Sunday, February 18, 2018

TAKE COVER!


“You can’t judge a book by its cover.’

Oh, really? Have you scanned the covers of the “romance” novels that populate the best-seller lists, particularly those devoted to self-published eBooks.

Unless you are suffering from a terminal case of macular degeneration, a book cover showing a long-haired, muscular young man ripping the clothes off a sultry and bosomy woman should give you a pretty good idea of the prose you will find within. 

In case you are still in doubt, try these titles on for size: The Earl’s Inconvenient Wife; Marcus Wilding: Duke of Pleasure; How to Catch a Wild Viscount; The Desperate Love of a Lord; The Earl’s Desire, and Dukes for Dummies.

OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.  The “Bodice Rippers”, as these actual purple-prosed books are called, are hugely popular, both in print and online. In addition to the catchy titles (did earls, lords, dukes and “wild” viscounts really get that much action? – it would certainly explain why England lost India), many of the covers are works of art and could be hung in, say, the lounge of a local Holiday Inn.

The world is awash in books, and except for those (print or otherwise) which are heavily advertised or promoted, or whose innate quality generates enough word of mouth to insure success, most need a lot of help to get noticed. Thus, their authors strive for unique covers and catchy titles.

I know I strive. And I’m constantly tinkering with my sales model. I write thrillers and mysteries, and my early covers and titles were probably too dark. The cover art featured lots of weapons, and I used the word “blood” too often in the titles, which probably convinced people I was trying to cash in on the vampire craze in publishing. (Not that I wouldn’t have loved to.)

The blood and weapons are mostly gone, at least on the outside.  Handsome men and women (bodices intact!) now dominate my cover art, on the assumption that more readers might be attracted to them – rather than a stiletto dripping blobs of gore (yes, that was an old cover; go figure). 

Even though all the inspired titles have apparently been taken by romance novelists (see above), I enjoy coming up with my own. And I have learned a few tricks. It seems that any book that has the word “Conspiracy” in its title often sells better than its peers. I’ve only used it once. In my other books I’ve been hampered by the fact that you can’t use the word if there isn’t an actual conspiracy involved in the plot.

Unless your desire is to write that one great novel that will be remembered forever and result in having many high schools named after you, you should think about giving your books a chance of success by learning what readers like – both on the inside and outside of those books.

I don’t mean to imply that an author should tailor his or her work to fit a fad, or to squeak it into a genre it doesn’t belong. In the end, it’s quality and integrity that counts. We shouldn’t sell out, just to make a few extra bucks.

Well, enough for now. I have to finish my latest thriller, The Bodice Rippers Conspiracy.   

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

OFTEN PLOTLESS, NEVER CLUELESS


To plot, or not to plot?

Aye, there's the rub, as Shakespeare would say.

I wonder if the Bard plotted his works. Did he, say, outline Coriolanus? The mind boggles. I believe Sidney Sheldon once admitted that he didn’t plot his novels, preferring to start with an idea and then see where it went. In effect, he liked to write himself (and his characters) into corners and then write his way out of them.

(If you  are wondering if anyone has ever put William Shakespeare and Sidney Sheldon in the same paragraph to make a point, I am, too. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. My only excuse is that, like Sidney, I’m not sure where this column is going. By the way, Sheldon, author of The Other Side of Midnight and Rage of Angels and creator of TV shows including The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart is no one to sneeze at. He happens to be the seventh-best-selling fiction writer of all time. I don’t know where Bill Shakespeare ranks.)

But I digress. I don’t plot. I usually have a general idea about what I want to say, but sometimes not even that. I write thrillers and mysteries, with three different protagonists: two private eyes and one C.I.A. assassin. I’d guess that in probably half my books, I started out with an idea and filled in the blanks. In some of those novels, the idea could have worked with any of my protagonists, so I usually chose whichever series was due up for bat.

In the books that weren’t particularly idea-driven, I just started with the protagonist (again, whenever he was, basically, next in line) and then wrote. Crazy as it sounds, the stories usually came to me. Maybe that’s not so crazy. Isn’t that how life is? At least my life. I’m the kind of guy who goes to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread and winds up needing help carrying all my bags to the parking lot.

