31 May 2014

Retirement vs Reinventing Myself

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I've reached the age when those of my friends who have spent the past thirty or forty years pursuing one career--teaching, say, or working for the government--have reached retirement age. Some have to tighten their belts and make lifestyle changes to adjust to no longer drawing a regular paycheck. Others have been wise or lucky (or both) in their investments and have squirreled away enough nuts to do whatever they've always dreamed of doing, whether it's world travel or ziplining fighting for social justice or writing a novel. Some struggle with the challenge of unstructured time. Some sleep in and revel in blissful leisure. Some find they have decades rolling out before them. Others, sadly, have to pour their energy and resources into unexpected health problems.

Meanwhile, I'm as far from retirement as I've ever been. There seems to be no expiration date on what I do, though my life has a way of morphing into something different from year to year. I've reinvented myself several times already, and the recent paradigm shift in our culture, especially in the publishing industry, insures that I'll continue reinventing myself. When my first novel, Death Will Get You Sober, was accepted for publication by a major publisher more than seven years ago, I thought I'd reached the point of settling down. But that's not the way it happened. I now have a body of work as a mystery writer and singer/songwriter that I'm very proud of, along with my earlier work as a poet and mental health professional. In fact, I haven't been waiting for retirement to do the things I've dreamed of. I've been doing them all along. But my latest novel, VOYAGE OF STRANGERS, is a historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, and that's the beginning of yet another voyage into the unknown, involving research and telling stories that aren't anchored by crime, investigation, and solution.

VOYAGE OF STRANGERS tells a story that includes a number of crimes against humanity: the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Inquisition, an auto da fe, rape, the genocide of the Taino. And I wrote it out of a passion to set the record straight that equals or exceeds my motivation as a mystery writer.

Each new manifestation of who I am and what I do has in some way built on the choices that I’ve made in the past. Without going into all the ideologies and isms I’ve traveled through, or the lifestyle choices and personal roles, I can say that the overall movement has been from writer to therapist to therapist and writer. Along the way, I got sidetracked into various publishing jobs in the mistaken belief that they would help me be a writer. Similarly, I’ve performed various functions as a social worker and administrator that did not exactly add up to being a therapist. But the heart of what I’ve wanted to do has remained the same.

I once heard writer SJ Rozan say the mystery (or crime fiction in general) is one of the great ur-stories in our culture. It is a story of righting wrongs and seeing justice done, and that is why we want to hear it over and over. If publishers and film and movie makers won’t give us good stories, we (the reading public, the media consumer) will take bad stories, so great is our hunger to see things made better, villains caught, safety restored, unfairness exposed and punished, and everything put back in place. We’d like law and order in real life, but too often we’re offered only a tarnished simulacrum. So we’ll take it however we can get it: in the stories we tell and hear.

Therapy is also about righting wrongs. It can’t enforce the law or get wrongdoers, in most cases, to acknowledge and correct their faults. Therapy doesn’t work that way. But to those hurt by the acts and deficiencies of others, it can provide corrective experiences. Those who’ve been rejected and abandoned can experience unconditional love. Those who have repeatedly chosen abusive partners can learn to select and sustain healthy relationships. Those who have internalized harsh parental criticism can come to accept and nurture themselves. It may not sound like an exact analogy for investigating, discovering whodunit, and putting the culprit in the slammer. But in a way, it’s close.

I’ve found that what I do as a therapist—listening—is a lot like what I do as a writer—being heard. EM Forster’s famous tag, “Only connect,” sums it up for me. In both roles, I am seeking the human connection. I am trying to make contact with another human being, whether it is the client who pours out his or her soul without knowing much about me beyond my capacity for empathy and compassion, or the reader to whom I pour out my own soul and the fruits of my imagination without knowing any more of him or her than their willingness to open my book.

Being a therapist, like being a writer—and a reader—is a way of opening the door to a secret garden. One of the greatest rewards in both is the closeup view I get of other people’s lives. Both legitimate my elephant’s-child curiosity about others’ innermost feelings, passions, and motivations. When I write fiction, I even get to make the other people up, so that I can explore all the possibilities my imagination can reach. At the same time, I make myself vulnerable to every reader who sees my work. That is both scary and exciting. Back in my poetry days, in a poem called “Secrets of the Therapeutic Relationship,” I wrote:

between therapist and client
more tender intimacies are shared
than if we two lay touching on a bed

The same is true of writers and their readers. These connections are profound. They are both pleasurable and innately valuable. They can't be outgrown. Aging, and the wisdom it confers, only improves them. And no Viagra needed.

30 May 2014

The Romance of Mystery

There is something innately romantic about a well-wrung mystery, isn’t there?

The intriguing allure of Character entwined with Occurrence, sensuously dancing across the tight-sprung terrain of Setting.

The syncopated gyrations of Crime and Motivation bumping against the carefully mitered couple of Puzzle and Solution . . .


. . . while Suspects and Red Herrings crowd the dance floor or sit this one out.

And, through it all, a Question.

A Quest.

To find some Truth or McGuffin that rented the ball room or cheap dance hall, arranged a rave in an empty warehouse—or perhaps just switched on an inexpensive stereo, in a living room with a small space cleared—and called the dancers together.

 It called a time and place, to set all in rhythmic motion.

To me, there is no question about the presence of romance in mystery.

But, is there room for Romance in Mystery, one genre enfolded in another? That’s the question that strikes me, today.

