Gambits #15 – Crazy Ways to Die

Over 90 people are killed every year in riding lawnmower accidents.

That’s more than the average for death by sharks, bears and alligators combined – in spite of Hollywood, those average about one each per year. Lawnmowers were higher than snake bites (6) and venomous spiders (11).

In fact there are only 4 “freak” accidents that kill more people than lawnmowers. Angry deer (no shit) at 200, electrocution at 400, carbon monoxide at 430, and the most boring “accident” of all, falls, at 36,000 plus.

I wonder how tractors fit into that? I have secondhand personal knowledge of a death by tractor followed by suicide of the perpetrator.

I suppose it would be a forensics nightmare. Murderer catches old Bob out on his mower, out of sight of the house maybe, or nobody’s home. Put a rock in the path, a bonk on the head, Bob goes headfirst over the front, gets chewed into hamburger. Most of those mowers have a kill switch in the seat, but if most people are like my father-in-law was, that switch got deactivated the first time it was a pain in the ass. No pun intended. Or maybe, like the two neighboring politicians in Virginia who got off their mowers and into fisticuffs over who was mowing what they shouldn’t be, well, you have the perfect setup.

Or like the ever popular somebody killed the competitive bike rider, think about sabotage on the hot-rodded riding mower circuit.

So think outside the box. Killed by an angry deer is so predictable. I mean think of all the scripts and real murders where somebody got shot “accidentally” while deer hunting when all they needed to do was offer to carry Bob’s gun and piss off a deer. Death by riding mower takes some imagination, or a serious case of stupid.

Gambits #14 – Pesky Caucasians? Turn up the Country Music

Attention: All those seeking equity and equality who aren’t already running our local governments, city councils, school districts, hospitals, sports franchises, school boards, economic development campaigns or spending tax dollars for Covid Vaccination Sites where white people aren’t, listen up.

A study by researchers Steven Stack of Wayne State University and Jim Gundlach from Auburn University hypothesize that topics often present in the lyrics of country songs — such as “marital discord, alcohol abuse and alienation from work” — can foster a suicidal mood among those who are already at risk.

The researchers performed a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas and found the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the higher the suicide rate. In their paper, the researchers explain that “the effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty and gun availability.”

The retort is that depressed white people simply seek out country music. You know, for that “Bummed but not the Lone Ranger” feeling of false empathy from a puppet pop star. Before they pop themselves.

This study was done two decades ago, so with with the deep inroads pop has made into country maybe things have changed. But I doubt it. Hell, enough Taylor Swift would make make anyone as suicidal as hearing Achy Breaky Heart ever again. But the main themes in country haven’t changed. A whopping 75% of country songs are the old heartbreak numbers. Add in the collateral damage from lost love and “dee-vorce” and there goes the truck, the double wide, the farm, the kids, the dog, all with drinkin’ as the usual offered solution and you have 98% of country music.

So, Sha’niqua, you wanna turn the little community college Becky’s outta the blood lab? Turnin’ up the R&B or BCA won’t help, but changing it to country will.

Think I’m foolin? Download the text.

Two funnies from my career in music: A conversation at a small, grimy cinder block bar outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, where we asked someone in the parking lot: “You got room for live music here?” “Why hell yeah. We got room for both kinds. Country and western. Which one are you boys?” Standing outside the Ryman in downtown Nashville with two geezers, one holding a violin (sorry, fiddle) case, the other a mandolin case while a hired gun guitar player threw down some serious shred warming up at sound check inside. Fiddle geezer looks at me and his friend, saying: “That shit rat there?” He thumbed the Ryman’s open door, spit a stream of tobacco juice into the street. “That shit rat there is whut the hayul’s wrong with country music ennymower.”

Or is it the fact that’s it’s all one song, as shown from 6 top songs being indistinguishable?

Gambits #13 – The “Thing” Syndrome

Here it is – The Possessed Hand

There’s a neurological disease known as ‘alien hand syndrome’ that causes the person afflicted to be completely unaware of what one of their hands is doing.


Yes. Anyone with the disease is estranged from the behavior of the hand (or limb) which will behave “capriciously and without direction” from its owner. Sufferes have been awaked by their random hand stroking their face, pulling an ear or messing with their privates.

There are a number of etiologies that could be involved, from certain Alzheimer’s brain lesions, stroke, dementia and uncategorized “damage”. A fall, a blow to the head. Regardless of cause, the hand does its own ‘Thing”.

Instead of the angry severed hand, though, a great plot I’ve only seen a few times would involve a connected hand with a politically incorrect mind of its own. Instead of a middle finger popping out, an involuntary Incredible Hulk style power-choke grip lifts a conveniently deaf convenience store clerk over the counter while the owner demands half the two-fer price for a single bag of Doritos.

