08 May 2019

Orientation


David Edgerley Gates

Lucian K. Truscott has a terrific column in Salon magazine this week about GPS supplanting physical map-reading skills, and the possible negative consequences should satellite electronics go dark, specifically the issues in a combat environment.

https://www.salon.com/2019/05/04/using-gps-instead-of-maps-is-the-most-consequential-exchange-of-technologies-in-history/


I've always loved atlases, and learning the secrets of the gazeteer was life-changing. I had, later, an excellent National Geographic atlas that didn't use grid coordinates at all, but latitude and longitude - which is actually much more sensible - and it was terrain-based, showing geographical features instead of political boundaries. (Lucian talks about terrain-reading, too, and how shooting azimuths is an inefficient way of navigating your way out of the woods.)

Not that I don't surf Google Earth regularly, whether it's the back streets of Tbilisi or my childhood neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., and I love the kinetic thrill of it, but I still turn to two-dimensional maps on paper, views of subway systems, urban landscapes, desert hardpan, rumpled uplands. I like the big scale of the Michelins, for cityscapes, and the ONC/JNC, for wider terrain. This second a carry-over from the military, the Operational Navigational Chart scaled at 1:1,000,000, and the Jet Navigational Chart at 1:2,000,000, marked with radar overlaps and aviation hazards. Invaluable.

It's my settled habit to have a map pinned to the wall, or leaning on an easel, for whatever specific geography I'm writing about. I had the Euro Berlin opened up, some three feet square, 1:25,000, for Black Traffic, the Khyber Pass and environs for The Bone Harvest. Right now, for Absolute Zero, it's El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and that stretch of southern Chihuahuan desert I've chosen to call The Dooms, a borderland that's entirely invention.

There's the old rule that you can break the rules if you know what they are. It's true of grammar, it's true of narrative conventions, it's true of dialogue, it's true of landscape. You just need to know it well enough. You want to inhabit it, you want it lived in, you want it familiar.

A map is only an approximation of the terrain, but it lays out physical relationships, distance and elevation, good roads and bad, watercourses and obstacles, the path of least resistance. The feel of the country, the smell of juniper and pinon, the heat, the texture, that's up to you. I find the map comforting, is what I think I mean. It's not the level of detail, it's the context. It's a perspective. I look at the map, I can walk the perimeter. It's not the place itself, it's a metaphor of place. A map is our point of departure.

I don't think it's any accident that when Robert Louis Stevenson started Treasure Island, the first thing he did was draw a map of the island itself, and his hand-drawn map is at the very front of the book.



07 May 2019

The Importance of a Solid Beginning


by Barb Goffman

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly; "Tis the prettiest little parlor that you ever did spy."

--"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

I spent the last few days at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, learning about new mystery novels and stories, catching up with old friends, and listening to panels about books and writing. One topic that particularly interested me was the importance of first lines.

I was reminded of some research results I learned in journalism graduate school nearly three decades ago. If I remember correctly, the average newspaper reader first looked at the photo accompanying an article, then at the headline, then at the cutline (caption) under the photo, and then, maybe, started reading the article. If the author didn't grab the reader in those first ten (or was it thirty?) seconds, it wouldn't matter how good or important the rest of the article was; that reader was never going to know what it said.

I don't know if these results would still be the same today, though I'd guess readers probably spend even less time considering whether to read an article, especially because sometimes all they see is a photo and the headline; then they have to decide to click if they want to read more.

And this all brings me to this question: how do these results apply to reading novels and short stories? Before buying or borrowing a book, do readers look at the cover (akin to the newspaper photo), then the headline (the title), then the cutline (perhaps a blurb on the cover), and then check out the first sentence or first page before deciding whether to buy or borrow a book? I'd bet that a lot of readers do.

My approach is to look at a book's cover and to consider its author. If I'm intrigued by the cover, if it has the right mood, or if the book is written by an author I've enjoyed before, I might decide to read it without gathering any additional information. If I'm still unsure, I'll read the book's description and maybe some reviews online. I don't usually check out the writing--the first line or first paragraph--before before deciding whether to move forward. Maybe I should do that because the quality of the writing will definitely affect whether I ultimately read to the end or give up early. If a writer has lured me in, like the spider with the fly, I'll probably keep turning those pages. But if I don't care about the characters, I might stop after two or three chapters. Sometimes I'll flip to the end of a whodunit to see if my guess about who the bad guy is was right. But sometimes I don't even care about that. As the saying goes, life is too short to waste time on bad books.
How's this for an anthology
cover that lures the reader in?


I take a more lenient approach with short stories, perhaps because the short story is my preferred medium. Unless the writing is poor or the story is particularly boring or way too dark for me, I'll usually read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean that a solid first line or first paragraph isn't important. Indeed, that opening can sometimes make or break the "is this boring?" decision.

That said, thinking about the openings to my own short stories, I hope other readers are even more lenient than I am. For while I sometimes write openings that, I hope, make readers react, luring them in with a splash, at other times, I use the opening to bring readers into a particular setting, where they might see something important. It might not seem exciting, but it sets the stage for all that comes. And at other times, the opening is all about setting the mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Murder's always a sin. But it especially feels like sacrilege when I get called from church on a Sunday morning because a body's been found. 

"Till Murder Do Us Part" in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies

This is a mood opening, as well as an opening with a bang. I hoped this beginning's mood would lure the reader in, as would the knowledge that the reader is embarking on a murder case with a caring, honest sheriff.

  • Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared.

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" in Florida Happens

With this first sentence, I aimed to convey that something odd--and funny--was happening, something that the main character was overlooking. That, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

  • It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Garner Duffy stood just inside the entrance of the community center, scanning the large room. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Bug Appetit" in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

By using an opening similar to that of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I hoped to get the reader into the mood to read a holiday-related story. And I hoped the second sentence would make the reader wonder what Garner was looking for and read on to find out.

  • "The defense calls Emily Forester."
  • My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to use his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

"The Power Behind the Throne" in Deadly Southern Charm

This opening drops the reader into the middle of the action and, I hoped, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next with this headstrong defendant.

  • They say appearances can be deceiving. No one knows that better than me. Everyone's always thought I had it made. Only kid in the richest family in town with a steady supply of cool new clothes and fancy vacation plans. Never had a worry.  

"Punching Bag" in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries

This opening is more of a setting-the-stage opening. There's no pounding action here. Instead, the reader is invited into the life of a minor--the character's age isn't clear yet. There's the hint of secrets. Of a family unraveling.That something is definitely wrong. All of this, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

Do these opening work? Do they achieve their goal of luring the reader into the story? Of letting the reader know that something interesting, something enticing, something the reader *must* know  about is happening? I certainly hope so. Because as I learned in journalism school nearly three decades ago, if you don't lure the reader in, it doesn't matter how good the rest is because a lot of people won't bother to read it.

