31 August 2014

An Homage To Poe

by Louis Willis

After struggling with the article on the colon, I once again turned my attention to the stories in the anthology The Dead Witness and selected “Arrested on Suspicion” by Andrew Forrester because the author pays homage to Poe. The narrator explains, “Of course I do not wish to hide from the reader that I was trying to copy Edgar Poe’s style of reasoning in this matter; for confessedly I am making this statement to show how a writer of fiction can aid officers of the law.”
In his brief introduction to the story the editor discusses the public’s attitude to detective stories, and the publication of the stories in “yellowbacks,” cheap magazines similar to the penny dreadfuls. Naturally, I had to see what the “yellowbacks” looked like. To Google once more I went. 






 Since the anthology was compiled in 2012, I assumed the editor also had access to Google. I therefore was somewhat skeptical of his claim that he couldn’t verify the  author’s birth and death. He also claims, “Andrew Forrester was a pseudonym employed by an important early writer whose real name is lost.” I looked up Andrew Forrester on Wikipedia. His actual identity was unknown until recently when a story of his, “A Child Found Dead: Murder or No Murder?” was discovered, reprinted, and published as “The Road Murder” under the name J. Redding Ware (1832-1909). He was a writer, novelist, and playwright, and created one of the first female detectives. He was apparently one of those writers whose works didn’t survive into the twentieth century, for I couldn’t find any of his books on the Project Gutenberg site. I did find on Google Play a book of stories, The Female Detective, that he edited.  
“Arrested On Suspicion” is a puzzle story with echoes of “The Purloined Letter” and Poe’s essay on ratiocination in the beginning of “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” John Pendrath, the narrator/protagonist, must free his sister Annie who has been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting a blue-stone ring. He employs Poe’s method of ratiocination to identify and catch the real thief or thieves. John refuses to give the reader his profession, but he apparently has some pull with the local police because he requests and is given an officer to help him catch the real thieves. Could he be a “writer of fiction?”
The arrest is a case of mistaken identity. Shortly after Mrs. Mountjoy moved in the apartment above John and Annie, he saw a blue-stone ring on Annie’s finger. Annie couldn’t afford to buy such a ring and certainly wouldn’t steal it. Mrs. Mountjoy’s  daughter, Mrs. Lemmins, sometimes visits her and looks enough like Annie to be her sister. Because of their strange behavior, John suspected Mrs. Mountjoy and her daughter were criminals from the day they moved in. He suspects Mrs. Lemmins stole the ring, and Mrs. Mountjoy gave it to Annie.
The puzzle has two parts. In the first part, John must find the piece of paper containing the message that Mrs. Lemmins sent to Mrs. Mountjoy in a laundry basket. John doesn't help the officer search the room because  he needs to hunt “with his brains.” To get into Mrs. Mountjoy’s mind, he sits in the same chair she occupied when she heard the officer coming up the steps.
In the second part, he decodes the message, which is written in criminal slang, to determine the criminal duo’s next move. With charts inviting the reader to try his or her hand at what, for John, is a simple code, the decoding takes up most of the story. Since I don’t normally like puzzle stories because I’m not very good at solving puzzles, I didn’t accept the invitation.
 “Arrested on Suspicion” is a nice example of an early writer following Poe’s rules. For me, not knowing how the theft was committed was a little disappointing.

30 August 2014

Why Writers Drink

By Melodie Campbell

“Recent studies show that approximately 40% of writers are manic depressive. The rest of us just drink.” (I sold this to a comedian during my comedy writing years.)

THE ARTFUL GODDAUGHTER launches this Monday on Amazon, Kobo and in bookstores.
This is the third book in the Derringer and Arthur Ellis Award-winning comedy series about a reluctant mob Goddaughter who can’t seem to leave the family business.

As it happens, I also finished writing the 4th book of the trilogy <sic> this week.  I am now in that stage of euphoria mixed with abject fear.  Here’s why:

Below are the 8 stages of birthing a novel, and why fiction writers drink.

THE STAGE OF:
1.  JOY – You are finished your manuscript.  Damn, it’s good!  The best thing you’ve written, and it’s ALL DONE and on deadline!  Time to open the Glenlivet.

2.  ANGST -  You submit manuscript to your publisher.  Yes, even though they’ve already published 5 of your novels, you still don’t know if they will publish this one.  Will they like it?  Is it as funny as you think it is?  Is it garbage?  Glenlivet is required to get through the next few days/weeks.

3.  RELIEF - They send you a contract – YAY!  You are not a has-been!  Your baby, which was a year in the making (not merely 9 months) will have a life!
Glenlivet is required to celebrate.

4.  ASTONISHMENT – The first round of edits come back.  What do they mean you have substantive changes to make?  That story was PERFECT, dammit!  They got the 15th draft, not the 1st.  Commiserate with other writers over Glenlivet in the bar at The Drake. 

5.  CRIPPLING SELF-DOUBT – The changes they require are impossible.  You’ll never be able to keep it funny/full of high tension, by taking out or changing that scene.  What about the integrity?  Motivation? And what’s so darn bad about being ‘too slapstick,’ anyway?  This is comedy! 
Can’t sleep.  Look for Glenlivet.

6.  ACCEPTANCE – Okay, you’re rewriting, and somehow it’s working.  Figured out how to write around their concerns.  New scene is not bad.  Not as good as the original, of course (why couldn’t they see that) but still a good scene.  Phew.  You’re still a professional. 
Professionals drink Glenlivet, right?

