13 December 2011

Crime Family

by David Dean

I have been fortunate (sort of) to have had two very different men influence my writing about crime: One was an uncle; the other a clinical psychologist.  They both knew a lot about crime because one was a practitioner of it; the other a specialist in the treatment of 'offenders' of various stripes: two men who never met, though I would love to have heard the psychologist's professional opinion of my uncle had they done so.

My late Uncle Jimmy often comes to mind when I am trying to craft a character whose behavior is less than desirable. He spent a great deal of his life in prison and, when not incarcerated, was involved directly, or peripherally, with many crimes of violence; even murder. He was scheduled to be executed by the State of Georgia at one point, but had his sentence commuted to life when the death penalty was temporarily overruled by the Supreme Court in the early seventies. Did I mention he also had the luck of the devil?

Jimmy was a very good-looking man in his prime: tall, slender, charming, and well-muscled (lots of time in the prison gym). He had deceptively sleepy-looking blue eyes, which went well with his indolent manner, and he was usually smiling, as I recall. I was his favorite nephew, and I was glad. Mostly glad out of a vague dread of what might happen if I weren't.

My older brother, Danny, and I knew the stories about Uncle Jimmy; in fact, he once robbed a store at gunpoint just a few blocks from our house while ostensibly baby-sitting us. We found out later that this was why fetching us cokes and pork rinds took so long.

Mom always blamed her little brother's troubles on 'bad company'. He was also often a victim of circumstances… a staggering number of them by my count. But this was Annie Lou's opinion of most people who got into trouble; including her own boys, of course. Mom never met a 'bad' person. None of her other siblings were ever anything but good and kind people so maybe there is something to her line of reasoning. Of course, there’s always the ‘bad seed’ theory. But where we grew up did, in fact, provide a host of bad company and endless victimizing circumstances.

The Family Manse
 Lester's Meadows (isn't that an inviting name; just makes you want to move right into the neighborhood, doesn't it?) was packed with blue collar families; teaming with kids, and rife with violence, mostly of the domestic variety. For example, the first girl I ever had a crush on shot her father to death with his own pistol; she was sick of seeing her mother get beaten. She was only a young girl. It's hard to imagine her life after that, isn't it? But this was run-of-the-mill crime compared to Jimmy, who kicked it up a notch to open-throttled outlawry.

During the course of his career, Jimmy and his gang were involved in bank robberies, shoot-outs (He survived being shot twice– once by the police; the second time in more mysterious circumstances while living with a girlfriend… they broke up shortly thereafter. Remember the bit about luck?), high-speed car chases with guns blazing, escapes from prison, a stabbing while 'inside', a car crash during one escapade, and other incidents in which people were robbed, hurt, and killed. He was feared by both enemies and friends alike.

It's hard to know what makes someone like Jimmy tick. As a writer, I think a lot about his example. To my knowledge, he was never a victim of violence as a child, yet he was a fervent practitioner of it, going by the court records. His robberies were almost exclusively committed in the very mill-worker neighborhoods that he lived in and frequented (my psychologist friend would probably have made something out of that). I never sensed that he had any regret for anything he may have done, and he made me uneasy when he would visit or stay with us during his intervals of freedom.  I always felt he was studying us. It was little like keeping a snake in the house: fascinating, but a little nerve-wracking. I sensed that he was capable of anything.

The constants that I remember from his life were gambling and chance-taking: The workaday life was definitely not for him. I also don't think he had any vision of gaining great wealth as a result of his activities. I think it was the thrill of unbridled action, and the power of violence, that kept him coming back for more. But what do I know? Even when I questioned Uncle Jimmy about it later in our lives, he was evasive and sly; hinting that his actions were largely misunderstood; the police less than sporting. I found I couldn't believe him.

As a result of his actions our home was searched on more than one occasion; my parents questioned by police. Strange, and sometimes sinister, people would also show up on our steps from time to time; claiming to be friends of Jimmy; just looking to catch up, you know. We always gave the same answer: Don't know where he is or how to reach him. In Jimmy's line of work you could make dangerous enemies. We learned to be furtive when it came to my uncle; we knew that there were others just as ruthless out there.

Gangsterism was not new to my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Our 'little' sister city just across the Chattahoochee River, Phenix City, Alabama, had been making the news for decades as an outlaw capital. Within this town a number of gangs had divided up the turf into various fiefdoms; each containing illegal casinos, bars, whorehouses and dope dens– heroin was the big money-maker in the forties and fifties. The sheriff's department recruited and ran a stable of prostitutes. Perhaps pay for law enforcement was not what it should have been. Citizens who protested their town being used in this manner were threatened and sometimes killed.

It all blew up in 1954 when the State Attorney-General Elect was assassinated there– he had campaigned on the promise of cleaning up 'Sin City'. Martial Rule was declared by the Governor of Alabama and he sent in the National Guard to clean out the vipers' nest. In the end, over five hundred indictments were handed down by the grand jury charged with the case; these included murder, voter fraud and intimidation, assault, bribery, illegal gambling, pimping, prostitution, narcotics trafficking, and kidnapping.

The racketeers' victims were largely textile workers from Columbus and GIs from nearby Fort Benning. People just like Jimmy's family… my family.  He could see Phenix City from his front porch growing up. Were these thugs his role models as a teenager and young man? He would have been the right age for it, but I don't know. He did admit to being an acquaintance of one of these racketeers in his youth… a protégé, perhaps? Maybe Annie Lou was right— it's all a matter of bad company. Or did he just like the lifestyle… period. Maybe it's that simple sometimes. I do remember my psychologist friend once saying, "People's behavior can be complicated, but their motives are usually very simple." I've always remembered that and I think he was right.

People like Jimmy, while dashing in a frightening sort of way, and entertaining, so long as you’re not on the receiving end, create a lot of misery in the world. Besides the obvious victims of violent crime, there are a host of unseen ones: wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, and children that will always suffer as an indirect result. Even the families of the criminals are affected. It’s a bit like poisoning a well— everyone that drinks from it gets sick; all become part of the crime family.

In the end, I fail to come to any positive conclusions about my uncle’s life of crime, though I suspect that you, dear reader, may have drawn some about me and why I chose a career in law enforcement. He did, inadvertently, give me a good education for police work.

As for crime fiction… I often feel that he is looking over my shoulder as I write… but then, so are his victims.

By the by, if you’re at all interested in those long ago events I referred to, there is an excellent book on the subject entitled, The Tragedy and the Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama by Margaret Anne Burns. It’s a riveting, factual account of a truly astounding piece of American crime history. There is also a movie from the fifties, The Phenix City Story (see poster above) that is pretty entertaining, if a little low on production value. It has popped up on TMC from time to time.

Finally, a shameless plug: My story “Ibrahim’s Eyes” is now on Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine podcast and can be found on that website. Doug Allyn did me the honor of both reading it and creating the musical score; which he also performs wonderfully well. Please pass it on to your friends. Thanks, and happy holidays!

12 December 2011

What's in a Word?

By Fran Rizer

In 2011, the English language passed the million word mark, and folks at the Global Language Monitor estimate that the language gains a new word every ninety-eight minutes. As writers, words are our primary tools. This is daunting.

When I think of the changing language, I confess my mind goes to changes in my lifetime--most of them as they relate to me. I confess I've been a cougar at times in the past, but I didn't know that was the word for it.

Some words "date" the speaker. Hardly anyone other than little old ladies in nursing homes use the word "rouge," as in, "That woman wore so much rouge she looked like a clown." (Or like a harlot depending upon who's talking.) It's been "blush" for years.

"Horrific" was created in my lifetime. A combination of "terrific" and "horrible," I refused to use that word for years, but I do now.

Eponyms are common words that are derived from proper names. Caesarian section was named after Julius Caesar, who was "plucked from his mother's womb." The saxophone was named for the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax.

