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02/16/2010

Tuesdays with Friends Introduces Stephen Liskow

Steve Liskow 9 Small  This week's Tuesdays With Friends Guest is Stephen Liskow. Welcome to KdBlog Stephen and thanks for stopping by.


Short and Sweet?

 “Well, short stories are easier because they’re shorter, right?”

 I wish.

 Most people probably think of a “writer” as someone who writes “books,” whole-length suckers you can put on the shelf and sort by title.  I do, too.  But I worked as hard on each of my published stories—and the novella coming out this summer—as I did on Who Wrote the Book of Death?, the novel which will appear in May.  I probably learned more, too. 

 That’s why I love short stories.

 By virtue of their brevity, I can try out a new idea or technique and see if it works in a few pages.  If it doesn’t, maybe I can learn how to fix it.  And that knowledge carries over to everything else, including novels, but without having to dump hundreds of pages that took a wrong turn.

 Every short story re-invents my personal wheel.  Whenever I think I’ve found the One Absolute Rule for short stories, the next one shatters it to dust.  But it always teaches me something else, even if it’s something as simple as “Don’t try that again, dummy.” 

 The one constant is SAVE EVERYTHING YOU WRITE.  My first published story languished for over two years because the opening telegraphed the ending.  When I finally found a better finish, I just changed a few details along the way and sent it out. 

 That story followed an early rule: no more than four scenes and characters, and it only covered a few hours in real time.  Hold that thought, OK?

 My next attempt needed ten scenes and eight characters.  It covered about two weeks, too.  The idea came to me in the voice of a mentally-challenged young man who blunders into the wrong place at a bad time.  I’d never tried writing in present tense, but the character insisted that that was how he talked.  The first draft was like pulling my ribs through my flesh, one at a time.  A year later, when my ribs healed, I sent it out.  Contest judges and—later—an editor agreed that it worked and I had two more tools on the bench: present tense and a new voice.

 That new voice told me to try a child’s vision next time.  That story returned to two scenes, four characters, and a time-lapse of less than two hours, but the eight-year-old narrator’s tale relies on his not understanding what’s going on around him.

 That little boy taught me irony.  He made me decide what I had to leave out—which meant that the details that I kept had to be specific and evocative.  Looking at a story in a new way taught me more valuable lessons.  By the way, that story is the only one I’ve ever written that seemed to work from the very start.

 In writing, you learn what you need to learn when you need it in order to write the story you want to write.  Say that five times fast. 

 The novella hammered home some of the same lessons: a story creates its own rules when you give it room to grow.  It started its life as an oft-rejected mystery with too many characters, too many scenes (Does this sound familiar?) and too many words for most of the markets.  Trying to cut scenes or characters to shorten it worked about as well as treating a bleeding head wound by putting a tourniquet around the victim’s neck.  The story violated all my shibboleths, but until the novella contest came over the horizon, doubling its already extreme length never occurred to me. 

 Making the story longer meant it needed more complexity, too, which is my most recent lesson.  If the reader knows where he’s going to end up, he won’t watch the scenery along the way.  Make him enjoy the whole evening instead of just cutting to the goodnight kiss.

 I’m now revising several stories that have hung around so long they smell funny.  Two of them have more complex endings and others have more texture.  They all work better. 

 Who Wrote the Book of Death? has two POV characters, and they both live in present tense.  Both have ironic facets and both hold back (or leave out) information as long as possible. How did those things happen?

 Like I said earlier, I love short stories.

 And I’m still learning.


Stephen Liskow resurrected his love for writing in grad school and wrote five unpublished novels, one of which is currently in rewrite and will head out into the agent world in the spring. He's experimented with romance, comedy and somewhat mainstream material but most of what he writes is crime fiction in one form or another. Three years ago he was challanged to write a romance that somehow morphed into Who Wrote the Book of Death? that will be out in May of 2010 from Mainly Murder Press. 


In Who Wrote The Book of Death? someone is trying to finish the author instead of the book.  When PI Greg Nines agrees to protect a woman from death threats, he assumes that her name isn’t really Taliesyn Holroyd.  Unfortunately, he also assumes she’s really a romance novelist with a book in progress.  She assumes he’s no longer drinking after his own wife’s murder.  What else they don’t know could bury them both along with the book.

Nines realizes he’s falling in love with a woman who doesn’t even exist, but unless he can find the truth hidden in a maze of suspects—an angry ex-husband, an asexual lottery winner, a college rapist, and a philandering politician with mis-matched eyes—nobody will have a happy ending.

Comments

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Excellent post, Steve. I'm continually impressed with your dedication to the craft and with the sheer amount of writing you've accomplished. Keep up the great work!

Great post, Steve. I can sympathize. Trying to write a short story and keep it short can be a very trying experience. The short stories in both of my anthologies all almost mushroomed into novellas.

Ditto, Steve. I admire the variety of fiction you've tackled and done so successfully. (I don't think you mentioned the awards you've won along the way for these pieces.) I hope to try my hand at short stories this year and am making note of these tips to get me started.

Thanks Steve for a great post and thanks for you guys stopping
in.

So I get rapid time to value. So innovations and improvements are continuous. So there’s no painful rev lock on upgrades. So what? What else can you do?

Very, very nicely done!

He is a good friend that speaks well of us behind our backs.

He is a good friend that speaks well of us behind our backs.

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