7.  JOY – They accept all your changes!  YAY!  All systems go. This baby will have a life. 
Celebrate the pending birth with a wee dram of Glenlivet.

8.  ANGST -  Are they kidding?  THAT’S the cover? 

Melodie Campbell drinks Glenlivet just south of Toronto, and lurks at www.melodiecampbell.com.  To be clear, she loves the cover of The Artful Goddaughter (Orca Books).  




29 August 2014

Quen's Comic Caper

By Dixon Hill

Here on SleuthSayers we've often discussed the difficulty of getting published, particularly when it comes to a novel or book manuscript.  So, I thought it might be nice to mention a venue that's helping young, or "new" writers sell their work.

The idea for this article occurred to me while reading Leigh's post, on Sunday.  I realized, then, that I ought to tell you about something my youngest son, Quentin, recently accomplished.

The first printing of his new comic book series sold-out, last week.

Now, don't get the idea that my eleven-year-old writes for DC Comics, or something.  Or that he sold hundreds of copies.  He created his comic book using a pencil on printer paper, then ran off five copies, which he stapled together in book format, gluing a strip of paper over the staples to protect his readers' fingers.  But, he also convinced a local comic book store to carry them on a trial basis, pricing the books at $1.00 each.  And, as of last Saturday, all five had been sold!

Frankly, I was surprised, but not by the fact that he sold some comic books.

This wasn't the first time Quen has written and sold comic books, after all.  It is, however, the first time he's sold them through a store.  In the past, he sold his books to his friends, and sometimes to neighbors (door-to-door).  Primarily, though, he relied on my wife to sell them at her office.  There, company execs, eager to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit in a young kid, insisted on paying $5 to $20 for each copy.

My wife and I were happy to see Quen's excitement, the first time this happened.  And we were grateful to those executives.  We also assumed that if our son continued trying to move his comics through my wife's office, those execs would soon tire of the game and quit buying them.

Quen, meanwhile, seeing the much greater profitability of using my wife as his sales agent, wrote more comics for her to sell at work.

Madeleine took them down, she and I both thinking our son would probably get a useful lesson in the economics of "diminishing returns."  But those execs surprised us.  Instead of thumbing their noses at buying more comics, they began to offer double-the-money if Quen would sign the comic books they bought.  When my wife balked at the idea, one man told her: "Hey, I think it's worth it.  I mean, if he's doing this at nine, he might be the next Warren Buffet by the time he's forty.  If that happens, a signed copy of one of the first items he made and sold would be worth a fortune! Might not happen, but let me take that risk."

As time went on, though the asking price remained flat, the purchase prices -- set by execs who refused to by them for less -- skyrocketed.  Quen was doing Cheeta flips!

We, on the other hand, were a bit worried.  The payment received for one comic book had been $50.00.  Where would it all end?  And what was our son learning?

Until that point, I'd been giving Quen printer paper from my computer without charge, and letting him use pencils we purchased for his school work.  Consequently, his gross basically equaled his net, meaning there was no incentive for saving or reinvesting in his operation.  He spent the money on Legos about as fast as he made it.

Now Legos aren't a bad investment for an eleven-year-old, but -- as long as he was in business -- I wanted him to learn a few business lessons.  At the same time, my wife grew concerned about a potential boomerang effect at work, due to my son's comic book sales there.

So, being the cruel ogres that we are, we announced: (A) Quen would have to purchase his own comic book supplies in the future, and therefor needed to hang onto some of his income from previous sales if he intended to continue in the business, and (B) My wife would only sell comics for him, at work, twice a year, in order to alleviate her concerns about the potential for folks to get upset with her about constant sales.

Quen took it pretty well, all in all.  For an eleven-year-old who had already made over $300 on comic book sales, that is.  Twice a year, he created a new comic and had my wife sell copies at her office. And, the purchase prices held pretty steady.

Then, I took him to a comic book store near our new apartment.

Pop Culture Paradise, located across University Drive from Arizona State University, isn't much to look at from the outside.  And, inside, it's still not terribly prepossessing in my opinion.  The store sells comic books -- both new and vintage -- as well as sci-fi knick-knacks like Dr. Who lunch boxes or action figures, and role playing game paraphernalia:  Magic the Gathering cards, Dungeons and Dragons handbooks and action figures, a ton of multi-sided dice, that sort of stuff.

They hold game tournaments there, too, just about every evening, often lasting into the early morning hours.  My sons played Magic the Gathering there once or twice a week, over the summer, and Quen got to know the shop fairly well. So did I, as I idled away time waiting for him to be sure a game was being held on some particular evening, or waiting for him to finish playing before I drove him home.

And we both noticed something.

The shop has a section of shelves devoted to original manga and comic-style artworks painted or drawn by local college artists, as well as comic books made by similar folks.  Many of the comics are printed on glossy paper, using services available through the internet: The artist pays a fee, emails the comic pages to the printer, and they print them up and ship them to his home.  Some of the artwork is original, while others are prints of the original; I have no idea how they produce the prints.

These locally produced artworks and comics sell for pretty good prices at Pop Culture Paradise.  A comic might go for $1.50 to $5.00, and a painting or print might be priced from $15 to $50, with a few art works going for much more.

Quen asked me if I thought they might carry his comics as well.

