Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Recently, my wife and I were having breakfast in a nation-wide café when I commented to our waitress how nice it was that every customer was cheerfully greeted when they came in. Our waitress, who had been very attentive and friendly, commented that they would lose their job if they didn’t. She said they could get away with less than perfect service, but there was never an excuse for not greeting a customer. This reminded me of Disney’s philosophy that every employee is on stage when they are working, and that their personal life had better not affect their performance while in the public’s eye. I only know of one other restaurant that greets its customers with such enthusiasm, and it’s in Osaka, Japan. That doesn’t say much for the rest of the restaurants.
Now, while this greeting is noteworthy, it’s not the basis of this article. Not by a long shot. What makes the Second Chance Café interesting is that everyone working there has had problems in the past. Problems, as in having criminal records. Oh, my gosh—you mean I was served by an ex-con? Not only was I served by one, but she was one of the best waitresses I’ve had in a long time. She was also the one who revealed the story behind the Second Chance Café.
You see, the founder of this restaurant chain emigrated from Cuba, arriving in the US with only nine bucks in his pocket. Today, he is a successful businessman who is willing to give those who had a brush with the law a chance at a new beginning. Make no mistake, he reinforces that if his employees revert, he will be the first to send them back to jail. But from what I have seen, I doubt he has had many problems because these employees work together like a band of brothers and sisters. You don’t see this at many eating establishments.
I have heard several similar stories about emigrants arriving with virtually nothing and becoming successful business managers. My wife’s grandfather was one of those, arriving from Slovenia, and establishing a successful restaurant in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. I recently ate at another establishment founded by a Slovenian who immigrated to Canada. Such people as the employees at the Second Chance Café and these entrepreneurs not only reflect well upon themselves, but they inspire characters who might otherwise be missed. I’m thankful to learn about these untold stories, and will most likely use such characters in future novels.
Now that’s a headline I’d like to see. We could all buy new houses with large offices to accommodate our walls of books, our PCs and printers and piles of manuscripts. Maybe a swimming pool outside the window urging us to finish the book and dive in.
Of course, if you happen to be Stephen King or John Grisham, or somebody of their ilk, you might get removed from the bailout list. They probably have more houses than Donald Trump.
There may not be any bailout for writers (did I say “may not?” Ha! make that “won’t”) in the offing, but bailing out to the tune of billions is the hot topic of the day. Which brings up the question of should we be writing about current events?
I like writing on topical subjects, which got me in trouble in the early days (think early nineties). I enjoyed reading spy novels all through the Cold War years. I devoured every Helen MacInnes book that came along, then took on Graham Greene, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy. I had written a spy story back in the sixties which went nowhere. When I retired and started writing in earnest, I naturally returned to the spy genre.
Finishing the first book in 1990, I kept it topical with the emerging post-Cold War period. The bad guys were dethroned KGB agents and assorted on-the-way-out Communists. The first three books involved a trilogy of stories linked through a former FBI agent who was recruited by a CIA spin-off.
I got a different agent for each book. The first one quit and the second died. The third book landed with a large agency, which had me sweat blood to trim out more than 100 pages. Then they let it languish. I can picture the pristine pages of my manuscript gathering dust on the top shelf in a musty back room. The story involved an operation run by an ex-KGB officer to fire mortar shells loaded with nerve gas into the Fourth of July symphony concert crowd on The Mall behind the Capitol. After the agency merged with another, the new guy finally sent out my manuscript.
I received a copy of the letter from an editor at Tor Books. He said he liked my writing but the story was dated. This was some three years after the agency accepted the manuscript. Had it been sold during the first year, it likely would have been published about the time of the nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway.
But the spy story market had about dried up. That’s the problem with writing topical fiction. It can get out of date in a hurry. On the flip side, tales of the recent past have come back in vogue. So maybe I’ll try it again. Particularly after I get my share of that $700 billion bailout.
Monday, September 29, 2008
We Americans celebrate our holidays, and we’re creative in ginning up new ones. Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Vasco da Gama Day, Casper the Friendly Ghost Day…
And these are just proper name holidays.
We also honor bosses, secretaries ― even though nobody has one any more ― dogs, April Fools, groundhogs, mothers, fathers, and black history.
Very few things we don’t honor with a day, week or month.
But not the NRA, the group that gave us the Denver celebration after Columbine. Who can forget Charlton Heston, a Juda Ben Hur oarlock grimace set on his face, as his strong hands pumped a rifle over his head and a dare slid from gritted teeth?
“From my cold dead hands...”
Moses waving his staff. Impressive. The French surrendered.
No, the NRA doesn’t get a holiday.
And that’s not fair.
I went to the local constabulary. Thought I might pump up some NRA support and maybe get some gun totin’ ideas from toters. Nope. The sheriff didn’t like my suggestion: standing at the U of A gates and chanting while firing AK-47s Mid-East-style into the air.
I think feds followed me home. There’s a black service van parked just outside my driveway. It’s got more antennas than NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Black, a Fed’s favorite color. Black, in the Arizona summer sun.
The Blues Brothers had more sense.
I called the NRA, hopeful they’d turn their lobbying clout on Congress. But a spokeswoman said Congress wanted to adjourn, that Congressional leadership was closing out the session working up new taxes to bail broke buddies who’d contributed heavily to campaign coffers.
Stuffed to the gills with Fanny-and-Freddy money. Something fishy going on.
Forced to curry NRA support locally and on my own, I donned my range gear, jeans, red John Wayne cavalry shirt, cowboy boots, wide leather belt with a gold-plated bull-head buckle, red patterned kerchief, and a straw cowboy hat with a fake eagle feather. On the top of my hat, on the flat spot under the furl, I stuck an NRA sticker.
Then I took my guns to the range.
The black van followed me.
The two best gun ranges in Tucson are almost next to each other, about thirty miles southwest, along the I-19 corridor, also known as Smuggler’s Alley, because it’s not far from Mexico is the preferred drug and human cargo smuggling route. County planners must have figured that so many guns were going off there anyway, local residents wouldn’t mind a few more. And smugglers and illegals need gun practice, too. Why not make the location convenient for everybody?
One of the ranges is for shotguns, the other for pistols, rifles and machine guns. Each range covers about five square miles.
Arizona loves its guns.
I borrowed a target stand from the range master and purchased some tape-on pictures of bad guys who are fun to shoot. Folks like Dillinger, Capone, Howard Stern, and the PC guy in the Apple commercials.
I picked the hundred yard range. Target berms are set at twenty-five foot intervals. Choose your distance.
The range was crowded. Several shooters had brought family members, some of them children. The only stall open was the last one on the right, next to a Mexican group. Three men, two women, a couple young children. They stopped shooting as I approached and eyed me warily. A heavy-set fellow with a pock-marked face and Chinese-symbol tattoos on his neck, held a semi-automatic pistol ― looked to be a Glock with an elongated magazine. He swung the gun in my direction and whispered to a skinny guy, five-o'clock-shadow bald. That man lifted a pistol from the table, and racked the slide.
He looked at me. No smile in his eye.
"Hi fellas," I said, waving like a windmill. "Belong to the NRA?"
They looked at each other, and their muzzles drooped. The bald guy made an eh-shrug. His pistol went back to the table.
Numerous guns decked their stall. I'd already seen two pistols. An AR-15 rested on the stone shooting table, and two more assault rifles, an SKS and an M1A stood against a beat up wooden rife stand.
I glanced beyond them to the range. They were shooting at a giant pepper.
I pointed and laughed. “Nice pepper,” I said.
I meant my tone to be friendly, but the two men snarled at me. One of the women, her brows furled, deep leathery creases tightening across her forehead, grabbed a rifle off the stand and swung it by the sling over her shoulder.
One smooth move. She’d done that before.
I raised my hands and tried to smile. Looked to our left. Several green and white Border Patrol SUVs were parked at the next range over, a hundred yards away for the far end of our range. Machine gun fire burst from that border patrol range. Some laughter and whooping followed.
My next door neighbors made the Sign of the Cross.
Careful to make my moves slow and deliberate, I taped Howard Stern to the stand, and then signaled that I wanted to take my target onto the range. The shooting stopped, and I walked out into the firing field.
I strolled straight out. Thought about walking backwards, but didn’t want my target so inviting that someone might plug it ― and me. I wasn’t gone very long, and as soon as I returned, shooting commenced.
There’s a problem with shooting semi-and-automatic rifles. They eject spent cartridges to the right, far to the right.
Hot metal rained down on me as my neighbors riddled their pepper.
I went back to the range master, borrowed another target stand. He didn’t have the Taco Bell dog, so I taped up Che Guevara and stood him facing my neighbors. I hoped they appreciated the gesture, even though Che was Argentine. Argentina’s a Latin country, isn’t it?
Now hot cartridges bounced off Che instead of me.
I looked over at the black van, saw it parked next to the range office. A guy in a suit climbed out; he looked tumbled dry. A camera hung from his neck, and he clicked some shots of Che and me before walking into the range office. A few minutes later, the man emerged, several water bottles in his arms. He climbed back into the van.
Time for my guns.
