Monday, July 28, 2014

Jump-starting a story

          People have wanted to know where I get my fiction ideas, especially for short stories.

          The answer’s complex. 

          Sometimes I write from frustration or anger when an egregious injustice or bureaucratic absurdity is featured in the news.  Or a dangerous societal trend will set me off, like the increasing widespread dependence on a whole spectrum of prescription drugs with their myriad detrimental side effects.  The subtle inadvertent or deliberate damage we do to one another, such as our propensity to talk behind each other’s backs, has resulted in storiesone titled “The Garden Club,” for example, wherein gossip turns lethal.  Sometimes it’s fun trying to emulate, on my modest level, the style and tone of some famous author, like the late hard-boiled Mickey Spillane.  I’ve read and re-read many thousands of novels and short stories over the decades, so snippets and tendrils from the finest of those have become so deeply embedded they’re part of me now. 

          Sometimes a yarn will slew sideways quite on its own, it seems.  This occurs most often when I try to tackle an unfamiliar genre for the hell of it.  One attempt at writing romance mysteriously morphed into a faked-crime yarn.  A few forays into science fiction, just to test those waters, also took on criminal aspects entirely by themselves.

          On rare occasions, I have no idea whatsoever where a story comes from.  No conscious idea, that is.  I’m probably one of those afflicted with a not-quite-grownup overactive subconscious mind, wherein all sorts of creatures crawl and devious demons cavort and delightful fantasies play out.  Sometimes those mysterious scenarios steal through a fragile membrane into my conscious mind and result in a new short story that appears to have been born of purest magic.

          Or, as an occasional challenge, I’ll put up a blank page on my computer screen, type some random strong word in boldface, crank up my excellent Bose speakers with appropriate selections chosen from my Amazon Cloud Player, and attempt to build an entire short tale from that single word.  One titled “Rage” came out pretty well.  There’s a list of potential title words and phrases I hope to hang stories on some day.  Titles that intrigue me include “Too Late” and “Depthless” and “Why?”

          Broader ideas for novels are more difficult.  Some years ago a friend who had covert experience in naval intelligence in remote parts of the world enlightened me about the brisk global trade in light weaponry, which continues to help fuel never-ending violence in numerous hot spots.  That led me into some further research, which in turn laid a foundation for Guns, the first novel in a trilogy.  A fourth novel in that series is in progress, with 84,000 words in the bank and closing in on the climactic scenes.

          It can be helpful to learn how the top writers come up with their story ideas; they all have their secrets and they’ll sometimes share.  Stephen Hunter (Pulitzer Prize winner, former film critic for The Washington Post, and acclaimed author of the Earl Swagger series) confessed in the foreword for one of his novels that he’d blatantly borrowed several of his plots from other successful novelists, with only the settings and characters changed, and with the imposition of his own writing style, as disguises.

          That’s not a bad idea for any of us.


Monday, July 21, 2014

A Short-cut to Fame and Fortune

          Back in my personal stone agebefore there was almost everything that’s considered essential today, like plastics, TV , air bags and seat belts and AC in cars, computers,  high-IQ pocket phones, bikinis, ten thousand different wonder drugs, soy bacon, Google Earth, and Walmarta good selection of major magazines featured short fiction.  Authors like O. Henry and Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever had become popular masters of the art.   One of my favorite short story series characters was Tugboat Annie in The Saturday Evening Post.

          Today a few modest magazines like The Strand, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine stubbornly retain the form, and anthologies and collections manage to hold onto a small market niche, thank goodness.  All those series TV shows can be considered just another form of the old-fashioned short story, really.  The excellent series Justified is, in fact, based on a coal-country short yarn by Elmore Leonard titled “Fire in the Hole.”  Many movies have also been based on shorts:  2001, A Space Odyssey, The Absent-Minded Professor, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, High Noon, Hondo, The Killers, Rip Van Winkle, A River Runs Through It, and South Pacific, for just a few.  Google will guide you to lists of them.

          I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing shorts.  They’re a challenge to a storyteller’s skills.  A short must have most of the elements of a good novel.  It must be carefully woven to create a perfect tapestry, with no room to spare, so characterization and scene setting must be brief and vivid.  Because this is difficult for a writer to accomplish, shorts make excellent training for neophytes and fine practice for old pros.  For me, they’re a good way to explore different genres without having to invest the time necessary to peck out an entire novel, for page-testing new characters who might one day populate longer fiction, for airing pet peeves, or to fictionally scrutinize some life experience I’ve enjoyed or endured.