I told him I didn't know,and asked him why he wanted to sell them there.  I figured I knew, but wanted to see what he was really thinking.  He explained that he wanted to sell his comics in stores, and this might be a way to do that.  I reiterated that I wasn't sure they'd take his comics, but encouraged him to give it a shot.

He considered it over time -- probably two or three months -- mentioning that his drawings probably weren't good enough.  I suspected they didn't measure up, but explained that I really didn't know; if he wanted an honest answer, he'd just have to ask the owner or a manager.

Frankly, I can't even draw stick figures.  So I thought Quen's comic books weren't bad, for an eleven-year-old.  However, I figured an employee would probably turn him down, pointing out his spelling errors, and a lack of quality in his drawings, hopefully while providing tips and suggestions my son might benefit from.  At the very least, I figured Quen would learn something from the experience.

Quen made five copies of a new comic and asked for my input.  I gave it my best shot, but explained that I really don't know much about comics, not having read any since I was a kid -- except for his, or those of my older son.  Quen also asked me whom he should approach at the shop, and how he should do it.  We discussed these and other issues, and role-played potential approaches and conversations so he could get a little practice.

When we got to the store, and finally stood before a manager, the man looked at me.  I turned to Quen.

Quen stared at me, unsure what to do and looking quite nervous.

"Explain what you're here for, Quentin.  You're on buddy."

Quen had practiced saying: "I've been a customer here for a while.  I buy comics and other stuff, and play Magic here too.  I saw that you sell comic books made by local artists.  I make comic books and have sold some to neighbors and at my mom's work, and I wanted to see if you would agree to carry some of my comics in your shop.  I made five copies of a new comic book I just invented, called Pie Man.  It's supposed to be sort of funny.  It's like Bat Man, but he doesn't dress like a bat; he dresses like a pie."

Unfortunately, after I said, "You're on buddy," Quen got as far as: "I'm your customer."

Then he stopped.  I suspect the enormity of what he was trying to do simply overwhelmed him.  His mouth hinged open and he began stammering, "Uh ... uh ... uh..."

"He's made some comic books," I said.

Quen recovered then, nodding his head.  "Yeah.  I made five copies.  It's called Pie Man.  It's brand new.  It's all my idea.  I thought maybe I might be able to sell them here, 'cause I saw that you sell comics made by local artists."

The manager's eyes lit up.  "Let's see them!"

The guy looked them over, then looked at Quen.  "I like what I'm looking at here."

He must have seen the look on my face, because he turned to me and said, "It's rough, but a lot of people like this sort of rough comic book art.  It looks like he just used a pencil -- Did you use a pencil? -- That's what I thought.  It's got a pretty good look, to me."

He turned to Quen.  "What we do, when we get a new comic artist who comes in and wants to sell his books here, is this:  we ask him or her to donate a few -- these five would work.  We take those five and put them on the shelves.  If they sell, then maybe we'll start buying from you."  He looked at the cover.  "Looks like you want to price them at a dollar each.  Is that right?"

"Yes."

"Well, if you're willing to donate this first batch of five, I'll put them on the shelf with our other local comics, and we'll see if they sell.  If they sell pretty fast, we'll probably start buying them from you.  Are you willing to take the risk?  You won't be paid for these first five.  Is that okay with you?"

Money had been mentioned!  Suddenly Quen was in business mode.  His ears pricked up and his face firmed.  His jaw sort of squared-off. "If they sell, then you'll start buying them from me?"

"If they move pretty quickly, yes.  If they sit around for months, probably not.  If I put them out tonight, and they're all gone in the morning, and your dad's not the only one who bought them, then we'll be happy to buy them from you in the future.  But, it's a new comic, so that's not going to happen.  People don't know it and they have to decide how much they want to read it.  We'll have to see if they sell, and how long it takes.  Then we'll talk.  Okay?"

He then went on to make suggestions about how Quen might improve his next issue, saying he should use a straight edge to create the boxes that housed his pictures, and write more clearly to help the reader follow the story more easily.  He broke out some professional comic books and pointed at what he was talking about, to illustrate his points as he spoke.  Quen leaned forward, peering closely, nodding from time to time.

And I was thrilled!  He was getting the input I'd hoped for, and they were going to put his comics on the shelves!  He wouldn't get paid, but the response had been much more positive than I'd been expecting.

The next afternoon, when Quen and I visited the shop and saw his comics sitting on sale beside others, I think we both had to pinch ourselves.  But, the real shocker came when we last visited, and saw that all five were gone.  They'd been sold!

Now, Quen is prepping for his potential sales discussion.  He's asked me questions about percentages and things like that.  I can't wait to see what happens next.  And I thought you guys might enjoy the story, and like learning that places such as Pop Culture Paradise still exist.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

28 August 2014

Jalepeno Culture

by Eve Fisher

So I was watching the morning news and there was a commercial where two guys walk into a fast food joint and see the sign for a Double Jalepeno burger.  With, of course, lots of cheese.  And they smile at each other, order one each, and life is bliss.  My husband, who has an Irish stomach, winced.  Myself, I was thinking, that's American cuisine today:  you want flavor with that?  Here's some cheese and hot peppers. What more do you want?

Not the burger, but
I don't want to get sued.
That's what we're known for.  Cheese and hot peppers.  Slathered all over everything.  The cheese runs thick on the tongue, smothering most of the taste buds.  The hot peppers add shock value.  Cheap, filling, and one hell of a lot less trouble than actually, say, making a mole sauce, or a bechamel.  Although nowadays what you'll be given for bechamel sauce is generally Alfredo sauce, thick and pasty with flour and, you guessed it, cheese.  In other words, tarting it up with cheese and hot peppers is easier than getting involved in the time-consuming artistic complexity of producing flavor.

