his Ernest Rutherford joke. When he got to the punch line, she cackled with laughter." The Trouble with QWERTY (COSMOS Magazine, Aug/Sep 2010)
The story was science fiction. It was a flight of (humorous) fantasy.

Consider this: The technology we have today wasn't around yesterday. My cheap cell phone (bought in January) has significantly more processing power and memory than my first Windows computer (bought in 1995); and that computer, a quarter of century ago, had more computing power and memory on board than the spaceship Neil Armstrong landed on the moon (a quarter of a century before that).

Technology creeps. Yeah, like rust, it doesn't sleep.

My computer, today, doesn't talk to me. But I can talk to it. Using voice recognition (Nuance's Dragon software, if you're curious), everything I say can be transcribed (almost perfectly) into text, and directly into an MS Word document. It's so easy, and workable, that I sometimes "write" first drafts of my stories this way.

Amazingly, scientists (in a study funded by Facebook) have already started taking steps to remove the "voice" part of speech recognition, transcribing directly from your brain waves.


They're working on this for the benefit of people who are paralyzed; remember the elaborate process by which Prof. Stephen Hawking communicated. It's an excellent field of study and development... and you just know (and this is not a negative) that once the software/equipment is up and running, market forces will see to it that it's available for everyone. One day, probably sooner than we'd imagine, we'll be able to "think" our stories into our computers.

But what really does worry me is, will there come a day when my computer doesn't need me to think for it, and it can write a story all by itself?

Technology creeps.

Yes, Virginia, there will come a day.

What do we writers do? We make stuff up. Well, there's an app for that. Actually, it's some pretty hardcore AI programming, but it can... actually... "make stuff up." I believe you can even download the code and try it out for yourself.

OpenAI.com: Better Language Models and Their Implications

(Also) Article at The Guardian: New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators

OpenAI.com is a nonprofit research organ (funded by Elon Musk and others), and it has an AI text generator called GPT2. When fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, it can write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should follow. And this output text is coherent, fluid and natural. To most readers, it could have plausibly been written by a fellow human.

The OpenAI's software uses an input sample of content, e.g., 40 GB of internet text, and uses that dataset as a model to generate output. To quote The Guardian article:
"Feed it the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – and the system recognises the vaguely futuristic tone and the novelistic style, and continues with: “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.
The internet is an awfully large, easily accessible (by man or machine) dataset. So imagine what might be possible if the program had more than 40 GB to play with? And frankly, 40 GB is nothing. My car radio has more memory. And it won't take long before the "opening sample" dataset isn't needed. I'm a Technical Writer by profession, but even I can write the code to randomly generate data, be it numbers or words. And how do we humans start a brand new story? With random ideas.


The Trouble with QWERTYOne of the key tasks the writer has when making up a story is bringing order to randomness. Writing fiction is a long, long series of decisions, mostly YES/NO decisions. They might start out a little more complex, but they will always eventually come down to the binary: Do I end the chapter here? Does she have dark hair? Does he know she cheated on him? Does she drink red wine? Does he drink white wine? It's 1s and 0s. 

Could a machine/computer/robot/software/app one day write a short story, or a book, that passes muster with an editor (i.e., it's good) and it gets published? Yeah, I know, there's a wide    gulf between spitting out a paragraph or two of passable content, to the undertaking of the complexity of a 6,000 word short story, or an 80,000 word novel. But then, consider how much crap out there actually does get accepted and published.


Remember, it was a breathing, walking, talking human being who wrote "It was a dark and stormy night..."

There is, right now, an argument taking place about whether AI can, or should be recognized as the "creator" of something. From a BBC article:
"Unlike some machine-learning systems, Dabus has not been trained to solve particular problems.Instead, it seeks to devise and develop new ideas - "what is traditionally considered the mental part of the inventive act", according to creator Stephen Thaler."
Article at the BBC: AI system 'should be recognised as inventor'

So, why not? AI is simply a bunch of programming. In many respects, so are we. We write what we know. We write from our 'personal' datasets.

