19 October 2013

Following the Maybes

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m not the kind of novelist who could write a book about how to write a novel. Maybe that’s because my method doesn’t bear too much analysis. In the division between outliners and into-the-mist writers (or pantsers, as some call them, ie those who write by the seat of the pants), I fall definitely—or mistily—into the category of those who don’t or can’t outline. Picking my way through a mist, with light shining only a little way ahead and no idea what lies beyond that bit of illumination, is an excellent description of how I write long. As I’ve said before, writing short—a poem, a story, a song, a blog post, or a letter to an online therapy client—is a whole lot easier than writing in the mist.

Only by talking with a lot of writers did I realize that for some, outlining means not a sheaf of pages that look like a Power Point presentation, but a collection of little notes. Using index cards or Post-its, they write signposts along the path of the story. For example: “The power fails, lights go out, covering up second murder.” “Journalist wrote a story about the developers.” “Protag and friends search boyfriend’s room for victim’s notebook.” “Roommate is bulimic, hears murderer while in bathroom throwing up.”

“Ohhh,” I said. “Is that outlining? I do that—or something very like it.” My examples are all notes I scribbled during the writing of the first draft of Death Will Extend Your Vacation—not before, but during the process, as they occurred to me. Some of the events mentioned made it into the draft, others did not. The story took itself in different directions. But that’s exactly what these little-note outliners say happens to their stories. The outline is not inflexible, and it can’t be allowed to trammel the creative process. On the other hand, it is much harder to write not knowing what’s going to happen next, no less in the end, from moment to moment the whole length of 250 pages.

So what’s the difference between outlining and what I do? Is there a difference? For one thing, these notes by no means tell the story. They cover only those flashes in the mist that happen to catch my inner eye. When I think of a mist with headlights trying to break through and mysterious happenings hidden behind its veil, I think of a drive my husband and I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a day so foggy that the Blue Ridge was invisible. It was very quiet, the damp air a heavy blanket muffling sound and movement. Once or twice we spotted a deer cropping grass by the roadside, undisturbed by the beam of our headlights glancing off it.

The note taking is like that. If the headlights fall to the left, I see a deer—make a note. There may be a bear to the right that I never see. Sometimes the note-thoughts come to me as I write, sometimes as I lie in bed thinking of yesterday’s writing and of today’s to come. Sometimes not just plot ideas but lines of dialogue and even occasional descriptive passages bubble up while I’m out running. That’s one reason I always carry my cell phone with its digital voice recorder: get it down before I can forget it, so I can make the note when I get back to my pen and my Post-its.

But here’s the biggest difference. To me, “outline” means “commitment.” If I say I’m an outliner, I must have sticky notes, and each note must represent a bit of the story that I am committed to tell, even if the rule is that it’s okay to change my mind later. Every single one of my notes (including the true versions of the examples above) start with “Maybe.” “Maybe the power fails…” “Maybe the journalist wrote a story…” “Maybe the roommate is bulimic…” I’m not committed. But I don’t want to throw away what may turn out to be perfectly good plot points, certainly not just because of my lousy aging memory. Writing it down is like taking a quick photo of that deer at the edge of the mist. I’ve got it, and if I want to, I’ll use it later—maybe.

18 October 2013

What I Learned While Synopsis Writing

Well, I’m pleased to say I finally managed to complete the synopsis for my novel-length manuscript.

The experience certainly taught me to envy those who write with an outline. If I’d had one, up front, I suspect my synopsis would have been finished much quicker. But … that’s just not the way I do things, because—while I’m sure it would help in synopsis creation—it stymies my story-writing something awful.

I’m one of those idiots who practices what I call Modified Organic Writing: I write without an outline, waiting to see what transpires as my characters interact (the organic part)—though I usually do have a pretty good idea where things might be headed (the modified part). If that seems confusing, don’t sweat it, buddy—I really don’t quite grasp what I’m doing, myself. (I’m sure you’re shocked—SHOCKED!—to hear that.)

One problem this creates, is that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the entire novel, once I've got it completed. I can grasp several parts of it, at the same time—but my mind can’t quite manage to encompass the entire work at once. I wind up looking like the guy in this photo: Not the guy in the foreground; that guy in the center, behind the painting. You can only see his hands and the top of his head. He’s behind and underneath the thing. If only he could stand out front, he might get a chance to see what the painting is really all about. Then, maybe he could come up, not only with a synopsis, but perhaps with a logline or something, such as John M. Floyd discussed earlier this week.

