Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Underpants Gnomes

South Park once did a wonderful story about Underpants Gnomes. Tweak, the boys' new friend, was constantly wired on caffeine from the coffee his coffee shop-owning parents kept pumping into him. (Yes, they would do that. This is South Park we're talking about. Besides, if you read past the Underpants Gnomes premise, what's the problem with a ten-year-old caffeine addict?) Since Tweak never slept, he was awake to see the Underpants Gnomes march into his bedroom every morning at 3:30 and steal his underpants. Everyone thought he was making it up, until he got Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and fat ass Cartman wired with him one night, and they saw the gnomes themselves.

South Park being South Park, the boys followed the gnomes back to their underground factory, where the master business plan was unveiled.

Step 1. Acquire underpants
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Profits.

When one of the boys asked what Step Two was, the head gnome said they hadn't figured that part out yet. This struck me as hysterically funny, as I was currently working for a business with exactly that plan.

Unfortunately, that's how I plot stories. I get a good idea. Not just an idea I think is good; everyone I mention it to likes it. They immediately ask how it comes out, and I tell them. They like that, too. Then someone always asks how I get from the idea to the conclusion.


That's where I am now with the soon-to-be work in progress. I have the premise, and it's good. The ending needs to be tidied up, but it lays fine, too. The catch is in how I can get the cop to solve the crime without making the story too linear, or going to the opposite extreme and having to depend on divine intervention like a meteor or an earthquake or having the solution come to him in a dream. Letting the threads play out without letting them become so tangled I can't tie them together is the most vexing part of writing for me.

A couple of writers whom I respect recently told me to let it happen. Get to know the characters, find some event to kick off the story, and go wherever they take me. Sounds like a lot of fun. I swear on my stack of Raymond Chandler novels to try it sometime. It's just that nothing is more intimidating to me than sitting in front of a blank computer screen, not knowing what comes next. My first drafts aren't much fun. I enjoy the crafting, the refining, getting the tone and humor just right, adding little things that don't really move the story along as much as they make the story—I hope—worth reading.

So, once again, I'm plotting everything out in relatively detailed fashion. My problem is that my endings usually come to me, unbidden, as part of the premise. The writing of the book is how to get from A to Z. I never know how I'll describe getting from Point C to Point D until the time comes, but at least I'll know where Point D is. Maybe next time I'll try the Patricia Highsmith method, and plot only a few chapters ahead. Then, after that, I'll wing it and let the story comes as it may.

Really. I mean it. I'll try. I'm already getting short of breath just thinking about it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Priceless Resource

Crime fiction writers have resources available to us now our literary ancestors could not have imagined. The Internet. Citizen police academies, where writers can get a taste of police work from the inside. A couple of hundred cable channels competing to see who can show the down and dirtiest true crime stories. Another couple of hundred channels for movies, including some devoted entirely to crime flicks. TiVo and DVRs so you can watch whenever you want. NetFlix. All of these are great; we've all used them. Still, for anyone who wants to know what law enforcement is like, not cleaned up or sanitized, nor sensationalized, there are only two words you need to remember.

Connie Fletcher.

A journalism professor at Loyola of Chicago, Fletcher has written five books on police work and criminal investigations. So have a lot of people. Fletcher's gift is her willingness to step back and let the cops tell their stories. Literally. She gets groups of cops together in small groups in a restaurant or coffee shop and lets them talk. No one bullshits her; his peers will call him on it. Then Fletcher takes the best stories, the ones that give the most well-rounded picture of what it's like to be a cop in the cops' own words, and prints them up. It's so simple it's brilliant.

The first book, What Cops Know, covered the street, violent crimes, sex crimes, narcotics, property crimes, and organized crime from the perspective of 125 Chicago police officers. It's sequel, Pure Cop, stayed in Chicago and discussed the bomb squad, arson, prostitution, crime scene investigations (well before anyone thought of CSI), major accidents (which are treated as crime scenes in Chicago; remember that the next time you're wondering why it's taking so long to clear an intersection. They have to be sure it really was an accident), hostage/barricade incidents, and another look at the street.

Then she branched out to explore the challenges faced by female officers, rounding up cops nationally for Breaking and Entering. In 2006 Fletcher addressed the explosive growth in crime scene interest with Every Contact Leaves a Trace. This year's entry is Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs. All are presented with the same unvarnished truthfulness; all are full of fascinating vignettes that run from one paragraph to three pages, tales of things that really happened, told by a profession that ranks among America's leading raconteurs: cops.

You'll learn things you never realized you didn’t know, or that there was such an area of expertise. You'll read of horrible things, told so matter of factly they'll seem even more horrible once you realize what you've just been told, and that this person—you won't think of them as cops, they're people—sees and deals with every day. And you'll laugh. Some of the stories are genuinely funny, and some are the graveyard humor of someone coping with the unforgettable.

Probably the most intriguing thing I learned that I hadn't realized I didn't know came in What Cops Know. What television show best captures what it's like to be a cop? (This was 1990, so The Wire, Homicide, and NYPD Blue had yet to make appearances.) Hill Street Blues had just finished its award winning run. Dragnet was long since an icon. Adam-12 had shown life in a patrol car. What show did the cops pick as most accurately showing what their jobs were like?

Barney Miller.

You gotta love that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Welcome to One Bite at a Time. Credit for the title goes to my beloved Spousal Equivalent, who gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I've received a lot of good writing advice. (The doldrums in which my "career" currently resides are due entirely to my own failings; I have been singularly fortunate in getting the attention and good advice of many.)

One day a few years ago, The Spousal Equivalent caught me whining about how discouraging it was to know I had probably fifty thousand words left to write on the current project. The thirty thousand I already had on disk were of no consequence. As a writer, I'm not one of those "glass is half empty" guys; my glass is broken and the water is running onto valuable things that will be irretrievably damaged by the contact.

She recommended for me to stop looking at the enormity of the total task, and to "eat the elephant one bite at a time. Now there's rarely any more on my plate than I can accomplish in a day, or some other easily digested period of time, and I never have those slumps where I can't bear to sit down and write because I can only accomplish an infinitesimal amount of the work before me.

That's what I hope will happen here. This will be a place to work out ideas, theories, maybe even a scene or two. I hope others will stop by and agree or disagree, and that we can all learn something from each other, a little bit at a time. With luck, I can share something that works for me and may be of use for someone else.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope to see you, and your comments, again.