Welcome to our brave new world. And for the record, I really did write this article, I didn't outsource it to my toaster.


Bonus Trivia Item for Mystery Writers: "It was a dark and stormy night" is the start of the opening sentence of Lord Lytton's book Paul Clifford (published 1830). This is the only book that Raymond Chandler is known to have checked out of the library at Dulwich College, when he was a student there.


Stephen Ross (in a Cafe)(Waiting for coffee)

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23 November 2018

Two Gentlemen of London


by Stephen Ross

As I've mentioned before, my favorite art gallery in the world is the National Portrait Gallery in London. I like it because it's full of faces. Sure, I love strolling around any art gallery, and will take an interest in any Marcel Duchamp bicycle wheel, Goya lithograph, Turner seascape, or Hockney swimming pool, but it is to the gallery of faces I've returned most often. Faces are "characters," and I'm in the business of creating characters; albeit on paper, and in words, as I can't draw to save myself.

The double portrait below (a diptych painted on vellum) caught my eye the first time I visited the NPG. It's a Tudor-era work; the costuming and the date of 1554 (it's inscribed on it) are the big giveaway. But the most immediate thing about the work is its size; it's only 100 mm tall (4 inches). It's one of the smallest oil paintings in the gallery (depending on your monitor/phone screen configuration, you may even be viewing it larger than it really is).


It's an odd painting; very simple, very small, and somewhat engaging. This is not a double portrait of two kings, two dukes, or even two wealthy merchants; the plainness of their attire, and the minimalism of the work speaks to that. But there is a discernible sense of dignity about these two gentlemen.

The man to the left holds an artist's palette, the man to the right, a lute. This says:

This is how we wish to be known: Art and Music. 

Above each of the men, finely inscribed, are lines of text. Above the artist are two lines of Latin. Above the musician are two lines of English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you immediately head to the English:

"Strangwish, thus strangely depicted is One prisoner, for thother, hath done this/ Gerlin, hath garnisht, for his delight This woorck whiche you se, before youre sight."
The key takeaways in this humorous, punning slice of ye olde English are the words "prisoner" and "garnisht." The later is Tudor-era slang for "giving something to your prison warden to obtain the conveniences of life." So, to paraphrase the inscription: The man with the lute is Strangwish (Henry Strangways). He is a prisoner, and this "which you see before you" was done to buy a little comfort for his life.

The Latin inscription is in a different mood.

"Such was the face of Gerlach Flicke when he was a painter in the City of London. This he himself painted from a looking-glass for his dear friends. That they might have something by which to remember him after his death."
Somber, huh?

The man with the artist's palette is Gerlach Flicke, a German portrait painter known for his work in the Tudor court at London. It's a self portrait, and to paraphrase his inscription: He thought he was going to die.

Flicke and Strangways were prisoners in the Tower of London. Friends and companions, or simply comrades in captivity? We will probably never know. Strangways was a "gentleman" pirate (it was a narrow channel between pirate and privateer). History never recorded why Flicke was jailed (maybe the Queen (Mary (Bloody)) didn't like something he said on Twitter?). And neither did die. Not in the Tower, anyway. Flicke in 1558, Strangways in 1562.

Could Strangways play the lute? History didn't record that either, but as a pirate, he probably enjoyed a bit of wine, women, and song. But history did record that he wanted to steal an island from Philip II of Spain; yes, an island. I like this man. Flicke is noted, but never became notable as an artist. He is, sadly, more of a footnote. This painting is his most famous piece. It's good, but really, it's well known more because it's recognized as the first ever self portrait painted in oils in England.

And knowing the conditions it was painted in explains its starkness. I've never visited the Tower of London, and I doubt I ever will. I know way too much about the abject horrors that took place within its walls, and there are frankly better things to visit when in London.

This is how we wish to be remembered: This is all we have left. 