If that guy in back, could come out from under it and stand in front of the painting, he might be able to tell someone it’s: “An exciting depiction of pirates infiltrating a port town they’re about to raid!” As it is, however, he’s really not in a position to grasp what he’s talking about, if he tries to describe what he’s got his hands on.

Anyway, for the use of anyone searching for a method they can use, to find their way out from behind or beneath an organically created novel, to a workable (perhaps even winning??) synopsis, I offer the following lessons I learned during the process. Will any of this work for you? No idea, buddy. But, I’m tossing it out there just in case you can use something, here.

When I posted, last year, about my trouble writing a synopsis, one of the comments people made really stuck in my mind. It warned me to be careful not to create an outline instead. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but have a much better—though probably still incomplete—feel for it now. In fact, I eventually discovered I was doing just that. Building an outline, instead of a synopsis.

Stymied because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the entire manuscript, I finally opted to work chapter-by-chapter, distilling each chapter to a paragraph or two—not worrying too much about length, because I knew I’d cut later. When I was finished, of course, I realized I’d created the outline I was trying to avoid. It was long, very informative—but utterly lifeless.

That outline wouldn’t sell a book; I knew that. But, the next morning, I began to realize that what I’d constructed might be a very valuable tool, if I could decide how to exploit it to advantage. 

Most importantly, perhaps, I realized that I’d lucked-out by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, as a first step, because this gave me a distillation of the work, which my mind could encompass. Then, as I worked on the synopsis, I felt my eyes opening to what had really been meant in that comment.

Along the way, I visited a website I found quite useful: LisaGardner.com There is a lot of information out there, about synopsis construction, but somehow I just couldn’t grock what it all shook-out to mean. At this website, however, the author offers tips for successful synopsis writing (under Writer's Toolbox) which I found I could understand.

To me, the pool slide in this photo sort of demonstrates the use for the outline-tool I had created. In the photo, the rectilinear white structure supports a curved blue slide designed to facilitate rapid and exciting movement that concludes with a climactic splash (once the pool is filled, of course). 

I see the chapter-by-chapter outline as serving the purposes of the white structure supporting the slide, which is the exciting path followed by our synopsis.  But, notice how little of the outline structure actually touches the slide story.  To streamline and curve the slide, increasing the ride’s excitement, I concentrated on telling only the central core of the story, deleting all mention of any events or characters that didn’t have to be there. Then, I went over that story again, polishing it to a high sheen, while ensuring I didn’t add something that wasn’t in the novel.

My hope is that the synopsis reader never even senses that the outline support structure is there.  And, that's okay, because whoever reads the synopsis isn't going to climb the stairs on that white tower..  Instead, s/he's going to step from ground-level straight onto the slide, and—WHOOSH!  Off we go to story splash-down.  Hopefully.

My story had to leap several gaps, of course, because so much supporting information was left out. Look at the slide picture again. See the distance between supports? The slide rides right through those gaps, but can’t sag, or the ride will be ruined. In a manner I find it difficult to explain, reinforcing to prevent sag made it possible for me to spot small places in my novel, where I needed to include a one or two sentence explanation, in order to close or tighten a loophole.

Thus, one of the most important discoveries I made was that constructing my synopsis not only created a tool for selling it, it also helped me correct problems within the story itself. I was so bowled over, in fact, that I’ve changed my attitude on story outlines to a degree.

I still don’t plan to outline prior to writing a story or novel, however, I now plan to create an outline, and generate a synopsis, prior to final editing. I’ll probably start by creating the outline and synopsis just after the first full edit, so that I can get a better handle on the entire work—as a whole—which I now believe will help me conduct better-targeted cutting and editing of the manuscript.

So, there you have it. What I learned from writing a synopsis, in a nutshell.


17 October 2013

One Last Life Lesson

by Brian Thornton

 I believe in God.

I am deeply suspicious of organized religion.

I do not consider the two notions in any way contradictory.

I have always viewed my believer friends who participate regularly in religious services with admiration. I have also admired the principled stands of any number of nonbeliever friends. Their conviction is also a source of inspiration to me.