Since words have always fascinated me, I sometimes visit the Global Language Monitor. On December eleventh, the Monitor quoted Bill DeMain's 7/22/11 list of Fifteen Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent. I generally leave the lists up to John and Leigh, but I thought these were too great not to pass on.

1. Zhaghzhagh (Persian)
The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.

2. Yuputka (Ulwa)
A word made for walking in the woods at night. It's the phantom sensation of something
crawling on your skin.

3. Slampadato (Italian)
Addicted to the infra-red glow of tanning salons? This word describes you.

4. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Literally, air person.

5. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that feeling of anticipation when you're waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they're there yet? This is the word for it.

6. Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish)
A word that would aptly describe the prevailing fashion trend among American men under
40, it means one who wears the shirt tail out of his trousers.

7. Pana Po o (Hawaiian)
"Mnn, now where did I leave those keys?" he asked, pana po o'ing. It means to scratch
your head in order to help you remember something you've forgotten.

8. Gumasservi (Turkish)
Meteorologists can be poets in Turkey with words like this. It means moonlight shining
on water.

9. Vybafnout (Czech)
A word tailor-made for annoying older brothers--it means to jump out and say boo.

10. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from
behind to fool them? The Indonesians have this word for it.

11. Famiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a
dog or child.

12. Glas wen (Welsh)
A smile that is insincere or mocking. Literally, a blue smile.

13. Bakku-shan (Japanese)
The experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

14. Boketto (Japanese)
The Japanese respect so much of the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking that they give it a name.

15. Kummerspeek (German)
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.
to give it a name.

Bakku-shan (No. 13) brought to mind that perhaps we need an English word for a guy with a fine behind who turns around and is actually U-G-L-Y. Or maybe a word for the ugly guy who just oozes appeal anyway. (My older son once told me that he'd figured out that men who appealed to me had "knowing eyes." I don't know exactly what that means. Maybe we need a word for "knowing eyes.") What about you? Can you think of an event or description that doesn't have an English word but needs one?

Note: Many thanks to those of you who communicated concern and best wishes for my mother. She's eighty-five, tiny, and fragile. The heart attack, broken hip, and cracked wrist took a lot out of her, and I spent almost two weeks at the hospital round the clock. She is, however, improving, and has just been moved to rehab. Thanks again.

No contest question today.

Until we meet again. . .take care of YOU.

11 December 2011

Fresh Slices

One of the best blogs is Women of Mystery and my favorite word artist there is Terrie Moran, who may or may not be the great-great-great grandchild of Colonel Sebastian Moran. The WoM are smart, sassy, and damn fine writers. Many are members of the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC), which have a new book out with the creepy title Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.

Read Terrie's article about the anthology and then read this book, cooked up by seasoned authors and peppered with excellent examples of the many ways to die in New York.

Terrie Farley Moran
by Terrie Farley Moran

Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices is the second anthology written by the New York / Tri-State chapter of Sisters in Crime. The heart of the twenty-two stories in Fresh Slices is the diversity of people and neighborhoods within the five boroughs of New York City—all very different, yet all very New York. Our goal was to introduce readers to places far off the tourist track. We are delighted that Derringer winner Anita Page kicks off the anthology in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, where we see the effects of a decades old murder in “Tear Down.” The anthology’s final story pulls readers east through Queens and into the lives of day laborers struggling to get through a particularly gruesome job. Written by Edgar and Anthony nominee K.j.a. Wishnia, “North of Clinton” is sure to leave an impression. Kindle readers might like to know that “Tear Down” is the free “first chapter” in the Kindle bookstore copy of Fresh Slices. I’m sure it will leave you wanting more New York attitude. 

East-side, west-side— In Manhattan there once was a meat packing district on each side of town. “A Countdown to Death,” by Deirdre Verne is set in a gorgeous building in Tudor City which was built on  the east-side meat packing site, while in “Taking the Highline,” Fran Bannigan Cox brings us inside the pulse pounding clubs and the lush elevated park that have taken over the meat packing district on the west-side.
Fresh Slices

In “A Vampire in Brooklyn” Leigh Neely not only helps us imagine life with vampires working as officers in the NYPD, she also share secrets about the Brooklyn Bridge that few people know.

It’s 9/11. You are standing on a rise in MacNeil Park in the Borough of Queens with the locals gathered to pray as they watch events unfold across the East River in “The Sneaker Tree,” my contribution to the anthology.

For a splendid taste of the kinds of odd locations and diverse stories you can expect to find here, click over for a free read of Clare Toohey’s story, “A Morbid Case of Identity Theft.” Clare starts her story in The Morbid Anatomy Library, “a private research library and collection of curiosities” and ends it in the streets of Brooklyn beside the Gowanus Canal.

On behalf of the anthology authors and all of the members of the Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State chapter, many thanks to Leigh Lundin and the other SleuthSayers for inviting us to introduce Fresh Slices to your many friends and readers.

Information about the stories, the authors, and book availability is available at Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. Be sure to click on the “small bites” tab to read the first one hundred fifty words or so of each story. And on the home page, please don’t forget to scroll down to see THE THONG.

See you in New York!

10 December 2011

Square Pegs, Round Holes

Much has been said, in writers' magazines and at writers' blogs, about choosing names for fictional characters. But what about choosing actors for fictional characters?

Question: Have you ever gone to a movie that was adapted from a book or story you liked, and found that the hero/heroine didn't look or behave the way you had expected him or her to? Most of us have. I tend to be pretty lenient on that subject--give 'em a chance, right?--but now and then it just doesn't work. Miscasting does happen, and when it does I think the disappointment is even worse for those moviegoers who are also writers. My "belief" in the characters can make or break a piece of fiction for me, whether it's on the page or on the screen.

Worth a thousand words

I've heard that you should be careful watching music videos, for one simple reason: if it turns out you don't like the video, you'll never again enjoy the song quite as much, because the video will stay in your mind forever. The same thing can apply to books and movies. If you read the novel first, your imagination can roam free. If you see the film first, you're limited. Faces and settings have already been supplied, and by someone else. I remember having my own image of Vito Corleone in my mind when I read The Godfather; if I had seen the film first I would almost certainly have pictured Brando instead.

Bottom line is, I usually prefer to read the book before seeing the film version. But not always. I watched Lonesome Dove when it first aired on TV, and when I then decided to read the McMurtry novel, I enjoyed it just as much. But in this instance, the movie was so well done (and so true to the novel) I think it actually helped to later have the actors' faces (Duvall, Jones, Glover, etc.) in my head when I read the book.

Rockin' roles

I should mention that I think some actors were probably born to play certain characters, whether you happen to have read the book first or not. Examples: Gable and Leigh as Rhett and Scarlett, Peck as Atticus Finch, Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, Fonda as Tom Joad. It's hard to imagine anyone else in those parts.

Sometimes--not often--my thinking actually changes during the course of the movie. I had already read Robert Ludlum's three Bourne novels before I saw The Bourne Identity, and at first glance I just couldn't buy Matt Damon in the title role (he looked far too young, for one thing)--but he was so good at it, he won me over. The same thing goes for Alan Ladd, in Shane. Having read the novel in high school, I had a pretty clear picture in my mind of the way Shane would look: tall, slim, dark, sinister. I didn't see the movie until I was a freshman in college, and I remember sitting there in the theatre and thinking Whoa, this friendly little blond guy with the fringe outfit and fancy beltbuckle looked like some kind of sissy compared to the image I already had in my imagination. But the story and the acting were so good it made me a believer, and as a result I now think that Ladd (all five-foot-six of him) was the right choice. The same thing happened with Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone: I started out doubting him and ended up liking him.

Here, read these lines, and don't look at the camera . . .

