Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Eleventh Rule

I gave myself permission a few years ago to stop reading any book I found myself not enjoying. It doesn’t happen often—my vetting system is sound—but I sometimes wonder what it is about a book that makes me give up on it. I a devoted blog post to what I called “bestseller style,” and why it was a pretty good bet to make me stop reading.

The other day I put down a book I’d been looking forward to; the vetting system is not perfect. A bestseller, it had the issues I cited in the other post, but it also brought about an epiphany as to what it is about bestsellers that so often turns me off: they violate the Eleventh Rule.

What is the Eleventh Rule? In Elmore Leonard’s justly famous Ten Rules of Writing*, he states:

My most important rule is one that sums up the ten: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Bingo. These books sound too much like writing. Their authors write as if ninth-grade English teachers loomed over their shoulders, poised to strike with metal-edged rulers (or worse) at the mere whisper of a split infinitive or dangling preposition. This type of writing constantly reminds me I am reading a story, taking me away from the vivid and continuous dream I want to be in as a reader. I don’t want to read stories; I want to watch them.

“But what about Chandler and James Lee Burke and Declan Hughes? Their use of language is so original—beautiful, even—you admit you read for that,” you ask. (You sure have had a lot of questions lately. Getting to be a pain in the ass, frankly.) That’s true, but, while I am aware it’s writing, their work never reads as such. I can still be lost in their prose, as if listening to a master storyteller or orator make a story transcendent through his prose.

Leonard made a point to append the Eleventh Rule to Number Ten: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. Personally, I tend to skip things that sound too much like writing, even if that means skipping the entire remainder of the book.

(* - Leonard’s Ten Rules are often presented as a bulleted list, but they are best read with the explanations and caveats he provided in the original.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Easter Eggs

I don’t know Nic Pizzalatto, so I didn’t use the Easter egg defense in my comments about the True Detective plagiarism controversy. It might be 180 degrees off base. In fact, it probably is. So, never mind about that. There you go. Shortest blog post ever.

“What are Easter eggs?” you ask? (Yeah, you did. Don’t try to deny it now that it looks like I’m going to go into something and you’re afraid people will blame you. I promise I won’t say any more than I have to, if that.) Easter eggs are little bits, often humorous, (hopefully) always entertaining, that are dropped into a story like inside jokes. The secret to an Easter egg is, those who don’t get the joke should not be aware of it, and their understanding of what has been written must not be diminished. It’s strictly a bonus to someone on the inside.

I don’t like to use my own stuff as examples, but I don’t have the time to do a lot of research. Grind Joint has several. The Chinese restaurant where Doc and Nick eat lunch is called Lee Ho Fuk’s. Fans of Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London got a smile. Everyone else thought it was the name of the Chinese joint. It had to be called something. (I needed a storefront Chinese place for a gag I wanted to use. Most Chinese restaurants have names like, “House of Peking Choice,” and “Happy Garden”, or “Hunan Pleasure,” so you can’t tell by the name whether it’s a restaurant or a whorehouse. So, Lee Ho Fuk’s. Which actually suffers from the same problem, but at least it’s funny.)

About once in a PI book I’ll make mention of people who are “nibbling” drinks. I’ve only ever seen that term in Raymond Chandler’s work. Using it is my bow—my homage—to Chandler. Chandler’s characters also sometimes “used” their drinks. So do mine. If you catch it and recognize it, good for you. If not, context makes the meaning perfectly clear.

It’s yet to be proven, but I believe the conscientious and judicious use of Easter eggs can help to create reader loyalty. If some subset of readers are getting the obscure references, there may be a bit of a bond there. I believe this because I’ve seen it work on a micro level.

A friend, a former employer of mine, called one evening. The first words out of his mouth were, “You immortalized me!” I asked what he was talking about, and he had the Grind Joint page number at the ready. The sentence that set him off was:  Showed like he spent his days talking you into the Impala instead of the Cobalt, or explaining why ventless dryers were the big thing. My friend sells ventless dryers, he knew I wrote that for him, and he was right. It made his day. Mine, too, after he called.

