Friday, April 29, 2011


(Notice that, even here, conflict generates interest.  The best thing about this photo is the cheesed-off little gargoyle-pixie in the bottom left.)

Basic Plot Failure: the Deus ex Machina

It is especially bad writing to have your protagonist win because someone else just makes him win at the end.  This is called a deus ex machina, which is fancy-pants talk for "someone or something else just makes your protagonist win".  Deus ex machina devices are surprisingly common, in literature high and low, popular and erudite, modern and pre-modern.  If your villain suddenly repents, for instance, your protagonist's old friend who has not been part of the story suddenly arrives to rescue him, or a phoenix shows up to save your protagonist by delivering to him a magical hat wrapped around a magical sword in his moment of need, you've got a deus ex machina.

Popularity doesn't make it right.  Your hero should succeed because of his own efforts.  Anything else is bad storytelling.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Indiana Jones Rule

Other characters can have all kinds of luck, good, bad and ugly, but your main character, your protagonist, in all things that matter, can only have bad luck.  This follows from yesterday's post and foreshadows tomorrow's.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Basic Plot Failure: Passive Main Characters

The basic plot of a novel consists of a main character trying to accomplish some genre-appropriate task (save the kingdom, solve the crime, stop the bomb, overcome obstacles to love, whatever).  It follows that one basic way in which a novel can be bad is that its main character can be passive in its main plot, just experiencing things that happen to him or her.

This makes for a bad novel for two reasons.  First, it makes the main character unsympathetic (we'll talk more about sympathy another time, but, to foreshadow a bit, we sympathize more with characters who are active).  We don't care much about characters who don't care enough to do something.  Second, it makes the plot uninteresting, just a series of things-that-the-author-makes-happen-to-some-schlemiel.

Are there exceptions?  Maybe; we could argue.  But, in terms of film, if you think Forrest Gump or Being There were great movies (I have not read either underlying book), let me ask you this: were they great because of the plot?  Or were they great in spite of a weak plot?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Higher Justice

This is not a ballad, because it has a repeating chorus (it has no bridge).  It is, however, a narrative song, and it is filk, being a non-canonical adventure of Mike Mignola's great neo-pulp crimefighter, the Lobster.

(Heaven Bound Bob and Billy the Snake (sometimes Jimmy the Snake) are character names I have recycled through a few different songs, and that have found a hopefully final home in the annals of Francis Drollery, Ghost Crusader.)

Heaven Bound Bob and Billy the Snake
Work for the city, and they're both on the take
Helping Boss Hardin roll his northern shipments in
For once a week whisky, and Brooklyn bathtub gin
Well, there ain't no human plan
Without some fatal flaw

  They're getting that higher justice
  Higher justice
  The higher justice of the Lobster's claw

Boss Hardin has his tentacles all over this town
Half the city's beat cops, and every sidewalk clown
Lately his boys have been turning up dead
With funny little burn marks on the tops of their heads
And he asks himself
Is he still above the law?

  He's getting that higher justice
  Higher justice
  The higher justice of the Lobster's claw

Boss Hardin takes his secrets on a thirty story fall
The hunchback and the tarot reader tell the Lobster all
The warehouse down in Chelsea, the Nazi submarine
The fire of the angels, the Juggernaut machine
Watch out, Fritz--
You're gonna take in the jaw!

  Here comes that higher justice
  Higher justice
  The higher justice of the Lobster's claw

A warehouse full of Nazis, a pile of bleeding bones
Dancing girls in trances, bugs on ancient thrones
Hell breaks loose when the Lobster starts the Juggernaut to roll
And a ragged fiend leaps from the throne and comes groping for his soul
He shoves that Colt
In the demon's gaping maw

  He's dishing out higher justice
  Higher justice
  The higher justice of the Lobster's claw

Happy Birthday...

to E.J. Patten.

Story Monkeys, ho!

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Man with the Plan

The basic structural building block of any novel is a character who wants something and acts to get it.

