Friday, December 9, 2016

Dreams of Bunker Hill and John Lennon

Do you have writing tics? Words you over-use, things every single last character in a book does, moves you love to make . . .? Do you edit them out or embrace them?

by Paul D. Marks

Since we pretty much had this same question last August (you can see my responses here: Writing Tics: The ‘Comfort Food’ of Writing, and I don’t think I have much new to add, I’ll let that answer stand. Instead I thought I’d talk about a couple of things close to me: John Lennon and Bunker Hill. Both in the context of writing or at least my writing. I usually try to stick to pretty close to the week’s question, so I hope nobody minds.

John Lennon

Yesterday, December 8th, was the 36th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. As I’d mentioned here last time, my first paid writing assignment was for a piece about him on the one-year anniversary of his death for one of the LA papers. I’m not going to comment so much here about the tragedy of his death, but about how he and his three partners in crime inspired me to want to be a writer.

Before I wanted to be a prose writer, The Beatles inspired me to want to be a song writer and rock star. (I don’t think I was alone in this…) When my brothers and I were kids we cut out cardboard “electric” guitars and sang along to records. When I got a little older I wanted a real guitar and eventually got one and then focused on the bass. (Hey, it was good enough for Paul McCartney.) And I was in some bands in high school. (See the very professional card we had made up for one of those bands.)

Then, one day I was talking to a counselor and he asked me something like what I wanted to be. I said “I want to be the Beatles.” I didn’t mean it literally, but I did mean that I wanted to be the best in my field. Hey, dream big, shoot for the stars, right? But I knew that I didn’t have the talent to really make it in rock. Of course, you say, neither do a lot of the people who have made it…but that’s another story. So where to then?

Besides rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve always loved movies. And that was something I thought I might actually be able to succeed at in the writing arena. So I gave it a shot. And did have some success as a rewriter/script doctor, though frustrated by the lack of screen credits. And worked at that for many years. But there’s something exasperating about Hollywood and that is, among other things, too many chefs spoiling the stew. Too many people at too many different levels giving input on screenplays and not necessarily making them better – ask me about it some time. So at some point I decided to try my hand at prose writing. I’d always done it to some extent but not as a primary form of writing. Though, even when I went to USC grad school in cinema I took an advanced story writing class from T. Coraghessan Boyle. So my interests always lay there too.

I learned a lot from him and his class, but I also learned a lot about writing and structure from screenwriting. So I started writing short stories and even a novel. And I placed that novel with a major publisher. Boy, was I excited! And guess what it was about – a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood. And aside from a little murder thrown in for fun pretty much everything in it was true. All the absurdities and farce. It was a satire. So everything’s humming along fine and then the whole editorial staff at the publisher gets let go…and my novel gets swept out the door with them. And because a lot of the humor in it was topical it would have needed a rewrite before sending it out again. Something I didn’t have the time or maybe the desire to do then. So back to the drawing board, though one day I might bring it out of retirement and polish it up and give it another shot.

But eventually I did start placing short stories here and there and returned to novels. And though I’m still striving to get where I want to be, I’m having fun and getting some recognition and getting to do what I want. Sometimes I bitch that things aren’t always what I’d like them to be, but overall I know I have it pretty good.

So the Beatles inspired me to want to do something creative and not have a 9-5 job, something that would have strangled me and did on the rare occasions when I had to do it. And whenever I hear a Beatles song it brings back memories of my early days as a writer and writing that John Lennon article where I found I had a voice and things I wanted to share. And I feel like I owe the Beatles for that creative inspiration that got me started on this path. Would life have been easier if I didn’t have this need to write? Probably. But it would also be a hell of a lot less interesting.

How about you? What has your journey been like?


Bunker Hill – Los Angeles
(not that ‘other’ one on the East Coast near where the shot heard round the world happened)

My story Ghosts of Bunker Hill is now out in the current/December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s a little bit different; I think you might enjoy it.

