Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The French Connection

As my Facebook friends can attest, I’m been on a French Connection jag for a couple of weeks. Started on the way to Bouchercon, when I toyed with the idea of stopping by a “Welcome to Poughkeepsie” sign to get a picture of me running my fingers between my toes. (If you don’t get it, look it up. I’m not your mother.) My clean living paid off when HDNET movies put it on the air a few weeks ago. I’ve watched it twice, and still have it on the DVR. At least one more viewing is in order before I’m sated.

Why? It’s a good movie and all, but what has driven me to obsess over it?

First, it’s not a good movie; it’s a great movie, on multiple levels. It’s one of those films that stands up to compressed, repeated viewings because there’s more to see each time. The more familiar I become, the more things I notice anew. How the Marseilles scenes tie into what’s to come. Roy Scheider’s amused reaction when Gene Hackman presses the junkie on whether he’s ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie. (You’re welcome.) How they work in the young woman with Charnier is his girlfriend and not his daughter. A hundred other things.

The writing. The willingness to let actors walk the streets of New York, not speaking, for extended periods of time. Actors who can pull that off. Don Ellis’s soundtrack is sparse and edgy; unsettling, not scary. The atmosphere is dingy, everywhere, pretty much all the time.

My friends Doug and Eric are far more knowledgeable about movies than I am; I suspect this is something you could get away with in the 70s. Maybe auteurs trusted their audiences more; maybe the suits gave them more leeway. The budget was small, which meant nothing could be snazzed up, even if they wanted to. Every cent they spend went into the story and the characters. Even the famous car chase scene—maybe the best ever filmed, though The Seven-Ups is right there with it—shows Popeye for what he is: a man obsessed. His actions at the end seem inevitable after the chase.

We have to be told everything today. Well, maybe we don’t; those in charge of entertainment think we do. I can’t imagine an American studio making The French Connection today. Or Dog Day Afternoon. They took a shot at The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 a few years ago, “updated” it. I have yet to hear of anyone who liked the new one better.

The Brits and Irish still pull these off. Harry Brown, The Guard, In Bruges have “production values” that probably wouldn’t pass muster here. Too dim. Likely done on the cheap, and they look it in many ways. The emphasis on storytelling—from the writers, the director, the actors, the editors, the set designers, everyone involved—showing an almost pathological aversion to anything flashy. These films don’t try to be gritty; they are. The stakes are far more personal than apocalyptic, which is where all true drama lives: inside the people.

I promise not to bitch about movies not being as good as they used to be for a while. Right now I have to chase some kids off my lawn.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why I Read

The dry erase board where I keep future blog topics has written on it, “Why I Read” as today’s. I have no idea what I intended to say. I know why I read, and I’m capable of telling you, but, as I sketched out the idea, it seemed trite, like an attempt to mine gold from, “because I like to.” That’s not good enough to waste your time—and mine—on.

Random thoughts:

The winners of last week’s contest have been notified, and the books are in the mail. If you weren’t notified, you didn’t win. Sorry if that’s abrupt, but in a world of war, famine, disease, and Ted Cruz, not winning a copy of my book does not qualify as disappointment. Buck up.

Whatever The Beloved Spouse is cooking had better be ready soon. My office is directly above the kitchen and the aroma is enough to make Doris Day peddle her ass for a taste. (If you don’t get that, it’s because you’re too young to know who Doris Day is and too lazy to look her up. I can’t help you with either.)

Considering Boston and St. Louis had the two best records in baseball this year, there sure is a lot of Little League sandlot shit going on in the World Series. (Apologies to Little Leaguers. I watch your World Series every year. You’d never do some of the stuff the big kids have done this week.)

My nickname is “Mr. Silver Lining.” It’s appropriate: I came up with it myself. Here’s how determined I am not to harsh anyone’s mellow: The Beloved Spouse and I have a calendar where we post what’s for supper every night. (Yes, it’s OCD, but we never fall prey to standing in the kitchen, six o’clock at night, with no idea what to make, nothing is thawed, tossing a coin to decide between Wendy’s and Subway.) I have promised her, if I ever learn I have a terminal disease, every day’s block will read “steak and ice cream.” If that’s not finding the bright side, I don’t know what is.

I take the fact I am considered to be pre-diabetic as evidence against the concept of a just and merciful God. I drink less than a care of beer a year; the house bottle of Jack Daniel’s lasts five years, minimum; I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, legal or otherwise; I’ve never used an illegal drug; never engaged in risky sexual practices; I indulge in nothing to excess and make a conscious effort to treat others the way I’d like to be treated. Forget heaven and hell; you’d think He’d weigh me in the balance and say, “Fuck it. Let him eat the Oreos.”