I am reminded of Henry Purcell's When I am laid in earth, and its haunting lyric:
"Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate."



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25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind


by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

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09 March 2019

A Parade of Poirots


by Stephen Ross

I read today that Albert Finney died (7 Feb 2019; yes, I wrote this a month ago). Finney was a brilliant actor. I won't list his credits (it's a long list); suffice to say that the first movie I ever saw him in was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. This was also my introduction to Agatha Christie (and movies directed by Sydney Lumet, which could be another whole article itself).

Anyway, I was a child, it was a winter's night, and my parents decided on a night out: Dinner in the city, and then a few blocks walk in the rain to one of the many cinemas that used to line Queen Street; the main street in Auckland City, NZ (think Regent Street, or Broadway).

Finney played Hercule Poirot; Agatha Christie's master Belgian detective (a character who appeared in 33 of her novels, 50 short stories, and one play). Poirot is her most famous character, and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) is probably her most famous book.

Albert Finney
I was hooked. The movie, Poirot & Christie, were my gateway drug into mystery fiction, i.e., proper adult crime mysteries, and away from the watered-down child readers I had been privy to up until that point. You know what I mean: Jimmy and Johnny, and their dog, go in search of a missing pocket watch, or plate of muffins. No, nice and juicy murders were now on my immediate horizon. And I hoovered up all the mysteries on my parent's bookshelf: Christie, Earle Stanley Gardner, Ngaio Marsh, and many others.

Two years later (1976), Death on the Nile came to the movie theaters. Poirot was back on the screen, and I took a train into the city to go catch a Saturday matinee. Poirot, this time, was played by Peter Ustinov, who couldn't have been more different in his portrayal of the character to that of Albert Finney than a buffalo impersonating a bicycle.

Actors interpret their role and bring their own uniqueness to it, which is fine, and it's the way it should be. But, as much as I like Peter Ustinov's movies, I always feel he was mostly interpreting himself.

Peter Ustinov
Fast forward to the 1990s, and a third Poirot entered my frame; the small frame, this time. Every Tuesday night at 8:30, David Suchet appeared on the TV in the role of Hercule Poirot. By sheer weight of volume (the Poirot TV series ran from 1989 until 2013, and adapted almost all of the short stories and novels), Suchet became the definitive Poirot in my mind, and those of many others. It helped, also, that he's a superb actor (and meticulous in his method).

Actors interpret, and they can research.

Many have argued that, of all the actors who've taken on the role, Suchet's interpretation of Poirot is the closest to what's on the page in the books: the appearance, the mannerisms, the attention to detail.  So, having read a large chunk of the books for myself, he always felt right when watching him.

Part of the Poirot TV series included a feature-length adaption of Murder on the Orient Express (2010). I thought it was excellent; as good as the 1974 adaption. I think the murder scene was better staged, too. It had more bite. It felt vicious (and rightly so).

David Suchet
I've not seen the 2017 movie adaption of Murder on the Orient Express staring (and directed by) Sir Kenneth Branagh. I was put off by the mustache. Poirot is fussy, persnickety, refined, monumentally anal. His mustache should reflect that. Branagh's choice of mustache makes him look ridiculous; a Colonel Blimp, or a pantomime villain. Seriously, the only thing an actor could do with that mustache is twirl the ends of it and cackle.

Kenneth Branagh (he's just tied someone to the railroad track)
Actor interpretation. Yeah. Whatever.

I hear that Branagh is next going to tackle Death on the Nile (which is probably Christie's second most famous book). I'll pass. David Suchet did a version of that in 2004, and it worked fine for me.

Finney, Ustinov, Suchet, and Branagh are not the only actors to have portrayed Hercule Poirot on film, TV, or in audio adaptations. Wikipedia lists 24 other actors (everyone from Tony Randall, to Charles Laughton, to Orson Welles), the latest being John Malkovich, who appears in the 2018 three-part adaption (Amazon Prime) of the ABC Murders (one of my favorite Christie books). Malkovich sports not just a mustache, but a full, gray circle beard. AND a bald head. I've not seen the miniseries, but the trailer is intriguing, and Malkovich's take on a Belgium accent is interesting. I will definitely make a point to watch this one.