Arsenal disclosure is like the red carpet on Oscar night: Everybody’s all eyeballs. I opened up the truck and started carrying out guns. Silence along our range; everyone turned to watch me. The van-guy climbed out once again, camera at the ready.
I pulled out a few bolt actions, an AR-15, and a Ruger 10/22, perhaps the most popular plinking rifle in the world.
I waited for applause.
More bursts from the machine gun range. Laughter. Sounded closer this time.
Well, I’d dazzle ‘em with my shooting.
Smack. Heart shot. Again. Poor Howard, he never knew what hit him.
Someone called for a cease fire, a target check. But I didn’t need one; I could see my one ragged hole from my stall. As everybody walked out to their targets, I pointed at mine, pumped my arms and shouted, “NRA! NRA!”
People on their way to targets stopped and stared at me.
A toddler from the stall next door wobbled over. Most of my collection stood on my stall’s old wooden stand. The kid was stroking my pre-’64 Winchester 70, a collector’s rifle, handmade, known to most in the gun culture as “The Rifleman’s Rifle.”
I grabbed the rifle and caught it. Then I swatted at the kid.
A woman, the child’s mother I guessed, overweight and all decked out in reds, oranges and purple, rushed over and snatched the kid away. The woman scowled at me, spit rapid-fire Spanish. Not throwing compliments my way, I discerned. She shook her fist at me and then slapped her backside.
“Well, keep your brat away from me,” I said. “Bang bang.”
I don’t think saying that was wise. One of the men dropped back and pointed an AR-15 at me. His finger was on the trigger.
Hands up. Just like on TV.
Another burst from the machine gun range. More laughter.
I ducked at the burst, afraid my stall-neighbor’s finger would tighten on the trigger and I’d end up air conditioned.
When I came up again, the guy’d put his rifle back on the stand. But he was still staring at me. And he wasn’t smiling.
I shrugged and went back to my Ruger. I’d mounted it on a precision Caldwell stand, a setup made for ten-ring shots. I fired round after round, emptied two twenty-five round magazines.
Somebody called for a target check. Firing stopped at our range.
I snatched the Ruger and replaced it with the Winchester. Then I opened the bolt and pulled out my .30-06 cartridges. Stood aside to await the all clear signal.
I’d expected to see those out on the range clustered around my target, marveling at my accuracy. Trophy-target, I thought. But nobody was there. People were admiring their own targets, busy measuring groups and counting holes.
Harumph. So much for lesson-giving. Some people just don’t recognize talent.
One of the men in the stall next door shouted something out onto the range. Must have been the Spanish version of “Hurry up!” because people started running. A moment later, somebody yelled, “Going hot!” and lead started flying.
Having blown out Howard Stern’s heart, I fixed my sights on his mouth.
I know: big target. Well, you should see it now.
TTFS (Tired Trigger Finger Syndrome) can strike at any time. Your finger twitches, you flinch with the twitch, and your other digits, feeling abandoned, go soft around the stock’s pistol grip. You’re at risk for Scope-Eye, when recoil drives the scope into your eye socket so hard that you look like the spotted dog from The Little Rascals.
I laid my trigger hand out on the stone table, saw the twitching digit.
Time to pack up. No Scope-Eye for this cowpoke.
Besides, the people next door were still checking me out, peeking from behind Che. They were making me nervous.
My brass was mostly nearby, so a few minutes crawling around and I’d gathered it all. I cased my rifles and deposited them in the truck. Then I went back for my targets.
There were three round holes in Che.
I hadn’t put them there.
A quick dodge to the truck, and a turn of the key. The engine fired, and my tires tore up a dust-and-rock storm.
I turned the wheel hard to the right, toward the machine gun range. I couldn’t see anything but dust behind me.
The border patrol agents were only too happy to listen. Their eyes lit up when I told them my stall neighbors were coyotes, people who traffic in people. And when I suggested they might want to tread carefully, that the coyotes had automatic weapons, the agents really went bonkers. Loaded magazines flew back and forth. I might have tried to snag one, but doing so would’ve affected my credibility. And stealing from the federal government ― unless you’re in Congress ― is not a sign of intelligence.
Next, I stopped at the black van. Told the surveillance team I was giving up on the NRA and was gonna join Amnesty International instead. The driver, a man wearing mirrored sunglasses, a dark suit, white shirt and black tie ― Fed-dress ― stared at me, not saying a word. The guy next to him tapped him on the shoulder and pointed out the window at the armed border patrol agents converging on the hundred yard range. “Coyotes,” I said. “Those guys,” I pointed to the running border patrol agents, “might need some help.”
I split, and watched through my rear-view as the van emptied and agents pulling their Sigs joined the stall-party.
As I turned the corner and picked up speed, I looked once more in my mirror. Alone, separate and distinct from the chaos erupting at the stall next to mine, stood Howard Stern.
No heart, no mouth, just a smiley face made of holes.
Next time, I’ll move my target a little further out. Like maybe to twenty-five yards.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Back in March, Reuters reported that Dutch novelist Hella Haasse, while cleaning house, found a pile of old papers. They turned out to be newspaper tearsheets with her novel, Sterrenjacht (“Hunt for the Stars”) published in serial form in 1950. She showed the clippings to the editor of De Stentor, mostly as a joke, but the company decided to republish the novel in book form.
Haasse is 89 years old, has published more than 50 books, and won numerous literary prizes. The Reuters story quotes her as saying: “(Hunt for the Stars) has absolutely no literary ambitions. I had earlier translated a British thriller as a serial novel, so I knew the genre. 'Come on', I thought, 'I'll give it a try myself'."
Haasse’s story is an extreme example of the wisdom of hanging on to everything you write, or maybe it just reminds me of an advertising slogan of a few years ago: “Everything old is new again.”
Which brings me to a delicious, really delicious, bit of news. My first mystery, FULL CIRCLE, is being republished with a new title, a new cover, and a couple of minor rewrites.
The publisher is a new, start-up operation, but he gave me a nice three-figure advance, and took an option on Book 2, which is almost finished. Target date for publication of the new-old book is December. That’s the kind of turnaround time I like, and one advantage of dealing with a new, start-up operation.
Getting in on the ground floor of something is an exhilarating experience. Right now I’m busy going through the manuscript page-by-page, polishing as I go. For a nitpicker like me, it’s a dream come true—a chance to tweak and polish something I wrote and self-published in 2001.
I'll leave the official announcement to the publisher, when the book has gone to press. Stay tuned.
This idea of repackaging old books is a new and welcome trend, for new authors trying for a foothold, and for midlist authors whose books have gone out of print. The Los Angeles Times recently ran a fascinating story about publishers specializing in reprints. It’s a long story so I’ll just include excerpts here.
If you want to read the full story, let me know, and I’ll e-mail it to you.
REPRINTS ARE KING IN PARTS OF BOOK WORLD
By Charles Taylor, Special to The Times
September 18, 2008
The publishers specializing in reprints have become increasingly important to the people who haunt bookstores searching for the next great read. For some, these reintroduced books are as eagerly awaited as any mainstream house's seasonal list.
The founders of these lines are quick to point out that, in the overall scheme of the publishing business, their imprints are small ventures. But that smallness seems to be a benefit, not just by allowing each a freedom in what they choose to publish, but in enabling them to distinguish themselves in a publishing industry that is just as blockbuster-driven as the movie and music industries.
Charles Ardai, at Hard Case Crime, which has reprinted forgotten novels by Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Donald E. Westlake (as well as the final novel by Mickey Spillane), echoes this sense of transcending the canon. Citing the finite number of works by the acknowledged masters of hard-boiled writing -- Hammett, Chandler, andCain -- Ardai talks about the desire to see what else existed, what books, turned out for fast profit to fill paperback racks, might still prove diverting or even something more.
The toughest statement about what role reprints are filling comes from Persephone's Nicola Beauman, who doesn't hesitate to say that modern fiction has lost the art of storytelling, an attribute she distinguishes from plot. "You get to the end of Jonathan Franzen's 'The Corrections' and you haven't been changed in any way," she explains. "You think, 'So what?'"
Whether the increasing number of reprints is because of reader dissatisfaction with contemporary literature or the flowering of an archivist, curatorial instinct, they are certainly part of the decentralization of literary culture. Miller says that, with space shrinking for print reviews and the Web as an overwhelming presence, people are trusting their instincts to figure out what to read. … Especially if the reader has slogged through the pages of some highly praised snoozer.
Reprints may be how new novels that surely deserve larger audiences -- Kate Jennings' "Moral Hazard," for instance -- may finally find the readership they should have had the first time around.
Friday, September 26, 2008
For years I harbored a Friday the 13th superstition after I was struck by a car when 17. That superstition was reinforced over the years and culminated with the birth of my fourth daughter on April 13, a Friday.
People are superstitious about a lot of things, including death and cemeteries, which is something I can relate to. I can’t bring myself to walk over someone’s grave although I have no fear of the “occupant” haunting me. It's an eerie feeling whenever I visit a gravesite, especially while visiting old battlefields such as Antietam and Custer’s Little Big Horn. Others told me that they have experienced the same feeling, as though the spirits of the dead are hovering around them.
