clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Better Mousetrap

Old reliable, at left.

"The better mousetrap" is a euphemism for an improved version of the un-improvable. Our friend at left is an example: he works and works cheaply. Oh, and you don't have to empty its litterbox.

I'm having some doubts this week as I write something humorous in premise. It has a farcical nature and as such isn't "serious writing." It bothers me a bit.

It is easy for the fanciful to become trivial. I'm setting the story in a mad scientist colony and so, the trite and cliched stereotype is always a danger. There has to be a touch of the familiar without a slathering of the expected.

It is harder than it looks to take a setting, a premise, a character and do something new.

The locked room mystery? Bah. It isn't really as locked as you think.

The rain swept back alley? Probably not where the Toastmasters are hosting their latest gathering.

I'm working on it. I've got some serious changes to consider from the first draft. I'm introducing vermin: synthetic vermin. (Real vermin are too filthy for my particular nefarious mad scientist.)

I'm off to write. You should be too.

If you see anything moving along the baseboards out of the corner of your eye tonight, just ignore it.

Fifteen Below

It's fifteen below zero here.

I've been grinding on a story and the blog completely slipped my mind.

I'll catch up this evening.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Ar left, an orchid from a photograph of Roberto Takase.

Orchids are hybridized through the exposure to powerful mutagens. Some of these are herbicides. 2,4-D is useful.

Others are produced by cross-breeding using methods Mendel would understand.

The mutations of interest tonight are those drafts of stories we produce. Sometimes, a draft contains almost all of the original story. Sometimes it contains so much that it can hardly be called a "re-write" but is an edit.

Then, we have those vastly different stories: those that started at A and ended up at Z. For my own part, I'm facing one of these now. Characters will remain. Almost everything else will change.

I really don't know why the impulse comes along to so drastically alter a work I might have slaved over for two or three weeks. I read it again and know that there are so many less-optimal choice that's I'd rather recast the story than try to fiddle with the bits.

I have one of those in my hands that makes a better novel than short story. I'd rather change the conflict and primary arc to solve some structural problems than try desperately to reshape what is a premise for a much longer work.

So, it's still coaching a bloom. Sometime, we need the heavy stuff. Sometimes we need story 2,4-D.

Better to take the set-back of a re-cast than try to live with ill-fitting decisions. If it takes more than three pages to fix one part of the the story, maybe it isn't due for a "rephrasing" but a recast.

So, drop you petal and get ready for the bath. Mutations aren't all bad. Thumbs worked out pretty good after all. My foxhound would  trade for them even up.

I hope you're writing. No way to bloom without a healthy dose of fertilizer and man, we can write fertilizer like it's going out of style.

I'm off to write - and scheme - some more. I hope you do the same.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


At left Peenemunde: a secret base used to launch weapons against the British civilian population in WWII.

Allies used bombers against the wartime industry in Germany (i.e. civilians) but we call the targets "industrial centers of production" because the allies won.

Tonight: secrets.

Secrets are revealed either because of the use of the secret or because people involved serve themselves instead of the secret.

How do you keep a secret? Don't tell anyone.

How do you keep a secret from being told? Kill everyone who knows it.

Now, several books have used this premise successfully. A killer is hunting down everyone who knows a secret and its up to the detective to determine the pattern ultimately but discovering the secret. Amusing.

We are writers. What if we can find a story in the secret itself?

I love mad scientists. I'm cannot claim to be one (the scientist part) but I work on the engineering side as it were...I apply scientific knowledge in a way to create meaning and use. It's fun. It's engaging. It keeps people from asking "what is it you do again?" at parties.

No, I'm suggesting here we use the literary device of a secret and keep it a secret. Don't tell the reader. They don't have to know.

That's right, no big "reveal." Sure find the murderer. Absolutely track down where the bodies might have gone.

The underlying causation? Maybe it doesn't matter.I'm not suggesting the old saw of "he's evil" as motivation. I'm suggesting that you the writer know the whole story but you don't have to tell it to a reader.

Here's what I've got in the hopper. I've a family whose patriarch is indeed a mad scientist and works in a lab - his own - in a complex 19 stories beneath the Empire State building. I'm not telling the reader why a lab is in lower Manhattan. I'm not clarifying who might fund such an endeavor. I'm starting with "I know and you don't" and going from there. The setting is fantastic and the convoluted process of character evolution is amusing. I won't however reveal the mythology behind the existence. Sometimes, there are things a reader doesn't know.

By not telling the reader the whole business (which I do know) , I'm focusing on the parts of the story I want to make clear: The heroine. The conflict arcs. The transformative nature of the characterization.

Why do the character live near the lab? Why does the lab have to be here instead of a warehouse in New Jersey? Why are mad scientists at large?

Live with it. The facts are called secrets. You don't get to know them all. You get to know what I'll tell you. If I do it right, that's enough.

Now, I'm off to the secret lair to write. You should head that way, too.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Warning Orders

At left, a good breakfast. It's the sort of thing you need if you're going to hit the beach and craft some serious fiction.

