Wednesday, February 22, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: From Peanuts to Programming to Plotting

by Sybil Johnson

The first thing I remember wanting to be was a cartoonist. I spent hours drawing the Peanuts gang, copying what I saw every day in the comics of the newspaper, dreaming about creating my own strip one day.

As a kid, I never once thought about writing as a career. Sure, I enjoyed the creative writing assignments in grade school and junior high. I even worked on the school newspaper. But that was only a fun thing to do, not a potential career choice.

Still, the few stories I wrote must have been important to me since I saved them, stashing them away in a box of memorabilia. When I found them recently among the report cards, autograph books and miscellany I’d collected, I discovered I gravitated toward crime stories even then. I remember reading a lot of mysteries, but hadn’t realized I liked to write them as well.

The older of the two stories I found, “Sleepy Toes and Fido,” featured a donkey (Sleepy Toes), a hippie dog (Fido) and a jewelry theft. By the end of the (very) short story, the jewelry had been returned and all was well. The second story, “Murder in Catville,” involved cats, a murder, a ghost, a seance and a secret panel in the wall. At the end, the murderer is caught and peace restored to Catville. Both of these stories end well, so I can see at a young age I was more inclined toward cozies than noir. That’s still true today. Most of the mystery reading and writing I do is on the cozy end of the spectrum, although I occasionally channel my dark side in short stories.

At the time I wrote “Murder in Catville,” my interests had turned to more academic subjects like math and history. When I entered college, I was considering math as a major, but hadn’t fully committed to it. Then, on the campus of the University of Southern California, I discovered Computer Science and fell in love with programming. The major was fairly new at the time (the IBM PC came out the year I graduated) and, as you might guess, male-dominated. Of the 100 or so students majoring in CS, few of us were female. I don’t remember the exact number, but I think it was around five.

My first job out of college was at Xerox where I worked on software for the 6085 computer system and its predecessor, the Xerox Star, the first commercial system to incorporate technologies such as a bitmapped display, graphical user interface, Ethernet networking, icons, folders and a mouse.

It was an exciting and fun time. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with and been around so many talented people and to have been involved with such cutting edge technology. Over the years, I worked on a number of other projects in various roles—programmer, software development manager, technical program manager. The only writing I did during this time was technical documentation.

Fast forward twenty years. I woke up one morning with the image of a young woman finding the body of her painting teacher in her garden. That image stuck in my brain and wouldn’t go away. I was coming to the end of a contract and looking for a new challenge. Even though I’d always thought writing a mystery would be too hard, I decided to give it a shot. I pulled up my big girl pants, sucked in my breath and plunged in.

It hasn’t been an easy path. I lost track of the number of times I considered quitting. But, every time I thought about it, something inside me urged me to keep writing. I kept on reminding myself I was learning a new skill. It would take time.

I wrote, took a couple online courses on writing mysteries and wrote some more. I was ecstatic when I got an Honorable Mention in a Writer’s Digest short story contest and over the moon when my first short story was published.

While I was writing short stories, I was also working on the idea that had got me started down this path in the first place. I wrote a version of the book, decided it wasn’t good enough, and started over again. Ten or fifteen years later, I felt I had something a publisher might find interesting. In 2013, I attended the California Crime Writers conference, a mystery writer’s convention that I had co-chaired in 2011. There I met the managing editor of Henery Press. After some modifications, they expressed an interest in buying the story and the Aurora Anderson mystery series was born. The first book, Fatal Brushstroke, was published in 2014 followed by Paint the Town Dead and the recently published A Palette for Murder.

I still find writing hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it’s also the most rewarding. The satisfaction I get from crafting a story out of thin air more than makes up for the difficulty.


After a rewarding career in the computer industry, Sybil Johnson turned to a life of crime writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine among others. She wields pen and paint brush from her home in Southern California where she writes the Aurora Anderson mystery series set in the world of tole/decorative painting (Fatal Brushstroke, Paint the Town Dead and the recently published, A Palette for Murder). Visit her at or check out Type M for Murder ( where she posts every other Wednesday.