That said, Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions and other cool buildings. If you’re into film noir you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Lots of film noirs – as well as movies in other genres – were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, and many others).

But in the late 60s it was all torn down and redeveloped. They even flattened the hills and demolished or moved many of the gorgeous Victorian houses (as you’ll see in the story). If you’ve been to the Music Center you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote Ask the Dust (and other books like Dreams from Bunker Hill), which is largely set there. But it got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people and the Powers That Be wanted to build up downtown, so off with its head, so to speak.

I love the old Bunker Hill and was lucky enough to explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even “borrowed” the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past. It’s a prized possession.

So Bunker Hill and its ghosts were the inspiration for the story. It’s a fascinating place and I’m hooked on it. I’ll be writing more about it at SleuthSayers (, the other blog I write for, on Tuesday, December 20th, if you’re into it too.


And now for the usual BSP:

Also, I’ll be interviewed on Writer’s Block Radio on December 15th at 7pm PST. Hope you can check it out. Find it here: 

And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Thursday, December 8, 2016

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

"Do you have embarrassing writing tics? Words you overuse? Things every single last character does in every book?"

I started what turned into a lively thread about this on Facebook last week, when I shared a couple of my copy editor's deletions from the manuscript she'd just returned to me. "Blinked my eyes" and "sounded like fireworks going off" both made me laugh. I had to stop blinking my kidneys I was laughing so much. Luckily, the noise of some fireworks lying in their box in the cupboard drowned me out.

Comments were of two main types.

A lot of writing pals fessed up to having their characters endlessly shrug their shoulders, nod their heads, and even kneel down on their knees. We shared a collective "duh".

Even more pals sprang to my defence (and so I should think!), pointing out that writing a novel isn't like writing a memo. You're not just trying to get the bare meaning across. You're also trying for rhythm, style, voice, and the whole big glorious gulp of being drunk on words.

Why, though, would that even need to be said? Where did the idea come from that cutting is king and stetting has to be argued, that spare prose is inherently better than luxurious prose, that less is always, always more. I mean, yes of course, hooray for Hemingway. But what about Dickens? I still devour every word Joan Didion writes, but I'd hate to be without Joyce Carol Oates for the other 362 reading days of the year.

We know where it came from, don't we? Strunk and White's "omit needless words" has to be the most misused piece of writing advice ever. And what a survivor! The Elements of Style came out in 1959 and we're still in thrall. To guys whose writing skills couldn't handle the existence of women. Well, pardon me, but I'm going to take my cue from people who're not vanquished by the pronoun system of such a straightforward language as English. Imagine if they'd tried Hungarian with its 14+ cases. They'd be lying down with a cool cloth on their heads.

So. Strunk and White. I'm not a fan. And Elmore Leonard didn't help either, although I'm pretty sure he was kidding. In either case, I give them all a raspberry and, above, you'll have noticed me deliberately giving you a sentence with three "that"s and a repeated adverb. You didn't? What can I say?

Deliberateness is the key, for me. Intent and purpose are another two words for it. Okay, I'll stop now. Tics on the other hand are what we do thoughtlessly. They're first draft things. Needless words are the words we think the better of when we edit. But editing out style, voice, rhythm and humour (oh yes, I've had an editor take out jokes because sentences could be tighter without them and they add nothing to the great god meaning) . . . editing out the joy? Why would you do that?

I wouldn't. I didn't. I wrote "stet - rhythm" "stet - idiom" and "stet - voice" all over the manuscript. But I didn't, in the end, specify what the character blinked. I bet no one emails to ask me..

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Writers' Tics

Please welcome my guest, Gwen Parrott, who's covering for me this week while I take a little break. Like me, she's Welsh, and her book, Dead White, is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where she lives and I have relatives. Over to you, Gwen....
We all have writers’ tics, whether we acknowledge it or not. We certainly recognize them in other writers and depending on how much we like their work, we smile or grimace. I am as guilty as the next novelist of groaning to myself and thinking ‘Oh for goodness sake, not again’ as I edit my own work. But the idea that we are all captives on some endless hamster wheel, repeating phrases and figures of speech ad nauseam, throws up an interesting point – are we all really writing, as I read recently, in a kind of fugue state, or semi-trance, where we don’t really know what we’re putting down? 