Casting is an interesting topic in itself. It was a thrill for me, several years ago, to attend some of the auditions for the roles in a film adaptation of one of my short stories. (The movie never got made, but that's a column for another day.) One of the many things I learned was that it's far easier to try to cast someone "safe" in a certain part--a Sam Elliott in a western, let's say, or a Lee Marvin in a war movie--than to go against type and take a chance. But occasionally that risk can pay off. Who would've thought George Clooney would be convincing as a swordboat captain, or that Charlize Theron could be a Monster, or that Disney child star Kurt Russell could be believable as a scowling, eyepatched convict who rescues the President and escapes from a futuristic New York? Well, the filmmakers did, and I'm glad they did.

Sometimes, of course, that kind of close-your-eyes-and-leap innovation can backfire. It was hard for me to believe John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective in Touch of Evil, and Mickey Rooney as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But I digress. If we focus only on characters in novels who later become characters in movies, there are a lot of examples of what I think were good/bad casting decisions. The good ones many of us might agree on: Connery as James Bond, Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Scheider as police chief Martin Brody, and so on. But the not-so-good ones . . . ?

The bad and the ugly

Since this is an opinion column, here are some examples of what I thought were poor casting decisions:
  • Roger Moore as James Bond
  • Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy (Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg (The Stand)
  • Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele (The Boys From Brazil)
  • Eriq La Salle as Lucas Davenport (Mind Prey)
  • Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest (Airport)
  • Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot (The Alphabet Murders)
  • Joe Mantegna as Spenser (Small Vices)
  • Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker (Dracula)
  • Renee Zellwegger as Allison French (Appaloosa)
  • Orlando Bloom as Legolas (the Lord of the Rings trilogy)
  • Leo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (The Aviator)
  • Glen Campbell as Le Boeuf (True Grit)
  • Marlon Brando as Sakini (The Teahouse of the August Moon)
  • Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan (The Sum of All Fears)
And I honestly haven't made up my mind on some: Downey and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, for instance--or Travolta as Chili Palmer. They weren't bad choices, but I think they could've been better.

A shorter reach

I will confess that I have doubts about the decision to cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie version of Lee Child's One Shot. Since I've read almost all the Reacher novels, I know that good ole Jack is supposed to be six-five and two-fifty--and his size is actually a factor, in what he can do and not do in the books. Cruise can play a tough guy, no question about that, but for me he just doesn't fit the image. I think I'm going to find myself wondering how Jerry Maguire could possibly overcome all the incredible hulks that cross Jack Reacher's path.

I'm also not convinced that Katherine Heigl will be an effective Stephanie Plum in 2012's One for the Money--I had always pictured somebody more like Sandra Bullock. (And I've heard Debbie Reynolds will play Grandma Mazur, which I'm hoping was just an unfortunate dream I had after eating too many chili dogs.) On the other hand, the actors in the trailers I've seen for the upcoming version of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games look terrific. I loved that novel, so I hope the producers/directors get it right.

More questions

For those of you who are writers, do you usually have an image of a real actor's face in your mind when you create a character? (I don't.) Do you picture an actor's face for a character when you read about him or her in someone else's novel or story? (I do.) Not that it matters a whit, but the person I usually see as Jack Reacher is Russell Crowe, and Miss Plum's boyfriend Joe Morelli has always been actor John Stamos. I have no idea why, but those are the faces that first popped into my brain when I encountered those characters.

What are your thoughts, on this earthshakingly-important subject? Are there any actor/role matchups that you think are motion-picture perfect? Are there any that you wish you'd never even heard about, much less seen with your own eyes? Are you beginning to wish you'd never seen this article?

At least it won't be made into a movie.

09 December 2011

to e- or not to e-

Today's bit is part personal experience in the e-publishing arena and part BSP. You may skim over the BSP part if you like, but it allows me to speak with a modicum of authority on various information I've acquired concerning the e-publishing world. By now, just about everyone has heard that e-books are outselling print books, which means some of the rules and procedures are changing fast. Authors, readers, book sellers and publishers find themselves in the position of trying to figure out the future of publishing and how it affects them now or may affect them tomorrow.
My first venture in was about four years ago when I signed a contract for a non-fiction work for hire under one of my undercover aliases. The advance was a nice high four figures, the main print royalties were running at ten percent and the e-book royalty was about the same. What did I know? Two years later, I'm conversing with a print novelist and find she is getting twenty to twenty-five percent e-royalties on her newly contracted print novels. Another year goes by, and this same novelist has her agent going back to older contracts and getting her previous ten percent e-royalties also increased to twenty-five percent. Then a couple of months ago, I hear that her new print contracts now provide for a forty percent e-royalty. That's pretty good, especially since the publisher does all the e-formatting, cover art and advertising.

As for me, I'm prinarily a short story author. Okay, so I know an Edgar Nominee who started out writing short stories and who now has an e-collection out consisting of previously published stories, some in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and some in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Since stories in those two publications tend to have a life span of about one month on the racks, it makes sense to expand their reading life via another form. My inquiries into the how-to-do-it led me much deeper into this new e-world.
Choices for e-books without print contracts:
1) Learn to do your own e-book formatting for Kindle and Smashwords (Nook, Sony, Apple, Kobo, etc.) and find your own cover art. Pro: you get 70% royalties. Con: you have to do your own advertising, marketing, promotion.
2) Do your own formatting and pay someone for the cover art. Same Pros and Cons as above,
except you're out front on the cost of the art.
3) Pay someone to do the formatting and cover art. Same Pros and Cons, except you're out
the cost of formatting and art as front costs.
4) Go with an e-publishing company who will do the formatting and cover art. In this case, the
author usually receives 42% royalties. Pro: the e-publisher does everything, to include
advertising. Con: the royalty is 28% less than if you could do it yourself.

NOTE: Formatting is different for Kindle than for other e-readers. My suggestion is to do both, but get the Kindle format up first. It seems that Amazon has much higher sales than Smashwords formats.

So, much of this equation comes down to how good are you at networking and marketing, and how much of the technical work can you or do you want to do on your own?

To receive payment for Kindle sales, you set up an EFT system with your local checking account. Smashwords requires a Paypal account to get your monthly e-book sales money. Or, the author can request a snail mail check for either e-market if so desired. Print and e-publishers have their own systems for paying e-royalties.

I happened to mention all this info to my Huey pilot buddy who in the past has parked us on pickup sized mesa tops for pit stops looking straight down at the lower landscape, dropped us out of the sky in auto-rotation, and flown nape of the earth where I could reach out and almost touch....oh, never mind. In any case, when he mentioned he could figure out how to do the formatting, I tended to trust him. Plus, he's the one who creates my annual custom Christmas card to Linda Landrigan, based on one of the stories she buys from me that year for AHMM.

Thus, in July 2011, we got 9 Historical Mysteries up on Amazon, quickly followed by 9 Twin Brothers Bail Bond Mysteries, 9 Chronicles of Crime and 9 Deadly Tales. Within two months, the same titles went up on Smashwords for other e-readers. Several of these stories were previously published in AHMM, Easyriders Magazine, Outlaw Biker Magazine or elsewhere. Some are seeing print for the first time. When I write two more stories in my AHMM previously published Holiday Burglars series, we'll put up a 5th e-book collection. The cover's already made.

How are e-book sales going? Aaaaahhhh, I need to do more promoting, because while the money is free, I'm not close to getting rich. However, according to my first ever e-book review for 9 Historical Mysteries( http://www.overmydeadbody.com/rtlawton.htm ), I am now a "consummate story teller." No, she is not a relative and has no financial interest in the success or failure of the book. I don't even know the lady, but I surely do admire her taste in short stories.

Not too long ago, Rob Lopresti gave me an excellent review ( http://tinyurl.com/3hrhvrb ) on another of his blog sites for one of my Holiday Burglar stories in AHMM's October 2011 issue. He and I occasionally swap stories for critiques before subbing out to market. Whereas I consider Rob's clever stories to be in a more literary vein than mine, I see myself as merely telling stories to friends in a bar for laughs and grins.

