Thursday, March 26, 2020

A POX ON ALL YOUR PROSE!

Wow. It’s amazing how events can overtake us.

I promised in my last column to continue my “truth is stranger than fiction” ruminations, detailing scenes in some of my thrillers and asking you to guess which I imagined out of whole cloth, and which actually happened.
Seems a bit of overkill now, with what’s going on pandemically.
But, just to finish the thought: ALL the incidents I have already mentioned REALLY happened to me. I may have embellished them in my writing, but, hey, that’s my job. I also changed the names to protect the guilty (me). When things calm down, I hope to revisit the topic.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting piece by an author who opined that this might not be the best time to start writing a virus-disaster novel. It’s fine to take notes, but perhaps we should let the dust settle to provide some perspective.
However, in a similar light, don’t you find it weird that many novelists and screenwriters in the past have written about “unlikely” catastrophes that are now in the headlines: “The Andromeda Strain,” “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and, of course, one of my favorites, “2012” (a movie that came out in 2009!).

Thank God our politicians are always prepared for the worst. Not! 
I myself have written a couple of thrillers (The Viron Conspiracy and Thawed), in which the world is threatened by disease. Fortunately, we all survive, mainly because most of my thrillers are in series form and, well, you know. Of course, in Thawed, I do manage to mess up the Kentucky Derby, and, sadly, so has the current pandemic.

I have four grandkids. The three in Connecticut (ages 14, 12, and 10) are readers. So, I ordered some age-appropriate books for them which I hope mitigates, somewhat, their cabin fever:
I also have a toddler grandson in California who can’t read yet, although I’m pretty sure he can handle an iPhone better than I can.

Finally, there is a letter making the Internet rounds, purportedly written by F. Scott Fitzgerald while he and his wife, Zelda, were under quarantine in France during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1920. It is a parody, easily vetted by his claim that Hemingway punched him in the stomach when told the bars were closed (F. Scott supposedly asked Ernest if he’d washed his hands).

However, there is a great line: “The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy.”

Friday, February 7, 2020

A HEAD CASE?

I won’t belabor the controversy surrounding American Dirt. I see both sides of the debate about whether an author who does not have personal experience of a culture can write about that culture.
But if push comes to shove, I’d probably be more sympathetic with the argument that fiction writers can say whatever they want (and live with the criticism, of course).
I certainly wouldn’t want to censor their books, because that smacks of book-burning fanaticism. 
I’m often asked where I get my ideas for some of my bizarre plots and scene descriptions. Some of the folks who do the asking look askance at me, especially if I’m holding cutlery.
So, what follows are brief synopses of scenes already in my thrillers and mysteries, or that will eventually make it into future books. Try to guess which actually happened to me, and which just popped out of my addled, martini-influenced brain.
  • The Poison Pen: A man is concerned because his wife is one of the few women on the block who hasn’t received a scurrilous note about spousal shenanigans (fanny pinching, propositions at parties, etc.). He and his wife are, of course, prime suspects, although innocent. His wife finally gets an anonymous poison-pen letter accusing him of maintaining a messy yard. Outraged at this perceived slur on his masculinity, he asks a cop friend to find out who’s sending the letters.
  • The Log That Wasn’t: A fisherman in Cuba has a lure caught on a tree branch. He can reach it by stepping on a log jutting out from the shoreline. But the “log” isn’t a log. It’s a huge barracuda nuzzling by the bank. When it rolls its eyes and flaps its fins, the fisherman somehow stops in mid-stride and mid-air, avoiding becoming dinner.
  • Religious Experience: A priest takes some friends down a winding staircase into a large room below the altar. The room contains a full bar, complete with burly bartender on duty. The place, with a door opening to a street behind the church, was once a speakeasy. Now, church groups such as the Rosary and Altar Society use it for meetings.
  • A Head for News: Just after dawn, a young reporter visits the site of a just-discovered car wreck from the night before. He is allowed by the police to peer into the front seat, where the driver lies dead. The corpse has no head. “Check the back seat,” a cop helpfully suggests. Sure enough, there it is. The driver had been decapitated by a pole. The reporter, who’d had a bad night (although not as bad as the driver), doesn’t lose his breakfast (as the cop probably hoped), but instead can’t wait to write his lead.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

