Saturday, September 29, 2012

Detectives Beyond Borders Mentions Wild Bill

Peter Rozovsky’s award-winning blog Detectives Beyond Borders doesn’t spend a lot of time on American crime fiction, so it’s doubly pleasing to see this mention today.

Many thanks to Peter, who has been a good friend, and is an expert panel moderator, as I am looking forward to seeing in person again at Bouchercon next week.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Making Story

When I was a graduate student at New England Conservatory, lessons were delayed by a couple of weeks one year because the Boston Symphony Orchestra was on tour. A freshman was heard to complain, considering what it was costing him to go to college, he expected a full-time teacher. A soon-to-be-friend of mine replied, “You want to learn to play like a college teacher, study with a college teacher. You want to learn to play like a symphony orchestra musician, you study with one.”

That’s the problem with most “how to write” books. Few are written by anyone you’ve ever heard of, and the reasons you’ve never heard of these people are often legitimate. Books by writers who actually earn their livings writing fiction are rare, because these people are busy writing the books that feed their families. That’s why Timothy Hallinan’s latest effort, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot is such a welcome addition to the literature.

Hallinan’s authors have published over one hundred books among them, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. They tackled one of the most debated aspects of fiction—plotting—and described how each of them does it. Rarely, if ever, has such a broad spectrum of techniques been solicited.

And guess what? It’s a mess. No one does it exactly the same. Few do it even mostly the same. The thread that runs through the book is every author—and, often, every book by the same author—requires their own approach. What worked last time won’t work this time, no matter how hard you try to shoehorn your raw material into the old mold.

The only thing close to a consensus in Making Story comes from showing it’s not just okay to experiment, it’s practically mandatory. Where the real help comes is in seeing the different things all these successful authors have tried, and cherry-picking which might work for you on the next project, or when you’re stuck. You may also smile when you discover someone whose work you enjoy, maybe even admire, does something much the way you do.

Another bonus of getting a group of fiction writers to talk about writing is, their comments will not be dry. They write entertaining prose fpor a living. This is no textbook full of rules. The primary thing most will take away is, there are no rules when it comes to plotting.

Making Story is a quick and entertaining read you’ll want to keep around for future reference, so the next time you’re stuck, you can refer back to how one of your favorites gets past such obstacles.

(Here are the writers who participated: Michael Stanley, Kelli Stanley, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jeffrey Siger, Zoe Sharp, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Mike Orenduff, Debbi Mack, Wendy Hornsby, Gar Anthony Haywood, Timothy Hallinan, Leighton Gage, Jeremy Duns, Bill Crider, Meredith Cole, Jeffrey Cohen, Rebecca Cantrell, Rachel Brady, Lisa Brackmann, Cara Black, and Brett Battles.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Frank Jr.

Patti Abbott has another flash fiction challenge on her blog, pattinase. Her mandate was succinct:
Write a story of 1000 words or less entitled Frank, Jr.

Here’s mine:

Frank, Jr.

Frank was a Junior. Hated it from the day he learned what “junior” meant. Frank Senior drove like he’d wrapped the car in eggs. Junior drove like Hell would close in ten minutes, the St. Christopher statue his ma gave him hanging on to the dashboard for dear life. The old man nibbled around the periphery of life; Junior headed straight to the top.

That’s how he met Marti—Martha, her mother called her, why Marti left when she was sixteen. She gave him the usual, “I don’t usually do this the first time I meet a guy.” He told her, “You close that door behind you and we’ll do a lot of things you don’t usually do.”

She had to work in the morning. “Please wake me up.”

Frank snorted. “Wake yourself up. I’ll be gone.”

He wasn’t, though. Marti woke up and he was there. Sleeping on his side, eyelids fluttering. Mumbling something she couldn’t make out. He opened his eyes and saw her looking at him.


“Your face. It’s different when you sleep.”


Marti thought a few seconds. “You were dreaming. You’re innocent when you dream.”

“I never dream,” Frank said. “I do.” Never dream. Do. Frank’s theme for life.

Frank drank. He smoked. He snorted. He sped. He walked into rooms full of people and made them wonder if they were about to regret things they’d forgotten they’d done. Yesterday is here. Pay up, bitch. Told Marti to call in sick, breakfast on him. He knew a place. She said the weather was bad. He said let’s go.

More than rain came in when Frank opened the door. Hail, sleet, whatever. Marti shrank back. Frank stepped into it. Shook his fist. “Come on, blow wind. Blow.” Speeding at eight in the morning.

Drove to Esther’s Diner soaking wet. Marti not wearing any more than last night, freezing. She had coffee. Frank had coffee. Frank ate eggs. Frank ate bacon. Frank ate toast. Dipped a piece in his coffee, slopped up his eggs with it. Marti watched him eat.