A warning order is the preparation instruction that advises a subordinate force of possible action and the commander's intent in anticipation of a mission. Often it includes information about suspected opposition, supporting elements and their disposition, and clarifies command relationships.

Sometimes it says you're going over the wall first. That little bit is called a "forlorn hope." Reading it in a warning order produces a particular type of digestive discomfort, so I'm told.

Writers use warning orders, too.

Sometimes we do it through foreshadowing. Subtle foreshadowing might be mentioning that three generations of a policemen in a protagonist's family have been killed in the line of duty and so the reader is prepared you're going to put this fellow through some terrible ordeal.

Digression ...

I know I call it subtle - though it is ham-handed to a smart reader - because it is a lot better than the hackneyed "dream" foretelling doom. When I was an advance reader for a (then) B- grade literary journal, every stack came with at least one "dream" involvement of some sort and foreshadow was the most frequent. You wouldn't think so, would you?

There's a great piece of lore about amphibious assaults in WWII which says that the Navy always fed the troops well - steak and eggs and the like - before sending them to some crab-infested paradise to slaughter other men. I have a friend that loves to serve a protagonist breakfast before shooting him. He doesn't do it anymore, but he loves it. I like it too, though I can't pull it off either.

Back at it ... here->

My point which is completely lost above is that we occasionally are going to do something horrible and so we need to prepare our readers.


We cannot write chapter two with a lovely young ballerina murdered, flayed, and hung in two halves on stage like a bisected Christ-on-the-Cross when our chapter one encounter with the antagonist has him yelling at a meter-maid as his culminating act. You'll lose the audience. You haven't prepared them. I know some of you are saying "Hell yes, I can cut the girl apart" and I guess my response is "yes - you can, in your unpublished diddling."

Now, you have the protagonist visit the antagonist on Plum Island (here) in full-body restraint and ask him about "Buzzsaw Bill," then have the antagonist escape and kill the ballerina for sport. We were prepared. You gave us a warning order : ohhh, man in full-body restraint is scary bad. I'll leave the lights on as I read the next chapter.

I know I will hear from friends on this who say "telegraphing breaks the shock and my writing is about shock!"

Yes, shock is good. Completely skin-blistering non-sequitur events are bad. They're bad for readers. Fiction is an emotional journey. Nobody likes their spouse looking up from Christmas Breakfast and declaring they're leaving you in an hour for the milkman and St. Croix.

Non-sequitur events are literary nuclear detonations. When does that mark a good day?


Look! Spooky house. Happy family moving in. Oh, there were murders in the house says the neighbor? Won't matter, will it? Then, shock. Little girl stuffed in the oven and roasted like an oversize Thanksgiving turkey? Wow, surprising. Didn't see that horrendous image coming.

Did suspect though ...did suspect (already left the lights on despite hubby whining as he tried to sleep).

If we surprise our readers within reason: great.

There are implicit rules on how big a story gap the reader can jump. Horror genre? Huge gap. Nearly superhuman abilities.

Cozy mystery? Somebody better build a ramp down the curb if you expect that story to go out.

If you give a little warning order, you get to do more with style and panache without setting an editor's hair on fire.

Jack's Chekhov rule: show me the homemade flamethrower in chapter one before you take it to the family reunion in chapter three.

Oh, and don't expect the antagonist to spend any scenes checking his mailbox for the rest of the book. This sort of plot device really cuts down on newsletter updates from her Aunt Marge.

Now, I'm warning you that I'm going to go and write.

You should be preparing to do the same. Habituate yourself to the desk in the laundry room so you don't surprise the dog when you start typing. Write something.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Life

A great day today. At left, my favorite bookstore from a photograph taken by Dwight Burdette.

I indulged in a great literary day.

I rose late. Walked the foxhound. Cooked a breakfast. Plotted.

Went to my local coffee shop (which makes a great pot of tea) in anticipation of meeting some friends. It was a glorious morning and a solid working session.

I walked the foxhound again and headed into town where I spent an afternoon talking books with a writer friend and late, with the owner of this great bookshop above. How many people in the world can one have a conversation with regarding Roman desert forts and outposts? Who really appreciates the evolution between the maniple and cohort legions?

I ended with a dinner of German food with a writer friend where we discussed an outstanding character he has in the wings. Simply a great character.

Then, home and a second working session.

Glorious day. Better than vacation. Oh, the foxhound wagged and gave me a little howl when I came home.

I'm off to write some notes that when fulfilled will make readers wag. At least, I hope they refrain from howling.

I'll write the notes before bed. You should, too.

Prayers? - well, every man his own God. Mine comes from a pen.

Friday, February 21, 2014


At left, rain. The preferred setting enhancement in 9 of 10 detective fiction novels.

It's a bit of vogue now to comment that "the setting was like another character as it contributed so much to the novel."

I say bullshit.

The setting didn't contribute anything but what the setting contributes. The atmosphere the author created in reflecting the setting through the actions and reactions of the characters did something.

Let's try something. A bit of prose:

There was a downpour outside on Rue Cler so Marie couldn't run for long. She tried anyway.

The sentence above almost writes itself. You figure you are in Paris ( a very upscale part of Paris for those in the know).  There's a woman and rain. We're missing a film crew and a chasing boyfriend. Seriously, the line writes itself. She could be out for some conditioning so we need more - but the setting is doing its job already.

