Saturday, April 28, 2012

99 Words—That's All She Wrote

During the past week I learned that I won’t be teaching my class, “The Joy of Story,” this summer. I was sorry to learn this, because I enjoy the classroom, and have enjoyed for the past twenty years being a part-time teacher of creative writing here in Humboldt County, and before that in Santa Barbara. 

As I got used to the notion of not teaching, though, I realized I was also relieved. Having taught writing courses throughout my fifties and sixties, I now feel as if I’ve said all I have to say, and now that I’ve entered my seventies, my voice isn’t as strong as it once was, either literally or metaphorically.

Also during the past week I learned that our local free weekly newspaper, the North Coast Journal, printed three of my 99-word short stories in their Flash Fiction Issue. This was a boost to my ego, for though I don’t enter contests as such (I don’t believe writing is a competitive sport), I submit my work here and there from time to time, and it’s always a pleasure to see my words in print. We write to be read, after all.

It’s more than, or less than, a coincidence that I got news of my teaching career and my 99-word stories in the same week. I’ve been writing 99-word stories exactly as long as I’ve been teaching writing. I have used this art form as a challenge and a teaching device in nearly all the classes I’ve taught and workshops I’ve led.

As a reward to my students, for most of the years I taught, I published an annual anthology of student work. I invited my students to send to me their 99-word stories based on a yearly theme. Over the years I published little volumes of stories inspired by Snow White, The Trojan War and the Travels of Odysseus, Little Red Riding Hood, Pygmalion, Cain and Abel, Romeo and Juliet, Hamet, Pandora, Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Alice in Wonderland, and Sherlock Holmes. (I think there were others too, but these are the ones on my office bookshelf.)

Spreading the art form of 99-word stories may have been my most significant contribution as a teacher. I gave writers a chance to see their words in print, and I let them learn the joy and power of economical writing. I also showed them how much our writing is inspired by literary archetypes.

So I have decided to devote one blog post per month to 99-word stories sent to me by my readers. This will begin in June, and the first deadline will be the first of June. The theme of the June 99-word story post will be “June Is Busting Out All Over.” Write a story about whatever that means to you: getting out of school, a wedding, graduating, being a father, or whatever else June means to you.

A few rules:
• One story per writer per month.
• It has to be a story. (Something happens to somebody.)
• The story must have exactly 99 words.
• All rights to the work remain the property of the writers, although I have no way of policing or enforcing that.

This is not a contest. I will include in my post all stories sent to me, unless I find them offensive (but I’m broadminded). I may do a bit of editing if I think it will help the story, and you’ll just have to trust me on that.

Spread the word. The more writers, the more stories, and the more stories, the better!

I will now close by showing off the three stories of mine that were printed in this week’s Flash Fiction Issue of the North Coast Journal. One is inspired by Hamlet, one by the parable of the Prodigal Son (or the life of Wyatt Earp), and one by a lesson I learned about love from my newborn son.

Gertrude’s Soliloquy

            My son and Claudius have never gotten along. I think the boy somehow blames Claudius for his father’s death. Crazy, but you know how kids are.
            Claudius suggested boarding school, and I went along with it. We were newlyweds, and a kid moping around the house is no aphrodisiac.
            But now my son’s graduated. He’s back, and he’s worse. And Claudius isn’t much better. He can be a real shit sometimes.
            “They teach you philosophy, boy? Zen? Existentialism? Nihilism? Ever think about nonexistence? Something you might consider.”
            Honestly, those two. They’re going to be the death of us all.

Letting Go

            Wyatt returned to the ranch yesterday, beat up, broke, smelling like a polecat. I told Morgan to quit early and fire up the cookstove.
            After supper, Wyatt told stories about rodeos, grizzlies, goldmines, and whorehouses. Morgan just sat there.
            This morning Wyatt rode off grinning, fifty bucks in his new shirt pocket.
“How long you reckon he’s gone for this time, Pa?” Morgan said. “I wisht he’d stay away. You never quit work early on my account.”
            I saw I’d lost another son. I pulled out another fifty and said, “Better saddle up quick. Maybe you can catch him.”