By now, you've probably noticed this article hasn't addressed the issue of quality writing for e-books. Previously published works and those coming out from publishing houses naturally assume a higher level of copy editing quality than one put up as self-published by its own author. With self-published works, the potential reader risks a "buyer beware" situation. To counteract this, most e-book sellers offer a percentage of the book as a free sample download. The customer can then decide if the e-book is up to their reading standards and interest before they put their money down.

If you are a novelist, you are probably already involved in some aspect of e-publishing, even if it is merely the signing of your print contract. As a short story author, you may enter this arena by being accepted into an e-anthology or by deciding to put up your own e-collection of stories. For readers, your biggest decision is figuring out which e-reader works best for you, but you should know that those things are updating and changing rapidly with new technology. My current black and white Kindle 3G will download on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, and now there is already a color version for Kindle.

I can hardly keep up.

08 December 2011

Smart Writers and Stupid Writers

All Gaul may have been divided into three parts, as any beginning Latin student knows, but as far as I am concerned, all writers are divided into two groups - smart writers and stupid writers. Alas, I am firmly, and I might add unrepentantly, in the latter group at least when writing fiction. Even mystery fiction.

We all know the smart writers. They plan ahead. They have file cards of characters' personality features, elaborate back stories, and flow charts. Although it may be apocryphal, I rather like the story about Agatha Christie lying in her long British bathtub eating apples, until, the top of the tub lined with cores, she had worked out another of her fiendishly complex plots. That's my idea of a smart writer, one who leaves nothing to chance and has a clear map of where the story is going and who's going to do what to whom.

I find this sort of planning impossible, even though I happen to live with a smart writer. My sportswriter husband was capable, in the old days when dictation was necessary, of dictating a sports story, complete with all punctuation, from a few notes in his reporter's book. I found this astonishing, given my own troubles even with pen, paper, and typewriter. His was a hard act to follow, and perhaps you can understand why I didn't start writing until I was in my thirties.

And then, despite his good example, I turned out to be a thoroughly stupid writer. I get an idea, and because at least the beginnings of beginnings are easy, I plunge in. A character whispers in my ear, and I write down what he or she says. They tend to be obsessives with homicide in mind, although I get a few nice folk who are shocked at evil and want to set the world to rights.

The first few pages go swimmingly. There is really nothing better than starting a story (or a novel) with a flourish. How clever one feels, how creative. But then comes a difficulty, The Plot. While a smart writer would have looked into this little detail early on, the stupid writer trusts to the beneficence of the Muse, who, like all divas and goddesses, has her off days. Story comes to a halt. Writer goes for a walk in winter, a swim in summer, a sleep in the evening. And hopes.

But the Providence, as the Scots used to say, that looks after bairns and drunkards, has a soft spot for stupid writers. Gradually the story unfolds. And this is good, this is interesting. Every morning the stupid writer gets up with a little more material and she has to write if she is going to discover how the story comes out.

Forget all the writerly delays, the websites to check out, the email to answer - how modern technology has expanded the pencil sharpening and paper straightening of yesteryear. But if I want the end of the story, I have to get to work.
I find this salutary, though it may not be the case with every stupid writer. But I really aspired to be a reader, not a writer, and I must confess that if I knew the whole plot, the victim, the murderer, the exact placement of the crucial chase, the romantic moment, etc, etc, I would never sit down at the computer.

I find such smart certainty boring in the nth degree, while discovery is interesting and gets the juices going. I like to be surprised by everything from a character's sexual orientation to the identity of the killer, though I must admit that I left the latter very long in The Lost Diaries of Iris Weed. I reached 260 pages and was still dithering between two plausible candidates, but at least my work day wasn't boring.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being a stupid writer. Certain classic forms of the mystery are a closed book as far as I am concerned. Even thinking about a locked room puzzle gives me a headache and anything involving railroad or train schedules or precise timing is out of the question. Who can think that far ahead?

Plots can take a long time to resolve, too. I started a story called The Great Choreographer years ago and it only fell into shape earlier this spring. I have a suitcase full of money (strictly literary, of course) that offers all sorts of possibilities but has not yet found a good home. A story that I just finished considered two different victims and a couple of different murderous operandi before it reached its final form. This is not efficient.

Still, stupid writing has its advantages. Characters that develop as they go along are, I think, less liable to be easy stereotypes, and if plots take a while to develop, they sometimes provide nice surprises along the lines of 'I didn't think he'd ever do that!'

In any case, I suspect one writes as one must. And if one writes to know what one is thinking, then one always has a good strong motive to get back to the writing desk.

07 December 2011

At the end of your trope

So, all you writers out there: have you ever been tempted to hang a lampshade on  a weak point in your plot?  Have you ever been reduced to the use of oven logic?  Or do you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about?
If the latter than you might want to discover a cool webpage called TV Tropes.  It is a wiki and, as the home page explains, it is "a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction."  Don't think it is limited to TV, by the way.  There are plenty of examples from literature, movies, comic books, and even video games.

If I have a problem with the execution it is that they love clever names for the tropes, which can make it hard to find the one you are looking for.  (If you find one that is almost what you are looking for, check the related tropes at the bottom.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Absence of Evidence  In mystery fiction this is known as the dog in the night-time. 
Black Best Friend  Doesn't need much explanation, I guess.
Bolivian Army Ending  As in Butch Cassidy.  Nobody here gets out alive.
Bond Villain Stupidity.  I found this one in the index by typing in "Goodbye, Mr. Bond."  The villain (not necessarily in a Bond movie) at long last captures the good guy, sets up an elaborate death trap, and then doesn't stay to see if it works.  The movie Austin Powers mocked this perfectly.
Bus Crash  A character is killed  retroactively, that is, after the actor has left the show (and therefore doesn't get a dramatic death scene).  Most famously, I think, Henry Blake on MASH.
Crazy enough to work  As the wiki noted, this is practically Captain Kirk's middle name.  I hate when it shows up in a story, but what about when it happens in real life?  Apollo 13, anybody?
Lampshade Hanging You have a plot point so weak or unlikely the audience may refuse to bite.  So, illogically, you call their attention to it.  As the page points out, even Shakespeare hung a lampshade or two.
Mr. Exposition  Hello, hero.  Let me tell you everything that has been going on, which you probably know, but the autdience doesn't.
Oven Logic  Old comedy  premise.  We need to cook it faster so double the temperature and half the time!
Red Shirt Army  If you ever watched Star Trek you understand this one.  Why can't the storm troopers ever shoot straight?
Tomato Surprise  A specific kind of twist ending, one that depends on the audience suddenly learning something that some of the characters have known all along.

And finally....
Not worth killing   The bad guy lets the puny mortal go, as not worth his attention.   But what I was looking for and couldn't find was the situation where the hero is about to destroy his career/violate his code by killing the bad guy in cold blood and the side kick says "Don't do it!  He's not worth it!"

I hope you find TV tropes to be worth your time.

06 December 2011


(with a lot of help from Kurt Sercu)

3. 11/22/63 (Scribner, $35)
By Stephen King.   A modest English professor is offered the chance to change history — by preventing the JFK assassination.
Washington Post, description of the number 3 book on the bestseller list, December 4, 2011

*    *    *    *

Add to that sense of ho-humness the fact that the secret in question turns out to be rather murky, and many readers will be left wondering exactly what is “the most dangerous thing” referred to in the title. (Beats me.) 
 Quoted from Maureen Corrigan’s review of Laura Lippman’s “The Most Dangerous Thing,” Washington Post, October 9, 2011

     What do these two quotes from the Washington Post have in common other than referring to two recently published bestsellers?  At least one other thing:  they each contain errors unpardonably obvious to anyone who has actually read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing.  In King’s book the protagonist is a high school English teacher, not a college professor.  And no reader who actually finishes Laura Lippman’s latest novel The Most Dangerous Thing (which I liked a lot) could have the smallest doubt as to what the most dangerous thing is.  That question (and the title) is explicitly explained, for anyone who hasn’t already figured it out, in the last sentence of the book.  (You know me, no spoilers – just telling you where you can find it, not what it is!)

