Tag Archives: creativity

Writing by Accident and a Pop Device

It happened by accident. Just a trifle. A commercial ploy. A pop hook. I suppose I could have resisted, but I decided to give in.

It came up as I dashed out the first story of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Mind you, it wasn’t a series yet. Just an idea for a short story. A romp. A gas. I was having a blast ripping off a tale of false identities, blackmail and murder. All in a throwback, corkscrew style as a valentine to Chandler, Hammett, Cagney, Bogart.

I’m cranking out dialogue for an interview scene between our nameless, P.I. hero and a new, hardheaded client. The detective’s already long on attitude, fueled further by a customer who’s got something to hide. It all seemed like a natural bit of writing. Organic. Nothing contrived about it.

“You want the old man shadowed,” I nodded. “What for, Mrs. Leblanc?”
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, “I want you to catch him with her.”
“That is delicate,” I said. “You don’t strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc.”
With abrupt confidence she replied, “You strike me as the impertinent type.”
“Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“Does it?”
“I’ve been working it into a big ad campaign I’m planning: ‘Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.’ Catchy, don’t you think?”

I thought nothing of it at the time. I liked the exchange between the characters, gave the screen a nice fat smile, and kept writing.

After wrapping up the yarn, I decided to craft another. The first go-round proved such a trip to write that the juices flowed, all right. I had barely an outline in mind for the second story. Merely the loosest notion of plot points. What sprung to mind immediately was an allusion to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”—it’s hard to punch out hard-boiled prose and not see the words of the genre’s big boys before your eyes. So I penned the opening lines:

It’s bad business to plug your client. It’s bad business, bad for P.I.’s everywhere, just plain bad all around.

As a short, first paragraph, I liked its grab. But it needed a quick wrap, a final punch, a knockout line. That’s when that dialogue came back to me. I could see where I was going, but it seemed as perfect a fit as Edward G. Robinson in a bowler. Or Harlow in a teddy. I typed in a closing line to the paragraph:

Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

Now I’d done it. I’d given my hard-nosed gumshoe a tagline all his own. Hadn’t planned to. Hadn’t meant to. But writing’s a funny practice. I don’t pretend to understand the creative process. Once in a great while a literary gem seems to appear right before your eyes. On other occasions, the most shallow devices cry out for use. You bat away and hack and slash and keep at it.

There’s not a whole lot of planning that goes into my craft. I’m winging it as best I can. Sometimes it’s gold. Sometimes it crap. All I can do is give it my best shot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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May 2014: A Good Month

Always another shot. Another chance. As long as you’re still breathing.

May’s been a good one. More opportunities, more successes, more dream food. My arms are up and swinging, and I’ve landed a few jabs. I haven’t pulled off any knockout punches, but I haven’t hit the mat, either. Sure.

TakeoutI’ve got several things about to pop. The District of Wonders podcast network has slated two of my works for airing. One of my yarns will soon be running on “Tales to Terrify” and another on “Crime City Central.” The latter’s also considering the idea of featuring “The Hard-Boiled Detective” on a monthly basis. The idea of hearing my stories narrated sounds like a gas. Yeah, that’s a pun. I’d like to find out what kind of following they get, but it’s exciting stuff for me to be in that kind of company. Keeps the juices flowing.

I’ve also got a story about to hit the “Near to the Knuckle” website. That’s an important step to me. It’s an established site that’s well regarded for its niche and its following. Land a story there and you say to yourself, “Maybe I’ve arrived. Kind of. After a fashion.”

There’s Onyx Neon, too. This ebook publisher has just launched a new singles series. I’ve seen the cover design for the first “Hard-Boiled Detective” selection, and it’s a beaut. I’m awful curious to see how this one pans out, but they’ve impressed me a lot.

I shouldn’t leave out the anthologies. “The Hard-Boiled Detective” will soon strut its stuff in “The Shamus Sampler 2” and “Drag Noir.” I’m humbled to be included in the first collection, and surprised I was even considered for the second.

And then there’s the book. The first published collection from “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Polishing and editing is ongoing, and better than half-way done. The writing’s the thing, but I’m not so concerned with that. Sounds screwy, doesn’t it? I’m worried about the cover, first, and then pulling together the promotion plan and tracking all those dizzying elements.