But, it lacks. We don't have the atmosphere.

We have to be careful - because over-writing is a key consequence of trying to force atmosphere. Let's try a couple alternatives: this first time with atmosphere and clumsy handling.

Rue Cler blurred for Marie as she left infatuation for the last time, again. She edged a hundred steps into her sprint before her ragged breath, her soaked shoes, and the crying sky all begged her to seek new shelter. From under an awning, she looked up the street now alone in Paris.

Pretty close to being hideously overdone. I haven't the florid language skill of being able to pull off poetic description and so the effort is heavy. It's sodden in a way itself. Certainly it is more than halfway overdone though we added lots of atmosphere, story, and a flavor of the three hundred pages of horrendous writing to follow.

Now, a sharper approach.

Marie careened through the lobby and out the door of her now former building running into the street. The awning she stopped under down the Rue Cler hid her from the rain while through her frantic steps the rain hid her tears. She looked around. She stood alone but in Paris.

Perhaps too clever but we know we're in Paris, we have a woman "running out" on a life, crying. The language is cleaner though it has done the job with atmosphere. We made the rain an ally. We haven't emotionally cast the woman as a victim. We're in Paris and its the best place to be: "but in Paris."

It's a subtle difference isn't it? In Paris with rain is the setting. Still somewhat clumsy in the last version but our last words "She stood alone but in Paris" gave us the perspective of the atmosphere.

She's in exactly the same spot and all three scenes could describe the very same course of events.

Our language in the most recent used atmosphere - and its emotional draw - to enhance our story. In another version, we used it to wallow.

In the first, we told the same story absent any effort to create atmosphere at all. I like it best because I like Marie when "she tried anyway." I like that in a character. Didn't do well for an atmosphere and this essay is about ...the atmosphere.

While I understand what is meant, I'd rather put the all the "character" into those one the page with legs. That's me. I'm not a setting guy. I'm a character guy.

But we've covered the point.

Setting is shit. Atmosphere is everything - even in its absence.

Now, go to your setting and write. I will.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stay On Target

At left, a 7x64 Mannlicher Schonauer rifle with single trigger. Hemingway used its cousin (double set trigger) in Africa. It is a fine shooting rifle.

Beats the Model 700 all to hell.

So, today we're talking about staying on target.

You all remember the big scene from Star Wars of the fighter group diving into the trench on the bombing run and Dutch saying "Stay on target.....stay on target" before blowing up? Well, don't go and watch the thing again. I did a couple weeks back and it doesn't age well at all. The theatrical release is jumpy, inconsistent in edits, and campy as hell. Surprise.

We do need to swoop into the canyon and stay on target without blowing up, though. Elizabeth Craig has a great piece on outlining vs. seat-of-the-pants over on her blog here.  I really liked the essay and suggest you read it too.

There is a danger in planning too thoroughly that you kill spontaneity and your own joy. (my words not hers). There is a danger in not planning enough that you won't survive the crafting process through the draft and finish .... unfinished. Do any of us really need another great unfinished manuscript hanging about? Really?

So, how do we stay on target?

I can speak of what I've found: day notes.

Even if I don't work on a piece, I spend fifteen minutes to a half-hour (coffee helps) thinking about where I am, what I like about that, where I need to go, and what the characters are perceiving that maybe I didn't understand initially as I was drawing on the wall like a graffiti artist in the middle of the night. [ Hi Hart ! I had boys, too]. I have a sheet of paper around, usually fill it with notes.

Sometimes I use full sentences. Sometimes I use arrows and such that later I look at them and say WTF?

The point is: I'm thinking about the WIP, loading it into my mind and giving myself a chance to have something happen I didn't think was possible before I started. The notes? I have source for later.

I'm working in three ring binders for a story right now so I punch holes and keep the longhand, the notes, and any other source all together in the binder. Unlike Mitt, I don't seem to have binders and binders of women. I do have binders and binders of lies, deceit, murder, and other nefarious activities.

I outline before I start. The outline has a good deal of prose in it and the whole business represents that first telling of a story: the one we all have to just survive so we can revise and improve. Thank you, Ron Carlson. (book here : Ron Carlson Writes a Story.

I keep day notes every day of a work I am pounding away at on a draft. I give myself permission to move away from the original story if inspiration tells me something works better. I'll do that even when I'm cutting the first prose draft and haven't written even one version true to the outline.

I give myself permission to make considered departures. That's the key: I make considered departures because the rational part of my writer's brain has made reflective judgments as to the worth of those departures.

I move between inspiration (pants) and the outline in successive drafts because I've told the story a couple of times. I have confidence in the narrative to change it, change characters, change actions.

My method is a synthesis between the pantser and outliner.

Sounds sexy when I say it that way.

Now, I'm off to stop talking about writing and do some of it. I've a draft within measurable distance of the end tonight (Orwell, 1984 ) and before I'm forced to journey to room 101, I'm going to finish.