Why? It’s been running in the low hundreds over the past few days. The true heat of summer still waits in the wings, but there can be no question that the short, pleasant, breezy days of balm we call Springtime here in the desert are over. I love the heat of summer, in a painful way I can’t explain. But, during this transitional crux, crossing Summer’s threshold as it were, I miss the biting chill of dark morning, before the rising sun can burn it off.

And this has me thinking Spring thoughts, about Romance sub-plots in Mysteries. Be they short stories, novels, stage plays, radio plays or movies, how often do mysteries seem to contain an element of romance? Does romantic entanglement belong there, or not? Does it work sometimes? Why or why not? Is there some arcane secret formula that allows a writer to skirt the problem of the romance of the Romance clashing with the romance of the Mystery? If so—what is it? And, why and how does it work? These questions and more rebound against the walls of my mind.

All my answers elicit more questions, which thicken the horde of swirling, gnashing unknowns.

Which leaves me asking you, Dear Reader: What are your thoughts on the subject?


29 May 2014

How Not to Be the Guy Biting the Heads Off of Chickens in the (Virtual) Carnival Sideshow

by Brian Thornton

Friend and colleague Hilary Davidson is guest editing this week over at The National Post, and she's got something up there that EVERY SINGLE WRITER LOOKING TO SELL THEIR WORKS OUGHT TO READ IMMEDIATELY!!!

(Sorry for the shouting above. Just wanted to make sure I had your attention before I continued. Yes, it's that important.)

The post I'm referencing can be found here.

Excerpting from her main point:

"Writers are told by their publishers that they need to be on social media, like it's some magical world that can make or break a career, but nobody tells authors what to do when they get there. Some only talk about their own work, and they don't understand why no one is listening. Here's what your publisher doesn't tell you: an author can torpedo his or her career by coming off like a jerk online."

This is something with which I have plenty of experience (dealing with writers who relentlessly and shamelessly hawk their wares online, to the exclusion of all else- not the actual hawking of said wares in such a decidedly tone-deaf manner.), and I'd like to take a moment to expand on this point.

I currently have the privilege of serving my second tour as chapter president for the Northwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Well most days it feels like a privilege...

Friend and Colleague Jim Thomsen
One of the duties that comes with serving as chapter president is putting in time as an op the chapter's Facebook page. By dint of a lot of hard work on the part of the chapter's board (and most especially by our board editors Jim Thomsen and David B. Schlosser), we have an active and lively presence on Facebook: with all manner of discussions taking place on any number of writing-related topics, both specific to crime fiction and of the general variety.

Our Facebook presence is a closed group, therefore you need to apply for membership in order to join in the fun. Our rules are pretty loose: we require you have at least some association with the Pacific Northwest and an interest in crime fiction writing. We field new applications daily.

Friend and Colleague David B. Schlosser
You would be surprised how many people both from inside and outside of the region ask to join, and if allowed to join, immediately begin posting the most obnoxious Blatant Self Promotion. People who do that don't remain members for long.

In an effort to combat this kind of social media group killing annoyance, all posts (except for those made by chapter board members) are filtered, and require approval from a board member/op before they go live. If everything the member posts is BSP, without a shred of showing themselves interested in connecting with other members, they get a message to that effect.

It's tough when you have actual, dues-paying chapter members who flood your group with BSP on the release of their book. I mean, hey, I get it. I've published nine books, and received pretty much ZERO publisher support (aside from payment of advances/royalties) for ALL of them.

Sympathizing with their position does not stop me from giving them polite (and private) warnings. In fact, I think of it as doing them a favor.

This is at least in part because I also well recall the early days of the internet, before Facebook or any of the rest of today's reigning social media," back when phrases like "troll" and "BSP" were newly-minted, and "social media" consisted mostly of interest-based email lists, ICQ ("I Seek You" Anyone remember that?) and Yahoo Messenger.

I would scroll through message after message of BSP intended to get people to buy they sender's wares, all of them posts that gave me not clue one about the sender, other than that they were selling something and weren't particular about whom they were soliciting in service of it.

None of it made me want to read their stuff.

Let me illustrate for you how this sort of thing is supposed to work:

I used to be a fairly active member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society (my first fiction sales were short fiction), although my participation has fallen off over the past few years. I got to know really cool people who were also interested in short-form crime fiction. One of those folks was a literary workhorse named Michael Bracken.
Friend and Colleague Michael Bracken

Michael is that rarest of jewels: a working author/editor who makes a full-time living writing/collecting/editing exclusively in the short form. Michael had an idea for a themed crime anthology with the working title of City Crimes, Country Crimes. I heard about it through the Short Mystery Fiction Society list, and submitted something I'd been working on. My take-home for all of my fiction sales up to that point was a whopping ten bucks ($10.00).

Michael accepted the story, making a few requests for minor changes. I gladly complied. He's a really first-rate editor. I was lucky to get him to look at my work. But the publisher he had lined up to publish the anthology folded suddenly and unexpectedly, so he released the stories projected for the anthology back to their authors.

So I had this well-polished, professional short story of which I was quite proud, and no market for it.

Enter future Sleuthsayer blogmate and short fiction MACHINE, R.T. Lawton. R.T. was (and I believe, still is, although you'd have to ask him) a denizen of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, which was where I first got to know him. R.T. might have published more short pieces with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine than any living author. I doubt he would make that claim, but they've published a lot of his stuff over the years, and I am happy to toot that horn for him!