There’s a scene in Grind Joint where Nick Forte chases a bad guy through the woods:
Benny knew these woods better, but Nick knew enough. They’d played here as kids. Army and cowboys, practiced their Scout trailblazing skills when it seemed to them the trees went on forever and getting back wasn’t a foregone conclusion. A mound of dirt might be the foxhole they’d dug, parapet and firing step and all. Benny and Russell’s old tree house was off to the left somewhere.
That prompted a call from my brother. His family had read the book, but he told them they couldn’t appreciate that scene quite as much as he did—no one could—because it described things he and I had done as kids. (The whole climactic scene of Grind Joint takes place at my parents’ house and yard, and the woods behind. Nothing was made up, though a couple of things were re-arranged as needed.)

So, if you’re lucky, Easter eggs may allow you to bond with a few readers who will get the inside joke, so they might want to keep reading to spot the next one. Worst case, no one but you and a few select friends care. Even then, no damage has been done. Those on the outside didn’t miss anything important to the story. They won’t even know they missed anything at all. The worst that can happen is, you’ll have some fun. You might as well, since you’re not going to make much money.

(Commenter Bonus: A free, signed, copy of Grind Joint will be sent to the first person to identify the Easter egg in this post, not counting those I specifically called out.)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Difficult Men

Difficult Men is Brett Martin’s brilliant and entertaining look behind the key shows of what he calls the Third Golden Age of television, a period spearheaded by HBO with the prison drama Oz laying the foundation from which The Sopranos would become a phenomenon.

The title has double meaning. The programs that make up the core of Martin’s third golden age focus largely on the lives of forty-ish men in crisis: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Don Draper, and several cops, politicians, and drug dealers in The Wire. Those are the guys the public saw. The men responsible for their creation were forty-ish themselves, and they were, by and large, the truly difficult men.

The biggest takeaway, for me, was, “Why would anyone want to write for television?” Even if you overcome innumerable hurdles and are lucky enough to get on a first-rate show, you may get to work for a David Chase, a David Milch, or a Mathew Weiner. Chase never got over the idea he was too good for television. Weiner comes off as an arrogant an asshole ever to draw breath. Milch is such a whack job he makes James Ellroy look as eccentric as Jimmy Carter.

The stories of how all these men achieved their positions are fascinating. How events, timing, critical masses of people, and the pure luck of pitching the right idea to the right network at the right time came together to create something special. How HBO owned the franchise until it got a little complacent and FX leadership decided maybe that network didn’t have to be an afterthought at Fox, after all. AMC’s good fortune when looking for a program with gravitas, but not a crime show, which had done the heavy lifting to that point. Martin talked to a lot of people in position to know, and what they told him was too good to have been made up.

Not all the showrunners were off the rails. David Simon comes across as argumentative, but fair, and extremely loyal to both his people and his vision, which could cause friction. Shawn Ryan (The Shield) called in personal favors from friends for his pilot and to keep the cast together—casting his wife as Vic Mackey’s wife because “I know I can get you back”—and using the guerilla film tactics born of budget necessity to create something special both onscreen and off. Vince Gilligan appears to be a mensch. So, no, one does not have to be a neurotic asshole to be a big success, though it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Difficult Men is a great read for any fans of any of the shows cited, and for anyone curious about how shows get made—or, more often, don’t get made—in Hollywood. A quick read, written by Martin in an engaging manner with the perfect distance from the subject matter. Not so distant he looks down on his subjects, yet not so close he fails to recognize the lunacy. This is pretty much a pitch perfect tale.