Sybil Johnson is a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and SoCal Mystery Writers of America invite emerging and established mystery writers for a weekend of invaluable guidance, insight, and community at the 2017 California Crime Writers Conference. Whether your novel is brewing in your imagination, ready to publish, or you already have several published books under your belt, our workshops, presented by agents, editors, award-winning authors, and crime investigation professionals, are geared to elevate your mystery writing skills and foster relationships on your path to publication and beyond.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: When We Falter, We Pick Ourselves Up

by Sara Lippmann

“You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist, even if you are completely wrong, that’s what an artist does, listen to one’s self.”

Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle
If you haven’t seen Mozart in the Jungle, I recommend it for its pure, escapist pleasure, a frivolous if fleeting distraction from the dreadful new daily hell we call life. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an impassioned, unconventional maestro. (Need I say more?) Watch for his face alone, for the whole electric cast, for music that stirs the heart. Watch because laughter – even, especially, in times like these – is a necessary relief. Who can resist a fraught maestro/protégé relationship where lines are blurred and crossed? Watch because the camera loves them. Because although it won’t alter our dismal reality a stitch, the show just might give you good dreams.

The young oboist, says, “I should have listened to you.”

Watch for this mentorship, contained in a simple act of grace: “You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist.”

I’ve not always had the best luck with mentors. (An essay for another day, perhaps.) Still, I keep seeking. But more than anything or anyone: We must listen to ourselves. Follow our gut, trust our instinct, even if we don’t understand it, even if it may steer us wrong, because that is our job: to plunge head first, without a safety net, in reckless pursuit of story. Sound precious? Maybe. Who cares. To tell it as we feel it, as we hear it, think it. To ignore what anyone else wants or how we might be perceived – to push away the boatloads of bullshit – to trick ourselves, or do it anyway, despite all the garbage, at least, for a while.

And when we falter we are to pick ourselves up and keep going. Fight on, claw through it, and do not succumb to despair. We know this, deep in the bones.


And yet. Of course, there is interference. Outside opinions may worm its way into our ears. External voices can become internalized, so that suddenly, there are many – so many amped up, competing voices – all we hear is a noisy mess. We may even supplant another’s voice for our own.

Or worse: we forget how to shut up and listen to ourselves in the first place.

I’ve been there. Over the years I have felt needy, desperate. Eager to please. I have overlooked red flags. Sought the quick fix, sacrificed integrity. I have pandered to other people’s notions and dwelled on marketplace. I have caved to pressures, deleting my most honest work. Every self-pitying, self-indulgent thought, I’ve had it. I’m not proud of this, but there is no end to my shame. I’ve felt angry, alone, afraid. I have even questioned my motives, my heart, my fundamental need for telling.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

With the swarm buzzing around me, saying: You have nothing to say. What’s the point? What’s wrong with you? Who do you think you are? No one hears you. And if no one hears you, is there even a sound? I have sat in the dark. Thrust my head under the pillow.

And when the crescendo builds to an undecipherable scream, I have given myself over to it, letting myself be swallowed. I have stopped writing entirely. Sometimes for long stretches.

But my story doesn’t end there.

Eventually, I begin again.

This is my pattern. It is an endless cycle. And so on, etc.

A longer project takes time. A longer project – with no end in sight – requires a different kind of listening. With stories, maybe I can focus intensely for a spell, and find the exit; whereas now, the listening demands are more sustained, but also spread out over time. Months for some, years for others, years and years for me.

What am I doing again?

I’m in the hole. Miles from my comfort zone, from any familiar territory, any ground I can trust. I stay quiet and listen, but my voice is often muffled down here in the tunnel, knee deep in muck. I feel around in the dark, stumble, fall. I keep falling. I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Even if I knew, there’d be no guarantee.

Press on or turn back? I’m wracked with uncertainty. This summer I attended a conference, seeking solidarity, in a classroom, with others on a similar journey. My teacher took one look at me, wet-eyed and nail-bitten, and called me “tortured.” The whole thing was embarrassing: to be 41 years old and seeking what?

A smiley face on the page, a gold star.

