When Bad Books Attack

Have you ever read a book that not only disappointed you but it put you off reading for a while?

I suffered through one such book that I was reading to review. Worse for me, it also put me off my writing. I won’t give the name of the book, since someone else might like it. It was a later book in a series, originally published in the UK but that was now being imported to the US. I kept struggling through it in the hope the author could pull off a satisfying ending, but she didn’t. I’d spent months forcing myself through her verbage, and I ended up giving the book a tepid review. Here I’ll go into my problems with it, specifically where it broke the rules of good writing. (You can of course break any writing rule, but the key is you have to improve the story by breaking the rule. In this case it reinforced why the rule is taught.)

Let’s Get It Started: Alfred Hitchcock famously described an instigator of a plot as the MacGuffin. It was something that was of vital interest or value that got the story started. Not all mysteries have them, nor did Hitchcock use them in all his films. “Rear Window” and “Strangers on the Train” are two examples of MacGuffin-less stories. Probably the most famous MacGuffin was the black bird in “The Maltese Falcon.” But the key with a MacGuffin is it must not seem false or artificial to the reader/viewer. In this book, there’s an unusual circumstance that attracts the attention of the heroine and gets the story moving, but it’s quickly dismissed and has no more bearing on the book. It turns the MacGuffin into a cheat – in effect the author got me to read under false pretenses. For an excellent dissection of the MacGuffin, click here.

Who’s Line is it Anyway?: A key writer’s rule is not to change narrative perspective mid-stream of consciousness. If you’re telling the story from the viewpoint of one character, don’t switch to another character without an obvious change such as a new chapter or a space-break within a chapter. Otherwise the reader can become lost trying to keep track of who is talking. In the book I read, there were a half-dozen or more viewpoints used, and they sometimes changed in the same paragraph. It ruins the flow of the story if you lose track of who’s speaking.

Stereotypes (and Bad Ones at That): The majority of the story took place in a small town, with a major subplot revolving around a young newspaperman, his hypochondriac and harridan of a mother, and the young nurse who’s in love with the newspaperman. If this roughly sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been used multiple times in books and movies throughout the years. In this book, though, the mother has no redeeming qualities and the son is completely cowed by her, so much so that it affects his work. The biggest mystery in the whole book is why it takes the nurse 300 pages to understand that if she marries the son, she’d be inheriting the mother as well. There’s also an art expert in the story and of course he’s portrayed as an over-the-top artiste. You find yourself wishing you were actually in the story, simply so you could slap the characters for being so frustrating.

I Could Tell You But Then I’d Have to Kill You: There’s an espionage plot grafted onto this story that ties in with the Cambridge spy ring that almost fatally damaged British Intelligence in the 1950s. This has already been a fertile ground for writers – most notably John LeCarre with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” In the end you find that the central mystery is a cheat tied in with British Intelligence, but the author skips on illuminating the story by using the Official Secrets Act. While it would have some basis in reality, the reader never signed on to keep the secret. It comes off as a cheap way to forego research.

The editor I write reviews for has told me that if it happens again, simply to let her know and stop reading the book. Lesson learned. It is frustrating though that this book was published where other authors struggle to get better books accepted.

My antidote for this experience was to read several books by authors I enjoy, to cleanse my palate as it were. I read a recent John Sandford Prey novel as well as “The Dirty Secrets Club” by Meg Gardiner. If you haven’t read her books and you like thrillers, you need to read her. Her stories race along with twists and turns that surprise; your heart will beat faster. (Meg’s also a gracious person whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of times now.) Right now I’m finishing “X” by Sue Grafton. I also read an excellent non-fiction book about the heroin epidemic in the US entitled “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones. I’m planning to write more about this in the next couple of weeks. I also got back to the novel I’m currently writing and have started a new short story.

I saw I hadn’t put a new post here in quite a while. My apologies for that.

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Truly a Detective

Recently I – along with almost everyone else who watched – was disappointed by the second season of HBO’s True Detective. The first season had riveting performances by Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, and Michelle Monaghan, and while it required an investment to follow the convoluted plot that was spread out over more than a decade of time, it rewarded the viewer with a fascinating portrait of two flawed detectives trying to do what’s right. With the second season, though, the convoluted plot became positively opaque, with plot twists that cheated the audience. None of the characters were sympathetic or all that interesting, while some of the dialogue was cringe-worthy, especially with Vince Vaughn’s character. It followed the form of the first season like it was the old dance instructions you could get, where you put down sheets with shoeprints on them to show where to place your feet. You might hit the marks but you won’t have any emotion or intelligence, and there’s no involvement between dance partners. I turned off the show after struggling though five episodes; even that far in I couldn’t be bothered to see how the show ended.