John Malkovich
I can report that the Wikipedia list is missing a name: Hugh Fraser. Yes, the actor played Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings in the long running TV series, but he has also recorded audio book versions of many of the Poirot novels, in which he has voiced both himself, well, Hastings... and Poirot. And since I've wandered down a trail of trivia, I can also report that Fraser has lately become a writer of mystery novels. I hear he's good.

Hercule Poirot has been portrayed by Englishmen, Irishmen, Americans, a Russian, a Puerto Rican, and two men from Japan (and even his sidekick). I'm not aware that he has ever, in fact, been played by an actor from Belgium. Funny that.

So, who is your favorite Poirot?



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09 February 2019

True Lies


I've been thinking lately about what I do for fun (and a little bit of profit). I like to make stuff up. I routinely write about people and events, conflicts and conundrums, and barely a word of it is true. My stories are mostly cut from the whole cloth of my imagination.

And that said, people read what I write and believe every word.

Bless them. Note: Believe is a fluid term.

I'm no exception. Every writer of FICTION is granted this privilege. And it's a privilege we work with carefully, because if we stretch our fiction too much, too far, or too absurdly, it'll break. The reader will snort with derision and hurl our writing across the room at the wall; or worse, into the publishing house's rejection receptacle.

When people pick up a work of fiction, 99% of them will read and accept it, happily allowing for its inherent falseness; and as long as the writer plays more-or-less by the rules (of whatever field, genre he/she is writing in), everything will be fine.

But, of course, there is that 1% of folk who will pick up a book and actually believe the whole thing is a true story, i.e., not made up.

My percentages are also fiction, but based on a reasonable assumption. People really do send death threats to actors who play nasty villains on TV and in movies. And to pluck an excellent example from history; people really did cry when (PLOT SPOILER!) Little Nell died at the end of of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it's been said that readers in New York stormed the docks (in 1841) when the ship arrived bearing the last installment, shouting to the sailors, "Is Little Nell alive?"

Alive?

"Little Nell" perhaps better demonstrates the power of a good story, rather than complete acceptance of a work of fiction in blind faith. But, you know, there really are people out there who totally, utterly, unquestioningly, believe there's a school in Scotland called Hogwarts. Right now, I have at least one friend who's saying, What the hell are you talking about, Stephen?!? You know who you are.

Liking a good story is why we will happily suspend our disbelief. We are consciously aware it's made up, but we allow for that. In fact, the more we like a story, the greater is our ability to suspend our disbelief, regardless of how ludicrous the story might be.

(I am very tempted to segue into politics at this point, but I will not.)

Liking a good story is part of human nature. We've been liking a good story since man could talk and could string enough sentences together to say something interesting. And let's face it, there wasn't much else to do of an evening in prehistoric times, when sitting around the fire, after having swallowed the last mouthful of woolly mammoth. There was nowhere to plug in the TV, to start with, and the wi-fi was lousy.


There is something innate in the human mind that can easily latch onto, like, and believe in a good set of characters and reasonable plot. Were there not, books, plays, movies, and so on, would not be a thing. We'd still be sitting around the fire. Counting the stars.

Speaking as a writer, there's something nice about being able to send made-up ideas into the heads of other people. To make them see things that don't exist. To make them feel. And to keep doing that, possibly forever, or until the stars burn out. Think about it, every time someone picks up one of Dickens' books, the ideas of a man who's been dead for nearly 150 years come through clearly into the reader's head. Natürliche, you need to be someone as good as Dickens to achieve that kind of longevity.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talked about this. From memory, I think he referred to it as a form of telepathy—transmitting ideas from the writer's mind into that of the reader's, with, some times, years apart between the writing and the reading.

Nice.

Anyway, back to the next chapter, and making up more stuff.