Writing without a plot, or with only the vaguest idea of one, does have its advantages. You can adapt and take advantage of current events and trends. For example, I once started a thriller in which some college football players abuse women. Sad to say, based on new headlines I had to include the NFL.

Look, I must be doing something right. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me: “Where did you get that great plot?”  

I guess I shouldn’t have written this blog. I told you I didn’t know where I was going.  


Sunday, January 28, 2018

I LOVE VILLAINS!


In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio, who in his quest to woo Portia borrows money from Shylock, at one point says, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind”, which has been loosely translated to mean, “I don’t like it when a villain acts nice”.

Au contraire. Far be it from me to disagree with any statement originating from the Bard’s quill, but I like it when villains act nice. In fact, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to write a thriller or mystery in which all the bad guys and gals are one-dimensional scuzzbuckets. I’ve always hated books and movies where characters show up as faceless mountebanks and are immediately dispatched (often after being shot in the face), just to show how mean they are and/or how heroic the hero is. Of course, every work has to have a couple of “Star Trek Extras,” characters whose only job is to die, usually quite horribly. (John Scalzi wrote a hilarious sci-fi novel, Redshirts, about such characters – from their point of view! Once the doomed crewmen figure out they are dependable plasma-fodder, they not only stop volunteering for dangerous “away-team missions” they start hiding from their officers. The book won a Hugo Award in 2013.)

My “good” miscreants are far from pussycats. They do some really nasty things, including pushing a nice old man in front of a subway train, strangling a war hero, poisoning lovers, rubbing out witnesses, torturing people with lighter fluid and decapitating an obnoxious author (now, who hasn’t wanted to do that?). I should point out that these things happen in several different novels. I don’t want people in white coats or the Feds coming to my door. And I should also note that some of the villains who perpetrated the aforementioned mayhem got their comeuppance. But not all! A few actually proved quite heroic, or at least useful, in the end.

I’m not a big fan of political correctness, so I spread my villainy around: man, woman, straight, gay, person of color (all hues), old, young, Nazi, Commie, Democrat, Republican, mobster, priest, alien. (I kid you not. I’m working on a book with aliens in it; real ones, not the undocumented kind, although my aliens’ papers are also probably fake.)

Now, I will admit to a practical reason for making villains interesting.

More words. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. Fleshing out characters, even the bad ones, adds length to a narrative. I don’t think I’m particularly good at describing things: houses, rooms, furniture, flora – you name it. I also have a tough time describing what people look like, and occasionally resort to comparing them to real people I hope my readers recognize. In the case of villains, that’s how I humanize and soften them a bit. If your assassin looks like Amy Adams, how bad can she really be even if she is garroting someone? Of course, there is a danger in this approach. Times and tastes change. I remember Ian Fleming describing James Bond’s resemblance to songwriter and actor Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy Carmichael?

I give my favorite villains, whether I kill them off or not, plenty of backstory and internal ruminations. This is easier to do in my third-person narratives, where I can look into everyone’s mind while standing back from the action. (Blood splatter can ruin a nice pair of loafers.)

First-person narratives are more dicey, since other than in prologues and similar devices the hero and the reader only find out how good or bad people are through their actions and dialogue while in the narrator’s presence. But it can, and should, be done.

People aren’t just one thing. And your characters shouldn’t be either.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

ALIVE, AND KICKING


John Semley once wrote an interesting article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Death of the Private Eye”, which was not about the demise of a particular gumshoe (think Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon) but about the entire genre in print and film.

Needless to say, I found the article interesting because that is the genre in which I write.

Semley suggested that modern technology has made the traditional private eye – the dogged hero of so many wonderful novels and films – largely irrelevant. In this era of smart phones, the Internet, GPS and drones, how hard is it to nail your cheating spouse? Your next-door neighbor’s kid could probably get the goods for you.