Speaking of treating others as I’d like to be treated, that’s a great idea, regardless of what religion you practice, or if you practice none at all. I like the idea so much, I have developed King’s Corollary to the Golden Rule: I treat others as I would like to treated myself. In fact I think so much of them, I assume they believe the same thing. Therefore, to those of you who act like arrogant, selfish, empathy-lacking pricks, I feel free to assume that is how you want to be treated, and will happily accede to your wishes.

Lou Reed died today. He’s about to embrace an entirely new meaning of “velvet underground.”

After satisfying no one during the government shutdown, I can only assume the horse John Boehner rode in on isn’t turning its back on anyone.

Six hundred words is a good length for a blog post. I promise to do better on Wednesday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Bouchercon Interviews, Part 2: Peter Rozovsky

Peter Rozovsky is the curator of the award-winning blog Detectives Beyond Borders, and is among the Bouchercon moderators whose panels are worth attending even if you don’t think you have an interest in the topic. This year he worked double duty: “The Siegfried Line: World War II and Its Offspring” covered crime during wartime and the aftermath of war; “Goodnight, My Angel: Hard-boiled, Noir, and the Reader’s Love Affair With Both” discussed topical and stylistic influences, and why they continue to resonate today. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the latter panel.)

Peter has been gracious enough to sit for some questions about what the life of a moderator is like.

One Bite at a Time: I think you first moderated a panel in Baltimore in 2008, which was my first Bouchercon; so, to me, you’ve been doing it forever. Can you give us a brief run-down of the panels you’ve moderated?

Peter Rozovsky: Nope, I gained my first experience in moderation at Indianapolis in 2009. That year I moderated a panel on translated crime fiction with Robert Pépin, Steven T. Murray, Tiina Nunnally and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Once I learned how to pronounce Sigurðardóttir, I knew I would be all right.

I have generally moderated panels on crime fiction set outside the United States. In St. Louis in 2011, one of my three panels was on humor in crime fiction. Eoin Colfer and Colin Cotterill were on that one. Some of the attendees are still recovering from the experience.

OBAAT: Which panels stick out over the years as being your favorites? Or are they like children, and you can’t pick?

PR: My panel in Cleveland in 2012 consisted all or almost all of authors I’d had on panels before. I quite enjoyed the challenge of writing fresh questions for that one. And the collateral reading for my 2013 Albany panel on wartime crime was fascinating. I read analyses of American military leadership and a history of the German occupation of France in World War II.

OBAAT: Do moderators learn of their assignments at the same time as the panelists, or do you get advance notice?

PR: We’ll get asked in advance if we’re willing to moderate panels, but we find out about the assignments when the panelists do. That has been my experience, at least.

OBAAT: How much say, if any, do you get in your panel’s topic? How about its panelists?

PR: That varies, in my experience. My first few years, I was simply assigned topics and panelists. I assume these were based on the sorts of things I write about and discuss at Detectives Beyond Borders. More recently, organizers have asked for my suggestions.

OBAAT: Describe the preparation you do before a panel.

PR: Reading. Reading. And then some reading. Read enough to get a sense of the author’s work, and tailor your questions to that work. When necessary, as I thought was the case with my wartime crime fiction panel, do outside reading. But that’s what we love to do, anyway.

OBAAT: It’s the day of the panel. What are your goals? What do you hope to avoid?

PR: Avoid asking questions to which the authors can answer “yes” or “no.” Keep all the panelists talking – to me, to the audience, and to one another. Hope that no panelists fall off the stage.

My goal as a moderator is to be entertaining, illuminating, to the point, and, most important of all, brief.

OBAAT: Is there anything about the moderator’s job I’ve missed you’d like to tell us about?

PR: You did miss the possibility of surprises. A moderator needs to be familiar with the work of all panel members. That may mean reading an author who falls outside’s one normal range of interests. That was the case with Anne Zouroudi, whom I had on a panel in 2011. I might not have read her work otherwise, and she turned out to be an absolutely delightful discovery.

Many thanks to Peter for making time to answer questions I hope were of as much interest to him as they have been to me for several years.

Bouchercon Interviews Schedule

October 18 – Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan (organizers)

October 25 – Peter Rozovsky (moderator)

November 1 – Thomas Pluck (author)

November 8 – John McFetridge (author)

November 15 – Tim O’Mara (author)

November 22 – Ali Karim (firmware)

November 27 – Zoe Sharp (author)

December 6 – Jack Getze (author)

December 13 – Walter Colby (reader)

December 20 – Michelle Turlock Isler (reader)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My Literary Crimes

My fictional crimes aren’t too elaborate. Your basic murders, assaults, extortion, theft, and drugs. The usual. I’ve only written one serial killer—in a book yet to see the light of day. My other killers do it for a reason. It may not be a reason you or I would agree with, but it was sufficient to motivate them.

