26 August 2014

The Long of the Short of It

 "It was a dark and stormy night..."
"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." 
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
"Call me Stephen."

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it's only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I've been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I've been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn't concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it's hit a roadblock. But that's another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character's occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.
I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It's like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it's you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel's plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story's original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I'm not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I'd like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn't set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven't I now finished writing it..? Because I've been working on the book's opening.
Stephen's Writing Flowchart

I define "opening" as a book's first quarter. For me, it's the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter -- someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I'm a slow learner.

I've written the book's opening about six times. I say about, because I've lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: "No" (like that "little man" inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story's origin as a short story -- it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: "No."

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That's a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn't work. And despite my knowing it didn't, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: "No."

The chapter didn't work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn't want anyone to know anything about him. He's the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): "No."

A rereading of Stephen King's On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don't keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I've read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King's book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging -- he actually does things, and we get inside his head -- the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I'm about two weeks out from finishing the book's first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I've learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don't write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn't spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: "Och, we'll see about that, laddie!" (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.

Be seeing you!

Bonus Quiz: Can you name the books each of the opening sentences (at the top of this piece) are taken from?

25 August 2014

Zero Tolerance or Zero Intelligence?

I've often laughed at some of the "crimes" in Florida that Leigh writes about, but last week has made me as embarrassed by South Carolina as much as Florida should make Leigh and some others.

The Big Bang Theory characters– all above
average intelligence except Penny
It happened in Summerville, SC, a small town not too far from the coast.  I spent a wonderful summer there years ago as a drama consultant when their Talented and Gifted summer program produced a musical I'd written.  At that time, the people seemed friendly and though they weren't of The Big Bang Theory intelligence, they didn't seem to be idiots either.

Alex Stone
Imagine my surprise when the news plastered pictures of a sixteen-year-old Summerville student locally, regionally, and nationally.  The young man, Alex Stone, was assigned to write a few sentences about himself and a status as though he were posting on Facebook. In the status, Stone wrote a fictional story stating that he'd killed his neighbor's "pet dinosaur" with a gun.

As soon as the teacher saw the word, "gun," she reported it to school officials who called law enforcement to search Stone's locker and book bag.  No guns or weapons of any kind were located, but Stone was handcuffed and arrested for arguing that he meant the whole thing to be funny.  This was interpreted as "being disruptive." He was suspended for the rest of the week during the first few days of the school term.

Could this be the dinosaur Alex wrote about?
Having taught in an inner-city school where I once took a straight-edged razor from a ten-year-old, I'm pretty much in favor of zero tolerance, but I am also in favor of student creativity and a little common sense on the part of authorities.

Alex Stone's mother has hired a lawyer and states that the school didn't call her and tell her what was happening. If they had, she would have gone there and suggested they simply make Alex write a different paper for the assignment. In fact, the school didn't contact her at all.  She first learned about her son's difficulties that day from law enforcement after his arrest.
I'm not saying Pop Tarts are good for your health,
but should this be cause for suspension?

To me, this incident bumps the Pop Tart gun suspension from the throne as most absurd zero tolerance suspension.  If you've forgotten about that event, an eight-year-old was suspended in May, 2013, for chewing his Pop Tart into a gun shape. Thank heaven that one wasn't in South Carolina.

I have a major problem with the fact that the arrest and suspension are going into Alex Stone's permanent records and his photo has been shown all over news media.  In no report did I see the name or photo of the teacher who reacted to this paper as "a threat" because she saw the word 'gun.'  

Personally, if I were his teacher, I would have told Alex how creative and imaginative his assignment was, but cautioned him about the extremes to which some people take zero tolerance.  The only way I would have seen his assignment as "threatening" was if the he'd called me a dinosaur before writing the paper or if students were specifically given a list of "forbidden words" for writing prior to the assignment. (Just think about what could have been on that list.)

My teen-aged grandson and I discussed the numerous news reports about this incident. His response:  "Using a dinosaur as the victim made it obvious his paper was creative fiction." He paused, thought a minute, and then added, "If zero tolerance means the word 'gun' can't be included in anything in schools, they need to throw away the dictionaries and severely censor school computers and I-pads."

Once again, I'm left wondering how and why fiction sells so well when real life is sometimes far more absurd.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

24 August 2014

Escape Artists

When I was a kid with a lot of bad stuff going on, I made a magazine rack purchase that would rock my insular teenage world. But first, a word about superheroes.

My dad, 6'4 and 240 pounds, was literally a tower of strength. Examples abounded: During a blizzard on the way to my world debut with my mother in labor, their car slid off a remote rural byway. Dad waded into the deep snow of the ditch and shouldered it back up onto that ice-slicked country road. Another time, to save a guy under a tractor, legend says he lifted nearly 1100 pounds.

He was smart, a voracious reader, largely self-taught, a great marksman, patient, big-hearted, gentle with children and animals of all sizes, and he sided with minorities, the disadvantaged, and those in need. Women loved him, especially my mother. He taught us boys morality and life lessons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were living with a real-life superhero.

Except… superheroes are supposed to be invulnerable.

One evening, a Ford station wagon in the wrong lane smashed into him in a head-on collision. His chest reportedly snapped not the steering wheel, but the steering column. The impact shattered the frontal lobe of his skull.

The accident was bad, very bad. When my mother realized he’d be unconscious for months, possibly forever, she boarded my brothers with my grandmother and a family friend. For a while, I still rode the schoolbus out to the farm to milk and feed the livestock. When winter set in and my mother decided to get rid of the last of the stock, I felt bereft. I'd lost purpose.

Books had always been an escape. Our little town was too small to house a library and I’d already ravaged everything our school offered worth reading. From adults, I filched copies of the Mikes: Mike Hammer, Mike Shayne, and Mike Nomad. Their adventure and soupçon of sex was titillating, but I was running out of reading material.

Doc Savage
Many such as my father and James Lincoln Warren enjoyed Doc Savage, but I couldn’t. The problem was Savage was too perfect, especially compared to his aides: The golden-eyed protagonist was smarter than the smartest, stronger than the strongest, faster than the fastest… In fact, much of Doc’s time was spent rescuing his own squad. What good were they?

