Thursday, October 26, 2023

Readers of the Lost ARCs

 I routinely post quarterly lists of my “favorite” reads of the season that just ended. I am careful not to say these are the “best” books I read, as I’m not into passing that kind of judgment. I use “favorite” as shorthand for “books I enjoyed the most.” While not an endorsement of what’s good and what isn’t, my hope is to make those who share my tastes aware of books they might otherwise miss. Responses to these posts are routinely encouraging and I’m happy to mention books some might not be aware of, regardless of topic or age of the book.


I occasionally receive an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of a book when the author is asking for a blurb or an interview. While some of these books would make the favorite reads list, I have typically refrained from writing about them in the quarterly recaps because I always post links to a book’s purchase page so anyone with an impulse can grab a copy. ARCs are, by definition, not available yet, and I know a lot of people don’t like to be teased with things that are out of reach, so I have always left such books out of the quarterly recap.


Talking to a friend about this the other day got me to thinking this is a misguided policy. Pre-orders have become so important to making a book’s success that I am doing the author a disservice if the book deserves mention and I fail to do so. My reasoning before was that there was no link to give potential readers, but pre-order links are now available weeks, sometimes months, in advance. It’s time I got with the program.


In my defense, I never heard of pre-orders when I started the blog, so they were never a concern. Times changed and I have been slow to adapt. That said, future “Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter’s Favorite Reads” posts will include any ARCs that caught my eye. I will note that they are available for pre-order so that no one gets disappointed if they try to buy one.


That’s the future. Let’s take the remainder of this post to catch up on ARCs from earlier this year that escaped notice due to my misguided policies, with apologies to the authors for my delay.


Double Exposure, Colin Campbell. Grant and McNulty are back, fighting a drug cartel that has a grudge against each of them. You already know I liked this one, as I blurbed it: “Double Exposure shows Grant and McNulty in peak form. No one writes better action sequences than Campbell.” I stand by that.


Sleepless City, Reed Farrel Coleman. Renowned private eye writer Coleman (Moe Prager, Gus Murphy) moves into the realm of more high-octane action thrillers with this, the first in what promises to be a new series. While the type of story told is different, Coleman’s artful writing and careful plotting remain solid. A lot of writers try to shift gears like this. Few do it as well.


The Get, Dietrich Kalteis. This is a typical Dietrich Kalteis book, which is to say outstanding. If you’re already a fan, get this bad boy. If you’re not a fan but like the Elmore Leonard school of writing, there is no better practitioner than Kalteis, who is able to capture the aura of Dutch’s work without sounding like a copy.






Thursday, October 19, 2023

Defending the Leonard Ten

 Of all the writing “rules” I have seen, Elmore Leonard’s are probably the best known and most often vilified, generally because they are misunderstood. The late Mr. Leonard (I want so bad to call him “Dutch” but, even ten years after his death, I can’t bring myself to even imply that level of familiarity) does not need me to defend him, but what else are blog posts for but to say things that could be left unsaid except that the blogger wants to say them. So there.


As Leonard himself said in the original New York Times piece in which the rules appeared, they are not rules at all, but suggestions. That said, I have seen few suggestions that make more sense, or that apply to more cases, than his. I don’t consciously think of them very often, largely because they are now so well ingrained into my writing process I don’t have to, but they are always at the back of my mind when I write.


Here they are, with my interpretations. I use none – well, maybe one -  of his explanations, even though ignoring those is what gets most of his detractors to look foolish.


Never open a book with weather.

“But Get Shorty opens with the weather” is a favorite refrain of those who take issue these rules.


Let’s look at the offending passage:


When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South College and had his leather jacket ripped off.


It’s a single sentence and less than half of it directly addresses the weather. The inciting incident for the book is the loss of Chili’s coat. This being Miami Beach, the reader would have to wonder why Chili even had a coat with him unless we know it’s unseasonably cold.


Plus, it’s one sentence. Not a page or more describing clouds or rain or how being uncomfortably cold/hot/wet made Susan feel about the weather/her life/ John’s failure to call. It’s a sentence to kick off the story.


Experience has taught me that anyone so willing to ignore context to criticize something isn’t writing anything I’d care to read.


Avoid prologues.

If possible. Sometimes it can’t be helped. My current work in progress is presented as the memoir of a man who lived on the Western frontier, taken from notes that were lost and only recently discovered. I present the prologue as an editor’s note to describe how the book supposedly came to be. (Or a foreword. I haven’t decided yet.)


It's also true, as Leonard himself acknowledges, that you can ignore any of these rules if you’re good enough to get away with it. I’ve read novellas shorter than the prologue to Empire Falls, yet Richard Russo makes his so fascinating I would have been satisfied is that had been the whole story, except that he so masterfully sets up what is to come.


Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.

These two go together. “Said” is an invisible word in dialog, used to avoid confusion about who is speaking. If you feel the need to use a different verb, or to modify “said,” then the dialog itself isn’t strong enough to convey what you feel is missing. Change it, and maybe throw in something to describe how the line is spoken.


Shane said, “I hear you’re a low-down Yankee liar.”

Wilson’s voice barely crossed the room: “Prove it.”


(Note: “He admonished gravely” is Leonard’s tongue-in-cheek way of telling those who are paying attention that not even he is taking this too seriously.)


Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

This goes with the “said” comment above. Exclamation points too often are used instead of well-chosen dialog to make sure the reader gets it. They’re explanations, and explanations mean what came before wasn’t clear enough. As Renni Browne and Dave King say in Self-Editing for Writers, “resist the urge to explain.”


Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

This is a fundamental “show, don’t tell” thing. Don’t tell us something happened suddenly, show us. And “all hell broke loose” is lazy writing, plain and simple. Unless used as dialog from the mouth of a conversationally bland character.


Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Notice he doesn’t say not to use it. Such language can help to define a character. (Think of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell in James Lee Burke’s novels.) To use too much, or to work too hard to spell the spoken words phonetically, forces the reader to translate what this character is saying when they should be immersed in the story.


I typically don’t care for writers who take examples from their own work unless the are superstars, but this example from my novel The Man in the Window comes to mind.


“Mr. Forte, I want to start by telling you what a fine job you’re doing of fucking up my investigation.” At least that’s what I thought he said. He wasn’t from around here. Farther south, Alabama or Mississippi maybe. … What came out sounded like, “Mistuh Foe-tay, ah wunna staht by tellin yew whut uh fine job y’all’re dewin uh fuckin up mah vestigashun.”


And that’s the last I mentioned it, except for the occasional uniquely Southern idiom, such as how he might be “fixing to do” something.


Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

You want readers to be absorbed in your story, which means you don’t want them to have to stop so they can assemble these people and places in their heads. Give only as much description as the reader needs to create the movie in their imaginations. If a detail is important to the story later on – say a unique tattoo or strikingly-colored eyes – then by all means mention it, but don’t bury it in a shopping list of other stuff.


Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Yeah, well, duh. How many times have you had to go back in a book because a detail provided on Page 123 allows what you just read on Page 136 to make sense, but you skimmed past it because your eyes glazed over from the minutiae that enveloped said key detail? Well, leave that shit out.


And finally, Rule 11, which he described as “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.”


If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Remember, you’re telling a story, not gratifying your ego by impressing anyone with all the cool words you know or constructions you can pull off. Cool words and literary constructions are not bad things unless they get in the way of the story, and, as much as possible, you want your audience to forget they are reading. They should have the feeling they’re sitting back with their eyes closed while a movie plays out in their heads.


That’s what his rules mean to me.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Summer's Favorite Reads

 Old Bill Miner, Frank Anderson. Brief biography of one of the last of the Western train robbers. Miner was known as a gentleman bandit, always polite and deferential. Also not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. The film The Grey Fox is a depiction of Miner’s life.


We Pointed Them North, E.C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith. Delightful memoir of a man who worked cattle his entire adult life. Helena Smith did a wonderful job keeping Teddy’s voice as much like his spoken dialog as possible. (At least I’m told she did.) It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s a master class in what it was like to be a cowboy, both on the frontier and after.


Hombre, Elmore Leonard. This was the third or fourth time I’ve read this book and I still think it may be Leonard’s best. When people say Out of Sight and Get Shorty were the first movies to do Leonard justice, they mean the crime novels; the movie version of Hombre is pitch perfect. The character changes made by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. are true to the tone of the book, and they did well to keep as much of Leonard’s dialog as possible.


Last Stand at Saber River, Elmore Leonard. The least of the three Leonard Westerns I read over the summer, but still good enough for inclusion. Written in the mid-1950s, his style was still forming, and there’s too much internal monologue, but the story and characters are top-notch. (The TV movie with Tom Selleck and the Carradine brothers is eminently missable. Just to give an idea, you get to see a dead man start to stand just before a commercial break. Apparently he didn’t wait for “Cut!” and the error was missed in editing.)


Law at Randado, Elmore Leonard. Much better than Saber River, and much more like an Elmore Leonard novel. The dialog is better and the action flows more naturally. Kirby Frye is a character who could have carried a couple of books.


The Bandit & Others - The Best Western Stories of Loren D. Estleman, Loren Estleman. Collections of stories by a single writer are typically more consistent in quality than anthologies by multiple authors. Even so, it’s rare to find a collection where every story is as good as in this one. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) People have been after me for years to read Estleman, either for PI or Westerns. I finally listened. Now I must read as much of him as possible.