GET RICH SLOW SCHEMES

In a recent column, I addressed the black cloud that hovers over most writers: the fear of rejection.
I pointed out that some of the world’s most famous — and eventually richest — authors (Jack London, Jack Kerouac, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Mario Puzo, and Alex Haley, to name a few) could have papered the Superdome with the letters they got from agents and publishers who told them they couldn’t write.
I was, of course, talking about “traditional” publishing. Now, thanks to Amazon and others, anyone can publish a book, both in digital and print form. There are millions of such books out there. Many are self-published by people who went the traditional route and were rejected.
One has to wonder if some of the authors mentioned above would be household names if they wrote today. I mean, suppose if a modern Jack London decided after, say, 300 of his total 600 rejections that he would self-publish White Fang on Amazon!
A few self-published authors strike it rich, such as Andy Weir with The Martian (one of my favorite books and movies). But most desperately struggle to grow their readership. And, thus, they become prey to gurus who claim to offer the secrets of success.
Now, I’m not saying that ALL the advice available is worthless. Some isn’t. Amazon itself offers great “how-to” instructions on publishing and hints on marketing. Smashwords, too.
And I’m not talking about the plethora of self-published writing and publishing guides, mostly digital, available on Amazon and elsewhere. I have a couple on Amazon myself. But it’s definitely caveat-emptor territory, even though many of them are very inexpensive.
I am talking about the email solicitations I and thousands of others get for “free” marketing training. If you register for one of these “seminars,” which usually run an hour, you are told when and where to sign in electronically. At the appointed time, your computer screen is taken over by one or two gurus who offer PowerPoint presentations. (I don’t mean that your computer is literally taken over; you can always sign out.)
If you hang in there, you will be given 10 minutes of background on the presenters, who have “sold” millions of books using their systems (begging the question of why they are giving seminars). The backgrounds usually highlight how they left boring careers and are now independently wealthy (more begging needed). They also occasionally include pictures of their adorable children and dogs.
After that, there is usually a list of crucial ideas they will cover, and then interminable explanations of the obvious. I say “obvious” because most of the ideas are basic and free on Amazon or available for a pittance as an e-book. Reader magnets (look it up), email funnels (I think this has something to do with magnets, but I’m a bit hazy), advertising, Internet links, etc.
(A disclaimer: My writing guides deal mainly with characters, style, and tone, and state shamelessly and repeatedly that I hope people read my thrillers.)
Near the end of the “seminars,” participants are usually encouraged to sign up for a paid course. The initial sessions are interactive, and participants are encouraged to type in questions and comments. I suspect this is a way to identify people inclined to sign up.
None of this is illegal or as egregious or expensive as, say, Trump University. And if you want to devote an hour to being told you are wonderful, or if you need a boost to continue writing, go for it.
But, as you might guess, these seminars are aimed at getting into your pocket. There’s a cottage industry devoted to aspiring authors. There are writing workshops, conferences, retreats, and the like, often very costly. I’m not saying that they should be avoided. They are a good way to meet other authors, some famous. Everyone likes to schmooze once in a while. I’ve attended one or two conferences and came away energized and inspired.
I’ve even participated as a speaker at the Independent’s own Washington Writers Conference. I was brilliant, by the way, and got some nice photos with Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame. That conference was much more enlightening than a huge circus-like one I attended years ago in Manhattan, which I wound up parodying in my book Killerfest.
Then there are courses offered by some prestigious magazines, which offer “online writing workshops [to] cover every aspect of writing; from how to get started all the way to getting your project published.” They feature classes “for every type of writer, no matter your skill level.” Ouch!
Some even allow you “to gift courses to your fellow writers!” Wow!
 Here are some courses offered:
  • Building Your Novel Scene by Scene, for those who “want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down.”
  • Writing the Personal Essay, which helps writers “identify values expressed in their stories and to bring readers into the experiences described.”
  • A Boot Camp that “will teach you how to put together a dynamic yet professional submission package that will show agents you take your potential author career seriously.”
Other courses include: Advanced Novel Writing; Fundamentals of Fiction; 12 Weeks to a First Draft; Writing the Mystery Novel; Writing the Paranormal Novel; Writing Women's Fiction; Writing Nonfiction 101; the Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing; Writing Science Fiction; and Advanced Horror.
“Advanced Horror” is advertised as a “workshop.” You couldn’t pay me to take that class!
My gut instinct about all of this? Your time would be better spent writing.   

Friday, November 1, 2019

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES

In my last column, I dwelled on what most writers fear: Rejection.

I used as examples some of the world’s most successful authors (Jack London, Jack KerouacGeorge OrwellSylvia Plath, Mario Puzo, John le Carré, Alex Haley, Tony Hillerman, to name a few), whose work initially garnered more rejection letters than I get solicitations for credit cards. Which proves that publishers and banks are equally clueless!

I have received a fair amount of such letters, but rejection is not my biggest bugaboo.


Truth is. Yes, truth.


I suspect that many fiction writers incorporate real-life experiences in their work. I know I do. I have experienced many of the things that happen to my characters.