I find both of their brands of faith inspiring, if not contagious.

And although I've witnessed first-hand what a comfort both the ritual and the message of their particular creeds can be for them, I'm not sure that I've ever had much insight into the actuality of it. I've never found it particularly tangible, for lack of a better term.

I think this is in no small part due to the fact that I was born in 1965, and am in so many ways typical of my generation (Let's forgo the "x", okay? Doug Coupland never spoke either to or for me.)

I mean, I came of age when religion began to be a factor in the political life of the republic on a scale unseen since believers helped bring about Prohibition, or, on the other side of the coin, the Civil Rights Movement. Words like "Moral Majority" were bandied about during my adolescence, with both sides of any given social/moral issue increasingly intolerant of the views of their opposite numbers.

Is it any wonder folks like me just wanted to be left alone?

Couple the above background with a brief membership in a charismatic nondenominational Christian church (during my teen years) and a foray into the possibility of conversion while an undergrad at a Catholic university  (it ended badly- I was "strongly discouraged" from going through with it by the powers that were who ran the program. Apparently I asked too many questions.). To say that I from that point forward I have always looked askance at organized religion would be an understatement.

And yet there have been moments.

I'd like to lay out the most recent of them.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, a very dear friend of mine was recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I said at the time that she would be lucky if she lasted through the week.

She died that Sunday.

Last weekend I attended her funeral.

This wonderful lady, 79 when she passed away, was one of the people I was referencing above when I talked admiringly about belief. She was a decades-long parishioner of a little Episcopal church down in Tacoma's north end. In fact, she was a volunteer who traveled around to members of the church who were shut-ins because of health problems. She'd perform the service with them, pray with them, worship with them.

And when she spoke of the experience, she just glowed.

But my friend Pat did that a lot. She was easily one of the kindest folks I've ever met. She just loved people. And they loved her back.

And at bottom, the reason was her faith. At least that's what she told me.


When I went to her funeral I got one of those rare glimpses I mentioned above- a glimmer of what it must have felt like for Pat to be a member of that congregation. To worship in that tiny, freezing little stone church.

The place was packed. Pat had a lot of friends. All of her family were there.

Her daughter gave a moving eulogy. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was all the more poignant because she managed to invoke so many memories of her unforgettable mother. And she did so in the same way her mother had lived her life.

With grace, intelligence, and sly wit.

For a moment there, I wasn't on the outside, looking in. For a moment there, I understood what it felt like to belong.

We were, all of us, joined there in a communion of grief.

And for a flash, I saw how it worked. For a bit I got an inkling of what Pat got out of the whole deal.

And I am still gob-smacked by it.

As I said above, I'm deeply suspicious of organized religion.

But now, more than ever, I understand the impulse of so many in trying times and in good times, to seek it out.

And I have the memory of my dear, departed friend Pat, to thank for that.

Thanks for that last life lesson, Old Friend.

16 October 2013

Summer Book Review

Yes, I know summer has passed.  But I have been meaning to write about these three mystery novels I read over the summer and I have finally had a chance to do so.  You can give me a low grade if you want.  But all three books are worth reading, and each gives me something to complain about, which I find in late middle age is a very important opportunity.

A Corpse's Nightmare, by Phillip DePoy.  Worldwide Mystery, 2011

My first encounter with DePoy was earlier this year when he wrote a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, about Fever Develin, a professor of folklore, laid off from the university and now living in his old family home, deep in the hills of Appalachia.

The professor is the titular corpse in this novel.  (And isn't Fever Develin a lovely name, by the way?)   On the first page we are told that "On the 3rd of December, just before midnight, a total stranger came into my home and shot me as I slept in my bed.  I died before the emergency mdeical team could find their way to my house."

As you might suspect, he doesn't stay dead, thanks to a highly-motivated medical practitioner.  But throughout the book people keep referring to his killing and the murderer, which he finds extremely creepy.  And he has a lot of trouble telling his coma-induced dreams from his somewhat surreal surroundings.

Because there are a lot of eccentrics in the vicinity of Blue Mountain, and some of them are members of his family.  It becomes clear that the attack has something to do with the past and his peculiar collection of relatives.  I especially enjoyed the academic discussions between Fever and fellow professor Winston Andrews, which often seems to be no more than a way of coping with tension.  I know people like that.