Thankfully, I found a remedy for the bad taste the show left in my mouth. Bosch, a 10 episode adaptation of the bestselling novels of Michael Connelly, was produced by Amazon for streaming on-line. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s free, but even if you have to pay it’s well worth a viewing. Saying it’s based on the novels is correct, since it combines elements of three of Connelly’s books: “City of Bones,” “Echo Park,” and “The Concrete Blond.” However, the blending is seamless so it plays as one story. Connelly created the series along with Eric Overmyer, who has produced Homicide: A Life on the Streets, The Wire, and all three interations of Law & Order. The scripts are intelligent and tightly plotted, with sharply drawn characters, just as they should be in adapting Connelly’s works.

Visually this is one of the best police procedurals ever. The sets look like they were lifted from the actual Hollywood division police station, with miniscule cubicles for the detectives. When the detectives go to the morgue, it’s not all chrome and tile and sterile like you see on most shows, but rather it’s a basement with institutional green paint on the wall and pipes that show. But best of all is when the show films at night. The digital cameras capture Los Angeles in all its neo-noir glory. There’s never true darkness in the city because of all the fill light of neon signs, constant traffic, and buildings that never close, but that only makes the shadows deeper.

Harry Bosch is one of the more fascinating characters in crime fiction. He’s the son of a prostitute who named him for the 15th Century Dutch painter known for his nightmare depictions of Hell. When Harry was still young, his mother was murdered and he ended up in the child welfare system until he escaped, first into the Army and then the LAPD after he returned to the city. He’s a cop who feels responsible to the victims, and he’ll follow a case wherever it goes, even if it means stepping on the toes of LA’s power elite. (For the sake of the show, they’ve made Bosch younger than he is in the novels, where he’s a Vietnam veteran who is now past retirement age but has been retained under a special contract program within the department.)

Titus Welliver wears the role of Bosch like a surgical glove. He’s had a long career as a character actor and is probably best known as the Man in Black on Lost, but here he gets to shine in the spotlight. I’ve read all of the Bosch novels and had a different picture of the character in my mind, but from now on whenever I read one of the books I’ll hear Welliver’s voice when Bosch speaks.

The supporting cast is first-rate as well, with Lance Riddick as Deputy Chief Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s partner (and clothes horse) Jerry Edgar, and Amy Aquino as Detective Lieutenant Grace Billets, the head of the Hollywood detective bureau. Annie Wersching (24) plays Officer Julia Brasher, with whom Bosch engages in an ill-advised affair, and Jason Gedrick plays Reynard Waits, a serial killer who latches onto Bosch as the ying to his yang.

The second season is currently filming and will be released next year. In the meantime, if you like mysteries check out the first season. It’s well worth it.

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Read a Short Story for Free

A while back I had a short story done as a podcast by Crime City Central. You can now read a text version of that story for free at Inkitt. I published “The Extra Postage” as part of a contest they have called Fated Paradox. If you’d like to read the story, please click here. I hope you enjoy it.

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A Different Voice

Today I learned that Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has purchased a short story I submitted to them in October. That’s a pretty quick turn-around time actually, considering the volume of submissions they receive. I signed the contract and sent it back in the afternoon mail.

The story is quite a bit different from my previous ones, in that my heroine is a teenage video blogger (or vlogger). The story is entitled “Viewfinder” and tells of the adventure she stumbles into when she’s looking for a subject for her vlog.

When I was acting full-time, it was a joy to slip into different characters, to become someone that I am not and embody that person. While I’m not doing it on stage anymore, writing is the way I can still experience that thrill, and in a wider way that I ever could before. In acting, you’re still bound by your physical body, but writing lets you slip into characters that you could never do on stage – like, for me, a teenage girl. Through imagination you can hear the character’s voice and then record it in the story.

That’s the joy of writing: authors get to live many different lives, and if we do our job well, the reader gets to experience those lives as well.

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Rip It Good

Recently I learned the lesson that most authors have to learn. You may understand it intellectually, but this is one of those lessons that you physically have to learn, since it will cause pain and self-doubt in the short term. Here’s the lesson:

There comes a time when an author has to rip up his creation.