The Catcher in the Night

            He cried again. My wife groaned, “My turn.”
            “I’ll go. I’ve been awake since last time.”
            I grumped to the night-lighted nursery and leaned over the crib to change the amonia-perfumed diaper, then held his sobbing body to my chest, resting in a rocker. I promised to protect him from the cold attacking his body, and from all life’s slings and arrows, if only he’d let me sleep.
            Peace filled the room, the strongest feeling I’d ever known.
            We both slept in the rocker that night. Next morning, I was the one with the cold, and no regrets.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Marilyn Meredith Writes About The Joy of Story

Note: I am pleased to introduce my esteemed writing colleague F.M. (Marilyn) Meredith, a prolific mystery author who hails from California’s Central Coast. She is on tour, and I’m delighted to give her this vaudeville stage so she can tell us what she thinks about writing in general, and she can tell us about her new book, No Bells. It sounds good, and I plan to read it.

Someone who writes might say they are a writer or an author; in my case, I think of myself as a story-teller.

When I read other people’s books—and I read lots—I’m always surprised about how different each one is. Some authors are able to write the most wonderful sentences with words I’d never use. Others have obviously spent months, maybe even years, doing the research to make their novel’s subject as authentic as possible. Some books have the most quirky characters who do and say things I’ve never seen or heard in real life.

I write reviews for other people’s books and if I think the author’s prose is lyrical or magical, I say so. Sometimes the writing surpasses the story idea, but that seldom matters in the enjoyment of the read. A character may be so enchanting or odd I want to keep reading about him or her.

I’m afraid I’m not one of those writers. Sure, I research what I need to for the plot. When I’m writing though, I’m concentrating on the story. Because I’m writing a series, one that has been around for a while, I’m telling the story about characters that I know well, because they live inside my head. The story-telling itself comes from the characters.

Because I know what’s been going on with these folks for a long time, I’m privy to their hopes and fears, their ongoing problems, their goals, and their personality quirks. Frankly, I know these people better than my own family or friends, because I know what they are thinking. (Even after being married to my hubby for 60 years, most of the time I have no clue about what he’s thinking.)

Before I begin writing, I plan what new dilemmas and mysteries the inhabitants of the fictional setting will be face. And sometimes all that planning is for nothing, because when I begin writing, the characters may decide to go in a whole new direction. That’s fun, and in my case, is the joy of story and the joy of writing the story.

No Bells is the latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series.

Officer Gordon Butler has finally found the love he’s been seeking for a long time, but there’s one big problem—she’s the major suspect in a murder case.

F.M. Meredith (left) with Bonnie Hearn Hill
at Bouchercon

F.M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels—and a few that will never see print. Her latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series, from Oak Tree Press, is No Bells. Rocky Bluff  is a fictional beach community between Ventura and Santa Barbara and F. M. once lived in a similar beach area.

F. M. (Marilyn) is a member of EPIC, Four chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and serves as the program chair for the Public Safety Writers of America’s writing conference. She’s been an instructor at many writing conferences.

CONTEST: The person who comments on the most blogs on my tour will win three books in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series: No Sanctuary, An Axe to Grind, and Angel Lost. Be sure and leave your email too, so I can contact you.

Saturday, April 14, 2012



    The Butler’s Revenge
He hopped into the kitchen—obese, leathery, smelling like scum.
And he’s like, “Take me to the Princess!”
I shook my head, “Sorry. This ball is formal.”
“But she promised I could sleep with her!” he croaked, angrily.
“Welcome to the club,” I sympathized. That little bitch.
I picked him up and put him on a silver tray.
Said I, schemingly, “I’ll present you.”

The above story, a very short scene based on an old, archetypical fairy tale, needs work in the area of dialogue tags. Let’s do the work together.

Line 2 has what I consider an abomination, a speech pattern perpetrated on the English language by the young. Young people have been polluting our language ever since I became an intolerant old fart. Substituting “he goes” for “he said,” or “she’s all” for “she said,” or “I’m like” for “I said.” They make my eardrums ache. Okay, okay, it happens and I should just get over it. But consider the context here. This is no busboy or scullery maid speaking here. The narrator is the butler. The butler would not say, “And he’s like…”

For that matter, there’s really no need for a dialogue tag in this line. The line of dialogue might work a lot stronger without a tag.