The account of what happens when that character acts to get what he wants is the plot, if the character is the main character and the objective is the main storyline.  If it's a secondary character, or a minor part of the main character's story, then you've got a subplot.

Each plot or subplot has three parts: a beginning, in which we see the character and his problem or desire, a middle, in which the character acts to achieve what he wants, and an end, in which we see how it turns out.

How do you know which story thread is the plot and which is the subplot?  The nature of the most interesting story thread tells you what genre of novel you're reading.  Twilight has a romantic relationship storyline, and so does The Lord of the Rings.  In Twilight, the Bella-Edward agonizing is the part the readers care about most and that fills most of the space, so Twilight is a romance novel.  In LOTR, the Aragorn-Arwen relationship is understated to the point of near-invisibility, so that book is... not a romance.

And don't try telling me Frodo and Sam have a romantic relationship, 'cause it just ain't true.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Boy in a Dress

Francis Drollery, Ghost Crusader is a series about the ghost of a ten-year-old boy, doomed to fight evil forever... wearing a dress.  This was something that was done by families of a certain class, in England and in the U.S., right into the 1880s.  Strictly for informative purposes, and not (for the boys' sake) to be laughed at, here are some illustrative pictures.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Your First Book Almost Certainly Stinks

Mine did.

I banged out the first draft in thirty days (350 pages, more or less) and shot it out to a couple of readers, including Eric Patten and my wife Emily (this was before the Story Monkeys formally existed, but Eric and I were already in conversation about writing).

Eric's criticism came back harsh.  If I took it seriously, I realized, I would have to do a major rewrite, probably ditching or changing 80% of the first draft.  I rationalized, enumerating all the reasons he was wrong.

Then Emily gave me feedback, and her major points were, in different words, the same as Eric's.  I lay awake into the wee hours, with my first ever (and, to date, only) migraine headache.

What to do?  The answer for me was, and the answer for you will be: move forward.  You may have to rewrite your first book, or you may have to ditch it entirely, but you have to get past it.  The guy whose first book was his best is like the guy whose glory days were on the high school football team: pathetic.

In my case, I rewrote.  It took me three weeks to produce the second draft, which was several orders superior to the first draft, and the process was the steepest learning curve I've ever experienced.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Structure: Hollywood Movies

There's actually a lot to say about the structure of Hollywood films, but the basic building blocks they overwhelmingly share are three acts.  Here's how it looks:

Act One (30 minutes): we meet the hero, and are made to feel sympathy for him.  We see his world in its normal state.  All important subplots are shown in their beginning shape.  Then something big happens, presenting a huge threat to or opportunity for the hero.  He formulates a plan and begins to act to counter the threat or achieve the objective.

Act Two (60 minutes): the hero struggles against obstacles, and all subplots move forward.  The hero ends in apparent defeat.

Act Three (30 minutes): using new insight or power (generally obtained through the maturation or one or more subplots), the hero adopts a new plan or revises his old one, and triumphs, ending the threat / achieving the objective / achieving a newly realized, more important objective.

You might choose to structure your novel in three acts, like a Hollywood movie; the ubiquity of that form and structure might make it feel like a very comfortable and effective structure to use.  Even if you don't, you should observe that here we see again, like in Matthew, the basic structural components of beginning, middle and end.

What Is Steampunk?

This is Steampunk.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

End on a Hook

The night was warm, there was no fog in the garden, and I felt happy.  After cheese, I watched the Trifles and the Pennystocks say their good-byes and leave, and my parents send Miss Truehart away in a hansom.  Lady Drollery and Sir John were soon in bed themselves, after a quick look into the nursery to be reassured I was sleeping soundly.  The last light out in the house was Horrocks’s, in the small room in the corner of the building where he slept.

I yawned.  I had grown sleepy, but the excitement of the evening was still in me and I did not wish to retire.  As I had often done before, I crawled inside the thicket to rest for a few minutes, lay down, looked up through the holly leaves at the stars and moon of the night sky one last time, and closed my eyes.