One last thing. Despite giving David Chase every opportunity to justify the ending of The Sopranos, when all is said and done, it was still chickenshit.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Interwebs have had their knickers in knots for the past few weeks over allegations Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized Thomas Ligotti for Rust Cohle’s dialog in the HBO series True Detective. Jon Padgett, founder of the Thomas Ligotti Online website, certainly thinks so, as he said to Mike Davis in The Lovecraft eZine:

“It is a fact that (in that crucial, character-defining scene) almost every one of Rust’s infamous lines is either taken word for word or is a paraphrase of Ligotti’s distinctive prose and ideas from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.”

Padgett also cites what he calls “ample evidence” that is “unmistakably evident,” providing eight comments by character Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), along with examples from Ligotti’s work. (You can read the entire article at the link above. I’m going to cherry-pick a little, in the interest of space.)

COHLE: We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from
itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

Ligotti: “We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.” (Emphasis in original.)

Another example:

COHLE: So my daughter, she spared me from the sin of being a father.

Ligotti: “…non-coital existence… the surest path to redemption for the sin of being congregants of this world.”

Padgett goes on to say, “Are we truly expected to believe that all of the above is pure coincidence?”

No, not at all. It’s also not plagiarism.

In the second example, by Padgett’s reasoning, anyone who uses the phrase “the sin of being” is a plagiarist. We start looking at examples that small for plagiarists, no one is safe.

I once had two detectives eat lunch in a Chinese joint named Lee Ho Fuk’s. I got the name from Warren Zevon’s song, “Werewolves of London.” Is that plagiarism? No. it’s what I call an Easter Egg, something people who get the joke will smile at, and those who don’t haven’t missed anything. The restaurant has to be named something.

Ligotti is clearly a major influence on Pizzolatto’s work. No one disputes that. To be fair, he could have cut all of this off at the pass by writing a few lines of dialog before Rust Cohle says a nihilistic word to Marty Hart:

Cohle: You ever hear of a writer named Thomas Ligotti, Marty?
Hart: Uh-uh.
Cohle: Well, he says…

From there you can do about what you want.

The Lovecraft article created a furor I think is dying down a little. (I admit I’m late to the party again, but I have other things to do. Just be happy I’m not a fireman.) With all the bits and bytes that have been consumed, one thing seems more evident now than ever before: fantasy/sci-fi/horror fans are the most thin-skinned and self-important assholes of the reading world.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movies I've Seen Since the Last Time I Wrote About Movies

12 Years a Slave (2013). I made a conscious decision not to see 12 Years a Slave when it came out, figuring it wouldn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know, and there was nothing I could do about it, anyway, except to be vigilant against any national backsliding, which I already do. I’m too old to spend discretionary time and money to do something I know I’m not going to enjoy going in. The Beloved Spouse and I were visiting my parents, this was the movie they’d received from Netflix, so we watched it with them, and I was right the first time.

I’ll probably catch hell for this, but 12 Years a Slave strikes me as the kind of movie that
wins awards because people are ashamed to be seen as voting against the subject matter. The acting is excellent, it’s beautifully photographed, but there’s no story there. It’s a series of agonizing anecdotes that leads to Solomon Northup finally finding the one man in a position to help him who will do so, and then people come for him and restore him to his home. While I have no doubt that what actually happened—especially from Northup’s perspective—that’s not really storytelling.

Director Steve McQueen shows a disconcerting knack for not knowing when to get out of a scene, resulting in episodes that might be criticized as borderline torture porn in a less elevated film. Northup’s near hanging and the whipping of Patsy are good examples. The scenes needed to be drawn out to make the point, no argument there. There comes a time when the point has been made and the scene continuation becomes overkill, with the paradoxical effect of lessening the effect. McQueen received kudos for his willingness to stay on shots of a single person’s face as emotions wash over it, sometimes for over a minute. (Which could come to seem like half an hour.) While I appreciate the point he wanted to make—and it’s a valid point, describing one of this country’s Three Great Shames—the concept of “less is more” could well have been applied.

