Showing posts with label Lawrence Block. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Block. Show all posts

01 October 2014

Virgins in the Volcano

Someone asked us bloggers to include photos with our pieces.  I am happy to oblige, but like many Internet daters I have chosen to use a photo that is slightly out of date.  Trust me, I looked more dapper then.

Today I saw A Walk Among The Tombstones, the new movie based on one of Lawrence Block's novels about Matt Scudder.  It was good, and you should go see it if you don't mind some blood and guts.  Block called it "a thriller for grown-ups," and the New York Times called it "intelligent pulp" (I'm working from memory in both cases) which sort of captures it.  It's grim, it has lots of suspense, and it doesn't force you to suspend disbelief to the point where you will strain yourself.  

By that last I mean it doesn't rely on unexplained connections and bizarre coincidences, like so much that passes for TV/movie crime stories.  We get to see Scudder doing the legwork to piece the story together and if the final link is made by someone else, it is at least completely in character. 

If I don't seem to be overflowing with enthusiasm, I guess I'm not.  The fact is, I think private eye stories tend to work better on the page than the screen, because of their very investigatory nature.   To make that work on the screen the B-level characters need to be deeply interesting.  (This one picks up considerably when Scudder's young "associate," T.J. shows up).

But that's not actually my main point.  It is almost always a depressing thing to see a movie made from one of your favorite books.  Partly because it can't precisely match the film in your head, partly because Hollywood genuinely tends to do horrible things to good books.  For example, A Walk Among The Tombstones is Citizen freaking Kane compared to the earlier movie about Matt Scudder, Eight Million Ways To Die (based on a much better novel, in my opinion).

Jim Thomsen recently pointed out an anecdote that is mentioned in the new Library of America collection of some of  Elmore Leonard's novels.  Apparently Leonard got very upset over the  movie version of his novel Stick.  His friend Donald E. Westlake - who had a reason or two of his own to complain about Hollywood - said to him: "Dutch, why do you keep hoping they'll make good movies out of your books? The books are ours; everything else is virgins in the volcano. Be happy if the check cashes." 

Another example of that philosophy: someone supposedly told James M. Cain it was a shame what Hollywood did to his books.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to them.  They're right there on the shelf."

At the other end is former screenwriter Sue Grafton who refuses to sell ther Kinsey Milhone books to the movies.  She claims she is well-respected in Hollywood, because they haven't been able to purchase her.  Once their books have been acquired writers tend to be extremely unloved by the studios.  I recently read an old interview with Harlan Ellison in which the multi-award winning author claimed to have received a phone call from a producer's secretary, apologizing that her notes on his script were late.  That was when he found out that everyone in the producer's office, including the secretary, had been invited to critique his work. 

Here's my favorite example of what goes wrong between a book and a movie: Gregory MacDonald's award-winning Fletch.  The book revolves around two crimes: a businessman who wants to hire someone to kill him, and a drug ring.  These separate events have precisely one point in common: the apparent homeless man who the businessman picks to commit the murder is actually an undercover reporter investigating the drug ring. 

Nice and simple.  A single coincidence that the whole plot hangs on.

In the movie, there is a second  coincidence (spoiler alert) and it's a doozy:  the businessman ALSO happens to be the head of the drug ring!  Because in 1980s Hollywood every businessman had to be a crime boss.  When I saw that happen in the theatre my eyes rolled so hard I'm surprised they didn't tumble down the aisle.  Thank heavens nothing like that happens in A Walk Among The Tombstones.

To end on a more cheerful note, and to give you something to argue with, here is a list of my ten favorite private eye movies.  It is possible that after I think about it for a year or two Tombstones might muscle its way in.

The Big Sleep
The Conversation

Farewell My Lovely

The Late Show
The Maltese Falcon

Put your own alternatives in the comments.

29 September 2014


Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:

A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded

I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

13 January 2014

Who is a Character?