With apologies to Devo, I can hear a variation on their hit playing in my head:

When a problem comes along you must rip it

When something’s goin’ wrong you must rip it

Now rip it into shape, shape it up…

It’s not too late to rip it, rip it good

The case for me was the novel manuscript I wrote last year, titled “The Stable.” When I conceived the story, I had sharply focused visions of scenes that came to me almost complete. I wrote the first 95,000 word draft in a month and a half by rising early in the morning and working for an hour or two before going to work, and then writing again in the evening. Integral to the story I conceived was a present-day preface and afterword, while most of the story took place in 1957. It would reveal a secret history to a man about his grandparents.

Once I finished, I immediately began the editing process which tightened the story but kept the plot intact. When I was happy with the book, I began the querying process by attending a conference and pitching it to agents who attended. A couple wanted to hear more, but then passed on the project. In the spring of this year I sent out more queries via email. A couple agents asked for the manuscript, but after reading it they passed. The majority of them sent back form responses that it wasn’t the right project for them.

On one hand, you have to believe in your work. The publishing world is replete with stories of authors who faced multiple rejections only to have their novels become bestsellers once published. There’s even a website that lists who has faced rejection. For instance, it took 5 years for Agatha Christie to publish her first book. Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections for “Gone with the Wind.” It continues to this day. After failing to find an agent to represent him, Andy Weir, a software engineer and programmer, decided to self-published his novel. “The Martian” became a bestseller this year, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and will be made into a movie by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon in the lead role.

On the other hand, author and cardiologist D.P. Lyle rewrote his first novel 27 times, with four title changes and major shifts to the setting. The initial draft ran 130,000 words. In the end, “Stress Fracture” was 85,000 words long. The main character, Dub Walker, who has since starred in a series of novels, was not the main character in the first draft.

Recently I attended the Mystery Writers of America University held in Chicago. It’s a one-day intensive overview of mystery writing and the writing life, and had presentations by Sara Paretsky, Jess Lourey and Hank Phillippi Ryan, among others. One thing Ms. Ryan said jumped out at me: “When you think you’re ready to submit your manuscript, stop, because it’s probably not ready, and you don’t get second chance to make a first impression.” Along with that, my wife, who’s read my manuscript and whose opinion I value highly, suggested eliminating the present-day scenes. By that point, I was ready to listen. I sat down at my computer and deleted the preface and the afterword.

With them gone, I went back through the manuscript and did a major revamping of the main characters and the plot. Freed from its previous form, new plot points presented themselves to me that made for a better story. In the end the manuscript remained about the same length, even though I’d cut about 4000 words just by lobbing off those two sections, and in other places in the book I’d cut pages worth of writing. The changes vastly improved the story.

What will happen from here, I don’t know. Since I’ve struck out with dozens of agents with the earlier version of the manuscript, I don’t have the option of going back to them. Like Hank Phillippi Ryan said, no second chances for a first impression. So I’ve gone a different route and submitted the manuscript to the Minotaur/MWA First Mystery competition. That’s a long shot, granted, but if that doesn’t work I’m considering submitting to small presses, or if nothing else self-publishing. I’m also over 70 pages into my next manuscript. One thing all of the authors listed on the Literary Rejections website had in common: they kept going.

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Best American Mystery Stories 2014

Today when I arrived home, I found in the mail my author’s copy of The Best American Mystery Stories of 2o14. The anthology was edited by Otto Penzler and guest editor Laura Lippman. My short story “The Covering Storm” (which originally appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) is one of twenty stories that made the cut for inclusion. The book is available through the usual outlets. Here’s a link to Amazon for the book.

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Stepping In Half-way Down the Block

Recently I read a mystery translated from Swedish, by an author who’s become a bestseller here in the US. It was the fourth book in a series that featured the same main character, but I found it to be a slow read, and when the book is 500 pages long you do not want it to be a slow read. I realized the author had tied everything in the new book into plot lines from her previous books, and without reading the earlier books I was lost.

I’ve never had trouble picking up a series midway through. If I like it, I go back and read all the previous books. My first Sue Grafton book was “I Is For Innocent” and it captured me. I went back and read A through H, and have continued on through W. The same with P.D. James; “The Death of an Expert Witness” was my introduction to Adam Dalgliesh, who became a favorite character for me. I read Tim Rob Smith’s “Agent 6” a couple of years ago to review it for Suspense Magazine. It was his third book featuring Leo Demidov, and events in the earlier books did play a part in the story, yet I was completely enthralled with the new book. My introduction to Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch was “The Last Coyote,” four books into the series, and a book that delved deeply into Harry’s backstory, but that was no problem. I read it, and then read every other book in the series. Occasionally I do start at the beginning; “Rules of Prey” was my first John Sandford book, and I went through all the Lucas Davenport series in order after that (and all of Sandford’s other books as well).