I can understand where the “walking under a ladder’ superstition originated. The darn thing can collapse and fall on you. Black cats? I avoid them at all costs because tripping over a cat can cause a broken hip. But some of the other Western superstitions really leave me baffled, such as “stepping on a crack will break your mother’s back.” Or tossing salt over your shoulder to blind the devil. Seven years’ worth of bad luck for breaking a mirror is another strange, unexplainable superstition. I cringe whenever I break one and if the bad luck were true, I’d have to survive another 97 years to outlive the curse. Who thinks up these things?
Eastern superstitions are even more mysterious. Koreans believe that leaving a fan in a closed room will cause the occupants to suffocate. In India, pregnant women refuse to go outside during an eclipse because it may cause their babies birthmarks. The belief is widespread because birthmarks in Iran are called 'maah-gereftegi' or eclipses.
Long held religious beliefs are often considered superstitions by some, particularly religions that believe in miracles, spirits and charms. Greek and Roman pagans, whose gods were mainly politically social, looked down on those who feared their own gods because it was considered superstitious drivel. Many superstitions began as religious practices but lost their true meanings over time. During Europe’s Christian awakening, the cross replaced pagan symbols to ward off evil, the cross a much older symbol than the religion itself.
Many ancient peoples believed in a magical bond between a weapon and the wound it caused. The Melanesians thought that if they retrieved the weapon responsible for the wound, it could be kept in a cool place to facilitate healing. But, if an enemy warrior retained the weapon, it would be hung close to a fire to further inflame the wound. Ancient Romans believed that if a man felt sorry for the injury he inflicted, spitting in the palm of his hand would alleviate the victim’s pain. And medieval Englishmen thought that anointing a weapon would encourage the wound to heal itself, a superstition reportedly still in practice in eastern England today.
Actors and theatre performers have long held superstitions such as the good luck greeting of “Break a log.” Whistling in a theatre is considered bad luck and production company green rooms are never painted green. Again, for some reason, bad luck. And you would never find a peacock roaming in or near a threater because their tail feathers were once thought to possess an evil eye. The NBC peacock must have forever put an end to that superstition.
I'm sure that most of my superstitions originate with my feisty, maternal grandmother, who lived with us during my formative years. She read coffee grounds instead of tea leaves, accurately foretelling the future, as far as I knew, and was the model for the southern "granny" in my first historical novel. I still have the good luck charm she gave me to ward off evil spirits, which seem to be increasing in numbers.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
By Beth Terrell
If you're new to this business of writing, or if you're an old hand who wants to try something new, the first step is deciding what kind of book you want to write. To do that, you might consider what kind of book you like to read. If you love romances, that might be a good genre for you to start with. If you despise romance novels but think you could just dash one off and make a bushel of money because they sell like hotcakes, maybe you should consider another genre. It's almost impossible to write well in a genre for which you feel contempt; readers who love the genre will sense your disdain and resent it.
There are no bad genres. The best of any genre is just as literary as the best literary novel--or darn close to it. (Think Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings.) Since this is a Murderous Musing, let's assume you're writing a mystery or thriller.
Do you like hardboiled detective novels? Cozies? Something in between? Psychological suspense? Mysteries with a hint of the supernatural? Period mysteries (such as those set in Victorian England or ancient Rome)? Maybe that's the kind of book you should consider writing. Let's try an exercise. Write down the titles of your ten favorite mysteries (or mystery writers). Ask yourself what you like about each one and what they have in common.
Let's say you have on your list: Janet Evanovitch, Elaine Vietz, Nancy Cohen, Susan McBride, Parnell Hall, Tamar Myers, Patricia Sprinkle, Donna Andrews, Sarah R. Shaber, and Agatha Christie. You might be more comfortable writing a cozy mystery, possibly humorous with little graphic sex or violence, because those are the kinds of books you like to read.
But imagine you have on your list: Jonathan Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, David Wiltse, John Connelly, Thomas Harris, James Lee Burke, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain, and Philip Margolin. There's a good chance you are going to want to write a darker, grittier story.
What if you have an equal mix of both? Then you might feel comfortable writing several different kinds of books, and other concerns, such as characters and theme, will help you decide what kind of book you should write now.
My list included writers from both of the above lists, but more from the second. I noticed that my favorite books had a serious tone and rich, complex characters: Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware, Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone. I may not remember the plot of A is for Alibi, but I do remember that Kinsey was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her aunt, that she likes small, enclosed spaces, and that she was once married to a gorgeous but irresponsible musician. I read Sue Grafton's books because I like Kinsey. I read Janet Evanovitch's books because I like Stephanie Plum. (Joe Morelli and Ranger have nothing to do with it. No, really... )
What this tells me about my own writing is that I'm likely to be most interested in writing books with multidimensional characters with real relationships. Not primarily romantic relationships, but deep connections. If I look at the book I ended up writing, this turned out to be true. Jared has complex relationships with his brother, his ex-wife, his ex-wife's new husband, and his roommate (a gay man with AIDS). It is these relationships that drive the story and will (I hope) provide a unifying thread through future books in the series.
Sometimes the amount (or kind) of research you're able to do influences your decision about what book to write. When I was brainstorming for the first Jared McKean mystery, my initial idea was for a mystery (perhaps a series) set in the Florida Everglades. To do it justice, I would have had to spend months (if not years) in the Everglades, learning about the plants and animals, how to survive in the swamps, and about the lives, traditions, and beliefs of the Seminoles. I had neither the time nor the money to carry out such extensive research, so that story went on the back burner. Every now and then, it raises its head and lets me know it's still there, but now is not the time for me to write it. Don't get me wrong. I've done a lot of research for the Jared McKean books, but it was research that was within my capability. So the book you write should be the kind you like to read, but it should also be one you can write knowledgeably about, or one that you can (and want to) research well enough to write knowledgeably about.
Another decision you need to make (or at least consider) is whether you envision your novel as a series or a stand-alone. Obviously, if you plan to kill off your protagonist, you're probably not writing a series.
A stand-alone novel has a story arc, in which the protagonist changes or grows in some way over the course of the story. A series character should also undergo changes, but within a single book, these changes may be relatively small. Instead, there is a greater story arc that covers the entire series. Think of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. While Scudder reacts to the events of each book, the major changes of his life take place over the course of the series. He acknowledges his alcoholism, joins AA, and learns to control his urge to drink. He dates a series of women, falls in love with a former prostitute, marries her, and begins to reconcile (after a fashion) with the adult sons of his first marriage. If you envision a series, your main character needs to be a multifaceted character with enough complexity to sustain a reader's interest for the long haul. If your series contains twenty-six novels (A is for Alibi to Z is for...Ziggurat?), your character had better be up to the task.
It's especially important that you like your protagonist and be willing to invest a heft chunk of time with him (or her). If you don't enjoy his company, how can you expect anyone else to? And what if you should be fortunate enough, and talented enough, to write a best-seller? When a million readers are clamoring for more, will you like this character enough to live with her for a decade or more?
Think about it. Make your list. It doesn't have to be ten writers. It could be two. It could be twenty. As long as it helps you understand something about what draws you to a story--and what keeps you coming back for more--it's fine.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Eighteen months ago, I was part of a three day author’s cruise called High Jinx on the High Seas. My participation involved discussions on the writing craft, and also promoted my work. While these commitments kept my wife and I from attending many of the ship’s entertainment events, we did see one show that resembled The Newlywed Game—except in this case, you didn’t need to be newly wed. Two adults older than us became willing participants while their grown children watched in horror. The question presented to the elderly-wed was, “Where is the strangest place you’ve made whoopee?” Their answer? Atop two bar stools they called “Flopsy” and “Mopsy.” Needless to say, the audience roared with laughter with everyone eyeing the children’s reaction. Images of that moment still replay in my head; their parents' red faces, and their peculiar answer. To this day, I can’t envision how two bar stools could be positioned for making whoopee – and I have a fairly resourceful imagination.
So, once again the power in words has everyone thinking, though not necessarily the same thing. But that’s the beauty of imagination. Unlike visual presentations, such as movies or TV shows, books allow each reader their own interpretation of the written word. Perhaps this is why people who have read a book are often disappointed in the movie version. It’s also why movie titles warn us it is “based on” the book.
Oh, the cows in the photo? They're just content Kauai cows, and have nothing to do with writing. Sure, call it a cheap prop to lure you into thinking these cows are named Flopsy and Mopsy. Actually, I would have used rabbits, but I didn’t have a good photo of any. Yes, it’s a shameless ploy, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll remember the bar stools over the cows. In fact, the next time you’re sitting on a bar stool, you’ll can't help thinking about “Flopsy” and “Mopsy”, and then your lips will curl into a smile. You can’t help it. That’s the power of words.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
We’ve gone through a good scenario for a murder in Nashville this past week, and it isn’t over yet. It started on Saturday, Sept. 13, when Hurricane Ike blasted ashore in Galveston. The rumor hit Middle Tennessee that Ike had massacred the petroleum industry in the Houston area and there would be a gas shortage. A panic began the next day, with motorists crowding the service stations.
As people continued to fill up and top off their tanks in the days that followed, the Colonial Pipeline, which provides gasoline for Middle Tennessee, was reported shut down by the hurricane. Long lines formed at stations and some began to run out of gas.