It's the same in entertainment.  Sex and violence.  If things get slow, throw in a naked woman.  Or an explosion.  Or a riff of automatic weapons.  (Speaking of which, I'm sure you heard about the 9-year-old girl at a shooting range outside Las Vegas who accidentally killed the instructor with the Uzi he was showing her how to use.  9 year olds and Uzis, what could possibly go wrong? We don't even let 9 year olds drive, even here in South Dakota, where 14 years old get learner's permits, so what the hell was he thinking... Okay, enough rant on that...)

Back to sex and violence.  Much safer.  Now I understand that sex and violence are what titillates the masses, including you and me, but sometimes I want something more:  plot; wit; character; nuance. By the way, I watched an interesting review of "Outlander", the new series based on the Diana Gabaldon time-traveling fantasy series, in which the sole woman on the panel pointed out that, while this show was obviously being marketed to heterosexual women (hot men in kilts and all that), when it came down to it, there were a heck of a lot of naked women in it and no naked men. Now what's that about?  Couldn't it even occur to the producers (6 out of 8 male) that (most) women prefer naked men?  

Okay, back to character.  I've been binge-watching Michael Gambon's 1990's Maigret, and enjoying it heartily.  (I love reading Maigret, too - it's one of the main reasons and ways that I've learned to read French.) And I noticed something that hadn't really struck me before:  Jules Maigret is normal.  He's a good, decent, bourgeois man who drinks/eats/smokes a little more than he should but not too much, who loves his wife, and who really likes his co-workers (except for the examining magistrates).  He likes people generally, including most of the petty criminals he deals with.  And yet he's absolutely real, grounded in details and mannerisms and nuances that are very subtle.  In other words, he's an old-fashioned hero.  It's very refreshing.

But I think too many "heroes" have been run through our jalepeno culture.  I've seen too damned many lead characters who are damaged addicts (alcohol/drugs/gambling/sex), and/or whose significant other was brutally murdered by a mysterious serial killer, and/or who are promiscuous to hide their longing for love or their lack of ability to love, and/or who has significant PTSD and/or traumatic childhood experiences and/or mental illness and/or OCD/bi-polar/etc., and almost ALL of them are obnoxious to everyone around them (and yet are mysteriously loved despite of it)...  Folks, that isn't character, that's a laundry list.  What started out as an exception - with the ability to shock, startle, amaze, entertain - has become the norm, which means... well, cheese and jalapenos on everything.

Hollywood meth-makers
Real meth-maker
And it's often taken to the point where there's no one to root for. Everyone is lousy, including their kids.  Everyone is crooked. Everyone will do anything, anywhere, any time to get ahead.  Nobody even tries to be pleasant, much less good. And don't even get me started on "Breaking Bad":  I do not, repeat, DO NOT watch shows or read books where serial killers and/or drug manufacturer killers are the heroes. I'm an old-fashioned girl at heart.  Besides, the villains are even more alike than the defective detectives: always brilliant, always brutal, always cold, always with superhuman timing, and the only difference is how they do it and whether or not they eat their kill.  Boring...

At the same time, I can enjoy a good noir with the rest of them, and God knows in Dashiell Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's world, everyone is crooked as they come, and that's fine with me.  Because Spade and Marlowe longed for heroism and decency, like thirsty men for water, and tried to be knights errant, even if their armor was more tarnished than shining.  That's what I want in my hero, at the very minimum.  I want them to recognize honor when they see it, like Silver-Wig in "The Big Sleep", and to be able - at least some times - to resist treachery and temptation, like Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon."  I want them to know the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to care about the difference between good and evil, in the world and in themselves.  I want them to want to be a hero, even when they fail.

Maigret.  D. C. Foyle.  Miss Marple. Guido Brunetti.  Nancy Drew. Columbo.  V. I. Warshawski. Archie Goodwin.  Perry Mason.  Endeavour Morse.  And many others, rich in variety, style, wit, character... Excuse me, I have some more reading to do.  And tonight - another Maigret!

27 August 2014

The Law & Tommy Rodella

by David Edgerley Gates

I've written more than a few stories about the political climate in New Mexico, and in particular about Rio Arriba county. Rio Arriba translates to 'upriver,' just as Rio Abajo translates to 'downriver,' and back in the day of the Spanish conquest, that was all there was. These days, New Mexico comprises 33 counties, with Rio Arriba one of the largest in area, but lightest in population density, and it has a troubled history.

In living memory, there's the Tierra Amarilla courthouse siege, which I used in a Benny Salvador story. And there are other examples. Rio Arriba is a poster child, not for corruption, per se, but for a New Mexico habit of mind, the hand-in-glove, where Who You Know counts for everything.

Which brings us to Tommy Rodella, the current sheriff of Rio Arriba, and a disgrace to his office. I might have to tell this story back-asswards, so bear with me. It's an uneasy narrative, without a through-line. In other words, you have to fill in the gaps. Tommy's a slippery guy. His record shifts, like a prism, when you hold it up to the light, and it reflects the eye of the beholder. Whose ox is being gored? I don't have a dog in the fight, but Tommy Rodella's dirty. I don't have a problem saying that.