My complaint about this one?  DePoy dances on a tightrope here -- is Fever really remembering things from his childhood or is there something supernatural going on?  -- and for the most time he does it well, but at the end he tips too far toward the woo woo side, in my opinion, providing one of those "ooh spooky" situations I strongly disapprove of. 

("Ooh spooky" defined: A story has a possible supernatural element which is cleared up with a materialistic explanation.  Then at the very end a superfluous bit of ghostiness is dragged in for effect.  To make up an example: "But wait, the killer said he only lit the lamp twice and we saw it three times.  There must have been a real ghost!  Ooh, spooky!"  For some reason, TV movies are particularly susceptible to this.)

Spy's Fate, by Arnaldo Correa.  Akashic Press, 2002  

The Soviet Union has just collapsed, taking away Cuba's biggest trade partner and source of foreign aid.  The Cuban economy has gone to hell, resulting in the nation's spy apparatus pulling back its revolutionaries from Africa and Latin America, and the government tacitly permitting many people to flee to the United States in any boat or raft they can find.

Carlos Manuel is one of those spies suddenly in from the cold,  and not getting a warm reception at home.  His wife committed suicide some time before and his grown children want nothing to do with him.  But when he hears that his kids are heading toward America -- and straight into a storm -- he risks everything to save them.

And finds himself in the U.S., very much on the run.  The CIA knows a major Cuban spy is in the US but has no idea what his mission is (in fact, he just wants to get home).   Making it worse, the head of the CIA's Cuban desk is a man Carlos brutally maimed a decade ago in Central America, and he will stop at nothing to get revenge. 

My complaints?  Threefold.  First, you have to accept a Cuban spy who has spent decades training guerillas as your hero.  Some of us may have a hard time with that.  Second, with one exception everyone in the Cuban spy agency is so nice to each other.  I find that hard to believe about any intelligence agency.  And finally, let's admit it, Carlos is a Mary Sue.  He can beat up an armed man much bigger than he is, speak unaccented English, paint sellable landscapes, and learn to scuba dive in a few days.  What's Spanish for sheesh?

The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters, Morrow, 2002. 

We lost Ms. Peters this year, and I am still working my way through her wonderful series about Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  They are not for everyone, I am sure.  I expect some people would find them fey and unbearably slow-moving.  (It can take a hundred pages for her to set up her plot and get the first corpse in place.)  But to me this comes off as the confidence of a master.

When this story starts it is 1917 and Peabody and her remarkable family have decided to stay in Egypt for the duration of the war, because U-boats have made travel too dangerous.  They would rather do nothing but dig at a promising ruin, but the British intelligence service is again trying to coax her son Ramses back into harness, and this time they have a remarkable bit of bait: Sethos, the family's foremost frenemy (say that three times fast) is either a prisoner behind enemy lines, or has turned traitor.  If Ramses can't get Sethos out, someone will be sent to kill him. 

And so we have two unrelated mysteries going on here: one archaeological, and one espionage-ical.  Okay, that isn't a word, but which word works? 

When Peters started to write this series I wonder if she noticed the trap she was setting for herself.  Namely: Amelia's husband Emerson is supposedly the greatest Egyptologist in history, but she doesn't want to credit him with true great finds, stealing them from genuine archaeologists (some of whom appear as characters in the novels).  She deals with this, in part, by making Emerson so egotistical, stubborn, and short-tempered that he offends everyone who could give him permission to get near the great tombs.  In this particular book, she finds a different way to frustrate him.

But that is not my complaint.  Here it is.  Like Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain my problem with her is that, as much as I enjoy her books, a month later I can't remember what happened in any of them.  Or more precisely, what happened in which.  Does anyone else feel that way?

Okay, that completes my book report.  Don't grade too harshly.