In the classic era of mysteries, of course, you could pick up one of Agatha Christie’s Poirot books and get caught up in the story in no time at all. The same is true with John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee books. I don’t remember the first color I added to my palette, but before long I’d indulged in the full rainbow.

With the book in the first paragraph, I felt like I was starting Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with “The Return of the King.” I won’t go back and read the other books in the series, partially because it wasn’t a pleasant reading experience, and partially because reading the earlier books now would be anticlimactic. It’s something I intend to watch out for in the books I write. Don’t antagonize the reader by making the story hard to follow without having read all the previous books in a series. Let them step into your world wherever and whenever they can, even if it’s halfway down the block. If you do your job well, they’ll choose to circle all the way around.

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Guest Blogger

I was the guest writer today on the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine blog, “Something Is Going to Happen.” I decided to write about a police technique I encountered through the Citizen’s Police Academy at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois, and learned more about while I was a role player there – Verbal Judo. Click here to read the post

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Homophones – the Land Minds of Writers

(and yes, that won was on purpose, as was that one.)

It’s rare that you can scroll through a day’s worth of Facebook posts or memes without seeing a homophone – a word that’s pronounced the same way though it’s spelled differently and has a different meaning. The classic example is “There, their, they’re” (and no, I’m not trying to comfort a child).

People may tell others to “Flea the danger!” though if the fleas are dangerous, it would make sense to flee them.

I’m waiting for some debutant to tell Peta not to protest her fur coat because it came off a fir tree.

We may be told to go fourth, but if it’s only the second of the month we’d have to wait two days.

A golfer might yell “Four” for fore, if grammar isn’t their forte.

I rode the road until I got in a boat and rowed some more.

I guess music could strike a responsive cord, if you were trying to rope in the listener.

Spellcheck is impotent against the homophone, or not to be trusted. It often gets its (possessive) and it’s (it is) mixed up. Grammar check caught “cord” above, but that was it.

When it comes to homophones, I’ll paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, who was a decent writer himself. “Eternal vigilance is the price of being a writer.” Otherwise, you could end up with a paragraph like this:

“Eye like won ax plays with a small caste. Eh play rite can keep our attention wrapped with bazaar stories oar reel events. Aye saw adz for a knew one that has a calvary kernal dual the Devil for the sole of a fare made. Another was a bout an ant who flue aweigh from her intended at the alter. Her nephew guest ware she’d hidden and chaste after her. Plays can have a lot of cymbals in sighed their corps and make ewe sea things inn a different whey.”

Pleas dew knot chute mi.

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One of Twenty

Last Wednesday morning, I checked my emails and found one from Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with the subject line “Congratulations.” The last time I received an email from her with that introduction was when I won the 2012 Robert L. Fish Award. This time, she told me that the short story of mine that EQMM had published in their November edition had been chosen for the anthology “Best American Mystery Stories 2014.”

The next day I received an email with more details from the editor of the series, Otto Penzler. Each year he works with a guest editor preparing the book; this year it’s Laura Lippman. From all the mystery short stories published in 2013, Mr. Penzler chose 50 he considered to be the best. Then Ms. Lippman winnowed them down to 20 stories for the anthology. (The other thirty stories will be listed in the book.) My story, “The Covering Storm,” made the cut.

Otto Penzler is a legend in the mystery community. He created The Mysterious Press in 1975, which he ran until 1989 when it was purchased by Warner Books. In 2010 he reacquired the imprint from Warner and now publishes the Press through Grove/Atlantic, along with his Edgar-award winning quarterly “The Armchair Detective.” Since 1997, he’s edited the Best American Mystery Stories anthology along with such guest editors as Sue Grafton, Ed McBain, Lee Child and Joyce Carol Oates. He’s also the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

Laura Lippman’s fiction has won the Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, and Shamus Awards, among others. She spent 20 years as a reporter, including 12 years at The (Baltimore) Sun before retiring from daily newspaper work in 2001. Her first mystery novel, “Baltimore Blues,” was published in 1997 and featured the character Tess Mongahan. Since then she’s published 20 novels, including 11 in the Tess Mongahan series. She’s just had a stand-alone novel released this month called “After I’m Gone.”

Needless to say, I’m extremely happy to be included in B.A.M.S. for 2014. It will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt later this year, and can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or a local bookstore. It will be available in both print and electronic form.

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