I know that when it’s going well, and I’m typing like a thing possessed, desperate to get it all written before the mood wears off, that I’m far more likely to let my own particular foibles run rampant. Conversely, when the process is like drawing teeth, every word looks wrong, clichéd and badly positioned. It’s not a matter of my writing more thoughtfully when it’s not flowing – I wouldn’t mind so much if it was – but more a case of not writing at all. It seems you can’t win.

When you write crime novels with a historical setting, as I do, you are very aware that readers may not be familiar with many aspects of daily life. My Della Arthur novels are set around 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, and the characters live with food rationing, transport restrictions and all manner of other difficulties. The dilemma I face, and it’s one of my tics, is how much to explain and when to do it. I have a horror of falling victim to what I call the ‘Products of Venezuela Syndrome’. At school, back in the Middle Ages, it seemed to me that every Geography exam I sat for years required me to ‘List the products of Venezuela’. As a dyed-in-the-wool swot, I knew them by heart and could rattle them off. As a writer, when you’ve researched a topic until it’s become second nature to you, it’s a huge temptation to stuff the story full of great chunks of factual information (just like the products of Venezuela) because you know it and it may all be new to the readers. However, just because readers don’t know it doesn’t mean they want to know it. 

I see this syndrome all the time in crime novels, and in its latest incarnation it takes the form of detailed expositions of how pieces of forensic equipment work. The authors have done the research, so it’s going in, come what may! I suppose there must be people who want to learn exactly what a mass spectrometer does, but I’m not one of them. So, using my own lack of enthusiasm as a template, I have to hold myself back from my natural inclination to give a full run down on wartime ‘powdered egg’ and its uses. Yet, occasionally I just can’t resist having characters discuss things that are unfamiliar to modern audiences in a way that gives a little more information than would be normal for them. After all, if you’re living in that world, or any world, you are not forever talking about things you take for granted. Who, nowadays, discusses the miracle of the electricity supply, unless it’s not working? 

Gwen Parrott
 The other major tic for me is the ‘He said – she said’ dilemma. I know from my reading that many writers have done away with this altogether but, frankly, I get confused by long lines of unascribed dialogue, and find myself counting every other line to see who said what. Mercifully, I no longer try to vary the formula with ‘he expostulated – she opined’, but I still use ‘he said – she said’ too much, and all the ‘he answered’, ‘she replied’ and ‘he suggested’ in the world doesn’t really make a dent in the repetitiveness. It does strike me that I may be over-anxious about this and that the human eye skips over these words without taking in more than a subconscious realisation of who the speaker is. And following on from ‘he said – she said’ is the inevitable adverb. My characters are always speaking ‘humbly’, ‘innocently’ or ‘sullenly’, and I’m not always confident enough to edit them out. Am I really sure that the spoken words themselves are enough of a clue? 

My third tic is over-writing. I can’t say that I do this deliberately, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to cut than it is to add during the editing process. As you don’t write a novel in one fell swoop, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll occasionally make the same point twice, and there is actually something very pleasurable about being able to strike out whole sentences. I take a perverse joy in seeing the word count numbers at the bottom of the screen dropping. And once I’ve rejigged or cut a paragraph, I can’t quite believe that it wasn’t always like that. The fact that my novels are written in the first instance in Welsh means that I get two chances to edit – one for the original, and yet again when I translate them into English. I am aware, because of my other life as a translator, that Welsh comes out ten percent longer than English (for your information, French comes out even longer at fifteen percent), but by the time I’m done with editing, if I’m not careful, the English can read like a nothing more than a précis! So perhaps my tic isn’t over-writing, it’s over-editing. I may strike that sentence out later.....