As Hilary mentioned in the piece she wrote (and that I linked above), one nice thing about Social Media is that it gives you a way of "meeting" people in real life-especially at writing conferences, where so many people know nearly no one- that you've already gotten to know a bit in the virtual world.

Friend and Colleague R.T. Lawton
So I knew R. T. from SMFS, and ran in to him at my first Bouchercon (Las Vegas). We have since become fast friends. R.T. in turn introduced me to his editor at Alfred Hitchcock (she was also attending Boucheron), and after a large group chat in the B'con bar, I mentioned to her that I had a story that might interest her.

She proceeded to encourage me to send it, and told me how to get my name out of the slush pile. I followed her instructions, and that is how I came to publish "Counting Coup," the first short story I ever published for more than ten bucks (no mean feat, in today's market!). I've since thanks R.T. for the intro, but let me do it again here. Thanks again, pal!

I also met future fellow Sleuthsayer Rob Lopresti through SMFS. I have admired Rob's work for years, since first encountering his writing in the AHMM short "Snake in the Spring Grass." (If you haven't read it. You should.), and he's practically a neighbor- living just up I-5 (as we westerners reckon it, a hundred-plus miles is really not that far!) in Bellingham.

So when Rob approached me about writing for the Sleuthsayers blog, it was his participation (and
Friend and Colleague Rob Lopresti
R.T.'s) that sold me on the experience, sight unseen. Come to find that another friend from SMFS, Eve Fisher, is also a Sleuthsayer (She is also a MUST-READ, by the way). In the intervening year or so since I joined Sleuthsayers, I've met other great writers, as well. My TBR pile truly has begun to runneth over.

Now, if reading all of the above has made you in the least bit curious about Michael's fiction work, or R.T.'s, or Rob's, or Eve's or even my own, well and good. These guys are all aces at their craft, and they really give value for their dollar. But that's not really the point of this post.

I have learned something from each of these fellow travelers that I flatter myself has made my writing better for the exposure to their work.

Michael got me thinking like a professional: asking who my intended market was, and what plan did I have to appeal to their tastes? (For those of you who disdain this sort of marketing thinking, I accept your disapproval gladly.).

R.T.'s work always gets me thinking about the importance of historical detail: how much to dole out, how much to hold back (we both writing historical mystery).

Rob got me thinking about misdirection and how to "hide the ball," so to speak, until the very end of the story, helping to make for a satisfying ending.

Friend and Colleague Eve Fisher
Eve has been a wonderful resource for my current (and about to be wrapped up FINALLY!) work in progress, plus, she hides the ball better than just about anyone!

 And how much do you suppose I would have gotten from any of these incredibly satisfying relationships if I'd initially approached these fine folks as if I wanted to sell them Amway?

I think everyone knows the answer to that.

So use your social media to make friends/connections, learn about/from other fellow travelers. I have found other writers for the most part to be incredibly generous with their time/interest/advice. Especially if they get to know you first, and think you're, if not, "cool," at least not trying to GET THEM TO BUY YOUR LATEST BOOK!

After all, BSP does you no good in writing groups. It's a bit like trying to be the loudest voice in the crowded gymnasium (which also works as a metaphor for trying to market your book in an age where the traditional gate-keepers had lost much of their power, and the new media aren't very helpful at all in helping authors figure out "what sells"). Everyone there likely has something to sell. 

So why not focus instead on what you can get from social media, in addition to enjoying platforms such as Facebook for what they currently are (In the case of Facebook, the land of unsolicited–though not necessarily unwanted–updates about other people's kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews/godchildren/petchildren, usually complete with a stunning photo array/any number of pithy comments/illustrations/links about all manner of facets of daily life, "free" games, and a million other potential time-wasters.), and not bother with trying to use it to help you earn out your first advance?

After all, who wants to be the modern day equivalent of the original carnival sideshow geek: someone so desperate for attention they were willing to bite the heads off of chickens in front of paying customers? That's how jamming your BSP down the collective throats of your victims "potential customers" can all too frequently come across.

And on that note I yield the podium over to my fellow Sleuthsayers and readers of this blog: what have I left out? Are there even more uses for social media than those about which I've reminisced and which I've also laid out herein?


Friend and Colleague Hilary Davidson with some goofball.

28 May 2014


I'm writing this over the Memorial Day weekend, which is perhaps coincidence, and perhaps not. I was prompted to it by an exchange I had with my pal Michael Parnell. We're both vets, but our service is a generation apart, me back in Cold War Berlin, Michael a few years ago in the Sandbox. The age difference aside, there's a common thread.

The second thing was a widely-circulated post on Facebook, where a young woman said that people join the military because they can't get into college. I know we shouldn't take this too seriously, but as you can imagine, her comment excited a NSFW barrage. She's an easy target, for sure, but instead of just calling her a dumb bunny---I'm softening the kind of language that was actually used---it might suit us better to address her misinformation with a more reasoned response. So here goes.

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army drastically downsized, and the men who stayed in were widely thought to be the dregs. It didn't help that a lot of the enlisted personnel were Irish, who already had a name for being drunk and undisciplined. John Ford makes a running joke of this in FORT APACHE, for example, but the truth is darker. Marcus Reno, a major under Custer at the Little Bighorn, was later reprimanded and dismissed from the Army. The proximate cause was drunkenness, but he had a long history of conduct unbecoming. Reno was a poster boy. There were other officers unsuitable for command, just as there were many more who attended to duty, but the damage was done. In the public eye, the prevailing wisdom was that people chose a military career because they were losers, or scoundrels, or unfit for any other life.