I don’t care for serial killer stories. Like most writers, I write the kinds of stories I like to read, and I like to read stories that are, you know, believable? Not that serial killers don’t exist; they’re not criminal masterminds, taunting the police with increasingly revealing clues. No Hannibal Lectors out there. Just sick, disgusting men who prey on the weak and unsuspecting.

Laura Lippman said something at Bouchercon about serial killer stories as the cozies of the 21st Century. Her reasoning was—and I’m paraphrasing—serial killer stories are like roller coasters: they titillate and scare, but we know nothing like this is going to happen to us. (Not in a realistic, actuary-measurable sense.) What scares her is what takes place not too far from her home in Baltimore. That shit actually happens.

Raymond Chandler wrote: “[Dashiell] Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Chandler referred to Hammett’s breaking away from the traditional British mystery; the parallels to today’s serial killers are clear. They kill for no other reason than they want to; driven to, perhaps, but that’s an extreme level of the same thing. Fictional serial killers also have intricate methods and rituals that serve mostly to help the cops catch them. True, real serial killers have their own signatures; have you ever heard of one with the elaborateness of Kevin Spacey in Seven?

Killing is a dirty, venial business, overwhelmingly performed by dirty, venial people, the act born of greed, lust, or anger. Killers get caught because of things they didn’t think of, or didn’t do right, or because they got tricked. Often as not, they get caught because they’re fuck-ups. They’ve done something extraordinary—killed another human being—and they have to tell someone. Or they did it for money and can’t resist flashing it around. Or—my favorite—they do their woman wrong, either by treating her like shit, or trading up to a younger, flashier model. Note to crooks: women hate that. A lot of guys are in jail because an ex or soon to be ex ratted them out.

Not many get caught with space age CSI stuff, either. They may get convicted with it, but first the cops need someone to match the DNA to. This may change if DNA databases become as detailed and broad-based as fingerprints—or not, if turnaround times don’t improve; it’s not like that now. Security cameras on every corner? Maybe in Washington DC; not in Penns River, Pennsylvania. That shit costs.

Murders are committed by people; people solve them. It’s the people—good and bad—who need to be interesting, far more than the crimes. Otherwise the type of crime escalates until no one is willing to suspend disbelief. After a while the constant one-upmanship drives even devoted fans looking for something with a little rationality. (This may be happening now in the serial killer field.)

It’s not a random person who might want to kill me I worry about; it’s the people who are willing to kill me to get what they want. That’s who I write about.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Submit a Question, Win a Copy of Grind Joint

I have made a conscientious effort to post three blog entries each week for the past couple of months. This is partly to impose some discipline in my blog postings and partly to practice keeping my prose tight in whatever I write. Mostly, it’s an effort to have new material I can tell people about on Facebook and Crimespace and Goodreads which might help them to remember I have a book coming out November 16. (Grind Joint, from Stark House? I may have mentioned it a time or two.)

I have learned that writing a blog is not unlike painting a fence: it’s much easier if you con others to do it for you. A third of all the posts I have to write between now and the end of the year will be written by others, submitting answers to interview questions as part of the Bouchercon project. (Running every Friday till the end of the year. The current installment features Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan.)

I have done interviews before, of course, especially after reading a book I like. The problem there is, I often don’t read books until they have been available for a while, sometimes years. (Witness my recent “discovery” of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Then, by the time I get around to the interview, not only is the book no longer news, I’m lucky the author remembers writing it.

The long tail may be of more importance in this era of e-readers and perpetual availability, but that only goes so far. Authors need exposure most while the print book is still a blushing debutante in the public eye, and print media resources have substantially dried up for all but the most prominent. This blog may have dozens of readers, but the spider web effect means one never knows who may get their initial exposure to a new author because they stopped by for an unrelated reason. (Say, for example, to read a Bouchercon piece, and browsed a few others while they were here.)

My answer is to interview authors before I may have had a chance to read their books. Not a big deal; it’s done all the time. The trick is, what to ask them? The hoary standbys still apply: Who do you read? Who are your greatest influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write? What are you working on now? Those are gimmes.

There are others that apply to any book: Tell us about your book. Who would you cast in the leading roles when the movie gets made?

Those are all valid questions. I know, because I’d be interested in them; that’s why I asked. Blogs are not written solely for the owner’s personal satisfaction; at least they shouldn’t be. (I know some that are, and it’s a shame.) What’s more important is, what would you, Dear Reader, like to know about the authors I’ll interview and their new books?

