Thursday, September 24, 2020

Taking My Time


I wrote in July about the influence of David Milch on my writing and the concept of “resting transparently.” An exercise he promotes is to sit down and start typing a scene. Two characters: Voice 1 and Voice 2. Nothing but dialog. Type whatever comes to mind for no less than 25 minutes and no more than 50. Stop when you begin to think about what you’re doing. When finished, seal it in an envelope and forget about it. As Milch puts it, “Give it to God.”


Milch believes writers too often think about what the writing can do for us, or how it will be received, or, ultimately, if it will sell. Or how well. The point of the exercise is to pull the creative process away from that. His point is that your best writing gives you the best chance of success, and your best writing often comes from a place the conscious mind may be reluctant, or afraid, to go. Resting transparently is letting go and trusting your subconscious.


I don’t have much time for exercises. The day job still consumes almost half my waking hours. What I can do is to put the concept to work for me.


I’m writing this after supper. The work-in-progress awaits. When I finish here I’ll do something else for a while to clear my head. When I’m ready to get to work I’ll take a few seconds, no more than 30, and refresh my memory of where I am in the book. Then I’ll walk into my reading room, sit in my chair, and close my eyes. Whatever comes to mind comes to mind. I make no conscious effort to direct it.


Sometimes it’s a little while before the book takes over. Sometimes—and more often recently—I sit no more than a few minute before I know exactly what comes next. I about launch myself out of the chair to get to the keyboard.


The session goal is 500 words. If I hit a roll, I keep going until I start thinking too much, or I start feeling good about what I’ve done. Either of those involves the ego, and the ego is the enemy of creativity. When that happens it’s time to stop. With rare exceptions, this takes 25 – 50 minutes.


Where this method works best is on days I don’t work the day job and I can repeat the process three or four times. It seems to work so long as I leave an hour or so between sessions. Do that three times a day and I’ll have at least 1500 words and quite possibly more than 2500, because, once begun, every session gets easier as more comes to mind virtually unbidden.


It also helps that this is the first draft. There are misspelled words and mangled grammar. There are sentences I’ll look at in three months and wonder, “What the hell does this mean?” Doesn’t matter. There are no mistakes. There are only things that need to be better. That’s what edits are for.


First drafts were always drudgery for me. Now I look forward to the next session. This may be the best first draft I’ve ever written. I don’t know if it will be the best book—a draft often bears only passing resemblance to a finished novel—but I’m delighted with what I’ll have to work with.


I’ve discovered chapters I’ll need to add. Leave them for the end, then find good places for them. Sanding off the unintentional edges are what edits are for. (Scrivener’s note cards are great for this. Just create a new card, type in a slug, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.) What’s best is the lack of anxiety. Every first draft I’ve written has had several, “Oh shit” moments. Not once in this one—so far—and I’m at least two-thirds of the way through.


I’ve known for years I’m more left-brained than it’s good for a creative person to be. Resting transparently allows my right brain to breathe. Taking my time allows what comes next to form itself in my subconscious so when I’m ready to rest transparently, what I need is right there.


I never think about writing when I’m not writing anymore, which is another Milchian trademark. That doesn’t mean ideas don’t come to me unbidden. I came home from shopping recently with well over half of the plot for a new Nick Forte novel so well formed I typed out 1500 words of notes. Didn’t have to think about them. Just wrote down what was on the tips of my fingers.


We’re all looking for a way to open the tap in our brains that lets out the words we want in the order in which we want them. Resting transparently and taking my time will not make me more talented. They might help me to stay out of my own way.

Thursday, September 17, 2020



The Beloved Spouse™ and I rarely leap into the hot thing du jour. We let things breathe and gauge the reception over time before devoting any of our precious remaining hours to something. Ergo, we recently binge-watched NYPD Blue fifteen years after it went off the air. All 261 episodes. In a row. We didn’t watch anything else.


We don’t fuck around.


What a great show. Like any property that runs twelve years, it slows down a little toward the end, but not a lot. The entire cast turns over except for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the producers use that turnover to shift the squad’s internal dynamics so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but you have an idea how events will affect the characters.