    I am pretty unforgiving about errors such as those discussed above.  I mean, all the journalist assembling the list of bestsellers for the Washington Post had to do was write one correct sentence about 11/22/63.  And all Ms. Corrigan had to do was to actually read the book that she was reviewing, start to finish.  One can be more forgiving, however, when it is Mr. King or Ms. Lippman who get something wrong, or seemingly wrong, during the course of their novels.  These, after all, are not factual reviews, they are works fiction, and they come to us with the established leniency of poetic license. 

    One of the funny things about such seeming mistakes, therefore, is that sometimes they are not errors at all.  Laura Lippman, for example, in an afterward, discusses the liberties she has taken with the real-life town of Dickeyville, Maryland in The Most Dangerous Thing.  And Stephen King is famous for dropping snippets of information into his works that could be historical errors but that could also be references to other King works, usually clues hearkening back to his seven (soon to be eight) volume Gunslinger series.   Notwithstanding this, however, Stephen King can be a bit defensive when it comes to defending his own research. 

    In The Colorado Kid (which, as noted in a previous column, is not my favorite work by King) there is a reference to a Starbucks coffee shop in Denver, Colorado in 1980.  When a USA Today review of the book mentioned that there in fact were no Starbuck stores in 1980 Denver, Mr. King bristled, and posted the following retort on his website:  "The review of  The Colorado Kid in [the October 7, 2005] issue of . . . USA Today  mentions that there was no Starbucks in Denver in 1980. Don’t assume that’s a mistake on my part. The constant readers of the Dark Tower series may realize that is not necessarily a continuity error, but a clue.”

    Hmmm.  Allow me to digress for a paragraph.  For many years my brother and I gave my mother a gag gift as the last gift of Christmas each year.  These were really stupid things – a three foot tall plastic goose that lights up, a kit kat clock, an autographed picture of Dwayne Hickman (“Dobie Gillis” -- remember?).  We always told my mother that each gift was a clue to a secret message that would be revealed over the course of future Christmases.  We continued this silly stunt for twenty five years and every year my mother would fret over what the growing number of “clues” had in common, what they might point to.  Get the picture?  We were just winging it.  No secret message, just stupid disparate gifts.

    Okay – back to the issue at hand.   I have read all of Stephen King’s books, including all of the Gunslinger series, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out how the presence of a Starbucks in 1980 in Denver has anything to do with Roland’s grand quest in the Gunslinger.   So was that Starbucks a clue, or was it an “oops?”

    With all of this in mind, let’s poke around a little in Stephen King’s latest novel 11/22/63.  As I wrote two weeks ago, I think this is a stand-out novel, to my mind the best thing Stephen King has done in over ten years.  And I don't want to detract from the novel by trolling for errors.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with it!

    Given the novel’s time travel theme King in 11/22/63 is called upon to describe and re-create life in the era from 1958 to 1963.  Let’s take a look at how he does on just one aspect of that quest, his repeated references to another of my favorite authors (and characters) Ellery Queen. 

    I suspect that Stephen King is an Ellery Queen fan.  After all, Ellery pops up in many King novels, including in the aforementioned The Colorado Kid.  Indeed, in explaining that there will be no solution offered up in that novel to the mystery that is at its core, the heroine is admonished by one of her mentors that she should not expect Ellery “to come waltzin’ out of the closet” with a solution.  The solution to the mystery in The Colorado Kid remains a mystery to me, but so too the connection, if any, between that Denver Starbucks store and the Gunslinger.

    11/22/63 also contains several references to Ellery Queen, most notably to the NBC series “The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen,” which aired from 1958 through 1959.  The timing of certain events in the novel (I’m carefully avoiding spoilers here) are critically dependent on the timing of an episode of the series that, according to the storyline of the novel, was aired on Halloween night, 1958.  At the first mention of the television show in the novel I wondered whether the Ellery Queen series had, in fact, aired on Halloween night in 1958.  This sent me off to Kurt Sercu’s repository of Queen information, Ellery Queen – a Website on Deduction.  (Kurt’s site was the focus, many will recall, of an earlier article.)  And I was immediately rewarded – according to Kurt’s website on Friday, October 31, 1958 The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, starring George Nader as Ellery presented the following episode:
George Nader as Ellery Queen
Cat of Many Tails
         10/31/58 With John Abbott, Paul Langton
The mayor of New York City calls on Ellery to help solve a series of strangulations for which the police can find no motive but which they believe to be the work of one killer.
The story, based on Queen’s 1949 novel of the same title, is a perfect one for Halloween.

    However, about 100 pages further into 11/22/63 the hero secures a copy of TV Guide to check on the timing of the Halloween broadcast, and there the episode is described as follows:
8 PM, Channel 2:  The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, George Nader, Les Tremayne, “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead.”  A conniving stockbroker (Whit Bissell) stalks a wealthy heiress (Eva Gabor) as Ellery and his father investigate
     What happened to Cat of Many Tails?  Kurt’s website in fact identifies an episode of the series titled “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead,” and that episode otherwise meets the description in King’s book.  Except for one fact:  the episode aired one month later, on November 28, 1958.  “What is going on, here?” I thought.  Then I immediately sent an email across the pond to Belgium posing that same question to Kurt.

    Kurt dove into his archive of Queen documentation and came up with pretty irrefutable evidence that it was, indeed, “Cat of Many Tails” that aired on Halloween in 1958.  First Kurt pointed out that Francis Nevins lists the episode as the one appearing on Halloween in his definitive article "Ellery Queen on the Small Screen" which appeared in The Armchair Detective volume 12, 1979.  Second, the episode is also identified as having aired on Halloween according to the television archives maintained by the Theatre Arts Library at UCLA.  Third, from Kurt’s own archives he uncovered a 1958 NBC press memorandum that also identifies Cat of Many Tails as the Halloween episode.  And fourth, Kurt supplied me with a TV listing from Halloween week, 1958 also identifying Cat of Many Tails as the episode that aired that night. 

Halloween Week 1958
Halloween Week 1959
Another funny thing – 11/22/63 describes that Halloween issue of TV Guide as one “with Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase on the cover.”  This time I hit the internet, and uncovered the actual TV Guide cover for Halloween week of 1958.  It's reproduced on the left, and, as is obvious, it featured George Burns on the cover.  So what about Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase?

   After all of this Kurt and I sort of had a burr under our saddle so we went back to trolling the internet.  Just as the heroine in The Colorado Kid tried to solve her unsolvable mystery, so too Kurt and I got a little obsessed with what was going on back in the 1950s, at least according to King’s view.   Lo and behold, we eventually found the TV Guide cover above on the right.  Yep, it features Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase, and it was published on the week of Halloween.  But Halloween of 1959, not 1958.

    And that’s as far as we got.  So, just like the heroine in the The Colorado Kid, you should not expect Ellery to come “waltzin out of the closet” tying together all of those clues and making sense out of the 1958 TV schedule as set forth in 11/22/63.  Did Stephen King encounter a (minor) researching “oops” that caused him to miss the date of the Ellery Queen episode he refers to by one month, and the date of the cover of TV Guide by one year?  Or is the Gunslinger and his ka-tet sleeping just a bit easier under a desert moon in an alternative 11/22/63 universe where history has been set right and Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase’s Halloween TV Guide cover exists where it was supposed to, in 1958?

Oops?  or Ka?

05 December 2011

Do You See What I See?

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

'Tis getting closer and closer to the holiday season and when I heard the words of the old carol, "Do you hear what I hear?" and "Do you see what I see?" I thought about this magical thing that happens when we write.

We see or hear in our heads what's going on between two or three characters in our story, and...

Then before I can finish that thought I wondered how does a story start for most writers? And I found out it's different for different writers. And even different for different stories or books.