Escape Artists

I turned to comics, which were controlled by a censor organization called the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was fueled by McCarthy-era Senate hearings and Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. The book convinced parents (possibly including my own mother) that comic books were a subversive evil that, if not stamped out entirely, should be rigidly controlled. Wertham was right, of course, comic books were delightfully subversive and could potentially provide a spark to make children think.

DC then dominated the comic book world. DC, which originally stood for Detective Comics, should not to be confused with Dell Comics that specialized in actual 'wholesome' funnies and counted among their licensees Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, Walter Lantz, Hanna-Barbera, and the Lone Ranger and Tarzan series.

You probably know many of the classic DC characters, their most famous being Superman and Batman. Superman was okay, strong and smart. Well, sort of smart: He seemed to prefer the shallow, groupie-type Lois Lane to the more caring Lana Lang who liked Clark for himself.

Batman, appearing in Detective Comics, was a stretch. With no detectives in sight, Batman’s main superpower appeared to be bottomless buckets of money and an obsession with bats. Like all other superheroes and heroines, his chest was approximately 300% larger than the average person's rib cage. His little buddy Robin, decked out in leftover off-Broadway garish costumes, seemed to do little more than pedantically cheer Batman on. “You show them, Caped Crusader!”

Another writer described DC characters as the Pat Boones of the graphics novel world– clean-cut and rather dull. Deflecting speeding bullets and emotions, their perfect protagonists led detached Stepford lives. Theirs were comics without comics.

DC endured competition grudgingly: EC (Entertaining Comics), Timely Comics (later to be known as Atlas), and the broad-spectrum Charlton Comics, later assimilated along with Fawcett and Dell by DC.

The Real Villains

Judgment Day
Given their bent toward social and political issues, Entertaining Comics particularly chafed under the rigid restrictions of the CCA, without whose approval they couldn’t find national distribution. Once when the CCA told EC’s publisher he couldn’t use a negro as the main character in a story. William Gaines famously exploded, telling the CCA that was the whole point of the parable, a story you can read here.

Afterwards, a disgusted Gaines turned his back on comics and founded, as you’re sure to know, Mad Magazine.

original Marvel
In 1939, Timely (Atlas) Comics featured a wise-cracking superhero called the Torch. Although Timely used 'Marvel' more as a series title than an imprint, the cover used the words “Marvel Comics”. Later on, small letters MC would appear on many covers of this line.

Timely/Atlas successfully copied the business and publication models of rival DC, but the publisher took a creative tangent. They sometimes portrayed monsters and personated troubled characters as superheroes, one of them an afflicted physicist, Bruce Banner, who in times of emotional stress would become a monstrous green-toned giant with anger issues, and somehow managed to do the wrong thing the right way. Marvel cast scientists and other very smart people in rôles of both good guys and bad guys, not so much a departure from other publishers but giving more of an emphasis.

Bitten by the Bug

So there I was, a kid at loose ends, separated from family, father in a coma, mother staying with him on the other side of the world, forty or so miles away. I turned from reading trashy adult novels to comic books. One afternoon, I picked up a very different one that would become a cult publication.

Its main character was a near-sighted, very smart whiz-kid, an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle. Although he admired one girl from afar, he was shy and bullied by bigger, meaner kids. Then, a scientific field trip changed everything. The boy sufferd a bite by a radioactively-infected arachnid.

The bite stung and swelled, but the boy discovered that his vision improved and he grew stronger, so strong that he earned extra money appearing as a masked wrestler. He remained withdrawn and once his bullies were convinced he wasn't one to mess with, he settled into a quiet existence, satisfied to earn a few dollars as a kind of a television reality star.

Perhaps too quiet and satisfied: One evening when he was leaving the television studio, he ignored a security guard who asked his help to stop a fleeing thief. Upon returning home, he saw police and an ambulance at his house; a man had just robbed and killed his beloved Uncle Ben.

Angry and in pain, the boy donned his homemade wrestling costume and tracked down the man who killed his uncle only to discover it was the thief he’d earlier refused to help catch. The last panel contained the caption “With great power must come great responsibility.”

The boy of course became Spiderman who, unlike other superheroes, had trouble balancing his secretly heroic life, his job, his schoolwork, and his responsibility helping Aunt May with their strained finances. He was like any other young adult dropped in that situation, up to his ears in unforeseen headaches.

There’d never been a comic book hero like him before. Adults assumed the attraction of Spiderman’s Peter Parker lay in his teenage youthfulness, something kids could identify with. That may have been partially true, but Stan Lee developed something more important– characterization. I wasn’t a writer yet, but I understood what set this character apart from the competition.


Fantastic Four
The snappy bickering between the Fantastic Four’s wiseass Human Torch and the brooding Thing were humorous, but Spiderman so overshadowed other characters I rarely bothered to follow them.

DC and Marvel developed their own universes and then alternate universes. Characters died and were brought back to life. Series went through ‘reboots’. I grew impatient and then I grew up (supposedly) and my brother Glen took over my early Spiderman collection.

At a time when my friend Steve and I were both dimeless and dameless, we sometimes visited the local theatres to watch one of the Ice Age flicks or Monsters Inc. He’s a graphic artist and my background was computing so our movie conversations would run along the lines of, “Wow, did you notice how they animated those strands of fur?” “Yeah, and notice the 3-D shadowing?”

Captain America
Steve manages to simultaneously be more of a kid and more grown up than I. He loves the superhero movie franchises, especially Marvel’s. Beyond Spiderman, the WW-II historical Captain America, and those very dark Batman reels, I’m considerably more tepid, but I see writing lessons in these films.

Critics didn’t much like the Fantastic Four film for which Jessica Alba was nominated for a Razzie Award. Michael Chiklis was good as the Thing, but I pondered why I didn’t like the movie. I concluded that the overall plot seemed unfair, four against one, the F4 against one villain. A supposedly epic saga demanded that if anything, the odds should be stacked against the good guys. [Note to self: a hero’s worth is only as great as the massed evil of his nemeses.]


Steve celebrated another birthday last week, and our small circle of friends gathered for dinner and a movie. He chose Guardians of the Galaxy.

Knowing nothing about it, I looked up a headline and muttered, “WTF? Vin Diesel as a tree? Rocky Rac…” Well, never mind what I thought but I slouched into the theatre knowing nothing about it and not particularly optimistic.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Unexpectedly, it… blew… me… away. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The best part was the characterization, both good guys and bad. And dialogue that was both funny and poignant. And heart, the movie had heart. For one thing– pardon the pun– Vin Diesel’s bark was better than his bite.

