Sunday, February 26, 2012


Such a Deal
“God,” I prayed, “let me write for a living.”
Through my garret door strode a dude wearing a red suit and brimstone cologne.
He grinned. “Let’s talk.”
“What? You want my soul?”
He laughed. “A writing career’s not worth that. I’ll accept your sanity.”
Decades later, I’m still in my garret.
He’s still laughing.


I’ve been invited to participate in a panel called “Writing Is a Real Job” at the Left Coast Crime conference at the end of March, in Sacramento, California. This assignment has got me thinking about writing as a career. Specifically it has made me wonder if I qualify to talk about this subject. Me? A real writer?

Whenever Susan and I go on vacation, we find ourselves talking to strangers, often in warm, friendly bars. Inevitably someone asks us the question “What do you do?” We refuse to answer. It’s not that we’re shy, or ashamed of what we do, or especially unfriendly. It’s just that we don’t talk about our work when we’re on vacation. We work side by side, fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and the reason we’re in that bar somewhere in the tropics is to forget about the publishing business.

In recent years, however, I’ve developed the sheer brazen gall to say, “I’m a writer.” That warms up the conversation, shines a big spotlight on me, allows me to brag about my books, and gives me a chance to pretend to be modest, just this guy doing his job. I don’t pass out bookmarks or collect emails for my mailing list. But I do say out loud what for decades I’ve been too shy to say: “I’m a writer.”

Why haven’t I dared to say this all my adult life? Have I only recently earned the right? In fact, I’ve been writing all my adult life, and have always been able to make a few dollars doing it. I’ve led a literary life as a bookseller, a free-lance editor, a small-press publisher, and a teacher of creative writing. Along the way I’ve written a lot of books and a ton of stories, and a few of those books and a few dozen stories have appeared in print. Some even brought me some money.

It is true that most of the writing that has earned me a living has been crafting contracts, press releases, catalog copy, back cover copy, and business correspondence. When I’m writing contracts, business letters, and press releases, I’m writing to live. When I’m in the midst of making a novel, on the other hand, I live to write. And by God, I consider that a real job, a respectable job. For practical reasons, I don’t allow myself the addictive pleasure of writing fiction during “business hours,” Monday through Saturday. But I write my fiction all day Sunday, every Sunday, and even a few hours every day on vacation.

I’m a writer. You are too. Say after me: “I am a writer.” We writers are writers because we must write. We made a deal with the devil, I suppose, and the deal was worth it.

I look forward to being on that panel and hearing what other professional writers have to say. If you’re coming to Left Coast Crime, I invite you to sit in with us Friday, March 30, at 2:15 p.m. The panel will be moderated by Simon Wood, and my fellow panelists will be Jill Amadio, Beth Henderson, and LJ Sellers.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stretching the Limits of Perception

I don't write science fiction, and I don't read much of it either. But I do know something about imagining possibilities, taking risks, and trying out wildly different points of view. I don't feel like elaborating on that right now. Instead, I'll post here a couple of challenging 55-word stories, and let them suffice.

Seeing Eye to Eye
The microbiologist peers into her microscope, focusing on swirling molecules. She’s sucked into a galaxy of suns, each surrounded by spinning planets. On one planet is a mountaintop, where an astronomer trains his telescope on the heavens, gazing out beyond his solar system, beyond the universe, until he’s consumed by the eyes of God.

Forwarding Order Expired
At ten I received a letter from the man I would become. “I’ve learned to correspond across the years,” it said. “Enjoy your youth.”
At forty, I received the boy’s reply: “I can’t wait to be your age.”
I wrote the next letter forward thirty years. “I hope you’re well.”
My letter was returned unopened.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Love Stories for Valentine's Day

Here it is Valentine’s week, and it’s hard to avoid thinking about love during weeks like this. That’s a good, warm thing to think about in the depths of winter, although love in some senses is not always a good magic. More about that in a moment. First, as promised, four 55-word love stories:
These Things Take Time
“No relationship for me,” I told her. “I just went through a messy divorce.”
“Me neither,” she said. “I’m a grieving widow.”
“Glad that’s settled,” I said. “Now we can be friends.”
Twelve years and three kids later, we’re still best friends.
Someday, if I get up my nerve, I’m gonna buy her some flowers.

Ain’t We Got Fun
We met in the park. She shared her beer with me, and I helped unsnarl her hair. Then I took her to my favorite dumpster for dinner.
Later we walked miles along the railroad tracks, then cuddled in the bushes to keep warm.
“I feel rich,” she said.
“We’ll never be homeless again,” I replied.

Seventeenth Summer
My first affair was with the tennis pro at the club. Then I found out he was also serving aces to three other members.
“Sweetheart,” he sighed, “in the game of tennis, ‘love’ means nothing.”
Older but wiser, I quit tennis and signed up for golf lessons. The golf pro had a better stroke anyway.