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Please share in the comments and include why you think that line works so well.


06 May 2019

Serendipity


by Travis Richardson

Hello. This is my first time here. I want to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to be a permanent member of Sleuthsayers. I am honored to be invited to blog with so many talented and well-respected writers, many of whom are experts in short story writing—my favorite form of fiction.

It’s a pity that it is next to impossible to make a living from writing precise gems that waste none of the reader’s time with superfluous words. ;) I believe there is an untapped audience of potential readers who don’t know they are short fiction fans. How to expose folks to short stories so they’ll give them a chance and catch a short fiction addiction is a nut I haven’t cracked yet. Steve Jobs proved you could create needs that nobody knew they had with iPods and iPhones and iWhateverelses. But more on that topic in another post (assuming I’m not banned after this post).

A few quick words about myself. I’m originally from Oklahoma. I moved to Los Angeles in the late nineties, worked in television and then marketing for a few years before moving into up to Berkeley where I worked in academia. In 2008 I moved back down to LA. I’d written short stories and screenplays here and there, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started focusing on prose and five or so years after that, specializing in crime fiction. I had my first story published in 2012 and have since had about 40 short stories and two novellas come out. I have also worked on several unfinished manuscripts that may or may never see the light of day. 

While I've had a few weeks to prepare for this article in my debut, I never settled on a topic with my wife’s birthday festivities last week followed by my daughter's birthday this week. I feel like there are many issues I want to write about, but for some reason, I’d draw a blank when I tried to write a draft. Performance anxiety, perhaps. Not sure. But one question kept coming back, how did I get here? That is, how did Robert come to invite me after Steve Hockensmith left for greener pastures? (Talk about filling a big pair of boots.)

Today I’m going to write about serendipity. Years ago when I worked on a cable show called Home and Family, I took a pop psychologist to the airport after he appeared on the show to promote his book. I told him that I wanted to be a writer (instead of production assistant running errands for the show). He told me about his concept of serendipity. 

Apple Dictionary (the reference I use most these days) defines the word as:
The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

His pitch on serendipity was that while the core principle of the word involves luck if one prepares and positions themselves in the path of their goal, it increases the likelihood that a serendipitous moment may arise. And if that opportunity happens, that person will have the skills and ability to grab the moment and fulfill their dreams. A sports analogy might be a third-string quarterback not expecting to play the season because the two guys ahead of him are All-Stars, but an injury and scandal later, he’s taking snaps on Sunday in a sold-out stadium.  Or this guy who wound up being an NHL goalie for a night after a day of working as an accountant.
Scott Foster: accountant by day, NHL goalie at night
I often talked to the guests on the show as I shuttled them to and from the airport, or hotels, or wherever. I’ve forgotten most of them as well as what happened on that job outside of a few events (like twisting my ankle on an obstacle course during a commercial break before Bruce Jenner was about to run through it on live TV,) but that conversation stuck with me…although I forgot the psychologist’s name. Like Steve Liskow wrote last week, I think I’m a slow learning kinesthetic. It takes me a while to get something down and even longer to put it into practice, but every now and then things work out.

If you want to be a writer, you certainly need skill in the craft, a strong voice, and hopefully an interesting story to tell. A lot of this can be achieved with reading, writing, and rewriting. But there are other attributes that can help raise a writer’s serendipity percentage when it comes to getting published.

Shoptalk

An easy, cheap way is to read websites and blogs that talk about writing and those that have submissions. As the saying goes, information is knowledge. Find the genre you’re interested in and follow what folks in that world are talking about. Glean tips and tricks from those already in the game. If somebody has cut a path in a forest, it’ll be easier to follow their path than chopping down trees to go your own way. Although sometimes you need to use that ax to forge your own way, it’s just good to know that you’re a pioneer and not a wheel re-inventor.

Also, there are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, Yahoo groups, and other places to join conversations and find out more about what is happening. (Yet, I still work best in person. Shaking hands, talking, working off of nonverbal cues, and everything else that comes with being in front of a person works best for me. While I’m half extroverted, I can't seem to function well in a digital world, especially places like Twitter.) Also, you are looking for places to submit stories, especially in the crime world, I always go here: http://sandraseamans.blogspot.com/

Events

Writer events happen all over the country. The bigger the city, the greater the opportunities. Living in Oklahoma (pre-internet days), there weren’t many events, but I would go out to see writers, poets, and people of significant cultural import when I could. Living in Los Angeles, there are so many events happening that I barely catch any of them. But to listen and support an author, and possibly meet them as well, is something that, beyond enrichment, might have benefits some day. What exactly? I don’t know. You won’t either if you don’t go.

Classes

Take writing classes. This could be a one-time weekend class, a community college program, or even an MFA. One can learn techniques to improve their skills and meet like-minded writers. The cost slide on a scale from free community and library programs to $60k masters level study/workshops. In Tulsa, I went to summer parks and recreations programs on creativity and learned about artistic expression. In Berkeley, I took a writing extension course and found out that I disliked a lot of mainstream literary writing after I had to write a paper on stories in “The Best American Short Stories.” This led me into a life of crime…fiction writing where more things happen than just wealthy characters’ overwhelming ennui.

I also meet writers who were serious about taking their writing further. From the class in Berkeley, a few of us started a writing group.

Writing Groups

Writing groups have been essential in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in several throughout the years. Some only lasted for a few meetings, while others have carried on for several years. Having a successful group has a lot to do with the chemistry of the members, the commitment to allot time to yourself and others, and the ability to listen to and use criticism to improve your work.

Not every writing group is going to work out. There are many personalities at play. Some people are too dominant and others hostile. But others can be genuine assets that provide valuable insight. It also helps to have writers in your group who understand your genre. It can get frustrating explaining to a member who is writing a memoir why a dead body is necessary for a murder mystery.

Also, writer groups have benefits in that some members share knowledge about writer’s markets and opportunities. After I wrote my detective novel, a writer in a group told me about mystery writing organizations.

Writers Organizations

There are many writing organizations that help promote their members’ works and keep their genre relevant. Many are national organizations with regional chapters. I joined Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America in the San Francisco Bay Area and found both groups to be welcoming and supportive of novice writers.

When I moved back to Los Angeles, I attended several SinC and MWA meetings which led to me volunteer at some of their events.

Volunteer

Most nonprofit literary organizations are run by volunteers. The work takes up time that can be spent writing or other pursuits. But by volunteering, you are paying forward (or back) to other writers like yourself. Sometimes you get credit, but often you don’t, working behind the scene make sure the trains move on time (or the sausage gets made). Regardless it’s doing good for the community and it could lead to unexpected…serendipity.