And died.

*   *   *

I also try to end -- each bit and each chapter -- on a hook.  Above is the end of chapter one of The Case of the Devil's Interval.  In this case, I also like how the hook at the end of the chapter fulfills the hook at the beginning of the chapter, without, of course, destroying the mystery.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

My Sister

Here's another pop song by me.  Review its structure; note the verses (the journey), the choruses (the theme) and the bridge (the moment of confrontation and realization).

The crickets are quiet, the ground is hard when I get up
A lot of gasoline to burn before I sleep
The sun is grumpy in my morning cup
I make a lot of promises, and some of them I keep

  But my sister
  I always loved my sister
  I always loved my sister
  And my sister loved me

Counting cactus out the window as the miles roll by
Reno in the rearview, Vegas on the dash
Everything I'm selling, no one wants to buy
Dreams blowing down the highway like so much trash

  But my sister
  I always loved my sister
  I always loved my sister
  And my sister loved me

    Sagebrush chapel on a rabbit road
    Pews full of people, honey, I don't know
    You're cold when I take your hand
    I start to cry, I think you'd understand
    I'm on empty, and I've got miles to go

Cold Sierra sunset, the motel smells of pine
I unfold your photograph, take out my flask and pour
I've sold everything that in this world was mine
Come tomorrow morning, guess I'll go out and sell some more

  But my sister
  I always loved my sister
  I always loved my sister
  And my sister loved me

Monday, April 18, 2011

Start on a Hook

On the evening of the day that my father and I both died, he swept into the house jubilant and loud.  Horrocks met him at the door, mumbling his usual polite welcomes and queries about his master’s day while he took my father’s coat and hat.

“Francis!” my father roared at me, spinning me about the drawing room until I was dizzy.  “What have you learned today, my son and heir?  To bow from the waist, to read a theater bill in French?”

“Polynomial equations,” I said, “industrial management and the history of the Knights Templar.”

*   *   *

I like to start -- a section, a chapter, a book -- on a hook, i.e., something that grabs the reader and makes him or her continue reading.  The above are the first three paragraphs of chapter one of The Case of the Devil's Interval.  The hook is the bit preceding the first comma.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Serpent Mound

Here's a nineteenth century sketch of the Serpent Mound.  The real one is outside Peebles, Ohio.  This is an important piece of archaeological Americana that figures into Witchy Eye, and it's my only geographical cheat in the novel; I moved the Mound to the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and placed it on top of a non-existent bluff.  Apologies to the good people of Peebles, whom I robbed, and Cairo, Illinois, whom I flattened under many tons of rock.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Last Man Standing (Hereward's Song)

Here's another ballad of mine.  It's about Hereward the Saxon (misnamed "the Wake", thanks to later fraudulent genealogists trying to claim him as an ancestor), one of my heroes.

It's been a long, hard journey, since Peterborough burned
Many a good man buried, many bitter lessons learned
I'm sunk up to my shoulders in this thick black Ely mud
My eyes are full of chainmail and my heart is full of blood
Heart is full of blood
I'm not the last man
I'm just the last man standing

I've seen the girls of Flanders dance in taverns on the way
While English girls on Alder trees from Norman nails did sway
We fired the wall and William's witch fell broken all apart
My oath on Etheldreda's bones goes dancing through my heart
Dancing through my heart
I'm not the last man
I'm just the last man standing

The treasures of Our Lady vanished with the Norse, our friends
That ferret of an abbot led the Bastard through the fens
The tonsured walls of Crowland do not heed my lover's cries
My one true love is England, true love never dies
True love never dies
I'm not the last man
I'm just the last man standing

Friday, April 15, 2011

Structure: Chiasmus

I have been avoiding poetry in these notes on structure, principally because I am not qualified and secondarily because surely you already know that poetry is structured writing.  I will, though, write briefly about one kind of "poetic" structure, because it's one you may not have learned in English 210: chiasmus.

