Monday, February 27, 2017

Execution is Everything

I’ve written about the value of execution before and I expect I’ll do it again. It’s that kind of topic. Every so often I read or see something that reminds me of how critical it is, more important than any other facet of creativity, and I’ll end up in a cul-de-sac of thought until I work out the new angles. What happens to the rest of you here is collateral damage.

People alleged to know spend a lot of time discussing the value of catching the zeitgeist, or, even better, starting the Next Big Thing yourself. Hopefully by now the “Girl” wave has run its course. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Shook the Hornet’s Nest, The Girl with One Brown Eye and One Blue Eye, Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girl Who’s Gone on the Train, The Dragon-Tattooed Train with the Girl On it, etc.) Even so, something else will replace it—it’s how we’re geared—and it will spawn its own incestuous family of imitators artists uniquely inspired by it.

It’s still execution that matters if you want a long run.

Today’s example is a cop show from the 90s and early Aughts, NYPD Blue. Yes, it premiered 24 years ago. Regular readers know the Beloved Spouse and I are not people who like to rush into our entertainment choices. Two-and-a-half decades of universal acclaim is enough. We started Season 2 this week and I’m happy to say the show holds up.

Is it dated? Not in ways that matter. Sure, the cops still use pagers and have to find pay phones. The few cell phones on display are the size of shoes. They use manual typewriters hammer out paperwork on actual paper and documents have to be hand carried. Those are all peripherals. The key elements are still solid: relationships, dialog, and the effects of the job.

What strikes me most about the show is how little of it is ground-breaking. I know that opinion runs counter to the show’s reputation; bear with me. The sex and nudity and what was at the time foul language were the big deals at the time. A third of ABC’s affiliates refused to show the premiere. Those of you who have seen the show can attest to this: once creators Stephen Bochco and David Milch had made their point and grabbed your attention, the sex and nudity dropped way off. The language settled in. The show has little onscreen violence.

What else was ground-breaking? Hill Street Blues had been a procedural that spread its attention around to patrol officers, detectives, and the bosses. NYPD Blue is basically detectives, based on one key partnership. First it was Kelly and Sipowicz, then Sipowicz and Simone. TV detectives have worked with partners since before Dragnet. Big deal.

The show is basically episodic, with some carryover storylines. Ho-hum.

So why does anyone give a shit about it 24 years later? Because it was a great show. The writing was exceptional, and often brilliant. The casting was spot on, and the actors uniformly rose to their tasks. The sense of place is always there. The stories still resonate today because their underpinnings and greater significance were more timeless than topical.

If I had to pick one thing in which NYPD Blue was ahead of the curve it is how Bochco and Milch handled violence. There’s not much of it on screen. What they excelled—and a lot of creative people would do well to learn from them—is in showing the aftereffects of violence. Shootings. Domestic abuse. Muggings. It’s been a long time but I don’t remember any of Blue’s contemporaries or predecessors dwelling much on that. (Hill Street is the one exception that comes to mind. Big surprise.)

NYPD Blue is worth watching today because the things that made it a good show are timeless. It’ll be a good show in 20 years. All because it focused more on being good than on being different.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Did That on Purpose

Ed McBain used to tell of readers who’d point out inconsistencies in Isola geography between books written years apart. One even sent McBain what amounted to an atlas of every location he’d ever mentioned in all the 87th Precinct novels. (If memory serves, this included hand-drawn maps.) McBain couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or concerned. I mean, the guy clearly loved the books and bought them as soon as they were available. On the other hand, what kind of holes was he filing in his life that he took that kind of time living in Isola’s alternate universe?

All writers are subject to this, though not to the same extent. Readers love to point out errors. Sometimes it’s out of affection and a desire to see a favorite author get something right. Sometimes it’s a way to show their knowledge of a certain field is superior to the author’s. (Or at least that they think it is. Readers who point out perceived errors are not always correct themselves.) And some are just pricks playing “Gotcha” in the hope of proving (to themselves, likely) that while this big shot author may be making money off his writing, he’s no smarter than I am.

Authors respond in different ways. Some ignore any such comments. Some engage, either to agree with the reader and apologize for the error, or to point out the reader’s error. The latter can be fraught with peril. Among my favorite panels at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conferences is when the guests of honor get together to talk about their mail and detail some of the exchanges they’ve had over accuracy, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. The stories range from hilarious to chilling.