If you’ve done more than superficial study of American slavery as an institution, or have spent time wondering what it must be like to be sold as chattel, separated from your family, and beaten or killed indiscriminately, you don’t need to see12 Years a Slave. If none of the above conditions applies, you should. It should be compulsory for about 80% of the Tea Party.

Grudge Match (2013) I put this in the queue because we both like DeNiro, Stallone, and Arkin and it might be a nice, meaningless way to pass two hours. It was much better than either The Beloved Spouse or I had expected. Fun more than funny, but it was a lot of fun. Stallone was asked to do what he does well, and DeNiro let the lines and situations provide his humor, instead of trying to sell it as he is prone to do. As always, Alan Arkin steals the movie. There’s a little lazy writing when some effort would have allowed the plot to move just as well or better, but there are also some subtexts you don’t often get in comedic fluff. Well worth a couple of hours.

The Running Man (1987) Jesus Christ, is this a shitty movie. Almost without a doubt one of the ten worst movies I have ever seen.

Marlowe (1969) Turner Classic ended its James Garner retrospective with this adaptation of
Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister. All said, not a bad effort. Garner is a good Marlowe, and the story is adhered to as well as any other Marlowe movie. At its core, this is an attempt to update Marlowe from the 40s to the 60s, and it succeeds far better at that than does Robert Altman’s effort to update him to the 70s, The Long Goodbye. Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay is true to the moral center Chandler established, and Garner has the right amount of fun with him. This could have been the definitive Marlowe flick had not the production itself been so mired in the 60s. Made a couple of years later, after The French Conneciton showed what could be done with some realism and grit, this could have been great.

The World’s End (2013) Another in the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost films, this one about a loser’s (Pegg) attempts to get his old school mates together for a legendary pub crawl they tried, and failed, twenty years ago. Pegg and Frost are spot on, as always, and the writing (by Pegg and director Edgar Wright) skewers some contemporary cultural practices while showing Pegg’s character isn’t as cool as he thinks he is. The ending gets a little out of control, but that’s a quibble. This is two hours of great fun.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Blog Hop

Last week, John McFetridge tagged me as one of his two authors to participate in a blog hop. Here’s how it works: each participating author tags two other authors until the Internet crashes and writers can get back to writing, as they will have lost all venues for whining about Amazon-Hachette, why they can’t make any money, or why writing is the most difficult occupation in the history of man, and getting harder by the day.

Info on the authors I tagged can be found below my answers. Thanks to John for thinking of me.

What am I working on?
Right now, nothing. (Ha!) Over the weekend I finished polishing and formatting a Nick Forte PI novel that had been sitting on my hard drive for several years, ready to send to the agent or self-publish. After Labor Day I’ll get to work on the edits for the fourth Penns River novel, which has been left to ferment over the summer. For the remainder of August I’m reading and watching a lot of baseball.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s written by me. Remember, I’m unique, just like everybody else.

The Penns River novels are police procedurals, so they owe a great debt to Ed McBain. Where I think they are different from most is the setting: a small, economically depressed town. What I guess would be called an exurban setting; where the suburbs change into rural areas, with a small, decaying downtown. This gives me the opportunity to write a little urban, a little rural, and whatever other kind of setting and crime I care to indulge.

The Nick Forte PI novels are pretty traditional, with, I hope, an interesting twist. He’s a divorced father with a daughter he adores. He and Caroline have a couple of scenes in each book that serve to ground Forte, and to, hopefully, humanize him for the reader as his character becomes darker from book to book. I’ll start the fifth Forte book over the winter, and the violence he’s faced—and committed—will have worn him down to the point he’s clinging to Caroline as his life preserver, which even he recognizes it’s too great a burden for a twelve-year-old girl. As she grows, he also becomes more aware, and involved in, family and women’s issues cases.

Why do I write what I do?
These are the kinds of stories I like to read, and feel most comfortable telling. Especially now, that I have established this universe—Forte and the main character in the Penns River books are cousins, and there is some cross-pollination, especially in Grind Joint—I tend to come up with ideas that fit into one or the other’s established world. I have an idea for them to cross over again sometime in the future.