Line 3 has a silent tag. The shaking of a head does not make a sound, unless perhaps you’re wearing a hat with bells on it. Other often used (misused) silent tags are: grinned, glowered, etc. The easiest way to fix this is to use a period instead of a comma: “I shook my head. ‘Sorry…’”

On the other hand, the tag’s unnecessary anyway. We know who’s talking, and the word “Sorry” is all it takes to indicate refusal.

Line 4. We have an animal noise in a dialogue tag. Wait a minute. This animal tag, “he croaked,” is used correctly, because it’s a croaking animal (a frog) doing the talking. Okay, so that line’s fine. But in general, be careful of animal tags. They tend to be cartoon writing: “He snarled,” “she purred,” “She hissed,” “she chirped,” “she roared,” “he bellowed.” Use these sparingly, if at all.

Line 5 has a highfalutin substitution for the word “said.” The longer, unnecessary word “sympathized” isn’t really offensive, but it errs on the polysyllabic side. Other highfalutin substitutions for “said” include “She opined,” “he articulated,” and “I improvised.”

Besides, “sympathized” is unnecessary. “Welcome to the club” says it all.

Line 7 contains the dreaded LY adverb modifying the word “said.” “Schemingly,” which my spellchecker doesn’t even recognize, is unnecessary and therefore offensive. “‘I hate you!’ she shouted angrily” is an obvious example. These LY adverbs are noxious weeds. Get rid of them. If you think need to modify “said” with an adverb, then your line of dialogue needs to be written stronger.

And while I’m on Line 7, let me point out that the double reverse order of words, “said I” instead of “I said,” and putting the tag before the line of dialogue makes this line sound artificial and coy. Not that can’t get away with reversing word order sometimes, but be careful and make sure you aren’t just being cute.

I'll wrap this up by paraphrasing what the great Elmore Leonard has said, echoing what the great Raymond Carver said: You can usually get away without dialogue tags, although now and then it's good to use them for rhythm.

Now I’ll rewrite "The Butler's Revenge" using the lessons we just went through. I think it will work a lot better. You be the judge:

The Butler’s Revenge
He hopped into the kitchen—obese, leathery, smelling like scum.
“Take me to the Princess!”
“Sorry,” I said. “This ball is formal.”
“But she promised I could sleep with her!” he croaked.
Welcome to the club. That little bitch.
I picked him up and put him on a silver tray.
“I’ll present you,” I said.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Left Coast Crime

Susan and I spent last weekend at a conference in Sacramento. The conference was called Left Coast Crime, and it's an annual gathering, with a different host city each year, of mystery and thriller writers, fans, and assorted pros, such as agents, editors, and publishers. We were there as publishers, sowing off our wares and selling books in the book room. I was also there as an author, talking up, selling, and signing copies of Behind the Redwood Door. 

We arrived late Wednesday afternoon and set up our table. The conference lasted all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, plus Sunday morning. It felt like about three weeks. It was fun, but being anchored in the book room, as Susan was most of the time and I was part of the time, alternated between boring and flustering. The show's main events were panel discussions, and while the panels were in session there was virtually no traffic in the book room. Then, when the panels let out, there was a brief but hectic mob of customers buying books to get them autographed by the author/panelists. We had only two author/panelists attending, and we sold a dozen or so of each of their books. They were each on a couple of panels. Their presence attracted attention to our table, and we sold a lot of other books as well.

We didn't come anywhere close to  making our money back, what with the hotel costs, the registration for the conference, the travel expenses, and the restaurants, not to mention the books we bought by our colleagues. But making a financial profit wasn't the main goal anyway. We also attended a number of interesting panels, saw many friends, and made a point of cementing friendships and associations, which is tiring work but enjoyable, too. I learned a lot from the panels I attended, which were on small and independent presses, social Internet networking, and senior sleuths in mystery novels. I also was a panelist on a panel titled "Writing Is a Real Job." I was the least professional of the writers on the panel, by which I mean I make the least money for an equal share of hard work at the computer.

