Showing posts with label deception. Show all posts
Showing posts with label deception. Show all posts

08 March 2017

The Ghost in the Machine

Again, first off, a disclaimer. This is not a political rant any more than my previous post. Last time, I went after Michael Flynn for his lack of deportment. This time, I'm inviting you into the Twilight Zone.  

We have a habit, in this country, of thinking we're the center of attention. In other words, Trump's issues with his Russian connections are all about American domestic politics. There's another way to look at this. What if it turns out to be about Russian domestic politics?

Bear with me. Filling in the background, we have Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This appears not to be in dispute. There's a consensus in the intelligence community. Fairly obviously, Hillary Clinton wasn't the Russians' first choice, and she seems to have inspired Vladmir Putin's personal animus. It's not clear whether the Russians wanted simply to weaken Clinton's credibility and present her with an uncertain victory or if they thought they could engineer her actual defeat.

Deception and disinformation are tools of long standing. Everybody uses them, and the Russians have a lot of practice. They've in fact just announced the roll-out of a new integrated platform for Information Warfare, and under military authority (not, interestingly, the successor agencies to KGB). Their continuing success in controlling the narrative on the ground in both Ukraine and Syria, less so in the Caucasus, demonstrates a fairly sophisticated skill-set. To some degree, it relies on critical mass, repeating the same lies or half-truths until they crowd out the facts. Even if they don't, the facts become suspect.

Now, since the Inauguration, we've had a steady erosion of the established narrative. Beginning with Gen. Flynn, then Sessions, former adviser Page Carter, Jared Kushner. Consider the timeline. Nobody can get out in front of the story, because the hits just keep coming. They're being blind-sided. "They did make love to this employment," Hamlet says, and none of them seem to realize they could be fall guys, or that it's not about them.

The most basic question a good lawyer can ask is cui bono. Who benefits? If the object was to have a White House friendlier to the Kremlin than the one before, that doesn't appear to be working out. But perhaps the idea is simply to have an administration in disarray, one that can't cohesively and coherently address problems in NATO, say, or the Pacific Rim.  Short-term gain. Maybe more.

Let's suppose somebody is playing a longer game. We have a story out of Russia about the recent arrests of the director of the Center for Information Security, a division of the Federal Security Service, and the senior computer incident investigator at the Kaspersky Lab, a private company believed to be under FSB discipline - both of them for espionage, accused of being American assets, but both of them could just as plausibly be involved in the U.S. election hack. What to make of it? Loose ends, possibly. Circling the wagons. Half a dozen people have dropped dead or dropped out of sight lately, former security service personnel, a couple of diplomats. Russians have always been conspiracy-minded, and it's catching. You can't help but think the body count's a little too convenient, or sort of a collective memory loss.

Here's my thought. This slow leakage and loss of traction, the outing of Flynn and Sessions and the others - and waiting for more shoes to drop - why do we necessarily imagine this has to come from the inside? Old rivalries in the intelligence community, or Spec Ops, lifer spooks who didn't like Mike Flynn then and resented his being booked for a return engagement later. Just because you want to believe a story badly doesn't make it false. But how about this, what if the leaks are coming from Russian sources?

Remove yourself from the equation. It's not about kneecapping Trump, it's about getting rid of Putin, and Trump is collateral damage. There are factions in Russia that think Putin has gotten too big for his britches. He's set himself up as the reincarnation of Stalin. And not some new Stalin, either. The old Stalin. None of these guys are reformers, mind you, they're siloviki, predators. They just want to get close enough with the knives, and this is protective coloration. Putin, no dummy he, is apparently eliminating collaborators and witnesses at home, but somebody else is working the other side of the board.

If the new administration comes near collapse, because too many close Trump associates are tarred with the Russian brush, the strategy's going to backfire, and the pendulum will swing the other way. The scenario then has the opposite effect of what was intended. Putin will have overreached himself, embarrassed Russia, and jeopardized their national security. That's the way I'd play it, if it were me, but I'm not the one planning a coup.

This is of course utterly far-fetched, and I'm an obvious paranoid. Oh, there's someone at the door. Must be my new Bulgarian pal, the umbrella salesman.

28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE

I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.
I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.

Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.

It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.

Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.

I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.

Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.

27 April 2013

Creating Deception

by John M. Floyd

Let me start by saying this is an interesting time, around our house. As of this writing, our third child (and only daughter) is expecting her first baby, and since he (it's a boy) is due shortly, it means my wife Carolyn and I are expecting as well. Every time the phone rings, Carolyn jumps like she just sat on a cactus plant.

Less important but still stressful is the fact that my fourth book is due to be released next week. (I've already done one signing, in my hometown some seventy miles north of us; the "official" launch of the book here in the Jackson area will be a signing and reading at Lemuria Bookstore this coming Wednesday.) Why should that be stressful, at this point? Well, because my publisher has arranged a boatload of signings and interviews over the coming days and weeks, and with a new grandchild about to make his appearance we could have some last-minute scheduling conflicts.

