Tag Archives: Mark Stevens

Nobody Writes Like You

By Mark Stevens

Can you write like your favorite writer?

I know I can’t.

You might have Ursula Le Guin or Patricia Highsmith or Ernest Hemingway in mind when you write something, but somehow it comes out on the page as, well, you.

Somewhere in all those choices of words, sentences, characters, images, plots, moods, dialogue, action sequences, big finishes, prologues and epilogues—no matter how much you might try to emulate another writer—you show up.

I was thinking about this recently when The New Yorker featured a podcast reading of “The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn, The Trouble With the World.” That’s a story by Patricia Highsmith (who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers) and it was read by Yiyun Li.

The story is so simple—in a way. It’s about “Mrs. Palmer,” who is dying of leukemia in a seaside cottage in England. She is being tended to by a few people including a “Mrs. Blynn,” a nurse, who has a grating presence and inflicts various petty cruelties on her patient.

Not much happens. It’s true.

But yet—so much happens. Listen to the discussion between Yiyun Li and The New Yorker's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, and you realize how much subtext was going on around this cottage, where all the so-called “action” takes place. Instructive? To say the least.

It’s typical Highsmith. This was stuff she cared about, the needling insults and jagged edges between somewhat ordinary people. Her protagonists (Thomas Ripley, hello) are extremely flawed human beings. She crafted 20-plus novels and many dozens of short stories out of her fascination with warped humanity.

Plotting and Writing - HighsmithEarlier last week, I read a terrific story in The Guardian by Sam Jordison—“Creative Writing Lessons from Patricia Highsmith”—in which he looked at her guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. One of Jordison’s many keen insights is this: that the guide itself proves it’s “impossible to walk in Highsmith’s shoes.”

Yes, I dig Patricia Highsmith—but I couldn’t write like her even if the Valyrian greatsword Ice was making its way toward my tender little neck.

I ask: what’s up with that?

Put a hundred writers in a room, give them 40 specific plot points for a novel, the setting, eight major characters and ask them all to write in the style of a noir thriller.

What will you get?

You will get precisely 100 different novels in return.

The best writers, in my mind, have their own fingerprints on the page, a dab of their own soul—sometimes a whole lot more. But unless you are outright stealing a style or lifting ideas wholesale, you will leave your mark on the page. It's part of the process. It's why we write.

What’s my point?

As a writer, I like to remind myself—nobody can tell the story the way I’m going to tell the story.

Nobody can.

Nobody will.

It’s not even possible.

And to do a decent job telling it, I better have a good idea of what’s driving me to tell it.

Patricia Highsmith (from Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction): “There is no secret of success in writing except individuality, or call it personality. And since every person is different, it is only for the individual to express his difference from the next fellow. This is what I call the opening of the spirit. But it isn’t mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom—freedom organized. Plotting and Writing will not make anybody work harder. But it will, I hope, make people who want to write realize what is already within them.”

“Murph” On Writing

By Mark Stevens

I’m turning this month’s blog over to Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.

Denver cab-driver and wanna-be-a-famous-writer Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. "Murph," has collected some of his favorite commentary on being an unpublished novelist. (What is below is just the tip of the iceberg of insights.)

I thought you could—relate. And maybe grab a laugh.

These quotes are from the first six novels by the late Gary Reilly that have been published to date – The Asphalt Warrior, Ticket to Hollywood, The Heart of Darkness Club, Home for the Holidays, Doctor Lovebeads and Dark Night of the Soul.

Pick Up at Union Station - Final JPGMurph #7, Pick Up At Union Station, launches Friday, June 19 at The Tattered Cover (2526 E. Colfax Ave.) at 7 PM.

(You are all invited.)

--

“I’m an unpublished novelist, but it’s been a long time since I haven’t published anything. I keep promising myself that I’ll sit down and start another unpublished novel one of these days, but if you know anything about unpublished writers then you probably know that the worst thing that can happen to one is to run headlong into a wall of free time. That’s when his bluff is called. That’s when he knows he has to get creative—and he does. You’ve never seen a writer get more creative than when he starts thinking up alibis for not writing. I’m as prolific as James Michener when it comes to excuses.”

“My brain is like the print-spooler on my word processor, which holds a failed novel long enough to print it out before it is deleted from the RAM and replaced by a rejection slip.”

"A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing—such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon—when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.”