Her Perfect Life¸ Hank Phillippi Ryan. I don’t typically read psychological thrillers; I like more overt criminal activity. This was in a swag bag from a conference and HPR is a big deal, so I figured what the hell. I’m glad I did. In the interest of full disclosure, I thought there was a little too much time spent in characters’ heads, but that’s a personal preference. The characters are well-drawn and believable, and the story is complicated enough to hold one’s interest without becoming so convoluted you don’t care anymore. The twist at the end is killer.


California Fire and Life, Don Winslow. This book was primed to be a disappointment after the high expectations created by my first trip into Winslow’s oeuvre, The Dawn Patrol. Nope. I enjoyed CF&L at least as much. All the things I liked about The Dawn Patrol were there, with the depth made possible through the use of multiple points of view. Winslow has a unique gift for providing detail in an entertaining manner that would come across as information dumps at the hands of most authors. Highest recommendation.


And Silent Left the Place, Elizabeth Bruce. I will confess, this one is personal. Elizabeth Bruce and I have been friends since we met at a writing workshop twenty years ago. This was her first novel, a literary effort with fascinating characters and a well-crafted story. No navel-gazing here, and no use of language just to show the author has command of it. She displays her talents in an understated yet lyrical manner that made it a pleasure to re-read after all these years.



Thursday, October 5, 2023

Beau Johnson, Author of The Abrum Files

Beau Johnson is an annual visitor here with good reason. There are few more personable and forthright people available in any profession. I just happened to be lucky he’s a writer. Beau’s new book, The Abrum Files, is a continuation of sorts of his Bishop Rider series. What’s a continuation “of sorts?” Beau explains.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog, Beau. Your new book, The Abrum Files, picks up where the Bishop Rider saga ends. What’s the skinny on Jeramiah Abrum?

Beau Johnson: First off, thanks for having me back, Dana.  Always awesome to be here. You’re doing good things. As for the skinny on Jeramiah Abrum, well, there’s a story there. One that began some time ago and includes a throwaway line in a story titled “Right Time, Right Place” that sits within the pages of my first collection, A Better Kind of Hate. Jeramiah didn’t even have a name back then either, him only being referred to as someone’s child.  That someone? Marcel Abrum—the very dirtbag who set the deaths of Bishop Rider’s mother and sister into motion. Dun-dun-dun. 


OBAAT: The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah pronounced God's judgment upon the people of his time for their wickedness. May I assume your protagonist’s name is not a coincidence?

BJ: Well, I did not know that. It’s apt, however. And I’d like to say that's how it went down, but no, I just liked the way the name flowed.


OBAAT: Without giving away too much, what are the key differences between Jeremiah Abrum and Bishop Rider? How are they the same? 

BJ: The two are very much the same in a lot of ways. Both sharing the same goals and methods. It’s the scope of things that would sometimes cause them to clash. Before Jeramiah, Rider worked from the shadows, or tried his best to remain there, but Jeramiah has always been more of a big picture guy. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in Rider’s world, it becomes somewhat deadly. A give and take took place over the years, but in the end, they mostly went with Rider’s way of things. With Rider now gone, well..


OBAAT: Is it easier or harder to write for Abrum than it was to write for Rider? Or are they about the same?

BJ: There’s more angst to Rider, always has been, as he struggled with what he set out to do even though he was bent set on doing it, where Jeramiah, well, he seems more freer when I write him. Means I have to go with Jeramiah for the win. Don’t tell Rider. Please.


OBAAT: Abrum faces an existential decision in the book. What causes it, and how does he come to make the decision he makes?

BJ: It comes back to his father and what his uncle and father did. How years after the fact, when Jeramiah actually finds out what they were and what they did to Rider’s life, he makes a choice not many men would make: to make up for the sins of his father. This is all old hat by the way, happening earlier throughout my other books, but I revisit it again in this book, though granted, through another set of eyes.


OBAAT: Is there more of Abrum on the horizon?

BJ: Undetermined. It could be yes, it could be no. I have left some threads that do dangle in The Abrum Files, and I have been writing, but I cannot say with any kind of certainty. I have stopped saying I’m done with publishing, though. That much I can say for sure. If I have something I think works, that I have a throughline, yes, there will be more.


OBAAT: Please tell me the fact that you’ve moved on from a series character is not coincident with losing your taste for cheese. Assuming that is not the case, has your taste in cheese changed since you started writing the new protag?

BJ: Funny you should say that. And no, my penchant for cheese has not abated. However, my middle son has become quite the connoisseur. Lots and lots of new cheeses have entered my house this last year. Stinky feet I can do without, but Havarti will always have my heart.

Thanks again, Dana! Great questions. Fun was had!

Always a pleasure, Beau. Come back any time.