Everyone knew him. Everyone said hello. No one looked like they wanted to. Frank acknowledged them all. “Yeah.” “Sure.” “Uh-huh.” “Go fuck yourself.”

Marti said, “You live here long?”

Frank said, “Long enough.”

Marti said, “You like it?”

Frank said, “I’ll take New York.”

Frank stood. Pointed to the empty plate. “Take care of this. I’ll be right back.”

Marti said, “Where are you going?”

Frank turned for the men’s room. “I got an important telephone call. From Istanbul. Need some privacy.”

Marti paid the check. Frank did three lines off the lid of the toilet tank. Nine in the morning. Came out of the shitter wired. Took Marti by the elbow. “Let’s go.”

Marti said, “Where?”

Frank said, “Someplace else.”

Took her outside. The rain had stopped. The sun tried to come out, not hard enough. Frank opened the driver’s door. Marti held back.

Frank said, “What?”

Marti said, “I can get a cab.”

Frank said, “Get in,” like those might be the last two words she’d hear from him. Temptation won. Marti got in.

Frank started the car. Turned on the sound, all the way. Tom Waits. Frank’s Wild Years. Frank’s musical theme. Music too loud. Waits singing Cold Cold Ground. Where they put Frank when the Waits song drowned out the train song.

Marti came to the funeral. She made three. Esther was there. Some guy. No one said a word while two workmen put Frank way down in the hole.

Everyone left together, separately.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Outfoxing Censors for Fifty-Six years

When last we got together I was reviewing Lynn Kostoff’s A Choice of Nightmares. As usual, after posting the review to my blog and blurbing it at Facebook, I took it to Amazon, where it occurred to me this line might raise an eyebrow or two:
…a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his dick whichever way the wind blows.
Yesterday I received this email from Amazon:
“Thanks for submitting a customer review on Amazon. Your review could not be posted to the website in its current form.”
The email never says the review was rejected because I’m a potty mouth, but that was a good guess. Undeterred, I edited only the passage noted above to read:
…a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his (male sex organ - different word used in original) whichever way the wind blows.
The review was accepted this morning.
Anyone who wouldn’t know what word I used originally would never have read the interview. Or is like this guy:  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Choice of Nightmares

Every so often I’ll decide I have enough authors to read. Keeping up with their output is a full-time job, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m behind as I try to stay current with all the excellent writers out there. Not that I mean to limit myself, but I’ll never have time to read everything written by those I like best; why fall farther behind?

Right about then I’ll start tripping over references to someone I never heard of before. Comments from people whose opinions I trust. “You really ought to read this guy.” “This guy’s really good.” “You’d like him a lot.” (“Guy” is gender-neutral in this context.) I won’t do anything about it, mainly because I always have several books backed up, and don’t feel like adding one more.

Then somebody will catch me between books, wondering who to read next, and I’m on the Web already, anyhow, and Amazon’s just one click away so I take thirty seconds and buy Lynn Kostoff’s A Choice of Nightmares and it sits on the Kindle for a while till I read it because I got tired of looking at the title staring back at me and I remember how good people said he is and I read the damn book, okay, enough, now can I get on with my life, and then I start kicking myself because this book is really good and I’m wondering what the hell took me so long and how the book would make a great movie but is also a good character study of a man who, basically, lacks character and will pretty much follow his dick whichever way the wind blows.

Bad things happen to people like that. Boy, howdy, do they.

How bad? Don’t be cheap. Read the book. Kostofff writes believable characters, and, even though you don’t really like Robert Staples much, he doesn’t deserve what he’s headed for. The cast that leads Staples astray plays both sides of his personality, leveraging fear and desire to lead him down a path he knows better than to take. The plot points are unpredictable and plausible. As a writer, Kostoff is content to lay back and let his characters do the talking; the author’s hand is not noticeable.

I’ve heard great things about his newest, Late Rain. I guess now I’ll just have to add him to the list of writers who periodically lead me to decide I don’t need to look for new things to read, at least not as long as I’m still behind on him.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Blind Pig Finds Another Acorn

No one was more surprised than I when I was chosen for a panel at this year’s Bouchercon. Not a traditionally published book to my name, and the contract I signed in May won’t will have no physical manifestation for a year and a half. Still, there I was, listed with my betters on the “Murder In Small Town USA” panel set for Friday at 11:30. Moderated by Sandra Parshall, the other panelists are Brenda Chapman, Erika Chase, Jess Lourey, and Mary Saums. (Part of me suspects someone thought I was a woman. Are they in for a surprise.)