The film parodies superhero canons. A minor character, Rhomann Dey, says about the antihero Quill, “He’s also known as Star Lord.” “Who calls him that?” “Himself, mostly.”

Drax is a very literal character, incapable of understanding oblique references. He tells Quill, “Do not ever call me a thesaurus.” When Rocket explains that metaphors go over his head, Drax says “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast; I would catch it.”

Gamora, the heroine attracted to Quill, tells him, “I am not some starry-eyed waif to succumb to your… your… pelvic sorcery.”

Villains make or break otherwise good movies and Ronan, devilishly intimidating, is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, never mind a cavernous hall of doom.

And there’s Yondu who kidnaps Quill when a child. He’s sort of ambiguously bad, which makes the rôle interesting. Plus he has a cool toy, a golden arrow with a mind of its own.

The main hero in the story, Quill a/k/a Star Lord, learns to grow up, shoulder responsibility, survive and even thrive, thanks to his dying mother. My dad… that was a near thing. Many months later, he wheeled out of the factory-authorized repair shop dented and battered, as one tends to be when clobbered by two tons of Michigan steel. Whether I’ve grown up is debatable, but for progress in that direction I give a nod to superheroes of all stripes.

Rotten Tomatoes says 92% of critics like the film. See the movie: You can study the dialogue and characterization… or you can simply enjoy the show.

23 August 2014

Play It Again

My home office, as you might imagine, is stuffed with books. Two of the walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves loaded with hardcover novels, and an unfortunate number of books and story manuscripts are usually piled on the floor and all other flat surfaces.

My wife has said she's afraid to come in without a machete and a hard hat (I tidied things up a bit before taking the photo shown here), and she remains convinced that the weight of all my reading material is one reason we had cracks in our foundation years ago. But what can I say? There's something oddly comforting and peaceful about being surrounded by books.

A friend asked me recently why I have so many. He says he understands why I buy them--I can't seem to wait for the library, or for the paperback versions--but why keep them? My standard answer (that I sometimes re-read them) is only partially true. The real answer is that, God help me, I just can't make myself part with most of my books. I like being able to look up from my computer anytime I want to and see them there, and recall the pleasure it gave me to read them. It's one reason I own more printed books than e-books. I like to touch them and feel them and smell them.

The second time around

The fact is, I often do read them again, especially if my un-read cupboard is bare or unpromising. I chain-read the way folks used to chain-smoke: I light up a new one off the butt of the one I just finished, with scarcely a pause in between. And I often find myself remembering some little something I liked in a book long ago and going back and finding that chapter or that passage and reading it again. (I know, I know . . . that's weird. But it's true.)

I do the same thing with movies. I also own DVDs, you see, a lot of them, and I sometimes watch them over and over again. I was thinking about that the other day, and a strange thing occurred to me:

The movies I re-watch the most often are the ones with great soundtracks.

Mad for music

Several years ago I wrote a column for Criminal Brief called "Strike Up the Band," about movie music. Writing that piece was fun for me, because even though I am no music expert and am only an amateur musician, I dearly love movie scores. (Former mystery blogger James Lincoln Warren and I have spent hours e-discussing this subject.) I honestly believe the right kind of music can not only make a bad movie good, it can make a good movie great and a great movie unforgettable.

But why watch a film again, one might ask--unless it's a musical--in order to hear the music? Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to just buy or download the soundtrack and listen to it while doing something else? Sure it would. I do that too. But what I really like is hearing the music along with seeing the action on the screen. That kind of thing was so important to some directors, like Hitchcock and Sergio Leone and others, that they often filmed scenes to fit the already-written music, rather than doing it the other way around.

Perpetual emotion

I doubt that anyone could say he or she didn't brush away a tear during the final theme of Gone With the Wind, when the camera pulled slowly back from the silhouette of Scarlett under the live oak to reveal Tara in the background--or get goosebumps from the scene where Charles Bickford and Charlton Heston and all their men ride into Blanco Canyon in The Big Country. Without that blaring symphonic music, those great moments would have lost much of their impact. 

For anyone who might be interested, here is a quick list of movies (excluding musicals) that I have seen several times--and will certainly watch again in the future--primarily because of their soundtracks:

Once Upon a Time in the West -- music by Ennio Morricone

Psycho -- Bernard Hermann The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones

Superman -- John Williams Cool Hand Luke -- Lalo Schifrin Legends of the Fall -- James Horner

The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith Dick Tracy -- Danny Elfman The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand

The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach The Molly Maguires -- Henry Mancini Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer The Natural -- Randy Newman Amelie -- Yann Tiersen The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel King of Kings -- Miklos Rozsa Shane -- Victor Young

Signs -- James Newton Howard The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti Escape From New York -- John Carpenter The Godfather -- Nino Rota A Summer Place -- Max Steiner The Sting -- Marvin Hamlisch The High and the Mighty -- Dmitri Tiomkin Lonesome Dove -- Basil Poledouris Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre The Big Country -- Jerome Moross Forrest Gump -- Alan Silvestri

Somewhere in Time -- John Barry

Closing notes (pun intended)

I included only one score by each composer, but I've found that I like almost anything by John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith. (Several by Barry--The Lion in WinterBody HeatGoldfingerOut of Africa, The Ipcress FileSomewhere in TimeDances With Wolves--are among the best soundtracks I've ever heard.) Of those five composers, I think Williams is the only one still alive and working.

Please add your favorites to this off-the-top-of-my-head list. If you do, I'll happily fetch them from my stacks or grab them via Netflix and give them another look-see (and listen-to).

Question: Do any of the rest of you suffer from this addiction to movies and movie music? (I know Stephen Ross and Jeff Baker do.) If so, I warn you, it can be an embarrassment to friends and family.

Excuse me--I think I feel the urge to go watch the opening credits of Top Gun . . .