Okay. Tommy and his son just got busted by the FBI, in relation to a road-rage incident, and abuse of office. Ran a guy off the road, shoved a gun in his face, put him in handcuffs, and lied on the police report. Two sides to every story. Maybe the guy lipped off. He says he asked to see some ID, and Tommy punched him in the head with his badge. "Don't you know who I am?" Now, if it were me, I wouldn't give mouth to Tommy Rodella. I'd lose whatever teeth I had left. He's a loose cannon. Don't you know who I am? Kiss of death.

Sounds like some crazy-ass noir plot from the 1940's - cop with a hair across his ass busts a drifter climbing off a freight train - or FIRST BLOOD, drop some long-hair in the tank, and live to regret it. But unhappily for Tommy, this is the last in a long line.

Let's go back, as I said. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. No joke. Tommy Rodella's a once-upon-a-time state cop. Later, he gets appointed as a magistrate by former governor Bill Richardson. A pal of Tommy's gets busted for DWI. Tommy goes up to Tierra Amarilla - on a weekend, mind - and bonds the guy out. This raises some questions. Richardson, who has his own issues (pay-to-play crashes his hopes of a cabinet post with Obama), calls Tommy on it. Tommy figures he can bluff it out. The gov fires him, anyway. State supreme court backs the gov, rules Tommy is ineligible to hold office as a judge again, but then Tommy wins the primary, and gets elected sheriff. Nothing the governor can do about this, although it must chafe his ass. Richardson is trying to mend fences with the Clinton camp, and Obama. Tommy Rodella is the least of his problems. Is it even on his radar?

I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. North Cambridge, Tip O'Neill's old district. All politics is local, he famously said. Really? You look at Boston, or Baltimore. Chicago. Machine politics. THE LAST HURRAH. 

New Mexico is the back of beyond. It's a Third World country. Tommy Rodella's wife, Debbie Rodella, is a state legislator. Cheap shot, maybe, but it points up the intersection of family, and influence, and inertia.  We had a mayor, she appointed her brother to the post of city manager. The new guy on the city council called her on it, and she told him, "Oh, you just got off the bus."

It's not that it's only us. That's not what I'm saying. And it's nothing new, either. It's as old as the pyramids. You know those contractors padded their invoices. Old stone, fresh slaves. Tommy's small change. Every guy like this, every cheap asshole like him, whether it's Iraq or Rio Arriba, trades on lives. No joke. The illegals in Espanola, the cartels in Mexico, the migra - all that crap? You gonna tell me we have no responsibility. Right.

Every dirty cop. Not that it's common. Like a slippery priest, not that common, either. But it gives you pause, a guy like Tommy Rodella. You know what it is? No accountability. He imagines it slides off a duck's back. Typical of New Mexico. He's a dirty secret. The back side of the so-called Land of Enchantment. 

Pull up your big boy underpants. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. It's all about the shoes. I'm going to post this, and will Tommy Rodella come after me? He in fact might, the kind of guy who carries a grudge, if I even care. He can kiss my ass. 

There's a long game.

We win. They lose. Doesn't seem like it, I know. Feels as if the bastards wear us down, over time. In the end, it ain't true.

They sell despair, our percentage is hope. All those Tommy Rodellas? We'll beat the ticket. 

26 August 2014

The Long of the Short of It

by Stephen Ross

 "It was a dark and stormy night..."
"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." 
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
"Call me Stephen."

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it's only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I've been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I've been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn't concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it's hit a roadblock. But that's another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character's occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.
I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It's like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it's you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel's plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story's original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I'm not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I'd like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn't set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven't I now finished writing it..? Because I've been working on the book's opening.
Stephen's Writing Flowchart

I define "opening" as a book's first quarter. For me, it's the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter -- someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I'm a slow learner.

I've written the book's opening about six times. I say about, because I've lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: "No" (like that "little man" inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story's origin as a short story -- it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: "No."

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That's a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn't work. And despite my knowing it didn't, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: "No."

The chapter didn't work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn't want anyone to know anything about him. He's the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): "No."

A rereading of Stephen King's On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don't keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I've read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King's book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging -- he actually does things, and we get inside his head -- the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I'm about two weeks out from finishing the book's first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I've learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don't write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn't spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: "Och, we'll see about that, laddie!" (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.

Be seeing you!

Bonus Quiz: Can you name the books each of the opening sentences (at the top of this piece) are taken from?

25 August 2014

Zero Tolerance or Zero Intelligence?

by Fran Rizer

I've often laughed at some of the "crimes" in Florida that Leigh writes about, but last week has made me as embarrassed by South Carolina as much as Florida should make Leigh and some others.
The Big Bang Theory characters– all above
average intelligence except Penny
It happened in Summerville, SC, a small town not too far from the coast.  I spent a wonderful summer there years ago as a drama consultant when their Talented and Gifted summer program produced a musical I'd written.  At that time, the people seemed friendly and though they weren't of The Big Bang Theory intelligence, they didn't seem to be idiots either.

Alex Stone
Imagine my surprise when the news plastered pictures of a sixteen-year-old Summerville student locally, regionally, and nationally.  The young man, Alex Stone, was assigned to write a few sentences about himself and a status as though he were posting on Facebook. In the status, Stone wrote a fictional story stating that he'd killed his neighbor's "pet dinosaur" with a gun.