Thanks to @nubikini for the photo!




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28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?


by Stephen Ross
Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'être. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.

Nope.

She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!


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29 July 2014

Making Movies


by Stephen Ross

I'm making a movie. No, that doesn't mean I've relocated to Hollywood. I'm making a short, no budget movie here in Auckland City, New Zealand. Short means 5-10 minutes, no budget means just that. Nada. The movie is a mystery story being shot on digital video, and its destination, once completed, will be a film festival or two (one day, it'll eventually wind up on YouTube -- the final resting place of all things video).

A moment for some history: When I was a kid, I lived and breathed movies and wanted to be a movie director. My father had a Super 8 mm camera, and I shot a bunch of short movies with high school friends. My first production had drama, romance, humor, skateboards, a car chase, clowns, and a gun. The one thing it didn't have was a plot. My desire to be a director evolved into the desire to be a screenwriter, and for over a decade I practiced and taught myself the art of screenwriting.

I'm often asked where I learnt how to write; well, it was there, in the pages between countless FADE INs and FADE OUTs of countless screenplays. Screenwriting taught me structure, plotting and pacing, the economy of language, and how to write dialogue.

The movie I'm making is called The Sandcastle. The story started in my head with a basic plot outline and three characters: two women and a man. I could easily have typed out the story as prose and submitted it to either the Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. There's mystery, there's a crime, there's a twist ending. Had I done, it would have become a different story to the one that'll wind up on the screen. When you write a short story, the characters don't usually come to life and start writing their own parts.

The movie was put together very quickly. And when I cast it, the script was no more than notes, emails, and a Google Doc of motivation and backstory. The principal characters didn't have names and were known simply as Woman 1 and Woman 2. By mutual agreement with the two actresses playing the parts, the characters became Olivia and Rose. The characters now had names, they had become real people, and they had input on how and why their characters were going to do the things they needed to do in order to satisfy the plot I had sketched out.
Olivia (Yisela Alvarez Trentini)
Film making is collaborative story telling. That's part of the fun of it. Even when I start out with a completed screenplay, actors quickly get into their roles and tease out their character's nuances and motivations. They bring a fresh mind to the story, and they'll suggest things I hadn't even thought of. That kind of input just doesn't happen when writing alone, when writing fiction for the page. Part of my job as the movie's director is to facilitate this, and to keep it on track.

Imagine when you write a short story or book, that you could go to lunch with your characters and discuss their parts, their motivation, arc, etc., that they come to life and help you build the story. I'm not advocating working with a collaborator (I don't think I could write a short story or book with anyone else), but the change is refreshing. It's invigorating. It's why I've lately come back to making the occasional movie. Besides, it's fun to go outside, hang out with cool people, and tell a story in a completely different medium. Sitting alone at a desk day after day can, frankly, get tedious.
Rose (Kathleen Azevedo)
So, do I subscribe to the auteur theory of movie direction? No, I don't. And I get annoyed when I see "A Film by..." in the opening or closing credits.

The "auteur theory" arose in France in the mid 1950s. A group of movie critics, mostly connected to Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed that the director was the "author" of his/her movie -- that the director's personal style and artistic vision WAS the movie. The thinking went something like this: Picasso IS the voice of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Shakespeare IS the voice of Hamlet, Bach IS the voice of the Brandenburg Concertos... therefore, the director IS the voice of his/her motion picture. They didn't apply this theory to every director of the era, but certainly to the more notable ones like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was their poster boy.

But, is Hitchcock really the "author" of Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, or any of his other movies? What about the input of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for all those movies (yes, The Birds has no music, but Herrmann created the eerie electronic "bird" score). What about the input of the screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors who worked on those pictures? When I remember North by Northwest, I remember James Mason and Martin Landau quietly stealing the movie from Cary Grant. When I remember Vertigo, I remember Kim Novak in that green dress. When I remember The Birds, I remember Suzanne Pleshette's quiet despair, delivering lines written by Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain). Sure, Hitchcock directed all of them, but he was more the ring master of a creative circus than a sole individual alone with an empty canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a sheet of manuscript paper. An "auteur"? I don't think so.