That’s not a rhetorical question; I really want to know. I want to know so badly I’m offering a signed copy of Grind Joint as a reward for leaving a potential question in the Comments section below. Everyone who suggests a question for subsequent interviews will be entered into a drawing, one entry per suggestion, even if they’re all in the same comment, and whether I actually select that question for future interviews.

The deadline for consideration is 11:59 PM tomorrow, Tuesday, October 22. Check back on Wednesday to see who won, and to see how to make arrangements to have the book delivered.

Thanks in advance for your help, and good luck. It’s worth entering. The book doesn’t suck. Look what these nice people said at the top of the page. Those of you who know me at all know I’m too cheap to bribe them. That has to count for something.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bouchercon Interviews, Part 1: Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan

Today One Bite at a Time begins a project of unprecedented magnitude. The scope of this event—and it is an event—is so vast, so mind-numbingly expansive, that I actually had to do work. (Relax. I left most of it to my “honored guests.”)

Every year the mystery reading and writing community convenes at Bouchercon; last month we sacked Albany NY. As at any Bouchercon, panels are a key element, but most of us show up, view (or participate in) the panel, and don’t think much about it.

Over the next several weeks, One Bite at a Time is privileged to have access to a diverse cast of Bouchercon attendees, who look at panels from every angle. Today I’m delighted to welcome Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan, who have worked behind the scenes for years to ensure Bouchercons have come off well; this year they were the panel organizers, and their insights on panels are below.
Subsequent weeks will solicit opinions from a diverse array of mystery aficionados: a panel moderator (Peter Rozovsky); several authors, ranging in experience from self-pubbed to mid-list to an established star (alphabetically, Jack Getze, John McFetridge, Tim O’Mara, Thomas Pluck, and Zoe Sharp); a key member of what I refer to as the “firmware” of the mystery community: those who are not authors, but are more than readers (Ali Karim); and, last but not least, two of the people we do it all for: readers (Michelle Turlock Isler and Walt Colby). Interviews will run on Fridays until we’re done.

So, enough farting around. Let’s see how panels are put together from the inside of the process, courtesy of Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan.

One Bite at a Time: Writers like to joke about spending their entire conference at the bar, but it’s safe to say it’s the panels that make a conference worth attending. What’s the first step in organizing the panel schedule?

Judy Bobalik: Once registration to be on a panel is over, Jon Jordan and I get a list of people who requested one. It has nothing to do with when you sign up; the list is in alphabetical order. I then go through and list keywords from their questionnaires (humor, historical, private eye, thrillers, etc.). Jon and I figured out in 2010 that we need to start with titles and then add a panel topic to those. In 2008 we used song titles, 2010 episode titles from The Streets of San Francisco television show, 2011 titles from television shows Bob Crais, Charlaine Harris and Val McDermid (our Guests of Honor) were involved with. 2013 Billy Joel song titles.

OBAAT: How are the topics determined, and how much guidance are moderators given when they receive their topics?

JB: Topics are chosen by what the titles lend. Moderators are given the Moderator’s Manifesto, which was drawn up by several authors.

Jon Jordan: We try to leave topics a bit broad so moderators can run with an idea and make it their own.

OBAAT: How is the scheduling of each panel determined? Last year in Cleveland all the foreign interest panels were at the same time; this year there were two hard-boiled/noir panels taking place simultaneously. Is that a result of feedback you’ve received from previous organizers and attendees, or just how things work out sometimes?

JB: I end up with a four page, single-spaced list of author availability; that determines when I can schedule a panel. We had a panel set this year and when I went to schedule one author was only available on Friday and one was only available on Saturday so I had to remove and replace one of the authors.

OBAAT: How are the moderators chosen and matched with panels?

JB: Most moderators are chosen by their familiarity with the topic. We have some moderators who can and will do anything. (My go-to moderators. We love people who tell me, “Yes, whatever you need.”) This year we had a lawyer/author moderate the legal panel. Another moderator reads and reviews cozy/traditional so she got a cozy/traditional panel.

OBAAT: How are the panelists chosen and matched with panels? Do the moderators have much say in who’s on their panels?

JB: I go through my keywords and also I go to each and every author website and troll for information. In Baltimore we had a Sherlock Holmes panel and I needed another panelist, I found one from a comment on her website stating she was a huge fan of Conan Doyle.

JJ: We do listen to suggestions, but ultimately it’s about whom will give a great panel for the fans. It is a fan convention, not a writer’s workshop.

OBAAT: Some panels are clearly designed to be held in the largest room, with more big name authors. How is it decided who is on these panels, and what their topics will be?

JB: We sometimes know who we feel will draw big crowds so we put them in the big room. Yet, we don’t always know. This year we had a panel on whether the rules of mystery still apply and we expected maybe 60-70 attendees; when I looked in the room it was standing room only, with people sitting on the floor. My guesstimate, there were over 175 people in the room. See above about topics.