OK. You may not want the little snot to know your personal business, so you might hire a private detective (or, more likely, an “investigative service” with dozens of ex-cop operatives working on their fifth and sixth pensions). What used to take 50 pages in a thriller now takes a few strokes on a keyboard. Case closed. Here’s your bill. It’s unlikely that the electronic “detective” will uncover the obligatory murder or other mayhem that would fill out the other 150 pages. It’s hard to stumble over a dead body when looking at a computer screen.     

Moreover, if there are any crimes, the super-sleuth police detectives working at the city, state and Federal level will solve them before an old-style private dick’s morning hangover eases. The airwaves are replete with crime dramas where cops locate criminals using portable fingerprint scanners, embedded GPS chips in cell phones and surveillance cameras. Then there is the ubiquitous “facial recognition” technology. I saw one example on a Castle rerun where a techie identified a suspect by her ear, the only part of her head visible in a surveillance video. Apparently, there is a law enforcement database of ears. I immediately went out and bought some Q-tips.

Heck, a few years back there was a Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, set in the not-too-distant future where the police identified and collared suspects BEFORE they committed a crime.

Does all this really mean that today one can’t write a private-eye novel?   

Au contraire. My stalwart heroes can now solve crimes that they (meaning I) have no right solving. I have invented databases and electronic investigative shortcuts that can’t possibly exist in the real world (although after the ear thing I may be wrong). And I don’t feel bad about it. I bet Raymond Chandler wished he could have used something to tie up all the loose ends in The Big Sleep, his masterpiece, which, he admitted, made no sense even to him!  

My point is, I think many people read private eye novels not to see how a crime is solved, but for other reasons. They want to see injustice punished. And they also like to see a lone wolf stick his or her finger in the eye of the establishment, while still maintaining a basic decency.

Recall the aforementioned Miles Archer, the private eye who gets himself shot at the beginning of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  His partner, Sam Spade, doesn’t even like him. In fact, he had an affair with Archer’s wife. (That tells you something about Archer’s competence as a private investigator, even before he lets himself be lured into an alley to be plugged.) But Spade is determined to avenge Archer’s murder.

“When a man's partner is killed,” Spade says, “he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.”

A police officer certainly believes that; we expect that kind of team loyalty from a cop. But a private eye who hews to such a code of honor may even be more admirable.

And who doesn’t want to be like Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, who in The Big Sleep is insulted by a spoiled rich girl who says he is not very tall. To which he replies, “Well, I try to be.”

If today’s crop of fictional private eyes wear out less shoe leather than their predecessors, who cares?

There is still a need, in fiction and in life, for men and women who, Chandler writes, must go “down these mean streets” without being “tarnished nor afraid” and who will “take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge”.

Authors aren’t the only people who need characters like this. We all do.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

JUST THE FACTS! HUH?


I am often asked whether I preferred writing “facts” for newspapers rather than the “fiction” I now attempt with varying degrees of success.



I can honestly say that I much prefer the latter, since it has become much more believable.



In my books, the really evil villains usually wind up dead or in prison. (I say “really evil villains” to differentiate them from some of the other bad guys and gals I create who have a moral code and who often prove useful in bringing the real slime buckets to justice.) I know many thriller writers like ambiguous endings, where justice doesn’t prevail and the heroes – and the readers – just become more cynical. I prefer a happy ending, no matter how many people I have to slaughter.  



When I was a reporter at The New York Times, covering Wall Street, very few of the people who stole hundreds of millions of dollars (they would be considered pikers now!) were ever punished. And those that were received sentences out of all proportion to the damage they inflicted on small investors and the economy. The combined years they spent in prison probably wouldn’t add up to the stretch given a single street-corner crack dealer.



The more recent Wall Street criminals (and there are always recent criminals) haven’t fared much worse. I’m not talking about Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford (a man I knew and helped bring down, by the way) who were given life sentences for their billion-dollar shenanigans. They, and a few others, were only exposed when the WORLD’S economy was brought to the brink of collapse by the establishment’s financial hooligans – who caused trillions of dollars of chaos. Their punishments, while richly deserved, provided cover for the big financial Kahunas who not only went unpunished but were also given taxpayer-financed bailouts, some of which went into bonus checks.