22 August 2014

Bang, You're Busted

At some time or other, in the back of every criminal's mind lurks those dreaded words, "You're under arrest." He hopes to never hear any form of speech which includes himself and the word arrest in the same sentence, but every time he breaks the law he realizes that the possibility exists. And, he never knows when the phrase may be spoken. These fateful words could sear his ears in the middle of his criminal action or even years later, assuming the statute of limitations has not yet run.
Our criminal might be a mastermind who has carefully plotted out his crime and kept a very low profile in order to reduce his exposure and therefore the risks he runs, but sooner or later, he has to deal with other people. Therein lies one of his greatest dangers. You see, a counterfeiter needs someone to lay off his fake paper. A career thief needs a fence to receive the stolen goods. The fence in turn needs customers to purchase those same stolen goods. An embezzler has to deal with and fool auditors and supervisors. An inside trader has to get his valuable information from someone inside the business. And yes, even a murderer has to deal with someone, if not the person from whom he acquired his contract or murder weapon, then at least the victim of his crime.

In the case of conspiracies and RICO laws, it takes time for investigators and prosecutors to assemble and correlate all the needed witnesses and other evidence before presenting everything to a grand jury for indictment and subsequent arrest warrants. These type of indictments cast broad nets which may be able to roll up entire criminal organizations. Just when the criminal thinks his exposure to a particular crime in the past is safely put to bed and he can forget about it, he finds himself and his buddies swept up by the law. What's a smart guy to do and who can he trust?

The truth is, if you are a criminal, you can't trust anyone. You can't trust a spouse or other relative, your life-long best friend, the members of whatever organization you all swore allegiance to, not even the anonymous but intriguing person you met on the internet, much less the stranger your trusted associate just introduced you to. Naturally, your associate vouches for the guy. None of these people can be trusted, as many a convicted felon has found out to his chagrin. It seems an unhappy, pressured and/or betrayed spouse will give you up in a heartbeat. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You may have long forgotten a particular incident, but your relatives may still be harboring a long-time grudge for the bad you once did them. As for your life-long best friend, if it comes down to you or him, he may decide it's going to be you. And, let's face it, the mafia has changed. Omerta is out the window. The big bosses didn't want to do big time, so they rolled on everybody. Bike gangs preach brotherhood, but the top dogs only look out for their own welfare. That anonymous guy on the other end of the computer keyboard could be anybody, even a vice cop. And that hard-looking stranger you just asked to kill your spouse, boss or worst enemy, how many videos of those meetings with incriminating statements end up on television news programs for the general viewing public? Don't those criminals ever watch television or somehow keep up with current events in their field of endeavor these days?

Some of the most embarrassed criminals are the ones caught in undercover operations. They have bought so far into the U/C guy's story that when it comes time for their arrest, their disbelief is interesting to watch. Some reactions have ranged from, "Are they arresting you, too?" to "Does this mean we're not going to Mexico" to the outright "I don't believe you." These defendants are the ones who usually plead out rather than have their stupidity revealed in open court.

And yet, the next generation of criminals is coming of age. Even though they have the opportunity to hear about recent and past arrests on television, see similar articles on the internet involving all types of crime, potential defendants don't steer away from making the same mistakes their predecessors did.

That leaves me wondering.

Are these people optimists in their thinking and planning for their crimes?

Are they wading in the shallow end of the gene pool?

Or do we just catch the stupid ones?

21 August 2014

Say It With Me:"Hybrid Author"!

by Brian Thornton

 (Disclaimer: the following is OPINION only, and represents the views of no one or no thing save the author)

Unless you've been hiding under a rock lately,  you've likely heard about the Amazon-Hachette War.

(For two different takes on it, one of them favorable to Hachette, the other, a Washington Post piece favorable to Amazon-unsurprising in light of the fact that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos OWNS the Washington Post!– click these links)

And now you get my take–long on notions and short on data (if you've made it this far, I trust you to be able to use the internet to research your own metrics and draw your own conclusions). So here it is.

It doesn't matter.

Oh, I'm not saying that it won't have an impact, and that millions of dollars aren't at stake. I'm not saying that some people don't have reason for concern.

I'm saying it doesn't matter to me, and likely, it won't matter to you.

The internet (there's that word again) is littered with pieces exhorting you to care one way or the other (and right now the tilt of the spin seems to be headed in Hachette's direction). "Publishers are important," says one, and on the other side of the coin, authors who are against Amazon's practices effectively limiting Hachette's sales “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

I agree with science fiction author John Scalzi, who has sums up the sane author positionon the conflict nicely when he says,"Authors: Amazon is not your friend. Neither is any other publisher or retailer. They are all business entities with their own goals, only some of which may benefit you. When any of them starts invoking your own interest, while promoting their own, look to your wallet."

Which brings us back to my conclusion above: it doesn't matter to me one iota who wins this "battle." This squabble between rival business models "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (With apologies to the shade of Thomas Jefferson).

Look, I've had a publisher. All but one of my nine books are still very much in print with that publisher. It is highly unlikely that I shall ever again sign a deal with that publisher.



They want me to continue to write nonfiction that suits them. I want to write pretty much exclusively fiction from here on out.

I've got a great agent, who thinks she can sell my current W-I-P, once it's completed (shooting for October 1!). If she can, great. I'm only too happy to take the right "traditional" book deal.

If not, I'll commission a line edit and a smokin' book cover and self-pub it, using whatever combination of Lightning Source/Create Space/Smashwords/Amazon et. al. that works best for me.

And then I'll get to work on the next one.

I am definitely going to self-publish a collection of my short stories (half previously published, the other half new content) at some point in the next year. It makes sense to do that. After all, one of the wonderful side-effects of the current technological age in which we live is that e-publishing has helped revitalize the short story, and brought the novella and novellette formats back from the dead!

What's not to love about that?

Look, I'm not saying this Amazon/Hachette thing isn't a big deal. It is.

It's just not to me.

After all, I'm someone with one foot in the traditional publishing world who also is looking to put his other foot into the self-publication end of the pool, and thus I fall into the category of author many folks call a "hybrid author." (I'm unsure who coined the phrase. The first person I heard use it was wunderkind spec fiction author Chuck Wendig.–And if you don't already read his blog, give it a looksee. The guy is definitely worth a read!).

And the two keys to being a successful hybrid author are adaptability and a willingness to be unsentimental in one's view of the publishing business as just that: A BUSINESS.

Like I said, I've had a publisher. They didn't offer me money for my books, nor pay me upon completion out of some benevolent impulse. They thought they could make a buck.

And once ebooks began to hit, I wrestled my publisher into a higher royalty rate for my ebooks. I know many authors who have tried and failed to do this. Why was I successful?