OBAAT: Do you ever perceive, or learn about, friction between panelists or moderators? Has anyone come to you and said, “Don’t ever put me on a panel with him,” or “Take me off her panel?” (No names are necessary. Unless you want to give them, of course.)

JB: Unless someone directly tells us, “Don’t put me on a panel with so-and-so,” we don’t and can’t worry about whom likes whom. We are dealing with over 450 people.

JJ: it’s only come up twice that I recall. And we found out after the fact. It’s not kindergarten and most authors are professional enough to make it work.

OBAAT: What’s the most fun about organizing panels?

JB: Coming up with the topics and slotting the authors.

OBAAT: What’s the least fun? Or, maybe better put as, what’s the biggest pain in the neck?

JB: Scheduling. Jon and I can put together 95 panels in a couple of marathon phone calls; it takes me almost a week to do the scheduling. In a perfect world, everyone would be available from the start of the conference to the end but we do not live in a perfect world. Also emailing the notifications because many authors then inform me they aren’t going to be there at that time, even though we ask on the questionnaire if they have any time conflicts.

JJ: Authors being more available makes it easier to place them.

OBAAT: I can’t thank you both enough for taking the time to answer questions you’ve probably heard many times before. Waiting for the panel announcements has become, for me, not unlike a kid waiting for Christmas. Do you have any parting thoughts? Anything I missed?

JB: Contrary to what you said at the beginning, Bouchercon is not all about being on a panel. I have found more new (to me) authors by conversations struck up in the bar or having coffee in the hospitality area. If you are on a panel you are in front of maybe 100 people but over the course of the weekend you have the opportunity to connect with over a thousand. I’m not saying you should do a hard sell every time you are talking with someone (that often is a guarantee I won’t read your book), but if we have a conversation and I find you interesting I will often look up your book.
Also, contrary to popular belief, Thursday and Sunday are not the scrub panels. They often garner the largest crowds and books sales. Something else for authors to consider: if you are available for the whole of the conference the likelihood of you getting on more than one panel increases.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Final Countdown

Today marks one month until the official launch of Grind Joint at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA. Details will be provided as I learn them. What I can say for sure is:

1. It starts at 10:00 AM

2. It ends around noon

3. Books will be available for purchase

No one looks forward to the date more than The Beloved Spouse. I’ll read a couple of chapters from the book at the launch. Those who know me are aware my mouth has a tendency to get ahead of anything my mind is doing, so I’ve been reading aloud to her more than usual lately. Not from Grind Joint; she can recite parts of it from memory already. Last night she got large chunks of The Onion Field as I practiced slowing things down, enunciating better, and putting appropriate emphasis in my voice. Feel free to critique my reading after the signing. (If you’re there. I don’t care what the rest of you think.)

Q&A can cover anything, with the exception of politics, religion, and sex, except for general questions about how any of the above relate to Penns River. (Editor’s Note: No sex questions. My mother will be there.) I’ll even be happy to talk about the eternal question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Peter Rozovsky asked his Bouchercon panelists if there were any questions we were sick of and would prefer not to have to answer. I’m so new at this, I’m delighted when people ask me the time of day; I’ll answer anything. Get to me now before Crash Davis does.

There will also be a guest appearance by my editor, Rick Ollerman, who will fill everyone in on some of the cool stuff currently available from Stark House. For example, did you know Stark House also publishes Charlie Stella, whose most recent novel, Rough Riders, was named one of the top five books of 2012 by Crime Fiction Lover? You didn’t? Well, then, get your ass over to Mystery Lovers Bookshop on November 16. You clearly have dangerous gaps in your knowledge.

Breaking News!

Amazon is now providing an estimated arrival date of October 23, 2013 - November 18, 2013 for pre-ordered copies of Grind Joint.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Walkaway

It’s hard to know what to expect in a book by Scott Phillips. There will be dark humor, and there will probably be a crime, though not necessarily, and whatever crime is committed may not be strictly illegal; more of a crime against conscience. For all the unpredictability, his books never disappoint. The more you read, the more different aspects of Phillips’s insight and talent become apparent. This is never more true than in The Walkaway.

The Walkaway begins a few years after Phillips’s debut novel, The Ice Harvest, leaves off. Gunther Fahnstiel has done what he did with the money (read the book to find out exactly what), and escaped from the facility where he’s being treated for his senility. Gunther sets out with a mission, but his declining mental state keeps him from gaining a firm grasp on what it is, or how he intends to accomplish it; he just knows he has one. His escape sets his friends and relatives in a frantic chase to find him, as well as to discover how he’s been paying for some things all these years.

