Saturday, July 23, 2016

Substantive Edits

My "substantive edit" on my first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, arrived from the publisher, Driven Press, at the beginning of June. There was an eight-page edit report in which the editors raise questions about a few things in the story: the characters, the character relationships, characters’ motivations--questions that they’d like me to answer in the text.

And there's a “track-changes-markup” of my 393-page manuscript in Word. It was actually pretty daunting when it arrived, but in general I thought the edit was fair and helpful. And if you’ve been in writing workshops and critique groups, you’ve seen worse than this.

I went right to work with the attitude that these people probably want to make money selling my book, and they might know what they’re doing. Six weeks later, Word tells me I spent 10,569 minutes (or 176 hours) editing the manuscript. Say I worked 36 days on it; that’s about 4.9 hours per day, which was really something I needed. I’d been spinning my wheels, losing my writing focus much of the spring, waiting for these edits and revising “New Billy’s Blues” more often than necessary. 

The edit report pointed out recurring things in the manuscript they took issue with and some general writing habits of mine they could do without. —for example, I use a lot of dialogue tags: ‘he said,’ ‘I said,’ etc. and they prefer fewer. They also had a list of words they thought I should use less frequently.

But the biggest problem was that they wanted more of the private eye/protagonist’s internal thoughts, and I was purposely writing the story with a minimum of interiority.

"could you weave in some of [Frank's] internal thoughts?"

My personal feeling about fiction is that conflict, change, and character should be revealed in action, not in some guy ruminating. However, that was only my first thought, and as I worked on the manuscript, I found I was already letting some of Frank’s thoughts come through, just not his ratiocination about the crime. 

After the first ten days, I was ready for a chat with Driven Press to clarify a couple points in the edit report. One was their lingering question about the exact nature of Frank and Vera’s relationship. They understood Frank and Vera were friends with benefits. But did Frank love Vera? Could he? Was he just using her? Or was it more of a friendship?

“Well,” I said, “I wrote two sex scenes between Frank and Vera that I cut out of the final manuscript. Perhaps I could put one back in.  Perhaps it would help clarify what the relationship’s all about.”

“OK,” said the ed. “But you don’t have to put the whole scene back in. Just pick it up from the end, after they come.”

I thought that was a strange thing to say. I wasn’t sure if I heard her right, but I was not comfortable asking for clarification.

They’re Australian, and yes, she did have a bit of an accent, but still . . . ;-)

At times I didn’t think the eds “got” what I was doing, and other times I was just thankful to have the work and effort of two editors as a resource. I spent the first three weeks going through the mark-up; then I did “Words You Should Banish from your Writing,” I went through the list and tried to cut or change as many as possible to stronger or more vivid words. Some of the culprits—‘Went’—157 times, ‘pull’—87 times, ‘put’—141 times, ‘walk’—82 times, ‘there was’--129 times. The big villain was “look” which I used more than 300 times!   “Look,” I said . . . swell-looking gal . . . I looked down . . . she looked me in the eye. This was a tiring exercise, and by the end of the week, and I needed to take a day off.

For the last two weeks, I made a second pass to see if I did a good job on the edits. For the second pass, I hid the track changes and comments and printed a clean copy and reviewed it. To my surprise, it all still sounds like my writing. I do like Frank to use a lot of three and four letter Anglo-Saxon words—sat, push, took, pull, put, etc.—as opposed to Latinate word forms. But it read well. Better than the original, I dare say, even after losing 150+ instances of the word ‘look.’

Frank Swiver has been getting to be a darker character, what with his problems in “Pearl's Valley,” and his attitude in “New Billy's”. It was good to get back to a more positive, kinder Frank in White w/Fish. However, he was still supposed to be a ‘noir’ character—a loser. Doomed. He may not die at the end but he might be better off dead. When I got to the end of the book there were three of four consecutive questions from the editors that I didn’t really understand.

  •  ‘     Show his thought process.
  •         What makes him finally dismiss the idea?’
  •          ‘Didn’t she already try to poison him, and the cat got it instead?’
  •          ‘Is all of this the truth?
  •          What is he thinking?’
I showed my wife “Why are they asking me these questions?” I said.

Tasia read the last ten pages. “Because what you’ve written doesn’t make any sense.”


Monday, March 7, 2016

Intro to Screenwriting

Last Monday, I started an online two-week screenwriting class from an organization called FutureLearn, which apparently bundles online classes from a number of European universities. It’s free, it’s from the U. of East Anglia (home of the Fighting Anglicans?) and it’s at

I’m not necessarily looking to turn from fiction to screenwriting, or to make a big financial score, and certainly Hollywood doesn’t need me while it has another crazy old man from Cleveland, Joe Eszterhas. But I have been feeling a need to sharpen the saw, and I was attracted by the idea that screenwriting is an external form, that shows us what characters say and do, but not their thoughts and feelings. In other words, none of that interiority. The screenwriter must create action that implies the character’s inner life and makes it accessible to the viewer/reader.