How does my writing process work?
I’m a little OCD. (The Beloved Spouse just gave me That Look.) Okay, I’m a lot OCD. Not like I’m a Matchstick Man, or anything.

When drafting, I have to write one single-spaced page a day on workdays, two on days off. I read and clean up the previous day’s work before moving on, and read each chapter to The Beloved Spouse as it is finished. Then I leave the book alone for a few months before reading it start to finish and taking notes. Then comes what are usually two drafts: one to make sure the series of chapters make a unified novel (adding or removing chapters, subplots, or characters), and another to make them good. (Tightening everything, adjusting for flow, making sure each character has his or her own voice, etc.). Then it sits for another month or so before I do a word frequency search and remove some of the worst offenders. After that comes the final polish, which has a routine of its own:
Day One: Read Chapters 1 & 2. Just read them. Nothing else.
Day Two: Read Chapters 1 & 2 sotto voce from the screen and edit. Read Chapters 3 & 4.
Day Three: Print, read aloud, and edit from the hard copy Chapters 1 & 2; when this pass is finished, they’re done. Period. Read Chapters 3 & 4 sotto voce from the screen and edit. Read Chapters 5 & 6.
Day Four etc.: Repeat until finished. Weekends get an extra chapter a day.

When this process is complete, I’m allowed to type THE END at the bottom, and I’ll mean it, unless the agent or an editor wants some specific changes.

Now it’s my turn to tag two authors, both of whom are favorites of mine.

Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction today. He has a gift of showing life from the underside of organized crime. Not necessarily the bosses, but what it’s like in the trenches. His dialog and situations feel as true as anything written by George V. Higgins. You can read Charlie’s answers next week on his excellent and frequently updated blog, Temporary Knucksline.

Jack Getze is the author of the Austin Carr series of “Big” novels. (Big Numbers, Big Money, and the soon to be released Big Mojo.) As a Famous Author, he may not have time to answer on his blog, The Crimes of Austin Carr, but Austin is pretty reliable, regardless of how people think of him in the books, and he’ll post something if Jack is busy.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whose Responsible This?

Conventional wisdom seems to be moving toward advising all aspiring authors to hire an editor, even before sending the book to an agent. I may not be wise, but I’m often unconventional: I think this is bullshit.

Whose book is it? Do you have a vision for it? If so, stick by it. If not, why are you showing it around? Is the editor supposed to provide that, too? What do you do when the editor differs about how something should go? Roll over? Look for another editor and go best two-of-three? Or stick to your guns, in which case you wasted your money on the editor.

This is not to say editors do not serve a valuable role, but it is best played after a relationship has been developed. Per-page editors may be good, and they may want the best for you and your book, but they cannot have the same investment you have. They edit your book, send the bill, and move onto the next author. That’s their job.

Editors also disagree. My first story submission went to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a short story about a man who may, or may not, have killed his wife. We don’t know, as the story is told through him talking to what we learn at the end is the priest who accompanies him to the death chamber. Hitchcock declined, but I did receive a note: it needed another character, if just for a second, to provide context.

I added a couple of brief paragraphs where the narrator speaks with a guard and sent that one to Ellery Queen. (The Hitchcock editor did not invite a resubmission. I probably should have tried again, but I was a virgin.) Ellery Queen also passed. Told me to lose the guard, he wasn’t needed. What I lost was interest.

Have I never been helped by an editor? Au contraire. (I like to throw in the occasional bit of French for The Sole Heir, so she knows I pay attention.) My first two agents were enormously helpful as editors, mainly by teaching me what to look for and how to fix things myself. Pam Strickler sent me copious notes on how to tighten my prose and, in retrospect, leave out the parts people tend to skip at a micro level. Barbara Braun provided tips on story structure that help me keep god as far away from my machines as possible.