Set against this story are the events of over fifty years previous, when Gunther, then a cop, stood guard over a remote cabin where the winners of the sex lottery at Collins Aircraft collected their prizes. A thoroughly corrupt returning veteran, Wayne Ogden, has returned and has his own reasons for stopping that operation by whatever means necessary.

The Walkaway has Phillips’s dry, dark wit, and the writing never interferes with what he wants to say. He weaves at least three stories together with virtuosity: Gunther’s mission, the search for Gunther, and flashbacks of what transpired after the war, all of which are related. Elements of The Ice Harvest are referenced. Readers of the more recent The Adjustment will recognize Wayne Ogden, as Phillips integrated that story into seams of this one. (I hadn’t read The Walkaway when I read The Adjustment. It was a unique experience to see how he had worked the two together from the other side, so to speak.)

I had a little trouble keeping everyone straight in the beginning. Hang in there. Phillips combs out the threads of each story line from the initial ball of fabric until each character and story line has its own personality. Before long you’re shifting points of view and time periods effortlessly, fascinated as each scene brings meaning to others.

By the end I was caught up in Gunther’s story. He was what he was and did what he did earlier in life. Now he’s a confused old man who isn’t sure what he’s done or what to do about it. I’ve never read a book by Phillips I didn’t enjoy; The Walkaway is special. It contains all the things that show Phillips’s skills while probing emotions in a unsentimental manner that allows the reader to draw his own conclusions and discover his own emotions. A wonderful book.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Dangerous Timing

Those of you who are among the five percent of Americans who believe Congress is doing a good job may not be aware the US government has been shut down for over a week. This means the contract I work for [agency name redacted]’s [program name redacted] program is also shut down, which means I am essentially laid off from my job at [company name redacted]. (Editor’s Note: “Laid off” is used in the traditional sense, of temporarily idle during a time of insufficient work, and not in the more current definition, which, loosely put, is “Get the fuck out.” The author is not unemployed, so nobody panic. He’s in much better shape than most other people affected by the current hostage situation.)

Frankly, the timing could hardly have been better. Bouchercon got my batteries fully charged for writing, of course, but also for being a writer. Lots of ideas for things to do came to mind, unconnected to the work in progress. (Which is also moving along much quicker than it would were I otherwise busy eight-plus hours a day.) A series of interviews to get a feel of how people in different positions view Bouchercon panels. Promotion of Grind Joint. (Available for pre-order; official launch November 16 at 10:00 AM at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont PA.) Things I wanted to do were piling up, and the baseball playoffs loomed.

The government shut down made me a Man of Leisure on the day the playoffs started, at the same time it made me a full-time writer. (At least for the time being.)

How does a freshly minted, yet temporary, Man of Leisure spend his days?

Mornings: Correspondence and blogs. Catch up on social media (Facebook, Crimespace).

Afternoon: Writing, reading.

Evenings: Baseball. Or hockey. Reading before bed time.

I could get used to this pretty quick. It will end—soon, I hope, for reasons other than what I’m discussing here—but I’ve had a taste, and that taste came shortly after the high of Bouchercon. (Oh, yeah, I also got a check for books sold on consignment in Albany. Only enough for a nice lunch, but I got paid for books sold, which is sweet.) I know all the bullshit that almost led me to quit before is still there, but I’m also coming to the conclusion it may be more tolerable than I’d thought, given sufficient time to work on it. So, if nothing else comes from this cluster fuck we currently call Congress, I have some direction for the future, in case there is more to this writing thing than self-pubbing a book every year or so.

Consider this fair warning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Stuck, Not Blocked

I was 486 words into what was intended to be this blog post when I had a rare moment of artistic lucidity and realized it was an even bigger stool sample than usual. So I ditched it, which left me here:

Which brings us to the most dangerous boogey man in all of literature:

Writer’s Block.

Why is it a boogey man?

Because it doesn’t exist. Never has. Never will.

Writer’s block is not a reason people don’t write; it’s an excuse. I’ll bet writers who complain of being blocked can still crank out e-mails (in the past, letters) about being blocked. They wrote those, didn’t they? So I guess they’re not blocked.

“E-mails don’t count. They’re not fiction.” First, anyone who truly believes that hasn’t read enough business emails that describe why a project is late, or over budget. Second, so what? You had to think of an idea and express it in words. In fiction you make up the ideas. What people call writer’s block is what happens when a writer hasn’t come up with an idea he or she feels like spending the time on, or they don’t think they can write well, or—even worse—they’ve tried to write it and the words just won’t come.