Or Murder.

Take a serial killer who is by day a pleasant enough high speed interface engineer who gets driven around at night by his hand to commit murder most foul. It could be written from the Grisham-Turrow-Gardner angle, the Cornwell-Garritson angle, a pick an author whodunnit, a Laura Levine-esque humor take or a Noir shamus riff titled The Upper Hand.

Bonus – Give the hand owner Tourette’s to go with and the comedy at the convenience store explodes. I’ll spare you a demonstration.

Further –

Gambits #12 – Deadly Umbrellas

Like the myriad of disgusting headlines my friend sends me or I discover in my own local news, I’m sharing another one I haven’t seen beaten to death (yet).  Not that it’s not out there by any means, but I haven’t seen it circulating in print or TV.

Here you go – Death by beach umbrella.

Many accidents and injuries involving errant beach umbrellas go unreported, but you should know that between 2008 and 2017 at least 31,000 were reported and required emergency medical treatment. Several deaths by beach umbrella have even been reported along with quite a few maimings, including loss of eyeballs, feet, appendages and abdominal parts.

What a fucking great setup. PI or Bounty Hunter Barbie on the beach with Hunky Ken. After the fashion observations and minute accessory descriptions, the wind kicks up.

“Damn!” She exclaimed, pissedoffedly. “I paid twenty dollars for that hat.”

“Hat?” Ken said, absently studying her perfect buns that sported a confectioners dusting of sand.

“Yes, my white straw sun hat with the blue and fuscia Kate Spade knock-off bandana. There it goes!” She pointed into the mess of tumbling, rollicking beach umbrellas, picnic baskets, beer coolers, plastic starfish and towels piling up against the pier and tourist gift shop.

“Isn’t Kate Spade like, dead?”

“That’s why the knock off is so valuable, moron.”

“Check that.” Hunky ex NATO superspy Ken tapped his temple saying “Be right back.” He dashed recklessly into the melee. Upon grabbing her fashion statement hat he stopped in his tracks and began blocking incoming beach debris with his forearms like Wonder Woman in a speedo. The wind abated as suddenly as it started.

“What’s wrong?” Bounty Hunter Barbie asked.

“This one has your name on it, Barb babe,” he shouted, then muttered “or is it babe Barb…?”

When she arrived, he pushed the upside-down umbrellas and coolers aside to give her a clear, yet disturbingly grim view.

“Jeez, Hunky Ken. It’s Benson Ekoreck, the witness protection skip I’ve been looking for.”

“With a beach umbrella stuck in his chest.” Ken reached to remove the umbrella.

“Stop!” Barbie screeched in that shrill voice she hated but just came out when she was upset or orgasmic. “That’s my umbrella!”

Well, of course it is. Was. Whatever. Anyway, there you go, a free plot device. Remember, you heard it here first. Evanovich owes me five-spot if she uses it.

Seriously – Umbrella deaths and bodily damage are a reality. So much so that several Democratic Senators, two from Virginia and one from New Jersey on a day with nothing better to do sent a letter to the Consumer Safety Commission demanding the effects of errant beach umbrellas be looked into.

“Beach umbrella safety is always lower on anybody’s list, until you get impaled by one,” Senator Menendez said.  

Well no shit, Sherlock.

Can’t help myself – If the fictional scene started above had gone on, it might have ended this way –

“That cop thinks you whipped up the windstorm with your hoo-ha somehow so you could get the Bail Bond on that dude refunded,” Hunky Ken said, disaffectedly brushing sand from his glistening bicep.

“He’s just a hairy scrotum in a cheap suit looking for an easy way out. I didn’t do it, so he can kiss my ass and go pound sand. Hey, what’s that on your shoulder?”

“Uh, souvenir?”

“Souvenir? You can’t just take things from a closed crime scene just because it started out as an Act of God, Hunky Ken.”

“Ohh… But the cops said to pick out what we wanted…” Hunky Ken stopped, looked glumly back at the pile of beach crap being picked through by once happy beach goers. “I guess I better take them back.”

“I guess. Wait. Them?”

“I got you one, too.” In a quick move based on years of training and reflex perfection, he whipped two beach towels off his shoulder, snapped them out in front of himself before handing one to Bounty Hunter Barbie.

“Oh my God!” She inhaled a big breath. “A Versace beach towel! You don’t see many of these.”

“Or these.” Hunky Ken held up an oversize Def Leppard towel. “This is major killer.”

Bounty Hunter Barbie rolled her eyes. “What’s so special about a Def Leppard towel?”

“It’s a collector’s item, babe, Barb, uh Barb — ”

“Never mind.” Barbie pouted, unaffected by his enthusiasm.