Because at the time I saw the promise of epublishing more clearly than my publisher did. Were I still writing for them, I doubt I could get the favorable royalty rate I currently enjoy on several of my titles at all, or least not without vastly more of a struggle than was the case last time around.

And Amazon? "Friend of the author?"


To me they're no different than Microsoft in '90s and WalMart in the '00s. They've got a wildly successful business model that is allowing them to corner a vast chunk of a particular market.

So what?

Like the "permanent Republican majority" of Tom DeLay, these sorts of attempts to make anything about the marketplace "permanent" are invariably doomed to failure.

After all, Microsoft's leveraging of its Windows operating system has not exactly run competition like Apple (and now Google!) out of business. That goes double for WalMart (and newsflash, Target actually gives its workers benefits!).

I'll believe that Amazon is able to "permanently" corner the book distribution business when they've managed to do it for fifty years.

In the end it all comes down to this: it's capitalism 101. Businesses abhor competition. It's consumers that love it, and as long as they continue to look for the best possible deal, there's going to be some start-up out there willing to try to give it to them, all in the quest to be the next Amazon. Or Apple. Or Google. Or WalMart. Or Target. Or...or...or.

A friend who has enjoyed enormous success as a hybrid author said it best to me just the other day: "However this plays out, I am prepared to continue to write and publish in whichever manner it continues to be to my advantage to do so."

And that's what I'm counting on, and why the current snowball fight between two rich, powerful, completely self-interested entities doesn't really matter a hill of beans to me.

Welcome to the Age of the Hybrid Author, my friends!

20 August 2014

In praise of phrase

by Robert Lopresti

Back in July I wrote about some new uses of words.  Since then I've noticed some phrases that I want to talk about, and most of them, oddly enough, were coming out of my own mouth.

For starters, I recently called an HMO office and got a recorded message that started something like this:  "Thank you for calling XXX. Payment for all services is due at the time of the appointment.  We take cash, check, or credit card.  If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 911--"

I thought about the order of those remarks and said: "Well, that's nailing your flag to the mast."

Jack Crawford statue
Jack Crawford monument
photo credit: Craigy144, Wikipedia
Which it is, but where does that phrase come from?  (It is sometimes given as nailing your colors (or colours) to the mast, colors being a nautical word for flag.)

It turns out to be a very specific flag, and a very specific mast. In 1797 the English navy fought the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown.   The Dutch were the most powerful naval force in Europe at the time and they set out to prove it.  Admiral Adam Duncan was leading the British forces from the ship Venerable.  Its mast was shot down, taking the admiral's flag.  Since lowering your flag is a sign of surrender both sides watched to see what would happen next.

A sailor named Jack Crawford promptly climbed up what was left of the mast and nailed the flag to the top.  With this bit of daring for inspiration the English went on to win.  By the time the ship reached port Crawford was a hero.  (And like far too many war heroes, he drank himself to death.)

The phrase has two meanings: Crawford's, which is refusal to surrender, and mine, which means, showing your true principles.

And speaking of principles, one of mine is that you shouldn't claim someone said something they didn't.  Doesn't sound controversial, but all over the web you will find bogus quotations.  

Not long ago I saw a picture on Facebook that showed an unflattering shot of Oprah Winfrey, with a pretty dumb quote attributed to her.  Next to her is a flattering photo of Dr. Ben Carson with a witty reply to her comment.  It was set up as if this had been a genuine conversation, but was it?

My immediate reaction: "I don't carry any water for Oprah, but that sounds awfully pat."

You can guess where this is going, right?  To carry water for means to perform menial or unpleasant tasks for someone, presumably because you agree with them on some principle or political point.  It seems to date back to the seventies and is assumed to be based on the water boy, one of the lowest ranked of a team's staff.

But what about the word pat?  It has many meanings, of course, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that by the 1580s it already meant fitting, readily, opportunely. 

Which is close to the way I meant it, but not quite.  Merriam-Webster nails it: suspiciously appropriate.
photo credit: Nancy W Beach (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Now, here is a pop quiz.  Please fill in the missing word of each phrase:

1.  I don't care how the argument is settled.  I don't have a dog in that ________.

2.  He said I was good for my age, which I took as a _______-handed compliment.

If you said you don't have a dog in that race you are in the majority, according to Google.  127,000 uses of that phrase appear in the Great All-knowing Search Engine.  118,000 uses prefer  fight, which is the way I have always heard it.  I can't help thinking that race is a later euphemism.

As for the compliment, if you said back-handed the Googleocracy supports you.  There are 678,000 examples, compared to to 398,000 for left-handed.
Personally  I prefer left-handed and I am nailing my flag to the mast, southpaw style.

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI

When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?
Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

18 August 2014

Troubled Minds

Jan Grape This has been an awful week for me personally. After hearing about the death of always creative and funny icon Robin Williams and all that sadness entailed, we hear about the death of the beautiful Lauren Bacall. Of course, there was a big difference.  Age for one thing, Betty Bacall was eighty-nine years old and had lived a full and I imagine a reasonably happy life. Her great love was Humphrey Bogart and by all accounts their marriage was happy and fulfilling. Although it was cut short by his early death.

Robin Williams was only sixty-six, and I say only because I have long since past my sixties and that seems reason enough to say "only." But we discover that he was a man who has fought depression for a number of years. But he had given up his addictive drugs and seemed to be on a fairly good path. Problem is, we just never know. Little things can send a troubled mind off into the abyss and into that awful land of suicide. His television show had been cancelled and he recently had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease according to his wife. Those two things are enough to slam even the hardiest of us right into the gut, but to someone who deals with clinical depression and someone who perhaps is bi-polar it can be devastating. No one except a person who has dealt with such depression can begin to understand.

Jeremiah Healy
Jerry Healy
On Friday, I learned along with many others in the writing game, Jeremiah Francis Healy the lll had also died.  He had completed suicide on Thursday evening. Jerry Healy aka Terry Devane was only sixty-eight years old. This was the hardest blow for me to take as I've known Jerry for years and years and been around him, bar-hopping, playing poker, eating meals, laughing and talking about writing for hour upon hour. There was a time when I went to at least two mystery conferences a year, the main one being Bouchercon. And it was at these fan and writer outings that I spent time with Jerry, along with a cadre of mystery writers. Jerry was a graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School and was a Professor at the New England School of Law for eighteen years. We always teased him about his preppy look. But he could carry it off if anyone could. Probably that big smile of his made us forgive him.