15 October 2013

The Big Moving Sleep Target

by Terence Faherty

This time last year I was serving as the program chair for a great mystery conference we have here in Indiana, Magna Cum Murder.  (This year's conference is being held in Indianapolis on October 25, 26, and 27, and there's still time to register.)  At Magna, they often pick a classic mystery as the conference book.  All attendees are encouraged to read it, at least one panel is devoted to it, and the movie version is shown, if one exists.  I chose The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald.  (Yes, it does say "John Macdonald" on the first edition cover.  Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, didn't settle on Ross for his pen name until the fifth or six book.)  I selected that early book, rather than one of Macdonald's later classics, because there is a movie version, 1966's Harper, starring Paul Newman.
After making my decision, I reread The Moving Target for the first time in perhaps thirty years.  The first few chapters made me glad I'd picked it, the last few less so.  But what struck me most about the novel was its close relationship with another first number in a famous series, The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel.  It's so close, in fact, that I'm convinced Macdonald reread The Big Sleep before laying out The Moving Target, if he didn't have a copy open on his lap as he wrote.

I'm not going to summarize the two plots here.  I'll save that arduous task for when I expand this post into my doctoral dissertation (later to be an Edgar-nominated critical work and, later still, a direct-to-DVD cartoon).  I'll confine myself to citing ten examples to support my contention that, in many ways, The Moving Target (TMT) is a play on and an inversion of The Big Sleep (TBS).

- 1 -

In both books, the PI is called in to straighten out a problem for a wealthy family whose senior representative is an invalid:  General Sternwood in TBS and Elaine Sampson in TMT. Both these characters are heartsick over the loss of a pseudo son, the general's runaway drinking buddy and Elaine's killed-in-action stepson.

- 2 -

The characters of the fathers of these two families and their respective daughters is an example of Macdonald's inversion of Chandler's plot.  In TBS, General Sternwood is wise and his daughter is wild.  In TMT, Ralph Sampson (Elaine's missing husband) is wild and his daughter is wise beyond her years.

- 3 -

Both plots feature rackets complicated by and eventually undone by other crimes.  In TBS, a smut book racket is undone by a blackmail play.  In TMT, a smuggling racket is undone by a kidnapping.

- 4 -

In both books, the initial crime seems vague and phony:  the too polite blackmail of the Sternwoods and the kidnapping of Ralph Sampson that might not be one. 

- 5 -

In both cases, a shadowy underworld figure appears to be pulling the strings.  Each has a last name that's a vague classical allusion, Eddie Mars in TBS and Dwight Troy in TMT.  Both own or have owned a gambling joint, and both are gray-haired.

- 6 - 

Both books feature dens of iniquity:  the house where the wild Sternwood daughter does drugs in TBS becomes the red, zodiac-themed bedroom of the wild father in TMT.

- 7 -

Both the Sternwoods and the Sampsons employ a lovesick young man whose infatuation with a drug user will get him killed (and, again, the names are similar):  Owen Taylor, a chauffeur, in TBS and Alan Taggert, a pilot, in TMT.   Here, Macdonald's inversion of the Chandler model is again apparent.  Taylor chases a Sternwood daughter while Taggert is chased by Sampson's.

- 8 -

The supporting casts have other parallel characters, including two hard luck little men with criminal pasts whose devotion to the wrong women will end them:  Harry Jones in TBS and Eddie Lassiter in TMT.

- 9 -

And in both novels, the PI has a friend with either a current or past connection to the local district attorney's office, and, yet again, the names are similar:  Bernie Ohls (TBS) and Albert "Bertie" Graves (TMT). 

- 10 -

The final link is another name clue, in some respects the most obvious one Macdonald planted.  The wild daughter from TBS is named Carmen.  The not-so-wild daughter from TMT is named Miranda.  Get it? 

Carmen Miranda!

A coincidence?  I think not.  In fact, I rest my case.

14 October 2013

A Typewriter?

by Fran Rizer

Note:  This is not the column about words that I wanted to use today, but illness has prevented me from completing it.

My divorce was final when my younger son was five years old.  I admit that freedom from marriage allowed me to do some things I hadn't done while living with a husband.  No, not what you're thinking. I used to say the major changes were that (1) I could spread my clothes out in all the closet space in the master bedroom.  (2) I no longer felt compelled to jump up to clean the kitchen after dinner--sometimes I even left the dishes in the sink until the next morning. (3) I never planned to fry another chicken.  From then on, fried chicken at my house arrived in a KFC bucket and was transferred to a serving tray.

A year or so after the divorce, my sons spent a weekend with their grandmother. When they came home, the younger one told me, "Mom, did you know that people can make fried chicken in their own kitchens?"