In the mean time, the beat goes on, and so does “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’m currently wrapping up this month’s trio of tales, somewhat staggered the way all the work adds up. This’ll make 51 short stories to date in the series. You look in the rearview mirror and what you see is familiar, all right. But you don’t exactly recall it, either. Was I just there? Maybe better to  watch the road. Concentrate on traffic. Make up the roadmap on the fly.

Got a dream? Doing anything about it? You better get going.

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Word Counts and Books: It Figures

I’ve got enough stories to fill three and a half books. That’s a lot of jack, content-wise. I’ll hit the four-book level this summer. So what do you figure? Would you figure it’s hight time to publish a book? Sure. It figures, all right.

The author at work.

The author at work.

I do the numbers all the time. Numbers of words. I can’t help it. A constant, hard deadline will do that. I bat out three short stories every month for my subscription series. Each yarn averages 5,000 words per. I started it up in February 2013 and I’ve kept it up. Every first of the month, three more yarns. Another month, another trio. Three adventures in thirty days. Week one, write a story. Week two, write another. Week three, the third. Week four, edit and polish and upload. Week five, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

The shortest tale runs 2,200 words. A few stories approach 9,000 words. That’s one heck of a span, but I get away with it. I relish it, too. What a luxury to tell a story in whatever length it takes. Within the confines of a throwback, hard-boiled series, there’s no cuffs on me. The subjects, people and places are wide open. The sky’s the limit. Sometimes I’ve got a clever twist in mind. Or a colorful character. Or a honey of an opening. Then it’s off to the races. My schedule doesn’t afford much time for lingering, malingering or singing the blues.

That’s a whole lot of work. Just on its own. Without the rest of life breathing down your neck. I’m not bragging, just stating the facts. Funny thing, I’m pretty damn used to it by now. Not that I’d ever call crafting words into some creative semblance as routine, but it’s become a way of life. I’ve got that down, after a fashion.

So it’s time to do a book. It figures.

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Letting It Rip

boxers3Mostly I let it rip. At least when it comes to my subscription series. Coming up with three, old-school detective stories every month doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.

These yarns don’t write themselves, so I let it rip. And I mean rip. Month in, month out. I’ve been getting away with that in short form writing. To date, I’ve gotten away with it to the tune of 45 yarns. That’s more than 235,000 words, for those of you keeping count.

While we’re at it, let’s put that in perspective. A short mystery novel these days runs from 60,000 to 70,000 words. I’ve cranked out three books’ worth in fourteen months. I’m not saying that makes them good or bad—I’m just saying.

I guess that achievement will impress some people. But that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything it itself. It proves squat. That claim’s neither here nor there when it comes to quality. It doesn’t mean I’ve got anything worth reading, let alone publishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I keep grinding. The very best I can. One story at a time. You’ve got about four weeks in a month. That gives me one week per story, and one week to final edit and polish. Such as it is. That leaves no time for looking over the shoulder or rearview mirrors. That barely allows time for making coffee, for chrissake. No time for sightseeing. No daydreaming. No dilettante, diva dance steps.

Give me a hook and I’m off to the races. A colorful character, a pointed situation, a splashy opening line. That kicks it off and I wing it from there.

Have you ever planned a murder?
Johnny Shin was gassed.
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin.

Evocative stuff. Catchy. Three different openings to three different stories. I had no clue where each was going. I typed the words and took it from there.

How crazy is that? Does that make me nuts? I fancy I’m creating in the grand tradition of golden age pulp writers. It takes a strong work ethic, sure. No waiting around for muses. No tap dancing until inspiration strikes. You give it your best shot. And another. And still another.

I’m picturing a boxing ring. Writing as the fight game. You train, you work out, you shadowbox until you’re so bleary you don’t recognize your own shadow. Then the bell sounds. You come out swinging. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again. Put up your dukes and don’t let them drop. Not until that first tale’s in the bag. Then the second. Then the third. Fight fair, fight clean, and never throw in the towel. Sure.

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Writing Indefinitely

Truman Capote, 1959

Truman Capote, 1959

Ever come across it? A passage in a story that makes some vague remark? It could be a description of a character or a scene. It could be the take on a given situation. It ain’t necessarily the bunk, but it’s the kind of thing that can sometimes drive me nuts.

You’ve read it before: “She was a good looker. Not too pretty, not too plain. Maybe 25. No more than 30. ”

That roundabout description’s okay with me. Sometimes. That’s the subjective eye coming into play. That’s expressed by a character or a narrator from their limited point of view. Fair enough. But when something indefinite is laid down by a character who otherwise knows their beans, or especially when it’s put across by an objective narrator in the third person, hazy text won’t fly.