By Friday, a week after Ike hit Texas, hoses on pumps all around the Nashville area were covered by plastic bags, and prices disappeared from the signs. Middle Tennesseans wondered why there was such a shortage here, a week after the hurricane, when the rest of the country was doing fine. AAA reported gas sales in the area were double the normal amount. Panicked drivers had created their own shortage.
By the weekend, the pipeline was back in service and some gas was being delievered, but lines at service stations lengthened and tempers flared.
Enter the mystery writer. Somebody out there had to be looking for a good opportunity to eliminate a troubling rival, opponent, competitor.
The killer stalks his victim until he finds an opportunity to sneak a small explosive device with a detonator beneath the seat of his car. Then he follows the victim to a service station. Taking advantage of the situation, he races up as though trying to get ahead of the guy in line, causing lots of anger and hornblowing.
Amidst all the confusion, the assassin flips him a bird and drives off. About half a block away, he triggers the detonator. When the police arrive, the immediate assumption is that the explosion had something to do with gas station rage (a first cousin of road rage). It delays the search until the killer has had plenty of time to get away.
Okay, it’s not a very original idea. If it were, I’d be using it in a book of my own. But it illustrates the process by which “breaking news” can be turned into a mystery plot. That’s all I can say about it for now, though. I have to get busy looking for a station with gas. My fuel guage is sitting on empty.
Monday, September 22, 2008
You’re at the buzzer on Family Feud. The question is, “Things you’ll find in the Arizona desert?”
Push the button.
"Ccactus” or “rattlesnakes?, one or the other.” You choose. You got a 50-50 shot.
So why have I heard so much about Arizona rattlesnakes, yet not actually spotted one? I've lived in Tucson two years, and I've yet to have a snake-event...of any kind. You’d think by now I’d have a snake farm, maybe snatch a grant to research reptilian weapon potential.
Nada. Nope. None. Not a single snake.
Every year more people are killed by rattlesnakes in the Tucson area than anywhere else in the world. The green Mohave is the most deadly. Bad mojo. It’s aggressive, and its venom is especially toxic. A buddy was biking in a wash and stood his Trek on its fender when he saw a Mohave slither out from behind its bushy cover, ready to greet him. He dove off his ride and was stuck for two hours while the snake used his bike as base camp.
Another friend was hiking and came over a hill in the late afternoon sun. Blinded, she covered her eyes and started down the trail. Rattles. All around her.
Hitchcock should be so scary.
The baby rattlers are the worst. The larger ones know they can’t eat you, so they modulate their venom, just give you enough, supposedly, to scare you away. But the young’uns don’t know any better; they’ll load you up. Same venom, just lots more of it. My landscaper’s friend was nailed by a wee one. It stabbed him as he fished in his tool chest for an Allen wrench. He almost didn’t make it.
Yes, we’re told if one makes enough foot-traffic noise, snakes will move away. But my wife found one in our driveway, a western diamondback, and it was in no hurry to leave. All stretched out, the snake seemed to be enjoying itself, not moving at all. But it separated my wife from the mailbox. At first she thought the snake was dead; it didn’t move at all. But she shuffled her feet, and the snake swung its head.
And tongued her.
You don’t do that to my wife. Not unless you’re carrying chocolate, flowers and jewelry.
Normally, my spouse would have practiced her backswing with the machete, and we’d be having sautéed snake-bites for appetizers, but that day she’d been swimming and hadn’t re-Spartanized yet.
So she pelted the snake with rocks, stomped her feet and yelled. She’s good at that, too.
No rattle, no coiling. The snake just slow-slithered away.
So my wife came inside and alerted me, knowing I’m hot to trot to catch me some rattlers. I wanna play some games with my neighbors.
I mall-ninja-ed up, complete with plated click-and-stick Molle-type vest, tacti-cool cargo pants, parachute cord, personal hydration system, safety glasses, high steel-toed boots, tactical gloves, helmet, knee-pads, a taser, pepper spray, and a six-foot long aluminum pole with a steel squeeze-handle on one end and steel spring-loaded jaws on the other. “Snake-Stick” or something like that. American-made, by Aazel Corporation. Good for long distance snake grabs, plus I’ve found it useful on my bicycle. Neighbor-grabbing, if you get my drift.
Dressed for action, I tip-toed out to the far end of the driveway and then into the desert, looking for slither-signs, round corners in the Etch-a-Sketch Sonoran scape.
I wasn’t as quiet as I’d have liked to be. Some clanking, a bit of pinging, the rub of leather, as my pouches, plates, buckles and slings swung with my step.
Sixty pounds of gear. You try being stealthy.
A promising creosote bush caught my eye, and I heard rattling, although in truth it might have been me. Anyway, I got down on my knees and peered through the evergreen blur. Then, I moved forward, crawling. Kept my head down, used my helmet to brush aside branches and green.
Heard what might be a rattle. I stayed stock still. Moved only my eyeballs. Caught some motion underneath my chin, and I panicked, threw up in my mouth and then had to swallow. Sudden movement might trigger a strike. My jugular was exposed. A bite there, and I wouldn’t make it back to the house.
Imagine my fear.
My eyes focused, and I saw sweat dripping off my chin strap. The drops fell on dried mesquite seed pods, which turned and rustled in the desert detritus. The temperature was a hundred-five, I was scared and wearing sixty pounds of mall-ninja gear. Sweat. Who’d’ve thought?
I exhaled, and smelled my lunch. I found my hydration tube and sucked in stale two-year-old water.
That’s when I felt it. Combustion in my legs. A searing heat. Starting at my shins and moving upward. Stinging, like a bee plague. Burning, like my limbs were on fire. The conflagration pulsed forward.
Flame touched my loins, and I was up and running. Knees high, boots pounding, my arms pumping, I must have sounded like a pan vendor jumping rope. But I was oblivious, too busy screaming and slapping at my body as I hurtled down the driveway.
I stormed through the back gate, straight to the pool. I dove in... and almost drowned.
All that gear, you know. Good thing my wife’s a strong swimmer. Better yet, my life insurance premium was overdue.
When I get out of the hospital, I’m going to Cabela’s for fire ant gear.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
By Pat Browning
More than half of all adults, including one in five of those who say they are not religious, believe that they have been protected by a guardian angel during their life, according to a new survey by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.
The survey polled 1,700 respondents of diverse religious faiths: evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Researchers found that a belief in guardian angels, affirmed by 55 percent of respondents, is a phenomenon that crosses religious, as well as regional and educational lines.
John Ortberg, senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, who holds degrees in both psychology and divinity, believes in angels.
"A lot of times when people hear about angels, they think about these cartoon figures with wings, halos and harps," Ortberg said. "I don't think that's the idea. I think the idea is that we live in a spiritual reality and these are spiritual beings that God's created and we call them angels."
In the Bible, angels are portrayed as messengers, many of whom have the ability to intervene in human lives. Psalm 91 makes textual reference to angels as physical guardians: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways."
People may not be thinking necessarily about angels with wings, but instead about a loved one who has gone before them.
"My guess would be … that something has happened. People were in an auto wreck and there was some event that saved their lives and they interpret it as a guardian angel," Rodney Stark, a professor of social sciences and co-director for studies of religion at Baylor University, said.
Those are excerpts from an ABC World News Tonight segment Thursday night. And speaking of guardian angels, I’m sure I have at least one, maybe more.
They keep a low profile, with rare exceptions. Let me set a scene for something that happened more than 20 years ago.
I ran a one-girl office in the center of the main drag in the small town of Hanford, California. From my desk I could look out through big windows and see everything that moved on the street. Directly across from my office was a café that served breakfast.
On a particular morning, I stopped in at the café for breakfast, paid my bill, and went outside. It was too early for stores and banks to open, and there wasn’t another soul on the street. I waited for the traffic light to turn green, and stepped off the curb.
From out of nowhere, a pickup truck barreled through the intersection in a left turn. I froze in my tracks. Literally. I couldn’t move. I stood there looking at the driver looking at me, his eyes as big as saucers, as his truck headed straight for me.
I can’t explain what happened next. I had the impression of being dragged backward, like a wooden doll. When the truck stopped, I was looking over the hood, and my feet were next to the right front tire, just out of the way, but up against the tire. It was that close.
I came to my senses, glared at the driver, walked around the truck and across the street to my office, where I sat down at my desk and came unglued.
Through the windows I saw the driver park his truck and run into the café like his pants were on fire. I suspect he was headed for the restroom.
I will always imagine a big-shouldered angel dragging me out of the way of that truck. He must have been working alone. With a little help, he could have put me back up on the curb.
Friday, September 19, 2008
I wonder whether some of us are born with a compulsion to write. Many writers have created not only elaborate stories, while still in elementary school, but novels and three or four-act plays.
But why do we write?
Mignon G. Eberhart once said: “I write because I like to, sometimes hate to, but I have to write. I started when I was very young, almost as soon as I could put pencil to paper.”
Fellow mystery writer Lawrence Kamarck added: “I suppose I have a storyteller’s compulsion. I want to tell somebody what’s happening to all of us. I’m convinced nobody really knows but me. And because I want to keep the [reader’s] attention, I tell my story with as much force and drama as possible, within credible limits.”