I'm sure there are children who would be equally impressed to learn that people used to write without computers.  I'm not talking about way back when everything was written by hand (possibly even in cursive, which is no longer considered a necessary skill for students to learn.)  I'm referring to typewriters.  Some of us remember when most authors didn't have word processors or computers.  Editing and rewriting on typewriters was a pain in the Royal you-know-what.

All of that leads to my story for today, and, yes, it's nonfiction, a true story about a real man.
I picked this as the first drawing because I love trains.  In
fact, I've written several bluegrass train songs.

Once upon a time, actually on September 21, 1921, a baby boy was born.  His parents named him Paul Smith.

The odds were against Paul.  He had severe cerebral palsy, a disability that impeded both speech and mobility.

His challenges meant that Paul spent most of his life in a Nursing Home in Roseburg, Oregon.  He taught himself to become a master chess player even though he had very little formal education.  

Paul also taught himself to type; however, his palsy made it necessary to use his left hand to steady his right hand. This made it impossible for him to strike two keys at the same time. 
I've chosen this drawing because my very first recorded
original song was "Waiting at the Station."

Because he needed both hands to press one typewriter key, Paul almost always locked the shift key and typed using only the symbols at the top of the number keys.
These characters --
@ # $ % ^ & * () _
were the only symbols he could type. 

Note the signature in the lower right corner - Typed by Paul Smith. 

The drawings in this blog were all "Typed by Paul Smith," and
created from those symbols above the numerals on typewriters.  He created hundreds of pictures.  He gave many away but kept copies of some of them.
On the left is Paul's version of the

Mona Lisa.  Below is a close-up from that picture showing how his artwork was made.  

He died June 25, 2007, and his life and work are noteworthy as well as inspiring.

Paul Smith inspires me.  If a man who couldn't speak and had to steady his spastic hands to strike one key at a time could create such works from a typewriter, surely we can accomplish our writing goals with all the bells and whistles we have on today's computers.

A question for SS readers and writers--who inspires you?

Until we meet again, take care of you!

13 October 2013

Florida News: Rich in Irony

by Leigh Lundin

I haven't been writing about Florida in recent months, not because weird stuff stopped happening here, but because the news had grown morbid and lost its humor. There's nothing funny about a grown man who ran over a young girl who'd refused him or the poor Tampa girl bullied into suicide.

But remember, this is the home of irony, where our governor, Rick Scott, who originally opposed Obamacare, still refuses to allow Affordable Care 'Navigators' into the state. The irony? Rick Scott engineered the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in our nation's history. His fines alone were $1.7-BILLION. But with the billions left over, he purchased a governorship, always for sale in Florida.

Following are a few tidbits from the Sunshine State.

Attack of the Giant Snails

For centuries, ships have brought invasive– and terribly destructive– foreign species to Florida. I personally feud with fire ants, vicious Formicidae that don't simply bite, they use acid to burn holes through the skin and kill a human when attacking en force.

Some of the most destructive plants and animals have come from hobbyists' aquariums– hydrilla, walking catfish, Asian carp, and now, straight out of 1950s scary movies… voracious snails the size of a large man's fist. Miami-Dade decided it was time to call in the dogs.

Bang-Bang, You're Suspended

The very funny Irish comedian, Dave Allen, had his index finger missing since childhood. When he was a child and played cops and robbers with his mates, chasing each other and shouting "Bang, bang!" Some of the boys challenged his stubby index finger, telling him he couldn't shoot with that. "Sure, I can," he said. "Ever hear of a snub-nose .38?"

Now comes the story of an eight-year-old Harmony boy who was playing bang-bang-shoot-em-up with his fully-loaded pretend finger pistol in this great state with the deadly Shoot First / Stand Your Ground proudly on its books.

His Osceola County school suspended him for playing bang-bang with his brother and friends, but threatening no one. As his mother pointed out, he was actually empty-handed.

Bang-bang, You're Arrested

As discussed in this column, Florida has an insane collection of gun laws ranging from the infamous Shoot First / Stand Your Ground to mandatory sentencing. More than one critic have observed that the laws were written by whites for whites and seldom work in favor of black folks.