Some authors argue, which even I, argumentative as anyone, see no profit in. Even worse are those who argue publicly when a reviewer points out an error in a forum such as Amazon or Goodreads. There’s no upside to that. It deteriorates into a pissing contest no one can win and the author can’t help but come off as the bad guy, punching down in weight class.

The best response to readers who point out errors, the one I’m adopting right now and from this point forward, the one I’m pissed I hadn’t thought of, and the one I consider PFG (Pure Fucking Genius), comes courtesy of Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series. (Which I cannot recommend highly enough.) It’s from an old blog post I stumbled onto while reading a recent entry.

In short, when a reader points out an inconsistency with fact in one of the Duffy books—say, a road not yet built when the story takes place—Adrian explains that Duffy’s fictional world exists in an alternate universe where the road had been built. He freely cops to inconsistencies such as a character’s eyes changing color during the book: Sorry, mate, you caught me out there. I’ll see can it be changed for the paperback. Facts are more fluid and may need adjustment to get to the greater truth. (To a point. The Duffy books take place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I believe the chances that Queen Elizabeth will come to an untimely demise are roughly equivalent to Lord Mountbatten surviving his attack.)

The Duffy books are historical, but the principle applies to non-period works. I actually made a conscious decision to do exactly this in Penns River without realizing it. Penns River stands in for three small, adjacent cities in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve even gone so far as to make a Google map of “Penns River” that encompasses the three cities (and one township) that make up Neshannock County. I use actual street names and locations so I never have to worry about McBain’s conundrum of forgetting where I put things.

This also allows me to create places as needed. Just because I used Leechburg Road and Drey Street and the coffee shop on Tarentum Bridge Road doesn’t mean any of this is real; there is no such place as Penns River or Neshannock County in Pennsylvania. This frees me up to create whatever else I want, such as a casino in an abandoned shopping mall, or to decide Ben Dougherty lives in the last townhouse in the row near the top of Garver’s Ferry Hill. They exist in that fictional version of the Tri-Cities. Reader response to Worst Enemies and Grind Joint implies the technique is effective.

Let’s hope that remains true in Resurrection Mall.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Libraries

My local library branch has been in temporary quarters for a couple of years while the county built a new facility on the site of the old one. The transient location wasn’t much, some space they shook loose in the town hall building. They did what they could to keep the kids’ stuff available—and good on them for that—but too cramped for browsing.

The new building opened a couple of weeks ago and it’s beautiful. Lots of space for all the books, plus open areas for seating, studying, meetings, teens, and kids, including a dinosaur skeleton in the floor. Really a nifty facility which will get me back in the habit of making regular visits.

It also got me to thinking about libraries in general. I have long believed that should some alien culture come to Earth after humans have killed themselves off, what they’ll be most impressed with are libraries. They are the physical manifestation of what separates us from the “lesser” animals, as humans are the only creatures on the planet able to transfer knowledge without direct interaction. We’re uniquely able to write down instructions, thoughts, dreams, laws, entire philosophies, science, medicine, you name it, and share them with people around the world across generations. Some may argue the Internet now does those things better, but what is the Internet but a vast library?

One thing a physical library does the Internet cannot is create a sense of belonging. I hadn’t thought about this much until I saw a video (on the Internet, of course) of Dennis Lehane speaking at the Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction. Lehane was there to talk about the twenty things that made him a writer, of which the first ten were public libraries. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Libraries…are where people actually do something to show they care about the population of a city and they don’t get paid for it. It’s really an amazing concept. When I was a little kid we couldn’t afford books in our home. It was a luxury. We had some encyclopedias, but I think it was because my dad didn’t see the salesman coming that day and that was pretty much all we had. So my mom heard from the nuns—in what was maybe the only nice thing the nuns said about me—that I liked to read, so she took me to the library and she got me a library card. I still remember everything about that card, I swear to God….This concept that I can just go back here—every day, much as I want—and take books out for free. Just as simple as that. Take them out for free, take them home, read them, was something that to this day I still can’t get my mind around. What libraries say to kids from the wrong side of the tracks is, very much, that you matter. That this building cares about you, and this building is actually funded by the city, so that means the city cares about you, and it takes other funds from the state, so that means the state cares about you. There might even be a little money from the federals, so that means the country cares about you. You matter. That’s what a library says.

(The entire speech is well worth your time. YouTube has it in two segments of half an hour or so each. Informative and great fun to boot.)