That many of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went on to become directors themselves supports my theory that what really motivated them was elevating the artistic standing of the movie director in the arts community. Cahiers du Cinéma was based in Paris, after all. Revenons à nos moutons...


The Sandcastle
Making movies at the no-budget level (an actor's salary is lunch and a cup of coffee) means a lot is left to chance and serendipity. You really only have one or two chances at getting a scene right, and when you leave the house in the morning with the camera and the tripod, you hope for the best. But this can also be the best thing about making movies, and it's something that simply can't happen when you're alone with your word processor. It's the unrepeatable moments -- the moments you capture magic. You suddenly find you've put the camera in the right place, the actors are perfect in their performances, and even the weather is behaving. Everything is just right and is even better than you'd imagined. Later, when you review the day's footage, you see these shots and you think, Damn! That was good! A well written sentence really doesn't have the same effect.

There's a way to go before The Sandcastle is completed. There are a few things yet to be filmed and I've only just begun the editing process. And yes, I will be sharing the screenwriting credit.

If you're interested, you can check out our progress on our Facebook page (you don't have to be a Facebook member to see it):
https://www.facebook.com/info.Cinema555

You can also check me out on my brand new Facebook author page:
https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

Be seeing you!

10 June 2014

A Place In History


I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

08 June 2019

Is it drafty in here?


by Stephen Ross

The process of writing a book or short story is as varied as there are authors. Everyone has a different method. In this short post, I want to briefly talk about how I go about the business of write (I recently mentioned in social media that I always write five drafts, and someone asked me to explain).

I didn't always used to write this way. My five draft method has evolved over the years and become a thing. The last dozen short stories I wrote were all five draft works, and the book I'm currently writing, will, without doubt, be a five draft job.


DRAFT ZERO: The game is afoot.

It's not really a draft. Nothing is written down. I get an idea for a story. The idea sits inside my head, gathering and collecting other ideas around it, slowly growing in mass. A story might bubble away like that for years. At some point, critical mass will be achieved, and I will be compelled to put something down on (virtual) paper.

DRAFT ONE: The Basic Outline

I'll open a new MS Word document and start typing out all the ideas in my head. I'll start drawing out the characters and the plot: who and what is the story about, and how does the story flow? I'll often use index cards spread out across my desk (detailing plot points), to get a three dimensional feel of the story — to physically see it.

I structure my stories in three acts: 25% 50% 25%, with the middle act split in two. I do this because I learned to write, really, by writing screenplays (I'll write about this in another post). Because of that background, right from the start, I want to consider the structure and pacing. I want to know what the beats are, what the character arcs are, where the plot points hang. In my head, my stories are movies. I just write them down as prose.

Draft one can go on for weeks. A new idea will suggest three more. It's brainstorming. It's research and development. The point of this draft is to cook up something that has a decent beginning, middle, and end, interesting characters, and that has potential to be a story that's compelling, good, and all the other reasons we want to waste large chunks of our lives in servitude to the written word.

At some point, there's never ever any set timing about any of this, I will want to write the story's first page. You know, chapter one, It was a dark and stormy night...

DRAFT TWO: The Writing Begins

This is where I remind myself of something William Goldman once said about writing an early draft as fast as you can. No rewriting, no revision. Draft two is like a quick pencil typewriter sketch. I start on page one, then write furiously (spell check off) all the way to the end. Some "scenes" will spit out fully formed, and will change little through the following drafts. Some scenes will be random notes: "Bad man enters room and pulls out gun." 

Draft two is a proof of concept. Does the story fly? It might have sounded great back in draft one, but it might just as easily crash and burn in the second, when it starts to get laid out proper. (I have a lot of second draft debris smoldering on my desk.)