In my case, I ran the craft room for the California Crime Writers’ Conference in 2011. I introduced presenters, made sure they kept hydrated and watched the time. Gary Phillips taught two classes. One was on dialog, but I don’t remember the other. Between the two sessions, I was talking to Gary and mentioned that I wrote short stories. He invited me to submit a story to his next anthology, SCOUNDRELS: TALES OF GREED, MURDER, AND FINANCIAL CRIMES.
I wrote the story, “The Movement,” which was my first publication. I will always be grateful to Gary for giving me that opportunity and for everything else he’s done for me and other writers. He's truly a saint in the crime fiction world.

So several stories, board meetings, and conferences later, Robert asked me to join SleuthSayers and I jumped at the opportunity. Is this serendipity?

Thanks for reading. I promise my next submission will not be so rushed! 

PS: Happy birthday, Pauline!

05 May 2019

You'll get yourself killed!


by Leigh Lundin

Sint Maarten

About a hundred dog-years ago I visited Sint Maarten, the Dutch half of Saint Martin of the now-dissolved Nederland Antilles. Another couple had attached themselves to me. Unfortunately they were condescending, complaining, and often rude. Fed up, I ventured off on my own. Deeply provoked I dared leave their august company, they shouted after me, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

St. Martin hadn’t yet experienced the gargantuan resorts, the huge hotels, the star-rated restaurants. Its infrastructure consisted of single lane dirt roads meandering among pastures and groves. I loved it.

I came upon a goatling caught in a fence. As I knelt to untangle it, a young girl on a bicycle and then a man and woman stopped to watch. I lifted the goat free and set it over the fence.

“Come,” they said. “Come to our house. Would you like juice, tea?”

Their walls were constructed of foot-thick adobe. They explained its hard-packed ‘mud’, so to speak, kept the interior cool. The front door was a curtain. Except for tourists, the island experienced virtually no crime, so no need for locks. Their kindness dissuaded me from murdering that horribly unlikable couple.



After reading David’s and Eve’s recent articles about traveling, I told my friend Darlene I always knew I wanted to travel although I didn’t know how I’d pull it off. Fortunately consulting provided the ways and means.

David’s love song to Paris reminded me of my much later visit to the city, one that RT Lawton also knows well. It’s a city of light and delight, but some people…



France

In Paris you can send out for cous-cous just like you order pizza. Cous-cous, made from bulgar wheat– the same ingredient in pasta– has a vaguely rice-like texture. Like rice, you top it by selecting a variety of vegetables, meats, and sauces.

“Don’t order in,” I said. “Let’s go out. Let’s visit the restaurant.”

My French friend Micheline agreed, but my colleague James reacted in horror. “You can’t!” he said. "Not at night! Algerians roam the streets and, and Moroccans, and, and Iranians! I read about these foreign hooligans in a magazine.” (The tabloid News of the World, published by Rupert Murdoch.) He finished with, “You’ll get yourself killed!”

He didn’t like cous-cous either, so Micheline and I left him to his own devices as we enjoyed dinner.



Darlene laughed. “I get the feeling those aren’t isolated incidents.”



Barbados

So in Barbados– I love Barbados– my shoe ruptured like a flattened tire. Barbados is 2800 kilometers from Orlando, 1500 nautical miles, maybe 1750 land miles. I needed options. Bridgetown houses a basket market and gimmicks and gadgets for tourists, but not a repair shop, not for tourists. A few questionings later, I learned of a local cobbler.

“I’ll send a bellboy,” said the hotel concierge. “Don’t try it yourself,”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s off the beaten path.”

A hanger-on, Miss Transparent Swimsuit, interrupted. Days earlier, Miss TS discovered her white swimsuit turned invisible when wet. The beach bars and about half the island became aware of this fact when she waded from the water like Venus on her seashell. No one looked until she shrieked, flapped her hands, jumped voluptuously up and down, a fascinating study in the physics of motion dynamics. Subsequently, she decided none of the hotel shop’s bathing costumes quite fit. She continued to bathe in the bay. As other women rolled their eyes, she’d emerge and suddenly rediscover the optics of her wet swimsuit hadn’t changed, thus the name, Miss Transparent Swimsuit. Anyway, she interrupted the concierge.

“Is it dangerous? Finding the shoe guy?”

“Well…”

“Don’t go,” she said firmly, leaning very close. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

If my girlfriend caught another woman’s hand resting on my upper thigh, I could certainly get myself killed. There’s danger and then there’s DANGER.

From the basket market, I left the pavement and strolled up a shady street. Women in their tiny gardens gave me a curious glance. A dog on a doorstep kept an eye on me.

I found the repairman without difficulty. The front of his house extended to shelter his workspace. No need for a signboard when your activity advertised your business.

He looked over my ripped shoe. “Did you bring the other?” he asked.

I had. He studied it.

“Come back in two hours,” he said.

I cut over to another street to see more of the village. After lunch, to the clucks and head-shaking of Miss Transparent Swimsuit and the hotel staff, I revisited the shoe man with my girlfriend.

Not only had the repairman resoled my broken shoe, he’d resoled the other as well.

“Only a matter of time,” he said, “no extra charge. Is two dollars too much?”

I squatted down eye level where he sat.

I said, “I’m not rich, but at home, I would pay much more. I don’t want to offend you, but would you allow me to pay at least a portion I would pay at home?”

He nodded and we shook hands. My girlfriend, a teacher, asked about schools and he directed us to one where we visited a classroom. We felt welcomed.

Miss Transparent Swimsuit represented the only peril. I knew how not to get myself killed.



We North Americans fear the unfamiliar. That’s the main reason I despise the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island.

Darlene said, “Why is that? Don’t they provide hundreds of jobs?”

“Thousands, they claim.”



Bahamas

In the days before the Atlantis, tourists walked the streets of Bridgetown, dining on vegetables or meats wrapped in banana leaves. From little shops you could buy seafood, seashells, deep sea gear, and sea inspired art. Now, instead of the Welcome to Nassau signage, they might as well erect “Dare to visit” signs.

Now, the moment a plane lands or a cruise ship anchors off Nassau, water taxis rush in. Before precious DKNYs touch native soil, the shuttles snatch up travelers with money falling from their pockets and rush them to Paradise Island for surgical removal.

Money and investment have made it possible to visit the Bahamas without actually visiting the Bahamas. Head into town on your own, and cruise directors shout, “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Once upon a time in the Caribbean, locals rode colorful jitneys. I learned about them from my grandmother, these decorated minibus coaches done up with rhinestones and mirrors, carvings and colors, perhaps a boombox and more tassels than a Baha Mar topless floor show.

On a trip, one of my traveling companions demanded steak for dinner. Imagine, we’re surrounded by the ocean’s bountiful, beautiful seafood, and one landlubber insists on dead cow flown in from far-away freakin’ Florida.

