Showing posts with label John Lutz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Lutz. Show all posts

16 July 2019

Community Standards

This year’s Malice Domestic in North Bethesda, Maryland, provided ample opportunity to spend time with several writers I count among my friends and with many more who became friends during the convention, and I realized how different life is when a large group of like-minded writers live in close proximity.
With Josh Pachter and Art Taylor at Malice Domestic 2019.
At some point during the convention, Josh Pachter and I discussed how the mystery-writing community in and around Washington, D.C., contrasts with the mystery-writing community in and around Waco, Texas. Many of the writers attending Malice see each other several times a year—at readings, book signings, Noir at the Bar events, library presentations, and the like—and they see each other so often that they rarely have reason to email one another. The mystery-writing community in and around Waco consists of, well, me.

Several romance writers live in the area, as do a few literary writers and poets of one type or another, but the only mystery writer living near me isn’t producing much new work these days. Because I don’t comprehend poetry or poets, and because literary writers don’t tend to hang with us genre types, I feel as if I live in a writing desert.

So, I’ve little opportunity to spend time with genre writers (of any genre) other than at conventions, and only in the past few years have I had the financial resources to travel more than a few hours from home to attend Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. Prior to that I attended some regional science fiction conventions (ArmadilloCon and the now-defunct ApolloCon), Bouchercon when it came to Austin many years ago and Left Coast Crime when it came to Santa Fe several years ago.

A gaggle of wordsmiths at Malice Domestic 2019.
Yet, I always remembered what life was like when I lived in Southern Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. I was a young, barely published writer, and several times my then-wife and I had dinner with John Lutz and/or Francis M. Nevins, Jr., and their wives. And at least twice I attended the Nevinses’ Christmas party, where I met, among others, Elaine Viets when she was still a newspaper columnist.

I wondered if such a thing were possible in Waco, in a state where writers may live hundreds of miles apart, and Temple and I had several conversations about how we might duplicate those Christmas parties. Rather than a holiday event, when everyone is juggling family and work obligations, and rather than an evening event, which would cause guests to drive home in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to try a Saturday afternoon event in the spring.

Texas writers crowd the Bracken/Walker living room
during the 2019 Spring Writer Gathering.
We hosted our first Spring Writer Gathering the Saturday after Mother’s Day 2016, and we’ve hosted it the same weekend each year since. Though the event is open to all writers and their significant others, and most genres are represented in one fashion or another, we tend to draw a significant number of mystery writers from all across Texas. A few of our guests have joined us every year, a few only once, and many have attended two or three times.

This isn’t a critique group, and there’s no agenda. It’s just writers hanging out, talking about whatever strikes their fancies. Sometimes it’s writing, but the conversation is just as likely to cover dozens of other subjects. Sometimes we sit in a large group in the living room; sometimes we break into smaller groups that drift into the kitchen or the dining room.

Some of our guests are writers I’ve known for at least two decades, while others are recent acquaintances, and some I’m meeting in person for the first time when they arrive at our doorstep.

In doing this, my writing community is growing. Though it may never reach the size of the writing community in and around Washington, D.C., and even though our gathering may never draw the number and diversity of attendees as the Nevinses’ Christmas parties, I am quite pleased with the event’s success.

So, if you’re a writer living within driving distance of Waco, Texas, or think you might be traveling through our area the Saturday after Mother’s Day, drop me a line. Temple and I would love to have you join us next year for our annual Spring Writer Gathering.

My story “Oystermen” appears in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Three Brisket Tacos and a Sig Sauer,” the second story of season one of the Guns + Tacos serial novella anthology series, releases August 1. Subscribe to season one here and receive six novellas—one each month beginning with July—and receive a special bonus story at the end of the season.

05 February 2018

Shades of Gray

John Lutz
John Lutz
featuring John Lutz
When I read the Baltimore Bouchercon guest list, one attendee caught my eye, the primary person I’d like to tip my hat to. Big-name authors find themselves inundated with clutching fans, leaving one to wonder– When does adulation grow old? I relegated myself to someone pointing out John Lutz across the room.

Then James Lincoln Warren arranged a dinner party (the same JLW who notes I write excessive introductions). I knew all the attendees except one couple. I introduced myself.