Pulitzer winner A. B. Guthrie, Jr. told me during an interview that “the fun is having written well.” But he confessed that he didn’t enjoy the actual process of writing. “At the end of the day, I go back over it and say to myself, ‘By golly, that’s right, that’s right.’ And then I’m rewarded.”
So why do we write mysteries?
Ross MacDonald said: “Mystery stories have always interested me because they seem to correspond with life. They deal with the problems of causality and guilt that concern me.”
Loren D. Estleman wrote as an adolescent and sold his first novel at 23. He saw little of his parents because he spent so much time in his unheated, upstairs room, his only companion a typewriter. "I lived in my study and I didn’t have much of a private life,” he said. “It revolved around my writing . . .”
I like Estleman’s description of a mystery. “For me, a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”
I pulled an aging copy of Mystery Writers Handbook from one of my book shelves and found the following quote from the editor, Lawrence Treat:. “Great ‘mysteries are great novels, like Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. And they’re clearly mysteries.”
I then asked my fellow blog team members why they write mysteries. Ben Small, during one of more serious moments, had this to say:
“I write mysteries and thrillers because I love the high stakes competition between good and evil, the uncertainty of justice, and the suspense of the ticking clock as the protagonist puzzles out a solution. Good stuff, escaping into a make-believe puzzle-world where I push the reader to beat me to the solution.”
Beth Terrell said that she loves the fact that the detective puts his own life at risk to protect others. She also loves the fact that “the good guy always wins--or almost always--even if it’s at a terrible cost. I feel like mysteries work on so many different levels. They are ripping good stories, thought-provoking puzzles, and wonderful vehicles to write about real human problems—things that matter. They’re a challenge to write; a good mystery or thriller has to do all the things a literary novel does and weave a gripping plot as well.”
Pat Browning concluded that a mystery is the oldest form of storytelling--with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Sometimes there's a moral, sometimes it's acautionary tale. It reassures us that good triumphs over evil. It satisfies our need to know that everything turns out all right in the end. Contemporary mysteries often have a romantic angle, and a humorous twist In short, the mystery offers something for every reader.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
I've been writing query letters. I have no idea if they're good queries or bad queries. The only thing I can say with any confidence is that I've learned a lot by writing them.
Query. It sounds innocuous and very civilized. Like something Winnie the Pooh might say to Christopher Robin. A one-page query. How difficult could it be?
First up is the brief paragraph explaining why you chose the particular agent you're querying. This paragraph is designed to show the agent that you are a Serious Writer who has done his or her homework and should therefore be considered more closely than all those other hacks who are sending in queries. You get brownie points if this paragraph mentions one or two of the agent's clients whose work is similar to your own.
Some agents make this easy by putting their full client lists on their websites and keeping the lists updated (God bless them). Some expect you to figure this out on your own. I recently read a comment from an agent saying that if she hasn't sold anything by a given author in the past two years, she probably isn't representing that author anymore and doesn't appreciate having him or her referenced. So even if you did your homework, you lose brownie points if it's outdated. Sometimes you find lists, but they don't match other lists about the same agent. I don't know how to advise you on this. Choose the one that's the most reputable and recent. If they're not the same, I'd go for the most reputable. Or do more research. But when you've exhausted your resources (Publishers Marketplace, Preditors and Editors, Agent Query, the agent's website--and blog, if applicable, the acknowledgements page in books that are similar to yours, etc.), you may just have to guess. Your dream agent will understand.
Oh yes. Some agents want this paragraph at the beginning of the query. Some want it at the end. Some want you to jump right into the "plot summary" paragraph (discussed below) and give all the niceties later. But others feel insulted if you don't do the personal stuff first. Try to find out what you can about the agent you're querying and then hope for the best.
Now you're ready for your "plot summary" paragraph, the one where you take those 400 to 500 pages of your masterpiece and distill them into one paragraph. Not just any paragraph, but a tightly-written, scintillating paragraph the sheer beauty of which could stun the very gods (or at least an overworked literary agency intern, which is pretty much the same thing, right?).
Put in lots of specific details, but not too many, because that would be boring and might also result in a lack of clarity. Clarity is important. You have to choose exactly the right details to show that your book has depth and complexity and suspense enough to enthrall readers, keeping them on the edge of their seats. You have to convince an agent that you're not just a competent writer, but the one who is going to knock their socks off. Use short sentences.
But not too short.
And not too long. If your sentences are too long, the agent will assume your manuscript is bloated. Too short, and they'll think it's too simplistic. Think of this paragraph as a postcard by which you will tantalize the agent into booking a trip to your literary world. If your postcard/paragraph isn't perfect, the agent will send you a beautiful rejection. Don''t think of that as pressure. No, really, just don't think. Cover your eyes and write.
Two paragraphs down, one to go. This is the one where you put your credentials, why you are the one and only person who can write this book of staggering genius. (But don't SAY it's a work of staggering genius. You lose more brownie points for that.) This is a very important paragraph. You have to create the perfect balance between humility and confidence. You have to seem personable but not too chatty, professional but not a stick-in-the-mud, easy to work with but never, ever desperate. This is not the place to talk about how many pets you have, or how you have the world's largest collection of Mickey Mouse stamps (unless your book is about a Mickey Mouse stamp collector). It's not the place to talk about how you always wanted to be a writer, even as a tiny tyke. Should you mention writers' organizations to which you belong? I have no idea. Some agents say yes, it lets them know you take your writing seriously, and others say no, that's the sign of an amateur. I'd take a middle ground here and only include them if you hold an office or have a title of some kind. But that's just me. Your best bet, as always, is to research the particular agent you're sending the query to.
Because the most important thing I've learned about queries is that different agents want different things. Some of them are generous enough to tell us on their blogs or websites. Others...well, I'd like to think the ones who don't put preferences out there are the ones who don't sweat the small stuff. After all, writers aren't mind readers. But I may be being overly optimistic. Agents get hundreds of queries a week. They can afford to be capricious.
Where, then, can we get guidance? Nathan Bransford has a wonderful blog in which he graciously offers specific advice about the kind of queries he likes (and he has a lot of great information about publishing in general--how to write a synopsis, how to write a query, and so on). On Query Shark, authors send in their queries to be critiqued, and an agent explains why they do or don't work. Jessica Faust has a good blog, and there are a number of other very good agent blogs out there.
So do your homework. Do your best. And then stop worrying.
After all, it's just a one-page query. How hard can it be?
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
It’s amazing how many images come from a couple of words. We’re all familiar with kids writing “wash me” on their parents’ dirty car, or perhaps it’s something a college kid might do to his buddy's, but I never expected to see those words on a commercial airliner’s wing. I must say, it made me laugh and sad at the same time.
You see, the state of the US airlines hasn’t been good since 9-11. Some of this is due to our sluggish economy, but there are other reasons you’ll never hear about. Compared to most foreign carriers, US airline service is as lacking as their image. That’s where this “wash me” comes into play. It’s only visible when the flaps are extended, so only a mechanic could have been responsible. This was probably a mechanic who has seen his or her pension slip away. He or she is also tired of seeing dirty airplanes; ones that used to sparkle with crisp, clean paint jobs. Disgruntled employees like the one who wrote “wash me” are finding creative ways to let their employers know that things aren’t so great. Personally, I thought this approach was a good one. No one got hurt, and those who notice or care get the point. Or do they?
Anyone who has flown internationally since 9-11 knows that most US carriers do not provide meal service in economy class, and it’s minimal in business/first. Compare this to foreign carriers that provide free drinks in a pleasant atmosphere and it makes the choice easy. I’m not sure what the solution is, but the “wash me” on the wing indicates that Mr. Obama isn’t the only one seeking change.
So, how does this “wash me” on a wing flap relate to writing fiction? It shows that stories evolve from a single thought, generated by one or two words. Think about the mental images created by the words rape, murder, and kidnapped; powerful words indeed. Pick a word and write a story about it. Write as if you’re having a phone conversation, or telling a story over a campfire. If you question your imagination, think of how quickly you could make up a story when you got into trouble in your youth. Never compare your writing to anyone else’s; just have fun with it. You’ll be amazed at how creative you can be.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Basically, I’m an observer, not a participant. I suppose over the years I’ve experienced a modest share of participating. I always dreamed of being a big sports star, but my high school football career lasted only two weeks. When I caught a knee in the mouth and broke off a front tooth, I knew my mother would give me the old Porky Pig line: “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” With problems I’d already encountered, it resulted in a fixed bridge spanning my four front teeth.
World War II came along and I dreamed of flying fighter planes and shooting down Messerschmitts or Mitsubishis. The closest I got to the enemy was watching German prisoners in the chow line at Moody Field, GA. One of my jobs there was filing Air Force Regulations in the Air Inspector’s office. Since I liked to read, I spent most of my time reading the regulations before filing them. (Haven’t found a place to use them in a plot, however.)
As an Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, I combined my observation skills with a little deductive reasoning (prep school for writing crime investigation) to monitor and interpret enemy air activity in the war zone. They gave me a Bronze Star medal for that.