He was a member of Private Eye Writers, a Shamus Award winner and nominee and was the President of PWA. For several years I was the editor of their newsletter, Reflections in a Private Eye and because of that Jerry and I spoke on the phone occasionally but, more often we e-mailed back and forth. Jerry wrote over thirteen novels featuring John Francis Cuddy, Private Eye Series and two short story collections with Cuddy. Fifteen have been either nominated or won the Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. In 2001, began the legal thrillers featuring Mariead O'Clare, written under the name of Terry Devane. The third, A Stain Upon The Rose was optioned for a feature film. He was also a President of the International Association of Crime Writers and traveled extensively in Europe.

I personally never would have guessed that Jerry suffered chronic depression, however, I do know that it seems to be a regular visitor to creative people. I imagine all the times I was around Jerry, he was in his element, being with fans and writers and discussing writing projects and the writing biz. At those times the depression was at bay.

Since Friday, I have learned one thing that I did already know but learned much more about, was how many upcoming writers that Jerry helped. He shared stories and ideas and encouraged them especially new writers coming up. He helped me quite a lot and blurbed my first book. And I do have a bit of insight into why Jerry was always helping.

One early morning after an all night poker game at Bob Randisi's headquarters (our usual game room) Jerry insisted in walking me back to my hotel room. It was only across the street as I recall but being the gentleman he was, he didn't want me out on the street alone at four in the morning. We were strolling along, in no particular hurry, talking about receiving help from other more advanced writers. I remember saying something like, I can never repay the writers who have helped me along the way. Jerry said, something like, you can't even begin to repay them.  But let me tell you what Mary Higgins Clark told me.

Right after Jerry's first book was published, he attended the Edgars meeting in NYC. Since he lived in Boston, this was not a big deal for him. However, a few people knew he had recently published his first book. Somehow, Ms Clark found him and invited him to a party at her apartment.  Seems everyone who was everyone was going. Jerry went still not knowing how Mary Higgins Clark knew who he was and during the evening he found himself talking to Ms Clark and two or three others and he said to her. I've been lucky in that I've had so many other mystery writers who have helped and encouraged me along the way. I'll never be able to pay them back for all they've done. Without missing a beat, Mary said, "Don't even try it. You'll never be able to make up. But what you can do is pay it forward. You can help others who are coming along and in that way you are giving back to all the ones who helped you."

Jerry took that to heart and I read over and over from a large number of FB people how Jerry had helped and encouraged them in their writing. He also helped when he learned they might be having a personal crises. Jerry would pull them aside and give them encouragement. And each person said what a genuine, warm and kind person he was.

If I thought for a while I could come up with story after story of Jerry and some of the funny things he did. Or the gentlemanly things he did. But thinking too hard about those stories are a bit to difficult to think of right now. My heart is too full of our loss. But two stories did come to mind.

Once a group of us had a joint signing at a mystery bookstore, maybe in Bethesda. After the signing, everyone was trying to get a taxi to go back to the hotel. I got back with a group of writers and I saw three or four older ladies getting out of a taxi with Jerry Healy. The ladies had huge smiles on their faces and I thought to myself, Jerry just made the day for those fans. They will never forget his taking the time to visit with them and what a gentleman he was.

The other story is one that I hope will give you a smile.  A number of private eye writers play poker in Randisi's room. The game is by invitation only and I had the honor of being the first female who was asked to play. For several times, I was on the "B" team, meaning I could only play after one of the "A" gave up or was wiped out for the evening. One Saturday night at Bouchercon, after the banquet a group of us met up in the hotel lobby to head for the poker game. There were four or five of us and we walk in the hotel room to find Jeremiah Healy, all alone in the room, sitting alone at one of the tables reading a book. We were taken aback. What in the world was he reading? How To Win At Poker. Needlessly to say, we all fell out laughing.

Goodbye, my friend, I love you and miss you. Much love to Sandy. the family and all the many, many friends who also loved and will miss Jeremiah Healy III. RIP

At the Healy's cabin in Maine in 2003. I stayed there while attending an author day event at Five Star Publishing. Jerry demonstrating an electric bug zapper which looks like a tennis racket, the stuffed animal is the victim. Note the evil grin on Healy's face.

17 August 2014

In the Heat of the Night

After the shooting of young Michael Brown in a small Missouri municipality, I thought the 150 or so assembled police looked more like a scene from protests in the Middle East than what we like to think of as America. As I was pondered writing my column, I noticed a flood of other commentators thought much the same thing.
A fifty-year-old article lamented the emerging police use of the word ‘civilians’ instead of ‘citizens’. This phrasing, said the writer, not merely positions the police apart from the public, but it sets them above the people like shepherds and sheep. The article predicted the concept of serving the citizens would become lost in this new order.

Adding to this perception is the long-standing “1033 Program” by the Department of Defense, which offers military gear to police in even the smallest communities for pennies on the dollar. Tiny police departments can purchase military helicopters, armored personnel carriers, combat assault gear, mine-resistant vehicles and even tanks. This program has become a concern of both liberal and conservative thinkers. (As usual, I distinguish between liberal and conservative, and left and right, which are not synonymous.)

Ferguson, Missouri

Much has been made of this small city’s lack of professionalism. Ferguson’s population as of the last census is 21,000 and diminishing. But in its decline, political and police presence has grown. While it's true its very white police department arrests twice as many minorities as it does whites, that’s in line with the town’s racial mix. A community sore spot is that only 5% of the police community is black and none are in positions of any real authority.

And police there have stepped over the line before. After a suspect in a savage take-down some time back turned out to be innocent, police retaliated. They charged the man with destruction of property for splattering blood from his injuries on their uniforms. Officers in Ferguson don’t appear to be the brightest loci on the thin blue line.

Large cities have at least two advantages small towns and cities don’t. For one thing, sizable cities can provide professional training. They may have their own academies and for officers, they may have the option to send candidates to degree-offering police institutes. Secondly, major metropolitan areas try to weed out bad apples, gung-ho head cases unsuitable for a profession that requires not only strength, but restraint. Small towns have less of a labor pool– and gene pool– to work with.

Side of the Angels

Here at SleuthSayers, we like to think cops are on the side of the Truth, Justice, and the American way of life. Of those who aren’t, we aren’t shy about speaking up once we know the facts. The facts in Ferguson aren’t particularly auspicious.