“No, really. Check it out, Babe, uh, Barb uh… In this picture?” Hunky Ken palmed up the silkscreened band photo on the towel for her. “The drummer dude still has both arms!”

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #29

The Emotion Issue – Fight for Your Characters Rights Not To Fight (All the Time)

Several years ago emotion was a topic on Beth Hill’s excellent self-editing (and then pay her for professional polish) site. I just did a search and these articles are ones I found useful. Particularly the one on buffer phrases we might use subconsciously or to sound writerly that put distance between us/readers and characters. Here’s The Editors Blog Link.

I am not in favor of dialogue tags unless it is impossible (or being too lazy) to avoid them. Dialogue tone should set the stage, and action tags (often reading like a director’s instructions) are somewhat better until they become, as in parentheses, directorial. Or use none at all, but that’s a personal opinion.

However, and here’s my big but, characters are actors. Without a snuffle or a sneeze where did the Kleenex come from? How did the picture of the scene develop? How was the purse/door closed? How are they sitting? All clues to the emotional state of characters and the visual imprint of the scene.

What do we do if ‘said’ doesn’t cut it and enough adverbs to fill a Nancy Drew mystery are, by personal mandate, prohibited? First, DO NOT ASK AN EDITOR. Why? because as much as they preach emotion the first thing they want to do is remove it unless it is blatant “show.” Emotions are also in a touch, a simple gesture just as much as a fist or a shout. I know this because of two pretty obvious internet editors.

Here is a line from Dan Alatorre – They sure touch a lot for strangers. About one woman pulling a strand of hair from another’s face, fixing a fallen dress strap through the process of discovering that they are both married to the same man. Two subtle references in 2200 words, about a budding relationship, is too much? In Dan’s defense, my take is that he likes his female characters flirty and depth free with long hair they can toss. A lot.

Next is Beth Hill, who offers great advice on her blog. But I sent her a manuscript, too. Usually, she wants twenty pages and page 200 or so. All I had was a doc file, sent the whole thing. Weeks go by. I ask did she get the manuscript? Oh yeah. Read the whole thing. Sends me suggested edits and one of the first things she says is – Rather than filter actions through Deanna and her senses, consider going straight for what (the supporting character) is doing. How Deanna feels is the heart and soul of the document and why Beth hooked into reading all of it to see where it went. Edit it out? No thanks.

I agree that felt, saw, heard, noticed are filters in some instances, but not all. Without sensory input, our characters run the risk of becoming robots. Try this –

She felt/touched/held her hand over/checked/ the stove for heat. We get into detected and some other synonyms and we begin to distance our character from the event with vocabulary. How did she touch it? It depends on the scene, but touch, felt etc. bring you into it. Hardcore no filter would have “she determined the stove was cold.” How do we know? “She reached out, the stove was cold to her touch.” Emotions, senses, large and small show us character and tell a story.

It all depends on what we’re writing.

Here’s a good one – based on one work of mine someone asked me about a character. “Don’t you ever get pissed off? Doesn’t he ever get pissed off?” “Sure,” I said, “but he’s a space case piano player and slugging people is not his style, nor is it good for his vocational health. If you want violence here’s a gothic spy caper with lots of gratuitous violence.”

Now, for the tip. The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi. Some of it is redundant but it’s an easier read than the body language texts and it’s searchable. And it’s a lifesaver when “Punched” and “Screamed” are too much.

Fists and shouts, violence and emotional extremes and graphic erotica are not all there is. The devil is in the details. We should give our characters lives, and tone, not just temperaments.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #28

Sentences – Dead. Simple.

A sentence is a collection of words that convey something, an idea, an action, with sense and meaning. They are developed (hopefully) according to the logical progression of idea(s) and/or action(s).The simplest sentence consists only of a noun, a naming word, and a verb, an action word. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked,” Mary is the naming noun and walked is the action verb.


How simple is that? Sense and Meaning. Subject and verb. Big stuff, huh? No.

What if we are building a scene? A scene is a small story or the setting for a whole story. Can that all come down to Mary walked? Sure. With Sense and Meaning.

Mary walked. Okay, where did she walk? The store? A window? To town? To the moon?

Mary walked to the window. Whew. Simple. What window?

Mary walked to the kitchen window. Which one? What sort of window is it? Does it have curtains, cracks?

Mary walked to the window, the one over the kitchen sink that’s always clean.

Oops. Almost. What’s always clean, the window, or the sink? Let’s get serious. In cases like this we can leave it the way it sounds best and hope readers brains sort it out, write it so it makes sense or make two sentences out of it. I’m going high road for the sake of it. Now. Did Mary do something?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the curtain.


Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain.

Yeah? What if we learn something about Mary in this? POV?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain that she and Nana hung when we were kids.


Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain she remembered helping Nana hang while her younger siblings looked on, both covered in chocolate and fascinated by the tools and Nana’s tone of voice when she used them.

What? Well, that smoothed out the sink and window bit. Now we have a real sentence. A sentence that is a mini-story unto itself. Mary walked is good. That whole sentence is tolerable. What if that sentence steps out of the narrative and sets up…

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn, floral curtain.

Janet smiled at her. “I remember we were just little kids when you and Nana hung that curtain.”

“Oh God,” Mary held the curtain open with her index finger, leaned over the sink to peer outside. “You and Jake in nothing but droopy white underpants, y’all’s faces covered in chocolate ice cream, mouths wide open. Your eyes were the size of ping pong balls…”

“We’d never heard Nana cuss before. Or get mad for that matter.”

“Tools,” Mary flashed her sister a return smile. “That’s what she said to me when we took them back out to Papa’s garage. ‘Tools do bring out the devil in a person.’” She leaned further, shifted to the right. “That hedge line she wanted by the road, there where it comes up out the holler? It never did take.”

“She worked it hard, though.”

We worked it hard, Janet. We all had the shovel and hoe slingin’ blisters to show mom and dad for it, too.”

Janet always found it amusing that her big sis stopped being a hotshot Kansas City lawyer immediately after entering their grandparent’s old flagstone cottage in the Missouri hills, turned back into the girl she’d grown up with.

Off we go. Break that last sentence down. Mary’s language wasn’t enough to build character depth? No. But when countered with another character’s perspective? That gives us meaning out of a sentence.

Narrative or dialogue. Every story, every scene is down to every sentence. Write a good sentence with the same questions as a good story. Where is it going? What does it look like, feel like, smell like, what does it do to you, where does it take you?

Dead. Simple. Ask simple questions, get real sentences.

Mary walked. And…there’s a million things to think about. Why was the window always clean? Did Nana watch birds or Papa working or the milk cows, or wonder about the school bus up on blocks that blocked her view or… Write a decent sentence. Follow it with another one. Follow it with dialogue, whatever.

Use your imagination, but control it with sense and meaning. Take a breath, read it out loud. Repair as required. Continue.

Dead. Simple.

Make sense. Have meaning. Try it. The longest journey starts with a step, just like Mary.

Mary walked. The rest of her story awaits.


Exercise 2 –

Mary walked. Mary dragged the body to the dumpster. She was tired and sweaty. The body was too heavy to lift by herself. Could she trust her sister? Oops. Too simple and it reads like an outline.

Mary, drenched in sweat despite the sub-freezing temperature, walked back to the van after she’d dragged the body to the dumpster. No way could she lift all of that fat fucker even an inch by herself, much less four feet off the ground. Maybe she could trust her crazy sister Janet, but only if Janet was thoroughly medicated. Janet was the bionic woman, as big as the dead man rolled up against the dumpster, only Janet wasn’t fat. She was just big. NFL linebacker big, freakishly strong, crazy as a snake-handling preacher and totally unreliable. But long on strong. And crazy. Shit, there had to be another… Mary searched her brother Jake’s PianoMan Movers van for something, anything she could use for leverage. The grand board, wedged in under the organ dollys, might work. Sure. Strap that fat fucker down, lift the board, unhook the top strap, fold his dead ass in. Perfect. Unless she couldn’t lift the grand board with the fat fucker strapped to it. Strong was exactly what she needed. Shit. Her finger hovered over Janet’s number, a bee over a dying rose. Fuck it.

“Janet? Mary. No, your Big Sis Mary, not the Sainted Mother. Yeah…No, I didn’t know you were expecting her to call…Hey, look. ‘Member that handsy pervert Nana married after Papa ran off with the turned out not to be a lesbian wrecker driver…”

It doesn’t matter in what genre we write. Long sentences, short sentences, one after the other.

Dead. Simple.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #27

Fluff and Shite Episode 2

January 31st was the feast day of St. John Bosco. A Nineteenth-Century Italian and patron saint of editors. I put a dollar in the slot and lit a candle. I need all the help I can get. First-person has made me downright effusively verbose, style-wise. See there?

I noticed something strange about the book. “The pages don’t have numbers on them, Don.”
“No,” he said. “You just open it and whatever you need most is there.”
“A magic book!”
“No. You can do it with any book. You can do it with an old newspaper, if you read carefully enough. Haven’t you done that, hold some problem in your mind, then open any book handy and see what it tells you?”
“Well, try it sometime.”      Richard Bach – Illusions

“There’s a book for that.” One of my favorite lines when I am asked how/where/when about writing, or getting stuck writing, or flat confused. Not that I read them cover to cover or adhere to their rules. But what the Reluctant Messiah suggests is, as one of my favorite characters would say, “A natural fact.”