Gwen Parrott’s Della Arthur novel ‘Dead White’ (Kindle) is set in 1947 in her native Pembrokeshire, South Wales. As she is bilingual in Welsh and English, she translates her own work. You can read more about her and the background to the world of ‘Dead White’ at:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Removing my spectacles....

Do you have writing tics? Words you overuse, things every single last character in a book does, moves you love to make? Do you edit them out or embrace them?

Do I have writing tics? I thought not, till my reader/writer friend pointed out I use the word “spectacles” or “specs” instead of “eyeglasses” or “glasses” too often in my WIP. In her margin comments she pointed out the repeat once, then again, and by the third time she was really quite snippy about it, at which point I realized two things: 1)  our friendship had warmed to the stage of permissible snippiness; 2) using “spectacles” even once is too often in a contemporary Canadian crime novel. So I satisfied myself with only ONE use of “spectacles” -- in dialogue, to satisfy my inner Brit.

Another one is starting sentences with “and” or “but” for effect. Usually these days I weed them out. BUT not always.

Another probably un-cool tic, ONLY used in blog posts, is capitalizing words to emulate spoken emphasis. As this can’t be done in my novels, and I don’t like to overuse italics, I create the rhythm of emphasis in subtler ways. I hope.

I’m not sure if this next one is a tic, but ALL my characters are sympathetic in one way or another. One of these days I want to write a really evil individual who I can then skewer into most painful demise.

There are other tics in my writing, I’m sure, though I can’t recognize them so well. That’s why it is important for me to have a reader/writer friend who cares enough to catch them for me; and I do my best to reciprocate. Also reading aloud,  or better yet having Mark (my narrator app) read aloud for me, helps to catch jarring repeats, alliteration, etc.

Edit out or embrace?

Tics should probably not be embraced.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Well, but of course I have tics!

- from Susan

Q: Do you have writing tics?

A: Oh, yes, many and varied, hard to get rid of, much beloved by me. But, come on, what writer doesn’t?

Q: Words you overuse, things every single last character in a book does, moves you love to make?

A: If I’m not careful, my characters smile too much for a murder mystery, start their sentences with “Well, “But,” or “And,” and raise their eyebrows all the time. But then, so do I. In my casual, real life, it’s fine. In the distilled prose that you’re supposed to get in a good novel, not so much.

Q: Do you edit them out or embrace them?

A: Word Search is one of the best tools ever created by Microsoft Word and I use it aggressively: “just” and the aforementioned “well” having pride of place in every first draft. But some of my overused words are trickier to find until the publisher has set the book in typeface and I see how they line up. These are distinctive words used twice in a paragraph or on the same page. It seems my brain latches on to a great descriptor and won’t let go.

Writers and readers, how about sharing a few of the tics you have or notice? I’d welcome the reminders to check for them as well!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Short Answer: You Ain't Writin'

I live in Los Angeles, which The Economist's Intelligence Unit ranked right behind New York as the most expensive city—cost of living wise—in the US. Three hundred twenty days of sunshine per year. The Hollywood walk of fame. Rodeo Drive. Movie studio tours. Disneyland just 40 minutes away. This makes me everyone's favorite cousin, because instead of paying four hundred bucks a night for a hotel, you can just lay up with Danny. Doesn't matter that you haven't spoken to him in 25 years.

"Hey, baby boy! I see you out there in Ellay doin' great thangs 'n whatnot! Dig it—me and my lady gonna be out that way in a minute. Imma look you up. Maybe we can crash at your crib. Hello? Danny? Cuzzo?"

Dialtone. In full effect.

Thing is, I was a frisky lad back in high school. So much that, when stand-up comedy on tha B-side turned really blue (sexual, profane), the only bits I had that even remotely related to sex were jokes about how, if you're not careful, you'll wind up marrying the gal you shared a locker with senior year. No wonder no one wanted me on the Def Comedy Jam tour bus. "Maybe when you turn eighteen, Junior." Dammit! I wanted my sitcom pilot!