Chiasmus is an ancient literary structure, common in Greek and Latin literature and in both Testaments of the Bible, and it consists of inverted parallelism.  In other words, a series of words, ideas, or phrases are repeated, in exactly or nearly exactly reverse order.  Scholars analyze chiasms in printed form by further indenting each parallel pair and marking them with coordinating symbols, often a capital letter for the initial series and the same letter with an apostrophe or similar mark for the coordinate in the inverted series.

Here's an example, from Isaiah's commission narrative in the Old Testament (Isaiah 6):

A Make the heart of this people fat,
  B and make their ears heavy,
    C and shut their eyes;
    C' lest they see with their eyes,
  B' and hear with their ears,
A' and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

The rhetorical emphasis of a chiasm is often found in its center.  In this case, I think the rhetorical point is in the piece of the grammatical unit that sticks out, and doesn't fit the poetic unit.  The message that Isaiah is to carry to the people is "convert, and be healed", and the great obstacle is their unwillingness to see, hear and understand.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Structure: The Gospel of Matthew

I want to persuade you that writing is structured.  Here's another example.

The Gospel of Matthew has a beginning consisting of a two-part prologue, the first part narrating the birth and infancy of Jesus (Matthew 1-2) and the second part dealing with John the Baptist (Matthew 3).

Matthew also has a two-part ending, consisting of Matthew's passion narrative (Matthew 26-27), Jesus' suffering and death at the end of the Gospel paralleling his birth and infancy at the beginning, and Matthew's account of the resurrection and the commissioning of the apostles to go forth and baptize (Matthew 28), echoing the baptismal narrative of chapter 3.

The middle of the Gospel consists of five parts, each part split into two halves, the first half recounting actions of Jesus and the second half recording a sermon.  Jesus begins his ministry in chapter 4 with his temptations in the wilderness, followed by the calling of disciples and initial healings.  Then we get the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 through 7).  In chapters 8 and 9, Jesus heals a leper, heals the centurion's servant, casts Legion out of a herd of swine, forgives sin, heals a paralytic, heals a blind man, etc..  Then in chapter 10 he preaches the Missionary Discourse... and so on, through three further action / sermon cycles.

Beginning, middle and end.  These are the basic building blocks we'll see in a novel's structure, too.  First, we'll look at some more non-novel structures.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Another Witchy Eye Chapter Heading: Fake Scripture

And God spake, and said, Shall we not give unto Man a companion?  And God said, Yea.  And God made for Man a companion, of starlight and river rock and foam of the sea.  And God named her Wisdom, for she was more subtle than any beast of the field, and breathed upon her, and she arose and shone.  And she bare unto Man daughters and sons, and the starlight was within them all the days of their lives.

And when the days of Wisdom were fulfilled and the light left her, her daughters and sons digged the earth and raised stones and built for her a place of vision and light that would be forever.

And God spake, and said, Shall Man be alone in his age?  And God said, Nay.  And God made for Man a new companion, of the rib of Man, for she would bear him up under his shoulder in his infirmity.  And God named her Life, for her strength was new life to Man, and breathed upon her, and she arose and lived.  And she bare unto Man sons and daughters, and they began from the first to slay each other.

*   *   *

Witchy Eye is an epic fantasy with American bones.  Some of those bones are Biblical or, as in the case of the above, fake-Biblical.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writing Group Advice: Be a Child!

You have to be teachable.  If you aren't, you're wasting your time in a writing group.

My policy with respect to input I get from the Story Monkeys (and from all sources, really, but especially from the Story Monkeys) is to try hard to take all the comments.  The Story Monkeys aren't lazy and they aren't stupid, so if they give me a comment (which they do, many of them, every week), the comment has usually been triggered by something in my work that needs to be improved.

