Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The End

Just like the Paul Sheldon character in Stephen King's Misery, I have my own little ritual when I finish a manuscript. I'm sure many writers do. Much tedious work remains--finding a publisher, for starters--but with all the writing done I can take a few days off with a clear conscience.

Sheldon had one drink and one cigarette as his celebration. I wait until I've made every improvement I can; only them do I type THE END at the bottom.

What can I say? I'm a hedonist.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Too Deep to be Popular? Or Vice Versa?

Crimespace currently has a couple of enthusiastic debates (here and here) about the endless dispute between literary fiction and genre fiction. Sides tend to form pretty quickly in such engagements. The “literary” side goes on about the “limitations” of genre writing, while the genre folks complain about the snobbery of the lits. I’m inclined to come down on the genre side, not solely because I write what would be called genre fiction, were anyone ever to publish it.

I was a musician in a previous life. Played in all my high school’s bands (literally), got a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education. Spent three years in an Army band before getting a Master’s in Performance from New England Conservatory. Free-lanced around for several years playing in small orchestras, brass quintets, concert bands, whatever needed a trumpet part. This has allowed me to play, and appreciate, a wide range of music, and verify first hand that the same discussion goes on between classical and popular musicians constantly. I can safely say there is a degree of snobbery toward more popular forms of the music from many of those who exist on the more exalted plane; the popular musicians are not imagining it. They have their own blind spots, often citing the inaccessibility of classical music. The musicians’ arguments are too similar to writers’ not to be analogous.

Classical musicians deride “jazzers” for their imprecision and simplicity of structure. Jazz advocates claim classical players don’t swing. This argument moves through musical genres: jazzers often look down on country music, and it’s unusual to hear a young rocker acknowledge his debt to R & B. All of them can improve their own work by paying attention to the other. Jazz players can create tighter ensembles by listening to orchestras; orchestral pops concerts would be much better if the orchestras actually could swing.

Writers who consider themselves either, neither, or both ignore the precepts of either at their peril. The genre writer who fails to appreciate the implications of a more literary approach will find himself describing a rainstorm, instead of, in John Gardner’s words, “evoking the sensation of being rained upon.” The literary writer who looks condescendingly upon genre fiction as having nothing to teach him can evoke plenty of rain, but may have trouble getting his characters to do anything practical or believable once they are wet.

It’s been credited to too many people to be anything other than apocryphal, but everyone benefits if we all accept there are only two kinds of music or writing: good and bad. Subject matter, genre, or style determines neither. Both sides need to learn from the other if each is to remain vital. Literary writers cannot afford to travel the road too many of their musical brethren have, eventually writing only for themselves and those who wish to be considered part of the cognoscenti. Messages and themes, no matter how profound, lose their vitality and importance if the audience that can appreciate them is too small to matter. Popular forms that appeal too often to the least common denominator will find themselves passed over as those fickle tastes inevitably change.

On the other hand, as John Connolly’s experience shows, “literary” writers aren’t always just snobs. Sometimes they’re assholes, too.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Social Climbing

Patti Abbott has invited your humble correspondent to contribute to her regular Forgotten Books Friday at her blog. Stop by and see my response here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I don’t save all my rejections to use as wallpaper or memorabilia. I read them, remember what’s worth remembering, and pitch them. Saves a lot of space for the TBR pile.

Three stick with me, which is probably why I don’t get too worked up over any of them. The first two are related. Several years ago I wrote a short story about a man who constantly feuds with his wife. They have their argument du jour and she goes upstairs to take a bath. He hears a bump from upstairs while he’s eating dinner, hollers up to ask what happened. She doesn’t answer, he goes up, and she’s dead. Classic bathtub accident.

He doesn’t think anyone will believe it was an accident, so he takes action he thinks will make the time of death seem later than it was, then goes to the local pub for his regular Monday night of football. Makes sure he’s seen—especially seen leaving—goes home, “finds” her, and calls it in. Of course, he doesn’t think of everything and winds up essentially framing himself.