Something similar happened after the First World War, when again the services were severely reduced, and more than a few senior officers doubted America's readiness to fight another war. Not that anybody wanted another war. The general sympathy was Isolationism, and our foreign policy contracted along with our military capacity. This isn't to say we should have kept millions of men under arms, but it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to demonstrate our vulnerability. The world was wider than we liked.

On the other hand, the Second World War brought a change in attitude. My own feeling is that it's because the country was totally mobilized to meet the threat. Afterwards, when guys like my dad came home to pick up their lives, neither did they turn their backs on those who chose to stay on active service. One of our neighbors on the block, when I was a kid growing up in Cambridge, was an Army colonel named Trevor Dupuy. West Point, Burma campaign. He was taking a post-grad course at Harvard (and later taught there), but the point is that nobody in my dad's circle found any fault with Dupuy's making the Army his career, or thought any the less of him for it.

Viet Nam. Another turn of the wheel. The doubts set in early. I went into the Air Force in '64---partly to avoid the draft, I admit---but the climate was different. Most of the guys my age I knew were only too happy to stay in school and take the college deferment. They didn't want to be cannon-fodder. Who could blame them? The issue that arose, though, was that too many of them thought the military was for slackers and fools, or anybody dumb enough to buy the snake oil. It was a shitty war, of course, and the political divisions on the home front were savage. If you didn't live through those times, it's hard to conjure up just how fierce it got. And memory is selective. It's convenient to forget that quite a few GI's who came back alive from combat were treated with contempt by some.

I have an embarrassment of my own to confess. I got to Berlin in March of '65, after nine months of Russian language school. I was nineteen. Like most kids that age, there wasn't anything you could teach me. Open ass, and insert head, in other words. Here, though, a word of explanation. It was a spook shop, and a highly selective crew. Smart, analytical, independent thinking encouraged, a specialized skill-set. Not too many made the cut. But we were too smart for our own good, or at least I was. The first time I met my NCOIC, a master sergeant named Ernie Soto, he didn't impress me much. (Which is of course the cart before the horse. It was my job to impress Ernie.) I was too full of myself to read him right.

We called them Lifers. We, meaning first-term enlisted. They already had a couple of enlistments under their belt, or they wouldn't have made senior NCO rank. But we were young punks, and to us, anybody who'd re-upped and stayed in the service was an also-ran or a has-been. It's not like you don't run across time-servers and goldbricks, they come with the territory in any line of work, and once in a while you get saddled with a real bum, but mostly, that's the exception. NCO's do the heavy lifting. They know the mission, they have the authority and the responsibility. And in Berlin, particularly, they were the pick of the litter. Ernie Soto, for instance, was one of the first two candidates selected for the Boston University master's program, which was extremely competitive, so no matter what I thought of him, he was no dope.

Here's what you learn about these guys. When you get to know them better, you find out they're not all cut from the same cloth. And if you ask them why, why go career, why not something better?---to your way of thinking---they come up with an oddly evasive set of answers. Good benefits, and I can retire on half-pay after twenty, one of them might say. Someone else will tell you: my family travels with me, I get free dependent housing, it covers school costs for the kids. Or a more straightforward, thoughtful answer. It's fascinating work, and how else would I get to see Germany, or Japan? All this is true, and you can see the appeal, but here's what you don't hear from them. It's an obligation. It matters. I make a difference.

Because, in the end, it's not about creature comfort, or benefits. It's about duty. They might not put it this way. That's too cornball. You say it out loud, it sounds self-important, or suspect, and overly conspicuous. You're some kind of big deal, advertising yourself.

6912th Security Squadron, Berlin, a short list. Jim Nelson. Ed Allen. Mick Amos. Tom Hill. Dean Hanson. Lifers, by choice. My respects.  

DEG - Tempelhof, late 1960's - photo: John Clay


27 May 2014


Courtesy of Joe Evangelista Photography
Now that's it been a few years since my retirement (two--though I can hardly believe it), I thought I might pen a few words on my time as a chief of police.  The reason for this is that I've come to understand over the years that very few people know what a chief of police actually does.  Whenever I encounter them in  fiction they are either chomping on a stogie and bellowing for some hard-working officer's badge, or personally handling crime scenes and investigations as if they have no hard-working officers at all.  Like many stereotypes, there is some truth to these examples, but only some. 

I have bellowed on the rare occasion, though it was sans cigar.  And yes, I have personally attended crime scenes, but not to usurp the duties of those assigned to the case.  Whenever I found issues that needed addressing, I mostly did so with the supervisor on scene, and in private.  I may have raised my voice on a few of those occasions, but it was probably to be heard over the screams of some guilty person wanting to confess in the next room.  As for commandeering investigations, I had enough to do without micro-managing detectives, though I did receive updates on particular cases whenever I asked for them.  Occasionally, I was guilty of suggesting different lines of inquiry, or investigative tactics.  This was not just my prerogative as chief, but sometimes useful.  After all, they were in the thick of it, while I had the luxury of standing back a bit and seeing it fresh.  But the detectives and officers solved the cases, not me.

As chief I had six main duties:

First amongst them was simply to lead; set an example and establish standards for performance and acceptable behavior--policy making.  The buck stops with the chief.  He sees to it that his officers receive credit for work well done, and he takes the heat when his department drops the ball.     