Most of the time, for me, I hear two or three characters talking, maybe even arguing. Maybe one is trying to make a point or explain their reasons for doing something. I try to listen in and figure out if what they're saying is important or if they're just blathering. Usually the best thing is when I can write the dialogue down. On a computer or even by long-hand if I'm not near a keyboard. Other times I may be sitting at my keyboard and the characters start talking and I even "see" what's going on. Almost like a movie or TV show playing in my head. Other times only the words come through and I try to capture them as they play out.

If possible I know who's talking, but there are times when I have no idea who it is or what's going on and I just have to type or write and hope it makes sense before long. That happens when a new character appears in the story. Maybe my detective is working a case and the criminal starts talking. Even if I write it down and even if it's important it may not make the final draft. Because it could just be information I, the writer, need to know and it's not for the detective or the reader to know as yet.

Sometimes I may even act out a scene to prove to myself that it rings true. Years ago in one of my early unpublished novels, I had a scene where a policeman came to the door to tell my character that her police officer husband had been killed.

Well, I've never personally received news like that. I wrote how I thought it might go, but it didn't feel right. Eventually, I walked to my front door, opened it and pretended that two police officers were standing there to tell me the bad news. I could see that it was a man and a woman. I felt my hand rise up to cover my chest, as if something had delivered a hard blow there. I could hear their words but it was not exactly clear in my brain. As I went back to my keyboard, I could only remember a shiny name tag on the male officer's chest and tears glistening on the policewoman's cheeks. Those were the words I wrote and that scene was a good as I could make it at that stage in my writing development.

Another time my female detective character had her hands taped with adhesive tape behind her back. I managed to tape my hands by myself and lie on the floor and try to get my hands free. I couldn't, but what I could do was sit up and to bring my hands in front by twisting my arms and legs and then bit the tape off. I was younger and more limber then.

After I've written dialogue, it generally helps me to read it out loud. Even then it may not sound quite right. Often I send a scene to my daughter via e-mail and she will suggest how the dialogue should go, especially if the characters are a lot younger. Now that I have an alien in my house I can always go to him and have him suggest dialogue to me. He's eighteen and easily knows how today's teens or even younger folks talk.

Anyway you get the idea. Now back to the magic...it honestly is amazing to me that I can sit at my computer in Texas, think of a story, write my manuscript, it then gets turned into a book in NYC or Maine or Southern California and it goes into a bookstore. A Chicago or Miami or Helena, Montana reader goes into the bookstore, buys my book, goes home and begins to read. Lo and behold, he or she hears or sees what I heard and saw and wrote and it all makes sense. If that's not magic then I don't know what else to call it.

I love to read books set in places where I've never been and learn about that place. I love to read books set in places where I have been and recognize the scenery or a location. I love to read books where the main character is like Aleut Detective, Kate Shugak, in a book set in Alaska where I've never been and probably will never be able to visit. To learn that almost everyone travels by airplane or snowmobile was fascinating. To feel the depth of cold and snow. To experience the isolation and loneliness and yet to enjoy the vast beauty of our last frontier state is awesome. I also loved reading about Sweden in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Love that book or hate it, I enjoyed all the little towns and areas that I have visited. To realize that I knew the places mentioned was definitely fun.

To spend time in my imagination that somehow winds up in your imagination when you read my book is definitely magical. Do you hear what I hear...do you see what I see? I surely hope so.

04 December 2011

Mrs. Swann Toasts Mr. Wolfe

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
(photo credit: Reinhard Kargl)
by James Lincoln Warren

On the evening of December 3, 2011, the Wolfe Pack, the international Rex Stout fan organization, gathered for its annual Black Orchid Banquet in New York City, this year celebrating not only his works, but also his 125th birthday. One of the events during the banquet was the presentation of the Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, given to the winner of their annual competition for an original novella written in the tradition of Rex Stout. This year, I was honored to be its recipient for my story Inner Fire. Here are my prepared remarks for the banquet.

The old saw that being a writer is the most solitary of occupations is completely wrong. Honestly, I can’t think of a more social activity, because a writer is nobody without readers, and readers form a community, as this gathering tonight so clearly demonstrates. Along those same lines, Inner Fire would never have succeeded without the advice and feedback of several advance readers, most of whom are accomplished mystery writers themselves. The fine writers who provided that advice were Melodie Johnson Howe, Nora McFarland, Robert Lopresti, Steve Steinbock, and John M. Floyd. Additional thanks are clearly owed to Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, the members of the BONA selection jury, and to my wife Margaret. It would also be utterly remiss of me not to express my gratitude to the founder of the literary feast, the great Rex Stout.

When the BONA was first established a few years ago, Linda invited me to submit something for it. At the time I declined because I couldn’t think of anything good enough, but I paid close attention to the results of the competition in subsequent years. Although the rules of the competition state that the story shouldn’t be derivative of the Nero Wolfe milieu, I found the idea of writing a story using the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin model patently irresistible. (I note that it was irresistible to previous winners, too.)

I realized I needed my own spin on the Wolfe/Goodwin paradigm. So I asked myself, what if I Nero and Archie were women? And what if, instead of living in New York, they lived in my town, contemporary Los Angeles? I thought this concept was brilliant, and I was right to think so. It was so brilliant, in fact, that it had already been done twenty years before.

I mentioned that Melodie Johnson Howe was one of my advisors. In 1990, Melodie gave the world her first novel, The Mother Shadow, featuring Claire Conrad, her Wolfe character, and Maggie Hill, her Archie equivalent, the story taking place in L.A. It’s such an excellent book that it was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Knowing this, especially as Melodie is a dear friend, you might wonder how I had the gall to proceed with my own women-in-L.A. take. Well, I don’t know how I did, except to say that once I got my teeth into the idea, I couldn’t not write it. There could be no question, though, of not bringing Melodie into the loop, because I felt I needed her permission to carry on. So I enlisted her to advise me, hoping she would perceive that my story was almost as much an homage to her as to Rex Stout.

In the sequel, my female Nero and Archie weren’t much like Melodie’s. Erica (that is, my girl Archie) is younger and less cynical than Maggie, and Miss Enola (my female Wolfe) is not at all like Claire except in her analytical genius and immense self-confidence. It wasn’t difficult to separate my creations from Melodie’s at all.

No, the tough part was to make Erica and Miss Enola as credibly and convincingly female as the original Nero and Archie were so steadfastly male. I’m the the kind of guy who likes smoking cigars, watching football games clutching a cold beer, and occasionally playing dealer’s choice low-stakes poker with my friends, so writing male characters is easy for me. Female characters are hard. One of the characters in Inner Fire expresses my conundrum. “The biggest difference between men and women,” he says, “is that women think they understand men. Men know they don’t understand women.” So you can see that given my limitations, I had set myself a daunting challenge.
black orchid
I began by assuming a new identity. The byline on the story is “Jolie McLarren Swann”. That is ostensibly the name of a woman. As you have probably observed, I am not a woman. But if you look carefully at the name, you may discover that if you rearrange the letters, one of the possible results is “James Lincoln Warren”. By an amazing coincidence, that happens to be my name.

Inner Fire’s narrator is a callow and attractive young detective named Erica H. Wooding. By the same amazing coincidence as the byline, that is an anagram of “Archie Goodwin”. The senior stateswoman in the story is named “Enola Fowler”. The letters in her name can be rearranged to read “Nero Wolfe L.A.”

I thought that the anagrams would please the puzzle-minded of the tale’s readers, as well as serving to pay direct, if mildly covert, tribute to Rex Stout.

Erica and Miss Enola are not carbon copies of their progenitors, though, and I worked hard to give them their own voices. I have to say that I am especially proud of Erica, since I am categorically not a 23-year-old woman myself, and personally have very little in common with 23-year-old women, but I think she comes across as who she is. I confess I’m in love with her, but I honestly can tell you that having standards of her own, she would never be in love with me.

I’m more in tune with Miss Enola, a woman of my own age who shares many of my more pronounced prejudices about the world. She’s not so lovable as Erica, but in many ways she’s more interesting. Nora McFarland, another of my readers, pointed out to me that her first name taken by itself is an anagram of “Alone”, and that this is a quality essential to her character.