Or did he do it? All the reader knows is what he tells someone who doesn’t reply, the entire story told through the husband’s words, ending with, “and you don’t believe me either, do you, Father?” I sent it to Ellery Queen, whose rejection said the story was too self-contained, it needed someone else at the end for him to play off of.

Easily done. I added a guard to walk him down Death Row and exchange an innocuous comment; the priest actually speaks. I sent the revised story to Alfred Hitchcock, who also rejected it, saying the added characters detracted from the atmosphere. I should have left it all in the guy’s head.

As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”

My other fave is for a novel my agent is still shopping. We got the following reply from an editor who passed: “It’s too good to go straight to paperback, but not original enough for a hardcover series.”

My threshold for insult is pretty high; I would have swallowed my pride over even a paltry paperback offer.

So what’s the point? No one knows. No, not “no one knows the point;” no one knows what will sell and what won’t, or why. People have guesses. Thanks to experience and instinct, some are better guessers than others. J.K. Rowling took forever to get published. Elmore Leonard, already established as a top writer of Westerns, had something like a hundred rejections for his first crime story. James Lee Burke had two literary books published as a young man, then couldn’t get published again until he turned to crime. Meanwhile, every year high six-figure advances get paid to authors who will have more copies in recycling plants than on bookshelves.

So what is the point? Don’t take it personal, and don’t get discouraged. No one knows anything, not for a certainty. The only hard and fast rule to being published, observed by greats from Faulkner to Tolstoy to Dickens to Steinbeck, is to finish the book. Sure, lots of finished books don’t get published; no unfinished ones do.

Monday, November 3, 2008

October Reading

A lot of writers’ blogs have started recapping what that writer has read over the past month. (Okay, maybe not a lot; Tim Hallinan and Declan Burke, for sure. They’re both excellent writers whose opinions I respect, so I’m not averse to using their examples for a few cheap credibility points.) October was a great, if somewhat light, reading month for me, so here are the highlights.

Trigger City, by Sean Chercover
Chercover’s second Ray Dudgeon PI story is a step up from what was obviously an excellent first book, since Big City, Bad Blood was nominated for every debut novel prize I can think of, and won its share. Tightly written with a great plot twist to raise the stakes in a believable manner halfway through, Trigger City is a polished and well-paced look at what the oft-maligned PI story can be in the Twenty-first Century.

In the Dark, by Mark Billingham
A departure from Billingham’s successful Tom Thorne series (though Thorne makes a cameo appearance), In the Dark is also his first attempt to step away from his established serial killer milieu. A multi-POV story that peels back the onion from both the police and criminal perspectives, it has two significant plot twists, and another peripheral surprise that’s definitely creepy. Once again, all are properly prepared and still surprising, providing for a satisfyingly adult read. This trend was continued in…

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, by John McFetridge
Like Chercover’s Trigger City, this is McFetridge’s second novel in what is becoming more or less a series, following Dirty Sweet. That was a good book; EKTIN kicks ass. It’s the bad guys who are the connecting thread in McFetridge Toronto-based stories, cleaned-up bikers looking to take over as the pre-eminent organized crime operation in Canada. The stories unfold at their own paces, the dialog is spot on, and the humor is always organic. A couple more well placed plot twists combine with the best opening scene in recent memory to make this as entertaining a read as you’re likely to find.

The best thing about all three of these books is they’re written for adults. Not because the sex, language, and violence are over the top; these writers buck the trend not to make things too onerous for any eighth graders who might happen upon a copy. A bright eighth grader would probably enjoy all three, though Mom might not be too delighted at his discovery. What sets these books apart is the writers’ willingness to trust their readers to keep up without having everything explained to them. It’s easy to forget how well this can propel a story, as rarely as we see it today. (I hope to have more on this in a few days.)