Monday, August 6, 2018

WE MAY ALL BE OUT!


In these contentious times, a free and vibrant press is more crucial than ever.

Many mid-sized newspapers still depend on print advertising for the bulk of their revenues and have not succeeded in monetizing their online presence (if they have one). This does not bode well for them. As more and more people gravitate to the Internet for their news, the necessity for ink-based reportage will diminish, to the point that fewer big-city papers will survive. In New York City, for example, the tabloid Daily News has just slashed its staff by 50%!

I suspect that The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, our two “national” papers, may make the cut, and, perhaps, the Washington Post (beltway politicos like to see their pictures). And, of course, the weeklies that serve small-town America (many of which are free) will hopefully endure. But everything in between may go the way of the Triceratops.

On a personal level, I find this all very sad. In the early 1960’s, my family moved to Staten Island. I spent my freshman year at the local Wagner College, where I was on the baseball team. One day I was returning home when a neighbor sitting on a porch yelled over to me. Staten Island back then was more like Iowa than a New York City borough.

“Nice game against Manhattan,” he said.

I was stunned and wondered how the man knew I went two-for-four at Manhattan College the previous day. I hadn’t even told my mother. So, I asked him.

“It’s in the Advance today,” he explained.

“What’s the Advance?”

He showed me. In the sports section of the Staten Island Advance was a small story about my heroics on the ballfield. The story was slightly off. It credited “Larry De Maria” with two singles (or “bingles”, in local sportese) when one of my hits was actually a double (someone more fleet of foot probably would have legged out a triple). But I didn’t care. I was in the paper!

I was astounded to learn that just about everyone not in Pampers on Staten Island read the Advance, which had a circulation of 70,000 in a borough of 200,000 people!     

I kept that baseball clipping in my wallet until it fell apart. I eventually replaced it with clips about my two sons’ athletic prowess. (By the way, those two hits were the only ones I ever got. I don’t even remember why the coach put me in that game. I think the team was ravaged by the bubonic plague, and he was shorthanded. Ahem, be that as it may, I did bat .500 in my college career.)  

A few years later I wound up working at the Advance, which kick-started my journalistic career. I had much bigger stories when I eventually wrote for The New York Times, but I never felt more like a journalist than when I covered various “beats” on Staten Island (mostly politics and crime, which meant I was often writing about the same people).

Today, the circulation of the Advance is reportedly below 40,000, in a borough of 500,000 people! A paper that was once a must-read is being crushed by the Internet. (Sad to say, my Pampers analogy may not hold water (!) any more, since Staten Island now has many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where many of the paper’s loyal readers now reside.)

Was the Advance perfect? No. (Remember that double I never got credit for? I do.) Did I agree with its political bent? Rarely. Did I clash with my editors when I worked there? All the time, especially when they were right. I was a young know-it-all pain in the asterisk.

But the Advance in its heyday was the quintessential home-town newspaper. It covered ball games (down to Little League and bar teams); marriages, deaths, promotions, accidents, crime, elections, Rotary and other civic meetings, church groups, you name it. Staten Island communities were towns with names (Tottenville, New Dorp, West Brighton, Rosebank, Midland Beach, Port Richmond, St. George, and a dozen more). The Advance covered them all. It made Staten Island, Staten Island.

There once were hundreds, maybe thousands, of such papers in this country. And they have died or are dying.

In the near future I seriously doubt some kid will walk home and have a neighbor yell out, “nice game”, unless his Mom put it on Facebook.










Sunday, July 22, 2018

MURPHY'S LAW


“Even paranoids have enemies” is a quote usually ascribed to Henry Kissinger, although some people claim Golda Meir said it to him when he accused the Israeli Prime Minister of being paranoid about her Arab neighbors. Personally, I like to think Henry stole it from Golda. I’ve always thought he was too sneaky for his (and our) own good.

But whoever said it, the quote could be a motto for thriller writers. At the very least, it could be my motto.

I’ve written about where I get my ideas for my thrillers, which basically explain how I get them. I noted that some ideas – reworked, of course – come from old movies (thank you, Turner Classic Movies); many from current events, and even some from dreams, when I can remember them. I used to keep a pad next to my bed to jot down notes of what I can recall when I wake up; most of such scribblings I quickly destroy, lest they appear in a future commitment hearing. Now, I keep my iPhone handy, and usually email myself a note. (Thus, no doubt, leaving an electronic trail that will be used at a future hearing.)