But of course Miss Enola is not alone. She has Erica to keep her company, even if she spends most of her time in her own head. Mostly, though, she will never be alone as long as there are people who love to read detective stories. I hope that when Inner Fire is published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mysterty Magazine this coming summer, you will all have the opportunity to read it. I wrote it for you, and I am deeply and humbly grateful for the honor you have done me in granting me this award. I tell you from the bottom of my heart that it is one of the brightest highlights of my career as an author of crime fiction.

03 December 2011

Editorial Crimes

by Elizabeth Zelvin

In a recent talk to a group of mystery writers about editing, critique, and craft (“The End Is Just the Beginning”), I ruffled a few feathers among the professional editors present by indicating that I had had some negative experiences in this aspect of getting various manuscripts into print. I salute the many excellent substantive editors who can improve a manuscript’s structure, pace, and clarity, as well as those copy editors whom authors rightly credit with making their writing clean, crisp, and grammatical. I spent fifteen years as a damn good editor myself, back in the days when you could get a decent full-time job in a publishing house shepherding a work “from manuscript to bound book.” Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

I never edited fiction, so I never had to worry about that mysterious and essential ingredient in a damn fine story (please have patience with the “damns,” I’m going somewhere with them), voice. Everybody involved in publishing novels says how important voice is, but it’s remarkable how many seem not to recognize it when they see it or can’t trust the author enough to leave it alone. In a third-person narrative, the authorial voice can be distinctive; in first person, it’s even more crucial. Some crime fiction writers are masters at varying their voice. Ruth Rendell is one: her Inspector Wexford novels sound completely different from the psychological suspense standalones she writes as Barbara Vine. Other successful and popular writers have a voice that works and that readers love, but it seems to be the only voice they have. To my ear, Robert B. Parker’s Sunny Randall sounds exactly like his Spenser.

I am both fond of and grateful to the editor who worked on my forthcoming Death Will Extend Your Vacation, third in the series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. My first-person protagonist is a streetwise New Yorker with a smart mouth and a not too well concealed heart of gold. He used the word “damn” half a dozen times in the course of the book in constructions analogous to the “damn good editor” and “damn fine story” above. My editor, bless her heart, is a lady, and one who knows her grammar. She added “-ed” to every “damn” that Bruce uttered. Bless her even more for not giving me a hard time when I deleted the “-ed” throughout, explaining that Bruce would never have said “a damned fine wake” or “damned insulting questions,” not to mention “damned yellow tape,” “damned boat,” or “whatever damned thing she wants to say,” not in a million years. Being a New Yorker with a smart mouth myself, neither would I. Dr. John Watson, yes. Amelia Peabody, yes. But not me and Bruce (and no, please respect my voice and don’t make that “Bruce and I”).

Luckily, I was able to persuade the editor of an earlier Bruce story not to insist on making Bruce say “not sufficiently far” for “not far enough” and “an alcoholic such as I” for “an alcoholic like me.” I can laugh about these distortions of my character’s voice when I catch them in time. What makes me nuts is when they’re inserted after I’ve signed off on the manuscript (after correcting galleys, in particular), so that I don’t discover them until I see the book in print. There were two in my last novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, that still make me squirm in embarrassment. I’d rather attribute them to the final proofreader than to the editor who I wish had checked her work and consulted me if she wasn’t sure. She did email me when the proofreader asked if I really meant a night security guard on Wall Street to ask my characters to “state your name and who you got the apperntment with.” (“Did you mean ‘appointment’?” “No,” I write back, grinding my teeth and glad we’re not Skyping, “it’s what used to be called Brooklynese.”) Maybe the editor is simply too young. I suspect the issue was sense of humor with one I didn’t catch because she didn’t ask me. It involved a character I’d described on page 34 as follows:

Vinnie frowned. His bushy black eyebrows almost met above a massive beak of a nose. I doubted even a broad smile would make more than a centimeter of breathing room in the middle.

Much later in the book, Bruce and his sidekick Barbara are reviewing possible witnesses and suspects.

“We haven’t talked to his friend Vinnie—the nice one from the funeral,” Barbara said.
“I don’t think he was no nice,” I objected. “I didn’t like his eyebrow.” I waggled mine like Groucho Marx.

Guess what appears on page 191 of the printed book. Yep, “eyebrows.” They went and tromped on my joke.

My final example, from the same book, involves an error, also introduced in the final post-galley proofreading, that in striving for grammar makes a hash of meaning. Instead of describing it, I offer the two versions—the first as submitted and passed through several stages of editing with my approval, the second in print. Let’s see if you can spot what’s wrong.

02 December 2011

How Can a Martian Wax Venusian?

by Dixon Hill

Hi . . . my name is Dixon . . . and I'm a martian.

The litany above may be familiar (if slightly changed) to some of you, if you've attended certain meetings.

I've never actually been to one of those meetings, though I have a relative who's been attending at least once a week for years -- as well as an ex-girlfriend who attended meetings; she and I were very close for a long time.

In the words of Monty Python, however: "And now . . . for something completely different ..."

My name is Dixon ... and I'm a Martian -- because I'm a man.

Men and women are different. I'm not saying one gender is "better" than the other; I'm just saying the two genders are different.

The book Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus points up some of these differences quite well. My wife and I read it together, out loud, years ago, and the information contained helped to greatly strengthen our marriage.

But, I'm not here to write about marriage. I'm here to write about writing -- writing so that readers will understand and appreciate what they've read.

And, here too, men and women -- it seems to me -- are quite different.

Now I know that in his book, John Gray is talking about the planets Mars and Venus, but I thought the artwork I found did a little more to accentuate the differences than pictures of planets would. So what you're looking at are the Venus De Milo (left) currently held in the Louvre, and Mars (right) probably made in the 1st Century, and found at the Forum of Nerva, now held by Capitoline Museums, Rome. The god of war. And the goddess of love.

I also know it's dangerous to speak (or write) in generalities when discussing the idea of cross-gender writing, so let me explain up-front that I know different categories of comprehension cross gender lines. For example: while it's often said that men are more easily visually stimulated than women, I'm perfectly willing to agree that many women are just as stimulated by what they see as any man might be--and vice-versa.

It's also often said that women are more focused on "sharing" information than men are. But, I'm sure there are men out there who also enjoy sharing. I myself have learned, over many years of marriage, not to run for the nearest bunker when my wife starts sharing all over the place.

Instead, I now stand my ground and maybe even share a little back -- assuming I can do so without trying to "fix" anything. (As in my wife's complaint: "I'm just sharing why I'm so frustrated at work! I'm not trying to get you to fix anything, you idiot!")

As you may have surmised, I have a weakness: an inability to fully communicate with women.

I didn't even realize I had this problem until I'd been out of the army for about a year, and volunteered to run the annual PTA carnival at my son's school. My son (our oldest--he's 22 now) was in 3rd Grade at the time.

In the army, I had orchestrated large groups of men to accomplish tactical missions or construction projects. And, I usually had to communicate with those men in a language other than English. Sometimes it was Spanish, a couple times it was Arabic. Once, I used a little Twri (a West African Tribal language -- I don't speak much of it), and occasionally in French. So, maybe you can see why I figured I could easily orchestrate the members of my local PTA to run a slam-bang carnival.

I drew up a carnival plan, based on an Army Operations Order -- the planning format I'm most comfortable with. A few months before the carnival, I held a briefing for the PTA -- complete with handouts and slide show -- so people could decide where they might most advantageously "plug into" the operation.

I was actually speaking to a group of about 98% moms, of course, since this was a PTA meeting. Most of them had never set foot on a military installation, so there were a few shocked looks when I initiated my brief with (what I considered to be) the standard admonition: "As this is a complicated operation, the plan will be presented in stages. Please note any operational concerns, which may arise in your mind, on the notepad provided, and hold all questions until the end. I will entertain a question and answer period after the briefing is complete."