If I had to pick one thing that stands out, it’s how the rest of the squad, including the bosses, come to respect and gain affection for Sipowicz. He’s a racist asshole when the show starts, and he’s never cuddly. He struggles with multiple demons and keeps them at bay while understanding they are never defeated. He learns when and how to ask for help, never more touchingly as when he calls his wife to come get him in a bar. “No, I’m not drinking. But if you don’t come for me I know I will.” Not an order; a plea. Early in the show the only person who has the time of day for him is his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso.) By the end the entire squad will do anything for him.


All of the characters’ histories have their places, but not in a manner that the show becomes about their flaws; it’s still about the whole person. What turned me off of Rescue Me was that every episode became a test of whether Denis Leary would drink. After a while I didn’t care anymore, and there wasn’t much else to him. That’s never true of NYPD Blue. Everyone is a well-rounded person and personality. The characters never become stale because there’s always fertile ground to be worked, between New York situations (“Everything’s a situation,” said Sipowicz’s second partner, Bobby Simone) and the depth of the characterizations.


Since I brought him up, let’s talk about Bobby (Jimmy Smits). He’s only in a third of the episodes, but he leaves his mark on the rest of the show. His replacements, Sorenson (Rick Schroder) and Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are well-developed, well-acted characters, but they’re not Bobby. It’s Simone’s understanding and empathy for Sipowicz that turns the rest of the squad around. Not because Simone says or does anything, but everyone loves Bobby, and if Bobby feels this way about Sipowicz, then he can’t be all bad. The show is still good, but not so often transcendent after Simone leaves..


It’s a cop show and I haven’t said a word about the crimes. There’s no big deal made of stories “ripped from the headlines,” but former NYPD detective Bill Clark had a hand in breaking the overwhelming majority of stories. It shows. The weird crimes all have a “no one could make this up” feel, and the painful stories are never melodramatic. They just tell the story. Make of it what you will.


No show has better exemplified Joe Wambaugh’s mantra that a good cop story is more about how the cases work on the cops than about how the cops work on the cases. NYPD Blue is a procedural without much procedure. Only what you need to understand what’s going on. Nothing easy about that, and it’s more than worth your time when executed this well.


(I also recommend David Milch’s book, True Blue, about the first two seasons of the show, including the transition from Caruso to Smits. As good a behind the scenes book as I have read.)


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.


A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.


I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.


The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.


TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.


And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.


It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.


Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.


There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.


It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Irish Alzheimer's

My friend and outstanding writer Dietrich Kalteis asked me to contribute my “favorite” rejection story for an article he’s putting together. He only wanted a paragraph and I had a good story for that level of detail. I have another story that’s more along the lines of writers’ nightmares I can share here.


Nick Forte was originally a tongue-in-cheek protagonist of a not quite cozy about a former musician turned PI who worked cases that involved the music business. His sidekick fancied himself as Hawk but was universally known as Wren. I had an agent—the late and sorely missed Pam Strickler—who enthusiastically pushed the book to the major New York houses, where it received encouraging rejections.


Pam turned to a leading second-tier publisher of crime fiction. They asked for an exclusive, then sent it for a round of readers’ comments. I made some edits, and they sent it around again. More comments. More edits. Then it went through what sounded like a painfully detailed evaluation process with the house editors. No news. Pam sent a gentle prod. They put us off. Pam send another note. The runaround again. I forget how many of these we went through, never rejecting us, but not sending a contract, either.


Pam and I finally agreed it was time for the “piss or get off the pot” letter. That received a blow-off: a two-line e-mail with grammatical errors even I recognized, back when I chose to write in the first person because I lacked confidence in my grammatical skills. Total time waiting: almost two years.


The story has a happy ending. I used the time to take Forte in a different direction, which led to two Shamus nominations. Still, I have a fantasy I think most writers can relate to.


I sell a book that generates enough buzz I get to make a national tour. When the publicist tells me I can have a spot in [city name redacted] speaking at [prominent bookstore associated with the publisher mentioned above redacted] I tell her I wouldn’t appear there if the owners kissed my bare ass on the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl during the coin toss. The publicist would be encouraged to relay my comment to [publisher name redacted] in those exact words. I’d then ask her to spare no effort to book me into that bookstore’s closest competitor, where I’d be happy to bring food and beverages, stay as long as anyone wanted, and sweep up after.


(*--Irish Alzheimer’s: A condition where the afflicted party remembers only the grudges. My mother’s maiden name was Dougherty.)