Try the outline. Have it record those important pieces that cement the scenes together. Then give yourself permission to move away from that outline even in the first draft when you have made some considered reflective judgments about alternatives that work better for you.

I read something today that I think came from an after-action of Thrillerfest and Anne Rice: Write the story you want.

I couldn't say it any better. After all the work this stuff is, to be happy in our work is to write the stories we want. If splitting the difference between pantsing and outlining helps: good. It's a target that is easy to follow.

It's something to think about, after you're done writing.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Scene of a Crime

A pint's a pound the world around ... and police tape is universal.

I'm working on the next project. I thought I'd share a little of its opening. It's just a bit of fun. The opening chapter will run quite differently but the chance to write a "movie trailer" first few paragraphs is too much fun to let stand tonight.


Murder disrupts any retirement community. Bodies discovered on a lanai behind the house have only slightly less impact than a corpse near the tee box on number three with a seven iron driven into its skull.

The normal reaction of a community involves grief, anger, and fear. When the victim is a resident of Katmandu, the exclusive island enclave inhabited by the best parts of The Hague's most wanted list, then normal doesn't apply.

The danger of one killing isn't that the residents might barricade themselves inside their estate villas until safety is assured. The danger is that the sharks smelling blood might decide to settle scores.

None of the guests earned their titular honorific of "for life" lightly. Toril Macamba, Interim President for Life of Ilmatustan earned it twice.

The loss of civil control in a community of the world's most dangerous tyrants might cause them to abandon retirement, however it was previously enforced. A return to the world could mean the death of millions of their former countrymen in revenge killings and ethnic cleansing. More probably, it could mean the end of the successful financing stream for Katmandu's most innovative management team.

Despot Island needs an authority with the guile and cunning and surgical ruthlessness to manage its special population. Mobutu's death rules out an obvious choice. There might be another if founder Emil Haberer can convince him to abandon the day job.

 Despot Island: a novel of murderers in paradise.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Happy Cruising !

At left, the Turbina. She was an early turbine powered boat used to demonstrate the new technology. At the time of this photo, she was the fastest thing afloat.

We writers bitch and moan and whine about the difficulties we have. I'm guilty.

We commiserate in the frustration and the tortured artist syndrome that results from our pursuit.

Take a minute and breathe. You are creating something from nothing. You're engaging in the very act of storytelling with which the famed Homer kept Greeks occupied all these years ago. You are writers. It is what you chose.

I'm here this evening just exhausted from a day of too many calls and business opportunities and technical issue and ... and I'm going to write. I have three pages of notes from a dull call at the start of my day and a page of notes from my first coffee this morning. I've looked forward to this time all day long.

I'll finish this post, take Louis Foxhound out for a brief walk in the snow, and correct a scene that went badly when I gave it too many words without direction and purpose.

We write. Some publish. Some sell. But we all write. There is a glory in that. We chose our own device of torment and the pen is it. How wonderful for us.

Just take a minute and reflect that "I wanted to be writer." You are - provided you are writing. If you aren't working on something, you're wanking. Stop that and pick up a pen.

We are ourselves boats on a sea of ink whose headings are of our own choosing.

That's pretty wonderful when all is said and done, isn't it?

Now, walk the foxhound then write something. There's a nice pot of tea all cozy warm waiting to keep you at it.

When you're stepping out, think "I am a writer" and try smiling. You only have to do it once.

You can go back to the sullen-faced puzzling over which point of view to use after that single concession. I said for you to glory in being a writer. I didn't say to be a tormented Russian writer.

Now, go write something. I will.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Know This

This is the first of a monthly series this year to share bits of what I know. The caveat is that while I am a very good student, you'll not see me on the podium this spring receiving accolades or awards.

"Struggling" best describes my efforts and - for those of you who do occasionally read this - struggling with myself is a large part of the battle.

Today: What We Like.

I want you to venture back with me over the past six months: what did you read that you enjoyed: that you liked?

Now, as writers we have a fair bit of required reading. Reading about our idols. Reading in our genre. Reading about the industry. Reading for pleasure.

What did you read this past six months that you enjoyed? Thinking of that?

Now - fiction. Let's just focus on the fiction. Got it? Pieces of fiction you read that you very much enjoyed?

Got it in mind?

Let's reflect on the why.

Did the author grab you in the opening with a twist you haven't read fifty times before?

Did the characterization displayed on the opening speak to you? Empathy for the protagonist?

Did you recognize the conflict for the convoluted ball of wildcats you couldn't see through?

Did the language compliment the story?

Were you given an orientation in the first fifty pages that allowed you understand what was at risk, the potential reward, the human cost and some of the implications of the obvious solutions and why those were resisted?

Maybe I'm wrong here, but in the pieces I enjoyed most, these factors above rang for me in each story arc.

I cared.

I was caught up in the conflict. I couldn't conceive for myself of a clear path to the other side because of the changing landscape. The sense of risk for the protagonist remained real and immediate. I knew what they wanted and I knew why they weren't going to get it anytime soon without real work, sacrifice, and probably scarring.

Look at your own pieces. As the author, do you care? Have you painted the conflict as a ball of wildcats (i.e. complimentary risks and contradictory opposition)? Have you adequately portrayed the shifting landscape that prevents the protagonist from picking a clear path across the river of doom?