As soon as the teacher saw the word, "gun," she reported it to school officials who called law enforcement to search Stone's locker and book bag.  No guns or weapons of any kind were located, but Stone was handcuffed and arrested for arguing that he meant the whole thing to be funny.  This was interpreted as "being disruptive." He was suspended for the rest of the week during the first few days of the school term.

Could this be the dinosaur Alex wrote about?
Having taught in an inner-city school where I once took a straight-edged razor from a ten-year-old, I'm pretty much in favor of zero tolerance, but I am also in favor of student creativity and a little common sense on the part of authorities.

Alex Stone's mother has hired a lawyer and states that the school didn't call her and tell her what was happening. If they had, she would have gone there and suggested they simply make Alex write a different paper for the assignment. In fact, the school didn't contact her at all.  She first learned about her son's difficulties that day from law enforcement after his arrest.
I'm not saying Pop Tarts are good for your health,
but should this be cause for suspension?

To me, this incident bumps the Pop Tart gun suspension from the throne as most absurd zero tolerance suspension.  If you've forgotten about that event, an eight-year-old was suspended in May, 2013, for chewing his Pop Tart into a gun shape. Thank heaven that one wasn't in South Carolina.

I have a major problem with the fact that the arrest and suspension are going into Alex Stone's permanent records and his photo has been shown all over news media.  In no report did I see the name or photo of the teacher who reacted to this paper as "a threat" because she saw the word 'gun.'  

Personally, if I were his teacher, I would have told Alex how creative and imaginative his assignment was, but cautioned him about the extremes to which some people take zero tolerance.  The only way I would have seen his assignment as "threatening" was if the he'd called me a dinosaur before writing the paper or if students were specifically given a list of "forbidden words" for writing prior to the assignment. (Just think about what could have been on that list.)

My teen-aged grandson and I discussed the numerous news reports about this incident. His response:  "Using a dinosaur as the victim made it obvious his paper was creative fiction." He paused, thought a minute, and then added, "If zero tolerance means the word 'gun' can't be included in anything in schools, they need to throw away the dictionaries and severely censor school computers and I-pads."

Once again, I'm left wondering how and why fiction sells so well when real life is sometimes far more absurd.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

24 August 2014

Escape Artists

CCA
by Leigh Lundin

When I was a kid with a lot of bad stuff going on, I made a magazine rack purchase that would rock my insular teenage world. But first, a word about superheroes.

My dad, 6'4 and 240 pounds, was literally a tower of strength. Examples abounded: During a blizzard on the way to my world debut with my mother in labor, their car slid off a remote rural byway. Dad waded into the deep snow of the ditch and shouldered it back up onto that ice-slicked country road. Another time, to save a guy under a tractor, legend says he lifted nearly 1100 pounds.

He was smart, a voracious reader, largely self-taught, a great marksman, patient, big-hearted, gentle with children and animals of all sizes, and he sided with minorities, the disadvantaged, and those in need. Women loved him, especially my mother. He taught us boys morality and life lessons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living with a real-life superhero.

Except… superheroes are supposed to be invulnerable.

One evening, a Ford station wagon in the wrong lane smashed into him in a head-on collision. His chest reportedly snapped not the steering wheel, but the steering column. The impact shattered the frontal lobe of his skull.

The accident was bad, very bad. When my mother realized he’d be unconscious for months, possibly forever, she boarded my brothers with my grandmother and a family friend. For a while, I still rode the schoolbus out to the farm to milk and feed the livestock. When winter set in and my mother decided to get rid of the last of the stock, I felt bereft. I'd lost purpose.

Books had always been an escape. Our little town was too small to house a library and I’d already ravaged everything our school offered worth reading. From adults, I filched copies of the Mikes: Mike Hammer, Mike Shayne, and Mike Nomad. Their adventure and soupçon of sex was titillating, but I was running out of reading material.

Doc Savage
Many such as my father and James Lincoln Warren enjoyed Doc Savage, but I couldn’t. The problem was Savage was too perfect, especially compared to his aides: The golden-eyed protagonist was smarter than the smartest, stronger than the strongest, faster than the fastest… In fact, much of Doc’s time was spent rescuing his own squad. What good were they?

Escape Artists

I turned to comics, which were controlled by a censor organization called the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was fueled by McCarthy-era Senate hearings and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The book convinced parents (possibly including my own mother) that comic books were a subversive evil that, if not stamped out entirely, should be rigidly controlled. Wertham was right, of course, comic books were delightfully subversive and could potentially provide a spark to make children think.

DC then dominated the comic book world. DC, which originally stood for Detective Comics, should not to be confused with Dell Comics that specialized in actual 'wholesome' funnies and counted among their licensees Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, and the Lone Ranger and Tarzan series.

You probably know many of the classic DC characters, their most famous being Superman and Batman. Superman was okay, strong and smart. Well, sort of smart: He seemed to prefer the shallow, groupie-type Lois Lane to the more caring Lana Lang who liked Clark for himself.

Batman, appearing in Detective Comics, was a stretch. With no detectives in sight, Batman’s main superpower appeared to be bottomless buckets of money and an obsession with bats. Like all other superheroes and heroines, his chest was approximately 300% larger than the average person's rib cage. His little buddy Robin, decked out in leftover off-Broadway garish costumes, seemed to do little more than pedantically cheer Batman on. “You show them, Caped Crusader!”

Another writer described DC characters as the Pat Boones of the graphics novel world– clean-cut and rather dull. Deflecting speeding bullets and emotions, their perfect protagonists led detached Stepford lives. Theirs were comics without comics.