Second would be the budget.  Without money being applied wisely and well, operations and effectiveness begin to suffer.  I never once went over budget.  It can be done.

Third is personnel.  As chief, I had the final say in hiring...and sadly, sometimes firing.  I signed off on the performance evaluations of sergeants and above in my department.   I also had the final say on promotion to the next higher rank.  The down side to this, of course, was the disappointment, and sometimes resentment, felt by those not selected.  It could be keen and heartfelt.   

Liaison.  As the chief you become the public face of the department.  You get to attend a lot functions and host a number, as well.  You deal with many, many people.  In my case, I answered to a mayor who was also the director of public safety.  But he was only one of many masters: The county prosecutor is the chief law enforcement officer at the county level in New Jersey, and so was in my chain of command when it came to criminal law, and search and seizure issues.  The borough council expected my attendance at every meeting and got it.  They controlled the purse strings and crafted ordinances and it was my duty to advise them when it pertained to public safety and order.  Several citizens groups also asked for and received my time.  In addition, I worked cheek by jowl with the fire chief, the rescue squad captain, the beach patrol, public works manager (a very useful person when it comes to major storms, flooding, blizzards, etc...), and the director of emergency management at both the municipal and county levels.  I was also a member of the county police chiefs association and attended their monthly meetings, as well.  These were just the ones I dealt with on a regular basis...there were others.

Discipline: It was also my duty to oversee the disciplinary process and internal affairs investigations.  If you want to know what stress feels like, just picture yourself telling someone you've known for decades, and personally like, that you're suspending them from duty and taking a big chunk of their pay for a month.  And don't forget to remind them that they will no longer be eligible for promotion.  Oh, by the way, my wife wants to know if your wife is available to pitch in at the school Halloween party next week?  Get the picture?  Sometimes IA's can result in dismissals and even criminal charges.  It's not for the faint of heart, trust me, but it is terribly important to the health and integrity of the department.  Good officers (the vast majority) want bad officers (a tiny minority, thank God) gone.  Their jobs are hard enough without them.

Finally, a category that I'll simply dub "Wearing the Hat."  Whenever anything big goes wrong, or when the bad has temporarily overcome the good, you show up.  It can be a major fire scene, a child's drowning, a toxic waste incident, catastrophic weather event, or civil unrest.  You stop what you're doing, whether it's vacation, dinner with friends, or your wedding anniversary; put on your chief hat (sometimes only figuratively) and go to the scene.  Though in many cases, there is nothing more to be done than what is being done--you still go.  Why?  Because citizens are reassured when the head honcho arrives, and the officers try a little harder when they know you care enough to be there.  There's no down side to it.  The opposite is true for the absentee chief.  Sometimes, there are things that can be done, or usually, facilitated by the chief, but I'll save that for another post.

As for the resolute, square-jawed person pictured above, he has left the theatre.  I am now long-haired and sporting a scruffy goatee.  Occasionally people drop loose change in my coffee cup.  I don't know why. 




26 May 2014

The End

Jan Grape
The beginning of your book is where your ending starts.  Yes, class, I know that sounds weird but think about it for a minute. I hope that you have your main character find a body or get notified there's a body. Someone likely needs to be killed in the first chapter or at least in the first fifty pages of your book. Of course, maybe your mystery isn't a murder mystery but a kidnapping or a bank robbery or a thriller where someone important is about to be killed.  If so, that's fine. Whatever your book is, and it might even been a romantic suspense or a futuristic suspense, the beginning of your book is where your ending starts.
The first chapter or chapters presents the problem. Something bad has happened or is going to happen and your main character is going to have to take care of the problem. Solve the murder, find the robbers, win the girl or the guy, whatever. Your book is going to open with the main character having a vested interest somehow, come hell or high water, making sure he or she wins the day. That's what I mean by saying your ending starts with the beginning.

Immediately you want to give your main character an emotional reason to solve the case or in the case of a police character or a private eye, it's the job and they won't get paid unless the case is solved. It's more meaningful to the reader,, however even if the investigator gets paid, that the main reason to go all out is somehow there's emotional involvement. The victim is someone known to the main character or to another character who is close to the main character. Or the baby kidnapped belongs to the sister of the protagonist. Or the bank robbery is taking place where the main character's mother works. Something that makes it important to the main character.

The way you get from the beginning to the ending is by writing an exciting and intriguing middle. And I won't spend much time talking about that because that's your story.  I just thought I'd tell you a little bit that I've learned about endings.

Honestly, I think most of you know how to write great endings. I have read two or three best-selling authors who, in my opinion, never learned how to end a book. And no, I'm not going to name names because that's not what this article is about. Maybe one day later I'll do an article on that… NOT.

So, you've got your great beginning and you've told your reader why this mystery must be solved.  Once you've built intrigue and peopled your book with dynamic characters and led them through great scenery and intrigues for the middle portion of your story. You've thrown one complication after another at your main character, it's time to build the final climax and end the book.

You've led your reader down one path and then another and you finally know whodunit you must remember this is the make or break point. You want your readers to feel satisfied, that justice prevailed. My all time belief is that one reason mysteries are so popular is because the bad guy or gal loses. Good guy or gal wins the day and that doesn't happen often enough in real life. We want to see justice.