It looks like plenty of blame can be passed around. There’s no excuse for vandalizing and looting one’s neighbors, especially small business owners trying to eke out a living in a crumbling downtown. Even if they manage to afford insurance, it won’t fully cover damage and the months they’ll be out of business, possibly begging to become stockers in Walmart. And for what?

Looters aren’t big on reading Consumer Reports. A month from now they’ll be begging some undercover cop to buy a bagful of pink Chinese-made THC Pomposity IV cell phones that earned a meager 1½ stars in Gizmodo.

But terrible political decisions and poor policing make things worse. Here at SleuthSayers corporate headquarters, we’re begging Chief David Dean and Agent Lawton to come out of retirement and kick butt.

What we think we know

A week ago on the 9th of August, a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed 18-year-old boy with his hands raised. The young man has never been in trouble before and is enrolled in technical school to advance his education. Likewise, the officer has never previously been brought up on disciplinary charges.

After shooting, the officer, according to witnesses, does not take the pulse of the victim nor does he inform his superiors of a fatal shooting. Instead, he removes himself and his car from the scene, potentially breaking the chain of any potential evidence on the officer or the vehicle, which in this case may prove important.

Other officers present do not attend to the boy and, according to witnesses, do not allow medical personnel to offer assistance or approach the body. Instead, officers confiscate camera phones from bystanders. Evidence further deteriorates as crime scene investigators fail to to be called in for four hours.

Commanding officers learn about the shooting not from officers at the scene but, like the public, from television news.

The community initially responds with peaceful protests, but as the police department refuses to answer questions, both sides overreact. Vandals loot and damage property and 150 riot police in military gear shock the nation and the world with a military invasion reminiscent of dictatorial crackdowns.

Within days, Governor Jay Nixon calls a state of emergency, which locals refer to as ‘martial law.’ Adding to the atmosphere of authoritarian abuse in support of Ferguson cops who refuse to wear name tags, Missouri lawmakers rush a bill to the floor of the legislature that would shield the names of officers involved in any shooting from public knowledge. If that passes, a rogue cop could be involved in a dozen shootings and the public would never know.

The Police Department, and particularly its police chief, appear to be utterly tone deaf. When the President offers condolences to the family of the victim, town officials ask where are the condolences for them. Eventually Anonymous gets involved, bless their anarchistic little souls.

After out-of-control cops are caught on camera screaming “Bring it on! Bring it you ƒ-ing animals,” the Chief of Police announces he is not interested in talking with community leaders and praises his men for their “incredible restraint,” prompting a commentator to ask, “What does lack of restraint look like?”

Authorities are not finished. In a local McDonald's, police seize camera equipment, then assault and arrest news reporters. They arrest a local alderman who comes to assess the scene for ‘failure to listen.’ They teargas and beanbag a state senator at a peaceful sit-in rally who dares challenge the police chief..

When is a Cigar not a Cigar?

Up to this point, my attention shifted from the increased militarization of police departments to question how poorly the situation was being managed. Hardline authoritarianism is rarely the best solution.

Missouri Highway Patrol
Governor Jay Nixon finally relieves local police of authority and orders the Missouri State Patrol to take over.

When the state police arrive, the atmosphere immediately changes. The community welcomes them, some even hug the troopers. The mayor of Ferguson reportedly says he feels safer with their presence.

In defiance of Department of Justice requests not to further inflame the community, after relieved of command, this embattled Chief of Police– without informing the state police who've just replaced him– holds a press conference to announce that young Michael Brown has now surfaced as an after-the-fact suspect in a theft of… (I can’t believe I’m writing this) … a package of cigars.

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson sharply criticizes Ferguson's Police Chief Thomas Jackson's unilateral press conference about the stolen cigars. This breath of fresh air only enhances the community's respect for Captain Johnson's professionalism contrasted with the self-serving broadsides by the local police chief.

The cigar evidence is somewhat tenuous but, whether or not true, the chief's proclamation smacks of a specious and insensitive smears. The police chief himself acknowledges the two incidents are unrelated, that the officer involved in the shooting was unaware of the cigar store theft.

State police vow not to let that accusation cloud the greater issues at hand. These two men epitomize the right and the wrong way to handle community policing. Ferguson’s “civilians” may have found their Virgil Tibbs in the person of Captain Ron Johnson.

16 August 2014

TV Travesty! (Okay, prepare for a silly one…)

I’m a former comedy writer who has fallen off the standup stage and into the world of writing screwball mob crime comedies.  The Goddaughter’s Revenge is my latest zany book.

People often ask me why I write silly stuff.  I say it’s because I am seriously fed up with reality.  I mean, really - what’s so special about it?  Everybody does it. 

So for those of you who are sick of reality (TV or otherwise,) this is for you.  In the lofty traditions of Dallas, Dynasty and Desperate Housewives, make way for…TRAVESTY!
Note the originality of the plot.  (Hey, it’s rerun season!)

INTERIOR.  A pink frilly bedroom.  Daytime.  An attractive young woman in full makeup and Victoria’s Secret underwear reclines on the bed, moaning fatuously.  An older man kneels by her side, wringing his well-manicured hands.
Lance:  “Tell me April, I gotta know.  Is the baby mine?”
April (in bed):  “Oh Lance!  Oh Lance! <sob!> …what baby?”
Michael enters the room.
Michael:  “April honey, I’ve got something to tell you.”
April:  “No - <sob> - not-“
Michael nods.
April:  “You?  And Lance?”
Lance:  “OH-MY-GOD”
Michael:  “And your mother’s been hit by a beer truck, and the boutique has burnt down.”
April (standing up in bed): “THE BOUTIQUE?”
Michael:  “We saved the clothes, but the jewelry was a meltdown. Sorry.”
April (clutching throat):  “I can’t take it anymore! This is too much for one day.”
Michael:  “And it’s only 8 a.m.”
Lance (clearing throat):  “About your mother…”
April (collapsing on bed):  “OH-MY-GOD, MOTHER!  She hated beer.”
Lance:  “I have something to tell you…”
April (to director):  “Do I faint now?”
Lance:  “…she’s actually not your mother…”
Michael:  “WHAT?”
April:  “You mean-“
Lance:  “Yes.  I am”
<gasps all around>
Michael:  “That trip to Sweden…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “LANA?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “But didn’t we…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Director (to April):  “You can faint now.”
Everyone faints.