Recall the story of the family stranded at sea with a sick baby, and the subsequent media debate about whether the government should charge the parents for the cost of their rescue by the Air Force and Coast Guard? Sanity and compassion prevailed, preventing the following headline:



U.S. RESCUES BANKS FOR A GAZILLION DOLLARS;

CHARGES FAMILY WITH SICK BABY $9,234.64.



My point is this. In the “real” world, we have to put up with injustice. In my fiction world, I can shoot, stab, dismember, boil in oil, decapitate and otherwise dispose of horrible people. When at the Times, I could only try to describe their “alleged” crimes.



(Don’t you just love the word “alleged” in the media. A man can shoot the person singing the national anthem at home plate on opening day at Yankee Stadium in from of 60,000 fans and the N.Y.P.D. Marching Band, then grab the microphone from the dead vocalist’s hand and confess on national TV, and he’ll be referred to as the “alleged” killer.)     



You will notice I said “try to describe” the financial schemes. No entity other than Big Blue, the I.B.M. computer that can’t be beat at chess, could probably figure out what some of these shysters did. Take “high frequency traders” who front run stock orders. That is, they learn what people are buying and then use faster fiber optic cables to get their own orders in a nanosecond ahead of the market, thus stealing billions from normal investors.



You notice I said “stealing”, not “allegedly stealing”.



That’s because I write fiction and can tell the truth.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

THE OLD GENRE CURVEBALL


My last blog was about sex, so I have been a bit perplexed about how to follow up on that. Actually, the blog was about crafting sex scenes; like most writers, I talk a good game.

So, today, I think I’ll talk about genres and point of view. (I can almost hear people turning off their computers, but hang in there; I’m going to throw in some sex!)

My primary genres are thrillers and mysteries. My novels are not what can be described as literary (as anyone who has read one of my sex scenes can attest). I am beginning to experiment with other genres, including science fiction. Not the science fiction of Dune or the Ming-the-Merciless fantasies of weird civilizations in other universes where everyone has a name spelled off an eye chart, but rather stories about what science may look like in the not-too-distant future.

I know I have to be careful, since things are moving at such a pace that the “fiction” part, no matter how outrageous, may be fact before you know it. When I was in high school, I was fishing under a clear night sky with my cousin Al, ruminating on the origins of the universe. (It was a slow night; the fish had better things to do.) Anyway, I suggested that “in the beginning,” as they say, there was “nothing.” Then, for no particular reason, all the heavier “nothing” got together and formed the universe.

We thought that was quite hilarious. (There may have been beer involved.) But, a couple of years later, there was an article in The New York Times by some distinguished physicists saying basically the same thing. Only they used bigger words and threw in the Big Bang Theory, so that people wouldn’t think they made it up out of thin air (or, maybe, a vacuum). Just for the record, neither Al nor I pursued our theoretical leanings; we discovered girls. Probably couldn’t have gotten into the prestigious universities those physicists were not teaching classes in, anyway.

Another genre that I’m toying with is children’s books. My wife and kids have been pressuring me for years to write down some of the “Cowboy Bob” stories I told those kids when they were little. The pressure has mounted now that there are grandkids allegedly dying to read the stories (the oldest of whom who has already written one on his own because, as has been pointed out, he isn’t getting any younger).

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, some of my tall tales were only slightly less ridiculous that my universe-from-nothing idea. For another, it’s hard to switch from writing thrillers for adults to penning a cute story about the Old West for a child. My first attempt brought a gentle chiding from my daughter-in-law that I might want to tone down the abductions and killings a bit. That may take some doing, since those were the two main entertainments of both the settlers and the Indians at the time. But I’m going to give it another shot.

I mean, attempt. 