That’s not writer’s block; it’s a bad idea. Not all “good” ideas are good for you. An idea Scott Phillips could write the hell out of would leave me staring at a blank screen for hours; it’s quite possible the converse is also true, even though Scott Phillips can write rings around me without requiring full consciousness. As Stephen King wrote in On Writing, “Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

I used to attribute my favorite writer’s block quote to King, though I can find no evidence of that on the web today. It sounds like something he’d say, and I like it, so here goes: Writer’s block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are. That’s not a pejorative comment; anyone, from you to Jonathan Franzen to Elmore Leonard can fall prey to it. (Okay, maybe not Leonard anymore.) When the words you put on the page don’t match the idea in your head, when you find what comes through your fingers or pen inadequate to describe the essence of what you’re thinking, then you’re blocked.

Forge ahead. Write the passage with all the care and attention you’d devote to an e-mail; no one cares about first drafts, anyway. Remember, readers take the final result as though it leapt fully-formed from your brain to the page. They don’t see the sausage being made; only you do. Real writing is done during edits. Ever hear of someone afflicted with Editor’s Block? Didn’t think so.

Everyone gets stuck. (I was stuck on this blog post for about ten minutes.) If you’re never stuck, you’re not trying hard enough. If you’re blocked, you’re trying too hard.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Resist the Urge to Explain

I assume I’m going to like every book I read; why else would I have bothered with it in the first place? I can’t keep up with all the things I want to read as it is; why waste time on unnecessary risks?

Of course, some books disappoint despite my highest hopes; I fail to finish about ten percent of the books I start. (That may seem low to some, but remember: I didn’t even startl if I wasn’t pretty sure I’d like it.)

So why don’t I finish the books I out down? Rarely is it bad writing; the authors I read have been vouched for by trusted sources. I can live with a weak plot; not an unbelievable one. I also have to care, at least a little, about the situation and/or at least one of the characters. Plausible dialog is important. Everyone knows about these, in one way or another. Something else that will pull me out of a book is overt explanation.

There’s a fine book titled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Dave King (no relation) and Renni Browne. I make a point to at least skim it every couple of years to remind myself of what’s in there. These two paragraphs exemplify not only the kind of direct, practical advice they provide, but what may be the most important lesson in the book:

It’s more work this way, of course. It’s easier to simply say “Erma was depressed” than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you would by simply describing it. It is nearly always better to resist the urge to explain (or, as we so often write in manuscript margins, R.U.E.)

This tendency to describe a character’s emotions may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the author. And more often than not, authors tell their readers things already shown by dialog and action—it’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, then rewrite the passage so that it is.

Best-sellers are guilty of this all the time. The authors (and editors, I presume) don’t trust their readers enough to understand what’s being said, or, even worse, to feel what the author wants them to feel. So they may show you, but then they’ll tell you, then probably tell you again. No chance will be left for you not to remember Erma was depressed. This is among the primary reasons I so rarely read best-sellers.

Lazy writing abounds with examples. “Katy, distraught over her mother’s accident, ran red lights, cut off other drivers, and was still late for work.” If the author has done his job, the reader will likely know Katy is close to her mother, and may be about to find out her mother has had an accident. The reader may then infer Katy’s driving, and tardiness, is related. The point may be reinforced later with added descriptions of actions or dialog.

John is talking to Jim and says, “How’s your wife, Mary?” as a way of introducing Mary’s character. Here’s the problem: unless Jim is a bigamist, he already knows his wife is named Mary. That was written as it was solely for the reader’s benefit, in case they weren’t smart enough to figure out Mary is Jim’s wife from his answer, which could only be because the writer wasn’t good enough—or conscientious enough—to work it in.

There’s another benefit of doing it right: you get to misdirect the reader without cheating. What if Katy’s doesn’t give a rat’s ass about her mother, but it’s in your story’s interest to leave an impression this is why she’s distraught? Maybe Jim is leading a double life and is a bigamist, but you don’t want the reader to know just yet. Lying is cheating; a little misdirection…? (As Delbert McClinton sings in his song, The Rub: “I might mislead you, but I wouldn’t ever lie/I said, ‘Hell, that’s the way it ought to be.’”) Don’t write yourself into a corner just because you didn’t spend the time to scope out the job first.

Give your reader some credit. By all means make sure they have the information they need to understand the story; don’t demean their intelligence to do so. It might keep you off the best-seller list—at least for a while—but you might also gain a devoted core of readers who respect you for treating them as equals.

At least that’s my plan.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Catching Up

I used to do a lot of reviews for the New Mystery Reader web site, upwards of twenty a year. Now I do a small handful, and almost always of books I’m probably going to like. There are several reasons for this, not the least being the time spent on doing a proper review cut into my own writing time. I also decided a few years ago not to finish books I didn’t like, and you can’t do that when you’ve promised a review. (Well, you shouldn’t. I’ve done it a couple of times and felt lousy about it.)