Jan Grape Characters are the people who populate your book. From the protagonist to the horrible bad guy to the cute little girl next door who listens to the neighbors and learns exactly who is sleeping with whom. I've known many writers who say that all of their characters are actually them. And that likely is true to a great extent. However, I have never killed anyone in reality. Only in fiction. I try very hard to make that character unlikable enough that someone wants to kill him or her. You don't have to write much about the dead character if you'd rather not. But you might want to let the reader see who that person is through the eyes of the other people in your book. Especially the characters who might have the best reason to kill that person. And you hope there is one person who has the best reason. And the means and opportunity.

Your good guy or protagonist should be someone you like and you like to spend time with because you might even write more than one story or book with that character. Most of us think the main character is based on our self in some way. But as Sue Grafton says about Kinsey, she's smarter, younger, prettier, slimmer that I am. I'd want my main female character to be that and more fascinating, funnier, and taller than I am. I'd want my main male character to be witty, sexy, good-looking, stronger, smarter and have a better body than my significant other.

If at all possible, you will people your story with other or even minor characters that at least make their presence known to you and to the reader. Somehow it helps if you can get help from your secondary characters to guide your protagonist. Certainly applies to a sidekick character. That person needs listen when necessary, argue with the protagonist if needed or cheer when something makes sense to both of you.

How do you come up with such characters? Beats me. I think everyone does it differently. The main thing with me as far as a protagonist is character that talks to me. The conversation usually involves another character. A sidekick or friend but sometimes even the bad guy. These conversations usually lead to a story or a novel. The characters reveal themselves as I write and listen to the conversations.

Many writers list their character and write extensive biographies for them. Early on I cut out magazine pictures of people that looked somewhat like my characters. I tried to list likes and dislikes. Everyone has a special way to create people for their stories and books. Whatever works best for you is the best way for you.

I love what I do and I love that I can admit to listening to the voices in my head and not feel that the little men in white coats will come after me and take me screaming off to the funny farm. Like Larry Block said and titled one of his books, Telling Lies for and Profit. That's my favorite line.

19 August 2013

Lessons Learned

Jan GrapeLawrence Block wrote an excellent article on procrastination in his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit. The book is a collection of the columns Mr. Block wrote for Writer's Digest. In the article he talks about Creative Procrastination, the time we sometimes spend doing things other than writing. Not always, but often that time is really when our subconscious works on our story. Yes, really. Of course, that's not always the case. Often writers just put off writing and doing other things. I've vacuumed floors, cleaned bathrooms, done laundry, taken a walk or a shower just to keep from sitting down and working on my WIP (work in progress.) But he isn't saying to become a sloth either. What you have isn't necessarily writer's block.

We may have a general idea of the next book, or chapter or scene but feel things are not quite jelling. It just may be we need a Time Out, which is the next chapter subject in Larry's book. If we have a deadline we can usually force ourselves to set a schedule. Write so many hours or pages or words per day and get our deadline met. Other times we drag ourselves to the computer and maybe miss our goal for the day by a long shot.

Perhaps the scene or chapter isn't working for some reason and we have no idea why. It's just not totally wrong to take a walk or do the laundry. A little creative procrastination or a little time out is probably what our creative brain needs.  I'm always amazed when I think how the subconscious works. Mainly I try not to think about my muse. Because if I try to wrestle it to hop into action, it has a tendency to tell me to go jump off a cliff.

However, if I take a time out and let the whole thing simmer on the back burner for a little while, things seem to straighten out completely. I can sit down at the computer and the words will flow. A direct line from my brain to my fingertips and I almost can't type fast enough.

The flip side, naturally, is even after a time out, maybe of a few hours or a day, things still seem muddled and I know I have a schedule or a deadline then I have to sit my behind down in the chair and write. And keep writing.

Oftentimes when I'm writing, I think the work is going badly. That all I'm writing is total junk; I have to keep writing.  I have to realize the editor portion of my brain is trying to take over and I have to tell it to "shut up and go away." I've learned that usually the next day what I wrote before isn't half bad. I know that every word I write isn't going to sing but I need to stay on task. That once I'm at the end of the story and write the end I'll be able to look at it more objectively.