My first response to a comment is to talk back to it; not to deny or reject it, but to explore it with the Monkey giving the feedback.  "Okay, you say that the problem is that the story is missing X, but I tried to put X in the Chapter 3 dialog.  Did that just not work for you?  Why not?"  Discussion ensues, and usually the comment is clarified and targeted.  A clearer, more focused criticism is easier to respond to and therefore more helpful.

Then, almost always during the following week and ideally the very next day, I go back and look at my writing and think about the comment.  Usually, I work through and make the changes necessary to respond to the comment.

Sometimes, on reflection, I decide not to make a change, but I don't let myself reject criticism for mere gut reasons (which might be simple pride, or irritation that someone has dared to think that I'm less than perfect).  I think the comment through until I can say "I'm not taking this comment because of X, Y and Z reasons."  This process of analysis, even though it results in a rejected comment, strengthens my understanding of my own writing and thereby improves it anyway.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Structure: Popular Song

We continue to look at structure in forms of writing other than novels.  Today: the pop song.  You can analyze the parts of a popular song lyric in various ways.  The three principal pieces that can be assembled into such a song are the Verse, the Chorus, and the Bridge.

Verses rhyme and scan identically with each other but have different lyrics.  The lyrical content of the verses should show progression of some sort (e.g., conceptual twist, change of heart, progression of plot) from the first verse to the last verse.

Choruses are repeated parts, identical or nearly-identical each time, though the progressing meaning of the song may cause successive choruses to have different nuance.  They are the catchy, sing-along part of the song.

The bridge is unique (musically as well as in its rhyme and scan pattern).  Not all songs have bridges, but if a song has one, then the bridge should be the heart of the song.  It communicates the key insight, or recounts the key plot moment driving the change in the singer from the first verse to the last.

Here's an example from my own writing (this is admittedly more folky than pop, but it has all the right parts).  It's "Van Diemen's Land" (an oft-used title).  I'll indent the verses and extra-indent the bridge to make them stand out.

Mother had the fevers, father, he lay dead
It'd been a month of Sundays since baby sister left her bed
I didn't steal no money, it was just a loaf of bread
But there ain't no mercy in a judge's hand

  I'm sailing, sailing away
  I'm sailing to Van Diemen's Land

I knew this girl named Becky, eyes of chestnut brown
She came from golden Kensington, I lived in London town
I had no chance to say farewell when justice sent me down
And the ocean tore me from my native sand

  And I'm sailing, sailing away
  I'm sailing to Van Diemen's Land

     Oh, and that Southern Cross is heavy
     But I bear it all the time
     With a golden girl named Becky
     A girl named Becky on my mind
     A girl named Becky on my mind

Twenty years I've tilled the soil, twenty years I've sown
Twenty years I've harvested these tares that I have grown
Twenty miles of hill is all I have to call my own
Oh Becky, this is not the life I'd planned

  Sailing, sailing away
  Sailing to Van Diemen's Land

Homework: now analyze Mark Knopfler's song "Coyote", from the album The Ragpicker's Dream, in light of the foregoing.

Lyrics here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Writing Group Advice: Be a Woman!

Sharing your writing, especially creative writing, with other people and asking for comments is sort of like taking your clothes off and asking for a critique.  There are probably some people for whom such activity sounds inviting, but most of us cringe at the thought.

Sharing with the Story Monkeys is possible for two reasons.  First, like an evening of Strip Poker, everyone's got some skin in the game.  Second, each of us gets in touch with his Inner Woman and we all nourish each other.  Yep, I mean it.  We go out of our way to remark on things we liked in each other's writing, we make our comments constructive (not "X doesn't work", but "I think X would work better if you did Y"), we help each other with ancillary writing tasks (query letters, agent contact lists, etc.) and even things unrelated to writing (reviewing resumes, IT questions, etc.).  The Story Monkeys care about each other; we each succeed when we all succeed (hat tip: Glenn).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Structure: Twelve Bar Blues

In our continuing series looking at structure in writing (we'll get to novels, but I want to persuade you that this is important by showing you various non-novel structures first), here's a short one.  The twelve bar blues (which is your basic blues form, and covers the majority of true blues songs (as opposed to songs merely named "Blues")) is named for its musical structure (which we will ignore). 