Taking up the collection

Writingwise, this book--it's called Deception--didn't require a lot of work, because it's a collection of thirty of my short stories, and twenty-eight of those stories were previously published. The actual writing was of course done some time ago, before the individual stories were originally sold to magazines and anthologies. But--believe it or not--the task of arranging stories into a collection can be harder than most folks realize. The very fact that they were written at different times and for different markets can make it difficult for them to exist together in the same volume.

Before I get into that, though, I should probably say a little about the books themselves. All four of my short-story collections were produced by Dogwood Press, a small traditional publishing house owned and managed by Joe Lee, who turned to publishing almost ten years ago after a career in broadcasting. All four contain stories that are primarily mystery/suspense, and that originally appeared in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldMurderous IntentAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc. And each title, so far at least, has been taken from the title of one of the included stories.

My first book, Rainbow's End (2006), included thirty of my previously published stories; Midnight (2008) had thirty more; Clockwork (2010) had forty. The latest book, Deception (2013), again contains thirty stories, only two of which are new and have not been previously published. Those two original stories were included not because I'm running out of inventory for reprints but because the publisher felt it would be a good idea to (for the first time) throw a couple of new ones into the mix. I've already picked out thirty more stories for a fifth collection in case the publisher eventually decides to go through the mental and financial anguish of producing another one.

The good thing about including only pre-pubbed stories in a collection is that those usually don't require much editing. If they were good enough to sell (depending of course on where they sold), they're probably good enough to be reprinted. The bad thing is that, as I said earlier, there are a few more things to think about than whether the individual stories are properly written.

Writers' guidelines

Here are some of the points (rules?) that my publisher and I had to consider, for each collection of stories. (By the way, he allowed me far more input into the process than an author usually gets, and I'm grateful for that.)

1. Intersperse shorter stories and longer stories. Assuming that the reader will go through the book from front to back and not skip around, you don't want several very long stories grouped together, and the same things goes for very short ones. Like sentences in a paragraph, a variety of lengths seems to work best.

2. Vary the moods and intensity levels of the stories. We tried to arrange the sequence such that there's a mix of lighthearted vs. gritty subject matter.

3. Choose a theme. All the included stories should have something, however small, in common. Setting, characters, genre, etc. In my case, that was easy: all of them involve mystery/suspense.

4. Don't repeat character names (unless the stories are part of a series). Since most of these stories were originally written to "stand alone," we had to make sure we didn't accidentally place a story featuring, let's say, a protagonist named Jerry alongside another story featuring a protagonist named Jerry. In fact we tried to limit the occurrence of any characters having the same first or last names, especially if the names were unusual. When we did find repeated names--unless they were series characters--most of them got changed. I discovered that for some reason I seem to have an odd fondness for first names like Charlie, Jack, Lucy, Eddie, and a few others, and I use them too often.

5. Don't group other genres or subgenres within the book. Even though almost all these stories can be classified as mystery/crime/suspense, they're sometimes cross-pollinated with other categories, like fantasy, humor, Western, romance, horror, or even sci-fi. And we didn't want the reader encountering several space operas (or horse operas) back-to-back.

6. Don't allow pet phrases to sneak in. I came to realize that I often use expressions like "heaved a sigh" and "as pale as chalk" and "stomped into the room" in more than one story. When that kind of thing happens, and you put those stories together in a collection, the repetition of those phrases sounds almost as bad as it might be if you repeated them in the same story. Bottom line is, we went through and tried to catch those "favorite" and overused phrases and change them up a bit. I became extremely familiar with, and grateful for, the search utility in MS Word.

7. Pick appropriate stories to open and close the collection. For each book we've tried to start out with a story that was both engaging and typical, to set the stage for what follows. We also tried to close with a story that was in some way especially memorable. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. The same thing applies to the stories in a collection of shorts.

8. Vary the crimes. Since these are mysteries, we made sure not to create clusters of stories that featured the same crime: murder, robbery, kidnapping, and so forth. With the first book, we almost didn't catch the fact that two jewelry heists were featured back-to-back. If we'd left them that way, readers would certainly have found that distracting.

9. Be consistent in matters of layout and appearance. Case in point: throughout the book, we used the same kind of designator (three asterisks, which is my publisher's preference) to signal a scene break. Some of these had to be changed when the stories were incorporated into book format. For example, those shorts that had previously sold to AHMM  had used a single pound-sign (my preference) to comply with that magazine's scene-break guidelines. Also, all the stories in this latest book begin on a right-hand-side (odd-numbered) page.

10. Finally, we decided not to group stories that had been previously published in the same magazine. In other words, we put some space between stories sold in The StrandAHMM, or wherever. The only exception to this occurred with some of the "series" mysteries I'd written for Woman's World. Each book so far has featured between six and eight of those mini-mysteries (which use recurring characters), and we've always placed those together, one right after the other, in the exact center of the book. I can't tell you why we did that, except that it just felt right.