So, yeah. Libraries. Mankind’s most precious invention. Like so many of mankind’s best and purest accomplishments, now under attack. Support your library. Borrow books so those in power know it’s being used. Donate old books to the book drive. At election time, vote Yes on the referenda asking for bonds to build and maintain them. It’s a painless way to do something for someone else, someone you may never meet, or even be aware of, to tell them they matter. That’s what a library does.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Could You Stop Writing?

I was chatting with Rick Ollerman at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few months ago when this question arose: Could you just stop writing? Everyone has his or her own answer. Here’s mine:


I thought about ending the post there, but that wouldn’t be very writerly.

Sure, I could, and so could you unless you suffer from hypergraphia. Let’s can the melodrama. You can quit anything that’s not a basic necessity of life: eating, drinking, breathing, baseball. Heroin addicts and smokers quit and they have actual physical dependency issues. So yes, writers can quit.

I love writers. Many of my best friends are writers, and the vast majority of friends I’ve made in the past ten years are writers. I wouldn’t trade you in for anything, even if I did decide to quit. (Not that I’m thinking about it, but Ollerman asked. This entire blog post is his fault.) That said, writers as a group—not all, but a lot of us—can be an impractical, whiny lot when stressed. Some of us tend to think writing is harder than anything anyone else does. It’s not. That’s not to say it’s easy—it’s quite rigorous mentally—but any writer who walks up to a miner or ditch digger and says how much harder the writer’s life is had better be nimble.

We all bitch about the business of writing, but let’s face it: anything in the arts is a shitty way to make a living unless you’re extremely talented and fortunate. This is because there are more people who want those jobs and are capable of doing them well than there are jobs available. This also argues against the extreme difficulty of said jobs. People line up to do them.

Why am I such a prick about this? (Aside from the fact that I’m a prick in general.) Mostly because it is a hard way to make a living, and bitching about it doesn’t make things any easier. This is the life we have chosen. Deal with it.

What’s that? You didn’t choose writing? It chose you? You had no choice in the matter? Bullshit. Writing may be a calling but choosing it as a profession is exactly that: a choice freely made. Nothing prevents anyone from writing in their free time for personal pleasure, especially in this day of the Internet and self-publishing. Those who say they might have to quit writing because they can’t make a living at it have tacitly admitted they can’t not write.

Another reason I come off as a prick (in addition to being good at it) is because I’ve walked away from the thing I wanted to do most in the world and lived to tell the story. I guaran-damn-tee you that no one reading this wants to be a writer more than I wanted to be a trumpet player. It was pretty much all I cared about for over 15 years of my young adult life. I finally gave it up when I came to grips with the reality that I lacked the talent to be more than a good AA player (to use a baseball term) and that wasn’t enough for me. The two worst moments of my life were telling the then two-year-old Sole Heir that I was leaving her mother and the night I packed my Monette C trumpet in the box to ship it to its new owner. That those two events occurred within a few weeks of each other didn’t make things any easier.

I didn’t die.

I found a new job, which led to a new career. I turned to writing as my creative outlet, which led to the irony of finding I have far more talent for that than I ever had for music. I took the good from my musical days and brought it with me: many dear friends, wonderful experiences that could not have been gained any other way, and lessons learned that still apply in my business, personal, and writing lives.

That’s not to say I don’t miss it. I rarely attend orchestral concerts. They’re too hard to sit through. I’ve been “retired” almost 25 years now and still feel a little hollow after a concert, as if I had faced the wrong direction during the gig. (I sometimes wonder if it would be different if I sat in chorister seats behind the orchestra.) There are a million little things I miss about performing live, mostly the satisfaction of playing something exactly as I wanted it.

So, sure, if the day ever came that the bullshit I had to endure was greater than the satisfaction received, damn right I’d stop writing. Be honest. So would you. Go ahead. Admit it. It’s much healthier to want to do something than to feel needy about it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Strong Affirmation of Plantsing

There is only one generally accepted way to write: put your ass in the chair and get at it. The consensus breaks down after that.

I used to be a dedicated outliner. More than outlines; treatments. I remember a 30-page document written in full paragraphs for an early effort. Maybe the original Nick Forte, the one that (thankfully) didn’t sell before I decided to take the character in a different direction. (That doesn’t mean I’m not still carrying a torch for the publisher that jacked me around on an “exclusive” for two years before blowing me off with a two-sentence, grammatically incorrect rejection. But I digress.) Not one of James Ellroy’s 700-page monstrosities that are actually longer than the book, but still pretty detailed.

I went back and forth about this for a long time. Friends argued in favor of the virtue of being as surprised as the reader would be when a new plot point developed on the screen before me. I tried it a few times. Threw away tens of thousands of words, though I admit I was as surprised as any reader would be at how shitty the results were.