A Purfect Union
“Homosexuals violate the sanctity of marriage,” grumbled Reverend Pulpit, undressing for bed.
His beloved Madeline gazed up at him adoringly. He lay down beside her and continued, “God intended marriage for man and woman.”
Madeline nuzzled his cheek, and he stroked her tigerstriped back.
She purred.
“Ah Madeline,” he sighed. “Madeline, love of my life...”

The following post is, I confess, a retread, borrowed from my blog archive, and it was originally published in my book Structure, Style and Truth: Elements of the Story. The tile of the piece there was “Magnetic Dogs: How to Write Relationship Fiction.” Here goes:
The word "relationship" can mean many things; in fact it's vague enough to mean just about anything where two or more anythings enjoy some sort of relativity. But for the purpose of this essay, "relationship" refers to what goes on between two human beings. Specifically I'm referring to the dyad of love, the coupling that often (but not always) results in sex and/or marriage. The cast of characters is often (but not always) a woman and a man. Adam and Eve.
The relationship of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most common theme of short fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, novels, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for short fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for short story writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go 'round.
(Love, as I've just illustrated, is also a minefield of clichés. I'll get to that later.)
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. No wonder we need a break now and then-go to a movie, read a story. And no wonder so many movies and so many stories are about love.
The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
A relationship is made up of components physical, mental, and emotional. Body, mind and spirit, the triumvirate of elements that make us all human and define us individually as well.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. (I expect the authors of pop psychology don't either.) To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction.
Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Why is it we know nothing about the married life of Eve and Adam before they decided to break the rules? Because they were probably the one couple (unencumbered as they were by parents or former lovers) who had a perfect relationship, a relationship so happy it wasn't worth writing about. Perfectly dull. Their story only gets interesting with the introduction of relationship static: a tree of forbidden delights, a serpent seducer, a guilt-tripping God. At that point the story gets good-so good that we've been re-enacting it ever since, in our fiction and in our lives.
Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clichés. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable, so that your reader will always remember them. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
The same rule goes for your secondary characters: respect them as individuals. They're not just filling pages, they're real people too.
Having said that relationship fiction must focus on the problem areas in the relationship, let me now say that to make the story truly satisfying it should have some other elements as well. There should be more to the relationship than just the conflict, and there should be more to the story than just the relationship. These other elements, which may show up in the setting or the plot or the character development, will help make your story original.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters, Adam and Eve, must make important choices, together and separately—to eat or not to eat, that is the question—and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question (flaming brightly or smoldering quietly) is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but also between the couple and the circumstances.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Let me paraphrase a lesson I learned from one of my early teachers, novelist Herbert Gold. He said that all great stories are about love and death. He went on to say that if anyone contested that statement and wanted to suggest a great story that was not about love and death, he would patiently explain why the story wasn’t great, or why the story was, in fact, about love and death.

Certainly the stories I’ve read, the ones that matter most to me and the ones I reread for pleasure and wisdom, are about love and death. And as I look back over the stories I’ve written, I find that most of them, and nearly all of the best of them, are about love, or death, or both love and death. This is not to claim that my stories are great, but those of them that still hold water (and my pride) are stories with consequence.

That all great stories are about love and death does not mean they all are modeled on Romeo and Juliet. Love and death come in many forms, including the love of death and the death of love. Some great stories of love and death are funny, some are angry, some are uppers, some are downers. But if they’re great, they are important.

Writing should be important. It should be about what matters. Since I don’t know a lot about the cosmos, or about politics or economics or science or religion, I write about love and death. Why do I think I know so much about love and death? Because I’m a live, sentient human being, and love and death are basic ingredients of the human condition.

As are work and play, by the way. Love, death, work, and play.

These are the subjects that my short stories, my mysteries, my mainstream novels (whatever that means), and my memoir pieces have been about for most of my writing life. Perhaps I’m trying to express my love before it’s too late. I think (wrongly) that by leaving my stories behind me I will cheat death when the time comes.

I will close now with a few 55-word stories. I’ve selected stories that are about both love and death. Unlike a lot of my short-shorties, these ones are not meant to be funny. Sorry. I’m also including one of my two stories about breast cancer, since breast cancer awareness has been a huge issue over the past week, owing to Komen for the Cure’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, and then Komen’s welcome reversal of that decision.

Life Goes On
When the doctor said my young husband had six months to live, I cried for six days. On the seventh day, I found him in the garden, planting perennials.
“Let’s take a cruise,” I offered.
He shook his head.
“I want to make you happy,” I cried.
Grinning, he replied, “Then throw away your diaphragm.”

Death is for the Living
“Martha, after you die I’m going to marry Alice.”
“My hospice nurse?”
“We want your blessing, Martha. Life’s for the living, y’know.”
Martha’s tears dropped from her cheeks to the pillow.
After Ralph left the house, Martha rose and spent the rest of her life swallowing Ralph’s medications and refilling his bottles with her own.

The Betrayal
“You’ll have to get rid of both, I’m afraid.”
“How can I?” I cried. “They’ve given me such pleasure, they’ve delighted my husband, they fed my children, they’ve always been close to my heart.…”
“And now they’ve turned against you,” the doctor replied. “They’re harboring a killer.”
I wept and made the appointment for surgery.