Saturday, April 21, 2018

A HAIR-RAISING TALE!


As not enough of the world knows, I write thrillers and mysteries, 17 and counting. I love doing it and have gathered some great reviews from people I don’t even owe money to.

But I’m only human and can’t help being a wee bit envious of more financially successful authors. (“Wee bit” might be an understatement; should anything untoward happens to some of the authors, I’ll probably be a prime suspect.)

Needless to say, when I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I often wonder if I could duplicate some of the mega-authors’ success by imitating them. That is, by switching genres.   

The temptation is powerful. And, of course, sex comes to mind. No surprise there. The Mayo Clinic did a study in which it found out that the only time the typical American male doesn’t think about sex is when he is playing golf and his thoughts revolve around suicide. (I just made all of that up.)

Fifty Shades of Grey, originally a self-published ebook by British author E.L. James, has now been read by a gazillion people, all lured by the abusive, demeaning, sadistic, violent, sexually perverted relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey, who apparently has no visible means of support except his billions.

Hell, I could write a tender love story like that!  

But I have decided not to go that route, at least until I can think up a suitable pseudonym. Instead, I have started a series of children’s books. (Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?)

My wife has been bugging me for decades to write the Cowboy Bob bedtime stories I told my two boys when they thought I was the cat’s meow and listened to me. (They were VERY young.) Unfortunately, I do not remember most of the original stories. I’m just happy to recall that it was Cowboy Bob, and not, say, Cowboy Fred. I considered using some of the Cowboy Bobs I now tell my grandkids. But at the last recitation, Bob was chasing a one-armed alien through Alaska.  I may have to tweak that plot a bit before I publish it.

So, I’ve started from scratch.

To tell you the truth, I had no clue where scratch was. But Turner Classic Movies came to the rescue with Meet Me in St. Louis, the 1944 film about the four beautiful Smith daughters and their social quandaries when the family patriarch tells them they have to move from St. Louis, which is about to host the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a delightful Judy Garland movie in which Margaret O’Brien, playing little Tootie Smith, easily steals every scene she’s in.  

So, I’ve set my children’s books in 1904 St. Louis, where my version of Tootie and her older brother run into a geriatric Cowboy Bob, who relates stories of the Wild West even more amazing than the World’s Fair.

Of course, a children’s book has its own challenges, especially for someone who writes thrillers heavy on mayhem. The Wild West wasn’t called the Wild West for nothing. My earliest effort raised some eyebrows (two of which were on my daughter-in-law, the mother of my grandchildren) because I introduced a little color. The color was red. So, out came any references to scalping and other hair-raising (I couldn’t resist THAT pun) activities. I have to say, writing about cowboys and Indians (I know, they are Native Americans; I explain the context in the book) without scalpings and massacres is not easy. But I managed it. I feel pretty good about that.

I also feel pretty good about not trying to capitalize on the current wave of books dripping with perverted sex. So, I hope you read my first Cowboy Bob book, Fifty Shades of Buffalo.

Only kidding. That’s not the title.

       










Friday, March 30, 2018

BOOKS GO TO WAR!


Shortly after our hairy and smelly ancestors climbed down from the trees, they discovered that long pieces of wood tipped with sharp points not only discouraged sabre-tooth tigers but also put Wooly Mammoth meat on the table (where there were more empty seats, since the uncooperative mammoths often stepped on the hunters).

 The more literate among the un-stomped cavepersons (although they couldn’t have known they were literate since the word hadn’t been invented) soon found out that by dipping smaller versions of those sharp points in a liquid – probably mammoth blood – they could start writing books. (I’ve skipped over cave paintings as a story-telling medium, mainly because they were probably done with fingers, which annoys the hell out of me since they are much more sophisticated than anything I can do 30,000 years later.)

 The first books were non-fiction. With a life span that didn’t extend much past puberty, most people didn’t have enough experience to make up stories. How can you write about all the problems you had growing up when you didn’t? A little-known fact: Only one in ten cave-teens even made it to the senior prom.

 But once people started living long enough to remember how rotten life was – dad invented wine and was drunk every night; mom ran off with the camel driver; my boyfriend slept with that tart from the next-door cave – novels were invented. Not long afterward, the ancients discovered plots, and promptly used up all the good ones even quicker than they exterminated the unfortunate mammoths. I’ve previously noted in this space that plot lines have since been in a bit of a rut. I posited that most of the good story lines (murder, love, incest, matricide, etc.) were developed by the Romans, and before them, the Greeks, and only refined by such Johnny-come-latelies as that Shakespeare fellow.

 But novels have persevered, to the point where trees were in danger of becoming as extinct as a hirsute elephant, at least until the Kindle came along.

 Did you know that books helped us win World War II? No really. I’m not making this up, unlike most of the previous paragraphs.

 Molly Guptill Manning’s wonderful “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” describes how American librarians, outraged by Nazi book-burning, sent 20 million hardcover novels to the troops at the outset of our involvement in the war in 1941.

 Many of the books were classics, including “The Great Gatsby” (which Molly notes was “rescued from obscurity” by the program). The Government quickly recognized the morale-boosting implication of the initiative and with the help of the publishing industry jumped on board. Those in charge, however, didn’t want GI’s jumping out of planes or landing craft burdened down with “Gone with the Wind” and other massive hardcover tomes, so they provided soldiers with 120 million Armed Services Editions (ASEs), small paperback copies of the approved books (thereby basically creating the paperback industry!).

