Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing Resolutions

by Laura Caldwell

It seems a lazy move to write at the end of the year about New Year's resolutions. I usually don't make them. I always figured if I cared enough about something I'd address that thing during the year itself.

But now it's the end of a decade, which seems more momentous. And it's the end of a year that wasn't so pretty for many - not so pretty financially, not so pretty culturally, certainly not so pretty for the publishing world. So my fingers are itching to lay down a few mandates for myself and my writing for the new year, the new decade.

Number 1 - drop the fear. I used to believe (and still sort of do, I'm working on it) that personal fear is a personal motivator. If I didn't fear the ability to hit a deadline, I figured, then I wouldn't make it. If I didn't fear poor quality of writing, then I wouldn't be able to produce good writing. But lately, I've wondered if that fear, that panic, really helps, or is it a crutch or a curse? I touched on this a few months ago on this blog. I haven't come to any additional conclusions since then. So my Number 1 resolution is, at least to make a good faith effort, to drop the fear.

Number 2 - write six pages a day, five days a week. This is minutiae, certainly. Sort of like a goal to brush your teeth four times a day. But a goal like that helps create discipline, and if there's one thing I've learned from the law it's that discipline is about the only thing that gets the work done. And because I'm trying to kick fear to the curb, I need those type of goals. So six pages a day, five days a week it is.

Number 3 - use Jott more often. If you haven't discovered Jott.com, I heartily encourage it, especially if you're a writer. It combines voice recognition software with actual humans, so that you dial a number from your cellphone, speak into it, and minutes later you find your words typed out and in your email box. Sure, the punctuation is often skewed, the spelling at times hilariously wrong, but as a former litigator who used to dictate all my written work, this system works well for me. (Despite my enthusiastic overtures, Jott.com has passed on my offer to be a spokesperson).

Number 4 - love it. For a while, my deadlines in the writing biz were so intense (at least for me) that some of the pleasure began to seep away. Lately, I've had time to breathe. Lately, I've been reading books just because I want to, and I've been finding myself wildly inspired by the absolute gifts of other writers. All of this makes me love my job. Let's correct that. The word 'job' and 'work' don't fit so well with what I do. That's why I promise to use those words less often. And to love it all the more.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Soylent Green is made out of people!

by Marcus Sakey

Not too long ago, I saw Soylent Green for the first time. It’s one of those iconic films that I’d somehow missed, probably at least partly because I was familiar with the catch phrase and figured it might be a one-trick movie.

It’s an interesting film. Dated, certainly—my friend Michael has a great line about how that happens with sci-fi, that “Nothing ages like the future”—and the film's misogyny is a little too hard-edge to write off as satirical. The basic premise is that the future is a pretty bleak, overcrowded place, with the masses barely kept alive by the miracle food Soylent Green, which, yes, is made of people.

What I found most interesting, though, is the way it treated suicide. Because the world is a teeming mass of humanity, the government encourages suicide, especially as people get older. There are advertisements for suicide centers, clinics that promise a smooth transition into death.

This being a story, of course one of the main characters ends up going to one. And as a savvy viewer, what I was expecting was the bait-and-switch: I figured that the moment he entered the clinic, he’d be handcuffed and lock-stepped, screaming, to the futuristic equivalent of a concentration camp shower. The problem with dystopia fiction is that it often pulls from the same bag of tricks.

What was interesting, though, is that I was completely wrong. The character was asked about his favorite colors, his favorite music. He was led to a gracious room where he lay down on a comfortable platform bed. Soft orange lighting—his favorite—filled the room, and a sunset screened on the wall. Two beautiful, serene people came in and stood holding his hands. Classical music swelled as he drifted painlessly away.

And then they made him into food.

The reason I bring it up, in this wildly odd post, is that it struck me as interesting how different my 2009 reaction was than the one I imagine was felt in 1973. The film is supposed to be a warning sign, a story about the future we should avoid at all costs.

Personally? It’s okay by me.

I’ve never understood our culture’s view of suicide. It has never made sense to me that ending your life with dignity and at a time of your choosing is anything but noble. Yes, it needs to be done with consideration for others, to be done in a way that doesn’t traumatize everyone dealing with the aftermath. But to me, suicide is as much a right as the decision to procreate. Why do I owe it to the world to linger on past the point where I enjoy life, or, worse, past the point where I can even be said to be myself? Some people are scared of heights; I’m petrified of dementia.

As for the eating people part, I’m not religious. I believe what’s left behind is meat. In reality our bodies are probably better used as organ donations than Thanksgiving dinner, but once you’re gone, I don't think you should get much say in what use the continuing world finds for you.