To their credit, following my introduction, they took a presentation that started with "Situation" then continued through "Mission" and ventured through such topics as "Actions on the Objective" -- heavily peppered with time-frame notes couched in military terms such as "D minus 5" (Day of the carnival, minus 5; or in other words: "5 days before we would hold the carnival...") -- Well, they took it all with barely a raised eyebrow.

And, after I had answered each of the first three questions by putting up the slide which immediately followed, the PTA moms seemed to realize they might as well hold their questions until the end of my briefing.

I thought this was because they finally understood what was going on. And, my belief was bolstered by a general agreement afterward, that they had no questions because I seemed to have thought of everything. (Their words; not mine.)

I was slightly concerned, because I'd never presented a briefing in which no one had any questions, before. But, subsequent discussion clearly indicated these women had paid close attention and understood the plan very well. In no time at all, in fact, everyone was organized, and preparations begun.

I didn't realize my glaring error, until the day of the carnival. That's when I noticed two PTA moms hanging streamers, balloons and other decorations. I slapped the side of my head and exclaimed, "Oh, man! I left decorations totally out of the plan! Why didn't you guys say something?" They told me that they thought I'd been too busy arranging for the fire trucks, bouncy house, monkey bridge, etc. to take care of it; so they decided to just do it on their own.

I realized then that I had not only left out an important part of the plan, I had also presented myself in a way that made it impossible for these women to find a way to communicate with me. Somehow, the techniques I'd always relied on to ensure good communications, had opened a chasm between us that these good women couldn't find a way to cross. So, they hadn't tried; they'd just fixed the problem themselves

I was grateful that they covered my oversight, but completely dumb-founded by the communications barrier I'd discovered within myself. And, though I've learned a lot since then, I know I've still got a long way to go. This is why I was so bowled over when I read Deborah's article about her friend, Travis Erwin, a man who writes women's fiction.

I really respect a guy who can do that. I have a hard time writing any stuff that appeals to women. Yet, I know women make up the lion's share of readers, and so struggle mightily to overcome this obstacle in my way.

This is why I change my story if my wife says something like, "You don't describe the women in this very well. I know how big their breasts are, what their hair and eye color are, and how long their legs are -- but you don't really tell me what they look like. From your description, all I can see is a pair of legs with a set of eyeballs on top, and a hunk of hair tossed over it. Plus maybe a breast or two, but I'm not sure where they're attached. I mean, are the breasts mounted on top of the legs, and the eyeballs stuck on the ends of the breasts like some sort of gross nipples?"

And, this is also why I've occasionally tried to write romance -- because I'm bad at it, and want to get better. And, it seems to me, to be a type of fiction primarily geared toward women readers, an audience I'd really like to learn to write for.

Finding a way to move this women-centric concept into an action-adventure story, however (as many mysteries I write seem to be) often proves daunting. Largely because I'm not a woman, and have a hard time writing things from a female perspective. (Heck! As you can see from what my wife says, I seem to have a hard time even from a man's perspective ... at least from a woman's point of view. But, that's a POV that's pretty important to me.) So, I keep plugging away, trying to find new and different ways to do it.

I found an interesting idea, the other day, called The Final Girl theory. This theory seems to be based on slasher movies, such as Friday the Thirteenth, or Halloween, and is the brainchild of Carol Clover, who wrote about it in her book: Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

I've ordered the book through interlibrary loan, but not yet read it. However, I have done a little research on the theory. The idea here, seems to be that the modern slasher movie starts out from the killer's POV, but later switches to that of the female who will eventually be the sole survivor. Thus, in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis is "The Final Girl." And, as such, she's supposed to be (a) virginal, or at least virtuous, (b) smart, (c) curious, (d) vigilant and (e) possibly is related to the killer. [b,c & d are supposed to help her be the "investigating consciousness" of the film. Finally: at the end, she takes up a weapon -- thereby, theoretically "masculinizing" herself through the weapon's phallic symbology.

I've been looking at this idea, and thinking that it might provide a doorway, of sorts, that I might use to access an ability to write a woman into a believable character. The only problem is: I don't find it terribly believable.

To begin with, I can't remember the last time I wrote anything in which I thought: "Now this female character -- she's a virgin." And, as for be masculinized by taking up a weapon ...

Well, that makes me think of a certain woman I studied Arabic with in the army. She'd been a cop in San Francisco before enlisting, and was tough as nails. In fact, I'd trust her cover my flank in a fire-fight or beer-hall brawl any day of the week. But, when we went out on the town, she'd show up in clothes that displayed a figure that would've made many a man whistle, if -- to paraphrase the great Groucho -- it wasn't so hard to whistle with your tongue hanging out. My friend was NOT masculine. But she was tough with her fists -- and good with a weapon.

No. I don't equate women with whimpieness. But, I'm still left working my way slowly toward my goal of writing in a way that truly does appeal to women readers. So, when the book gets here, I'll read it. Maybe it will make more sense to me, or help me in some other way.

Meanwhile, I'll try (again) to attend the local meeting of the Sisters in Crime. They've told me before that they'd welcome me. They put out anthologies I'd love to get a crack at. And, I'm sure I'd learn a lot from having some of them look over my stuff.

But, as a man I feel like an interloper. I mean, this is an organization created to help women writers get published. And, I'm a man. Further: After consideration, I finally decided against visiting Frederick's of Hollywood for one of those inflatable bras Fran writes about in her books; my beard pretty much ruins that brilliant disguise idea.

So ... I'll try it in my own clothes; no disguise.

Maybe this time, I'll actually make it from my car to the meeting. Last time I sat in the parking lot for thirty minutes, then just drove home. I worry about being a bull in a china shop and creating PTA Moms Redux.

Wish me luck!

01 December 2011

'tis the Season

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

'tis the season of stress. The news is filled with greedy shoppers elbowing their way to do hand-to-hand combat for the toy everyone wants this year. Prepared to get the best deal means being armed with pepper spray and perhaps trampling a grandpa in your way. Students are in a frenzy trying to finish up reports and finals before being released for the holidays. Moms are preparing for a return of the kids being home 24/7 with nothing to do but finds new ways to irritate their siblings. Writers are pretty much the same all year with the stress of finding a new twist on crimes as old as mankind.
As I sit safely in my home with little of my own shopping done and a manuscript half-formed in my mind, my thoughts wander to ruthless criminals preparing for their busiest season, too. Unlocked doors have a bounty of gifts under a tree just for the taking. Each burglar's booty will be a surprise present for someone. Identity theft is on the rise and cyberspace is the New Frontier. Every vehicle on the road is ripe for a carjacking experience to spice up the Family Newsletter this year.
Crime is never out of season and mystery writers seem to know that as much as a voracious readership. Mysteries hold a perpetual spot on my personal Want List. Fortunately, I'm not alone.
How many mystery books will be sold this season? With the popularity of e-readers, probably more novels will be downloaded than ever.
A few years ago, I was involved in an anthology of holiday crime stories to benefit Toys for Tots. THE GIFT OF MURDER was the brainchild of Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press. Edited by John M. Floyd, the anthology was a collection of stories by authors you just might recognize: J. F. Benedetto, Stefanie Lazar, Stephen D. Rogers, Anita Page, Randy Rawls, Earl Skaggs, Peg Herring, Bill Crider, Carolyn J. Rose, Elizabeth Zelvin, Barb Goffman, Austin S. Camacho, Sandra Seamans, Steve Shrott, Gail Farrelly, Hershel Cozine, Kris neri, Marian Allen and me. Though we shared the same theme of holiday crimes, the stories -- like the authors -- are vastly different.
My contribution was deemed "disturbing" by one reviewer which made me smile. My intention was to pen a more naughty than nice story this time around.
As for now, I am content to concoct a murder or two, an arson case and maybe a posioning. It really releives my stress.