How did I get chosen? Beats me. I can think of other writers of mysteries set in small town with far better track records than mine, and much higher profiles. If I’m guessing, the major thing in my favor was I had already committed to attend, registering well in advance of June 30, the date they asked people to register by if they wanted a panel. I suspect it didn’t hurt when I responded to a broadcast email to help promote Bouchercon by posting about it, and adding a link to the blog. (Look up and to the right on this page.) Being mistaken for a woman probably didn’t hurt.

Whatever the criteria, I’m grateful for the opportunity and am already in the midst of reading a book by each of my co-panelists, so as not to come off as the clueless boob I too often prove to be in public. I’m looking forward to having some fun and meeting some new people, though it’s a tough time slot. (Other panels at the same time include Mark Billingham, Michael Connelly, Zoe Sharp, Andrew Grant, John Gilstrap, and Max Allan Collins.) If you’re coming to Bouchercon this year and have an opening Friday at 11:30, stop on by. Ask embarrassing questions, snicker at my answers, whatever. Have a good time. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ll be the one with the beard.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rough Riders

Charlie Stella made his bones writing mob stories. Now he’s the pre-eminent organized crime fiction writer in the country. No one gets inside the heads of low-level hoods better than Stella. Made guys were never his primary interest. He focused on the entry-level crooks who didn’t have both feet in the game and were still looking for viable options in their lives, or someone who took a gig because he needed the money and had no intention of being a criminal, just because he worked for some.

He expands his envelope a little in his newest novel, Rough Riders. Ten years after 2001’s Eddie’s World, Eddie Senta has gone on with his life, and James Singleton--the man who almost killed him and was in turn disfigured by Senta—has gone on to a new identity, courtesy of the Witness Protection Program. Singleton—now known as Washington Stewart—now works for the government, in his way, setting up other potential candidates for WitSec, while pursuing an agenda of his own, sort of a black Sammy Gravano in North Dakota instead of Arizona.

Singleton/Stewart can’t forgive Senta for shooting him though the eye and almost killing him. His disfigurement leaves him too obvious to kill Senta himself, so he sends a couple of lackeys, who do half-assed job, leaving both Senta and his wife in the hospital, but alive. Mrs. Senta hires Alex Pavlik, one of the cops involved in the original incident, now working as a private investigator, to find Singleton and let the Sentas sleep with both eyes closed.

Pavlik tracks one of the would-be killers to North Dakota, where he learns Singleton is in the area, likely under government protection, which will hinder anything he tries to do. He also finds himself at the confluence of several crime enterprises operating around the Air Force base in Minot, at least one of which involves Singleton/Stewart.

Rough Riders resembles Mafiya, Stella’s look at the Russian mob, more than most of the rest of his books. Multiple points of view keep the reader better informed than any single character and do an excellent job of foreshadowing trouble without being heavy-handed about it. No amateurish, “If only he knew what Joe Schlabotnik had planned” bullshit here. The reader knows what Schlabotnik has planned, and we know our hero doesn’t know. There’s no need for Stella to spell it out, and he trusts his readers enough not to try.

As always in Stella’s writing, the dialog stands out among many strengths. No one this side of Elmore Leonard captures the flow of conversations better, though it may take a few pages to accustom yourself to the cadences of his characters’ speech. That’s more an indication of the failings of other writers than a fault of Stella’s, as too many are afraid to veer too far from “writing” when they write dialog, so their characters’ spoken words too closely resemble the surrounding narrative. Readers fall into the trap and expect it from everything they read. There’s no question who’s talking in Rough Riders, not even when the dialog moves back and forth rapid fire without attribution.

Rough Riders is the most complicated of Stella’s stories, and it takes some concentration to keep straight who is doing what to whom early on. Hang in there. Everything falls together, leading to a climax dispersed along several fronts, switching points of view every page or so to show simultaneous actions from multiple perspectives with a dexterity Leonard would be proud of. It’s a little different from Stella’s usual fare, but a welcome addition to his output. (If you’re looking for a more standard entry point into his oeuvre, try Shakedown or Johnny Porno.) Stella has been around, and is still willing to try out new things and stretch himself, as is shown by his enrollment in an MFA program in his fifties. Let’s hope he still dips his toe into the crime fiction pool at least once in a while. He’s a good one.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Coffee Break’s Over…Back On My Head

Labor Day has come and gone, and my now annual summer writing hiatus is over. I read a lot, and spent quite a bit of time on walks and in the car mulling over story ideas for the next novel, so the time wasn’t wasted. Far from it. I decided the reason last year’s novel idea didn’t pan out was because I tried to write a good story in the wrong setting. The decision was made to set aside private detective Nick Forte for the time being, and take the parts of that story I liked and move them to Penns River so my cops can deal with them. It will fold well into the evolving arc I have there, and allow me to find a better vehicle for Forte, who I still hope to get back to.