I almost spilled my drink. I wasn’t sure I heard right. The John Lutz and wife Barbara? Ever play the fantasy dinner guest list game? He’s the Victorian era’s equivalent of inviting Arthur Conan Doyle, La Belle Epoque’s homologue of Agatha Christie. John Lutz is my favorite author of my era.

After I gabbled or blabbled, I settled down at dinner, thoroughly charmed. James’ dinner became my Bouchercon highlight. So, when Jan Grape suggested recruiting John Lutz for an article, I nearly fell off my perch.

Credit for today’s article goes to Jan who is experiencing computer woes, else she would be writing this introduction mentioning Edgar and Shamus and movie awards. Unfortunately, she left me the onerous task of introducing John’s article.

So without further yammer and blather, Jan and I take pleasure introducing Mr John Lutz as he talks about his new spy novel.

— Jan Grape, Leigh Lundin

The Honorable Traitors
by John Lutz

How did I come up with the idea for my new series hero, secret agent Thomas Laker? You might assume that since I’ve written books in every other genre of mystery and suspense fiction, it was logical and predictable that I’d turn to espionage. But there’s nothing logical or predictable about coming up with ideas.

Here’s how it happened: I was reading a World War II history book, which set me musing that spies are our modern Cassandras, doomed to prophecy truly and not be believed. German agents found out where the Allied invasion of France was going to happen, and the generals dismissed their report. Soviet agents found out when the German invasion of Russia was going to happen, and Stalin blew them off. 

Not being believed must be a standard frustration of the spy business. I thought: What if there was a small, super-secret agency that operated in a more freewheeling fashion? Its agents, though of course unknown to the public, would be people with high reputations in the espionage fraternity. When employees of the CIA and FBI were being frustrated by bureaucrats and politicians, they’d turn to the people in my agency.

Honourable Traitors
Knowing that when agents of The Gray Outfit receive ‘actionable’ intelligence, they act.

That was the name that came to me for my agency. I decided to call its top agent Thomas Laker.

As my readers know, I like a hero who’s his own man, and does things his own way. My earlier series characters were private eyes in one-man agencies and retired cops who were so good the NYPD had to call them back to work on their own terms.

Laker’s like that, too– though he does have to report to his tough-as-nails boss Sam Mason, head of The Gray Outfit. Luckily Mason has as much disdain for routine methods as Laker.

My readers will also know that my series characters don’t work entirely alone.  Soon enough they meet up with a woman who gets under their skin.

In Laker’s case, it’s a beautiful and brainy NSA codebreaker named Ava North. The secret she brings him that is too hot for anyone else to handle concerns not her work but her family. The Norths have been Washington insiders for generations. The beginnings of the story of The Honorable Traitors go all the way back to World War II, but its unimaginably violent final act will take place in the future… the very near future.

13 January 2013

Professional Tips – John Lutz

At Bouchercon in Baltimore, several of us from Criminal Brief were going out to dinner. Along for the ride was a couple I didn't know, so I introduced myself.
John Lutz
John Lutz

If I could have picked any one person to meet, it would have been John Lutz, and here I was with my hand in a frozen clasp and my jaw unflatteringly prolapsing.

Gushing– I detest gushing. I hope I didn't gush. Gushing would have been the ultimate uncool. But I may have prattled on a bit about Nudger, maybe Frank Quinn or the Night series. Maybe a little. Or a lot.

Carving a Place for Himself

John Lutz rose to the top of my favorite American mystery authors long before I began writing and long before I realized how much he was honored by his colleagues. This man manages not only to be a prolific writer– both short stories and novels– but he avoids the death trap of an occasional contractual dud.

Usually writers excel at either characterization or plot. John Lutz handles both with ease. His protagonists are real, they're accessible, they're ordinary people with extraordinary barriers to overcome. Jack Reacher they are not but neither are they Tom Cruise.

Nudge, Nudger

My favorite is Nudger, a gentle PI with a carnivorous ex-wife, crushing debts, an unreliable car and a very reliable girlfriend. Indeed, he has a few very good friends even when, like Danny the doughnut man, they can be too much. Nudger doesn't bounce out of his rut, but he manages to climb up a centimeter at a time. That's good enough for most people.