Take the admittedly murky case of a Jacksonville mother of three, Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot to keep clear of her ex-husband. If she'd killed him, she might have defended herself with the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, at least if she'd been white. But since she didn't kill him, the state's mandatory sentencing kicked in, subjecting her to a twenty-year prison term, which even non-supporters feel is excessive.

Now, an appeals court has sent the case back for a retrial on a technicality. Let's hope a jury finds a way to make this right. And just in case you think Florida has left its racist roots behind with all the Northerners who've immigrated, let me remind you Florida still honors the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Civil War criminal, brilliant cavalryman and possibly racially rehabilitated Nathan Bedford Forrest.


Remember Jennifer Mee, the Florida teenager who appeared on talk shows because she couldn't stop hiccupping? She hit a little hiccup of her own.  She's been sentenced to life imprisonment for masterminding a robbery and murder

iOpening: What the…?

Some people will do anything to get the latest Apple gadget. In this case, a woman walked into the Boca Raton Apple store with a strap-on device… nobody knows quite what it was. My guess it probably violated Apple's warranty, not to mention a possible law or two.

In the meantime, welcome to Florida, folks. No irony deficiency here.

12 October 2013

Writers of a Lost Art

by John M. Floyd

Well, not a lost art. Let's say an unusual art, or a rarely seen art.

What I'm referring to are loglines, and their first cousins, teasers. Neither is associated with all kinds of fiction projects, but sometimes one or the other is necessary for, and requested by, a publisher or an editor. Or, in the case of a film, a producer.

I've written about this subject before, at Criminal Brief--here's a link to the column, called "A Story in a Nutshell," from almost five years ago--so I won't go into a long spiel, here. Let me just mention that a logline is usually a one-sentence, present-tense summary of a story or novel or movie (think of it as a super-brief synopsis), and can ideally be used for the benefit of both the writer and the publisher. Examples: "An archaeologist tries to prevent the Nazis from using an ancient relic to conquer the world," or "A lawyer falls under a spell and loses his ability to lie for twenty-four hours."

Some writers say that if they create a logline before the story is begun it can help them keep the plotline "on track," and some publishers/editors/producers say they like to see such a summary as a part of the treatment or the query letter to help them evaluate (or decide whether to bother to evaluate) the work.

A teaser, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: a short description designed to generate curiosity and interest in the piece. To me, a teaser is to a logline what the inside jacket copy is to a synopsis. The purpose of teasers and jacket copy is to be enticing, period; the purpose of loglines and synopses is to be informative.

Please tease me

Rob Lopresti pointed out, in one of the comments posted to my Criminal Brief column, that a teaser is also known as "high concept," since it provides a short pitch that helps in the marketing of a project. Examples that were used in that CB piece and in the comments following it were the phrase "Die Hard on a battleship" to promote the movie Under Siege, and "High Noon on a space station" to describe the Sean Connery film Outland. If we follow that thread, a teaser for the movie The Last Samurai could probably be "Dances With Wolves in the Far East." Both films involve a guy thrown into an unfamiliar and hostile world, and learning to survive and feel at home there. The same kind of thing happens in Avatar, which is a high-tech, futuristic version of Dances With Wolves. (I've gradually come to believe that there are very few "new" plots--just rehashes of old ones.)

Teasers are even used occasionally in magazines, to introduce short stories. They're usually longer than teasers for films, and appear right after the bylines, and are furnished by either the editor or the writer. I remember that the fiction editor of Futures (later renamed Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine) often asked me to submit teasers along with my story manuscripts, especially if they were "series" mysteries. I've sometimes done that for Mysterical-E as well. Example: "When Sheriff Lucy Valentine leaves for the day, her deputy is in charge. At least until Lucy's mother arrives . . ."

Epics of miniature proportions

Anyhow, what I'd like to do today is present you with a quiz featuring yet another member of the logline/teaser family: taglines.

Taglines are the short and usually witty slogans that appear on movie posters and DVD packaging. Some are just a play on words: "The snobs against the slobs" (Caddyshack), "The coast is toast" (Volcano), "Escape or die frying" (Chicken Run). Others don't really tell you anything but they're funny: "Love is in the hair" (There's Something About Mary), "A tale of murder, lust, greed, revenge, and seafood" (A Fish Called Wanda), "The longer you wait, the harder it gets" (The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Still others are so familiar they've become part of our culture: "An offer you can't refuse," "Love means never having to say you're sorry," "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." The best of them, in my opinion, are the mysterious, puzzling ones that don't summarize or identify the film; they just offer a catchy hint about its content.