I like multiple risks. I like character vulnerabilities that require negotiated resolution. I like the "process" to be present in the protagonist. I like to ride along in the chain of sometimes thwarted solutions to the tactical obstacles all of which have strategic implications.

I like the opposition to be multi-faceted and uncertain.

I like ambiguous risk-reward where we don't know the surety in the choice's outcomes when the character makes an informed decision.

Does any of this resonate with you? Are you putting it in your stories?

I'm working at putting it into mine.

I'm writing. You should be as well.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fictive Protection

My friend at left is conscious of how his thoughts can be influenced by outsiders.

Over the course of time it can take to complete a work, so many things can change in our perspective. Our tone and characterization can wander. Sometimes they wander badly.

I've talked to writers who use physical space to maintain consistency. For example, they only work on "the novel" in the same chair in the laundry room after everyone has gone to bed. Or, alternately they only work on "the novel" at the corner table at Z's Espresso on New Hampshire in Lawrence.

I've talked to writers who need the soundtrack - some playlist they've created - to keep the consistent tonal images providing the crutch of stability for the work in progress.

Others do some blow and drink a quart of Jack before working. Well, while they lived that's what they did.

I leave myself little notes. I'm doing well at keeping everything from the WIP in a three-ring binder so re-reading the notes helps each session.

How do I keep consistent? I don't.

The consistency of a piece I'm creating comes from the direction of the outline. The consistency of the tone comes from the final careful re-write. Line edits after the last draft help fix occasional bobbles, too.

I do like the tinfoil hat, though.

I wear it sometimes when I come out of the library to shock the spouse.

"What was I doing? Writing."

I never mention the skullcap of Reynolds Wrap. Adds to the mystique.

I recommend them to everyone I know that asks "how's it going?" Really cuts down on those sorts of inquiries after a while. "How is it going" is my least favorite writerly inquiry.  We all know it is going like shit except for the occasional book launch party or Pulitzer dinner.

So, tinfoil hats on. March to the kitchen. Get a large glass of water. Sit your ass back down in the chair. Write. Give it a good three hours.


Block the world's intrusion and write something. You'll be surprised how one good medium-sized sheet of foil can really help in that.

Try it at the coffee shop. Write about how it goes. Call it "fictive disguise" if anyone asks. They probably won't so, don't get your hopes up.

But, you'll be writing then, won't you?

Thursday, February 13, 2014


At left, tea. You'll need it. Make a cup now. I'll wait.

A klaxon in my professional field is a loud warning device to tell the operator that something horrendously bad requires immediate attention.

Sometimes a klaxon is augmented by verbal instructions. "Pull UP. Pull UP" is my favorite.

I made a terrible mistake today. A couple days go I wrote about a sound track alluding to background music at a release party. [ I also forgot to mention "Watching the Detectives" from Elvis Costello. Must be on the list. Must].

Today, I consulted Google for images of the search phrase:  "release party."

I know. And look - before you go and do it. Don't. Just. Don't.

If you're reading this, you write. You have friends. You might get some at a release party. Sympathy buys for your book maybe? Maybe.

I write murder. There just won't be a ton of people at my release party.

I finished a story last month in the "literary fiction" genre about a fifteen year old boy learning to kill by convincing two of his friends to drown themselves. Not really getting a parade for that piece. Might get in Tin House - but not a parade.

If you write kiddie lit or happy stories about collie dogs who find their way back to Timmy, great. I love those stories,too. I bet your release party will be awesome. Go ahead, look it up on Google.

If you left a dismembered body in the town mulch pile last fall, well. Maybe you can find a buddy and have a piece of pie at the local diner to celebrate.

Looking ahead is a great habit. It keeps us alive behind the controls of tons of steel and aluminum hurtling through space. Looking ahead as a writer with thoughts of joy and celebration: maybe not.

No one is going to cheer that I've killed Blitzen with a lump of coal down his throat. It was however a very funny story. I'll try and get it clean and ready to submit this summer for a Christmas issue of EQ.

We all have different expectations. I bought Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift today. I've not read it. Got him the Nobel prize in '76. He mined all his personal relationships for material.

Write something. Don't look ahead, just write.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Love, Murder, and In Between

At left, a juke box. The one I used to put coins into lived at the Sandbar in Lawrence, Kansas. "Washed up on the Sandbar."

Well, the one I really liked was at The Hawk, but that was too long ago to even dredge into active memory.

I'm collecting songs. Those I'm collecting are really in line with the theme of this blog: deception, murder, infidelity, godlessness.

Suicide Blond? The INXS version, in.

St. James Infirmary?  Wow, so many to love. Billie and Ella both have great versions. I'm going with a raucous cut from The Devil Makes Three.

Little Lies? Fleetwood Mac, in.

Personal Jesus? Oh, yea. Depeche Mode.

You get the idea.

One of these days I'll have a little gathering and I'll want some background. These will do nicely.

Why would I have a gathering? I'd have something to promote. One can dream.

Sound tracks for your big launch party. Your friends will come to one, anyway. It's something to think about.