The where and how of my creative process, and those of other thriller writers, don’t explain the why. Many people watch TV, read the papers and dream, without trying to write a thriller or mystery. I’m not talking about talent, or ability, or the facility with the written word. Again, many people are good with words, and may even write well. They may craft lovely poems, stirring memoirs, fine literary novels. But not thrillers.

I think all thriller writers have must have a touch of paranoia. Well, maybe more than a touch, in my case. Prior to my book-writing days, I once sat on a non-profit board where, a few days after a particularly contentious meeting, one of the directors with whom I clashed invited me – out of the blue – to go fishing on his cabin cruiser. I had just watched the episode of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano took his pal Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero out on his boat and rubbed him out. The guy who invited me owned a construction company. That was enough for me. I passed on the fishing trip, and then had to listen to the lug brag about all the fish he caught!

I’ve mellowed since then, and now channel most of my paranoia into my thrillers.

For example, I came across some articles on the Hadron Collider, which is the most complex machine built by man. It is a particle accelerator that is so huge its main component, a roughly circular tunnel in which bits of matter are sent smashing into each other at nearly the speed of light, is 17 miles long and crosses into two countries, France and Switzerland.

Unlike American tunnels, there is no toll, but that’s not what caught my paranoid attention. What did was a statement by one of the scientists working at the collider that, contrary to fears expressed by some other scientists, the Hadron Collider, in its attempt to find the “God particle”, would probably not create a black hole that would be dangerous. Since the black holes that we know exist are sucking entire galaxies into oblivion, I did not find the “probably” too reassuring. So, I wrote a thriller (THE HADRON ESCAPE) about things that go badly askew at Hadron. However, I refrained from destroying anything larger than a section of the collider, since the book is part of a series and obliterating the entire planet would be a mite short-sighted.

Am I being paranoid in thinking that Hadron will lead to catastrophe? Probably (there’s that word again!), but I check the morning papers to make sure that Switzerland is still there.

Then, there was an article in The New York Times about some scientists in Siberia who have discovered, and revived, an ancient pithovirus that has been frozen in the tundra for 30,000 years. Pithoviruses are about 25 percent bigger that your run-of-the-mill virus like, say Ebola, which means that only about 50 zillion of them can fit on the tip of a needle. Fortunately, the scientists say, pithoviruses usually only infect amoebas. The word “usually” is right up there in my paranoid pantheon with “probably”, so I wrote a thriller (THAWED) in which amoebas get a pass, but the human race doesn’t.

I mean, am I being paranoid? After all, these are the same scientists who thawed out a wooly mammoth and munched on the meat! We’re not talking M.I.T. here. More like M.L.I.T., as in the Murphy’s Law Institute of Technology, where what can go wrong will go wrong.

Just thinking about a 30,000-year-old virus running amok has me feeling queasy.

But that’s because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, too – another trait I suspect is common to thriller writers. 

















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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

AMAZING AMAZON!


In a spate of articles, various publishing “experts” have questioned the growth of e-books. They suggest that traditional printed books were making a comeback at the expense of Amazon, which dominates the e-book landscape. They also claim that the increasing numbers of small, independent bookstores is a sure sign that the e-book revolution is slowing. They quote booksellers and readers who said they preferred the feel of printed books. (I don’t doubt that; I have several e-book readers, but still also enjoy reading the printed page.)

Their arguments are flawed, because the folks who wrote them only looked at the sales of the e-book versions of books also published in print. Those e-book sales may indeed be slipping, most likely because the so-called “legacy” publishers are keeping their prices relatively high. For example, take a novel selling at Barnes & Noble for $17.13 in hardcover and $14.99 as an e-book. For what amounts to a $2 difference, many people might indeed opt for the physical book.

But the great bulk of e-books are self-published. According to AuthorEarnings.com, a website that tracks all book sales, “indie authors and Amazon-imprint authors sell more e-books daily than all traditional publishers put together, a remarkable fact that most industry observers — ourselves included — still find hard to believe.” The website notes that publishing industry statistics from Nielsen, Bowker, and the like “all rely on counting ISBNs” ignoring the fact that “37% of all e-books sold on Amazon.com each day do not use ISBNs”. This is significant because “according to most industry accounts, 65% of all U.S. e-book sales happen through Amazon’s Kindle store”.