My observer status took front and center when I studied journalism and became a reporter on a daily newspaper. I’ve never been much of a talker, so it took a bit of effort to get the hang of asking questions when on a news assignment. I soon learned to get the maximum amount of information with a minimum of queries. Fortunately, most people, unlike me, are eager to talk and tell you what they know. In an interview with a famous violinist, all I did was introduce myself and he proceeded to regale me with many times as much information as I needed.
I never had much ambition to be a thespian, but I participated in the annual Gridiron Shows put on by Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists). While editing Nashville Magazine, I even took a bit part in a local production of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros. It was actually research for an article on the theatre, so it doesn’t count as pure participation.
I logged more observer time in the fields of advertising and public relations. As a copy writer in the ad agency’s Creative Department, I spent many hours dreaming up ways to glorify products in as few words as possible. Try writing billboard copy. On the PR side, I wrote news releases and brochures and manuals. I wasn’t the spokesperson type.
The closest I came to being a real participant was during the 18 years I spent managing a statewide trade association with over 4,000 members. I had to set up and participate in board meetings and conventions, and I made numerous speeches to local associations. Most of my work, though, was done from the sidelines. I wasn’t a get out front and take the glory guy. I created programs and sold them to my volunteers, who would bask in the limelight and get things moving. Only interested in results, I was happy to observe while they took the credit.
When I became a more-or-less fulltime fiction writer (meaning I have lots of other responsibilities that take up too much of my time), I put my observer status in high gear. The old cliché “writing is a solitary profession” is pretty well on target. But in the current milieu, hand-in-hand with writing goes promotion. I’ve been forced to become a full participant in that arena.
Normally, I don’t speak to people with whom I am unacquainted (or, as they caution little kids, I don’t talk to strangers). I rely on my wife to do most of the ice-breaking at book signings, though I’ve learned to hold out a promo folder or business card to anybody who looks like they might be a mystery reader. I will talk about my books to anyone who will listen. I used to do lots of appearances at book clubs, libraries, and such, but I’ve had to curtail that because of worn out vocal chords. How did I wear them out if I don’t like to talk? That’s another story.
The observer role suits me fine as I pursue my life as a mystery writer. I don’t go as much as I used to, but I see enough of mankind (sorry, no PC womankind or personkind) in all its permutations to satisfy my curiosity about the current scene. If you don’t happen to encounter me in one of my participatory ventures, check out my books and see if you like my observations.
Monday, September 15, 2008
by Ben Small
Cottontails are eating my yard.
They have no shame. I spend half a day planting agave and other cool desert plants that won't impale me on spines, and then I sit in the Jacuzzi and watch as rabbits crawl under or around the ocotillo fencing and munch on my servings. What's the attraction? These aren't tequila-producing agaves. Have you eaten an agave leaf?
But there the ear-heads are, chewing on agave stalks, laughing at me, bouncing while they throw out Wayne-Newton-Dancing-With-the-Stars-like finger thrusts. Yes, and I get bunny-mooned, too. Bad enough staring at any animal's fanny. But when it's a twitchy swaying big cotton ball...well...there's a humiliation factor.
I've tried to get rid of these pests. I've put up chicken wire, but that only seems to trap really ugly lizards that are too dumb to realize that if they'd just back up, they'd be free.
Do lizards have only one gear?
And of course a stuck lizard is not a good thing. My wife starts screaming, and my manly duties are called upon. But how do I untangle Baby Godzilla without touching it and when BG only wants to go forward or to bite me? I can't kill the thing; my wife thinks they're cute. She's got a machete.
Don't think I haven't thought about murdering me some wabbit-meat. But, as I said, my wife carries a machete. After what she did to the pool guy, I thought she'd be delighted to practice her slice-'em-and-dice-'em skills on something other than people. But she thinks rabbits are cute, too.
She told me so.
"You so much as split a bunny-hair," she said, her tone steely, her fingers sliding to the tang of her lacquered leather scabbard, "I'll split your underwear two feet up."
I elected not to push the point. Not then anyway. Gotta plan...
How do I catch a rabbit?
I researched this. Googling "Herd of rabbits" turned up 695,000 links.
A lotta people don't like rabbits.
Somebody actually analyzed rabbit body language and wrote a paper on it? Talk about having too much time on one's hands. Or was this a Washington pork project?
Anyway, I learned something about rabbit-body language:
"* Sniffing — May be annoyed or just talking to you
* Grunts — Usually angry, watch out or you could get bit!
* Shrill scream — Hurt or dying
* Circling your feet — Usually indicates sexual behavior. He/She's in love.
* Bunny hop/dance — A sign of pure joy & happiness!
* Begging — Rabbits are worse than dogs about begging, especially for sweets.
* Stomping — He's frightened, mad or trying to tell you that there's danger (in his opinion).
* Teeth Grinding — Indicates contentment, like a cats purr. Loud grinding can indicate pain."
So if I throw out cookies while my wife is at the grocery store, I can sit back, drop my pellet gun's bi-pod, dial in Gamo's Varmint Hunter optic setup to twenty-five yards, and pick 'em off one at a time with my steel-tipped Savage pellets.
Good stuff this research.
Maybe I'll get a directional mike and amplifier. Tune in to the sniffing, grunts and stomping, record the shrill scream after a pulled trigger.
Yeah, I smell a research project of my own. Wonder if I can get it funded?
Okay, you're shocked. But what other choice do I have? Poison? Then bobcats, coyotes and vultures die, too. Can't have that; I'm hating rabbits here. Trap and release? Gitmo-wabbit? Do you know how these things multiply? Plus, I gotta feed 'em. The little fuzzballs eat constantly. And what if one starves? I become PETA's poster-boy; they'll come at me with automatic weapons. A friend said my pool lured the rabbits, that I enticed them, and they decided to eat while they were here. She suggested I put kibble out, along with a tub of water and a solar recycling pump.
Yeah, sure, build 'em a spa. That'll keep 'em away.
Duck, Bugs. BooYah.
A shotgun would be fun. But shotguns are loud, and we've got an ordinance against gunfire, an HOA prohibition, too. That's why my wife carries a machete.
Can't deny a woman her jewelry.
A shotgun is too Elmer Fuddish. I'm Republican, but not a Fuddite. I prefer stealth. A pellet gun is legal. No powder, no fire; no g-u-n-f-i-r-e. Rule not applicable. And frankly, I'd rather not have cops around while I'm still stalking my neighbor, especially not with our former pool guy rotting in a hole next to my neighbor's driveway.
So Gamo it may be. The only one doing the bunny-hop around here may be me.
And look out Wayne Newton. You should see my finger thrusts.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, this alternative view of the world, which seemed to be spinning out of control, fascinated me. There was the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the war in Vietnam, Charlie Manson’s killing spree.
In the midst of this chaos, I came across this passage from Ross MacDonald’s, The Instant Enemy: “I had to admit to myself, that I lived for nights like these, moving across the city’s great broken body, making connections among its millions of cells. I had a crazy wish or fantasy that some day before I died, if I made all the right neural connections, the city would come all the way alive, Like the Bride of Frankenstein.”
But what if those neural connections were made and the city didn’t come alive?
So, I set out to write an anti-detective novel.
I chose a skiptracer—a finder of lost things—for my anti-hero, Henry Swann. The plot started out traditionally: Beautiful woman hires detective to look for her missing husband. But I turned that conceit on its head by having Swann, a money-grubbing loser working out of a small office in Spanish Harlem, find that the man had been murdered, thus effectively putting him out of a job. But the wife disagrees with the police theory and rehires Swann to find the real killer. That quest takes the cynical Swann halfway around the world as he follows clues showing the dead man had several different identities and led several different, lives, among them a California rock star, a Mexican rebel, a German spy.
The novel ended with Swann confused, disillusioned, and no closer to the solution of the crime. Meanwhile, the police find the perpetrator who had had nothing to do with all the clues Swann so carefully followed.
Editors liked the book, but hated the ending, so eventually I changed it. Swann does “solve” the crime, but I did manage to slip in a little “wink” to my original idea.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
I should be writing a synopsis. I would rather be beaten with a stick.
But looking through my Synopsis file, collected over a period of several years, I found a dandy step-by-step workshop transcript from Beth Anderson, a writer who hasn’t had nearly as much attention as she deserves.
Beth lives in Chicago, and is the author of six published novels. All are standalones, from a variety of publishers.
Two of her books were nominated for the International Frankfurt Award. Two were EPPIE finalists in their e-book incarnations. Her bestselling 2003 release, SECOND GENERATION, won the 2003 AllAboutMurder Bloody Dagger Award, the 2003 Rendezvous Review Magazine Rosebud Award, and the 2003 FMAM (Futures Magazine) Fire to Fly Award.
Her first full-length novel, a Harlequin Superromance titled COUNT ON ME, was followed by ALL THAT GLITTERS (Ballantine/Ivy) and DIAMONDS (Dorchester/Leisure.) Three of her mystery/thrillers were published by Amber Quill Press—NIGHT SCOUNDS, MURDER ONLINE, and SECOND GENERATION.
She is currently polishing her seventh novel, THE SCOUTMASTER’S WIFE — a mainstream suspense thriller set in Valdez, Alaska, where she spent three months doing research.