Now, writing. You too.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Hot Rod Lincoln

I wouldn't call this a hot rod. The continental at left is pretty nice, though.

I'm thinking tonight about how our characters move; how they get around.

It says something about them: their gate, their step, what they drive.

A hitman who travels exclusively by public transportation?  How about a mob boss in a VW beetle: the new ugly kind?  Or a mini?

Every choice matters.

Jimmy walked across the restaurant to meet her; his left foot lagging a little. He never arrived anywhere all at once anymore. 

So, we move them. They stand or sit. They drive or ride. All of these choices have meaning.

Don't let a subtle characterization drift by for the expediency of with the verb "walked"  unless that is exactly the motion you intend.

You wouldn't put a down-on-his-heels detective in a 2014 7-series BMW without reason. You might put him in a convertible MG which idles poorly and whose canvas top looks like a summer camp duct-tape craft project.

Have fun with movement. It isn't just what happens between bits of action.

Now, I'm moved to write. I hope you are as well.

Write something moving.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Fluffy Bunny

At left, the snowshoe hare. Now, I think I have tracks but I've not seen the culprit. A neighbor says he saw one the other night. I ran under one of my spruce trees.

I have to reset the game camera. They're nocturnal and do have a range near here ... near being a couple hundred miles. However, I have their habitat so we'll see.

The fire is going nicely. The foxhound is on the ottoman. I have a sheaf of notes on the "next" re-write of another story and am going to write the last scene of the current story when I finish this post.

I like working on the short stories lately. I like the discipline of outlining fifteen scenes and reducing them to four. I like trying to define what the story's core might be and how to just write that piece. I haven't written with that discipline for a decade now. Wow. Feels odd to say that.

I haven't crafted a story for consumption by exercising any real discipline for a decade.

I'd say I've wasted those years but the truth is I was summoning the courage to finish what I started.

If I didn't submit again, if I didn't query, if I didn't finish a story or a novel then I didn't have anything to go out. I didn't have to confront the fact I wasn't taking the craft seriously. I could just write unfinished bits and say it was just a hold-over. It wasn't anything for which a yardstick of success was involved.

I'm still not sure why that changed.

The reason it changed is because a couple people who mattered to me put in a great deal of effort to cast the "writer" perspective in my meager brain. I don't want to disappoint them.

I'm not sure why the perspective changed.

I've never carried any reluctance to abandon something at the 99% completion point. I've never cared before about disappointing people. I've done both - abandoning efforts and disappointing people - with regularity.

There are a lot of things that don't make sense. Sitting alone here now in front of the fire and writing in order to communicate with a broad audience makes little sense, too. You'd think I'd just talk to people.

"The monologue was his preferred means of discourse."

I think I'll write now. You should as well.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why? Because We Love You

Mickey Mouse. M-I-C, K-E-Y ... you know the rest.

A young school teacher who is a pupil of a friend asked "Oh, what do you write?" I did not introduce myself as a writer but was "outed" by another well-meaning friend.

I answered crime as in murder and deceit and lies and betrayal. I like the aftermath of these things and how they change people.

She stared. "Why write about such horrible things?"

"It's in our nature to harm one another - part of the human condition. As a species, its what we're best at: harm."

Her response? "I believe in non-violence."

It was a social encounter. I let it go.

There is nothing a human cannot be made to do to another human. Now, to make them like it I have to start young.  Nevertheless, their actions to harm can be compelled with the proper motivation.

Sometimes, it takes no external motivation at all. Steak knife in the aorta killed a husband in Detroit just last weekend. Asked his wife where she had been, and she stabbed him. Probably didn't mean for him to bleed out on the kitchen floor - at least not so fast. Nobody put a gun to her head. Nobody held her baby over a boiling pot of water. She did it of her own accord. Married 19 years.

 WW I. It's my favorite war largely because of the terms on which it was fought. Alexander and Caesar and Charlemagne would have recognized the direct close combat for the ritual barbarity it was. They might have been better at it than Foch.

The bar for the justification of harm is very flexible. It moves.

Imagine what someone who actually understands how to motivate individuals to harm can do. Imagine. No Queen's Regulations here.

Write something. Lock the doors, and write something, little ones. We're out there in the dark with out yellow night eyes. Yes. We. Are.

Every one of us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

Sub-Title: That Bitch Crazy.

Autophoto supplies the image at left. 1970 Camaro. If you didn't have one, you knew someone who did.

Alternately, you were born in the wrong decade.

You grew up on 8-bit Nintendo. We didn't even have Mario let alone Super Mario. We had Frogger, Tempest, Joust, Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man. Ate quarters like - well - a parking meter, come to think of it. I might have gotten more time in Pac Man than you get for a quarter in South Bend. Ok, it sucks to be you, still.

Now, on the subject: agents.

You know that hot girl who sat in your Camaro for the last time and said "it's not you, it's me" ? Well, that crazy bitch in a split level in Tulsa was right. It fucking was her. You dodged one there.

I had the occasion to relate the little vignette above to a friend today. Rejection blues. Let's review how the business works.