Now I confine myself to mentioning books I like, both here on my blog and on the book’s Amazon page. (I’ve promised myself to get busy on Goodreads, too, but Goodreads and I don’t seem to mesh well.) Having occupied myself with Bouchercon planning and shameless self-promotion over the past several weeks, I have let these recommendations lapse. Today we’ll start catching up. (Books are listed in the order in which I read them. No ranking is implied.)

Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard. Yes, it’s an old book; so what? Leonard’s satire of Hollywood has all the features his work is recognized for—quirky characters, slightly off-kilter plot, fantastic dialog—and is his funniest book, by far. Those of you who have read it know what I’m talking about. Those who have not read it really ought to. Not as dark as his earlier crime fiction (City Primeval, Split Images), and not quite as representative of his overall work as some others (Swag, Glitz), this may be the best entry point for someone not sure about Leonard. A writer like him will not soon pass this way again.

The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, Eric Beetner. Eric was interviewed about this book as part of my pre-Bouchercon run-up; now I’ll tell you why. Old hit man who may have lost an inch off his fastball is sent a younger hotshot to help him close an outstanding contract. They don’t get along, but they get together to do the job, which is where things go haywire. I’ll not spoil anything, but suffice to say the books starts with a dynamic that reminded me of Armand and Richie from Elmore Leonard’s Killshot (one of my Leonard favorites) and segues seamlessly into a smart chase/action movie where everything is believable.

Prohibition and Slow Burn, Terrence McCauley. McCauley may have the best idea on how to sustain a series: make the setting the consistent thing and rotate the characters. Prohibition follows Terry Quinn in his role of chief enforcer for Archie Doyle in Prohibition-era New York; NYPD detective Charlie Doherty is a subordinate character. Slow Burn is Doherty’s book, taking place after Franklin Roosevelt has taken over as governor and pledged to clean up the Tammany machine in the city. McCauley has a gift for capturing not just the period in which the books are set, but the style of writing used by many of the pulp writers of the day. Prohibition comes first, but I read them in reverse order and did not lose any enjoyment.

The Take, Mike Dennis. Dennis’s first, and a great start. Eddie Ryan is a sad sack bookie who gets in over his head so badly he has little choice but to step out of his comfort zone. Things go wrong—as we knew they would—not in the way we expected. Dennis has a good twist on the femme fatale, enough surprises to keep anyone interested but not confused, and he keeps track of them all so nothing is wasted. The ending would make Quentin Tarentino proud.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson. All right, all right, it took me 57 years to get to this; it was worth waiting for. I expect everyone reading this is hip to F&L; if you’re not and you follow the kinds of things I follow, you should be. I’d write more, but I have to get these goddamn bats out of my office.

Dad is Fat, Jim Gaffigan. The popular comic with bits about raising five kids in a two-bedroom New York apartment. Laugh out loud funny in places, smileworthy for the rest. Gaffigan has the knack of making fun of his kids while never leaving any doubt how much he loves them. He reads the audio book himself, which I expect adds a whole nuther level of entertainment.

“Peaches,” Todd Robinson. Nominated for a short story Anthony, and deservedly so. An underworld tough guy encounters his old babysitter in a bar. Where it goes from there, only Todd Robinson could take you. To say more will kill the effect. As good a short story as I’ve read in a couple of years.

Dirty Words, Todd Robinson. An anthology of stories, published before “Peaches.” As with any anthology, some stories are better than others; none are weak. “So Long, Johnnie Scumbag” gets things started with a bang. “Last Call,” “Angelo Death,” and “The Saint of Gunners” all stand out, but the highlights of this collection are two stories featuring the heroes of Robinson’s novel, The Hard Bounce: Boo Malone and his sidekick, Junior. Both stories have the pacing of The Hard Bounce, yet show there’s more than action and dirty words going on in Robinson’s writing.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Where Do Ideas Come From?

I saw Robert B. Parker at a book signing many years ago. He told a story of being on one of those morning wake-up shows all television stations have, sharing a spot with Elmore Leonard. They were sitting in the Green Room, passing the time, and agreed the question they least liked answering was, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Ten minutes later, on camera, the helmet-haired blonde hostess’s first question was to Parker: “Where do you get your ideas?”

“Utica,” he said. “There’s a little store there. Lots of writers use it.”

The hostess accepted that as the most logical answer in the world, then turned to Leonard, “And how about you, Mr. Leonard?”

“Same place.”

This story came to mind at Bouchercon when I saw Reed Farrel Coleman on a panel, and the topic of where ideas come from was raised.

“Schenectady,” he said, then did Parker one better. “Too bad this conference wasn’t a couple of weeks earlier. We missed the end of summer idea sale. Now they already have the Christmas ideas in.”