For example, in my novel Sound of Blood, one of my characters recalls how, as a young fisherman in Cuba, he once almost stepped on a huge barracuda, thinking it was a log jutting out from the shore. That actually happened to me on a break from the Guantanamo Bay post I was manning while in the U.S. Marines. And, like my protagonist, I also saw 100-pound tarpon jumping out of the water like minnows to avoid being eaten by a huge hammerhead shark. And I did see and hear a 2,000-pound manta ray hit the water like a thunderclap. (Needless to say, we didn’t do any swimming in that bay!)


My book also contains a golf game that my buddies mercilessly point out is fiction because I never could make any of the shots I described.


Many of the financial crimes I use in books I witnessed as a reporter for the New York Times. But although I have military and journalistic experience and know my way around crime and weapons, the brutal murders or other violent activities that I detail are derived from my imagination.


And while I am a normal, red-blooded American male, the weirder sexual escapades I include, sad to say, are also the result of a fertile imagination. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)


The “truth” I am referring to is the kind that might hurt someone I know. Thus, in my fiction, I go to great pains to disguise people and events. Not that some of my characters don’t share traits with my acquaintances and friends. I just try to spread them out so that no one person can say, “Hey, that’s me!”


Of course, careful as I try to be, some folks have told me they recognized themselves in one of my books. Fortunately, these fictional characters have been fairly nice people, and their actions admirable.


In some cases, the people who “recognized” themselves were mistaken. I didn’t base the character or trait on a real person. If you write a scene in which a person is nice to a puppy, lots of people identify with that. (I don’t know anyone who would kick a puppy, but I’ve stayed away from that scene, just in case.)


But what about nonfiction? I have thought about writing about my true-life experiences as a journalist, particularly my years at the Times and Forbes. I’ve met some interesting people, good and evil, over the years. I could probably sanitize my accounts, but that seems like a cop-out.


I’ve also thought about a memoir. But for it to be interesting, I’d have to reveal some embarrassing family secrets, warts and all. I just finished My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (author of The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, etc.), in which he is very candid about his family members, some of whom make my barracuda look like a goldfish. He wrote it before he died and while most of his relatives (some of whom would not speak to him again) were still alive.


My family, while not perfect, is nowhere near as disturbed as his. But to be safe, I suppose I could wait until everyone I might hurt is dead.


Or until I’m dead, which would also solve the problem.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

REJECTION!

There is always the danger of a columnist going back to the well once too often. That’s particularly true of writers of a certain age, who can be forgetful. Fortunately, that doesn’t apply to me.

Fortunately, that doesn’t apply…ONLY KIDDING!

Anyway, I checked my old columns (thank the Lord the Independent keeps a wonderful archive) and feel secure that I can safely return to one of my favorite topics: Rejection!

So, for those who have felt the sting of having our novels lambasted by critics, this blog is for you. (Catchy! Probably make a good beer commercial.)

  • Jack London (you may have heard of him) accumulated 600 rejections before he sold his first story. THAT IS NOT A TYPO. I have to think that, were I in London’s snowshoes, I’d have been howling at the moon like White Fang.
  • After a mere 21 rejections, an obviously easily discouraged Richard Hornberger started using a pseudonym. As Richard Hooker, his debut novel, MASH, becomes a huge bestseller. Oh, yes, they made a pretty good movie out of it, and I think the TV series had a decent run.
  • I love this one: “He hasn’t got any future.” You would think this was written about someone on death row, not John le Carré just before the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Le Carré has penned about a zillion bestsellers since.
  • Jack KerouacGeorge OrwellSylvia Plath, and Mario Puzo. You probably also heard of these losers. The Alfred A. Knopf publishing house turned all of them down at one time or another. 
  • A classic: “We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” That’s what a publisher told Tony Hillerman. I wonder how his bestselling Navajo Tribal Police mysteries would’ve looked if he’d followed that advice.
  • Alex Haley got 200 consecutive rejections, which is really impressive if you are not named Jack London. His novel, Roots, sold 8 million copies.
  • As readers of my blog know, I’m not a big fan of James Patterson, who now uses a stable of co-authors to write his novels (as he himself admits). But 220 million sales later, I wonder how the 31 publishers who first turned him down feel.
  • Finally, this probably says it all. There’s a famous business-management concept that holds that people tend to rise to their "level of incompetence." It was formulated by Laurence J. Peter, who thought his idea would make a pretty good book. Editors who validated his thesis at 30 publishers disagreed and turned him down. In 1969, The Peter Principle became a number-one bestseller.

Remember: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

INSPIRATION!


“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I think I got this quote from Oscar Wilde right. It should be every writer’s mantra — up to a point.

"Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." A quote usually attributed to Thomas Edison. I’d like to substitute the word “writing” for “genius” — up to a point.


I believe that writers should be themselves, have their own voice, and not mimic others. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be inspired by others, or even use some of the tricks of the trade that have worked in the past.