AuthorEarnings.com contends that while e-book sales of popular authors may be lagging, sales of self-published authors are exploding, as more and more millennials eschew print for e-books. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a matter of economics. While there is plenty of self-published dreck, there also are some fine – or at least readable – self-published books. (Dreck, of course, isn’t limited to the self-publishing world; just check out any airport book kiosk.)

Dreckness aside, the typical self-published e-book sells for $2.99 on Amazon, earning a royalty of $2.05, which is comparable to what a “traditional” author might earn after agents, editors, publishers, and other middlemen take their cut of the pie. (And self-published authors who participate in Amazon’s KDP Select borrowing program earn additional funds for pages read.)

Now, this is not to say that most self-published authors are making a killing. Very few (myself included) do. The Hugh Howeys, John Lockes, Amanda Hockings and Joe Konraths in the Amazon million-seller universe are the exceptions.  

I love print books, particularly non-fiction. I find it hard to imagine enjoying illustrations, charts and graphics on anything but the printed page. The Battle of Gettysburg loses something on a Kindle or Nook.

I believe the literary world is big enough to permit both print and e-books to coexist. I also believe that critics do not give Amazon, in particular, and the e-book revolution, in general, enough credit for generating a new wave of reader enthusiasm.

Why do you think so many small bookstores are thriving?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A WRITER IS ALWAYS "ON"


“A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”
I have this quote, from Eugène Ionesco, prominently displayed on my website. It’s also taped to my work desk at home, where it shares space with several hundred other notes and jottings I consider absolutely crucial, such as lists of groceries I was supposed to buy but didn’t.
Which explains why dinner tonight will be leftover pizza.
Ionesco was an avant-garde Romanian playwright and must have been a bit of a strange bird. In Romania, the official language is, not surprisingly, Romanian. According to Wikipedia, the country’s other spoken languages include Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Slovak, Romani, Ukrainian, and German.
Ionesco wrote in French, perhaps because the French came up with the phrase “avant-garde”.
In any event, I think he is spot on with the quote in whatever language he wrote it. I cannot remember a day when I didn’t think that something I did, heard, saw, read or imagined wasn’t grist for my writing mill. A writer is always “on.”
One of my thrillers was influenced by a trip I took to Ireland in 2014. I played a round of golf on a course called Old Head, where if you strayed off the fairway, you fell to your death on the rocks 400 feet below. Needless to say, I didn’t look for my many golf balls in the rough. But I did get a great murder scene out of the experience.
Another book, a mystery, was set on Bald Head Island, a tiny island just off the coast of North Carolina I visited. (Contrary to snarky comments from my sons, the island was not named after me; they ignore the obvious genetic possibility that their own domes are doomed to a receding-hairline future.) The island is only accessible by ferry, does not have cars, has a history of shipwrecks dating to the Spanish Main, is a refuge for people who want to be left alone, has only a rudimentary police presence, and suffers a murder every 500 years.
I was only there two days, and a plot using all those facts percolated in my head (aided, no doubt, by the local rum punches). The resulting book includes murders and dismemberments, of course.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

STARRY-EYED!


I write thrillers and mysteries published as ebooks on Amazon. Readers, a surprising number of whom aren’t relatives, friends or people who owe me money, post reviews on the Amazon website. The reviews range from one to five stars. In order of “star-iness” the ranking are:

  1. I hate it
  2. I didn’t like it
  3. It’s OK
  4. I like it
  5. I love it 

(By the way, I didn’t make this up. I copied the list straight from the Amazon page!)

Four- and five-star reviews, of course, are the most coveted. A five-star review is terrific, especially if it isn’t written by your mother. I’ve had five stars from people in other countries who I don’t know. Assuming they weren’t written by someone occupying a padded cell in, say, the London Institute for the Criminally Insane, I cherish those reviews.

Four stars, from an author’s perspective, are often more valuable, since they indicate the reader not only liked the book, but probably put a lot of thought into the review. (One reviewer said he wished Amazon allowed half stars, because the book deserved more than four but not quite five; I’m not sure I read my own books with that level of interest.)

At the bottom of the pile are the one- and two-star reviews. I am happy to report that I have rarely been skewered by such mean-spirited and uninformed comments by people who really should be in the London Institute for the Criminally Insane.