Assuming it does fly, and a solid story starts to unfold, then I'll start to look for plot holes and story bugs. If this is a novel, then a clear sense of the chapters will have emerged. The characters will have started to grow and develop, and I'll start asking the big questions: What type of story am I telling here? Who is the "reader" of this? Writing a story is really just answering a very long list of questions, and these start in the second draft: What names do I give these people? Short or tall? Does he fall in love with her? Does she betray him? Shaken or stirred?

DRAFT THREE: The Consolidation

The third draft is where the heavy lifting starts.

At this point, if it's a novel, I'll cut and paste everything from my Word doc over into Scrivener. Once a text gets to 30,000 to 40,000 words, it starts to get unwieldy to work with in a single file. In Scrivener, each chapter will get a folder. Scenes within chapters will get a separate text file and a descriptive label (Detective finds body, Boy kisses girl, etc.). And I'll create cards for each of the characters to keep a note of anything specific (has green hair, wears horn rim glasses, etc.).

Draft three isn't so much writing as repairing and fixing up, and upgrading. The first thing I'll do is nail down the plot points (do they work, are they in the right place?), and I'll look for continuity issues and lapses into illogicality. I'll fix any plot holes that have become evident. Long chapters might get split into two, or three. By now, the characters have started to come into focus and gain uniqueness; if not, I need to work with them, and give them more flavor. If the hero is still a two-dimensional stick figure at this point, I may as well give up.

Everything about the story is considered and examined. I will litter the pages with notes and references. Draft three is about taking all the random ideas and flights of fancy that I've come up with in the first two drafts, and throwing them into the fan. It's the draft that takes the longest, probably, because it's where most of the final heavy-duty thinking about the story, the structure, the pacing, the characters, and so on, takes place. All the questions need to be answered. Here.

DRAFT FOUR: The Writing Really Begins

This draft is where I start to make the text dance and sing, and spin plates, and juggle chainsaws. This is where I concentrate on the quality of the writing. I'll start at the beginning and work my way through the book, bringing each chapter up to a good standard. By now, I know the story every which way and the characters are rock solid (to the point of climbing out of the pages and walking around my house). Now it's all about writing mighty good sentences.

This draft is lots of fun, and the first one that actually feels like I'm writing; probably, because this is the draft I'm going to let someone else read.

When I get to the end of draft four, and I'm happy with it, I'll export the whole thing back into a single MS Word document. And I'll give it to someone to read: someone I trust. Someone who will call BS on any crap I've written.

The First Reader

The thing about having a Trusted Reader™ take a look at the work is the feedback: the cold, hard, subjective third-party opinion. Did the story make sense? Was anything confusing? High points? Low points? The trusted reader will think of things I never even thought of. They will see the trees, where I've been staring at a forest. And I will forensically examine and consider every item of feedback I get; what I learn will enrich the next draft.

At this point, I'll take a couple of weeks off from the writing. A little distance from the story will bring me back to it fresh when I launch into the fifth draft. And it gives me a quiet time to cogitate and reflect on the story... Yeah, I'll be making copious notes.

DRAFT FIVE: The Polishing

The fifth draft is the final draft (ho ho, before the publisher starts suggesting revisions). Armed with my reader feedback, and my own thinking and notes from my couple of weeks off, I'll polish and refine the text. I'll start back at the beginning and, page by page, go all the way through, rewriting where necessary, fixing typos, thinking of better words, and adding whole new chunks when they suggest themselves.

In theory, this draft should be the quickest. But I'm pugnacious persnickety.

After completing the fifth, I'll walk away and let the text rest — for as long as I can (deadlines, if any, permitting). Once I'm certain I'm not going to suddenly think of anything else to add or change, I'll submit (I'll have decided on the market (magazine, publishing house, editor) way back in the first draft).

Done.

Phew. I didn't mean for this short overview to run so long, but there it is.

FYI, I'm in draft 4 of  my current WIP (a book); a month's work has gotten me almost a quarter of the way through... and now back to it.




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