I digress. What I mean to say is that kids are most likely to grow up and make kids, which means you potentially have double the representations of your best and highest self to look at each and every holiday. Can't change your phone number and relocate without giving your own children your address (Wait, can you?). Seriously, this Thanksgiving was the first year I had not just my own kids, but my grandkids and their cousin—my only nephew—all the way home from Germany. That meant Thanksgiving had to be cosmically resplendent. We had to make some lasting memories. I had to. For me.

Thing was, my publisher, Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books, laid a caveat on the production of the galley prints for A Negro and an Ofay:  he wasn't gonna. Not without another edit. Seems that two thousand six hundred sixty-one instances of and was just a bit too repetitive for him. Go figure. I was all set to take my time with it, but then my main man and PR wizard David Ivester was looking for those ARCs. Something about helping me get famous or something. Ugh. Fiiiiiine. Whatever you say. Haaaaa!

I got back the manuscript on a Saturday. I had a big-ass bag of French Roast all ready. I drew the curtains, dimmed the lights, turned off my phone and sat in my writing spot each session until I couldn't see anymore. In the day, I rewrote entire chapters, using Eric's notes to improve upon my work. He really is a true artist, both as a publisher and an editor, and I'm lucky he leaned into my novel and found ways to make it better.

At night, I was so hopped up on caffeine, I went to the wine cellar in the Gardner Manse so I could relax enough to read my own damage, and to get drunk enough to resist the urge to make cornbread for dressing a whole ten days before Thanksgiving. "Maybe I could just freeze the mac and cheese and thaw it out. Wait, what the @*%$ am I sayin'?"

See, I thrive under pressure, y'all. The Chicago streets. Teenage homelessness. Teen fatherhood. Teen stand-up comedy career. Divorce. High-tech career. The dotcom bubble burst. Independent filmmaking. Driving cross country in a U-Haul. Auditioning. Novel writing. Losing a publisher. Gaining another. I'll be honest: I'm nice with mine. Life taught me to never say die.

Life also taught me to never say no to my offspring. I'm such a sucker for them, it's embarrassing, thus noooooo writing was happening the week of Thanksgiving. I had to push myself to ensure nothing would get in the way of my fabulousness in the kitchen, as there were too many folks who look just like me sitting at the table this year. I just couldn't disappoint them, and I didn't want to disappoint myself. For the first time, I had them all in the house with me at once, something I'd always wanted.

Yet what I've also always wanted is to be in my element as a creative professional, and be taken seriously as a writer. I want that book I wrote to finally come off, man. I want it to be the cornerstone—no, lodestone—for everything else I want to achieve. There could be no compromises, on either side. The only thing I could hope for was I wouldn't fall asleep with my face in the frickin' oven like I fell asleep face in laptop each night the week before the holiday, as I essentially rewrote an entire novel I thought I was done with twice before.

I can't tell you how A Negro and an Ofay turned out. It's up to other folks to decide what it means for them. I can say that, by focusing on writing when I could write, and not dwelling on writing when I couldn't, I think I did myself, my clan, and my career a damned fine turn. The reunion was wonderful. I put my foot all the way up in the most soulful Thanksgiving dinner I could produce. I got a great mention and cover reveal in that week's edition of Publishers Weekly. Everyone passed a print copy around the table, and no one got booze or candied yam fingerprints on it.

All that, plus I got familiar with new levels of maturity I developed over the years. I didn't bifurcate my consciousness. I resisted doing two things with my spirit at once. I applied whole heart and soul into what was in front of me and enjoyed the focus on the good. I think my novel turned out better for it.

I know that turkey was the frickin' bomb-diggity!

Good reading and writing, y'all.

- dg

Thursday, December 1, 2016

There’s a Nice Hotel Nearby

by Alan

At this time of year many of us are getting ready to welcome houseguests. How do you manage working at home when friends and family come to stay?