 Thus bucked-up with the written word, our ASE-armed soldiers beat the pants off the Axis. (An aside: I’ve been reading about those rotten Nazi’s when a documentary about German wartime aggression came on TV. Two hours later I had this incontrollable urge to annex the Rhineland.)

I wish that I’d known all this when a Marine sergeant named Tarver upbraided me for reading in my bunk. He said, in effect, that while books were nice, they didn’t win wars. I actually don’t think he used the word “nice”, and since he wanted me to clean the latrine I’m sure the fate of the Republic was not at stake. I was incensed, which explains how I can remember his name so many years later.

 Guess what, Sarge? Books do win wars. At least the ones worth fighting.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

RAYMOND CHANDLER

There is a marvelous book: The World of Raymond Chandler (In His Own Words), edited by Barry Day.


As a thriller writer myself, I didn’t think I had so much in common with Chandler, the acknowledged master of the genre.

We both like cats and cocktails.

What? You expected me to say that we are literary equals? There aren’t enough martinis in the known universe to make me say something like that. (By the way, is there an unknown universe? How would anyone know that?)

Chandler never wrote a memoir or autobiography, so the surest insight into his mind (at least his literary mind) is through his novels, short stories, letters and the many interviews he gave after he became famous. Day’s book is loaded with excerpts from all those sources, as well as fascinating photos of Chandler and his contemporaries.

I’m ashamed to admit that most of my previous exposure to Chandler is through the movies made from his novels, including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. But as I’ve just learned from Day’s book, there was a lot more to Chandler than Bogie and Bacall.

American-born but classically educated in England, Chandler spent time in France and Germany and leaned the languages of both countries. He returned to the United States but when World War I broke out joined the Canadian Army and fought on the Western Front, surviving battles that basically annihilated his unit. After the war, he tried his hand at business in America, but didn’t like it and found out he could eke out a living writing for pulp mystery magazines. His talent was soon apparent and he won a book contract.

Moving to Los Angeles, Chandler basically reinvented the private eye novel; Philip Marlowe being his greatest creation. He also helped to reinvent Los Angeles, at the least the noirish, corrupt city that most of us imagine the “City of Angels” was in the 1950’s.

Chandler is justly famous for his descriptions and similes, many of which are so good they made me want to go out and get his books. (I did pick up The Big Sleep.) The World of Raymond Chandler has many of his best lines, but there are Internet sites devoted to “Chandlerisms”. 

Here is a sampling:

"I never saw any of them again - except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks."

 "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."

"If you don't leave, I'll get somebody who will."

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

There are literally hundreds, maybe, thousands more. Do yourself a favor. Pick up a Chandler.









Saturday, March 3, 2018

GRINDING AXES


When I’m reading a novel, nothing annoys me more than an author who interjects his or her own prejudices and/or politics into the narrative.

Except, of course, if I’m the author.

Truth is, I can’t help myself. I have a lot of axes to grind, and where better to grind them than in my thrillers and mysteries. In everyday life, when I spout off, it’s usually after the second martini, and everyone stopped paying attention to me midway through the first. But in a novel, after I’ve presumably hooked my readers with a few murders and sex scenes, I can usually say something that I think needs to be said. Hey, it’s a free country.

In various books, I’ve taken aim at Wall Street greed (like shooting fish in a barrel), as well as  academic elitism, the publishing industry, the media, unethical politicians (there may be a bit of redundancy here) and the sports establishment.

I try not to overdo it. I’m not writing polemics. I fully understand that most of my readers are more interested in other things (see murder and sex, above). And an author must pick the appropriate time to slide an opinion in the story. For example, it would be highly inappropriate for a couple locked in a steamy sexual encounter to stop what they are doing to reflect on the mid-term elections.

“Oh, God,” she moaned, writhing in the sweat-soaked satin sheets.

“Yes,” he gasped. “Now they will try to impose tariffs on aluminum.”

“Oh, God,” she screamed in ecstasy.

“Beer cans are made out of aluminum!” he shuddered.

 And I recognize another danger, of course. Sometimes I have to give a character an unpalatable opinion, usually in a conversation. Such conversations define the character as a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist, a sexist pig, ax murderer (as opposed to ax grinder), pederast, serial killer, or even a Red Sox fan, in ways that I assume (hope) the reader doesn’t associate with me.

 My protagonists are basically moral people, who usually know right from wrong and are offended by injustice. (I say “usually” – one of my characters is an assassin, but he only kills bad people.) When they offer an opinion, you can be pretty sure it’s one I hold.

Interestingly enough, some of the villains in my books (not the ones preceding the Red Sox fan above) also have a moral code, and I like them to express it on occasion. In fact, I think a societal pariah’s righteous indignation is a very powerful arrow in an author’s quiver.

Bottom line: If you are occasionally tempted to insert your own feelings into a narrative, succumb to the temptation. After all, you are what you write.

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.

A HAIR-RAISING TALE!

As not enough of the world knows, I write thrillers and mysteries, 17 and counting. I love doing it and have gathered some great reviews...