“I started thinking about writing a book called Face the Music, Chump. It would be a gut-wrenching tale of rejection slips. I wondered if there was a place where a guy like me could get rid of the craving to scribble. Some kind of Writers Anonymous, although most writers are anonymous. A place where human wreckage with Smith-Coronas could gather to cure themselves of hanging around office supply stores while their kids starved. I needed a 12-step program and I needed it bad. Step #1: admit you have a plotting problem.”

With a novel, you have to do an outline first and then write the book, but with a screenplay you just knock out the outline and sell it. I don’t know why the publishers in New York don’t take a tip from Hollywood and just publish the outlines of novels rather than the completed books. Let the audience use their imaginations, as my Maw always says about radio. I would much prefer to read an outline of War and Peace than slog through eight hundred thousand words. Why do I need Tolstoy to describe snow? I can imagine snow, whether Russian snow or just regular snow. But book publishers seem to think that the authors should do all the work, and the readers should be waited on hand-and-foot like a buncha goddamn prima donnas.”

“I have some bookshelves in my apartment that are built out of old novel manuscripts. The rest are brick and plank, the way hippies and broke people do it. I’ve written a lot of novels since I was in college, but I use only manuscripts that have absolutely no hope of ever being published to build the bookshelves. I use them in place of the bricks. Admittedly bookshelves made out of paper are not the most structurally sound things on earth, but neither are my novels.”

“The desire to write is one of the few desires I possess that doesn’t overwhelm me in the way that the desire to drink beer or smoke cigars does. Or watch TV. Or date. Or sleep till noon. I’m not that good at resisting desires, but for some reason I’m able to fend off my desire to write. Sounds inconsistent if not completely illogical I know, but there you have it.”

“A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.”

“I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called ‘formula fiction.’ I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?”

More: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

All Six Covers NPR Huge Fun

RMFW Joins The Wide World of Podcasting

By Mark Stevens

We interrupt this blog's regular programming, writing advice, inspirations and musings to bring you this commercial announcement:

Drum roll....

RMFW has a new podcast.

As this post goes up, ‘The Rocky Mountain Writer’ should be finding its way to your favorite podcast provider, including iTunes. It's also posted from the home page at rmfw.org.

podcastlogo2The first episode features an interview with Shannon Baker (current Writer of the Year) about her fabulous new book contract. It also includes an interview with Charles Senseman about his tips regarding how to claw your way through the painful process of writing the dreaded synopsis (he will help you back away from the ledge). And, finally, conference “goddess” Suzie Brooks give us a rundown of what’s coming up at the Colorado Gold Conference in September.

The second episode will be available within two weeks and includes an interview with Chris Devlin about the Colorado Gold contest (entries are due June 1!) and a chat with Susan Spann about writing across-gender.

So—subscribe today and spread the word.

Please note—this is a work in progress.  I’ve already learned a few things about sound recording and editing that will help in the overall sound quality come Episode #3.

How can you help?

For starters, feel free to contact me with suggestions. This is designed to showcase RMFW members, events, activities, you name it.  The podcast world is rich and active, particularly among writers and readers. There are more than 100,000 podcasts being produced today, but only a handful that are truly knock-out when it comes to learning the craft of writing and learning more about the business. (Here’s one list, however, if you’re looking for some ideas.)

The success of the podcast will depend on the quality of the ideas and voices involved. My preference is to use the podcast to promote and highlight upcoming RMFW events and to interview authors with genuine advice and ideas for others—at any level of experience.  It’s a fast-changing world out there (I don’t need to tell any of you about that) and the podcast can help listeners keep up.

One feature I’d like to start is a conversation between a beginning writer and someone with more experience—an “ask a pro” segment. If you have a question you’d like to discuss (whether it’s writing style, something technical, a plot problem, any situation you might be in with your career) drop me a line and I’ll find someone to jump on the telephone for a conference call. Then, we’ll record a conversation about the issue—and hear some suggested ideas for how to fix it.

Just a thought.

Perhaps you have your own ideas for the effort; I’d love to hear them.

This is “our” podcast. Over time, I think it will shine like everything else RMFW takes on—the conference, the newsletter, the critique groups, the monthly meetings. On and on.

Check it out—then drop me a line.

Whack the Cliché

By Mark Stevens

Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?

Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?

A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.

First, check this out:

The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)

In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it

A stereotype.

When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.

Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.

Sound like a novel you want to read?

A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?