Thanks to her fourth grade teacher, my daughter can tell you: Praise gets you nowhere.

No one can give you conviction. Chutzpah. Leap of faith.

To his credit, my teacher offered me this, which I’ll butcher. Hold onto it, he said. That thing you’ve got – your voice, your substance, your story – with two cupped hands as if catching water. Protect it.

If you don’t protect it, if you don’t keep the conduit clear between heart and gut, the music becomes distorted, the message fractured, frayed. I know.

I tell my own students.

Hopefully, we have someone in our corner: if not a mentor, then a family member, a loved one, a spouse, a partner, pet frog, a friend or colleague or writing buddy, a faithful first reader because writing can be isolating. But support is less about empty praise, and more about amplifying your own unique voice. The mentor is the megaphone rooting: Yes, you can. Believe in yourself. That, alone, is what you have. Trust that intuition. Do the work. There is no shortcut. Screw the rest. The days we spend are lonely, the blank page often grim. There will be whopping missteps. Self-doubt may never goes away. It’s what keeps me honest. The best we can do as teachers and peers and decent human beings is tell our dear ones, with love: your creative music, it’s all already there, inside you. Hold it up like a conch. Listen to no one else.

Father's day appeared in the Lit n Image and was a Wigleaf Top 50 2011


Oh daddy we mommies watch you through the sprinklers’ rainbow mist, thumbing iPhones—who’s the daddy? Not a single daddy or a Sunday daddy but an everyday daddy, a daddy kept by those runty three who climb muscled calves as if you were a jungle gym. We trace your river veins, sweat sliding down the gullet of your cheekbones and into a tickler at your chin. Christ, it is hot on the playground. While you chat up the nannies we sip our sangria from biodegradable cups. Daddy, your children chant, pick me up daddy take me for a ride daddy toss me a ball daddy spin me like a prize: daddy daddy daddy daddy whoops. Your kids are eating mud again. Pica, daddy? They aren’t triplets, your one-two-three, but they are close enough to wonder how they all came from one mother. Really, who has the time? Your wife must make bank. Your son is climbing the chain link, barefoot. Your daughter has fallen off the monkey bars—daddy!—but you’re there, quarterbacking your toddler in order to seize your daughter by the arm. A gasp escapes from the bench where we sit in our Bermuda shorts, stroller mommies with enormous hooded sun shields. Did you see that? We whisper down in a game of telephone, our eyes wide as kiddie pools, he could’ve yanked it out of the socket, dislocated her shoulder, if my husband ever, someone should call child services. Only she is fine. It’s your third one who’s stuck on the fence, a kitten calling from a tree, daddy that means you. We leap, offering woozy breasts—puffy, eager hands. We inhale your smell, and you look at us, grateful and indifferent as you pass along offspring. When your son skitters, scraping his shins, mommies are prepared. Wipes and Band-Aids and lollipops and antiseptic, what does your wife do? We don’t ask but study the pop of your glutes as you crouch before your son and tell him—what doesn’t break us makes us stronger. Meanwhile your other children have adopted us like city pigeons, pecking into bags of cheddar bunnies. Doesn’t your daddy feed you? We giggle, we blow noses, we hand out bubbles and sidewalk chalk; we spot a red bandanna blooming from your back pocket. Breathless are the mommies who wait for the playdate where you take us home to gag us and cinch up our beating wrists.


Sara Lippmann's story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Burrow Press Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Midnight BreakfastMr. Beller's Neighborhood Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. She teaches with Ditmas Writing Workshops and lives in Brooklyn. For more, see

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: The Day the World Ended

by Walter Giersbach

My world had no endings when I was 13 in that Oregon farming and logging town.  Only beginnings.  Fields and groves were endlessly green, streams flowed forever and asphalt roads led to new sights.  Life was a page of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. 

Mornings began at 6:00 when I pedaled my Schwinn down to the Shell station for my pile of newspapers.  But first, I dropped quarters in the machines to extract a Milky Way and a Coke.  Now fortified, I gave each copy of the Portland Oregonian two practiced folds and dropped it in the canvas bag draped over the handlebars.  For the next hour I’d pedal miles to stuff them in paper boxes for my 50 customers.  I was getting rich, at $20 a month, in spite of having to hector customers who wouldn’t answer their doors when I went to collect.