Only kidding. Some folks just don’t like my kind of writing. Or maybe I owe money to them. Truth is, getting a bad review is not all bad, since it provides a much-needed reality check for authors, such as moi, who think they are bloomin’ geniuses. Most of us are just regular people who forget to take out the garbage and regularly miss golf putts the length of a paramecium. Such reviews also serve to convince potential readers that my books are being critiqued by total strangers, and not people I am holding at gunpoint. Nothing validates good reviews more than the occasional scurvy one.

Then, there are three-star reviews. They are often weird. There is no other word for some of them. I’ve had a three-star that was so complimentary I had to check to make sure I didn’t write it myself. And I’ve had a three-star so scathing I could imagine the reader hurling his Kindle across the room in disgust. Yet it got three stars, which according to ranking system above, means that he thought it was “OK”.

But some three-star reviews are also very valuable, since readers often identify what they liked or disliked (plot, characters, length, typos, etc.). I’m not a writer that wants to cater to every taste, but I’d be dumber than a sponge to ignore constructive criticism.

I once received one three-star review that really rocked me. Here it is, verbatim: “I sort of liked it but it was not up to the standards of the Spenser series. I may be spoiled by Parker.”

Me, too, pal. I revered Robert B. Parker, who re-invented the private eye novel with his Spenser novels. Parker set the bar to a level I probably will never reach. But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying. Indeed, I periodically re-read ALL the Spenser novels for a literary transfusion of sorts. 
And I read just about everything Parker said about writing. Asked once why he thought his books were so popular, Parker argued that people probably just liked the way they sounded (or, in effect, read). His dialogue and descriptions, he indicated, kept his fans involved. They enjoyed being in the world of Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Quirk, Belson, Vinnie Morris and all the other colorful and familiar characters, good and evil. I think Parker was being self-deprecating. Many of his Spensers also had terrific plots and surprises, which kept readers coming back for more. But I took to heart his belief that all characters (both heroes and villains) must be interesting, and not cardboard stereotypes.

And I take to heart that three-star review suggesting – demanding – that I up my game.




Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE CIPRO KID!


Thriller writers make terrible patients. I’m proof of that.

Since I’m constantly looking for ways to kill or main my characters, I do a lot of research into weird diseases, poisons and the like. As a result, there is hardly a symptom that I haven’t experienced, at least psychosomatically. I am what you might call a paranoid hypochondriac. If I don’t develop a disease on my own, I’m sure someone plans to give it to me.

When I don’t feel well, I don’t think stomach flu. It has to be Ebola or rabies.

I’ve spent a lot of time in bed, an easy chair and you know where else, all of which are conducive to catching up on one’s reading. That is a mixed blessing, since one of the books I read was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A superb book, 10 years in the making, which immediately made me want to give up writing, because I’m not sure I belong on the same planet with talent like that.

It didn’t help that as soon as I got the book, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize, an award that my colleagues and I at The New York Times barely missed getting for our coverage of the Wall Street Crash of 1987. Bitter, who me? For years I thought of buying a parakeet, so I could line its cage with the explanatory article from a rival paper that beat us out (a story later disproved, by the way).  

Speaking of the media, I must vent.

What is wrong with the American media? Readers of this blog may remember that I have argued that fiction writing suits me better than journalism because I can finally tell the truth. I was being somewhat snide, perhaps looking for a laugh.

But I’m not laughing now.

Over and over again, I read a paper or watch the nightly news, and am informed that ISIS or some other alphabetical monstrosity has shot, beheaded, burned alive or otherwise slaughtered some innocents, only to be informed that the images of the atrocities are too gruesome for public consumption. (Of course, two hours after the nightly news, that same too-delicate public is subjected to dozens of network and cable shows featuring shootings, stabbings, eviscerations, autopsies and zombies eating brains.)   

What if cell phones cameras and other modern tools were available during the Holocaust?

“There are reports that the Nazis are gassing and cremating millions of Jews and other prisoners in so-called death camps. We have decided that the images are too disturbing to broadcast.”

Next stop: 50 million dead in World War II.

There are important stories out there. Instead, we get two hours of prime time on a royal wedding. Now, I happen to like the royals (British variety, not the Saudis). But I’d rather have a zombie munch on my frontal lobe than watch two hours of pomp.

I feel a headache coming on. Probably anthrax. Luckily I’ve been hoarding Cipro.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

GENERATION GAP!