Now, for point of view. My thrillers are written in the third person, which allows me to get into the heads of all the characters and describe scenes away from the action, so to speak. The mysteries are first-person, because it’s easier to leave things to be discovered by the reader when the protagonist doesn’t know where he or she is going. (No snide remarks about writing sex scenes in the first person, if you please.)

Of course, I occasionally “cheat” in the first-person narratives, using prologues and similar devices, typically in the third person, to set up a plot device. I know some authors have experimented by writing in the second person. I can’t quite get my head around that. All I can say is that you must be a hell of a writer to pull that off. And how do you write a sex scene in the second person? It must be an out-of-body experience.

Hmm, come to think of it, that would probably work well in science fiction.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

WRITING SEX: IT'S NOT HARD (THAT DIDN'T COME OUT RIGHT)


Today I will deal with a subject that bedevils many authors: sex.

Not the act itself, which bedevils everyone between puberty and senescence (and maybe after senescence — but if you can’t remember what you are doing, why bother doing it?). I mean the sex scene, which is even more difficult to write than the notorious soufflĂ©-making scene.

Why are sex scenes so tough? Well, for one thing, if you’re writing a cookbook, they don’t really fit in. Besides, why put yourself through the torture of a sex scene after explaining how to make a soufflĂ©? (Books about Mother Teresa or puppies probably shouldn’t have a sex scene, either.)

For another, writers whose novels contain a lot of sexual activity often worry about backlash from their family and friends, whom they fear may be:

A.  Offended. This is known as the maiden-aunt syndrome. Not to worry. These ladies usually have an attic full of steamy, semi-porn romance novels where bodices are ripped off with the frequency of a broken campaign promise.

B.  Perplexed and/or humiliated. Even mild sex scenes may cause your children to change their name and move out sooner than expected. (This may not be an altogether bad result, assuming the children aren’t still playing with Legos.) So what if your kids are embarrassed? If they give you a hard time, ask them how they got here. And have you checked to see what they’re looking at on their computer lately? You’ll be the one blushing.

C.  Terrified. This could be a real problem. If you write a violent chain-saw sex scene, be prepared to see everyone flee the table when you pick up the knife to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

D.  Derisive and/or suspicious. Another real problem. This applies to spouses and significant others who want to know why you don’t do with them what you describe so luridly in your books (or, worse, whether you’re doing it with someone else).

There are, of course, other possible reactions, which may include a visit from the police. But that should not deter you from writing a sex scene, gratuitous or not. After all, I read that Susan Somebody just got an eight-figure advance from a mainstream publisher for books she has yet to write that will be in imitation of another writer who got an even larger deal for her sex-dripping romance novels.

To differentiate your work from the bodice-ripping and Fifty Shades of Grey crowd, there are some words that should be used sparingly or avoided entirely. They include: engorged, throbbing, turgid, pulsing, spouting, spurting, tumescent, and spavined.

I’m not sure why I included spavined, which according to the dictionary means “old and decrepit, marked by damage, deterioration, or ruin.” I came across the word in Gone with the Wind a million years ago. I think Margaret Mitchell was referring to horses, but it sounded like something to do with sex, so it stuck with me. I don’t plan on writing about horse sex, but if I ever write a scene about senescent sex, it’s going in there.

Another word to avoid is “spent,” particularly if the parties involved include a hooker, in which case the phrase “he was spent” may have an entirely different meaning and may confuse the reader.

If you’re going to use graphic sex in your novel, use it strategically. It’s the buildup to the big moment(s) that keeps readers from turning on the TV. But when you write the scenes, be bold. Avoid titillating euphemisms, which are more annoying than the “colorful” words mentioned above. To paraphrase Freud, not everything is a cigar. You don’t want your readers to think you are verbally spavined.

I write thrillers. The sex, like the murders, keeps things interesting. My characters live on the edge, are often violent, and are fairly young. Of course they have sex! (Always before they get killed, I hasten to add.)

Most of all, enjoy writing your sex scenes before you get too senescent to remember what you’re writing about.


TAKE COVER!

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ Oh, really? Have you scanned the covers of the “romance” novels that populate the best-seller ...