Here's what I mean. See if you can remember what movie each of the following fifty taglines refers to. Some are easy, but if you find others difficult, I think you'll still recognize them when you see the answers (which are included later in the column). And no peeking . . .

1. An adventure 65 million years in the making.

2. You don't assign him to murder cases. You just turn him loose.

3. This is Benjamin. He's a little worried about the future.

4. For anyone who has ever wished upon a star.

5. Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.

6. They're here . . .

7. The first casualty of war is innocence.

8. In space no one can hear you scream.

9. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.

10. A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere.

11. His whole life was a million-to-one shot.

12. The true story of a real fake.

13. She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.

14. Check in. Relax. Take a shower.

15. For Harry and Lloyd, every day is a no-brainer.

16. You'll believe a man can fly.

17. He is afraid. He is alone. He is three million light years from home.

18. Where were you in '62?

19. Collide with destiny.

20. You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.

21. This is the weekend they didn't play golf.

22. The story of a man who was too proud to run.

23. They're young . . . they're in love . . . and they kill people.

24. Houston, we have a problem.

25. Same make. Same model. New mission.

26. He's having the worst day of his life . . . over and over.

27. To enter the mind of a killer, she must challenge the mind of a madman.

28. Work sucks.

29. Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.

30. Protecting the Earth from the scum of the universe!

31. One man's struggle to take it easy.

32. What if someone you never met, someone you never saw, someone you never knew, was the only someone for you?

33. The last man on Earth is not alone.

34. Life is like a box of chocolates . . . you never know what you're gonna get.

35. Handcuffed to the girl who double-crossed him.

36. He's the only kid ever to get in trouble before he was born.

37. A love caught in the fire of revolution.

38. Invisible. Silent. Stolen.

39. Who ya gonna call?

40. There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one.

41. What a glorious feeling.

42. Can two friends sleep together and love each other in the morning?

43. Earth. Take a good look. It could be your last.

44. He had to find her . . . he had to find her.

45. They'll never get caught. They're on a mission from God.

46. For three men the Civil War wasn't hell. It was practice.

47. Nice planet. We'll take it!

48. Before Sam was murdered, he told Molly he'd love and protect her forever.

49. Three decades of life in the mafia.

50. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.


1. Jurassic Park
2. Dirty Harry
3. The Graduate
4. Pinocchio
5. The Big Lebowski
6. Poltergeist
7. Platoon
8. Alien
9. Jaws 2
10. Easy Rider
11. Rocky
12. Catch Me If You Can
13. Erin Brockovich
14. Psycho
15. Dumb and Dumber
16. Superman
17. E.T.
18. American Graffiti
19. Titanic
20. The Social Network
21. Deliverance
22. High Noon
23. Bonnie and Clyde
24. Apollo 13
25. Terminator 2
26. Groundhog Day
27. The Silence of the Lambs
28. Office Space
29. The Shawshank Redemption
30. Men in Black
31. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
32. Sleepless in Seattle
33. I Am Legend
34. Forrest Gump
35. The 39 Steps
36. Back to the Future
37. Doctor Zhivago
38. The Hunt for Red October
39. Ghostbusters
40. Finding Nemo
41. Singin' in the Rain
42. When Harry Met Sally
43. Independence Day
44. The Searchers
45. The Blues Brothers
46. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
47. Mars Attacks!
48. Ghost
49. Goodfellas
50. The Shining

And that's that. I hope you had a perfect score (but if you did I feel a little sorry for you--that means you're as addicted to the pursuit of worthless information as I am). And if you can remember some good taglines that I missed, please let me know. I'm off to the Gulf Coast today for another booksigning--no rest for the weary--but I'll be checking in here late this afternoon to see if there are others who like to read movie posters.

I think you'll be happy to know that in this spot on October 26 we'll be featuring pointers about how to effectively market what we've written, in a guest column by my old friend and prolific short-story author Michael Bracken. But for now, thanks for allowing me to indulge myself.

All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.