It also has a lyrical structure, consisting of three lines per verse, which can be summarized as AAB.  A line is sung.  The line is repeated, verbatim or close thereto.  Then a different line is sung, usually rhyming with the first two, and completing or advancing the idea. 

Here, for example, is Son House's "Preachin' the Blues":

Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church 
Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church 
I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work 

Oh, I'm a-preach these blues, and I, I want everybody to shout 
I want everybody to shout 
I'm gonna do like a prisoner, I'm gonna roll my time on out 

Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray 
Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray 
Till the blues come along, and they blowed my spirit away
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day 
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day 
But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free 

Oh, I wish I had me a heaven of my own 
Hey, a heaven of my own 
Till I'd give all my women a long, long, happy home 

Hey, I love my baby, just like I love myself 
Oh, just like I love myself 
Well, if she don't have me, she won't have nobody else

How important is this structure?  It's the basic building block of rock and roll, and the vehicle by which the poor black sharecroppers of the American South conquered the whole doggone world.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing Group Advice: Be a Man!

I think one of the secrets to the critiquing power of the Story Monkeys is the sheer uninhibited manliness of our interaction.

Watch a group of men interact, especially about something manly, like sports.  They talk trash, they poke fun, they egg each other on, they raise the stakes, they compete.  They do this all, most of the time, without damaging the friendships that bind them.

The Story Monkeys work like a bunch of men talking about sports.  We are direct with each other, we pull no punches, we talk straight, we even mock.  And, importantly, everyone takes it and keeps coming back for more.  We do this, I think, without being offended.  I suspect the reason this works is that we focus on the work product and we genuinely try to help each other succeed.  The trash talk is about the game, not about each other.  I was not offended when Erik "lost all respect" for my character Bad Bill for his insufficient pimptasticity; he was not in turn put out when I asked -- sincerely, but laughing -- whether he was setting his character Kail up for a gay romantic subplot.  Both of us got valuable feedback about what we had written, direct and to the point and immediately highlighting potential reader perceptions.  Neither of us left the Story Monkeys.

Story Monkeys, ho!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

More Ballads, and Filking Solomon Kane!

For your edification and entertainment, further examples of balladry.  Remember, a ballad is a narrative told in a series of identical verses.

"Mathy Groves" has been recorded various times; it's one of the famed Child Ballads, which you can buy today in a good cheap edition.  Ralph Stanley's is great, but I am partial to Fairport Convention.

Here's a ballad everyone knows, in one version or another.  "King Kong Kitchie", in variants descended from or related to the "Chubby" Parker recording included in Harry Smith's cheeky and hilariously misnamed Anthology of American Folk Music, is my favorite.  I don't know this guy -- just grabbed the video off YouTube.  His arrangement of it, sometimes playing the refrain after one verse and sometimes after two, slightly obscures the balladness of the piece.

Here's another ballad of mine, "The Gift of Solomon Kane", that is also good filk:

They call me a fanatic that are too faint to judge
I shall not spare a sinner, I bear a holy grudge
From Germany's Black Forest to Africa's broad plain
That's the burden and the gift of Solomon Kane

This world is mirk with evil, it chokes me in my soul
My God has placed me on this path and God will make me whole
With rapier and pistol ball, I'm Satan's earthly bane
That's the burden and the gift of Solomon Kane

My blood brother N'Longa is a mighty juju priest
I've swung this staff of an ancient king 'gainst many an eldritch beast
My footstep's feared in the forest, and in every fallen fane
That's the burden and the gift of Solomon Kane

I was a wild son of Atlantis, on Valusia's bright throne
And a hard, dark-haired Cimmerian, captain and alone
Some day I'll be a Texan, a poet in Cross Plains
That's the burden and the gift of Solomon Kane

Monday, April 4, 2011

Structure: Ballads

Structure is vitally important in any piece of writing.  Structure is the road your readers walk on to get them where you want them to go and the signposts indicating what you want them to notice; without it, they're lost.  This is true in persuasive writing, in non-fiction, in fiction, in prose, in poetry, and in song.