So bring your main character to the point of no return. The last complication paints your protagonist into a corner where it looks like there is absolutely no way out. The tension and suspense need to build to the highest ever. He or she knows it's time to face the bad guy, but do you go the easy way or the hard way. You'd likely be better off to choose the hard way because your reader is going to throw your book across the room when they read that last line if not. They have been with you all the way and they want a satisfying ending. They don't want the case handed to the protagonist on a silver platter. But somehow the right solution is there for the main character to show the reader and to stop a miscarriage of justice. You don't necessarily have to kill the bad guy although there is a lot of satisfaction in that, especially if the bad guy is really evil. But stopping the villain from leaving by tackling and handcuffing and calling for police can also be satisfying.

Be sure you've covered the motivation of the villain. Most bad guys aren't one hundred percent bad. A redeeming quality makes them more real. You might even feel a little sorry as you put on the handcuffs but then again, maybe not. The villain may not need to tell the main character why they killed the victim but somewhere along the line that motivation came up. Maybe in a diary or journal or on the personal computer your main character found and read before the villain caught your main character.

Be sure you cover the motivation of your main character. Their emotional involvement has been there all throughout the book, even if just to get a big payday or a big promotion or win the love of a lifetime. Don't forget to tie up loose ends. You may have to do this with the main characters side-kick or best pal or love interest. Mainly remember you only want this final bit to be short and sweet, only a few pages long. You want to let the reader know that the main character gets the big payday or promotion or the love of a lifetime.

Then the last line or paragraph can be the pat on the back or the check to put in the bank or the main character gets a kiss and loving embrace. It's always nice if your last line can have a touch of humor.
Thanks for listening, class, now let's all go have a glass of wine.

25 May 2014

The Rare Specimen

When I read stories in an anthology, I check mark the ones I want to reread. Looking over the table of contents of the anthology of literary crime fiction, Murder & Other Acts of Literature, I realized I had read only three of the stories and had marked only one for rereading. “By A Person Unknown,” a puzzling story by Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). Mahfouz was the first Arab writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988). 
In the foreword, editor Michelle Slung explains why she compiled the anthology: “The most fun about compiling a book like this one is finding the stories themselves, with some tracked down like rare specimens and others hiding in plain sight.” Reading the foreword reminded me why I marked Mahfouz’s story for rereading. It is a rare specimen.
“By a Person Unknown” is a police procedural about a serial killer terrifying a community in Cairo. The only clue is the mark of a cord around the neck of each of the six victims. Unlike most serial killers, except for the mark, there is no pattern to the killer’s modus operandi. The killer “makes no distinction between old and young, rich and poor, man and woman, healthy and sick, a home, a tram, or a street.” The lack of clues takes its toll on the investigating officer who believes, “The sole accused in this case is myself,” because he cannot solve the case.
The superintendent of police, feeling that he must prevent further panic, concludes news of the murders will no longer be published because “news disappears from the world once it disappears from the press.” For him “Life must go on as usual, people must go back to feeling that life is good--and we shall not give up the investigation.”
I’m not sure if the story is about the emotional toll the investigation takes on the investigator or, considering the superintendent’s decision, Egyptian politics, especially since Mahfouz has acknowledged that most of his writings deal mainly with politics: "In all my writings, you will find politics. You may find a story which ignores love or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking.”
No matter the subject, “By a Person Unknown” is a rare specimen because it has no ending , or least not a satisfactory or appropriate one. Nothing in the story suggests the killer’s identity or that he or she will be caught despite the ongoing investigation. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story, and I’ll probably continue to think about it because I’ll reread it a year from now to again puzzle over the meaning. 
After I finished the story, the first descriptive word that came to mind was ambiguous (personal or political), next absurd (a crime “has been committed without a criminal”). I’m still wondering if either of the adjectives applies.

As usual, I’m probably over-analyzing. Does meaning really matter if I enjoyed the story?

24 May 2014

No More Mr. Nice Guy

I love movies. Always have and always will. Timewise and expensewise, I probably love them too much--but I console myself with the knowledge that I receive more from movies than mere entertainment. I often learn from them as well. The writer part of me tries to figure out why certain things in a story work and why certain things don't, and I consider that information helpful when I sit down to write my own fiction.

One of the things I enjoy most about films is that now and then they deliver something totally unexpected. A plot reversal, a fascinating location, a twist ending, a quirky theme, an outrageous character. I once heard someone say that anytime we watch a movie--or read a short story or novel--we make a silent deal with the creator of the piece: we agree to give him our attention and he agrees to give us surprise.

Risky business

A guaranteed eye-opener happens when the producer/director/whoever chooses to cast someone who's usually a protagonist in the role of an antagonist. This kind of thing--angels playing devils--happens more often than you might suspect, presumably because many actors fear being stereotyped, but I figure it's always a bit tense and chancy for both the actors and the filmmakers. Sometimes straying from the norm pays off, and sometimes it doesn't.

I recently found an interview on YouTube in which the late Henry Fonda, who was always cast as the hero, talked about his one-and-only role as a bad guy. Italian director Sergio Leone had approached him about playing a villain in one of Leone's spaghetti Westerns, and after being advised by old friend Eli Wallach to accept the role, Fonda traveled to Rome to meet Leone for the first time. Before their meeting--and wanting to look more sinister and less recognizable--Fonda said he let his beard grow a bit and put in brown contact lenses to hide his famous blue eyes. But when Leone saw him, the director said, "No, no!"--he wanted those baby blues, and did not want any disguises. Fonda was later told that in the scene that introduced his villain to the audience, when he's about to murder a child in cold blood, and the camera swings slowly around to reveal his face for the first time, Leone wanted viewers to gasp and drop their popcorn and say, "Jesus Christ!--that's Henry Fonda!!"