  1. Agent has to like it (i.e. judge it as 'sellable').
  2. Agent has to have room for it in their portfolio (i.e. judge it as 'sellable').
  3. Agent has to have not signed two other guys in the past six months in the same state as you - debut novelist in genre X (i.e. judge it as 'sellable').
  4. Agent has to believe it will earn out book one and make selling book 2 probable (i.e. judge book 2 as 'sellable').
See the pattern?

It's business. It's dating. Is there only "the one" out there for us? Hell no. However, there is a finite set of possible matches and finding one of those can be difficult. Kiss a lot of frogs, both for the agent and for you.

It is not a reflection on talent, effort or product. It can be; but, it doesn't have to be. Put out good product. Write a fine query letter. Solicit widely. Get a pile of rejection notices. Surprise.

What can you do? Write another book. Continue to solicit. Make sure you didn't commit nitwitery (queue Miss Snark - or just read her archives: all of them!).

Apart from being spiritual adviser to the unrepresented, I met a writer friend today and had a great conversation.

It's always good to talk to another writer. You learn a great deal. My friend has tremendous characters. He's careful with them and uses an organic process to evolve conflict and plot.

It's going to pay off in a huge way. His cast of characters - wonderful. We were talking about one in particular and a great title just rolled off his tongue. That's one of the things I love about writers: the turn of a good phrase.

In this case, the bloody thing was so wonderful (in combination with the character we were discussing) that I wish I had said it. Really, quite a lovely premise, title, and character all rolled in a ball. First class.

I'm trying to get him to write more but there it is. We'd all like to write more even when we have all the time in the world for writing. Support ain't just a river in Egypt - or whatever. Sometimes phrases turn like shit, too.

Finished a tough scene this morning. Saw a bookseller I love. Met with a writer friend. Pretty damn good literary life day.

Oh, I got to use my bit about the hot chick in the Camaro, too. Not bad for a guy who drove a 1-ton GMC flatbed from the dairy whose cows he was milking. Never had the Camaro at that age.

Chicks dig 1-ton GMC flatbeds that smell not-so-vaguely of dairy barn. Oh yea. Hotness on dualies.

Ok. Not so much. I can't stand "the hot chicks." Inevitably, they open their mouth and talk. Doesn't go well for me after that at all. I'm allergic to crazy.

It's why I write.

(Stop Laughing Now).

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Cold

Fighting it for weeks, it finally won this round.

Back when I am less grizzly.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Killing Freeze

At left, Unimog with snowthrower. I could use one of these. We set snow records in January and are on our way to an all-winter record. Five more inches of fun today.

As a crime guy, one of the thing to consider is the dispatch of a victim. A couple of bullets are a handy way to do the job.

Often, we need something more substantial for the plot.

The elements offer a convenient way for someone to kill when they might shy from a pistol or shotgun.


A vehicle is reported abandoned along a sparsely traveled county road. Say, it's on the way to a Christmas tree farm.

I drive near one taking Louis the foxhound to a lovely boarding kennel in the country (indoor heated floors, enclosed run and play yard). He loves it. If I said the words "Animal Camp" right now he'd get up and dance around the floor. I think foxhounds lead the signing lessons. He taught a young german shepherd to howl last fall. Bonus for its owners.

Anyway, country lane, abandoned car, winter. VIN has the vehicle scrapped in Mississippi after the hurricane (pick one). Here it is, though. In a northern state in the middle of winter along side the road. No sign of foul play but it strikes the deputy who goes to see it as odd. He has a locksmith out to punch the trunk lock. Bingo. A body. Frozen - since it's been sub-zero for nearly a week.

Here we have a mystery. Procedural? Sure.

Make the fellow who found the car a local who isn't too interested in police attention. Say he just puts a chain on it and hauls it back to his place to push into an old pit silo which is his private "sanitary landfill." He opens the trunk to get at the spare (farmers love old tires) and he finds the body.

Call the cops? Call the brother-in-law who mustered out of the Army after working on a combined Iraqi-American major crime task force in Fallujah? Do nothing until another car shows up?

You've got options. The frozen corpse gave them to you. Oh, hose it down before it was locked in the trunk so it would more easily meet a weather-related demise: you've got a pretty harsh murder. Good copy in that.

So, while you're out clearing the drive be thinking about what winter brings. Hope when the snow melts, it reveals only grass. You never know.

Write something cold. I will.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Safari !

Hemingway with a nice buffalo. Short stock double in his hand. Looks smallish like .375 H&H ...not like a .416 Rigby. Buffalo with a .375 is a low margin of error shot. Tough guy shooting.

Today, I've roughed out a series of common themed stories. I didn't intend to create a string of ambitious works over breakfast this morning; but, it came to mind and evolved over the course of the day.

Boats - the isolated environment of a hole in the water - figure prominently in the fictional device employed as setting.

Now, concepts are great. Though as I've mentioned before: a story is an emotional journey for the reader.

I'm employing crime in an isolated environment to highlight the emotional response. I'm the guide. I'm taking the reader on an emotional journey to the fictional land they've not visited before. They trust me as their guide.