“Fine,” I said. “We’re taking the jitney.”

Jaws dropped. “You… You can’t do that. Only the dark…” our waitress rolled her eyes, “er, locals after dark, I mean, by natives, see. Tourists can’t ride them.”

“Go ahead, say it,” I said. “You’ll get yourself killed.”

Our waitress, with more aplomb than a table full of half inebriated tourists, explained anyone can pay 50¢ and can go anywhere without getting killed.

The steak turned out… not so good.

Venezuela

Speaking of steak… (I’ll get there eventually), I found myself in La Guaira, Venezuela, the seaport serving Caracas. Tourists boarded buses into the city, but I heard about the teleférico, a cable car that soared over the mountain into the capital. Tourists frowned at me.

“How do I find it?” I asked.

“Motor coach or taxi,” said the man hawking a tour bus.

A Hispanic woman quietly said, “Take the autobus. It better.”

The gringos rolled their eyes, fully expecting to see my body in the news.

On board, bus passengers smiled. I took an empty seat near the woman who first advised me. After a few minutes driving, someone double-clapped their hands. The bus stopped and let the passenger off.

We drove again. Another passenger double-clapped and more people disembarked.

The woman who suggested the bus pointed to the pull cable, normally used to signal the driver.

“Vandals thought it clever to cut the cables. Now we clap. It works.”

At the teleférico station, we climbed aboard.

The car lifted off. We rose into the sky.

The jungle below unfolded in beauty. We sailed over tropical forest and waterfalls.

Eventually the car pulled to a platform and stopped. Confused, I looked around, seeing only mists and jungle. The woman nudged me.

“Only first third of trip,” she said. “Here comes another car to take you to the peak. At the summit, take another car down into the city.”

Part two of the aerial adventure proved more beautiful than the first. The jungle below has since been designated El Ávila National Park.

From a natural beauty standpoint, the descent into Caracas proved anticlimactic. I ambled through the city. At a lunch counter, I ate damn good beefsteak that would make a gaucho proud.

A woman in a post card stall complained. “Stupid city. Yesterday I rode that tram car all the way to the top. Such a waste, all fog and stupid clouds. Why can’t they do something about that?”

“You’re lucky,” I said knowingly. “You could have got yourself killed.”

“Really?” Her face lit up. “I didn’t know that, and here I am, all safe and sound. Wait until I tell Myra.”

I live to please.

Iceland

When I announced plans to visit Iceland, friends advised the usual. “It’s frickin’ Iceland. What part of ‘ice’ don’t you understand? You’ll get yourself killed. Hey, it could happen.”

Joined by a French journalist, we landed in Keflavik (now Reykjanesbær) hours ahead of the worst blizzard in recorded history. Far-away friends surely believed I’d done it this time.

If Icelanders know anything, it’s ice, cold, and snow. Coming from Minnesota, I’d worn my insulated boots and goose-down parka, so the century’s worst blizzard wasn’t particularly distressing for me. The worst deprivation was having to live on German wines and caviar, considerably cheaper than hamburger. Seafood… Did I mention I love fish? Worst hazard: I risked overeating.



Folks, we’re not talking about wandering through Iraq, Sudan, or Yemen in search of ISIS Daesh. As far as I can tell, Americans believe the rest of the world lurks in dark alleys, waiting for tourists where tourists never go… or something like that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was once held at knifepoint and another time at gunpoint. That threat happened in… the United States of America. The latter incident occurred here in Orlando. That's a story already told.



USA

Perhaps the saddest incident began after delivering my car to a dealership for servicing. The shop provided a minibus to pick up customers and deliver them to and from. I received the call to pick up my car right at 5pm. Orlando’s Lee Road is no joy during rush hour, but that day an accident on Interstate-4 choked the six-lane thoroughfare.

As the expected ten-minute drive stretched toward infinity, the shuttle driver announced he’d have to pull over and park for the next two hours. He might not be able to deliver us before the shop closed.

“Nonsense,” I said. “Take Kennedy Boulevard.”

A man on the bus said, “Doesn’t that run through Eatonville?”

The sole woman on the bus blanched.

The town of Eatonville, home of famed author Zora Neale Hurston, bills itself as America’s oldest black community. It’s a pretty little town if you’re not fearful of getting yourself killed.

The driver said, “You know the way?”

“Of course.”

The woman started to say, “You’ll get us all k-k-k-…”

“If you know the roads,” said the driver. “Let’s do it.”

The lady flew into action, mobilizing other passengers. “The windows, raise all the windows. Driver, lock the door. And you, don’t you dare roll your eyes.”

With the help of the other three guys, the lady battened down the hatches. They seemed as much excited as fearful, daring to adventure into deepest African-America.

The driver followed Edgewater Drive to Kennedy and swung right. We passed barbecue and crab restaurants, a clinic, stores, and a repair shop. Above us at the I-4 overpass, sirens whooped as ambulances, police, tow-trucks, and fire engines struggled through traffic.

As we entered Eatonville’s town center, our passengers stared in awe, apparently surprised we weren’t assailed by by crack-pushin’ gang-bangers waving Glock 9 knockoffs. Traffic came to a standstill from commuters who’d thought of the same escape route.

“Turn right,” I said.

“No!” said the woman. “Where are you taking us?”

“This side street and a left will bring us out right at the dealership.”

After double-checking the windows, the lady– I swear this is true– pressed her face against the glass to see what might be seen. Possibly she expected rap artists gunning down one another on the back alleys. To the surprise of many, we made it without a single Mad Max style takedown.

That evening at the dinner table, I’m convinced fellow travellers told trembling tales of the idiot risk-taker who directed them through darkest Eatonville.

“That fool! That crazy fool. He almost got ourselves killed!”

Eatonville, Florida
Eatonville, Florida © VisitFlorida.com

04 May 2019

Bad News and Good News



by John M. Floyd



Last Saturday I conducted a one-day writing workshop in Richardson, Texas, for the North Dallas
chapter of Sisters in Crime. (I had a great time, and I sincerely thank Pam McWilliams and Barbara Spencer for showing me and my wife such a warm welcome.) The agenda included a two-hour session on "Writing Short Stories" in the morning and another on "Marketing Short Stories" that afternoon. I received and addressed a LOT of questions, especially in that second session, when we talked about dealing with editors.

As I told the group, it's been my experience that most short-story editors are professional, friendly, and easy to work with. Granted, these "dealings" are sometimes short, if I get a rejection letter--but even then, they disappoint me in a nice and encouraging way. When they do accept and publish a story I've submitted, they generally pay me on time and present my work in a way that makes me proud.