Good guys who have played bad guys
My favorite examples:
Chuck Connors -- The Big Country Denzel Washington -- Training Day Michael Douglas -- Wall Street Steve Martin -- The Spanish Prisoner Glenn Close -- Fatal Attraction James Cromwell -- L.A. Confidential Russell Crowe -- 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Tommy Lee Jones -- Under Siege Henry Fonda -- Once Upon a Time in the West Danny Glover -- Witness Arnold Schwarzenegger -- The Terminator Gene Hackman -- Unforgiven
Other memorable examples (good guys in villain roles that worked):
Robin Williams -- Insomnia
Fred MacMurray -- Double Indemnity Leonardo DiCaprio -- Django Unchained Matt Damon -- The Talented Mr. Ripley
Laurence Olivier -- Marathon Man
Glenn Ford -- 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Stephen Boyd -- Ben-Hur Orson Welles -- The Third Man Humphrey Bogart -- The Petrified Forest Raymond Burr -- Rear Window Marlon Brando -- Apocalypse Now Joseph Cotten -- Shadow of a Doubt
Heath Ledger -- The Dark Knight
Morgan Freeman -- Lucky Number Slevin
Spencer Tracy -- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Kiefer Sutherland -- Stand By Me
Daniel Day-Lewis -- Gangs of New York Alec Baldwin -- The Cooler Angela Lansbury -- The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Meryl Streep -- The Manchurian Candidate (2004) Burt Lancaster -- Sweet Smell of Success
Forgettable examples (not great but not terrible):
Bruce Willis -- The Jackal Timothy Dalton -- The Rocketeer Kirk Douglas -- There Was a Crooked Man Walter Matthau -- Charade Anthony Quinn -- Last Train From Gun Hill
Richard Gere -- Arbitrage
Walter Brennan -- How the West Was Won
Tom Cruise -- Collateral Gary Sinise -- Ransom
Ronald Reagan -- The Killers
Robert Duvall -- True Grit (1969)
Wilford Brimley -- The Firm Ed Harris -- The Rock Albert Brooks -- Drive John Goodman -- In the Electric Mist Christopher Reeve -- Deathtrap Greg Kinnear -- The Gift
Tony Curtis -- The Boston Strangler Richard Crenna -- Wait Until Dark
Regrettable examples (good guys in villain roles that didn't work):
Gregory Peck -- The Boys From Brazil Andy Griffith -- Savages
Sean Connery -- The Avengers
John Travolta -- Broken Arrow Harrison Ford -- What Lies Beneath Julia Roberts -- Mirror, Mirror
Elijah Wood -- Pawn Shop Chronicles Kevin Costner -- Mr. Brooks Sylvester Stallone -- Death Race 2000
Daryl Hannah -- Kill Bill
John Lithgow -- Cliffhanger Robert Redford -- Indecent Proposal George Clooney -- From Dusk Till Dawn Jamie Lee Curtis -- Mother's Boys James Earl Jones -- Conan the Barbarian
Nicole Kidman -- To Die For
NOTE: All these lists include only those performances that I've actually seen with my own peepers. I had to therefore leave out Kate Winslet in Divergent, Sidney Poitier in The Long Ships, Frank Sinatra in Suddenly, etc. (Don't worry, they're in my Netflix queue . . .)
Comedic goodie-plays-baddie examples (these don't really count):
Jack Lemmon -- The Great Race
Danny De Vito -- Romancing the Stone Sigourney Weaver -- Ghostbusters Tom Hanks -- The Ladykillers Jon Voight -- Holes Max Von Sydow -- Flash Gordon
Matt Dillon -- There's Something About Mary Jennifer Anniston -- Horrible Bosses Slim Pickens -- Blazing Saddles Dick Van Dyke -- Dick Tracy
Patrick McGoohan -- Silver Streak Ned Beatty -- Superman
Dabney Coleman -- Nine to Five
Ted Knight -- Caddyshack Michael Caine -- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Dustin Hoffman -- Hook
Others that don't count, in my opinion, are movies about prisoners, gangsters, outlaws, anti-heroes, etc., where most of the main characters are already less-than-model citizens: Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, A History of Violence, Bonnie and Clyde, Get Shorty, Papillon, The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, Blood Simple, The Road to Perdition, In Bruges, Miller's Crossing, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Getaway, Jackie Brown, Escape From Alcatraz, Out of Sight, Pulp Fiction, The Sting, Reservoir Dogs, and many more.

There are also many more roles in all the above categories that I've not mentioned. Help me out, here, if you can think of them.

Forever respectable
Not everyone, of course, is corruptible. To my knowledge, the following male actors have never played true villains: Tom Selleck, James Garner, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, Jackie Chan, Steve McQueen, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Charlton Heston, and Clint Eastwood. (I started to put James Stewart in this squeaky-clean list until I remembered After the Thin Man. And here's my disclaimer: Wayne was pseudo-villainlike in the roles of Genghis Khan and the Ringo Kid, and Eastwood came close in both Tightrope and Beguiled.)
Even more fun than watching good guys go bad is watching conventional villains occasionally play decent, law-abiding folks: Jack Palance in Monte Walsh, Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Gary Busey in Silver Bullet, Michael Ironside in Top Gun, Robert J. Wilke in Stripes, Dennis Hopper in True Romance, Lee Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More, L.Q. Jones in The Edge, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Christopher Lee in The Devil Rides Out, Peter Cushing in The Horror of Dracula, Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest, Steve Buscemi in The Abyss, Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved, Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape, etc.
Okay, enough of this. That's my analysis and these are my opinions. By now you have probably diagnosed me as a certified, raving, dreamworld-addicted maniac. If so, you are incorrect. I am perfectly normal and sane.
In fact, I am Spartacus.