This is a column about generations. As in missing them, or being caught between them.

It is, of course, is a situation not unique to my writing life. For example, I was too young for Grace Kelly, and now I’m too old for Amy Adams. Don’t think that doesn’t bug me every day.

On a more rational note, I was born in the waning days of World War II and thus am not part of “The Greatest Generation”, which beat the Nazis. World War II is considered a just war, and provided a clarity of purpose that many subsequent conflicts have, to say the least, lacked. In WWII, we were attacked, everyone enlisted and went to fight enemies so cartoonishly evil that seven decades years later they can still be trotted out in books and films to evoke a visceral reaction.

Now, someone does something bad to us, and by the time a soldier finishes basic training, he or she is sent to fight someone else (usually by some politician who never got closer to a uniform than watching a war movie about the Nazis).

And I don’t quite fit in with the “Baby Boomers” that the “Greatest Generation ” lustily generated soon as they got home, although I do feel some kinship with them, as our so-called “entitlements”, such as Social Security and Medicare, are assaulted by what I’ve termed the “Ungrateful Generation”.

Cosmic moral considerations aside (including the Grace Kelly-Amy Adams thing), writers can have problems with being in the wrong generation. Especially mystery and thriller writers, such as myself. Not to put too fine a point on it, science and technology (both real and Hollywood-pseudo), have robbed the genre of much of its charm and made writers (including screenwriters) lazy. Again, such as myself.

In the good old days, circa 1940 or 1950, the private eye and the cops (who put up with him because he used to be flatfoot) would stand over a body in a hotel room. Even when there is a good suspect, things will then mosey along at a leisurely pace. 

COP IN CHARGE: “He won’t get away. Clancy, dust for prints and put out an A.P.B. Check all the bus, railway stations and airports. Set up roadblocks. It’s only a matter of time.”

The private eye smiles and lights up a Lucky Strike. He would bet his trench coat that it won’t be that easy. And he’s right. The suspect is not quickly apprehended because he is hiding out in remote mountain cabin with his moll, who looks nothing like Grace Kelly or Amy Adams, but certainly looks like someone you want to be holed up with in a remote cabin. (By this point, readers and/or filmgoers are rooting for the fugitive). Both the police and the private eye spend days trying to find him, and there are more plot twists than there are Viagra commercials on modern TV.

But now:   

COP IN CHARGE: “He won’t get away. We’ll “ping” the GPS chip in his mobile phone and triangulate his position between three cell towers. What’s that, Clancy, you already did that and he’s in custody? Great. Let’s get some donuts. I’m hungry.”

At which point the private eye lights up a filtered Virginia Slim and is immediately arrested for smoking indoors.

Between video surveillance cameras, which are apparently everywhere, and D.N.A. analysis, “perps”, in print or on the screen, don’t have a chance anymore, at least until the case is thrown out in court on a technicality.

In the days of noir, without hard evidence the police usually had to beat confessions out of suspects in a room with a couple of chairs and a lamp. (They rarely used the furniture; they used truncheons). And the confession held up in court, the only technicality being whether the killer got AC or DC in the electric chair.   

Not anymore.

Imagine the scenario today, in which a Gorgeous Female Cop (who does look like Amy Adams) is facing a smiling killer and his Nattily Dressed Lawyer across a table in a brightly lit interrogation room with a one-way mirror, behind which stand a slew of supercilious forensic experts.

N.D.L.: “If you have nothing else, Lieutenant, my client and I are leaving. Come on, Nigel.”

G.F.C. (holding up a small vial): “Not so fast, counselor. Do you see what’s in this vial?”

N.D.L. (leans in): “Looks like a dead mosquito. (Laughs) My client didn’t have anything to do with it.”

G.F.C.: “Very funny. But this mosquito was trapped in the room where the six people your client murdered were found. On a hunch, we checked the D.N.A. of the blood it ingested and it didn’t match any of the victims. But it matches your client’s. Do you want to explain how his blood got into a mosquito in the murder room when he claims to have been at a Knicks game?”

Behind the mirror one of the forensic experts says, “What a lame alibi. Who the hell goes to a Knicks game?”

Of course, the killer pleads down to attempted jaywalking, but that’s another story.     

WE MAY ALL BE OUT!

In these contentious times, a free and vibrant press is more crucial than ever. Many mid-sized newspapers still depend on print adver...