Flying blind

The real test of dealing with editors comes during that murky area that's not quite a rejection and not quite an acceptance, when editors ask me to change something in one of my submissions. That situation always reminds me of the following joke:

"This is your pilot speaking--I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is, we're lost. The good news is, we're making damn good time."

Here, the outlook is a little better than in that announcement. The bad news is "we haven't accepted your story yet" and the good news is "we haven't rejected it yet either." And it doesn't happen often--these days editors seem more likely to give you a definite yes or a definite no, with no middle ground. When they do ask for revisions, I usually go through two phases: the first is a stubborn tendency to wonder how they could have the gall to question something I've worked so hard to create, and the second is a gradual realization that those requested changes are often logical and justified. Sometimes they do make the story better. And even when they don't, well, the editors are driving this train, and if I want to ride along I probably need to salute and obey orders.

The fact that these requests for revision don't happen a lot is one reason we as writers need to be careful to make each story as perfect as we can make it before submitting. Editors would rather not go to the trouble of asking for changes, so if the story doesn't work as written, it'll probably just be rejected outright. In this "buyer's market" there are plenty of other submissions out there that might not require any tweaking at all.

Can you spell "compromise"?

There's a silver lining, to all this: If and when I'm asked by an editor to make changes and resubmit, I can be pretty confident that if I do it, the story will be accepted. This has happened to me dozens of times over the years, and in every single case, my changes have resulted in an acceptance. Sometimes the revisions are small (style issues) and sometimes they're extensive (involving a character, or a scene, or a plot point), but I'm always fairly sure that if I accept their suggestions and do what I'm told, they'll buy the story. I realize a lot of writers are headstrong about this kind of thing and will argue about or even refuse most suggested edits, and while I admire their willingness to stand up for what they believe, I maintain that if they would bend a little and secure the sale and the paycheck, they'd be better off. Later, if and when they submit the story elsewhere as a reprint, they can always change it right back to the way they had it in the first place. (I've done that very thing, many times.)

As for examples of revision requests, I was once asked to change an ending such that the resolution was more clear, and another time I was asked to cut back a bit on the length of the opening so the real action in the story happened sooner--and it would've been hard to argue with either of those requests. Some revisions, though, are hard to swallow. Years ago an editor objected to my use of the sentence "Susan cut her eyes at him." She said, "Is that a Southern expression?" I told her I didn't know if was a Southern expression or not, but I agreed to change it. It became "Susan glanced at him," and the editor was happy. When I sold that story again, Susan--sneaky young lady that she was--went right back to cutting her eyes.

Most suggested revisions are truly minor, like inserting or removing a comma or deleting a "that" or changing a semicolon to a period. I always accept those without any fuss; what does it really matter? For some reason, the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post prefers using actual numbers in phrases like "20 feet" or "30 minutes" rather than spelling them out ("twenty feet," "thirty minutes"), and they always ask me to change those in my manuscripts. I might not agree, but it's also not my magazine and they're paying me for my story, so I happily let them do it the way they like.

Q & A

What do the rest of you think, about all this? What's the hardest, or maybe the silliest, change that you've been asked to make, in a submitted manuscript? Do you usually feel such changes help the story, or not? How hard a line are you willing to take to defend your choices? Do those revisions usually result in a sale?

One last observation. I think I've mentioned before, at this blog, that after the first submission I ever made to The Strand Magazine, the editor phoned me, introduced himself, and said his staff liked my story but they had never heard of the type of poison I used to do away with one of the characters, and that I might need to change it. (I think it was something derived from the yellow osceola blossoms of East Africa, or some such thing.) Anyhow, he asked me where I'd found out about that poison. I told him I made it up. After an extremely long and (on my part) nervous pause, he said, "Okay." And they printed the story without any changes. As I believe I have also said before, publishing is an inexact science.

Maybe that's one of the things that makes it fun.


03 May 2019

The Process


by O'Neil De Noux

Every writer has a process.

For a novel, mine begins with putting together an idea, characters, time, setting, brief notes on what I think the story will be about. Research comes next. Library, internet, visiting the setting if applicable (I wrote DEATH ANGELS without going to France and wrote USS RELENTLESS without going to The Seychelles or India. Could not go to the island of Saint Lolita in order to write SAINT LOLITA since I made up the place).

Next step – the arduous task of writing the first draft by putting the characters in motion and following them. NOTE: Often I have no idea what the story will be about. I just follow the characters who always seem to find conflict.

The first third of the book takes the longest time to write, the second third goes faster and thankfully the final third faster still. I write the first draft quickly. Then go back and get it right.

Spell check the book and create a second draft. Read it as slowly as you can, checking inconsistencies. Pay attention to EVERYTHING. This is more polishing up the book than changing anything of consquence. The book is done. It needs a wax job.


Time to take a break, fella

Let it sit a while. Let it breathe. Get your mind off it. Write a short story or two. That takes a lot concentration and time.

Create the novel's third draft with another slow read.

Get it to a first reader. When it comes back with suggestions, go through them and make changes if you think they are necessary.

Create a fourth draft from the corrections.

Let it sit. Send it to your other readers – including editor and copyeditor.

During these sits I put together an idea for the next novel –  characters, time, setting, notes on what I think the story will be AND write short stories.



Time to feed me, fella

Return to the first novel. I've been away from it a while and usually see something which needs tweaking.

Create another draft from information from all readers and let it ferment.

Write the next novel using the same process. During the sit time after its second draft – go back to the first novel to create the first final draft.

The last final draft is the one which is put into eBook and paperback formats.

Copywrite the book.

Before publication, read through the book ONE MORE TIME to make sure it is RIGHT.

Get it published.


I can help with that scene, fella

I am in my late sixties and write all the time now. I am not a recluse but I play one in real life. And I manage to get two or three novels and a half dozen short stories written every year.

That's all for now. It's snack time for the cats.

http://www.oneildenoux.com







02 May 2019

The Things We Leave Behind


by Brian Thornton

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
                                                                                    – 1 Corinthians, 13:11

In this, the age when fantasy rules, when people tiptoe around discussion of TV shows (Game of Thrones) and movies (Avengers: Endgame) for fear of revealing "spoilers" about either of these juggernaut entertainment franchises, I've had a tangentially related subject on my mind.

The first ERB book I ever read
But never fear. No spoilers here.

And it has to do with books, not the visual arts.

Let's just pause for a bit, give my readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) a chance to heave a sigh of relief.

I don't have much room on my dance card these days for either science fiction or fantasy. Ironic, I suppose, because most of what I read while cutting my teeth on literature beyond picture books was science fiction and fantasy.

Specifically the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Now, as a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on: high adventure such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles, The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, lots and lots and lots of history. But it was Burroughs' stuff that really turned my crank.