These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:

The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?

Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!

There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too.  "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"

How do you keep the writing fresh, original?

Fill in the blank. As tough as _____.  As cool as a _____.

Go.

I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?

And, should it be?

Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?

Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”

So there’s a standard for you.

Worth shooting for?

--

* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.

Take A Little Trip

By Mark Stevens

Two random tidbits last week got me fired up.

The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.

The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.

Right?

Okay, let me back up a tad.

In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:

Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”

One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”

My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)

Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?

Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?

This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.

Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)

Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.

Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”

And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”

Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”

I’m not here with answers.

I’m not here with “ta da.”

I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.

If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.

And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.

So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.

Maybe I need to send them on a little trip.

kafka quote

Tales from Long Shots in Book Marketing

By Mark Stevens

I hopped in the car and flipped on the radio.

Scott Simon (rock star reporter and host on National Public Radio) was wrapping up a Weekend Edition interview with a guy reviewing books.

I only caught the tail end of the chat, but Simon said something like: “...and that was our London cab driver so-and-so who occasionally reviews books for us…"

I’m not sure I remember the rest.

Cab driver? Book reviewer? National Public Radio?

As you may or may not know, my friend Mike Keefe and I are in the process of publishing the works of the late Gary Reilly, who left behind 25 novels when he passed away in 2011.
Of the 25 novels, 11 are very humorous books that feature Denver cab driver Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. Murph, The Asphalt Warrior. To date, six of those 11 have been published, along with the first of Gary’s books based on his experiences in Vietnam.

Gary’s posthumous works have received great reviews—and two of the titles were named finalists for the Colorado Book Award.

But as a publisher (and also as a writer, unless you’re in the stratosphere of high visibility) there’s a never-ending search for reviews and, well, mentions.

Mere mentions of your book can make your day— Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari, bring it!

So why not roll the dice with the cab driver from London? Indeed, why not?

Our company, Running Meter Press, has been lucky to have time and support donated by a major book publicity firm, JKS Communications. I contacted JKS and an energetic member of their team found a way to contact the cab driver, an apparently cheerful and well-read guy named Will Grozier. Soon, via Twitter (!), we had the green light: send 'em!

I packed five “Murph” titles up in newspaper, shoved them in a box and shipped them off at some cost ($55 if I remember right). In a couple weeks, I received an email from Will saying they had arrived safe and sound and that he was also enjoying the newspaper articles I’d use to wrap the books.

That was December, 2013.

Twelve months later, on Dec. 20, 2014, I’m pumping gas and my phone chimes. Shunning all risks for using your electronic device around gas fumes, I answer it.

The six titles in The Asphalt Warrior series by Gary Reilly. Five more to go. And another dozen or so novels to publish beyond this series.

The six titles in The Asphalt Warrior series by Gary Reilly. Five more to go. And another dozen or so novels to publish beyond this series.

A friend of mine is going nuts. “Gary Reilly…NPR…right now…they are talking about Gary Reilly…

Later, I listened to the whole piece (transcript and audio here) and there was Will Grozier singing the praises of my late writer pal and mentor, Gary Reilly, on National Public Radio.

“Huge fun,” said Grozier of the series, citing the books as his favorite fiction reads of the year before mentioning a long list of other books.

So what happened?

First, we got emails from all over. A dedicated book reader and book reviewer from Michigan named Tim Bazzett (a guy who has written books about the books he has read) did some digging on Gary Reilly, having heard the NPR piece, and asked for Gary’s Vietnam novel, The Enlisted Men’s Club. A few days later, Bazzett had consumed the book and wrote one of the best, and most insightful, reviews to date.

Sales went nuts.

In fact, the publishing company we work with in Boulder emailed a few days later to say Amazon had ordered 165 copies of the first title. We needed to hit the "reprint" button; we were running out.

I’d like to think that Gary has a whole new legion of fans being built based on that first book. I know  readers of The Asphalt Warrior (Book #1) will recognize they have their hands on a one-of-a-kind writer with a unique and engaging style.

In thanking Will Grozier (via Twitter) he asked if he could read the new Gary Reilly titles that had been published (The Enlisted Men’s Club and Murph #6, Dark Night of the Soul) since we first set him the shipment.

Of course, I happily obliged.

It was a long shot. It was a random radio-publicist-Twitter-email connection.

Cheers to cab drivers, book lovers, book reviewers, National Public Radio, Scott Simon, Will Grozier and readers everywhere.