1553 – Sounds like that dark lager I like from New Belgium. Not near as much as Reasonably Corrupt from Great Raft, a dark that you can forget for twenty minutes and still drink. There I go. What’s on the jukebox in Mullinville?

1553 – (ahem) – Thomas Wilson published The Arte of Rhetorique. Written to help fledgling poets and writers develop their craft. He got on straightaway to thrashing the wordy nonsense that I refer to as “words strung together that sound like writing.” 400 years in front of Lanham. One of Wilson’s examples of what to avoid –

“I cannot but celebrate and extoll your magnifical dexterity above all others. For how could you have adepted such illustrate prerogative and dominical superiority if the fecundity of your ingeny had not been so fertile and wonderful pregnant?”


We like to be liked, told how wonderful we are. It’s “a natural fact.” I don’t pick up books or seek out criticism to be coddled. It’s unnatural. Why? I worked “creative for $” since I was 20. I supported myself with it from 25 on. It is not a thin-skinned gig. Artistic directors, producers, the client(s), the company, the focus groups…All have opinions. As the creative, yours doesn’t count. You can sweat blood, follow the directives and hit the deadline and watch everyone in the room sag when it runs. Two choices. Whine and make excuses or listen, retreat and repair. Hey, it’s not my skateboard or gas station or Neiman Marcus. My point is – I put that “kick me, please” attitude on myself. If it makes my skin crawl, even a little, it’s wrong, somewhere.

Take “Crossroads.” It makes my skin crawl a little. I could cut 250 from that, easy. More like 500 in my normal style because I could cover a lot of ground with shifting third person POV, see a more omni view of what’s going on instead of shadowing one character. My dilemma is that I want more than the meeting with whoever will ‘splain the setup, tough talk and gunfire. More than a classic pulp, less than a moralizing Travis McGee. The extra words, head time (for ‘splaining), all that stuff is really troublesome. I run the risk of stringing words together that sound like writing.

Consider “Crossroads” again. The denouement, flying away? It was three times as long before I whacked it, and could go altogether. In fact, it could all go as far as I’m concerned after “greasy spot in the dirt.” But it would require some (a lot of) excess suspension of disbelief. And it serves three purposes. It clears most of the question marks in the air about the vehicles and the bodies, gets him in the air and we get some character glimpse humor.

Granted, I could have walked him to the café and back, ruminating or moralizing or both. climbed into the plane and taxied with him. I could have dropped everything after the gunplay and caught it up in conversation with Rip or Moreno. Earlier I could have gone off on enlightened racists and deeper ‘all the casualties of war.’ Or fields of wheat and farmers and drought and…Jeez, 3k, 3.5k by then? I’m not that fluffy. If I want a sermon I’ll go to church, a history or sociology or botany lesson I’ll go to school. I figure most of you feel the same way.

I wouldn’t have this problem if it was as simple as “I stopped at the store with Nana’s shopping list. Three apples, brown sugar…” Stop after shopping list. Screw the recipe. “Nana and I spent the next hour putting the nutmeg in the cinnamon before we…” Stop. “Nana and I spent the next hour getting covered in flour and assorted ‘makins’ while we assembled her from-scratch blue ribbon apple pie.” Rule one. If it’s not a cook-book, dump the recipe.

But – This is not so simple, at least for me. Not a story told in my usual style. Not a story I want to thin out when it is about more than a superficial greed and money caper. Seriously, in a straight caper with a twist, what the hell am I doing with Rip riffing his allegories, Moreno playing the love card, Paro shifting from just a dude with a plane to pulling combat and in charge dude from his front pocket now and then?

Truth? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but it’s about to go sky-high. I can see the bloat, but until Paro tells me the next chapter and it’s in the can I won’t know exactly where. I’ll find a place in draft 2 to whack and catch up. Maybe. Maybe I’ll exceed my self-imposed word limit and run this linear until it blows up.

“There’s a book for that…” Yes, I just haven’t picked it up yet. For now, I’ll do the best I can with the fluff and shite I have and consider it a learning experience. At least, as I discovered opening The Arte of Rhetorique, I haven’t quite hit the pompous inkhornism bar Wilson admonished against. But it made me more aware of my failings than it bolstered my ego.

Feel free to like this post and say something supportive. Or tell me a harsh truth!





RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #26

Gimme a Dollar’s Worth – The Fluff and Shite Episode

“I’d rather get on with the plot than fluff out half a book with shite just to make the 90,000 words that agents are looking for.” – Stevie Turner

Amen. I mentioned in my last Writerly Concerns about generic advice, real skillsets and understanding how to apply them and telling our stories our way as best as we can. How to identify what makes the story flow, haul ass or slow down and fit into itself not some bullshit factology numbers and hack formulas.