But besides my personal feelings about death, I also think it’s interesting the way the culture has changed. I doubt people seeing the film today would be shocked. That’s partly because other stories have tread the same ground. But I think it’s also a shift in the way we think. And for my money, a positive one.

What do you think? Should suicide be a right? Or is it a reprehensible act? If you’ve seen the film, how did you feel about those aspects? Do you feel differently now than you did then?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

These Things Happen

by David Ellis

I didn’t mean for it to happen, first of all. None of it. I woke up thinking that I would spend my day organizing a closet and assembling Christmas presents and maybe catching one of the omnipresent college football games on television. I never thought this day, or my life, would take this turn. And I steadfastly maintain that it wasn’t my fault. Though I guess “fault” is one of those gray words with so many layers and meanings.

I’m not sure “accident” is the right word. I mean, what’s an “accident?” An event that wasn’t planned or intended or expected? Well, actually, that might qualify. I surely didn’t expect him at my door, though I suppose I should have. The rest of it, well, I’m not sure how to view it. Admittedly, things get a little foggy in the middle there. The ice, for example. Throw ice into a scene and the possibility of calling something an “accident” goes up exponentially. And that was part of it. My feet did slip, I do recall that. And so did his, or maybe it was just my weight pulling him down. I guess I’m not really sure. I should probably be careful here, because if I start admitting to a lack of recall, it’s going to be hard to be sure I did or did not intend to do something.

This much I can say with certainty: He’d been to my doorstep several times that I could confirm, on days when I normally wouldn’t be home mid-day. Who knows how many times he was there when I was actually gone? And always with that bag, that mysterious bag. I couldn’t very well be expected to know what was inside it, now could I? I mean, for all I knew, it could be holding a shotgun or something.

I know what everyone’s going to say. I’m not stupid. They’ll all take the easy route. But put yourself in my shoes. How could I be sure he was the person he purported to be? I don’t mean reasonably certain but sure? When the risk of error was so high? I really had only a handful of seconds to make a decision, and if I was wrong, then an assailant would be only steps away from entering my home.

And I’ll just add this one thing, and then I’ll shut up like my lawyer wants me to. He had every chance to identify himself. I asked him, twice, who he was as he approached my house and he looked at me like I was crazy. A government agent? A spy for my enemies? He could have put me at ease but he didn’t. So this guy is approaching my house and I’m asking him to reassure me and instead he mocks me and that smile, well, I guess it could be viewed in hindsight as a confused grin but I thought he was taunting me.

Anyway. I’m not supposed to say I’m sorry because it could be interpreted as an admission of guilt, but the truth is I do feel kind of bad about the whole thing. I guess the guy was just doing his job. I’m just saying, he could have identified himself. Or just plain stopped in his tracks and turned around. He could have just dropped the letters and magazines on the sidewalk and moved on to the next house.

It looks like the guy will live, by the way. He was dressed pretty warmly so the knife barely even reached his skin. I hope everyone has a happy holiday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The State of Reviewing

by Libby Hellmann

Christmas is over, and since we’ve packed up all our peace and good will until next year, it's time to turn our attention to something less kind and gentle.

Reviews.

You know the story. It used to be you’d write a book. Your publisher would send out ARCs to major trade publications and newspapers. While you probably wouldn’t get reviewed in the New York Times, you could count on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. And your local newspapers. Those reviews, for which we sat on pins and needles weeks in advance, helped create buzz. Good reviews could make or break library sales, bookstore interest, even word of mouth.

Not any more. First to go was review space in big city newspapers. All of us can point to a paper that no longer exists or, if it does, has pared reviews to the bone. Closer to home was the demise of Drood Review and Mystery News. Then, just a few weeks ago, the death of Kirkus. Say what you want about their last line zingers, a good Kirkus review was cause for celebration. Even worse, there seems to have been a decline in the number of reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. I could usually count on reviews from them. Not this time.

At the same time, we’re seeing an explosion of what’s being called “citizen reviews,” most of them online, all of them written by “readers” as opposed to professionals. I probably first noticed them on lists like Dorothy L, but over the years they’ve picked up steam on Amazon (‘fess up.. how many of us have asked a friend to write a favorable review?) to the point that they’ve been institutionalized with the Amazon Vine program. Reader-oriented websites, like GoodReads and Library Thing encourage them. And that doesn’t even include the proliferation of book review blogs and websites. There are literally hundreds of citizen reviews these days.

Which is the point. Citizen reviews are filling an important void. Many of these reviewers are professional, thoughtful, and take their responsibilities seriously. I’ve been the beneficiary of their work, and I’m grateful for it.