##

Crossing Colfax: A Story by Story Review

By Mark Stevens

crossingcolfaxShort-story anthologies can be tricky affairs. Collecting short stories in one volume from multiple authors can end in a patchwork mess. Not the case with Crossing Colfax, a sweeping collection of writing from the ranks of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. The only rule was that each story had to touch on Colfax Avenue—a long, heavily stop-lighted street that runs east-west across Metro Denver. Not surprisingly, most of the stories take place in the grittier sections of the city itself in the dark (and frequently paranormal) shadows. Surprising to me, these stories offer consistently high quality of prose and story-telling. There is a solid composure to the entire volume.

Herewith a brief recap and review of each story, a sort-of “consumer guide” to would-be readers. A caution that I don’t read much paranormal stuff and this collection includes a healthy sample from that genre. And one final note: kudos to the editors. In a project that involved a team of editors and coordinators, I didn’t find one typo in the 370 pages. Putting out high-quality books (dig the snazzy cover, too) through a self-publishing model is a matter of standards and commitment. Good work, Nikki Baird and the whole team.

The stories:

In Angie Hodapp’s “Seven Seconds,” auto mechanic Billy Shump possesses a common superpower. But it comes with limitations. He has the ability to turn back time. But only for, well, see the title of the story. That is, for not very long. It’s useful, but how much? Billy has his eyes on the alluring Kyra, a picture of female “poetry.” Billy gets a chance to save the day, but at what cost? Tricky bargains force Billy to a dangerous crossroads. The old cliché is “only time will tell.” Not only does time tell, it turns out, it takes care of everything. A clever idea and a well-written appetizer for this anthology.

You’ll learn a lot about farm equipment in “Hay Hook,” right down to branding irons and cattle prods. A genteel start to Margaret Mizushima’s story—a veterinarian checking a horse with digestive issues—turns Ugly with a capital “U.” Diamonds are not a horse’s best friend. I liked this story’s jolt from pastoral setting to tense crime drama.

Thea Hutcheson’s highly atmospheric “A Full Moon Over a Desperate Plain” begins with this gritty image: “The air on Colfax Avenue roils with the thick smell of sweet half-burnt gas coming off the finned behemoths rolling along this asphalt river.” Our first-person narrator Mike is a man with no dreams and the keen ability to sense the hopes and dreams in others. “No one ever notices that I’m more—or less—than they are, never know the hunger that pushes me into their company.” He is searching for connections and has an eye on Jenny, a waitress at a diner. Think nobody notices you, Mike? Maybe, maybe not. The sun just might rise one of these days.

We’re in the future in “Crossing the Uncanny Valley,” Martha Husain’s gripping sci-fi yarn that starts in a shuttle careening over western Kansas that soon crashes near Colfax Ave. in Denver. Or what’s left of Denver. But the Mile High City is now rubble. The earth is blackened. “Not a soul” alive. The band of survivors fear the “Mechs,” the artificial intelligence machines that have declared war on the human race. The shuttle crash takes one life and our narrator, Kaleb, sets out with horny Hutch and Gothic Punk Jo to find a way to get to a safe colony at Cheyenne Mountain, sixty miles away. An encounter with an in-stasis cyborg named Corinna could be the answer—or mean all kinds of danger. Corinna can answer certain human needs, but may have her own agenda. You better know the difference between your zombies and your cyborgs, that’s for sure. By the end, you’ll be eager to find out what happens on the road trip for the two who are still standing when this rollicking story ends.

Kate Lansing’s “Colfax, PI” features a Jewish vampire with a problem. His thirst for blood “makes it impossible to keep kosher.” His personal assistant, Lilah, needs help. Lilah’s sister has been murdered. It may be a case of tainted heroin and a vampire’s finely tuned sense of the way blood should taste certainly comes in handy. When push comes to shove, Colfax has the fangs to get his way. A fun twist on a familiar paranormal trope.

Zoltan James shades "The Man in the Corner" in noir. It’s got a cool, Chandleresque vibe. But a blizzard is blowing in and things are going to get even colder in the "sticky one-roomer" that is the watering hole called Dominic's. All eyes on the bartendress, Beatrix. She can "out-tough any bitch or bastard who walks through her door." Our narrator is a private eye with a patch over one eye. He's an ex-L.A. SWAT guy, too, and has a thing for "Trixie." There's an odd stranger and then a cop takes a stool. It seems Beatrix knows a thing or two about some missing money and soon the bullets fly. Blood splatters "like an abstract drip painting." Old habits do indeed die hard. Zoltan James turns up the heat even on the coldest killers.