I better have a damn good compass in the characterization. I'm learning the deft trick of character through action and reaction. That trick is subtlety. I went back and read some LeCarre just to see and indeed, the whole character of Smiley was revealed in his earliest works through the lightest of touch.

I need to sneak up on the reader with my characterization. I don't want to break a twig with a clumsy footfall and ruin immersion.

I'm on safari just like Hemingway. I'm looking to bag a reader. They're damn elusive but luckily always in season.

Off to write the big hunt. Advice? Use enough gun.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Writerly Sins

I'm a boat guy. There, I've said it.

The one at left isn't mine. Might be, but I need to be able to see that much money floating on the water every day. I can't lay it up on the Gulf, then fly down once-in-a-while. I still work for a living.

Writers have a lot of writerly sins: pursuits and passions that do them no good turn. Boats are one of mine.

But what of crime writing and boats?

Natalie Wood. She went for a swim in a down jacket and boots and didn't manage the backstroke too well. It was 1981 and the headlines interested me. I followed the reports. I didn't really know Natalie Wood as an actress. Her husband was much more famous to my generation.

The whole image of a woman, at night, on a boat, ill-dressed (nightgown, boots, jacket), drinking and falling over brought all sorts of possibilities for foul play.

What happened? There's an official report based on statements at the time. Good enough for me.

But, the image always presents me with the thought of crime. Boats do that to me. I think of murder every time I step on one. I think it is the small confined world that works on my mind. When people can't get away from one another, someone dies.

I love that about boats: such great material.

Did I mention Christopher Walken was on the boat that night? If there was ever a guy to vote "most likely to be on a boat when someone dies," it'd be Walken for me. Suicide Kings : great movie. Deer Hunter, too.

"Ira, you are the man."

Anchors aweigh. There is malice afoot on deck.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Give 'Em What You Want

At left: meat.

I'm a content guy. I like plots. I love a nice piece of meat.

It's not enough. For every great plot I compose, I need even greater characters in the story.

Telling a story in a bar: that's plot. Making the pitch to investors: that's character.

It isn't enough that superbauble is the first like it on the market and will revolutionize the widget industry. Investors want to know your team has what it takes to move from the idea of superbauble to the actuality of market domination at a price point yielding maximum profits.

Readers are investors. You get to give them whatever you want.

You give them plots, they'll buy it for the airplane. Maybe.

You give them character and plots, they'll buy it for bedtime reading. They'll be evangelists. They'll tell their friends how great it was, buy all your other books, and be fans (i.e. buyers) for life.

You get to decide what to give the reader. The answer is you get to put out whatever you want.

Plot alone: maybe you get lucky with a high-concept hit. People pay to see Bruckheimer movies. I love a good explosion before, during, and after a car chase. I miss some of these films when they come out, though. Most of them, actually.

What I won't miss is every Hitchcock playing at the Michigan Theatre this spring. Hitch will give me character. I go for that.

Concept is great. Character is essential. You can succeed with marginal concept and great character. It's a crapshoot with great concept and marginal character. Might get lucky; but, it's a bet.

I invest my time after doing homework. I back character. I just need to write some.

I'm going to give the reader what I want to put out. I want that to be character.

Off to write some. You should do the same. Bank on it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Winter in the Garden

This is a view Louis foxhound and I had this morning coming through the spruce trees and our little arbor at the edge of a shade garden. It is a little deceptive. We didn't get that much today but there is still nearly two feet on the ground.

Now is the time of planning the work. The spring is full of opportunity but I find if I plan a couple of large projects and two or three small ones, I've got a shot at getting it all done before Memorial Day. If I don't plan, then the multitude of things I want to do becomes crippling and I do very little.

I'm working through that scenario with the writing right now. The project at hand and the one after that. That's all I can spend any thought on at all. Oh, I've a dozen due for another re-write and another half-a-dozen needing a polish for submission and a novel that could use another draft and one that needs outlining and ...

This one, then the next. That's all I can stand in current memory. The others? They have to wait.

I'm in winter. It isn't yet my spring. I'm building the foundations that pay off in the future. I have to keep telling that to myself.

I finished a scene this morning that had been a little problematic. First prose drafts can be that way. It took a while to hit my stride in tone and language I think works for these characters and works for showing the story I want to reveal. The rest goes better now. The whole thing can be "smoothed" to an even presentation in the next full draft.

I missed my writing friends today. I wanted to see three different groups but weather has caused some trouble on our roads. I wrote at a coffee shop alone this morning - though it was a fine session. It's a small town coffee shop and those are the best kind. A handful of people. Everyone keeps to themselves. No loud conversations. Only missing bookshelves to be a library, really.

I missed a wedding reception for a couple of writing associates from another group. I'm sorry I missed their reception. Perhaps I'll see them Tuesday night and will make amends.

I missed talking with a writer who has great promise but has large demands on his time and mental exertions. He's writing more, though. I want to encourage that. He tells great stories and I want to see his novels in print. I think part of our job is to encourage.

So, a little lonely with a bit of cabin fever. Doing fine. Writing. Having fun. Doing the things I need to do.

Snow tonight. Surprise, surprise. It's winter and little is blooming.

Write something. Set it somewhere warm.