Steve Liskow has published stories in the last four anthologies from Level Best Books (Collect the whole set!), and two of them won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine published his Black Orchid Novella Award-winning “Stranglehold” last summer, and Who Wrote The Book of Death? appeared last spring. He likes to think he’s still learning. His website is www.steveliskow.com.
This year saw the publication of your novel, Who Wrote The Book of Death?, the publication of your Black Orchid Novella Award-winning “Stranglehold” in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and this story “Ring of Fire” in Thin Ice. Would you care to comment on your overnight success?
Sure. My “Overnight Success” began when I sent out my first manuscript to underwhelming response. That was in 1976. I knew nothing about a synopsis or how to write a query letter and was sending the whole MS to agents or editors, who probably returned it unread. Anyway, between 1972, when grad school reignited my urge to write, and 1981, when I got a divorce and a lay-off notice within days of each other, I wrote five unpublished novels. Four of them were awful, but they helped me find my writing process, which has changed very little since then.
In the eighties, I drifted away from writing and into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, or designed for about 90 productions throughout central Connecticut over the next 25 years. I also met my wife Barbara. In 2003, our theater lost its performance space the same month I retired from teaching, so I returned to writing to fill my copious free time. But I took it more seriously this time and read dozens of books on the craft. I also attended the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference and have become a regular at Crime Bake. SinC and the Guppies have helped me tremendously.
In the last seven years, I have written about thirty short stories and several more unpublished novels. Some of them are radical revisions of others, so it’s hard to say how many separate novels, but at least six. Some of the short stories are wretched, but I’m still learning how to write them and haven’t found a really efficient way to do it yet.
Last November (2009), I returned home from Crime Bake after signing copies of Quarry, which had one of my short stories in it. The following day, I received a contract for Who Wrote…? I was amazed because the book had about 70 rejections under a different title and I sent it out again just because it “sort of” sounded like what the publisher was seeking. The day after that, I received a phone call saying “Stranglehold” had won the award. That was a short story I had failed to sell for four years and expanded to a novella (Which actually worked better!) to send out for what I knew was the last time. Several of my published works have similar experiences. Many of them go out, get rejected, and get rewritten—sometimes because an editor actually comments. But at the moment, I have over 600 rejection letters and still have two stories and two novels knocking on doors. Another novel will get a drastic rewrite when I get back from this year’s Crime Bake, too.
You write both novels and short stories. Do you approach each of these forms differently?
Yes. Before I start writing a novel, I do lots of bios and character work and try to create AT LEAST fifty scenes in what I think is the right order. Plotting is very difficult for me (I’m much more interested in character), so I force myself to raise the stakes and keep something happening to build the tension. Then I write the first draft as quickly as I can and save each scene as a separate word document. It usually takes me 60-90 days to do the first story-board, but then I write the entire first draft in about 6 weeks. Going fast helps me find the story’s rhythm and shows where I’ve left something out or have too much. By the time I finish that first draft, the scene list is usually in about the twelfth draft, too, showing where things get cut, added, or moved. Then in future drafts, I can just re-number the scene and do a “save as.”
The first few drafts are always adding detail. I don’t like to write description, so I have to force myself to add physical details about characters and places, but I do as little as possible and try to concentrate on creating a mood rather than stopping for a slide show. By about the fourth version, I know the characters well enough to sharpen up the dialogue and deepen the emotional stuff. The sixth draft is USUALLY good enough so I’ll start printing scenes out for the first time. Now I walk around the room reading every word aloud. This is where I find awkward phrasing and repetitions. Those get fixed. Then I put all the scenes together into one document for the first time and figure out where the chapters end and where to combine scenes and write transitions. About this time, I usually send what I have to two or three friends who “understand” my writing and will tell me the brutal truth. When they tell me everything they don’t like, I re-write again. There’s no time limit, but the revision is usually at least another six months, so a novel probably takes me about a year. Then I struggle with synopsis and outline for agents. I find that very tough.
I still haven’t found an effective way to write short stories. Generally, I get a basic idea—don’t ask me how or where because that’s part of my problem—and fiddle with it for a few days, then start writing a first draft. The first couple of days may only yield a few paragraphs, but as I get into it more, I go faster. Then I have to keep re-writing to clarify and enliven the details, tighten the plot, and make the dialogue more real. There’s no time limit. Many of my short stories sit around for months before I figure out what to do with them. “Running On Empty,” my first published story, sat around because I hated the ending and didn’t come up with a better one for two years. “Stranglehold” was a 7000-word story—too long for most magazines—but felt cramped and rushed because so many characters appear in the first scene. Every place that would take that length turned it down several years ago, but I kept it because I’m still trying to place a series with the same characters (That’s the novel I’m going to re-write again). When I heard of the novella contest, I discovered that I only had to add one small scene and one minor character while I expanded the other scenes with more description and dialogue so the people appeared more gradually. It worked: I added 9000 words in three days, and none of it felt extraneous. It was a novella waiting to happen, but I didn’t realize it.
I think I’ll probably start doing more plot/character outlining with short stories soon because they’re so hard for me to write. I love them, but I probably work as hard writing a short story now as I do on the first draft of a full novel. In fact, I haven’t had an idea that has felt “right” for a short story in many months. But I want to do more of them, partly because Level Best has treated me very well and partly because I find the form very, very rewarding. I learn something about writing every time I try a new one, too.
Your story “Ring of Fire” takes place in a suburban living room. Outside, the world seems benign, but inside is a different world. What was your inspiration for this story?
Believe it or not, “Ring of Fire” came from a writing prompt Roxanna Robinson gave us when I attended the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference in 2004. Both she and Chris Offutt were brilliant instructors, and they gave me the courage to try short stories for the first time.
Roxanna gave us someone knocking on a door and someone inside not wanting to admit them. That was all. Meredith popped into my head with her brownies and I did a free-write that night. By the time I was five paragraphs in, both she and Richard were clear to me. I read my opening the next day in class and people said nice things about it. A week or so later, I was playing a Johnny Cash CD in my car and “Ring of Fire” came on. There was the wedding ring, and I wrote the story in about three days. I sent it out to several places, all of whom rejected within the next six months or so. I don’t think I changed it at all before sending it to the Al Blanchard committee a few years ago. It placed top 10, but another story won Honorable Mention and I concentrated on that one—“Susie Cue”—and forgot about “Ring” until last winter when I was consolidating stuff from old floppy disks onto a flash drive.
Which brings up the biggest thing I’ve learned. Never throw ANYTHING away. If it doesn’t work in one story, maybe you can recycle it into another one somewhere else.