I read every one of his ninety-one published novels (save the three or four, such as The Efficiency Expert, The Girl From Farris's, and Marcia of the Doorstep which had been out of print for decades when I was first delving into Burroughs' oeuvre during the mid-1970s): His Tarzan novels, his Barsoom series, his Venus novels, his Earth's Core series, and standalones such as The Mucker (and its sequel, The Return of the Mucker–even though I had no idea what a "mucker" even was!), The Land of Hidden Men, and posthumously published books such as Beyond the Farthest Star and  I Am A Barbarian.

Frank Frazetta's idea of a "mucker"
For me, discovering Burroughs was largely a matter of timing. His work had begun to go through something of a renaissance during the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. as was the case with the work of so many of his peers who wrote for the pulp magazines which churned out new stories, sometimes whole novels, at an astonishing rate during the first three decades of the twentieth century. And publishers such as Ace and Ballantine were eager to cash in, commissioning vivd, exciting cover art from such top notch fantasy artists as Frank Frazetta, and marketing his books in such a way that mall bookstore chains such as B. Dalton (remember them?) would place them right in front of the likes of me: kids out looking for lurid tales of derring do, lost civilizations, monster men, damsels in distress, and, of course, a seemingly inexhaustible parade of "noble savages."

Burroughs, a failure at many things in his adult life, found his moment at the age of thirty-seven when, in 1912, The All-Story Magazine serialized his first fiction under the title, "Under the Moons of Mars." When later published in book form the publisher changed the title to A Princess of Mars. This book introduced Captain John Carter, a Civil War veteran from Virginia, who found himself whisked away from a cave in the Arizona desert to the Red Planet.

Once there Carter's adventures ran true to what would become Burroughs' standard formula: endowed by Fate (in Carter's case, Fate took the form of the lesser gravity of the planet Mars) with Herculean strength, the hero would face a series of challenges, including, in no particular order, savage beasts, scheming villains, the elements, and, of course, a beautiful woman with whom he would fall hopelessly in love, usually at first sight, and through some silly misunderstanding, would not discover until somewhere near the end of the book that the lovely maiden requited his passionate feelings.

Let me tell you, as a ten-year-old, I ate it all up.

Later that same year Burroughs introduced his most famous character, John Clayton, an English peer of the realm, better known as Tarzan of the Apes. Orphaned at birth, raised by apes (and not, as Burroughs–who seems to have been largely ignorant of even the basics of zoology–insisted over and over, gorillas), Tarzan grew up to get the girl (An American preacher's daughter named Jane Porter), reclaim his birthright (that's "Lord Greystoke" to you, thank you very much.), and spend his time swinging through the jungle, finding (and fighting) lost civilization after lost civilization, and even being made chief of an African tribe.

And of course Tarzan was a sensation which quickly morphed into something beyond what Burroughs intended (the movies, the merchandise, Johnny Weismuller famously grunting, "Me Tarzan, you Jane"in film–and speaking of film, none of them were anything like the books. Go figure.). And he made Burroughs (and his heirs) trunkloads of money.

"Me..Tarzan..you...bankable movie star..."
And Burroughs has never really left us. In the past decade, Hollywood invested vast sums of money into two film reinterpretations of his two most famous characters: 2012's much-maligned John Carter, which killed more careers at Disney than a Thark with a radium rifle, and 2016's awful The Legend of Tarzan, which also tanked, although not as badly (I credit the incredible Margot Robie, who played Jane.).
"So WHAT is this movie actually ABOUT?"

In another fitting irony it was John Carter which brought me back to the Burroughs books. The movie is, in a word: terrific. The first live action film directed by Andrew Stanton (of Wall-E fame), and a screenplay credited to (among others), one of my favorite novelists, Michael Chabon. It starred the underrated (and relatively unknown) Taylor Kitsch as the title character and the unforgettable Lynn Collins as the aforementioned"princess." But John Carter never really had a chance. The film ran afoul of a marketing department leery of a film with the word "Mars" in the title (Blame Mars Needs Moms. I do.), and whose upper echelon decision makers had never worked on selling science fiction before.

So it tanked, the Oscar-nominated score (courtesy of Michael Giacchino) and a superb supporting cast which included Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds notwithstanding.

I saw it in the theatre, and loved it. I came away from the experience thinking of what a love letter the film was to Burroughs' work: how Stanton had worked so hard to bring so many aspects of Burroughs' Martian books to life: the look, the feel, the red skin of the Martians, the four-armed, green-skinned Tharks, the fliers which served as air "navies" in Mars' thin air. Great characters like Tars Tarkas and a much more fleshed out princess Dejah Thoris. He really nailed it.

Lynn Collins, making Dejah Thoris so much more than the damsel-in-distress of Burroughs' novels
It inspired me to delve back into Burroughs' canon: books I had not re-read in decades.


I was maybe twenty pages into A Princess of Mars, when it hit me. Edgar Rice Burroughs was an imaginative guy, and a pretty decent storyteller, but he was a lousy writer. As it turns out, Chabon and Stanton not only paid homage to Burroughs' work, they vastly improved on it.


What's more, his stuff is dated. Burroughs was a man very much of his time. And his time bespeaks the sort of casual racism that was entirely lost on a pre-teen and early teen-ager from whitebread (no pun intended) eastern Washington, and is terribly glaring to my more cosmopolitan fifty-four year-old eye nowadays.

Put simply,  I now find Burroughs' portraits of blacks, Asians, Arabs, Latinos, and so many other non-white peoples downright painful to read. I'm not saying he was anything like, say, Richard Wagner. But Burroughs carried all manner of received, unconscious biases around with him. Born in 1875, he made his first protagonist a Confederate soldier, and would have been forty when D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation–racist ending and all–hit the theatres in 1915.

This, more than the paper-thin characters and the repetitious plots, pretty much overpowers the charms–the often sly humor, his occasionally insightful meditations on the ruinous nature of the two world wars through which he lived (the second as a war correspondent in the Pacific) and the sheer inventiveness–his works still possess. Fifty-four year-old me wants something more sophisticated, more aware of the humanity (including the failings) of the author's characters.

But I still feel I owe the guy something. His work took me on flights of fancy I'll savor for the rest of my days. And it was Burroughs, and another pulp-era author whose works I've "outgrown"–Conan creator Robert E. Howard–who taught me how to write fight scenes.

So I'll honor the memories, and I'll enjoy repeated viewings of the unfairly maligned (and poorly titled) John Carter. Especially for the sword-wielding Lynn Collins.


But I won't be cracking the books themselves again.

How about you? Feel free to weigh in in the comment section, and tell us which books from your childhood have or have not stood the test of time for you, and why?

See you in two weeks!


01 May 2019

Lefty Propaganda


Nervous panelist in the Green Room, striving for wisdom.
by Robert Lopresti

As promised two weeks ago, I am providing here a collection of wise words from authors (and a few editors... see if you can spot 'em) who served as panelists at Left Coast Crime back in March.  You may remember that I have done this at past mystery hootenannies. 