DC endured competition grudgingly: EC (Entertaining Comics), Timely Comics (later to be known as Atlas), and the broad-spectrum Charlton Comics, later assimilated along with Fawcett and Dell by DC.

The Real Villains

Judgment Day
Given their bent toward social and political issues, Entertaining Comics particularly chafed under the rigid restrictions of the CCA, without whose approval they couldn’t find national distribution. Once when the CCA told EC’s publisher he couldn’t use a negro as the main character in a story. William Gaines famously exploded, telling the CCA that was the whole point of the parable, a story you can read here.

Afterwards, a disgusted Gaines turned his back on comics and founded, as you’re sure to know, Mad Magazine.

original Marvel
In 1939, Timely (Atlas) Comics featured a wise-cracking superhero called the Torch. Although Timely used 'Marvel' more as a series title than an imprint, the cover used the words “Marvel Comics”. Later on, small letters MC would appear on many covers of this line.

Timely/Atlas successfully copied the business and publication models of rival DC, but the publisher took a creative tangent. They sometimes portrayed monsters and personated troubled characters as superheroes, one of them an afflicted physicist, Bruce Banner, who in times of emotional stress would become a monstrous green-toned giant with anger issues, and somehow managed to do the wrong thing the right way. Marvel cast scientists and other very smart people in rôles of both good guys and bad guys, not so much a departure from other publishers but giving more of an emphasis.

Bitten by the Bug

So there I was, a kid at loose ends, separated from family, father in a coma, mother staying with him on the other side of the world, forty or so miles away. I turned from reading trashy adult novels to comic books. One afternoon, I picked up a very different one that would become a cult publication.

Its main character was a near-sighted, very smart whiz-kid, an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle. Although he admired one girl from afar, he was shy and bullied by bigger, meaner kids. Then, a scientific field trip changed everything. The boy sufferd a bite by a radioactively-infected arachnid.

The bite stung and swelled, but the boy discovered that his vision improved and he grew stronger, so strong that he earned extra money appearing as a masked wrestler. He remained withdrawn and once his bullies were convinced he wasn't one to mess with, he settled into a quiet existence, satisfied to earn a few dollars as a kind of a television reality star.

Perhaps too quiet and satisfied: One evening when he was leaving the television studio, he ignored a security guard who asked his help to stop a fleeing thief. Upon returning home, he saw police and an ambulance at his house; a man had just robbed and killed his beloved Uncle Ben.

Angry and in pain, the boy donned his homemade wrestling costume and tracked down the man who killed his uncle only to discover it was the thief he’d earlier refused to help catch. The last panel contained the caption “With great power must come great responsibility.”

The boy of course became Spiderman who, unlike other superheroes, had trouble balancing his secretly heroic life, his job, his schoolwork, and his responsibility helping Aunt May with their strained finances. He was like any other young adult dropped in that situation, up to his ears in unforeseen headaches.

There’d never been a comic book hero like him before. Adults assumed the attraction of Spiderman’s Peter Parker lay in his teenage youthfulness, something kids could identify with. That may have been partially true, but Stan Lee developed something more important– characterization. I wasn’t a writer yet, but I understood what set this character apart from the competition.

Marveling

Fantastic Four
The snappy bickering between the Fantastic Four’s wiseass Human Torch and the brooding Thing were humorous, but Spiderman so overshadowed other characters I rarely bothered to follow them.

DC and Marvel developed their own universes and then alternate universes. Characters died and were brought back to life. Series went through ‘reboots’. I grew impatient and then I grew up (supposedly) and my brother Glen took over my early Spiderman collection.

At a time when my friend Steve and I were both dimeless and dameless, we sometimes visited the local theatres to watch one of the Ice Age flicks or Monsters Inc. He’s a graphic artist and my background was computing so our movie conversations would run along the lines of, “Wow, did you notice how they animated those strands of fur?” “Yeah, and notice the 3-D shadowing?”

Captain America
Steve manages to simultaneously be more of a kid and more grown up than I. He loves the superhero movie franchises, especially Marvel’s. Beyond Spiderman, the WW-II historical Captain America, and those very dark Batman reels, I’m considerably more tepid, but I see writing lessons in these films.

Critics didn’t much like the Fantastic Four film for which Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie Award. Michael Chiklis was good as the Thing, but I pondered why I didn’t like the movie. I concluded that the overall plot seemed unfair, four against one, the F4 against one villain. A supposedly epic saga demanded that if anything, the odds should be stacked against the good guys. [Note to self: a hero’s worth is only as great as the massed evil of his nemeses.]

Characterization

Steve celebrated another birthday last week, and our small circle of friends gathered for dinner and a movie. He chose Guardians of the Galaxy.

Knowing nothing about it, I looked up a headline and muttered, “WTF? Vin Diesel as a tree? Rocky Rac…” Well, never mind what I thought but I slouched into the theatre knowing nothing about it and not particularly optimistic.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Unexpectedly, it… blew… me… away. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The best part was the characterization, both good guys and bad. And dialogue that was both funny and poignant. And heart, the movie had heart. For one thing– pardon the pun– Vin Diesel’s bark was better than his bite.

The film parodies superhero canons. A minor character, Rhomann Dey, says about the antihero Quill, “He’s also known as Star Lord.” “Who calls him that?” “Himself, mostly.”