The ballad is a key structure in the English language songwriting tradition.  Though the word has been misappropriated by today's pop songsters, it originally meant not a slow song about love but 1) a narrative song 2) structured in a series of identical verses (i.e., not having a chorus, bridge or other lyrical part structured differently from a verse).

I have written many pseudo-ballads and near-ballads and a few true ballads.  The following is one of my true, nail-on-the-head ballads.  It's called "The Captain", and it started as an experiment in rhyme scheme inspired by Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne".

Oh Sally, she married a soldier
A captain named William Lee
I guess in his fashion he loved her
But Sally always loved me

Now I sit by this stone and remember
Her blue eyes and tresses of gold
And how we said when we were younger
We'd be together when we grew old

The captain was usually sober
At night he was usually home
On bad days he yelled and he beat her
Breaking her pride with her bones

You know I was never her lover
But not because I never tried
She just lay every week on my shoulder
And whispered my name as she cried

One day he found us together
Just talking, but we were alone
Pulling his pistol he pushed her
And shouted all the way home

Next morning, I came to her front door
She lay stretched out on the ground
In their Sunday best, everyone mourned her
But the captain, who never was found

Some say he left by the river
Some say he left by the sea
I guess it doesn't much matter
Since the captain took Sally from me

(Yes, I recycled the name William Lee for use in Witchy Eye.  The characters are unrelated.)

Here's "Suzanne", for the fans.  It isn't a ballad.

But "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is.

And "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is doggone close.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Your Breath's as Hard as Kerosene

This is "Pancho and Lefty" by the incomparable Townes Van Zandt, here recorded by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.  You can see Townes himself playing one of the federales in the video.

There's a lot to say about this terrific song; I'd like to make some observations of things that make the song a great piece of writing, period, much less great songwriting.

First, the song is tremendously elliptical.  Its whole plot is driven by a central event, which is never narrated.

Second, the song is deep in the heads of its characters, alternating POV in its verses like a novel switching between back and forth between chapters.

Third, its images are surprising and inventive.  "Now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath's as hard as kerosene"; "the dust that Pancho bit down south has ended up in Lefty's mouth".

Fourth, it uses understatement to great effect.  The devastated Lefty "can't sing the blues all night long like he used to."

Fifth, like all great country music songs, it uses the particular to get to the universal.  The specific details of Lefty's story add up to something none of us has lived, but because it's so specific and so detailed, we feel like we've all lived it, and Lefty becomes the everyman.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Publisher's Marketplace

Here's a website I've found tremendously useful and to which I have subscribed.  At its heart is a collection of self-reported data about announced book and other literary rights deals.  Most of the announcements identify the players, title and genre, and some give a coded identifier to indicate what range the deal falls into in terms of dollars.

I used its rankings of agents within genres (the site will give you both most-deals and most-six-figure-deals lists), together with some judicious googling, to create a list of agents to query, and that's how I got in touch with my agent, Peter.  For this it was absolutely priceless; it not only generated a list of agents but also helped me get a sense of which agents were "good" ones and for what.

I also get the site's daily e-mails announcing further deals and other industry news.  These are tremendously  helpful for keeping tabs on what the current and upcoming markets are, as well as trends in bookseller bankruptcies, e-books, etc.

Caveat: the data is self-reported, and therefore incomplete, maybe even dramatically incomplete.  Still, I have found it powerful, so I pass it on as a tip.

Friday, April 1, 2011


A writer shares her experience of how hustling (no pun intended) increased her sales.

I don't write in, ahem, quite the same genre as this writer, but I share her belief that relying on any other person to do all your legwork is a mistake.  Blog!  E-mail your friends!  Go to conferences!  Et cetera!