“Blurg,” “Meh,” and “Snarf” are the first three words we hear Mable say in the ultra-brief short story “Allyah” by Rebecca Rowley. (You could read this one between sips of coffee.) Mable has just woken up from a weird dream about giving birth. She has an unusual job and the story is so brisk and efficient I don’t want to give too much away. Mable likes her clients to follow directions. She also likes specificity. Payments for her services are received via wire transfer to an account in the Cayman Islands. Well, Mable’s not her real name. Probably not a good idea in this line of work. This is a short story that asks a ton of questions and answers them in a few quick brush strokes—and detailed touches—at the end.

In “The Case of the Woman Who Sewed Her Silence,” B.K. Winstead introduces us to two Denver detectives on the hunt for a missing baby. They don’t have much to go on. A woman is found in a coin-op laundry in the processing of attempting to stitch her lips together (if you don’t believe that’s a possibility, you haven’t spent much time on Colfax Ave.) She’d previously been seen with the baby but now the baby is missing. The story weaves in some thoughtful takes on faith. You could almost envision a whole novel or a television series featuring the contrasting views of Detectives Davis and Diaz. Prayer, after all, “is not a gumball machine where every time you put in a coin, you get a prize.” There’s fine contrast and good banter between these two cops, a bit reminiscent of the nihilistic chatter in “True Detective.”

That kitschy cheesy “Mexican” restaurant Casa Bonita is the springboard of inspiration or Zach Milan’s “Stolen Legacy,” a tale of magic, missing children and professional redemption. Viktor goes from suspect to crime solver. He’s good at understanding misdirection and knows what to watch for behind the velvet curtain.

L.D. Silver’s “That’s Love, Baby” introduces us to a hooker whose life “has crumbled.” She has special healing powers and she hears a voice she’s named “Colfax.” A trap is waiting that might end her days plying her special trade or might provide a chance to escape. It might all come down to the voices inside her head. Like many good short stories, Silver leaves behind a few nifty puzzles for readers to ponder.

“Colfax Kitsune,” by Emily Singer, is a semi-steamy paranormal tale that places a Trickster from the Flipside trying to find her way through modern Denver. Yuri isn’t comfortable completing missions alone and would much prefer to have the company of Piccolo, who has ditched her, briefly, for a tramp. Yuri’s sense of smell and sound are, in a word, extraordinary. A stray miniature sphinx has slipped through a hole in the wall between Earth and the Flipside and Piccolo and Yuri must send it home “before its magic starts acting up.” Despite the terror in her veins, Yuri knows she can’t fail again. The hole is closing, the edges “curling in on itself like a burning piece of paper.” Time is running short. Over a coffee at Starbucks, it’s Yuri who will deliver one last message.

Autumn Leaves is the owner of Tea Leaves, a teahouse that sits next to a pot shop on Colfax Avenue in Laura Kjosen’s “Phantom brew.” Yes, Autumn Leaves is her legal name, as she tells the cops when they come around to investigate after the pot shop is ransacked. The story slips gently into poltergeist territory as Autumn works to conjure the ghost of Jack Kerouac with assistance from an acquaintance at a paranormal investigation society. Teapots fly and screams come in full Latin as this wild tale wraps up.

In “Take me to Your Leader, Jackie Smack,” Warren Hammond gives us a brisk and funny story featuring a pair of alley-crawling bums, Jackie and Darrell. Darrell tells Jackie that aliens come for him “every Tuesday,” an event that Jackie yearns to witness. Hearing Darrell’s stories, Jackie considers himself lucky to have found this particular alley and decides on the spot that smack and aliens go well together like “nachos and cherry Slurpees.” If given the opportunity to meet the aliens, he thinks, “he’d jump up to shake hands and say, “How’s it hangin’?” (A great line straight out of an early Seth Rogen flick.) This is sharply-told tale of delusion (and relative grandeur) with a back-to-reality twist ending.