Life was good, and eighth grade was a cinch with a really funny teacher who regaled us about his drinking episodes in the Navy and a strange food called pizza.

But one April morning a headline caught my eye as I folded papers.  My Dad’s name leaped from the front page.  It was a story about Pacific University that I couldn’t understand, a complicated story about the faculty in rebellion.  Accusations.  Hatred exposed.

Something had happened.  The faculty had given my Dad, the college president, a vote of no confidence.  He explained it to my two brothers and me over dinner as we sat in dumb silence.  Mom was trying to hold back her tears. “I’m resigning,” he told us.  “We’ll have to think about moving.

 Forest Grove, Ore., my world in the 1950s

Moving?  But I was at the point of telling Judy Bristow I loved her.  Soon, I’d find the courage to kiss my 11-year-old girlfriend.  Moving meant I’d never again see my pal, Frank Dunham, who double-dated at the movies with his girlfriend and had actually kissed (he said).

Our house was emptied that summer as boxes and furniture went into the Allied Moving Van.  Accumulations of papers and magazines were thrown from the attic window to the driveway.  Dad’s library and Mom’s manuscript of Oregon history were carefully boxed.  But my Red Ryder BB gun, Schwinn Black Phantom and Erector Set disappeared. 

Too soon our family and the cat were piled into our used ’48 Cadillac sedan and we headed south.  Too soon to properly say goodbye to Judy and Frank or copy their addresses with promises to write.
*  *  *
Finding myself in South Pasadena was a shock.  I was a year behind academically.  There were curious classmates — Mexican-Americans — who wore pegged pants and called themselves Pachucos.  And the girls in our church youth group were all blonde and unapproachably sophisticated.

My two new friends were geeks who read L. Ron Hubbard and J.R.R. Tolkien and wore clothes from J.C. Penney.  My only achievement was writing my autobiography by hand, pasting in Kodaks, then binding the single copy.  I got an A from my 9th grade teacher.

My brothers and I, Mom and the cat, lived in our rented bungalow and took each day as it came.  For some aberrant reason, I ate only lunchtime sandwiches of Wonderbread and Kraft Sandwich Spread.  But I didn’t die.  Dad soon found work as a fund-raiser with the Volunteers of America before landing a position with the headquarters of the Congregational Church in New York City.

I didn’t write except for that handwritten autobiography.  I read.  Science fiction, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries.  But two things became clear.  One, I was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Like Valentine Michael Smith, newly sent to Earth after being raised on  Mars.  Among different people for the first time, I struggled to understand the social practices and prejudices of human nature that often still seem alien.

Second, an internal universe of words appeared.  Writing, absorbing new vocabulary and explaining things articulately were easy.  Numbers came harder.  This default writing ability made me an English-Journalism major at Grinnell College in Iowa.  A career epiphany occurred the summer of my junior year.  I was invited to be a staff reporter for a Chicago suburban weekly.  I covered fires, the police blotter, sports, rewrites, even weddings, taking my own photos with a Speed Graphic.  At last, it seemed there was an escape into the real world.
*  *  *
My first job after graduation was writing copy for new Mobil Travel Guides.  Sure, it was a humdrum task — until I got an unsolicited letter from a woman who said she was home-bound.  She read the Guides to escape into a world that was out of her reach.  At last I had an audience, and every piece I wrote was directed to my secret spectator. 

Three years of serving as an Army Security Agency analyst took me to Korea and Taiwan.  Taiwan brought me a wife and some great source material I filed away for 30 years.

For the next three decades I soldiered on in corporate communications, creating, writing and editing employee publications; writing press releases; managing exhibits; crafting senior management’s speeches.  I embraced it all.  Each day was different.  No one knew my job description, which allowed me to define my position and interact with everyone from the CEO to the clerk or bench worker.  They were my audience that I worked to reach on some level of understanding. 