It’s easier for me—I have very few friends or family who want to stay with me (see photo of me,lecter how I usually look at home).

But I live with a couple of family members (Love ya, guys!), and there is a never-ending list of chores around the house (and around town) that are calling out to me, nagging me, trying to divert me from my work.

How do I actually write with so many distractions?

Discipline! (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

I’ve blogged about BICFOK before. And I’m sure I’ll blog about it again. But, for me, having a daily quota works. It gives me permission to do other things, once my writing is finished.

Now, of course, life gets in the way (pesky life!). On those occasions when we do have visitors, for instance, I’ll work ahead. I’ll make sure to write more words during the days/weeks before our visitors are scheduled to arrive. Then I can “goof off” with a clear conscience.

Because when it comes to goofing off, you don’t want to be feeling guilty!

I should know, I’m a goofing-off expert.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That time of year …

Being a creature of habit, I sit at my desk most mornings and start writing, and I go until noon. At one time or another I’ve tried to write through distractions: airport terminals, flights, trains and buses, coffee shops, crowded rooms, but I usually end up having to rewrite most of it. So I’ve learned, when real life comes knocking at the door, I put the work aside and roll out the welcome mat. Everybody deserves a break, right? And visiting with family and partying with friends at this time of year is something I like to do. Taking a break from the routine for a few days allows me to return to the work with fresh eyes. And besides, you never know when a family member or friend might slip into the eggnog and say or do something interesting that could work its way into a story – and they often do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Pssst....I'm writing.

By R.J. Harlick

At this time of year many of us are getting ready to welcome houseguests. How do you manage working at home when friends and family come to stay?

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date….Yup, I blew it, again. I forgot to write my blog, so here I am rushing at the last moment. Too caught up in the finishing touches of Purple Palette for Murder due tomorrow at my publishers and too caught up in the big celebration. My home team, Ottawa Red Blacks WON the Grey Cup, the first win in 40 years for an Ottawa football team. YAHOO!! I’m heading off to the big celebration parade later this morning. So I’ll have to have my blog done by then.

And using this blog as an excuse I have just said good bye to my husband with our two dogs as they set out for their morning walk on a skating rink. Yup, a skating rink. Freezing rain has left the sidewalk slippery slick. Near impossible to stand up without your feet flying out from under you. Hope they make it back without too many bruises.

Take a few deep breaths. In, out, in, out…..

Okay, here goes. Onto answering this week's question.

I agree with Terry’s take yesterday. There, that was easy. But I do. For some reason family and friends think, just because you are comfortably sitting in a chair plunking away at a computer or staring out the window that you’re not doing anything.  And for some, I suppose writing could be considered not doing anything. So they don’t hesitate to interrupt, to bug you about something inconsequential that could have been asked later and in so doing, totally interrupt your train of thought.

Writing fiction is like reading fiction. You become so totally immersed in the world you’re creating that when someone interrupts you it’s like crawling out of a deep hole into the daylight. Except you don’t want to be in the daylight. You want to be in that magical world you’re creating. And like crawling back down a deep hole, the return isn’t quick. When your conversation is finished, it takes time to find your way back into your magical world to resume your writing. Most people sort of understand plunking away at a keyboard and will sometimes respect it. It’s the staring out the window, that they don’t get. But often that’s when I’m sorting out what Meg should be doing next.

Over time, I’ve managed to train family members to respect my writing time and have delegated time with friends for when I’m not writing. I more or less have set up a writing schedule, which I mostly follow and spend my time with friends outside these hours.

As for visitors staying with me. I give up. I don’t even attempt to write when family or friends are staying. Besides I want to see them, want to chat and catch up with the latest happenings in their lives and enjoy their company.  I view these occasions as a nice break, a holiday from my writing.

There, that was easy. Hope you didn’t mind this free flowing, where ever it takes you blog.

Good, the walkers are back. No falls or mishaps.

Enjoy your day.