Drugs also play a bit role in T.J. Valour’s “Ghostly Attraction, featuring Dina “who has been dealing with ghosts and their manifestations since she was five.” Dina considers herself “the most abstinent personal escort in history” though she’ll do whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied. One customer is a full-blown sitophilic (yes, I had to consult Wikipedia). Now a ghost is trying to take over her entire being and she’s seeing utterly creepy sights, like the maggots dripping out of her cop friend’s mouth. Dina blames the hit of smack for intensifying the hallucinations. Dark shapes are following her. “They clung to the shadows of the parking lot across from the police station, absorbing the meager light radiating from the street lamps.” The story shifts points of view with a smooth, confident style in an edgy paranormal tale that deftly weaves together romance, unusual forms of lust and themes of professional and personal jealousy.

“Charlie’s Point of View,” by Linda Berry, wraps up the collection with fanciful story told from the point of view of the life-sized fiberglass and plaster sculpture that is seen to this day at the Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax Ave. Charlie, with his highly realistic gaze focused squarely on the newspaper in his grip, observes more than you’d think. A couple of bag ladies “get into a situation” out on the street. As Charlie notes, the store isn’t on the worst stretch of Colfax, “but you still need to be alert for trouble.” Not everything—or everybody—is what it appears to be. What’s real? What’s not? Charlie knows he’s got the best seat in the house. Maybe the whole city.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, was published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

On Productivity

By Mark Stevens

I did the math so you don’t have to.

25 + 38 + 18 + 52 = 133.

???????????????????????????????Left to right—Sue Grafton, Charlaine Harris, Sara Paretsky, J.A. Jance.

They are on the panel, dubbed “A Conversation Among Authors.”

It should be called “A Conversation Among Crank Monsters.”

I mean, holy cow that’s a lot of books represented up there and the 133 doesn’t include short stories, non-fiction and other books and anthologies the four have helped edit.

I’m at Bouchercon in Long Beach at the Convention Center. It’s 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon (Nov. 14) and the huge room is filling up well before the start time. The room buzzes with a rock concert vibe. Bouchercon has a special energy (this was my first) in part because the whole place is teeming with both writers and readers.

???????????????????????????????So at the panel, the fan fest flavor is in full effect. The room takes a few minutes to settle down. People are standing to take pictures as this quartet of mystery masters take their seats on the panel and start taking questions from moderator Clare Toohey.

As a writer in the crowd, I wonder:

Is it all about volume?

I know the answer:

Of course not.

The quality has to be there, too. Right?

In order to ride up escalator into the echelon of dependable writers with large audiences and sizable contracts, the quality has to be there also.

Right?

I’m going to come out and say that none of these four are exactly my cup of mystery or suspense prose. I tend to like my stories darker than Grafton and Jance produce (from what I know, at least) and Harris (most famous for all the paranormal themes that ended up in the True Blood television series.). I have read—and liked—a few of the Paretsky novels featuring V.I. Warshawski.

But even the least productive of these four has written 18 novels! That’s a mountain of words and writing experience. They are certainly testament to the number one tip you here for up-and-coming writers: keep writing.

More writing is more practice. Practice makes you better. Etc.

If Grafton pulled up stakes after A is for Alibi was first published in 1982, would she be here?

I think we know the answer.

J.A. Jance? What a career. Prolific and clearly imaginative—she juggles a multitude of series and even a quick glance through her works and you think, what would it take to keep up that kind of sheer productivity and storytelling energy for the course of 52 books?

Jance didn’t even get published until she was 41, if my math is accurate. She was born in 1944 and didn’t get published until 1985, according to Wikipedia.

So maybe it’s quality and productivity. Readers (the audience) clearly enjoy having a whole shelf full of books to explore once they latch onto a writer.

So as the hour-long panel drew to a close, the moderator gave audience members a chance to pose a few questions. One asked: “what would you do differently?”

Well, what would you do differently if you were a rock star mystery writer who could sign books all day and still not sign enough to keep the fans happy?

I loved the answer given by Charlaine Harris: “Take more risks.”

Yeah, that’s it. Keep writing and take more risks.

As good a recipe as any I can conjure up.

Kudos to the four writers for long and healthy writing careers: even if it’s not your precise shade of darkness, an inspiration for sure.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, was published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

A Few Bad Habits

By Mark Stevens

You brush your teeth. You comb your hair. You make a pot of coffee.

You’re on auto pilot, right? Not much brainpower required.

Your head is busy elsewhere, thinking ahead. Or something.

You sit down to write.

Man oh man, that first sentence of your new bestseller is going to be carved and shaped and chiseled to perfection. That first paragraph, too. Hey, go for it, the whole first page.