Drax is a very literal character, incapable of understanding oblique references. He tells Quill, “Do not ever call me a thesaurus.” When Rocket explains that metaphors go over his head, Drax says “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.”

Gamora, the heroine attracted to Quill, tells him, “I am not some starry-eyed waif to succumb to your… your… pelvic sorcery.”

Ronan
Villains make or break otherwise good movies and Ronan, devilishly intimidating, is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, never mind a cavernous hall of doom.

And there’s Yondu who kidnaps Quill when a child. He’s sort of ambiguously bad, which makes the rôle interesting. Plus he has a cool toy, a golden arrow with a mind of its own.

The main hero in the story, Quill a/k/a Star Lord, learns to grow up, shoulder responsibility, survive and even thrive, thanks to his dying mother. My dad… that was a near thing. Many months later, he wheeled out of the factory-authorized repair shop dented and battered, as one tends to be when clobbered by two tons of Michigan steel. Whether I’ve grown up is debatable, but for progress in that direction I give a nod to superheroes of all stripes.

Rotten Tomatoes says 92% of critics like the film. See the movie: You can study the dialogue and characterization… or you can simply enjoy the show.

23 August 2014

Play It Again


by John M. Floyd



My home office, as you might imagine, is stuffed with books. Two of the walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with hardcover novels, and an unfortunate number of books and story manuscripts are usually piled on the floor and all other flat surfaces. My wife has said she's afraid to come in without a machete and a hard hat (I tidied things up a bit before taking the photo shown here), and she remains convinced that the weight of all my reading material is one reason we had cracks in our foundation years ago. But what can I say? There's something oddly comforting and peaceful about being surrounded by books.

A friend asked me recently why I have so many. He says he understands why I buy them--I can't seem to wait for the library, or for the paperback versions--but why keep them? My standard answer (that I sometimes re-read them) is only partially true. The real answer is that, God help me, I just can't make myself part with most of my books. I like being able to look up from my computer anytime I want to and see them there, and recall the pleasure it gave me to read them. It's one reason I own more printed books than e-books. I like to touch them and feel them and smell them.

The second time around

The fact is, I often do read them again, especially if my un-read cupboard is bare or unpromising. I chain-read the way folks used to chain-smoke: I light up a new one off the butt of the one I just finished, with scarcely a pause in between. And I often find myself remembering some little something I liked in a book long ago and going back and finding that chapter or that passage and reading it again. (I know, I know . . . that's weird. But it's true.)

I do the same thing with movies. I also own DVDs, you see, a lot of them, and I sometimes watch them over and over again. I was thinking about that the other day, and a strange thing occurred to me:

The movies I re-watch the most often are the ones with great soundtracks.

Mad for music

Several years ago I wrote a column for Criminal Brief called "Strike Up the Band," about movie music. Writing that piece was fun for me, because even though I am no music expert and am only an amateur musician, I dearly love movie scores. (Former mystery blogger James Lincoln Warren and I have spent hours e-discussing this subject.) I honestly believe the right kind of music can not only make a bad movie good, it can make a good movie great and a great movie unforgettable.

But why watch a film again, one might ask--unless it's a musical--in order to hear the music? Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to just buy or download the soundtrack and listen to it while doing something else? Sure it would. I do that too. But what I really like is hearing the music along with seeing the action on the screen. That kind of thing was so important to some directors, like Hitchcock and Sergio Leone and others, that they often filmed scenes to fit the already-written music, rather than doing it the other way around.

Perpetual emotion

I doubt that anyone could say he or she didn't brush away a tear during the final theme of Gone With the Wind, when the camera pulled slowly back from the silhouette of Scarlett under the live oak to reveal Tara in the background--or get goosebumps from the scene where Charles Bickford and Charlton Heston and all their men ride into Blanco Canyon in The Big Country. Without that blaring symphonic music, those great moments would have lost much of their impact. 

For anyone who might be interested, here is a quick list of movies (excluding musicals) that I have seen several times--and will certainly watch again in the future--primarily because of their soundtracks:


Once Upon a Time in the West -- music by Ennio Morricone
Psycho -- Bernard Hermann
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Superman -- John Williams
Cool Hand Luke -- Lalo Schifrin
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
Dick Tracy -- Danny Elfman
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The Molly Maguires -- Henry Mancini
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer
The Natural -- Randy Newman
Amelie -- Yann Tiersen
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
King of Kings -- Miklos Rozsa
Shane -- Victor Young
Signs -- James Newton Howard
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
A Summer Place -- Max Steiner
The Sting -- Marvin Hamlisch
The High and the Mighty -- Dmitri Tiomkin
Lonesome Dove -- Basil Poledouris
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Forrest Gump -- Alan Silvestri
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry


Closing notes (pun intended)

I included only one score by each composer, but I've found that I like almost anything by John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. (Several by Barry--The Lion in WinterBody HeatGoldfingerOut of Africa, The Ipcress FileSomewhere in TimeDances With Wolves--are among the best soundtracks I've ever heard.) Of those five composers, I think Williams is the only one still alive and working.

Please add your favorites to this off-the-top-of-my-head list. If you do, I'll happily fetch them from my stacks or grab them via Netflix and give them another look-see (and listen-to).

Question: Do any of the rest of you suffer from this addiction to movies and movie music? (I know Stephen Ross and Jeff Baker do.) If so, I warn you, it can be an embarrassment to friends and family.

Excuse me--I think I feel the urge to go watch the opening credits of Top Gun . . .