          Recently I put together a collection of my stories, many of which had been previously published over the years.  It’s titled Dagger and Other Tales.  Stephen King wrote the first 500 words of the last yarn in that collection.  The King beginning appeared years ago in Cavalier Magazine with an invitation to readers from the editor, Nye Willden, to  try their skills at finishing the story in a contest for a $500 first prize.  The idea intrigued me, so I stayed up all one night, writing and revising, and by dawn I had a story.  I mailed it in and it took first place and was published in the magazine.  Stephen’s version was revealed in a subsequent issue, and it has since been reprinted several times, most recently in his excellent fifth short story collection, Just After Sunset.  It was also dramatized as part of Tales From the Darkside, the Movie.  The story was titled “The Cat From Hell.”

           Any writer trying to learn the craft would do well to attempt selling a short tale or two.  (Google has  lists of magazines that accept short submissions.  Check out their guidelines.)  Shorts can be fun learning experiences, and maybe even a short-cut to fame and fortune.

(Dagger and Other Tales can be had at a fair price on

Monday, July 14, 2014


          In the entertaining movie Hook (Robin Williams as Peter Pan and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell) Dustin Hoffman (as the evil pirate Hook) tells Smee, one of his scruffy underlings, “I’ve had an epiphany.”  Later in the story, Smee, emulating his idol, declares, “Oi’ve just ‘ad an apostrophe.”  It’s one of my favorite movie lines.

          I’m happy to say I’ve just had an apostrophe.  For three weeks, my current novel-in-progress was stuck at 77,800 words.  Like some other authors have doneJohn D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Lee Child for examplesI don’t write to an outline, preferring to make up the story as I go along, letting my characters do as they will.  I wish I could work to an outline like Jeffery Deaver so cleverly and successfully does, but I cannot.  (I met Deaver at a writing conference and had dinner with him and his wife.  They collaborate to create an elaborate outline for every book, refining it repeatedly until it’s all laid out in detail; I know it’s one of the reasons his stories are filled with so many exquisitely devious twists.)  It means I sometimes have to go back and revise my story line to fit new happenings, but I’ve always lived with that shortcoming.  One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked in workshops and talks I’ve given on the craft of writing has been, “Do you outline?”  I’ve never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer why I do not.  Sometimes I’ve said, “Well, if even I don’t know what’s gonna happen next in a story, the reader surely won’t, either, and that ought to keep the story interesting.”  But it seems a lame answer.  And it’s not the most comfortable or confident way to write.  Working on my second novel in a trilogy some time ago, I was 65,000 words along and facing a looming deadline before I even realized who the killer was going to be.

          The other day I woke up and sat there on the edge of the bed as the sleep cobwebs cleared to reveal a glimmering of how the rest of my current novel could perhaps unfold.  I went to a local restaurant owned by a friend for my usual cup of cinnamon coffee and a low-fat peach muffin, and took a booth.  I opened the novel I’m reading (one of many thousands I’ve read over the years) but my eyes were only scanning the words, my brain unable to retain anything because my own novel plot seemed to be growing ever clearer by the minute as if by some wonderful magic, my relief and enthusiasm growing as well.  All of a sudden I could see nearly to the end of the story, with most of the loose ends weaving themselves together nicely like an exotic tapestry.

          It was an excellent feeling.  A major apostrophe.

          I’ve always suspected writers like the great John D. MacDonald really have outlined their work, albeit subconsciously.  Their stories seem too refined and cohesive to think otherwise.  I believe my own subconscious mind has been churning away at my novel the whole time I’ve been working on it, and finally that aspect of my mind came through for me with clear visions for the rest of the story.  Now all I have to do is write it.

          Wishing you happy apostrophes in your writing and in your life.