One for all or all for one

Some of the points mentioned above also come into play if one is editing an anthology rather than a collection, but the placement of the stories and the avoidance of repetition isn't quite as difficult for anthologies because those stories are--by definition--written by different authors. Pet phrases and duplicate character-names obviously don't happen as often when different authors are involved. In the case of a mystery anthology that I edited several years ago--it included our own Liz Zelvin, Herschel Cozine, and Deborah Elliott-Upton--my main concern was making sure that stories with certain crimes and certain "moods" didn't get grouped too closely together. And I also tried to maintain a good mix of short vs. long, and to choose appropriate stories to begin and close the book.

Have any of you had to wrestle with these kinds of choices? (If you've put together an anthology you probably have, or if you've been allowed some "say" in the process of creating a collection of your own work.) If so, what are your thoughts on the subject? Did you find the selection and placement of the stories difficult? Challenging? Frustrating? How big a task was it to update and retrofit and otherwise edit the stories themselves? Did you run into any issues I haven't mentioned?

Regardless of the difficulties, we probably agree on one thing: it's worth the trouble.

24 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago author B.K. Stevens invited me to participate in a "blog chain."  It's called The Next Big Thing, in which writers share information about a future project--or, as one author called it, a current Work in Progress.

Here's the deal.  Each writer posts a blog entry and answers ten questions about his or her upcoming book, story, or whatever, and provides links to similar pieces written by the inviter and the invitees (are those real words?).  For me, participating was an easy decision because I needed to come up with a column for this Saturday anyhow, and since the subject of my post will be a collection of mystery/suspense stories, the "interview" seemed to fit SleuthSayers' crime-writer theme.

Anyhow, here goes . . .

1.  What is the working title of your book (or story)?

Deception.  It's a collection of short fiction--the book's title is also the title of one of the included stories.

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

Since this is a collection of different stories, the ideas came from all over.  But most of my ideas begin when I examine ordinary people or ordinary situations and ask myself "What if such-and-such happened?"

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Mystery.  There are a few other genres mixed in--fantasy, humor, Western, etc.--but almost all the stories include a crime of some kind, and every story involves suspense and deceit.  (In fact I think deceit performs a double duty in a story or novel: when the characters are deceived, the reader is often deceived also--and if it's done well and done fairly, that's something I enjoy, as a reader.)

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That's something all writers like to think about and very few get to do, right?  As for me and this project, it would take a hotel full of actors to play all the characters in thirty stories, so that question's hard to answer.  But the title story features a resourceful and catburglary guy who's fairly young, so if I had my druthers I'd choose someone like Jude Law, Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, etc.  

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Thirty stories of mystery, intrigue, and deception.  (Make that a one-sentence-fragment synopsis.)

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither.  I have an agent who represents my novels, but not my short stories or collections.  The book will be released in hardcover by a small, traditional publisher called Dogwood Press.  DP also published my first three story collections.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Again, this will be an unconventional answer to a conventional question.  Since this is a group of stories, putting the book manuscript together didn't take a long time.  Mostly, it involved arranging individual stories into a lineup that properly mixes settings, genres, types of crimes, longer stories vs. shorter, lighthearted stories vs. gritty, and so on.  Each story's first draft probably took anything from several hours to several days to finish, and rewriting took from several days to several weeks.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

If I weren't the modest fellow I am, I would compare it to similar collections by authors like Jeffery Deaver, Jack Ritchie, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Bill Pronzini, etc.  Too bad I can't come right out and say that.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My publisher is the one who first suggested that I group some of my previously published stories into a collection, the first of which was called Rainbow's End (2006).  After that book sold well, he encouraged me to follow it with other collections:  Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), and now Deception.  Authors who have inspired my fiction and my writing style are Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Joe R. Lansdale, Harlan Coben, Nevada Barr, Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Robert B. Parker, and others.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

One thing all four of my books have in common is that each includes a handful of lighthearted "series" stories about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and a former student of hers who is now the sheriff of their small southern town.  Also, most of the 130 stories that are featured in the four books were previously published in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc.  If you like to read those publications, I think you might enjoy my stories as well.

Now it's time to pay my dues and keep my promise.  Here are links to my host and to my invitees.

B.K. Stevens is a Derringer Award winner and author of stories in AHMMWoman's World, and many other publications.  Her Next Big Thing piece appears at the Untreed Reads blog

Police officer and author Frank Zafiro is probably best known for his River City novel series.  He will discuss his upcoming project at his blog.

Jan Christensen's fiction has appeared in many different publications and anthologies, as well as two novels. Her post is at her web site.

Please take a look at all those sneak prevews.  BY THE WAY . . .  my friend and SleuthSayers colleague David Dean will also be participating.  Be sure to tune in for his answers to the ten interview questions on November 27, right here at SS.

And then get back to working on your Next Big Thing.