What I took away from the panels and the general chat at the Left Coast Crime conference: it is perhaps harder than it has ever been to be published by a major-league publisher (who are now collectively called the "big six" because of all the clumping by a few conglomerates that has happened over the past couple of decades). The problem is not just that all the major leaguers are owned by so few corporations, but also that those corporations are having financial difficulties because of the way the publishing business has been attacked by online bookselling and ebook distribution, and also, of course, the economy in general.

On the other hand, it is perhaps easier than ever to be published, if you're willing to settle for a small, independent publisher who uses ebook technology, and/or POD technology. The drawbacks of this route to publication are having to accept that you were accepted virtually without gatekeepers, having to do your own editing and proofreading (or hire people who will do a good job at these chores), and having to do all your own marketing, promotion, and publicity. Of these drawbacks, the only one that is a real problem is the psychological problem of Groucho's paradox: "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member." Because the other downsides exist at the major-league level too: unless one is a superstar, one does all one's own editing and all one's own promotion at all levels of the industry these days.

Applying all this newfound (actually reconfirmed) wisdom, and riding the wave of enthusiasm that abounds at writers' conferences, I am now in the process of submitting two of my manuscripts to people I met last week in Sacramento. One is my bookstore mystery, Hooperman (alternate title Bookstore Cop), which I've sent to Billie Johnson, the editor/publisher of Oak Tree Press, the publisher of Behind the Redwood Door. The odds are against me on this one because Hooperman is such an unconventional mystery (no murder, for one thing; also it's short, and it's full of "language," as the movie raters say). But it's worth a try, and it's better than letting that gem (sez I) sit on a closet shelf. It was, by the way, a pleasure to meet Billie in person at Left Coast Crime and to know that my current publisher is a smart woman with a sense of humor.

The other novel I'm shyly submitting is my latest, Promises to Keep (alternate title 1963), which I will send to an agent I met named Chip MacGregor, who places books with epublishers and small independent houses. This is another long shot, because the novel is weirdly constructed (interwoven short stories support the structure of the plot). But what can I lose? And what I could gain is a foot in the door for the family saga trilogy of which this new one is the final third. These three books, which I call collectively The Wizard of Elephant Lake, can be read in any order, and the other two books, Elephant Lake and Geronimo's Skull, are available only as ebooks. I'd love to find print publishers, no matter how small, for all three.

Anyway, both Susan and I feel we got our money's worth in terms of newfound contacts and knowledge, and we both enjoyed the schmoozing aspect of the gathering, even though neither of us is especially comfortable with schmoozing. We will no doubt do more of these conferences (although at least once per conference one or both of us will take a solemn oath never do do this again). We're looking forward to a possible one-day show in Santa Rosa (a four-hour drive away) in September, a one-day mystery conference in Irvine (a two-day drive) in November, and out in the distant future of 2014, the Bouchercon, the annual meeting of the Mystery Writers of America.

Unfortunately, this recent conference ended on a painful note. Literally painful. As we were getting ready for bed on our last night in the Sacramento hotel, Susan tripped and fell against the bedside table. She was able to complete the show and we drove home without much difficulty, but an xray has revealed that she cracked a rib. This means her mobility will be limited for the next six weeks or so, and it couldn't happen at a worse time (spring) for such an avid gardener. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Note: This post is a retread of a post from last July, but it's a fitting post for April Fool's Day, so I'm cheating and using it again. But before we get started, here's an April Fool's Day joke for you, in the form of a 55-word story:

It’s for You...
Alexander Graham Bell requested an audience with Queen Victoria, to whom he presented his new invention.
“A telephone, Your Majesty. You put this part to your ear, like this.”
She did so and heard a voice saying, “Hey lady, you got Prince Albert in the can?”
She hung up and said, “We are not amused.”

Okay. Lessee. Okay. A guy slips on a banana peel and falls on his butt. No, wait. The guy's all dressed up, on his way to the career interview of a lifetime, and he slips on a banana peel and falls in a steaming pile of dog feces. Make that cat feces.