Then you get into the meat of the story and, well, not every image sizzles. Not every scrap of dialogue sparkles.

Your writing brain (okay, I’m taking about myself here) goes back into teeth-brushing mode.

Relaxed. Unfocused. Drifting.

And stupid.

I recently wrapped up a new manuscript. Two editors worked it over. Seven beta readers took it out for a spin. And before I hit “send” to the publisher, I decided to search deep, down in the muck of the narrative.

Not a pretty picture.

Those “weasel” words. The crutches, the lazy crap. (I wrote about this issue a couple months ago in recommending a tool called Visual Thesaurus; obviously I’m obsessed.)

To the manuscript: I did a search for the word “few.”

Stevens_FewThe bottom line?

Out of 100,000 words, 154 of those were the word “few.” In other words, .15 percent of all the words I used (out of the 1 million plus available at my fingertips) was the word f-e-w.

Even though this word is meaningless, blah, imprecise, blurry and out of focus, my slack writer brain had reached for it---over and over and over---like a strung-out junkie looking for a fix. Stare at the word for a minute and you’ll see how pointless it is. I’ll wait here….

Funny—neither of my editors’ noticed the overuse of this crutch word. None of the beta readers, either.

But there it was, this fuzzy bit of gunk dragging down all those sentences and my question is this: how do I let this happen when I’m writing that first draft? Does the brain go slack? To sleep? Into auto-pilot mode?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s just part of getting out that first version.

Maybe. It scares me to think that my writing brain doesn’t note when it’s being a lazy ______. If I’m willing to put that word on the page, what other slop is creeping in?

By the time I’d hit “send” to my editor, only seven instances of “few” remained in my manuscript. Each of the other 147 sentences were fortified with a better, more precise word choice that (I hope) leaves the story on more solid foundation.

Is this part of the process of editing and refinement?

Or does my sloppy style the first time around mean I wasn’t really seeing, listening and actively writing?

It’s a question I’d rather not answer.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Pen and Paper? Are You Kidding Me????

By Mark Stevens

I recently sparked a flutter on Twitter.

I mentioned that I write by hand.

Yes, full novels—start to finish.

By hand.

I mentioned this on Twitter and I could hear virtual jaws dropping from coast to coast.

Okay, in reality, I had five or six comments along these lines: “Are you KIDDING ME??????”

I also found a few like-minded souls.

Soon, we had a club forming. Men and women of the Pen & Paper Brigade will only listen to vinyl, take pictures with film and write books by hand.

It’s the only way to go.

First, a notebook is so damn portable. No hunts for electrical outlets in the coffee shops. Trains, planes, automobiles, canoes, rocket ships. Doesn’t matter. Got a place to sit down in the woods? In the park? A mountain cabin off the grid? You’re set.

Second, that sound. I’m addicted. That faint, dull scrape of ink going on a page. It’s visceral. It’s real.

Third, less time staring at a computer screen. Don’t we all need less? And no worries about outdoor reflections, moving around so the sun is just right. When you write by hand, it’s a non-issue. Have you ever headed to the computer and waited ten minutes while updates are installed? Non-factor.

Fourth, the process slows me down. My storytelling head is slow. Fresh copy goes on the right side and then the left is open and available for inserts and new ideas.

Fifth? Well, this is kind of a stupid reason but I dig seeing the notebooks stack up. I shoot for 500 words a day. That’s it, that’s all. I try to get in five days a week of writing. It never works out exactly. Some weeks fail, others get in a groove. But I recently finished a novel in about 14 months, including uploading the darn thing to a computer. Yes, at some point there is computer involved but then it’s a solid second draft.

Here are my tools.

  1.  College-ruled, 1-subject notebooks with perforated pages, 11 inch by 8 inch. I like 100 sheets per notebook. I’m not super fussy about my notebooks, but you get the idea.
  2.  A uni ball VISION ELITE. (I think the lower-case uni ball is official and I don’t want to be disrespectful so I’m going with it.) I prefer the “bold” tip. I like blue. Black is okay. I’ve tried many other options. Nothing comes close. (Dear uni ball folks: One case may be shipped to my home address in exchange for this endorsement. Email mstevens@ecentral.com for shipping particulars.)

Any downsides? None that I know of, other than trying to decipher that gnarled-up penmanship. Man, that’s some wild stuff.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014