Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Steve Liskow - Guest Author

Steve Liskow, a fellow member of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, has been a finalist for both the Edgar Award and the Shamus Award. The Nowhere Man, his fifth Zach Barnes novel, is now available as a paperback or eBook.

What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why?

The last book that really rocked me was Tana French’s The Secret Place. She has eight teen-aged girls as POV characters, and each has a distinctive thought process, imagery, and speech pattern. French even manages to conceal important information about the crime that these kids know both logically and fairly so the reader never feels cheated. I love it when a writer does something and you can almost feel him or her saying “watch this, grasshopper.”

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

I’m more a plotter on novels because I use subplots that relate to the main theme and I need to figure out how to juggle and combine them coherently. I come up with a list of about fifty scenes in what I hope is the right order, and my first draft is discovering what I’ve left out, repeated, or put in the wrong place. By the time I finish writing the first draft of each scene, that list usually changes ten or twelve times. Once I get events in the right order, I can revise and sharpen, but that sequence takes time because my thought processes aren’t very linear. I just finished my next first draft, and I’m on version Q (as in 17) of the scenes list. I realized last night that the first two scenes are in the wrong order, and neither of them should open the book.

When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?

I finish about half of the books I pick up because I’ll look through them at the library before I check them out. I like the Kindle because I can download a free sample. If that’s by a writer I’ve never read before—or a newbie or self-pubbed author—I order the full book about a quarter of the time.

What causes me to put a book down? Bad writing. Clumsy prose, heavy-handed backstory, illogical plots (especially idiotic character behavior), sloppy research. In this day and age, especially if you’re a Guppy or SinC, there are tons of resources out there so you can get facts right, and there’s no excuse for making a mistake about police procedure, forensics, or computers. I put down a book last week that opened with the police department of a major city asking a private investigator to find the missing witness to a murder! When that investigator found the witness in the first place she looked, I knew the cops were idiots, a cliché that I hate.

Name three not-well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

I don’t know if these writers qualify as “not-well-known,” but I love their stuff. Don Winslow has a dozen novels out there, and he writes over-the-top present tense with twisted plots, dark humor, violence, and manic energy. My favorites of his are California Fire and Life, The Dawn Patrol, and The Power of the Dog, which is the first of two massive tomes about the Mexican drug wars. He’s not for everyone, but he’s someone I’d love to sit down and talk shop with.

Lynne Heitman wrote four books that I loved, but I’m not sure she’s still writing. I met her at Crime Bake one year and she was delightful. Her stories feature a strong female protagonist and plots where nothing comes free. Vivid prose, too. I think she does freelance editing now, and I’d love to find an Alex Shanahan story I haven’t read.

Sherman Alexie is a Native American who wrote a few literary novels and stories in the nineties—one became the film Smoke Signals—and then turned to fantasy and YA. Those are good, but he produced one of my favorite crime novels, Indian Killer, in the mid nineties. Angry, disturbing, lyrical, evocative, and criminally unknown. Nobody else I know has ever read it. When I mention it, everyone looks blank.

Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?

I get very few reviews because I’m self-pubbed and don’t ask friends to review them. I think most of the reviews on Amazon are bogus anyway (sorry, “I really liked this book” is not a review) and don’t take them seriously. I guess I have a few reviews on Goodreads, but I’m dumb enough to have trouble navigating that site and don’t bother.

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

My finished works tend to be several thousand words shorter than the early draft. My first draft is very spare, just basic plot and character, because I hate writing description. The second draft adds lots of that description of people and places, a lot of backstory, and more dialogue. It tends to be the longest version. The next four or five revisions tighten the prose, cut repetitions, use more specific language, and build more tension. The last revision often focuses on dialogue. My final draft usually ends up eight or ten thousand words shorter than the second draft.  The whole process takes about 15 months with breaks of at least six weeks between each draft. During that time, I work on other projects.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

My original protagonist (Woody Guthrie under a different name) was a guitar player (better than I am), and I compiled a list of song titles that might also work for mysteries. Last fall, I was struggling to play “Crossroads Blues,” a classic by Robert Johnson, when I noticed a line on the alternate take of the song: “Sun goin’ down, dark goin’ catch me here.” The image was so powerful I mentioned it to my cover designer, and he liked it. Dark Gonna Catch Me Here, which involves a serial killer, a fifty-year-old cold case, and a teen-aged girl caught between quarreling parents, will be out this fall. It’s the third “Woody” Guthrie story and it developed much more quickly and easily than any other book I’ve written: 90K-word first draft in less than five weeks. Two beta readers are now reading the fifth draft, and I’ll do two more revisions.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

I hate the misuse of “myself” for “me” or “I,” and it seems to get more common every day. I don’t remember encountering it when I taught English until sometime in the 90s but now everyone who thinks he or she deserves a sound byte has that in the arsenal. It bothers me even more than “lie” and “lay,” and NOBODY uses those correctly now. People who add apostrophes to plurals should be flogged. And I still shiver when I see “alot” and “alright.”

Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.

Linda Barnes and I both grew up in Michigan and later taught drama, and I liked her Carlotta Carlyle series. When I was struggling to find representation, I took someone’s suggestion to send her a sample chapter and ask her to pass it on to her agent, and she actually thought it was worth passing on. I got rejected anyway, but two years later, she recognized my nametag at Crime Bake. She’s a really generous and kind lady. And her newest book takes her writing in a new direction that I like even more than her earlier series.

Dennis Lehane reinvented the PI novel with Kenzie and Gennaro, and, while he takes writing very seriously, he doesn’t take himself seriously at all. He takes huge chances and demands the most from himself. He’s also a great voice of common sense in writing. And very encouraging to little guys like me.

I’ve never met Laura Lippman, but one of her high school classmates was in a fiction workshop I conducted last fall. Lippman constantly moves the line between literary and genre fiction and takes chances few other crime writers have the skill to try. Every new book explores technique or difficult themes, and they constantly challenge other writers to follow her trail, a lot like Lehane. Writers like these three show just how wide the gap is between the really great crime writers (I can name about a dozen) and everyone else.

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

No matter how awful you think something is, don’t discard it. Put it on a flash drive or separate file. Somewhere down the road, you’ll be able to re-cycle a character, a description, or a line of dialogue. Some of my worst stuff has been bad only because I had it in the wrong place—maybe even the wrong book. Several characters in The Kids Are All Right were recycled from an earlier novel that didn’t work. Kids was a finalist for the Shamus Award.

If your first draft isn’t horrible, you’re not demanding enough of yourself and your writing. The whole reason for a first draft is to give you something you can make better.
To find more about Steve Liskow, his writing, and upcoming events, check his website, www.steveliskow.com and his Amazon Author’s Page. He’s also on Facebook.

A bit of a blurb for Nowhere Man:

Family:  can’t live with them, can’t kill them.

Caitlin Devers dropped out of college to marry a wealthy widower twice her age. When he died, her two step-children—her own age—accused her of killing him for his millions. Now someone is stalking her stepdaughter Joan, and she turns to Hartford PI Zach Barnes for help.

Barnes finds a family full of scars that even money can’t heal, but no proof that the stalker really exists—until someone kills Joan’s boyfriend. When someone tries to kill Adam, the stepson, too, Barnes knows it can’t be a coincidence, and that the man who isn’t there is getting closer all the time.


  1. Me, myself, my shadow and I all enjoyed your guest blog, Steve. Thanks for all the insights. I have started my first "mystery" after writing romantic suspense, and your recommendation of Tana French's "The Secret Place" sounds like a book I should read and analyze. Best wishes for great sales on "Nowhere Man." Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. I like all French's books, but this one is probably my favorite. Good luck.

  2. I am also a Laura Lippman fan and have had the opportunity to meet with her several times.

  3. Thanks Steve (and Jim for the interview). I love Tana French, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane and Don Winslow. Now I have to check out the others you've talked about!

    1. Michelle,
      My daughter met Sherman Alexie at a signing years ago and I now have one of his books inscribed to me. He's a terrific writer, but I think his early stuff is tragically under-read.

  4. Interesting responses, Steve. Great questions, Jim. My first draft is horrible so perhaps I'm doing something right. Thank you also for standing up for the words all right. Congratulations, too, on your Edgar and Shamus nominations. One question, based on your answers, do you consider your work more literary or commercial fiction? The Nowhere Man sounds riveting. Based on this interview, I'll give it a shot without reading the sample.

  5. Donnell, I think I write genre more than literary, but that doesn't mean as much as many people think. Oedipus The King, The Oresteia, Huckleberry Finn, most of Shakespeare's plays, and many of Dickens's novels--to name a very few--qualify as crime fiction. I wrote one novel I considered quasi-literary as my sixth-year project at Wesleyan, and my adviser told me to send it out, but it didn't get picked up. I did a radical revision and published it as Postcards of the Hanging a couple of years ago. I describe it as "To Kill A Mockingbird" meets "American Graffiti." I'd love to call my work commercial, but I don't sell enough to be convinced. ;-)

  6. Steve, it's hard to tell in one's own work. I'll give you a read and give you my subjective opinion. Best wishes.