Did you hear the one about the man who was so poor he was reduced to eating his own shoes?

How about the woman who reads someone else's mail by accident, misunderstands, and thinks the man she loves is two-timing her. It breaks her heart.

This working-class married couple lives in an apartment in New York. They yell at each other constantly. Their best friends are neighbors, a couple that also yells at each other. Sometimes the two couples get together and they yell at each other. By the way, one of the men is obese, and both of the men frequently threaten their wives with violence.

So this salesman runs out of gas on a country road. A farmer takes him in for the night, but the salesman abuses the farmer's hospitality by seducing the farmer's teen-aged daughter, making her pregnant and ruining her life. The farmer forces the two strangers to get married at gunpoint, thereby ruining both of their lives.

There's this starving coyote, see. His prey eludes him and he accidently runs off a cliff and falls thousands of feet to the rocks below.

A nice Italian or maybe Jewish or maybe both fruit vender is minding his own business when a gangster, a yuppie, and a cop all bash their cars into his pushcart, destroying his inventory and scattering all the money he's earned that week.

A homeless drunk needs to urinate so bad that he.



That stuff isn't funny.

Maybe I'm not telling it right. People have been laughing at this material forever.

It's not funny. It's sad.

I didn't say it wasn't sad. What do you think humor is, anyway?

Humor comes from sorrow, suffering, pain, cruelty, loneliness, and anger. Why is it all the Warner Brothers cartoon characters have speech impediments? What's funny about speech impediments? I don't know either, but those voices make us laugh. And speaking of cartoons, check out the topics covered by the comics in today's paper. An average day might serve up unruly children, meddlesome parents, nagging wives, boring husbands, divorce, overeating, poverty, taxes, crime, political corruption, sexual harrassment, job stress, school stress, traffic accidents, sports accidents, phobias of all kinds, greed, jealousy, illnesses ranging from the common cold to Alzheimer's Disease, and many different kinds of death, from shipwrecks to the electric chair. For starters. Real thigh-slappers.

There are two reasons not to be surprised that funny short stories originate in pain. First, good short stories must have conflict. Second, good short stories are about life, and life is full of pain. The Buddhists are right: the human condition is full of suffering.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that we have humor to help us carry the load. In fact, the humor can carry the load for us. Got a problem? Turn it into a joke. Why do so many overweight people, of all ages, laugh so much?

If suffering is essential to humor, so is surprise. Another word for surprise, when we're talking about skillful writing, is irony. Irony is a one-two punch. A good cop/bad cop routine. You set your reader up gently to expect one thing, and then pow. This device can work wonders at the sentence level, with twists of phrase that leave the reader reeling and rolling. Irony is even more important at the plot level, with events seeming to lead in one direction and ending up in another. Irony in a plot often involves the concept of karma or so-called poetic justice.

Another essential quality of good short fiction is originality: the humor has to be fresh. It's true that there are only a certain number of jokes in the world, and they've all been told before, but there is an endless source of fresh humor in our imaginations. Even when we deal with familiar ideas, we can be original.

Another essential ingredient of successful humorous short stories is intelligence. That should go without saying, but there's so much dumb humor in our culture, even dumb humor that's funny, that I make a special point of requiring intelligence before I'll call a short story good. It can't trade on its humor alone; it has to engage the brain, not just the funny bone. The story must be, on some level, about something that matters. Obviously a story is first and foremost a story, and its first job is to entertain. This is especially true of humorous stories. But if you don't give the reader something to think about, your story won't last in the memory any longer than a comic strip or a sitcom.

Finally, of course, a good humorous story requires style in spades. Why is it that all the jokes I told at the beginning of this chapter introduction fell flat? No style. Zippo. Dullsville.

Everyone knows that the joke itself is only half the reason we laugh at a good comedian-if that. At least as important is the delivery. To tell a good joke you have to love language and practice daily all the many magic tricks you can do with it.

Become a magician and make your readers laugh so hard they hardly notice that they're crying as well.