Thursday, June 17, 2021

What I Learned From This "Final" Draft

 

Most authors will tell you no two books are written the same way. While there are always many similarities, process evolves as the author matures, more or less time is available, and deadlines approach. I’m a big believer that continued success at anything depends on a well-defined, well-conceived, and repeatable process, so I’m always looking for ways to refine mine.

 

Last week I finished the final draft of the seventh Penns River novel. (More on that “final draft” business later.) I’ve learned a lot.

 

Scrivener is a big help. I use little of its functionality, but its assistance with notetaking and outline maintenance is a huge timesaver.

 

An experiment from the previous book—retyping the first draft instead of editing it—works well. It’s far easier to leave your darlings along the side of the road than it is to kill them.

 

I’ve always printed out a draft and read it aloud as part of the process. My vision issues make that more of a challenge, so having Word read chapters aloud while I follow along allows me to focus on listening, which catches a lot of things I might otherwise have missed. I still “proofread” each chapter aloud for The Beloved Spouse™ as the final check.

 

If a sentence or paragraph isn’t working no matter what I try, maybe it doesn’t belong. I cut it, let Word read the surrounding text again, and see if I miss it.

 

Now that I’m retired and my schedule is much more fluid, I’ve learned I don’t need a routine to write effectively. I sit down when I have time, or when I feel like it, and I write. No need to ease into it. My subconscious is always working on the work(s) in progress; tapping into that shouldn’t require a lot of effort. I rest transparently for a bit if need be. I think watching Jonathan Mayberry grab bits of writing time at a C3 conference implanted the idea without me realizing it at the time. This also makes it a lot easier for me to have concurrent ongoing projects.

 

Last but not least, I keep my mind open for ways to improve. Three-quarters of the way through what I fully intended to be the final draft, I began a re-read of James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover. Just a few nights’ reading convinced me my narrative and descriptions were too wordy. I’m not talking about trimming things to Ellroy’s level of staccato, but dialog is my strength, so I need to get to the next bit quick as I can. In my universe, narrative’s job is to move the story, not paint beautiful sentences. Readers can’t envision exactly what I see in my head, so I only need to give them enough to paint their own pictures; everything else is superfluous. More detailed descriptions are useful to me in early drafts, but the reader has little or no use for them.

 

So it wasn’t the final draft after all. I’ll leave it sit a few weeks while I do a read-through of the Western, then take a vacation. When I get back I’ll do what I’m referring to as the Ellroy Draft, then it will be done.

 

I hope. I have lots of other stuff I want to get to.

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Public Service Announcement: Beware Honest Thief

 

The Beloved Spouse™ and I have streamed a couple of stinkers from stars we usually enjoy. My first thought was to attribute both films’ flaws to COVID-related production issues, but it occurred to be the scripts were greenlit before things started shutting down.

 

I don’t often post just to dump on something, but this is a public service. Spoilers abound, and that’s so you don’t flush away parts of your precious lives like we did.

 

The film under discussion is Honest Thief, starring Liam Neeson. Unhinged, with Russell Crowe, is even worse.

 

The initial premise is intriguing. A robber names Tom has taken $9 million from seven banks over the past few years. He meets a woman, falls in love, and decides to turn himself in. I can buy this. First, it’s Liam Neeson. Second, I have a close friend who did something similar.

 

You’re probably thinking it’s a legal thriller. Robber goes to a lawyer, who calls the US Attorney (bank robbery is a federal crime), but things go awry in the red tape and politics of DOJ. Neeson’s the crook, Paul Giamatti’s his lawyer, and Will Patton or Bob Balaban plays the smarmy pud DOJ functionary who sends things reeling. I’d watch that.

 

Our crook doesn’t do that. He calls the FBI tip line with all the other wackos. They, of course do not take him seriously. How can he convince them? Well, he still has the money. Hasn’t spent a dime. How about if he tells them where it is? The feds finally send a couple of agents around and, lo and behold, they decide to keep the money and say it was never there. Go so far as to kill their boss when he starts checking up on them.

 

Tom’s not a complete idiot. He only gave the feds the location of three million. (The rest is in the next storage unit over.) He’s now engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the crooked feds and their dead boss’s partner, who smells something fishy.

 

One of the feds is a lot more bent than the other. He’s the one who killed the boss (played by Robert Patrick, who would have been better served by revisiting his Terminator 2: Judgment Day skills, re-fabricated himself around the bullet would, and made his finger into a pokey thing to stab the crooked fed in the eye), and tried twice to kill our robber-hero’s girlfriend.

 

His younger partner shows signs of indecision. In fact, he is so indecisive he foregoes multiple opportunities to come clean at no risk to himself, thus donning a red shirt for the entire second half of the movie. (You can’t see it, but you know it has to be there, if only because he’s too stupid to live.)

 

Did I mention Tom way) is a demolitions expert? He blows up the really bent fed’s house as a warning. Houses on either side remain undisturbed in this fashionable Boston suburb, where a quick look will show you this can’t have been this cop’s first foray into illegality, as no FBI agent could afford that house in that neighborhood. (Why doesn’t the FBI keep tabs on this shit?)

