Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Learning to Double-dip

Back in the days, when I was a lowly staff accountant hitting the audit trail, I was exposed to countless stories from other accountants who had preceded me in experience. One of those stories came from an auditor who told me how they went to a restaurant and watched as a busboy cleared a table and poured the salsa remains back into the tub used to refill other patrons’ bowls. Personally, I think the whole thing was a hoax—those guys were always spinning stories just to see how gullible the newbie was—but the memory strikes at the heart of today’s posting: Double-dipping. We’ve all seen it before. That one loser who dips his chip into the salsa, takes a bite and then dips the same chip back into the same salsa. As far as eating protocol, this one probably makes you fight off the gag reflexes. As far as writing goes, however, it should be as appetizing as a banana split with tons of whipped cream on top.

Currently, I’ve been trying to focus my energies on writing crime/suspense stories. These are not so much mysteries as there is nothing for the reader to solve along with a detective or an investigator. Rather, these stories delve into the crimes and their perpetrators, exploring the reasons and the outcomes. As part of my endeavor, then, I’ve pulled off of novel reading and targeted some collected works. Learning to Kill by Ed McBain, a collection of his short stories, is one of them. Born Salvatore Lombino, the author was published under the names of Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Hunt Collins and Richard Marsten. He garnered his first publication back in the 1950s, and his last work was published in 2005, the year he passed away. Spanning five decades, he had one of those careers that many writers can only dream of.

In writing about one of the short stories, “See Him Die”, the author noted the following:

“See Him Die”—in a greatly changed and expanded version—was later retitled See Them Die, and published in 1960 as the thirteenth novel in the 87th Precinct Series.

While looking at McBain’s bibliography, I also noted another 87th Precinct novel was titled Sadie When She Died. This was the same title to a story in the Alfred Hitchcock collection of mysteries (published by Barnes & Noble).

You know how you remember something, but can’t quite place your finger on it? This is what happened to me when I realized what McBain did with his short stories. Somewhere deep in my stack of collected issues of Writer’s Digest magazines, there was an article about reselling work. The article was targeted toward nonfiction writers who had resubmitted a previously published article, but with a different twist on it. Say the writer sold an article about the struggles of getting kids off to school in the morning. The writer might change the focus just slightly and write some extra stuff about the benefits of timetables in the morning—breakfast from 7:00 to 7:15, getting dressed from 7:15 to 7:25, brushing teeth & combing hair from 7:25 to 7:30, and so on—and then resubmit that piece to a different magazine. The idea behind the WD article was to wring more juice out of your work. As I read McBain’s commentary before “See Him Die”, it dawned on me that he did the same thing, only forty-plus years ago.

That revelation brought me to a new awareness about my own writing: If he could do it, then why can’t I?

One of the problems I have as a writer is that while I’m working on a short story, I have this tendency to expand things in my mind. “This could be a great novel,” I might say. And then I start to believe myself and decided to explore the possibilities, failing to just submit the darn thing as a short story. So far, I’ve placed stories in an either-or scenario, either it will be a novel or it will be a short. Now, after seeing what McBain did, I realize that I can have it both ways. As such, I’ve gone back to a short story that I had placed on the exploratory shelf. I dusted it off and started working on it again. Hopefully, within the week I can send it out as a short that in time could be expanded into something else.

What is more, there are snippets from novels that started and failed, which I now believe are worth consideration. Like a doctor trying to salvage vital organs from a fresh cadaver, I can excise those viable parts and give them a new life. So, all is not lost.

When it comes to writing stories, I’m learning that double-dipping is not only done, it should be a regular tool we can pull out of the box.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Change That You Can See

Over the last few weeks, I realized just how much readers miss in my blog. Those keeping up with this site might only browse long enough to see the latest posting, never looking at (or realizing) the other changes that have occurred. One of the biggest drawbacks to the "old blog" was the two-column design. Under that limited format, many items such as other blogs I frequent or sites I think are noteworthy (especially those editors with whom I am published), can go unnoticed. So, to remedy the shortcomings recognized, I looked into changing things up, adding a third column so that you, my dear readers, can easily cast your eyes on the other items of note without scrolling to find them.

Furthermore, with the possibility of other blogs linking this site, and showing either the title or the first line from my blog posting, I decided to start assigning titles to each post. An actual title, I believe, will be more appetizing than the garden-variety date that I have been using up till now, which is about as appealing as a tuna fish casserole.

It is my hope the changes are for the better. But you'll have to let me know.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


"What if what we dreamed was real, and all that we are now is just a dream?"

The question caught me slightly off guard. I stood in the doorway to my son's room and set the clothes hamper down on the floor. "So am I just a dream?"

He looked at me for a moment. "No."

"Maybe this is a dream, and in reality I'm something really scary." I held up my hands and spread out my curled fingers. "Maybe I've got big claws and growl."

He smiled and rolled over on his bed, offering his back in response to my suggestion. As I turned to go, he said, "But, what if we're wrong?"

"About what?"

"About life."

I kept walking. "That's too deep for me." Especially at bedtime.

I don't how it happened. At some point in the evening, from the time I put my son to bed and the time I shuffled laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, a span of only ten minutes, something happened. My eight-year-old had been replaced with somebody else.

There are times when our children ask questions that lead us to wonder just exactly who is smarter than whom. Tonight was one of them. I swear I had a futuristic image of my son in rimless glasses and a turtleneck, teaching philosophy to a bunch of pimple-faced students. Even now, typing away at my computer, I'm shaking my head at the wonder of it all.

But his question, like many other questions in life, reminds me of a critical issue for writers: What if what we believe about life turns out to be all wrong? And from that single question many stories are born. It's the question that plagues a woman when she finds the lump on her breast while standing under the steaming hot spray of the shower head. It's the question that confronts a husband when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him. It's the question that haunts a child when he learns that his blood and tissue don't match that of his parents.

What if...

While it seems logical for a mystery or a crime novel ("It wasn't supposed to end like this," the soon-to-be dead man exclaims) the same question is asked in many literary books. It was a central question that resonated throughout Steinbeck's East of Eden. It was the realization of how wrong his life had been that finally changed Ebenezer Scrooge's heart. It's the issue that creates conflict, and ultimately leads us through a story to a resolution.

Sometimes it takes a child to remind us what's important in telling a story.