I’d like to thank Declan Burke for this gift. I was until a few years ago of the “a writer must write every day” school. I’ll admit, it allowed me to improve my writing quickly and kept me locked in. It was also in the process of burning me out, especially when coupled with an inability to sell anything. I was about to chuck it, and said so on this blog. Squire Burke not only made immediate efforts to set me straight, he recruited friends of his to drop by and lend some encouragement. This generosity will not be forgotten.

Just as important was Dec’s advice. To wit:

“…finish the WIP, take the summer off, watch the baseball. One of the best things I ever read was an interview with William Golding, in which he was asked about his writing routine. "Well, when I'm writing ..." he began, and that was the first time I realised you don't always have to be writing. In fact, all the time writing is like only breathing out. It can't be done - at least, it can be done, but not very well.”

As the Guinness ads used to say, “Brilliant!”

Time was I worked on an Anthony Trollope-like schedule: finish one book, type THE END, turn the page, and start the next. Trollope did well that way; I did not. The Golding quote and Dec’s breathing out analogy got me to see hard and consistent work is necessary, but so is time to recharge. Now I set aside the current project—whatever it is—on Memorial Day weekend, to resume after Labor Day. I read, I watch baseball, I take walks, I nap. I may write something short if the mood strikes me, but I make little or no effort to think about novels. By the end of June ideas come unbidden during walks or trips to the store. Sometimes it’s a solution to a problem, others it’s a whole new idea. Some I discard quickly, some are examined and discarded, and others have bits sliced off to be used while the rest is discarded. Little is written down. Summer is for letting things flow without the pressure of knowing a page needs to be written today.

This weekend I’ll write the ideas I have onto index cards and start sorting them. I have too much for one book, so a decent chunk of the next may also be laid out, subject to complete change if next summer’s walkabout leads me in a different direction. What matters is, I’m ready to write. I’m enthusiastic about getting back into the groove, and I have already adjusted my schedule to make it easier to sustain progress once I begin. I’ll not only be writing every day, I’m looking forward to it…now that I’m writing.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Wild Bunch

I had a home alone day off yesterday, so I spend the early afternoon with The Wild Bunch. It’s a favorite of mine, and I hadn’t seen it in a few years. Now I’ve seen it recently, and it’s still a favorite. A few things are a little dated, but the whole holds up very well.

It’s odd to watch The Wild Bunch now and think back to the furor its violence caused when it was released in 1969. Not that it isn’t graphically violent, but years of action flicks have inured us to such things. What The Wild Bunch does better than most movies is make the violence hurt. The results are not quick and antiseptic; you see and hear the suffering.

Director Sam Peckinpah also did a wonderful job of setting the film in its time. My wife asked last night why they would go into the Battle of the Bloody Porch knowing they were going to die. She didn’t watch it with me yesterday and was relying on memory. Seeing it play out, knowing how it ends, they wouldn’t have it any other way. (Stealing a line from the movie.) Their time had ended. They were Wild West-style outlaws, living in a world of automobiles and, as Pike Bishop verifies, airplanes. The Mexican Civil War is going on, and a German officer is agitating against the United States as World War I approaches. The Bunch’s preferred handgun is the original M1911 Army Colt Pistol, which, as the German officer points out, is illegal to own; it’s for military use only. These are men holding a Nineteenth Century occupation in what is clearly the Twentieth Century. It’s only a matter of time for them, as is noted several times. To choose the manner of their exit may have been a blessing.

What I took away most this time is Peckinpah’s wonderful job of unapologetically describing his characters. These are vicious criminals and ruthless killers, not averse to using innocent bystanders as shields. They have internal rivalries, yet the loyalty to each other is unquestioned. The affection between Pike and Dutch Engstrom is touching in its coarse way. Even Deke Thornton, the former gang member who turned against them to stay out of prison and blames Pike’s inattention for his capture, wishes he were back with them. It’s a precursor to The Sopranos, laying out terribly flawed characters in their entirety, allowing the audience to decide about them.

The cast is, of course, superb. A Western with Warren Oates and Ben Johnson has a leg up on most others right off the bat. Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan could have had their parts written for them. It’s William Holden who stands out. I came to his work late in his career, so my defining memories of him are as a slacker who does only what he has to in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag-17, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Pike Bishop is as far away from Joe Gillis as can be imagined, yet it is Holden’s portrayal of Pike’s combination of ruthlessness and fairness that holds the movie together.

The American Film Institute ranks The Wild Bunch as the sixth greatest Western. That’s hardly faint praise, but it’s a far superior film to The Searchers (Number 1). That doesn’t make it Number One—Unforgiven, High Noon, and Shane are also ranked ahead of it—but a washcloth could be draped over all four in terms of excellence. To my thinking, The Wild Bunch ranks behind only Unforgiven. If Sam Peckinpah had made only this one film, he’d deserved to be ranked among the greats.