 

This review is getting as tedious as the movie, so I’ll cut to the end. Our crook-hero sets up the fed by telling him there’s a pressure bomb under his car seat after he fled the house explosion. The bomb squad finds no detonator, but the ruse held Nemesis there long enough for our crook-hero to lay out all the evidence he’d accumulated so the dead boss’s partner is there to pick up the pieces.

 

In the end, Liam Neeson will do a couple of years in a minimum-security prison near Boston so his sweetheart can visit him. Apparently the local cops don’t have a problem with people blowing up entire houses in their jurisdiction.

 

This essay barely scratches the surface of the problems with this movie. Save yourselves now.

 

You’re welcome.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

John McFetridge, Author of Every City is Every Other City

 It’s always a treat when John McFetridge stops by for a visit; if just doesn’t happen often enough. John’s a good friend and one of a small group of writers whose books I read as soon as they come out. The sole reason it’s been tso long since he was here is because he hasn’t written a book in a while, and I refuse to reward that kind of behavior in someone I enjoy reading so much, good friend or not.

 

His new book, Every City is Every Other City, is John’s first entry into the PI genre, and it’s as good, and unique, first PI book as I’ve read. We’ll talk about the book, his evidence hiatus, and what’s in store in the next few minutes. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his return as much as I have.

 

One Bite at a Time: Welcome back. It’s been too long since you were here. Of course, it’s been too long since you wrote a book. Why the hiatus?

John McFetridge: Thanks for the welcome. When I finished the 1970s Montreal trilogy I wasn’t sure what to do next. I co-edited Montreal Noir for Akashic and co-edited 2113: Stories Inspired by the Music of Rush and then I got involved with the organizing team for Bouchercon Toronto and edited the anthology, Passport to Murder.

 

OBAAT: This is your first stab at a PI novel. What made this the right time to go there?

JM: Let’s hope it’s the right time. It has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. You know that line about all novelists having one in the drawer? Well, I have a few in that drawer and the first one was a PI novel I wrote in the late 80s. But what really made this the right time for me was that I didn’t want to write about cops or professional criminals. Not as the main characters. I wanted to see the world through the eyes of someone who isn’t normally involved in the world of crime.

 

OBAAT: Gordon Stewart is the most low-key PI I’ve seen since Jim Rockford. Plus, he’s not a full-time PI. What led you to these decisions?

JM: Gord isn’t quite an amateur sleuth, he’s got a PI license and does work for a large agency when there isn’t any movie production going on in Toronto, but he is a reluctant sleuth. That’s what I was thinking about that may have led him to become what seems like low-key. I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize until I finished writing this book and was looking back at my other books that I discovered a theme I keep coming back to is the reluctance of some characters to really get into the game, to really commit to it, so to speak. I don’t think of writing as therapy but I think maybe that says something about my own approach. Maybe something I should take a closer look at.

 

OBAAT: Gord’s other gig is location scout for movies and TV. Where did that combo come from?

JM: I was a location scout and I thought it could be a good fit – finding places, finding people, they both involve a lot of working independently, asking around, driving, spending time alone. Plus there are usually some interesting characters on movie sets. 

 

OBAAT: I don’t see an obvious corollary in the PI canon that seems to lead to Gord, with the possible exception of Rockford. Which authors, books, or movies influenced you? 

JM: The big influences were Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. And also a Canadian PI, Benny Cooperman created by Howard Engel. And Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. And Jim Rockford. One of the highlights of my writing life was writing an episode of a TV show that was directed by Stuart Margolin. At the table read I couldn’t help just smiling like and thinking, “I’m sitting next to Angel!” It took every ounce of strength I had not to call him Angel. Which was made easier by the fact he’s a very professional director and a warm and friendly guy, not really like Angel at all.

 

OBAAT: Who, or what, is the inspiration for Ethel, who is as a unique, and believable, a sidekick, as I’ve seen?

JM: Ethel Mack. Ethel MacGillicuddy. She says in passing that it’s not her real name and now one of my goals is to write a series and never give out her real name. There is some Lucy in her, and some Imogene Coca, and some more recent comedians. And for a few years my son took classes at Second City in Toronto so there is some of the attitudes of the instructors there. In the book I’m working on now someone commenting on her helping Gord says that she’s his Susan Silverman and Ethel says, “Please, I’m Hawk.” Gord, of course, doesn’t know who they’re talking about.

 


OBAAT
: Gord’s other job and his relationship with Ethel allow you to explore a lot of popular culture, especially movies. Was that a serendipitous side effect, or was that the plan from the start?

JM: It was the plan. It was something I knew about so I wouldn’t have to research too much. Plus it’s a way to use material from screenplays I’ve written that didn’t sell. And I figure most people who pick up a PI novel these days are pretty familiar with the genre and with the kind of pop culture that gets referenced.

 

OBAAT: What’s next on your agenda? Another Gordon Stewart?

JM: Yes. It’s called It’s Always About the Money. I hope it will be out this time next year. Having a PI novel published is a dream come true for me and I don’t want to stop now. Plus, now I hope I can come to the Shamus Awards dinner at Bouchercon.