Check this out. Someone once asked Eddie Van Halen how he tuned his guitars. Ed said, “I tune them to themselves.”

Give that a minute to gain the weight it deserves.

The second bit of Stevie’s quote is very telling of the bullshit factology we’re presented with every day. “90,000 words that agents are looking for.” I can’t find an explanation. But I do have some data. Data is boring, but this is simple, average word count comparisons from authors who sold/sell a lot of books. Do not use this data as bullshit factology, but reference. Remember what EVH said? We should tune our books the same way.

First, and this one is blatant. John D. MacDonald’s “A Deadly Shade of Gold.” I say that because emblazoned on the cover is “A double-length adventure in the brilliant new series…” It clocks in with a 110k word count from an author/series that averages 59k. How did he do it? Is there more brilliant adventure? No, instead of a typical ‘I stopped and ate lunch in the hotel lobby before going up to the room’ as we’d find in something like “The Quick Red Fox” we get lunch with Travis McGee. For a page and a half. Complete with phonetic dialect from the waiter. Trav tells us about the quality of his sleep. He describes not a ‘rag tag assemblage’ of fishing boats, but every one of them. Not ‘California beach bunnies’ but down to their sprayed on wet suits and ‘unblemished by character’ complexions. How many books are on a shelf, what they are. The ‘double-length adventure’ is the same Travis McGee adventure with descriptions of the wallpaper and extended moralizing.

Modern authors, I’ll pick on Balducci and Burke, who average in the 127 to 135k range. I would like to read Burke but I don’t want to keep a botany text handy for his descriptions of Louisiana. Somehow, even with too much “silvery moonlight” and Nancy Drew adverbs Faulkner’s “Mosquitos” makes you sweat and feel and be New Orleans and the swamp without the proper names for all the subtropical greenery. I almost bought a recent Baldacci hardback off the Twofer $10 table at Barnes and Noble. The raw materials are worth more than $5. Number One New York Times Bestseller. $5. I popped it open and the dialog was so stilted it would have embarrassed a Hallmark Channel scriptwriter. I put it back. 127k of call and response dialog and fashion/objects description fattening up what one reviewer called “familiar ground.” 127k that, like Burke, felt slow and obese.

I almost picked up his “How to” on writing mystery and suspense, but his latest sitting like a beautiful red turd in the punchbowl at $5? No thanks. We have the internet and the plethora of Dan Alatorre’s and his clones to charge money to teach us hack formula. (personal opinion only)

Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” was a best seller at 130k and save for the extra pages, often inserted in moments of character rumination, devoted to descriptions of England’s Pastoral Green and Pleasant Land it never felt “thick.” She painted the story and its myriad cultural clashes with thoughtful care and very little preaching or flagrant agenda.

Jennifer Egan. The female David Foster Wallace. Love or hate her work, “The Keep” hits 76k. We get the castle experienced, not narrated. The entire book is full of experience through the characters, how things feel. Never does she say “the castle, imposing and mysterious” to get it out of the way and tell us where we are. An amazing book, even if you don’t like it or the characters. Liking it’s not the point, it’s an exercise in literary immersion that most of the franchise 130k crowd couldn’t hit in a million of their words describing the interior of a BMW where a boring conversation takes place.

Lets get to some people who sold books, movie rights, tv-series and won awards from their peers. Even some of the old-timers big shot authors point to.

Dashiell Hammett. “The Thin Man” 59k. Most of his average right in there. The same with Chandler. Sounds like MacDonald.

Elmore Leonard. “The Switch,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “Maximum Bob,” “Get Shorty.” 75k to 78k. “T Blues” felt a little heavy at 78k down to the Civil War reenactment and history lessons. But still, EL was a mid 70k author.

Robert B Parker. Like Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, “Painted Ladies” hits 59k. Right in the pocket with the rest of his hard-boiled detective novels. He stretches it by 7 to 10k in some of the non-Spenser works.

Tony Hillerman. I have no bias because as a kid I went with my father on Saturdays to Tony’s father’s photo studio in Oklahoma City. Tony wrote like watercolor on glass and will put you in New Mexico talking to Navajos like you’re there with zero effort. “Coyote Waits” is representative of his award-winning work at 73k.

Let’s not forget the serial ladies.

Patricia Cornwell. Mid Scarpetta series hits that 130k mark. Franchise author land.

Mary Higgins Clark, like PD James. Runs from 83 to 135k, depending.

I won’t go into King, because it took me a year one week to read “The Stand.” He can write what he wants. And the Brits in the Colin Dexter line? Sheesh.

My point? Where the hell is that 90k number coming from? 