Have you come across it? You’ve got a neutral narrator who knows every last thing about the story he or she is relating. Every plot point is ticked off thoroughly. Time, relationships, locations—all as set and obvious as a three-way intersection. And then the author gets all murky on a room or a character. Why the sudden ignorance?

The best authors fall into this trap. Even the ones I humbly aspire to. I won’t name names, I’ll just let them roll about in their graves. But a sudden lapse on the part of the author weakens the whole shebang. The telltale words leap out and muddy the proceedings: almost, kind of, sort of, nearly, close, maybe. And there’s plenty of etcetera from there.

The writer’s telling us maybe? Hell, if they don’t know, who does? And that leaves us with a namby-pamby sense of the action and people. The point’s not about getting cutthroat over minutiae. You want your prose to ring, to sing, to maintain its power and strength.

So watch your sense of things. It’s like maintaing present tense versus past tense. If you’re telling your readers everything for sure, keep it up. If you’re sure about one thing, be sure about another. Get me? Sure.

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Vacuum—the Final Frontier

I love nature as much as the next sap, but I gotta a say I love a vacuum more. I can’t picture a more perfect workplace than an empty, quiet room. And the odds of attaining that? Fat chance.

Kids, phones, family, neighbors. Seems there’s always more interruptions than you can shake a keyboard at. I don’t abhor me any vacuum. I relish a vacuum. The vacuum ideal. A vacuum is my fantasy, my pin-up girl, my unrealized idyll. I dream of vacuums.

Working in a vacuum emulates the blank page, the empty screen, the bare canvas. In a sense, you create out of nothing. You start with zip, and then there are words, sentences, thoughts, meanings.

The struggle is to juggle the wailings of the broad downstairs disciplining her three-year-old. Keeping the aural tones of the microwave from getting in your head. Maintaining the mood, rhythm and momentum while trying to break a ten for the daughter-in-law. Sure.

Feeding the mood can be as dicey as protecting a souffle. Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no dilettante or prima donna. I don’t believe in waiting for the mood to strike or for inspiration to strike. “Writers write,” as the saying goes, and you’ve got to do it no matter the day, the time, the obstacles you’re presented with or those you create for yourself. But it can prove a touch disconcerting to attack a hard-boiled narrative with strains of rap music filling the air.

I suppose murder’s an option. That can tidy things up in a jiffy. A jail cell sounds like a swell vacuum.


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It’s a Dirty Job, and No One Has To Do It

There’s this guy I know. A young fella. Young to me, anyway. Young in a lot of ways. Sure.

Anyway, this young fella. Fancy’s himself something of a writer. More power to him. More power to all of us. He’s got youth going for him, that’s for sure. The spunk of his age. Plenty of energy.

So he’s telling me about his work. All about his work. He knows exactly what he’s writing about. Precisely. He knows what he puts on the page and only what he puts on the page. Anything pre-dating his yarn doesn’t exist. Any artistic references that could inform his writing don’t exist. Any of that and all of that–they never really happened.

I shake my head.

Then he starts talking about the writing itself. How he prepares for a session. How he gets up for it and sustains it. He makes sitting at the keyboard sound like a goddam event.

I’ve been a working stiff most of my life. I’ve had to pursue “my work” when I could. It’s always been just like that last line from hide and go seek: ready or not, here I come. I never could afford to wait for some muse, for some special inspiration, for just the right mood. Whether the creative juices flowed like Niagara or buckled and cracked like blacktop in the heat, I never had a choice. The bottom line remained. The bottom never changed. The bottom line lingered and haunted and pounded away like the dropping percentages of a baseball statistic.

If I didn’t do the work, it didn’t get gone. It’s always been that simple.

Today I’m in a rare position. Privileged, I am. I’m a full-time writer. And I have no idea how long this opportunity will hold.

Some days it’s a push. A lot of days. So sometimes I push. What else can I do? All I can do is keep feeding the meter until it expires. Or until I expire. It’s always been that simple.

Right and wrong doesn’t exist in any art scene. That young fella should do exactly as he pleases. Creating a work that plays is what matters. And maybe he’ll do just that, no matter how much I shake my head.