Herewith, an excerpt from “Writing the Tight Synopsis,” Beth Anderson’s workshop presentation at Autumn Authors Affair XIV. I’m omitting the introductory remarks, explanation of what a synopsis does and doesn’t do, and common mistakes authors make, and going straight to the how-to-do-it.
SO–what does go into a synopsis?
*What happens at the beginning.
*What your lead characters want. What problem they’re each trying to solve.
*What escalating roadblocks, both external and internal, you’ve set up to prevent them from getting what they want.
*What happens at the end. How they solve their problems.
This is very basic; you can create a synopsis that you can make any length, at any time, and send to any number of agents or publishers, each in the length they’re asking for, if you just do the following things.
First -- You have to determine, in one sentence, exactly what your book is about. You can do this. You might think you can’t, but you can, because you’re the author and you’ll be asked this same question many times by people who don’t have all day to sit there and listen while you waffle around over what it’s really about.
So you need to think, really think, about exactly what this book is
about, and how you can describe it in just one sentence. Figure that
out and write it down on the top of a sheet of paper.
Second -- Write one sentence describing your beginning. If you leave out all the fluff and just describe the action, you can do this in one sentence. It’s crucial that you do this, and in only one sentence, because on a one-page synopsis, double spaced, you won’t have that many sentences to spare.
You will run across publishers who just want one page, and you’ll have to give it to them or face rejection, because if they’ve asked for one page only, you know they’re busy and don’t have time to waste. As an aside, many agents and publishers ask for one page on purpose, to eliminate the clutter I’ve been telling you about.
Third -- Write one sentence describing your ending. Just one. Most of your dramatic action will come at the end, but leave out the drama for now and just write what happens at the end, the very climax of your book.
And none of that “they both lived happily ever after” stuff. You want some real action here. Yes, you can do it in one sentence. Remember, the main action in your book will come from your lead characters. That’s all we’re concerned with at the moment, and in fact, throughout this whole one-page synopsis, that’s all we’re concerned with, period.
It’s a given that you will have secondary characters, but they’re
just window dressing, people with whom your leads interact.
If they start interacting only with each other, if every scene with
secondary characters doesn’t directly affect the lead characters
in some way, if it doesn’t advance the main story in some big way,
you need to squash that, because every word you have in this book should be in some way about solving the initial problem between your leads.
Therefore, in a very short synopsis, at the end of the story it’s your leads
that you should be concerned with, and no one else.
At this point, you’ll have three sentences.
First, you’re going to build a one-page synopsis, using these sentences as your base. Keep that first sentence describing your book at the top of the page for now so it won’t get in your way.
Now, in between your beginning and your ending, write your major points of action. What happens, action by action. Roadblock by roadblock. And only hit on the major points of action between your lead characters for now.
Having done that, you’ll have your one page bare-bones synopsis, which will
contain only the high spots of what happens between your lead characters to get them from A to Z. Save that document as, for instance, “onepage.”
Then, with the document still open, save another copy of it and call it “threepage.” That’s the next document you work with.
Start adding in more detail to fill in those three pages. If you’re anything like most people I know, you’ll be insane to start adding in the stuff I told you to cut out, but don’t do it--yet. Just start adding in a little more about the action you already have, if you have room, and more action points. More roadblocks. Only things that are really necessary, given this three-page limit. Leave out all descriptive phrases.
You’ll find, if you have enough action points and roadblock points, that you
won’t really have room for the window dressing details. You might have
room to drop in a bit about your secondary characters, but leave them out until you’re sure you have enough room in these three pages to develop them and their interaction with the leads all through the book. If you’re going into too much detail with them, think about writing their own story, but don’t let it take over this one.
Stop at three pages, and save it as “threepages.” Keep that one open and save (another copy of) it as “sixpages.” Now you’re prepared with a three-page synopsis and a one-page one. Cool, right? And you’re getting ready to expand it into six pages, aren’t you?
You’re doing this completely backwards from any way you’ve ever thought about before, and it’s working. That’s because you’re doing it logically, from the inside out.
You can do this any number of times, always remembering to save at one, three, six, eight, ten, twelve pages, however many you want, never changing the initial details that were on each page, because every time you embellish these pages into a larger synopsis, you want all of the prior details to remain the same on all copies. That way, your synopses will all say the same thing and be the same
story, except that there will be more in the longer synopses.
By the time you get to a twelve-page synopsis, which you’ll almost never be asked for, you should have a pretty good working outline there, which was built from the ground up using your bare bones synopsis, and which will definitely carry you all the way through the book.
Excerpted with Beth Anderson’s permission. You can read the entire article, along with other workshop articles, at her web site:http://bethanderson-hotclue.com/
Note to self: What are you waiting for? Just do it!
Friday, September 12, 2008
by Jean Henry Mead
Unnecessary hospital deaths equal that of auto accidents, breast cancer and perhaps even strokes. A recent report from Forbes lists the hazards we face while confined to a hospital bed. Between 40,000 and 100,000 patients die every year due to surgical mistakes and drug mix-ups, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Mistakes during surgical procedures include scalpels left in the patient, wrong limbs amputated, excessive bleeding and heart failure. Infected incisions are likely and can be serious because hospital germs are resistant to physician-used antibiotics. Bacteria that thrives in ventilator machines, which help patients breath, frequently cause pneumonia. If water pools in the ventilator’s hoses, bacteria can move from the stomach into the lungs.
Infections are one of the leading causes of patient deaths. One study reported that doctors only wash their hands 44% of the time. If they know they’re being watched, they wash them 61%, a good reason to present your doctor with a bottle of hand sanitizer that you can watch him use.
Dr. Brent James, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Institute, said, “The notion that you can train doctors to completely avoid mistakes is just false.” And no one’s immune to those mistakes. In California, Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins were given blood thinners a thousand times the recommended dosage, and comedian Dana Carvey was the victim of botched bypass surgery. Fortunately, all three victims survived.
Evan Falchuk, president of Boston-based Best Doctors, said, “Doctors and nurses spend insufficient time with each patient. Many doctors are seeing between 30 and 40 patients a day.” And because patients outnumber the resources to treat them, hospitals often place people in the wrong wards with nurses and aids untrained to treat their illnesses. Placing patients in the wrong hospital wings invites the spread of airborne infections.
A study by Auburn University concluded that hospitalized patients may get the wrong drug three times out of five, and advised doing away with prescription pads and scribbled doctors' handwriting. Systems that rely on bedside computers are gradually being replaced by wireless tablets or handheld computers. Some hospitals are now using bar codes on patient’s wristbands as well as drug vials to cut down on possible mistakes, which still happen much too often.
Hospital tests can also be dangerous. The problem is that most screenings don't work that well. Many yield false-positive results, which lead to unnecessary, risky treatments. Other tests work, although the results are usually not known in time for patients to take preventative measures.
The National Cancer Institute has been conducting trials to determine whether computerized chest X-rays can reduce deaths caused from smoking by detecting early lung cancers, which are usually found too late. There is also evidence that X-rays and cat scans can cause cancers, themselves.
Evan Falchuck of Best Doctors said that although patients don’t have control of scheduled surgeries, it’s best to be your own advocate. “People want someone to wave a wand and fix the problem,” he said, but “if you’re sick, the best way to avoid getting sicker is take charge of your care.”
And I might add, several ounces of prevention are worth a pound of hospital cure. Most illnesses can be prevented by avoiding stimulants, getting 15 minutes of early or late sun daily, exercising, eating right and getting 7-9 hours of sleep. (Growing your own food would help, if you buy the right organic seeds.)
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Tuesday evening as I was leaving for work, my husband, Mike, called me on my cell phone to tell me Luca, "might be limping a little." To understand the anxiety this elicited, you need to understand several things:
1) Luca is exceptionally small for his breed. He weighs a grand old four pounds eleven ounces, half the size of his litter mates, with a delicate build and spindly little legs like a deer--or maybe a fairy. He wasn't bred intentionally to be so small; he just turned out that way.
2) In April, he broke his left front leg. I was lifting him over the baby gate so I could go to work, and about four inches from the ground, he squirmed out of my hands and landed in exactly the wrong way. The little leg bone just... snapped.
3) As a result of the above-mentioned accident, he had to have a metal plate surgically inserted, after which he had to be kept quiet for eight weeks. This means that he either had to be in his crate or being held. No small feat for a little guy of a year old.
4) The cost was...well, let's just say that after a day spent weeping in bank offices, I was saved from having to refinance my car by a substantial loan from my mother.
5) I am completely, absolutely, utterly in love with this dog.
So when Mike said Luca was limping, for just a moment, my heart stood still. Finally, I managed, "The one he broke?"
"No, the other one. His..." There was a pause while he looked. "His right front leg."
By the time I got home, "maybe limping a little" had become a no-doubt-about-it, walking-on-three-legs injury. Not an obvious break like the one in April, but still...
I took him to the vet the next morning, and fortunately, the injury turned out to be a sprained elbow. A few pain pills and a few days rest, and he should be fine. In fact, the limp is barely noticeable today. Even so, I'm struggling against the urge to make him a little suit of armor from bubble wrap.