Narfling another Garthok – I had one, first of a series I’d thought about. The series could have run a million words. The first one, the edited (and I thought whacked down) draft went out to beta readers and editors. It weighed in at 110k. Everyone and I mean everyone, quit about 75k and said “that’s enough of that. Wrap it up. We get it.”

Which is exactly how I feel. Mid-seventies is perfect. Plenty to get it told, to get ahold of, but not too much time on the wallpaper or beating the characters to death. To me, 130k is like all you can eat for two dollars. And a dollar’s worth is all you need. Or, in some cases, can stand.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #25

Narfling the Garthok

Ever noticed how most all the ‘net writing advice on offer is generally useless, soft focused if focused at all, shotgun style generic and a good bit of it pay to play and how most of that isn’t much better than the free stuff? There was a key word in that sentence. If you missed it, I’ll be back.

We are offered opinion. Often based on what I call “bullshit factology.” You know, where self-styled marketers and editors and writing coaches have percentages for everything. Dialog vs Narrative, Action vs Head Time, Violent Action vs Character Moralizing, per page reader economy and why do we need to see this through the character or show, don’t tell. Notice those last two are in direct contradiction. Not so long ago I got both suggestions from the same editor, in the same chapter! Don’t open a scene with weather, open a scene with weather for tone. Lead the reader, let the reader decide. Don’t preach but – what is your character’s motivation (preaching being the easy way out). Don’t moralize but humanize your characters, what are they feeling? Let the reader decide what they’re feeling…

See what I mean? All of those conflicting suggestions are backed up with “bullshit factology” claims. Be they in marketing numbers and percentages of books sold in a given format in a given genre or by examples of “successful” authors. Like politicians, always using an example that serves the seller’s point. A bunch of snake oil salespeople with “proven formulas for your success” are teaching people to write and publish, treading on the writer’s dreams with their “voice of experience” and allowing them to publish poorly written crap that sells to a dozen relatives, everyone in their writing group and a few unsuspecting strangers who are all too polite to say it sucks.

Well, they don’t suck. Stories don’t suck, skills just need to be addressed before cover reveals and interviews oh my golly gosh I wrote a book full of dystopian gibberish. With a cool cover.

I bring this up because I have recently been Narfling my writer’s Garthok. To do so successfully I returned to the tomes of real teachers, real editors, real rhetoricians. They ask the hard questions and show real-world examples without saying “this is the gospel according to me. Adjust and use to taste.” Am I the only one who wants those hard questions, and their answers?

I don’t like sports analogies but here I go – The quarterback, the guy running the huddle on the football field? I had that job in my distant youth and I can tell you he does not bend over in there and say, “Okay, you big guys block and you three speedsters go out there and run around and I’ll throw the ball to somebody.” Except Patrick Mahomes, and he only does that when the pocket collapses. Without skills honed by practice into second nature intuition and instinct, he’d be getting knocked on his ass in the backfield all Sunday afternoon by people three times his size, not going to the Super Bowl. The point. A play is called based on a number of factors presented by the defense and then recognizing the skills needed to be productive in the moment. Like writing, or any art.

Oh yeah, the keyword back there? Generic. One size fits all. ‘Splaining, usually their take on the formulas. Bull. Shit. Everything has to drive the story. Reader economy. Mandatory story arc. I could repeat the first paragraph but I won’t.

Where is the story in all that? All the way back to the Ancient Greeks and the canons of rhetoric (which are rarely discussed by the Indie writerly) we come to the hard questions – What is our story? Who is our audience? What is our style? No, not the formulas, our personal style. Our voice. And, like any professional speaker, do we have the skills to tell our story to our audience? Do we even know how to check for that? If any of our answers are in the vicinity of “I wanna be (insert author here)” and we want to write more Hogwarts or conspiracy theory spy novels or (insert genre here) just like the person who wrote them in the first place then stop, right here, because we need to decide who we are and find the skills to express ourselves.

Do we know how to ramp our work up or down for the project at hand? Classic example, and I have used her before. PD James can take two to four pages to describe a freaking kitchen. Longer for a garden. Half a book could be given over to describing a country house, interspersed with the story. But – I got a collection of her short stories as a gift. And man, you can see her taking an author’s axe to all that atmosphere and boiling it down to four or five words. She’s as good a sketch artist as she is in the mural painting business. She admits in the forward that it takes a concentrated effort to get there. Knowing what we need to do is a skill. Knowing how to do it is also a skill. James didn’t change her voice, she adapted her voice and style to fit the confines of the product. And that doesn’t come from generic formula bullshit factology. It comes from knowing the basics, and ourselves, well enough to tell our story, our way, in a given format.

Another one, and this is hilarious, Dashiell Hammett short stories? A Hammett novel minus everything but the violence. Wham bam boom, almost non stop shoot ’em ups.