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Poe Would Be Vaping

I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives. You know, at one time I think I secretly wanted to be a writer.
–The Philadelphia Story

Maybe artists can forego nasty habits, addictive rituals and obsessive practices. Maybe. There’s nothing that says writing the great American novel requires an intoxicating level of whiskey. Oils and opium don’t necessarily mix. Or similes and opium. Or tone poems and opium.

No, having a dependency cross to bear isn’t required, but it’s pretty standard issue according to history. That doesn’t make it right, mind you. Then again, it ain’t necessarily wrong, either. Whatever gets you through the night. Or through the chapter. As long as you’re left standing when you come out the other side. Sure.

What I’m getting at is my own peculiar slant, of course. I’ve been writing full-time now for a little while. A privileged position, that’s for sure. But from the start I’ve had one overriding vision, one fantasy that’s dogged my particular work set-up. I’ve longed to write and take a drag at the same time.

See, I’ve been grinding out my so-called art in a smoke-free zone. No cigarettes, no pipes, no cigars, no nothing. When I wanted a smoke, I stopped writing. I had to split myself in two, a synthetic division between aspects that are inseparable as far as I’m concerned.   So everything got broken up, cornered, boxed in. Smoking became relegated to breaks. And I took plenty of them. Sure.

That’s all over now. I can be slow to the game, but I’ve finally discovered one of those great writer resources, a superb tool for anyone whose creative and addictive make-ups are inseparable. I’m talking about vaping, the big brother to disposable e-cigarettes. Loading up one of those overgrown, cylindrical devices with nicotine-punched juice and sucking up clouds of vapor that disperse in the air like mist.

What I’m aiming for is enhancing the creative process. I’ll leave the health and social aspects to other writers. I’m concerned with making the work happen. Removing obstacles, finding solutions, making it cook.

I’ve reclaimed my writing desk with vaping. Its part of my work now, no different than the cup of coffee at my side or the cell phone close at hand. Technology in this 21st century has fulfilled my working habit in more ways than one. 

I can imagine Chandler laughing it off: “Why don’t you just get a damn hookah?”

Spillane got all PC towards the end. He’d probably say whatever floats your boat makes no never mind to him. As long as you aren’t harming anyone else. Then he’d turn his back.

I’d like to think that Hammett would’ve given it a whirl. It always struck me there was an experimental side to his nature.

The Great Edgar–he’d lap it up altogether, figuratively speaking. He’d dabble with all the stock variations of e-juice. When those were exhausted, he’d move onto things of an illicit nature. Call him Edgar “Leary” Poe.

There are probably those out there that depend from nothing and can’t relate. Maybe nothing comes between them and the words. No shot, no stein. No stick, no Havana, no weed. The only fix they require is the work itself. I guess art takes all kinds.

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The Big, Grand, Hard-boiled, Hard-nosed, Hard-edged Experiment Part X: The Never-ending Sequel

When did it start, this never-ending, multi-part experiment? Take another drag and think. Blank.

Maybe it always was. Like some nihilist chicken-and-egg theory. The Russian, nesting doll version of Pandora’s box. Or maybe a box of Crackerjack. Take another shot and think. Blank.

Will it ever end? How can you tell it’s done? There ain’t no fork test or thermometer for that. This survival of the mis-fittest. Maybe it always will be. Until you drop for good. Sure.

Could those questions be right? Those crazy stars and their crazy alignment. They sure like to keep you guessing. So stop guessing. Sure. However it happened, it happened, and that’s all there is to it. I never would’ve planned it that way–don’t take this for any kind of apology. Just take it as you will, an epilogue to a preface, an ending to another beginning.

The last series of events went something like this. Penned a short yarn, then another, and another. All hard-boiled, all steeped in a period and style better remembered by my dad. Some kind of series I had developed. Sure. So what do you make of that? What do you do with that? Toss it on the web, serve it up for subscription like some sacrificial lamb of a detective. Screw tradition and what’s been done and what can’t be done and just go ahead. So I’m an unknown. Who ain’t? So who’ll listen and who cares? Go ahead anyway. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, smoke ’em if you got ’em.

And in the meantime, why don’t you reach the breaking point at your nine-to-five? Why don’t you just walk out, flat–no plan, no safety net, no security blanket. Sure. Just a deck of smokes in my shirt and a P.I. in my hip pocket.

So now what? When did it start, this never-ending, multi-part experiment? Take another drag and think. Blank.

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The Artist’s Food Pyramid

The Artist's Food Pyramid

Nutrient’s for the creative, possibly diseased, soul.

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