While I find some of my own writing devilishly difficult and demanding, I would guess that “inspiration” plays much more a role in my creative thought process than 1 percent.

I take my inspiration wherever I can get it. As I have alluded to in previous columns, I believe that while a good reader is not necessarily a good writer, most good writers are good readers. As a thriller writer, I read and constantly reread my favorite thriller authors. Some of my Ian Fleming and Robert B. Parker books have become so dog-eared that I’ve had to buy new editions.


But I don’t only read fiction. Currently, I am on a Winston Churchill kick, having just picked up Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts from the library. This 1,000-page biography, published in 2018, is less of a slog than I thought it would be. I only got it because I was interested in World War II history, a subject I touch on considerably in the book I am now writing.


Initially, I skipped to the period just before and during the war, because I find Churchill’s speeches so invigorating. (As did much of the Free World at the time: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” is a quote attributed to both Edward R. Murrow and John F. Kennedy.)


But, then, I decided to start the biography from the beginning. It turns out that Churchill was a great writer from early childhood who came up with certain rules he knew would make his listeners and readers pay attention. I long knew that he liked powerful words and alliteration, and have tried to emulate him. (See “devilishly difficult and demanding,” above!)


Churchill was a great reader all of his life. He emulated writers in earlier centuries, particularly Shakespeare.


“Emulated” does not imply plagiarism, although in many of Churchill’s speeches, it was obvious that he reworked phrases others had used, or which were in common usage. In today’s Google-ized world, Churchill and many of his contemporaries probably would have been called out, and their political careers destroyed.


Think about it: We might all be speaking German if that had happened to Winston!


Of course, many of today’s political leaders are in no danger of being accused of plagiarism. Some don’t even use the English language properly. Or only use a fifth-grade vocabulary. It’s hard to accuse anyone of stealing from 10-year-olds unless you’re caught with their bikes.


In any event, in writing your books, be yourself, but don’t be afraid to inspire yourself with the styles and cadences of past masters.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

THICK SKINS

Is joining a critique group really a smart step?

Many writers of fiction, if they are honest with themselves, are pathologically insecure. They are doubters, second-guessers, Monday-morning quarterbacks, and pessimists. It doesn’t matter if they are successful or not. Their literary glass is always half empty.
To survive, novelists must develop a thick skin. They take criticism badly, mostly because they’re already their own worst critics. They often secretly believe some of the other critics are right.

I am not a big fan of writers’ groups. You know, where writers, usually in a similar genre — mystery, thriller, romance, erotica, etc. — get together and critique each other’s work, offering suggestions and, presumably, support. Perhaps that is because I had a particularly bad experience once. Invited to help form such a group, I found myself at the first meeting being lavishly praised by one participant and unmercifully shredded by another.

I might have weathered that, but both had read the same book at issue! One thought I had real talent. The other thought I had real nerve publishing such drivel. Neither offered suggestions, just gushes or scorn. I left, never to return.

On reflection, I believe that neither critique had merit, since neither person who read my book had written one of their own. They wanted to be novelists. I suspect that a writers’ group of published authors might be more valuable. At the very least, every member knows how other writers feel. So, they are likely to be a tad more circumspect in their comments, good or bad.

I also have a jaundiced view of scathing reviews on Amazon. My good reviews far outnumber the poor ones, so I take some comfort in that. But I used to agonize over the bad reviews. The only ones I take seriously now are those that deal with typos and grammar, which I try to fix in later editions when appropriate.

I say “when appropriate” because some of the grammatical phrases that are criticized are intended to be ungrammatical. A character who is an illiterate thug would not speak the King’s English, after all. Even some of my smarter protagonists often use contractions or slang. I ignore suggestions that I clean up such language.

Some Amazon reviewers complain about there being too much violence or sex in my books, despite covers and blurbs that foretell just those fun things. They also apparently don’t watch any television or go to the movies. There are other reviewers who think my plots are too fantastical and the events described couldn’t possibly happen in real life. 
Again, they apparently don’t watch TV or read the paper.

So, I have developed a thick skin. But I still am wracked by insecurity. For example, in my soon-to-be-released mystery, my characters are involved in the world of cryptocurrencies. Prior to two recent research trips to San Francisco, a crypto hub, I knew virtually nothing about bitcoins (a common terminology for any cryptocurrency, although Bitcoin is the name of the original, and most expensive, of the bunch).

I took many notes and have done more research since, but I’m certainly no expert. Since I explain cryptos in the book, I’ve had to turn some arcane terminology into words that humans like me can understand. I think I did a credible job, but I have doubts.

Which will never go away.   

A POX ON ALL YOUR PROSE!

Wow. It’s amazing how events can overtake us. I promised in my last column to continue my “truth is stranger than fiction” ruminations,...