My point(s) in all this, besides bad, muddle through it generic advice is winning over learning the basic skill sets is this – Story first. Content first. Voice first. Our chosen audience will tell us, sans bullshit factology, what they like. PD James sold a lot of books where for pages at a time the story was up on blocks and not driven anywhere, but readers were presented with an atmosphere. Personally, I can do without so much of that, but knowing it is a viable (and oft used) stylistic tool is one more thing in the toolbox.

We have arrived at that – The Toolbox. And my latest Narfling the Garthok. I am writing a first-person caper with too many players, on purpose. To see if I can do it without the classic info dumps inherent in first person because one can’t see what else is going on, how others are behaving. Everyone complains about them, the info dumps, everyone points out a “great author” who didn’t use them and again I say Bull. Shit. Hammett, Chandler down through the ages of Parker and MacDonald and Connelly et al, they all end up in someone’s house, or a restaurant, or a police station or an alley where “somebody” spills the beans on the layout and the players. Christie did it by assembling everyone in a room and ‘splaining away the MacGuffins and red herrings. Barnaby or Morse have their eureka moments, after 400 pages, and they decide it was the meek, glasses-wearing nephew who killed everyone. No. Not going there, either. This is a caper, and unlike so many who try lately, I refuse to have the gaping plot holes, to have someone say later, well, what happened to the Cadillac and the body? Where side characters are who we meet on the way through the adventure, not unlike a PD James kitchen or a well-drawn MacDonald character thrown in Travis McGee’s way. No lengthy moralizing, no is this good or bad, who is evil, what is evil. Is just is. Elmore Leonard excelled at it in things like The Switch. Only that was third person. First-person is a bitch without the dumps, but I know it can be done. I’m trying to do it the way I suggest we all write – without accepting the generic advice – and telling our stories, our way, to very best of our ability. Raise your personal bar. Narfle the Garthok.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #24

Favorite Conversations

From: William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes

“Well, it is a kind of sterility — Words,” Fairchild admitted. “You begin to substitute words for things and deeds, like the withered cuckold husband that took the Decameron to bed with him every night, and pretty soon the thing or the deed becomes just a kind of shadow of a certain sound you make by shaping your mouth a certain way. But you have a confusion, too. I don’t claim that words have life in themselves. But words brought into a happy conjunction produce something that lives, just as soil and climate and an acorn in proper conjunction will produce a tree. Words are like acorns, you know. Every one of ’em won’t make a tree, but if you just have enough of ’em, you’re bound to get a tree sooner or later.”

“If you just talk long enough, you’re bound to say the right thing someday. Is that what you mean?” the Semitic man asked.

“Let me show you what I mean.” Fairchild reached again for the book.

“For heaven’s sake,” the other exclaimed, “let us have this one drink in peace. We’ll admit your contention, if that’s what you want. Isn’t that what you say, Major?”

“No, really,” Major Ayers protested, “I enjoyed the book. Though I rather lost the habit of reading at Sa — ”

“I like the book myself,” Mark Frost said. “My only criticism is that it got published.”

“You can’t avoid that,” Fairchild told him. “It’s inevitable; it happens to everyone who will take the risk of writing down a thousand coherent consecutive words.”

“And sooner than that,” the Semitic man added, “if you’ve murdered your husband or won a golf championship.”

“Yes,” Fairchild agreed. “Cold print. Your stuff looks so different in cold print. It lends a kind of impersonal authority even to stupidity.”

“That’s backward,” the other said. “Stupidity lends a kind of impersonal authority even to cold print.”

Fairchild stared at him. “Say, what did you just tell me about contradicting myself ?”

“I can afford to,” the other answered. “I never authenticate mine.” He drained his glass. “But as for art and artists, I prefer artists: I don’t even object to paying my pro-rata to feed them, so long as I am not compelled to listen to them.”

“It seems to me,” Fairchild rejoined, “that you spend a lot of time listening to them, for a man who professes to dislike it and who don’t have to.”

“That’s because I’d have to listen to somebody — artist or shoe clerk. And the artist is more entertaining because he knows less about what he is trying to do. . . And besides, I talk a little, myself.”


There are several of my favorite lines about writing and writers, “artists” in general, in this work from 1927. Quotes more applicable to today’s explosion of stylistic and “voice” sausage in the cavalcade of self-published casseroles that almost read like writing. A number of conversations in this work are textbook examples of how characters can have opinions and preach for the author’s POV without “preaching.” We get Faulkner’s take on artists, art groupies and pinball relationships wrapped up in a novel, not standing in front of his soapbox.

Aside – God knows I love to see Grammarly telling me how to correct (sterilize) Faulkner.