Monday, July 7, 2014

          Some time back, I was reading a novel by a prominent best seller when I came across a passage wherein the protagonist, supposedly a person with firearms experience, called a shotgun a rifle.  I stopped reading the story right there.
          If we’re going to write mysteries or thrillers or crime novels, we’re sooner or later going to involve firearms, so it behooves us to know a little about them.  The best way to do this is to spend a few hours at a local range, where you can actually fire guns at targets, inspect various weapons, and ask questions.
          But if you don’t have the time for that, here’s a basic lesson.  It’s a good bit to take in, so pay attention:
          A shotgun is a smooth-bore long gun capable of firing a shell containing pellets ranging from numerous lead flakes (bird shot) to a number of lead balls (buckshot).  The flakes or pellets exit the muzzle and disperse in a spray pattern, which pattern is controlled somewhat by the choke, or degree of diameter reduction toward the end portion of the barrel.  A full choke tends to confine the spray pattern so the charge is effective over a longer range, whereas a modified choke, for example, allows the charge to disperse sooner, at shorter range for more coverage.  Accurate aiming of a shotgun is not required because a target can be anywhere within the spray pattern and still get hit with at least a few pellets. 
          A rifle, on the other hand, has helical grooves and lands that have been machined into the bore in order to impart a spin to the bullet, thus increasing accuracy.  By the way, there is virtually no difference between the lethal power of an assault rifle round and many ordinary deer rifle rounds, despite the overwhelming bad press the assault rifle has received.  In fact, many game rifles have far better accuracy over a longer range than assault rifles do, so a deer rifle, especially with a telescopic sight mounted on it, can be a much more effective weapon than an assault rifle.
          Long guns (both shotguns and rifles) may be operated semi-automatically, that is, producing a discharge with every pull of the trigger.  Or a mechanism like a lever, a bolt, or a pump may be used to bring a new round into firing position before every trigger pull.  Fully automatic guns of any design, which produce a rapid succession of discharges as long as the trigger is held back (as a machine gun does), have for many years been illegal to possess anywhere in America, and violation of that federal law carries a severe penalty.  The fastest-firing guns of any type that are legal (including assault rifles) require one trigger pull for every round fired.
          There are two basic types of hand guns: revolvers and semi-automatics.
          A revolver holds five or six rounds in a cylindrical cluster, rotating a new round into firing position on each trigger pull (or when the hammer is thumbed back).  This type of gun is famously used in western movies.  There is no safety.  You simply aim the gun and pull the trigger.  It is impossible to suppress the sound because gases, and thus noise, can escape between the end of the cylinder and the beginning of the barrel.
          A semi-automatic pistol (often erroneously called an automatic) carries a number of rounds, from as few as seven to a dozen or more, in a magazine that is commonly contained in the gun’s grip.  The gun almost always has at least one safety mechanism and can be effectively sound-suppressed (the long tube that you see Bruce Willis screwing onto the muzzle is not really a silencer; it’s more accurately called a suppressor).
          The thingy you load into a cylinder or a magazine is not a bullet.  It is a cartridge, which consists of a casing (usually brass) containing the primer, the powdered propellant, and the bullet.  In a revolver, the empty casing  is retained in the cylinder after firing (therefore it won’t normally be left behind as evidence), whereas the casing is always ejected from a semi-automatic (or from a rifle) and could be flung some distance from the gun in the process.  Bullets are usually made of lead and come in many varieties, solid-nosed or hollow-nosed, nylon clad, Teflon coated, and so on.
          The caliber of a cartridge tells you its bullet diameter.  In other words, a .38 caliber cartridge has a bullet with a diameter of .38 inch, or about three-eighths of an inch.  A fifty-caliber round is one-half inch in diameter.
          You got all that? 
          With ready access to the Web, there’s never any excuse for not getting technical details right.  Fiction is a fragile construction, and all it takes is a single glaring error to crumble it all to dust for the reader, as happened for me when that best-selling author carelessly called a shotgun a rifle.

          (Incidentally, the other day a hoodlum fired a hand gun into a combination convenience store/McDonald's a block from my home.  Luckily, he was a lousy shot and only injured one person.  I don’t live in blitzed Detroit or in any of the other lawless city wilds around the country.  I live in a nice little coastal city where most folks are law-abiding.  The sad fact is, though, drugs and violence are everywhere these days, as a recent meth lab bust in an idyllic rural county adjacent to mine attests.  It’s one reason I took the necessary training and now have a permit to carry concealed my .38 Special revolver in thirty-six states.)