Stay tuned next week for more riveting drama, when April asks the question, “How do you tell if blue cheese is bad?”

(I won’t always be this silly.  But I had to get this one in before rerun season was over.)     www.melodiecampbell.com

15 August 2014

Break in Contact

Because of a shift in the blogging schedule, I took a blog vacation for a couple of weeks.  I neither read nor commented, and I hope no one minds. It was a good time for it, because my son started back into school (a new one) last Wednesday, my mother-in-law came for a visit (I like her quite a lot, so that's not the problem some might think it to be), and my older son's motor scooter broke down at the same time my jeep went on the blink.  Consequently, I've spent quite a bit of time acting the part of family chauffeur, lately, driving my wife, daughter and son back and forth to work at different times of the day (and sometimes pretty late at night).

I don't mind all the driving.  In fact, I've always enjoyed driving.  One of my favorite activities during my army days was driving trucks, sometimes with trailers, under difficult conditions.  I feel (and others have commented) that I handle a "deuce-n-a-half" in the field, the way other people handle a sports car on a slalom. A "deuce" is  a 2.5-ton army truck, for those who don't know, which means it can carry 5 tons of load when driving on standard paved roads, or half that load when driving cross-country.  And, a "deuce" excels at running cross-country.

In fact, you can even plow down small trees with one if you have to.

I know; I have.  When I had to.

No, all that driving hasn't bothered me.  And neither has the extra time spent with individual members of my family.  Driving my wife, or one of the kids to or from work is one of the few times I get the chance to speak with them alone, without others wanting my attention.  And that's nice.  It provides an opportunity to discuss personal things, to engage in conversations that might otherwise be difficult to hold.  And, my son's girlfriend sometimes tags along, and she's an English major studying creative writing at Arizona State, so we have fun conversations about writing.

I like the driving. I like the extra time with family. But I find it difficult to set and maintain any sort of schedule when my own schedule is driven by several other people's schedules. My wife is no problem: she goes in around eight in the morning, and I pick her up at five. My younger son is no problem either: he rides his bike to school in the morning, and I supervise his homework when he gets home in the afternoon. My older kids, however, both work part-time jobs that start and end at odd hours.  And they work rotating shifts, which means their schedules vary greatly from day to day -- sometimes even changing during the day.

All this mish-mash of schedules has me considering a very special problem.  One that's all my own.

The Fragility of Writing

I don't know if you have this problem.  I'm sure that some writers don't suffer from it, while others probably do.  I envy the former, and commiserate with the latter, because I find writing a very fragile thing.

Seems to me, there are different types of fragility, of course, just as there are different ways of interpreting the word 'fragile.'

My father-in-law, for instance, a retired postal worker, has been known to comment: "Ah!  There it is again, that word fruh-gee-lee.  I think that's an Italian word, means: Throw this hard at the wall and see if it sticks!"

I did mention that he's a retired postal worker, right?

While I don't know if it's true, I've heard that diamonds are difficult to scratch, but can shatter quite easily if smashed by a heavy solid object.  Something to do with their structure, evidently.

Other materials, such as steel, may have great tensile strength (essentially meaning they're hard to bend), but relatively poor compression strength (not standing up so well when smooshed).

For me, story writing has a very special sense of fragility.

Whenever I read about a writer who works as a successful  lawyer or doctor, is deeply involved in raising ten kids, plays semi-pro volleyball or something as a hobby--yet, has still managed to publish six thousand books and two gazillion short stories in multiple genres--I figure the following:

(A) This is someone with excellent time-management skills.

(B) This is not someone who finds story writing as fragile as I do.

I believe I've mentioned before, on this blog, that if I had my wish, I'd write behind locked doors with red and green lights above them.
I'd control which light was on with a switch: green if I'm not busy, red if I'm writing and need to be left alone.  Maybe I'd add an amber light for when I'm ruminating, casting around for a good idea or something that catches my fancy, ready to hit the red light when something gelled.  I'd stay locked-up with that red light on for as long as it took to complete a single work -- days, weeks, even months -- ordering out for food, cigars, soda, etc., and only coming up for air when the job was finished.

This isn't because I detest my fellow man, or don't like spending time with my family.  It's because one of the ways I find writing most fragile is through what I call "break in contact."  I might be chugging along, writing great stuff, knowing just where the train is headed--and if I'm left alone, I'll get there--but, if my work is interrupted, that break in contact, a time when I'm not engaged with the story, causes problems.

When I sit down to start back in, I often find I've forgotten key transitions that I'd already worked-out in my mind, as well as phrases that seemed perfect for upcoming spots.  Sometimes simply a key word goes AWOL in my absence, evading all my attempts to recall and employ it after my return, occasionally never resurfacing.  (This is most galling when I only recall the word while reading the final copy of the story, once it's been printed in a magazine, and I find myself lamenting: "Arg!  That other word would have been so much better there!")

I've tried writing notes to myself, or even outlines, so that I'll remember this stuff when I get back to my desk.  But I find this brings me up against another aspect of writing's fragile nature.

I once knew a writer who warned me not to ever "talk out" a story.  She claimed that if I got a story
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
out of my head, before I got it down on paper (or into a computer, these days), I'd lose the inner drive, the need, to get it out again.  I think the idea here is roughly akin to letting the steam out of the boiler on a steam engine.  You might get up a good head of steam, but if you let it all escape through a stop-cock, there's nothing left to drive the engines.

I've found that if I outline a story, every important transition or phrase that I jot down opens a little stop-cock, letting off some of the pressure in my head.  It doesn't take many open stop-cocks -- particularly if they're open for awhile -- to make me lose what I need.  It's as if the motive force, driving my writing, just evaporates.

This is one reason why I often write late at night, or in the dark hours of the morning.  No one is around to interrupt me after they've all gone to bed, and -- after sometimes driving my daughter to work at 3:45 a.m. (she has to be there at 4:00), I have a couple hours to write before folks start getting up.

Except for our cats, of course, who -- for some reason -- seem to insist on being fed!  Then they want to come out on the balcony with me, so they can hang out on the window ledges and watch birds flit through the trees.  I try not to let this bother me.

I'm interested in hearing if any of you find your writing work to be somewhat fragile in nature, and what you do to address this problem.

See you in two weeks!