Instead, when his sprain is healed, we'll go back to our canine freestyle classes. Canine freestyle is heelling and tricks to music. It's often referred to as dog dancing. We're still beginners, but it gives us something fun to do together, and it gives something to aspire to (see border collie Fly as "Gladiator Dog" and Carolyn Haines and her golden retriever Rookie dancing to "You're the One That I Want").
Luca also helps me write. Generally, that means snuggling next to me or in my lap while I type, but in my most recent book, I gave him what was meant to be a bit part. I did it so that, when I get my publishing deal and begin my book tour, he can go with me. Brilliant, right? His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness draws the crowd, which then stays to buy my books--or at least to have a conversation that will make me seem less desperate and more in demand. Then I realized I needed a reason for the good guys to know the bad guy is sneaking into their house, and suddenly, Luca's bit part is a major plot point.
This is the serendipity of writing. Everything is fodder. Things we think are completely unrelated end up on the page. The things we love (and hate and fear) find their way into our stories. This time, it was Luca. Next time, I have plans for Karma, our 15-year-old Tibetan Spaniel. After that, who knows? From dog dances to bigfoot festivals to public Laundromats, everything we experience makes us better writers.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
All living humans fall into one of three categories: religious, agnostic, or atheist. Where one falls will determine their outlook on life and death. I’m not a church-goer, but I do believe in God, and talk to him frequently—cussing not included. I have escaped too many brushes with death to be a non-believer. I also know too many “ghost stories” to deny their existence. Perhaps that’s why I include occasional references to other realms in some of my stories. After all, good fiction always raises questions.
I’m not foolish enough to discuss specific religions since it has spawned continuous wars since man first uttered spiritual words. However, I am intrigued by the possibility of communicating with ghosts, and how they may affect our lives. Are there really people who can converse with spirits, or is this a fabrication intended to ease the pain of grieving for their loved ones? Is it possible to have Guardian Angles watching over us? Can people be reincarnated? Beats me, since I haven’t crossed over yet, but when I do, I’ll send you a note. Hopefully you’ll receive it.
France’s Duke of Chantilly was so convinced that he would return as a horse that he built a horse barn that rivals Versailles. (See photos.) I suppose it’s possible that the duke is still a resident there—assuming that once you’re a horse, you keep coming back as a horse. Or perhaps the duke had his shot as a horse, and now he’s a barn cat. One thing’s for sure—no animal came up to me speaking French, so if the duke was there, I didn’t meet him. Then again, it’s a big place, so maybe he missed me. How ironic would it be if the horse the duke is riding in the statue outside of his horse barn was actually him in his next life? That could make an interesting story, don’t you think?
There are so many questions about the afterlife that it’s clear every culture ponders it. Consider Zombie folk lore; do the dead really rise, or are they just doped-up believers wondering around—like Zombies? Did Egypt’s pharaohs continue their lives in another dimension as they believed they would? Again, I don’t know, but one thing is for sure; our fascination with the next dimension is bound to continue for as long as we live. And therein lies the mystery.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Where do you get your ideas, people are always asking writers. I got to thinking about this and realized at my age it’s a matter of which ones do you keep and which ones do you toss out. If you follow the old dictum of write what you know, that boils down to what have you experienced?
I haven’t done everything, of course. I never climbed Mt. Everest or swam the English Channel. Somehow those never got on my to-do list. Heck, I never even ballooned across the Straits of Gibraltar or parasailed in Paraguay (just threw that one in for the sake of alliteration).
I wish I could remember more about all the places I’ve been and seen. My Dad liked to maneuver cars over bumpy roads back when that was about all we had. When I was quite small, we drove to places like New York and Chicago, where my mother had siblings. All I remember of New York was the bed that pulled out of the wall in my aunt’s flat and getting scared out of my gourd on the Observation Deck at the Empire State Building. You could walk right out and gaze down from the railing in those days.
All I recall from one trip to Chicago was getting bonked in the nose by a baseball while playing with cousins who spoke a strange language called Yankee. I have only vague recollections of attending the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934. I was eight at the time. Looking at photos on the website, I saw one at the Enchanted Island on the Midway that could have been my mother bending down talking to me.
It’s funny how you remember little snapshots of the distant past. I recall a ceramic washbasin and water pitcher in a tourist cabin on U.S. 41 somewhere north of Nashville. They had strips of flypaper hanging around to trap the flitting varmints.
The memories become more vivid as I aged a bit. On one trip to Florida to visit a great uncle who had a farm near St. Augustine, I had another frightening experience as a result of fog on the road leading into the town. Due to conditions resembling a whiteout, Dad missed a turn and we wound up at the edge of the Atlantic, with the surf slurping around the tires.
I have since traveled around most areas of the U.S. and in several foreign lands. My first trip to the Far East, and my first shipboard venture, came in 1952 courtesy of Uncle Sam and a bit of unpleasantness called the Korean War. I have a 16-page letter I wrote to my wife during the voyage over aboard the USNS Gen. W. F. Hase. Today I read all the way through it for the first time since I wrote it. In it I mentioned working on a mystery story, but I have no idea what happened to it. I haven’t run across it in the last 56 years.
My first overseas junket since Korea came in 1984 when my wife and I embarked on an almost three-week grand tour of Europe. Traveling with a group from Nashville, we landed in Amsterdam. Our bus took us to Cologne, then we cruised the Rhine to north of Heidelberg, driving on to Munich where we took a side trip to the Concentration Camp at Dachau (it was a gray, dreary day that set the mood for the horrors experienced there). From southern Germany we traveled to Lucerne, then Innsbruck, and through the striking Brenner Pass to Venice.
After doing the mandatory gondola ride and touring St. Mark’s Square, we headed on to Florence, climbed the Leaning Tower in Pisa, and drove to Rome. This was one of our three-day stops to make time for the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Catacombs, and a side trip to the Tivoli Gardens. Then it was up the coastal highway to the French Riviera, Monte Carlo and Nice. After hitting the major spots in Paris, we traveled to Calais, boarded a hovercraft to Dover, and wound up in London. We had another three-day stop to see such sights as Westminster, the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, and a cruise on the Thames. We made a day trip to Bath and Stonehenge, then headed back to Atlanta.
As an association executive, I attended annual conventions all over the U.S., including Hawaii, plus Acapulco and Toronto, taking side tours in the process. In 1987, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, we spent a month touring the Far East with my son, who was in Army Special Forces, and daughter-in-law.
We began at Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area. Since I’m an Air Force retiree, my wife and I flew from there to Tokyo aboard a C-5 for $10 each. From Tokyo, we flew to Korea on a C-117. It was my first visit to Seoul, where I was stationed in 1952-3, since the war. What a change. We also toured Okinawa and Singapore, including the Tiger Balm Gardens (now called Haw Par Villa). In Thailand, we visited a plethora (I don't use that word in books) of Buddhist temples in Bangkok, crossed the Bridge over the River Kwai, and flew north to the mountain town of Chiang Mai (I understand the city has grown considerably since my visit). While there we shopped at a village where they made colorful umbrellas of all sizes and watched elephants haul logs at an Elephant Nature Park.
From Thailand we headed to Hong Kong. We visited a friend’s daughter’s high-rise condo that looked over what was then a British colony, dined at an interesting Chinese restaurant (what else), shopped the Kowloon malls among hordes of Orientals, and enjoyed speedily crossing the bay on the Star Ferry. Our tour ended in Manila, where we bused out to the Subic Bay Naval Base in hopes of getting a space-available flight back to the States. After a day at the Cubi Point Air Station, it became obvious we’d have a long wait, so we returned to Manila and flew home on Northwest.
Shortly after my wife died early in 1998, I took a 14-day Holy Land tour with my brother’s Sunday School class. We flew into Amman, Jordan, visited the striking stone-carved facades in Petra, then moved on to Israel. We hit most of the main biblical sites from the Old and New Testaments. Some of the more striking were Masada, the Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives, the Temple Mount, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, and the Golan Heights. We wound up touring Haifa, Tel Aviv, and the ancient port city of Jaffa.
My last major foreign fling took place in August of 2000 after Sarah and I were married. We did a tour of France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We saw more of Paris than on my 1984 trip, visiting the Louvre and Eiffel Tower among others. We also visited General Patton’s grave in Luxembourg. Most of our time was spent touring Austria and Switzerland. We took the cog railway from Zermatt up to a perch above 10,000 feet, looking across at the majestic Matterhorn. We visited the cheese town of Gruyere, Zurich, Berne, took a boat ride on Lake Geneva, covered much of Austria, including Vienna.
I took my first non-military cruise last fall with my high school alumni group. We sailed out of Mobile on Carnival's smallest ship, making ports of call at Cozumel and Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula. Unfortunately, Sarah has an inner ear problem, and the Gulf of Mexico was not kind to the small ship or to her. I enjoyed the trip, though I can't say that was the case for Sarah.
So, the question is, has all this traveling experience made it into my books? Not as much as it should have, probably. But my first published mystery, Secret of the Scroll, is based on my trip to the Holy Land. Some of my earlier novels yet to see the likes of a typesetter involve several of my travels. One takes place in Korea, another has portions in Hong Kong.
I haven’t given up on using lots more, however. Stay tuned.