So far the course has been pretty good. I would like more concrete examples. The course is strong on structure. Causal, character driven . . . I’ve heard of “Three Act Structure” for year’s but I’ve finally had it explained for me. The instructors propose leaving gaps which make the audience work, and I liken that to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, which I believe has great value.

One week to go.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Untrustworthy Woman

As a young man of about 40, single, and in possession (of as much debt as) good fortune, I took a wife. Not long thereafter, my father said to my new bride, "Yeah, we tried to find Marie's sister, but we never could." This was a bit of a shock to me as for 40 years, I'd thought my mother, Marie, was an only child like myself. But no, it seems she had a sister, and my grandfather, a Greek ne'er do well, whom I like to call Kouros of Athens (Kούρος της Αθήνας), abandoned Marie and my grandmother, took the sister, and was never heard from again.
That's about all I found out. Some years later, my dad had died, and my mother suffered from dementia, and couldn't shed any more light on what became my family mystery. I did find among Mom's papers a birth certificate for an Esther Kouros, strangely on the same day as Mother's birthday, but a year or two earlier.
Fast forward to a couple years ago and I'm taking a class with the inimitable Con Lehane who assigned a writing exercise, the purpose of which I forget, to compose a story that explains a family mystery. I didn't spend too long on it, but I wrote, "An Untrustworthy Woman," a little under 700 words.
This fall, I ran across "Shotgun Honey," which publishes flash fiction in the crime mode and limited to 700 words. Why not? I says to myself. I dusted my Untrustworthy Woman off, and why not indeed, said Shotgun Honey. The result is that An Untrustworthy Woman is now live and a free read online.

If you stop by, I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to leave feedback with Honey, or comment below.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A story has to know where it is in time and place

That's a quote, (or as near as my notes come to one), from my instructor in Literary Detective Fiction at the Catamaran Conference, John Straley. He lives in Sitka, Alaska, and seems to be big on ecology and the environment. With John, it's not just a "shave the whales," thing, though his wife Jan is a marine biologist and the two of them have a non-fiction book coming out, something along the lines of Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska: Ed Ricketts and the Wave Shock that Forged the Coast. No, the point I was heading for is that John thinks ecology is about place and all good writing should come from place, setting. Character is influenced by and should all be rooted in the setting. Plot should be based in landscape.
John's latest crime novels are with Soho Press, which publishes crime in foreign locales (such as Cara Black's Paris mysteries), and nothing seems more foreign to me than Alaska. In Sitka, they have 200 inches of rain a year. Last Oct., John says, they had 30 inches of rain--an inch a day. I asked him if that was just rain, or precipitation, and he said "Rain. It doesn't snow much in Sitka." As a writer, John's fine with the rain. "In the rain, surfaces are shiny, poppy, and vivid."
Straley doesn't think that crime writers should be disrespected because of their genre. "The crime genre can be just as psychologically rich as anything else. It just has to be revealed in action."

I read The Big Both Ways before going to the conference. It's a good novel and John's a fine writer. I liked the '30s setting and the backdrop of labor unrest and violence.
Photo of John in Pebble Beach by the Blogger: 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Karen Joy Fowler--Food for Thought

Our guest the first night at the Catamaran Lit Conference in Pebble Beach was Karen Joy Fowler, whom some of you may know as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. Or famous these last couple years as the author of We Are All completely beside Ourselves. She was charming and fun. Someone asked her about writing groups or critique groups, and she had somewhat contradictory thoughts. One, she loves her group and would never quit it. And two, she doesn't take much of their feedback and recommends you ignore most of the feedback or advice you get. Karen thinks that if the critique is of any value, it will immediately resonate with you. You'll say, "Oh, yeah. That's right. You're on to something there." And if it doesn't, leave it. It's probably not worthwhile. 
It sounded like her group was quite contentious--someone threw a chair through a window--which makes me thankful my group is online. :-) Regrets? She wishes she didn't read the work of other members of the group aloud in a bad Swedish accent.

She closed with the following advice: "You can't go wrong setting a scene in your story or book in a miniature golf course." It's silly, it's common, it's blue collar. She particularly likes the idea of putting at the anthill like hole. You know, like a cone with a hole at the top, where your ball might not make it up the hill, or might overshoot and end up further away than where you started.   
Writers and their metaphors.  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Easter Egg Hunt

I was reading "Howling at the Moon," a Black Mask story by my Facebook friend Paul Marks when I came across the villain's name "Bud Traven."

Bud Traven? I thought. As in "B. Traven?" I asked Paul about it.