As always, if anyone feels I misquoted them I would be happy to correct it.  If you would prefer to deny being there at all, I take all major credit cards.

Regrettably, all the context for these comments were lost in a tragic canoeing accident.  (Turns out moose can't paddle.  Who knew?)  Okay: wisdom commencing.


"This book is set in the 1590s.  Totally different from the 1580s." - Kenneth Wishnia

"This novel is set in San Diego.  There's a lot of beer in it." - Lisa Brackmann

"I think everyone in Scotland is funny.  I just moved to California so I could get paid for it."- Catriona McPherson

"I can't possibly write something serious, because I don't want to read it." -E.J. Copperman

"A first draft is crap by definition." -Laurie R. King

"In my second book I forgot to include a murder." - Cynthia Kuhn

"I avoid people as much as possible."  - Timothy Hallinan

"I picked Mumbai as a setting the way you would pick a lover." -Sujata Massey

"I had a great time writing it because I got to do a lot of research into the Texas taco scene." -Meg Gardiner

"Don't the spaceships always land in Pittsburgh?" - S.J. Rozan

"What could be more noir than Iowa?" -Priscilla Paton

"I wrote a book that many dozens of people read." - G.M. Malliet

"I once got into an argument with George Clooney about Janet Jackson's breasts." - Kellye Garrett

"The way I know that I really love a book is I lose time in it." - Chantelle Aimée Osman

"If you write novellas, write science fiction." - Kate Thornton

"This is actually true.  I got it off the internet." - Ovidia Yu

"It's not particularly funny if someone is behind you with a gun.  But if the gun has a hair trigger and the guy has the hiccups...." -Timothy Hallinan

"I have my thought back." - Judy Penz Sheluk

"I don't want to love your book as much as you do because if I do I'll be blind to what needs to be changed." - Chantelle Aimée Osman


"The subject of furry novels is a thing." - Lisa Alber

"Me and God talk.  We go way back."  - Laurie R. King

"Hit the spellcheck button.  My fifth grader can find it." -Stacy Robinson

"If you get in the 150,000 word range, go do something else for a while." - Kate Thornton

"You never had a blog critic or a Kirkus review like a defense lawyer whose client you're sending to prison." -James L'Etoile

"When you call a police officer and say you want to research guns, you have to preface it in a certain way." - Judy Penz Sheluk

 "I call myself a book therapist." - Zoe Quinton

"Our experiences are all of our senses." - Elena Hartwell

"I'm delighted to still be living in a country that puts a U in humour." - D.J. Wiseman

"There are a lot worse things to believe in than God." -Suzanne M. Wolfe


"Most of the criminals I work with don't read." -James L'Etoile

"I can bang a short story out in eighteen months." - Kate Thornton

"If you're writing about someplace you don't live, make the protagonist a visitor." - Elena Hartwell

"When I started writing police procedurals I found it was very therapeutic, because you can kill your boss." -Robin Burcell

"Then an auditor dies under mysterious circumstances, the best circumstances to die under." -John Billheimer

"If you have someone speaking in an accent in a mystery, call it literary." - Kate Thornton

"I studied comparative religion, which made sense because I am comparatively religious." -Laurie R. King

"One thing I love about writing about small towns is that I can legitimately have cell phones not work." - Elena Hartwell

"You can do research forever, because you don't have to write while you're doing research." - S.J. Rozan

"I lived in England for five years and I did not want to leave.  I was not forced to leave, I might add." -G.M. Malliet

"I was so good at living in California I could have moved to Portland." - Catriona McPherson

"It is really funny to go in a bar with six cops, because they're always going to want their backs to the wall, and there aren't that many walls." - R.T. Lawton



"The only thing better than holding a book is holding a book with your name on it." - Kate Thornton

"You have to be willing to give me your darling and know I will slash it to ribbons." - Stacy Robinson

"I'm exactly like my hero except she's young, tall, and has hands big enough to hold a gun right." - T.K. Thorne

"After  every first draft the flame goes out." -James L'Etoile

"You see those people wearing shirts that say I Love New York and it tells you they are not from New York." -Vinnie Hansen

"I'm a psychotherapist.  I heal by day and kill by night." - Bryan Robinson

"A short story needs to have one point and your reader needs to get it right through the heart." - Kate Thornton

"Morris dancing is next, right after the sex." - Jeffrey Siger

"I think there probably is humor in heaven, or earth wouldn't look like this." - Ovidia Yu

"I have the right to remain silent."  - R.T. Lawton

30 April 2019

To Flash or Not to Flash


by Paul D. Marks

Jorge Luis Borges
Flash Fiction seems to be very popular these days. It’s short, it’s punchy. It usually ends with a twist.

I haven’t written much flash fiction, really one story.  Fade Out at Akashic’s Mondays Are Murders: http://www.akashicbooks.com/fade-out-by-paul-d-marks/

But one of my favorite short stories of all time can be considered flash fiction: Jorge Luis Borges’ Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths. This parable hit me hard when I first read it. And I read it over from time to time.

I think it runs about a page, maybe a page and a half. Because it’s so short, I wanted to print the whole story here, but because of copyright concerns I’m not going to. So here’s what Wikipedia says about it – Spoiler Alert:

“A Babylonian king orders his subjects to build him a labyrinth ‘so confusing and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way.’ When an Arab king visited his court, the king of Babylon told him to enter the labyrinth in order to mock him. The Arab king finally got out and told the Babylonian that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance.’ The Arab king returned to his land, and launched a successful attack on the Babylonians, finally capturing the Babylonian King. The Arab tied him on a camel and led him into the desert. After three days of riding, the Arab reminds the Babylonian that he tried to make him lose his way in his labyrinth and says that he will now show him his, ‘which has no stairways to climb, nor door to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.’ He then untied the Babylonian king, ‘and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst...’”

It ends on the line, “Glory to the Living, who dieth not.” Yeah, the one who does not dieth gets the glory all right.

The irony of the ending gets me every time and it’s not like it’s a chore to re-read it because, well, because it’s so damn short.

I think what this story illustrates is that flash fiction can boil down the essence of a short story into a very small space. And what you end up with is the essential ingredients to what I think every short story, novella and novel must have. And what are these elements: a beginning, middle and end. Intriguing characters, a brief set up of the situation, a twist or turning of the tables, a conclusion and most importantly, a point.