My success with a purely editorial editor was with Todd Robinson. I submitted a short story to the original Thuglit, and he returned it with notes about the ending, and said he’d look at it again if I wanted to resubmit. (I’m paraphrasing. This is Big Daddy Thug we’re talking about. I’m pretty sure “fuck” was in there a few times.) I thought it over, re-crafted the ending, resubmitted, and—boom!—I had my first sale, and a tee shirt I wear to this day. Todd also picked “Green Gables” for one of the anthologies, thus providing my first paycheck as a writer. (And people wonder why I worship at the Church of Thug.)

The difference, to me, is to show your best effort around, then get editorial assistance if needed. No offense is meant to my many editor friends. Their best assistance may come when an agent or publisher has told you they like the book, but it needs work, and then you’re not sure what to do. Give the editor specifics. (“I can resubmit, but I need to punch up the dialog.” Or, “I’ve been told the setting is weak. What can I do?”) Don’t just send them a book, allegedly your book, and say, “Fix this.” If all you’re getting are generic rejections, your writing may well need more than an editor.

But you’re a fledgling writer, adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Where to start? What do to? What do you want to write, and in what style? The answer is a lot easier than you think, and a lot harder than it sounds: read. All the time. Every spare moment, and make time to have those spare moments. That half an hour a day you spend watching television to wind down? Read instead. Which is more important today: weeding the garden or reading? That depends on which is more important to you, gardening or writing, if today’s schedule demands choosing one or the other? There is no wrong answer, but you can’t learn to write on your knees pulling things out of the dirt.

All good writers are good readers, and by that I don’t just mean copious readers. They know how to read. Don’t read to fall asleep on the beach. Read to learn how writers who are good or great at what you want to write get it done. Need help with dialog? Read Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. Want a more staccato, edgier writing style? James Ellroy. You’d like to be more poetic, yet not overly wordy? James Lee Burke or John Connolly. Not saying you have to write like them—you can’t, they’re geniuses—but pay attention to see how they get the effects you like and experiment with those techniques in your own fiction.

My dream was always to be a professional musician. I couldn’t make a living at it, and had to give it up. It broke my heart at the time, but the recovery was quick, because I knew I’d done everything I could. I’d wrung every last drop of talent out of myself, and it wasn’t enough. There’s honor in that; any shame would have come from less than a full effort.

That’s how writing is. You’re going to own whatever success you gain, though, to be sure, you’ll appreciate and acknowledge whatever help you had along the way. (Unless you’re a complete asshole, in which case get away from my blog.) Be prepared to own any failures as well. The way to do that is to be true to your vision of your work, and to give your best effort all the time. Your best effort. Don’t claim your well has run dry when you haven’t yet dug it deep enough. I can live with rejection. What I wouldn’t be able to live with is wondering if what I had written in the first place would have been good enough, when what I submitted was not.

Monday, August 4, 2014

July's Reads

A couple of books stood out in July.

The Burning Soul, John Connolly. Connolly has long been the only writer who could entice me into books with supernatural aspects. The Lovers and The Whisperers left me a little flat, and I almost gave up on him, thinking to re-read some old favorites. Good thing I gave him another chance. The Burning Soul has all the things I like about Connolly, and hardly any of the things that had created the doubts. The poetry of his writing rivals James Lee Burke, and Charlie Parker has grown into a man many first-person authors should take notice of: haunted by his demons, not controlled by them. There’s a coincidence in the denouement that’s a little convenient, but by then it didn’t matter. He’d kept me up well into the morning of a work day. Top shelf stuff.

Late Rain, Lyn Kostoff. Kostoff expertly handles a multi-POV story with well-developed characters and a sense of place, all while propelling the story and its sub-plots with perfect pacing. There’s a coincidence here, too, that I may have missed the explanation for, but, it’s a piddly bit that does not weaken the resolution. Late Rain is professional crime fiction suitable to be broken down by authors who want to know how to keep multiple balls in the air, and make the reader think it’s easy.