Upon early retirement I ruminated on why I was drawn to write two anthologies, short stories and articles.  It was simple:  Somewhere there was a person who would read my words and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t able to put it into words.”  I could help that person leave his or her couch or bed and enter another world. 

In the process, I would discover meaning in the world that had turned me upside down.  That’s why I write.

by Walter Giersbach

Burt Forsyth was ready to rip out the fingernails of the girl sitting in the pew in front of him.  That is, after he smashed her iPhone and shoved the plastic down her throat.  While the rest of the congregation stood to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the girl sat in her stylishly ripped jeans and scrolled her manicured nails over the phone.
“Sitting!” he whinnied hoarsely to his wife.  “Sitting during the hymn.  Texting through the prayers.  Eating her damned M&Ms during the sermon.  I could kill her.”  His heartbeat rose and he could feel his body shaking uncontrollably.
“Perhaps it’s her parents’ fault,” Beth whispered.  “Not everyone has the upbringing of you and I.”
“Or two hundred other members of our church,” he steamed.
Rev. Abernathy was praying something about “O God, we seek the transformation of the world, but we fear the change it could bring to our own lives,” and Beth shushed him from going on.
Burt had an obligation to the parish as one of its deacons.  A duty to maintain tradition.  Church was a sanctuary to restore reason out of chaos, to sew up the raveled edges of behavior among the easily confused.  He was a rational man trained in a rational profession to act in a rational world.  If there was no control of the forces that shaped your life, he would often tell Beth, then what point was there to life itself?  As a lawyer, he prided himself that the legal profession was the only thread of tradition that prevented Western civilization’s entropy.  And the Presbyterian Church.  That too.  God and the Law.
Beth had volunteered to serve coffee after the service, so Burt stood in the hall off the kitchen nodding to parishioners.  He joshed an old timer about his golf handicap, knowing the man would never play again.  The pastor button-holed him about the Thanksgiving service coming up before being pulled away by an extremely small lady wearing a fur stole.  Burt stared at the lady’s dead animals — 50-year-old, moth-eaten minks, he believed — draped over her shoulders on a 65-degree day.  The animals’ glass eyes glared balefully back at Burt.
He turned, bumping into the girl with the iPhone and almost spilling his coffee.
“A guy there told me you help run this place.”
Burt managed to choke out a “Yes?”
“I wanted to say I had a good time.  I never been to church, but my friend kinda dragged me.  So,” she shrugged, “I didn’t understand a lot, but I texted myself about what I thought was important.  So I’d remember later.”
Burt stood a head taller than the girl, looking down at her unruly hair and the piece of metal piercing her eyebrow.  The sound that came out his mouth could be taken for an affirmative gargle.
“This Matthew,” she said, screwing up her face as though its parts — nose, eyes, cheekbones — had been bought at a discount store and hastily assembled.  “He was a saint, right?  One of Jesus’ whattyacallits.”
“Disciples,” Burt muttered.
“I’m going to Google him.  If it’s okay, I’ll come back next time.  Okay?  My name’s Tara.  Who’re you?”
“Burt Forsyth.  We’d love to have you, Tara.”  The words came out as a choke. 
“Hey, Burt, thanks..”  She smiled once, pirouetted scarecrow-like, and walked out the door.
There was a vacuum in the room after she’d left, as though a hole had opened in an airliner that left him gasping at the change in air pressure.  The smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls weren’t sufficient to replace the sensations that had left the room with the girl.
“Why are you so silent?” Beth asked in the car, giving him a curious look.

“Just thinking.  Maybe we need some more young people to season the gentry.  Sort of balance the demographics.”

(originally published at Every Day Fiction.)


Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, CommuterLit, Connotation Press, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, InfectiveINkLiquid Imagination, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pulp Modern, Pure Slush, r.kv.r.y, the Story Shack, Short-Story.Me,and a dozen other publications.  He also writes on military history and social phenomena.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, were available until his publisher ceased operation.  He directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, and managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library. He blogs at while maintaining Web sites devoted to the children’s book author Holling Clancy Holling and the Manchester (NJ) Writers’ Circle.