23 May 2014

Shoot the Woman First

There's an ATF Agent I occasionally swap short stories with online. I met him at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Denver a few years back when we were both presenters at that conference. We soon found the two of us had a lot in common. Afterwards, we recommended new authors to each other and/or new books to read. A couple of months ago, he brought up the name of Wallace Stroby and suggested I try that author's later novels. I'd never heard of the guy, but decided to check out one of his books to see if he was worth reading.

First stop was Amazon for Kindle books, where I found Stroby had three novels in a new series: Cold Shot to the Heart, 2011, Kings of Midnight, 2012 and Shoot the Woman First, 2013. I was intrigued by the last title, wondering why the woman had to go first, especially since the series protagonist is female. I calculated that since this one was his latest work, then it would probably be his best and I would therefore soon know whether or not I was wasting my time. Turned out, I enjoyed the 2013 book so much that I felt compelled to go back and purchase the first two in the series. Since each book is a great stand alone read, yet builds on the one before, had I known they would be that good, I would have bought and read them in chronological order.

If you like action/suspense books written fairly true to the world of criminals, then you will enjoy Stroby's three novels with Crissa Stone as the main character in this series.

As Shoot the Woman First opens, Crissa is meeting with three men in a car on the streets of Detroit at night. Two of the men she has worked with on previous jobs. She trusts them as much as she trusts any criminal she gets involved with, which is to say that trust needs to get re-earned on every new job. The third man in the car is cousin to one of the first two men, and him she has real concerns about because he is a college kid, unproven in the criminal world. However, he is also the man with the needed inside information, so he's part of the crew or there is no job.

The four of them are having a discussion in a rented car on a street in the bad part of town while watching a drop car allegedly containing about a half million dollars of drug buy money in the trunk. Between them and the drop car is a vehicle with three armed gangsters whose duty it is to make sure the right people are the only ones to drive away in the car with all that cash.

You, as reader, are right on scene as Crissa devises a plan to distract and temporarily disable the three armed gangsters while the rest of the crew takes the buy money out of the drop car. The job goes as planned with only a couple of minor problems. It's an hour later that everything goes to hell. A corrupt, retired police detective is subsequently hired by the gang leader to find whoever stole his money. Conflicted with loyalty to certain partners and paranoia of who to trust, Crissa runs the tight wire of protecting herself and members of her family from the ensuing retribution.

Bottom line, all three books are good reads. And, if you want to find out why you shoot the woman first, you need to buy the book, or (according to the corrupt detective) you can ask a member of a counter terrorist team.

See ya again on Fortnight Friday.

22 May 2014

The Darwin Awards

I just got back from another weekend at the pen, and you know, sometimes you just don't know what the boys are thinking.   There's always some guy who's saying, "I always know I'm the smartest guy in the room."  And it's not always the same guy.  And none of them recognize the irony of saying that in prison...   There are the guys who persist in expressing their dissatisfaction with prison life by insulting, yelling, cursing, or spitting on guards.  "I showed them!"  Yeah, you showed them that you need a few days in the hole to think it over.  And the ones who are furious at the system for locking them up just because they walked away from a work release program ("I just went to pick up my meds!"  "My girlfriend was having a breakdown!"  "I needed some time to think..."), or because (I kid you not) they posted photos of themselves doing various illegal activities on social media...

There are times I think I'm in a room full of Darwin Award winners.  Speaking of Darwin Awards, in case you didn't catch them, here are the 2013 winner and his runner-ups:

1. When his .38 caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Long Beach, California would-be robber James Elliot peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked.

2. The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat cutting machine and after a little shopping around, submitted a claim to his insurance company. The company, expecting negligence if not outright fraud, sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the machine and he also lost a finger. The chef’s claim was approved.

3. A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to find a woman had taken the space. He shot her.

4. After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped. Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies. The deception wasn’t discovered for 3 days.  

5. An American teenager was in the hospital recovering from serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving train before he was hit.

6.. A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer… $15.

7. Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly. He decided that he’d just throw a cinder block through a liquor store window, grab some booze, and run. So he lifted the cinder block and heaved it over his head at the window. The cinder block bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas. The whole event was caught on videotape.

8. As a female shopper exited a New York convenience store, a man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a positive ID. To which he replied, “Yes, officer, that’s her. That’s the lady I stole the purse from.”

9. The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan at 5 A.M., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren’t available for breakfast… The frustrated gunman walked away. 

10. When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on a Seattle street by sucking on a hose, he got much more than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal gasoline, but he plugged his siphon hose into the motor home’s sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to press charges saying that it was the best laugh he’d ever had and the perp had been punished enough!

Those are the official ones.  I'd like to add one from an idiot I knew, 40 years ago in L.A., who'd always wanted to steal a cop car.  Well, one day he saw one with (for some unaccountable reason) an open back door:  so he got in and pointed a gun at the cop sitting in the front.  The cop's partner showed up...  The guy's probably still in jail.