Have you ever had a friend that starts to tell you a story and never seems to get to the punchline? At the end of their speech they say something like “well I forget the point I was trying to make.” Isn’t that frustrating? Well the same thing happens in short stories. An acquaintance once asked me to read a story they wrote and while the writing was technically good (grammar, punctuation, descriptions, etc… all well-written) the story never got to the point. It just meandered about, so and so meeting so and so and they went to such and such a place and did this and said that. Nothing ever happened and I was bored. I know that some schools of thought believe this is what literary writing should be ;-) . Just slice of life and the writing and descriptions are all that matter, but I just don’t get it. I understand that some stories are more subtle in the way they evolve, but in my humble opinion (and maybe it’s just my personal taste) I want something to happen and I want to feel a sense of the character having been changed or seeing something in a new way.


The most successful stories come to a point. There is a climax and a conclusion, sometimes an irony or a lesson, though not a preachy one. Sometimes the fulfillment of some quest or goal, but always a point. Borges’ story makes a very ironic and clear point while telling a tale of revenge. Now if the Arab King just invited the Babylonian king to his palace and murdered him, would you feel satisfied?


So, while I’m not personally into writing flash fiction on a regular basis, I see the benefits. It can help you hone your craft and learn to build stories that are lean, spare and pithy, and that can ultimately help you write a more compelling longer story or novel. It is the story/novel stripped down to its bare bones.

What do you think?

PS – Other favorite Borges stories include, The Circular Ruins and The Garden of the Forking Paths.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

My short story House of the Rising Sun and lots of other great stories are in Switchblade - Issue 9, available on Amazon (Kindle version) now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QW5GVZF. The paperback version to follow in May.



GoodReads Giveaway: I'm giving away 10 signed paperback copies of my Shamus Award-Winning novel White Heat. Hurry, the giveaway ends on May 1st. Click here to enter to win: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/291413-white-heat



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

29 April 2019

The Way We Talk, etc.


by Steve Liskow

Back in the early eighties, I dated a social worker who worked at a clinic dealing with hardcore juvenile offenders. Her colleagues regarded her as a walking miracle for her ability to connect with kids who had severe issues of all kinds: emotional, behavioral, learning, you name it. She could get them to talk to her and reveal information they wouldn't tell anyone else, and she often put them on the path to recovery.

I taught at an inner-city school where a lot of my students had the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree, and I asked her how she could do what she did. She told me about a book by Bandler and Grinder called The Magic of Rapport. I find that title by Jerry Richardson on Amazon now, and other books by Bandler and Grinder, but the book I read forty years ago seems to be out of print. I'm sure Richardson's book covers the same material.

Briefly, people process information in one of three ways, and they prefer one over the others.

Roughly 75% of all people are VISUAL, which means they learn by "seeing" or "watching." Show them a diagram or picture, act something out, and they will grasp and retain what you what them to know. This is why teacher write on the board and why PowerPoint has become so popular.







Another 10 to 15% are AUDITORY. These people understand what they are told and can process verbal instructions well. Unfortunately, even though it's a small portion of the population, it's an overwhelming majority of TEACHERS, which is why you may have sat through classes with instructors who lectured you to death.




The rest of us are KINESTHETIC. They learn a skill by practicing it over and over and handling the objects in question, literal "hands-on" teaching. They may retain information by remembering the sensations during an activity: temperature, smell, or even their emotional response to what happened.

Thanks to that girlfriend whom I haven't seen in decades, I started experimenting with this information. Professional development workshops on the concept, called "Perceptual Modes," began to appear in my school system in the mid to late 1990s--fifteen years later.

You can see why the concept could be important in the classroom, but I use them in writing, too.

"How?" you ask with bated breath (I get this reaction a lot. I put it down to my dynamic presentations).

Well, people tell or show their preferred mode through their behavior. They way they talk, stand, or move all give you clues, and you can use the traits to make your fictional characters more varied and specific. The concept helps you create more personalized dialogue, too.

Let me SHOW you how (see the visual cue there?).

VISUAL people tend to dress neatly and have good posture. They look at you when you speak.
When they talk, they tend to use visual metaphors, too. They'll say "That LOOKS like a good idea."

Auditory people often tilt their head when they listen to you. They may speak more softly and they would state the idea above as "That SOUNDS good," or maybe even refer to music or harmony. These people gravitate to professions where listening is a valued skill: teaching, translating, sound recording, social work.

KINESTHETIC people are at home with their bodies. They may (not always) appear a little heavy, but they move gracefully. They value comfort and often dress more casually (I, for example, almost always have my sleeves rolled up). Many of them are dancers, athletes, or actors. They are empathetic (care-givers) and may touch you while they talk. Many of them hold an object to ground themselves. Remember Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny? I often unconsciously twirled my wedding ring or a ballpoint pen during class discussions.

Kinesthetic people can sense the atmosphere and moods of other people in a room. They're aware of senses beyond sight, often noticing the temperature or a smell that nobody else does. They will say "That FEELS like a good idea" and learn quickly from mistakes. They seldom read instructions, but they are the actors who can use "Sense Memory" and "Emotional Recall" to rehearse a scene or develop a character in a play.

Beth Shepard, Zach Barnes's girlfriend in my Connecticut series, is kinesthetic. She's gorgeous but prefers to dress casually. She's a former dancer and high school majorette, very in touch with her body. I gave her contact lenses because she's legally blind without them. Someday, I may let her have lasik surgery.

Zach Barnes is auditory. We know that because he's a good listener. One of my books hinges on his hearing a clue in conversation that nobody else "heard."

Zach's friend and and researcher, Svetlana Melanova Thirst, is kinesthetic, too. She's sinfully sybaritic, and a self-taught computer hacker. She learned by doing.

I also use this information in my dialogue workshops. If you have five people in a scene and they all are visual (the most common perceptual mode), you need more speech tags to help the reader keep track of who's speaking. On the other hand, if a man and a woman are visual, another man is auditory, and the last man and woman are kinesthetic, their speaking styles may be all you need.

"It looks to me like the butler did it." Tome leered at Pam's perfect latex ensemble.

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Pam admired the cut of Tom's jodhpurs and winked back. ("Seems" is the passive version of "look," too)

"Sounds wrong to me," Walt said, leaning toward the window where he thought the butler and maid were eavesdropping.

"It doesn't feel right to me, either." Jack rubbed his fingers over the blood-stained carpet.

"Something smells fishy to me, too." Patty scratched her nose and walked around the room, picking up the various heavy objects that might have bludgeoned Mr. Corpus to death.

A few years later, I stumbled on The Art of the Possible by Dawna Markova, which expands the original concept to show how people use all three modes, but in different combinations. The writing is less than lyrical, but it can help you understand how different types of thought processes will develop an idea or behavior. That book was the first one that proved many of my apparent inconsistencies really make sense.

My wife still doesn't think that's true.

Now for the BSP: My story "Par for the Corpse" appears in the first April issue of Tough.

And congratulations to Art Taylor, who won the Edgar Award last Thursday for best short story.