Around this time I read a nifty little book called Making Story: Twenty-One Writers on How They Plot. Not just 21 authors rounded up from in front of Home Depot looking for day jobs as stringers, either. The contributors included names such as Michael Stanley, Kelli Stanley, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Zoe Sharp, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Timothy Hallinan, Leighton Gage, Bill Crider, and many more. (Thirteen more, for those counting.) This would be the mother lode, I figured, prepared to alter whatever needed altering in order to move my stories forward.

I was right about it being the mother lode, and I learned a key lesson I might not otherwise have come to. Not only was there no consensus, there were 21 different ways to go about it, and they obviously all worked. I say 21 only because there were 21 authors in the project. Had 30 been asked, I’m sure the number would have been 30.

After a brief disappointment over not having found The Way™ I realized this was a completely liberating experience: what worked for one book might not work for the next and that some amalgam of the two could be the best way to write the third. My outlines contained less detail as I went, eventually shrinking to a brief—sometimes single-sentence—description of what needs to happen in each chapter. How it would happen was a game time decision.

I was delighted to be on a panel at the 2015 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference to discuss the merits of plotting vs. pantsing, having thought on it a lot. (For the uninitiated, a “pantser” is an author who does not outline and “writes by the seat of his or her pants.”) I shared the panel with Weldon Burge and Sandra Campbell. Weldon and I were confirmed plotters. Sandra described herself as a “plantser:” half plotter, half pantser. By the end of the hour she had convinced us both that plantsing was the way to go.

I’ve written one book since then. (Nick Forte Volume 5, Bad Samaritan, yet to be released.) Right now I’m early in the second draft of the next Penns River story, working title Small Town Crime. Both had even sketchier outlines than my recent practice, often no more than a line per chapter. Among the benefits of a Word table is its ability to infinitely expand and to be easily re-ordered. Now an outline I would have adjusted a story to suit a few years ago is a living document. I have it up at the same time as the manuscript and it’s rare I go more than a few days without skipping back to the outline to add something that came to me as I typed up the draft and knew I’d want to use.

I read a few years ago that Raymond Chandler never edited drafts; he re-wrote them on clean sheets of paper, rephrasing everything. I tried that with Bad Samaritan and don’t see where it did anything but delay the process, given my shitty typing. (Just because Chandler did it doesn’t make it right. He drank to excess, had Mommy issues, and was a self-pitying pain in the ass, so I don’t feel all that bad about not slavishly following his example.) In Small Town Crime I rewrote the outline before starting the second draft. Quicker than re-typing everything, and easier to maintain an overview of what’s important.

What’s fun is that I thought of this just now, as I was writing this blog post. (Note: The Space-Time Continuum is intact. I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago.) Thanks to the 21 authors in Making Story and Sandra Campbell’s advocacy of plantsing, I’m now comfortable to try something different every time, even change horses mid-stream. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll learn something.

Fortunately those of you who actually read this know that’s sarcasm. Learning something is always the best-case scenario.

Friday, February 3, 2017

January's Best Reads

The New Year had a few disruptions to the reading schedule (trips to visit The Sole Heir in Connecticut and the Ancestral Units in Pennsylvania sandwiched around getting together with a half-million of our closest friends on the National Mall) but there was still time for some excellent reading.

Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen. It’s authors like Hiaasen who keep me looking for better ways to track and plan my reading. It had been several years since I read him, and he never disappoints me. This time he’s in the Florida Keys with a defrocked police detective who’s now a health inspector, a woman who crashes cars for a debt collector, a mobster, a guy who relocates beaches, and the “talent” and “brains” behind a reality show that might remind you of Duck Dynasty. Inspired satirical mayhem ensues.

The Big Short, Michael Lewis. There’s an old story about a man who’s walking into town to play poker. “Don’t you know that game’s rigged?” says a friend. “Yep,” says the man, “but it’s the only game in town.” Michael Lewis has a gift for explaining not only how the markets are rigged (in this case the bond market), but how not even the people doing the rigging really understand what’s going on. Raymond Chandler once wrote that it was not funny that a man should be killed, but it was often funny that he be killed for so little, and Lewis brings that to his tales. The crash of 2008 was a tragedy—many people who never stood to gain from the boom lost everything while those responsible walked away with millions—yet Lewis finds a way to get you to shake your head at characters Elmore Leonard would have a hard time coming up with.