"It's an Easter Egg," he said. "A little something extra for folks in the know." For B. Traven is the mysterious author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

I have put an Easter Egg of sorts in my newest story, "Courvoisier and Coca Tea." I say "of sorts," because it's a bit more esoteric, and I don't expect many folks to spot it. But if you're well-versed in the noir tradition, you might. So I'll post this challenge and say, find the hidden egg in "C & CT" and send me a note. If you're the first to find it, you'll receive a suitable prize, along the lines of an autographed copy of the Sept./Oct. 2015 Ellery Queen in which the story appears, but if that's not suitable, (if you already have a copy for instance), maybe we can get together for a couple glasses of wine. My treat.

Hint: my egg is related to one of the classics of the noir genre. Send your guess to

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Development of a Story


I went in and out of Peru in 1984. It was quick. I left no traces. I loved it. I attributed my clean sneak to reading the South American Handbook and heeding the warnings.
I was a single man then, and I met two single dames, fellow travelers. Libby and Maureen, a tall brunette and a short blonde. Both were swell. We were all on separate tours, but our character arcs were interwoven. I'd spend time with one in Lima, another in Arequipa, and so on. The girls were never in the same town, but there was usually one where I was.
I had some wonderful moments rattling along on the train through the Urubamba River Valley. I spent the night at the sanctuary hotel in Machu Picchu, back before it was a Belmond property. Ran into a little trouble in Arequipa, but nobody got hurt.
When I returned to the Black Lizard Lounge, I tried to write a short atmospheric travel vignette about it. I thought it was a decent first piece in an engaging voice. But no one wanted to publish my short travel vignette, no matter how atmospheric. I held on to it in here, where writers hold on to their stories.
I began to write private eye fiction in 2005. I decided to revamp the Peru travel piece--weave it into a noir tale. That version flopped, derailed by an online writing workshop when something I wrote garnered this feedback (true quote): "That really got my hackles up!" And that comment degenerated into an online thread of two-weeks duration entitled "Nipples." "It was chilly that morning in Cusco," I told them. They didn't want to hear it.
Well, thanks to EQMM, I began to have a little success with my series private eye character, Frank Swiver. I showed Frank the Peru material.
"OK, I'll do it," he said.
"This is just the old version. You haven't even seen your role yet. I haven't written your lines."
"Doesn't matter," said Frank, putting out his Camel in my Tommy Bahama ashtray. "I like the dame in it."
Frank's always been a rogue, and he recognized a rogue-ish part when he glammed onto one. So I wrote the story for Frank.
Going through the material again helped me get some things clear in my mind. Like an ending, and a less muddled middle. Frank really straightened the story out for me.
I thought it was swell stuff now. I showed it to a few old pals as a sanity check. The pals "got" the story, and seemed to sincerely like it, too. I showed it to three writers. The writers unanimously condemned it.
Writer 1: "Your p.i. has lost his moral compass."
Writer 2: "He has no moral compass."
Writer 3: "We hate your protagonist. We'll never read another Frank Swiver story."
That didn't move Frank. "Hey, I did what the client asked, didn't I? It's a job."
"I'm taking you off the case, shamus," I said.
"You can't do that."
You can let your characters take you all over the map in a story, but you can't let them tell you what to write. I took Frank off the case. But now, who to give it to? There weren't many dicks in my bag of dramatis personae. I reached in and pulled out a Basque-American from Boise, Igor Oxtoa. Igor'd been working the other end of Post Street from Frank for a couple years, and was ready for prime time. 
Frank has had some good fortune with the women in my stories. But Igor has never had any luck with dames. He's shorter, stockier, and just not a smooth operator, like Frank. But that added a new dimension to the seduction. It was fun writing, but more importantly I think folks could be more sympathetic with Igor than they were with Frank.
I sent it in to EQMM last August. "Too much explicit sex," was the reply. D'uh. I knew that! I don't know what I was thinking, sending an R-rated piece to Ellery Queen. All I can figure is brain fade.
"What if I take out the explicit sex? Would you read it again?" Yes!
I sent off the PG-13 version. EQMM came back, "You need to cut back on the drug use."
"What do you mean? I quit years ago."
"In the story, bright boy."
Arrrgh! There is a murder, a stabbing, and an unnatural death from a train, but cocaine smuggling is the crime that drives this tale. It was tough to clean up the coke and keep the story line on track. The interesting thing though about working with Janet Hutchings, each time after I made requested changes, I had a better story, with pace, tone, dramatic scenes and a fine balance. Best of all Igor and the rest of the cast were giving me 100%. The little Basque was a natural. He took to the scenes like a llama takes to the Inca Trail.
Intended result: EQMM and I finally agreed on a story, "Courvoisier and Coca Tea," and it will appear in the Sept. / Oct. double issue as the Black Mask feature.
Unintended consequences: my wife has planned a family trip for us to Peru in July.
We get questions all the time here at the Black Lizard Lounge. "That's quite a story. How long did it take you to write it?"
Let's see, I started in 1985, so about 20 years, I guess. I wasn't working on it the whole time though . . .