My favorite novel plot comes from the Fred Carver series. Carver has a bad leg and bad enemies… one of them a corrupt police lieutenant. Carver finds an ingenious way to keep the lieutenant in line.

And premise? Imagine a cameraman taking time lapse photos of an office building and realizes one person doesn't move… all day long. Dum, de-dum, dum.

John Lutz's Top Ten Tips

While I was in South Africa, I received an eMail mentioning John Lutz'stop ten tips for writers. I haven't provided famous author tips in quite some time, so I was pleased to see this. Recently published by The Strand Magazine, I paraphrase here for the purposes of discussion.

What can we learn from John Lutz? Let's recap and study his recommendations.
  1. Appeal to a broad range of readers.
    This should be obvious, but clearly many would-be authors miss the point. We've all known writers like that. When others question who their intended market is, they become defensive and talk about artistic merit and avoiding the crush of the mainstream– no problem there.
  2. Write characters your readers will enjoy, likable and interesting. Bear in mind the importance of chemistry between characters.
    You'll remember an outstanding plot for a long time, but if you keep coming back to a book, a series, or an author, chances are it's for the characters.
  3. Know the ending before beginning. John calls this a 'magnetic north' that keeps the writer from meandering.
    I'm relieved John makes this point. So many of the start-writing-and-see-where-your-story-takes-you school eschew having a fixed plot that I started wondering if I was the odd duck out. I may sketch a scene and then dream up the circumstances surrounding it, but I like to have a goal when I start writing. That doesn't mean an initial target can't be revised, but I have to know the ending first.
  4. Build your characters as if you were to act them on stage. In other words, what is the motivation of each? Corollary: How can you make them distinctive?
    John asks what drives a character: respect, love, wealth, power, forgiveness, revenge? Figure that out and turn to method acting. Then give your players distinctive characteristics in looks, speech, and catch phrases.
  5. Practise your craft in the same place and time each day. John says this makes it easier to lose yourself in your writing so readers might lose themselves in your work.
    This is where I fall short. I like to work at night because it's quiet where I can think and paint pictures on the dark screen of my mind. Unfortunately crazy people (merchants, schools, government offices) think I should remain available during the day. Ah, the privations and tribulations of an artist!
  6. Read chapter endings and beginnings. End each chapter with a question, actual or implied.
    I believe John is suggesting making chapters sort of cliffhangers. In chapter 33, the good guy breaks away from the bad guys who were chasing him and turns onto the mountain road just as the brakes fail… turn the page to chapter 34.
  7. Concentrate on the particular. Make the smallest details singular and real.
    This is somewhat related to (4) above. Romance writers recommend employing all five senses when describing, but good genre writers of any stripe should follow suit. Consider an amazing paragraph from Sue Grafton:
    As a child, I was raised with the same kind of white bread, which had the following amazing properties: If you mashed it, it instantly reverted to its unbaked state. A loaf of this bread, inadvertently squished at the bottom of a grocery bag, was permanently injured and made very strange-shaped sandwiches. On the plus side, you could roll it into little pellets and flick them across the table at your aunt when she wasn't looking. If one of these bread boogers landed in her hair, she would slap it, irritated, thinking it was a fly. I can still remember the first time I ate a piece of the neighbor's home-made white bread, which seemed as coarse and dry as a cellulose sponge. It smelled like empty beer bottles, and if you gripped it, you couldn't even see the dents your fingers made in the crust.
  8. Read dialogue aloud.
    I am a believer in reading not just dialogue, but everything aloud. There's something about the exercise that catches errors and rotten writing like no other tool. And to vary the equation, I sometimes instruct my computer to read to me.
  9. Let your writing 'cool off' before re-reading and revising.
    Again, I 'm a believer. Days, weeks, even months later, the brain sees a story in a new light. My reaction is often disgust. Only when I reach a point where I no longer detest what I've written do I begin to think it might be ready for someone else.
  10. Double check you're satisfied with the four elements: character, situation, setting, and theme.
    If you're not fully comfortable with your writing, others won't be comfortable either. It all has to fit and work together. Don't 'make do', find a way to make it all work.
  11. Pat yourself on the back.

Now you know why John Lutz is a favorite of mine.