Once I set the work aside, two or three days, or even a week, and pull it out I'll find that it's pretty danged good. I can see where I need to revise. Increase tension. Strengthen a character. Or even delete a page or three. That's where the revisions come in. Some writers hate revising. I mainly don't mind because I know I can make my story better with revisions.

Someone told me a long time ago, that you have to tell yourself the story first, then you are able to go back and get the story in shape for others to read.

I envy writers who are able to write a book with only a few minor revisions. I'm just not that good. I also am unable to outline a story. I know authors who do a sixty-seventy page outline of their book. I know others who write a brief outline. Maybe three or four pages. If I outline, it's like talking too much about the book. I get bored if I know too much. I  do a whole lot better when I fly by the seat of my pants. I have sometimes made a brief outline when I feel I'm about at the halfway point. Mostly so I can see if I need to add or subtract an element. Generally, I know how the book ends but not always whodunit. Feels like it works better for me if I fool myself then maybe the reader will be fooled. But basically I'm not concerned with the plot because my major thing is my characters.

Okay class, let's recap. Allow yourself some creative procrastination or time out. Don't beat yourself up if it seems like things are going badly. Most of the time, they're not.  If you really want to learn more about these subjects and how to deal with them, find a copy of Lawrence Block's book, Telling Lies.

And remember, each writer has to do what works best for them.+

22 July 2013

Books On Writing

Jan Grape
I've often found that books that talk about how to write are useful. Through the years I've bought quite a few of them. I honestly don't use them much anymore, but they sit there on my bookshelf and make my office look writerly.
To name a few: Writing the Novel, From Plot to Print and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, both books are by Award winning author, Lawrence Block; From Printout to Published, by Michael Seidman; Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart; Break Writer's Block NOW, by Jerrold Mundis, Writing the Thriller by T. Macdonald Skillman.  Then I have The Crime Writers' Practical Handbook of Technical Information, Edited by John Kennedy Melling.  There's also The Courage to Write by Ralph Keys, Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico and Stephen King's book, On Writing.

All of these books are 12-15 years old but the information is still excellent. I'll admit I don't look at any of them very often, however, if I do feel stuck when starting a new book and I'm trying to work out characters or plot, I'll pull out one of these oldies but goodies and see what I can relearn.

I think it's satisfying to pull out a book like Block's book on novel writing and reading what he says on building characters. The main reason readers keep turning pages of a book is to see what happens next, and the main reason a reader cares what happens next is because they like the characters or a least the main character and they care what happens to that character. It's not easy to make your characters real or as editors often say three-dimensional. Your  characters must have something about them that a reader can relate to, or understand, or laugh with or at least care about.

We all know that we draw from real people we know. A certain look, a mannerism, a gesture yet we seldom incorporate a real person into a character. We could be sued for something like that. I once had an author tell me he's used a mannerism of mine for a character in his book. This was back when I used to smoke (20 years ago) I would set my elbow on a table with a cigarette in my hand. It was a small thing that I didn't realize that I did but I obviously did it often enough that the writer noticed it and used it. Of course, I had to buy the novel when it came out just to real that tidbit.

I like to people watch and used to go to big shopping malls to watch. One day, I noticed a man who kept rubbing his hands, both of them, over his almost bald head. I don't know if he was checking to see if he still had hair there or if it just felt good to feel his head. It was a gesture I used in a story I was writing at the time. If I remember correctly it was a minor character but I think it added to that character becoming more real.

Some times you write about a small town where people know just about everyone and although you are NOT writing about any town you where you may have lived, you'll probably be asked if Jane Doe is really Jane Smith that everyone know is a gossip. Or they'll say your town is really Georgetown or Johnson City or Kingsland isn't it?  And no, you really made up the whole town. Or someone will ask, where is Pioneer City and like my late friend, Barbara Burnett Smith used to say, I just smile and say it's about forty miles west of Austin.

Time is running out and I need to sign off as I can't sit still too long. I'm on my new computer and it has Windows 8 but since I'm only writing on our blog site, I'm not having any big trouble. And class if you ever have any doubts when starting a new book or a new story, look  on your bookshelf  or look online and see if you can find a good book on writing to download. I'll bet you get some great ideas. Until next time. Keep Writing.