Then there are others.

I was the recent target of a citizen review that has to be the most scathing review I’ve ever received. Anyone clearly has the right to say they hated a book and why, but I think this individual went above and beyond by inferring the type of person I must be because of the subject of the book. He also threw in several racist comments, which were hurtful.

I don’t care how many good reviews you get -- it’s the bad ones we obsess over. And I did. I waited a week to say anything – I didn’t want to be impulsive -- but eventually I took it up with the organization’s owners. They maintained the review didn’t violate their terms of service. Which made me wonder what would.

But the most offensive (at least to me) part was the discovery of a sub-group of citizen reviewers, some of whom consider it a badge of honor to write clever but snarky reviews. “Writing scathing reviews is fun,” the person who critiqued my book said. Someone else agreed, saying “savaging bad writing is fun, and often necessary.” To be fair, I should point out that others in the group challenged those remarks.

I deleted my page from the organization, but it brings up an issue I believe all of us need to grapple with. On one hand, the void of reviews is filling up with new voices. That’s good. And necessary. On the other hand, how far can a review go and still be considered useful? Citizen reviews will undoubtedly be a permanent part of the literary landscape, but at what price? How should an author handle reviews that are over the top? Should we do what author Niteflyr-one did on Amazon, apparently to her regret? Or should we just crack open a bottle of wine and try to let it pass? And yeah, I know the bromide about any publicity being good publicity. Still I wonder.

What do you think?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Virginia, They Didn't Give You Quite Enough Information

By Kevin Guilfoile

This being Christmas Day I don't expect anyone to be reading this and so I'm counting on the fact that non-existent readers will grant me the indulgence of re-purposing an old essay on existence for my post.

Occasionally, The Morning News asks all its contributors to join in some group project, and in 2002 one of these joints had a Christmas theme. A reader had written in to TMN's "Non-Expert" with the question "Does Santa Claus exist?" Nine of us responded with stories both real and imagined and the consensus, apparently, was yes. My own contribution, which I am pasting below, seems now like a cynical thing to be reprinting on Christmas Day, but I find it impossible to commit anything remotely sentimental to print, even though in real life I'm a cheeseball doofus who will weep at the most obviously manipulative Hollywood dreck. Last evening my son and I were checking NORAD'S Santa Tracker every fifteen minutes. You get a special holiday shiver when your five-year-old yells across the room, "Daddy! Santa's headed for the Azores!"



And follow that link and read the other contributions. Many of those TMN writers from seven years back have become acclaimed and bestselling authors, yet all of them are still associated with the terrific TMN.

Date: September 22, 1897

Dear Editor,

Thank you for responding to my letter in your newspaper. However, I don’t think it can be said that you have answered my question. You provided an assortment of Classical platitudes about truth and knowledge, but never specifically addressed the issue of whether a fat man in a red suit comes down my chimney on Christmas Eve, or if Papa just buys me dolls at a store near his office. Please clarify.

Also, do you think the assassination of Prime Minister Canovas might eventually lead to war with Spain?

Yours truely,

Virginia O’Hanlon
115 West Ninety-Fifth Street



Date: September 24, 1897

Dear Virginia

Why little girl, I thought I had been unambiguous on this point: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as surely as a father’s love for his daughter, as surely as beauty is found in the carefree and fantastical play of a child. If learned skeptics numbering 100 times 1000 petitioned me for 20 days times seven they could not convince me otherwise. Just because we do not see something with our own eyes, this does not mean it cannot exist. Dear, this is the essence of faith. You don’t question whether faeries exist; why they live in your very garden, I suspect! Certainly the same mystical plane which faeries inhabit could be infused with the generosity of spirit we call Santa Claus, could it not?

Sincerely,

Francis Pharcellus Church
Editor, New York Sun



Date: September 29, 1897

Dear Editor,

Your arguments have been so riddled with logical fallacies I don’t know where to begin: Affirming the consequent, subverted support, petitio principii—possibly the fallacy of the undistributed middle. This is America in 1897, and yet you act as if an eight-year-old has not by now taken three semesters of rhetoric! I asked a very simple question: ‘Is there a Santa Claus?’ In return, I have been (repeatedly) talked around, condescended to, and ignored.

Must I take my inquiry to the New York Journal? I understand Mr. Hearst gives every consideration to young girls. For the final time, yes or no? Is there a Santa Claus?

Also, 100 times 1000 equals 100,000. Seriously, whom are you trying to impress?

Yours truely,
Virginia



Date: October 5, 1897

Dear Virginia,

Sigh. All right. The economy is in the water closet, the country’s headed for war, and (thanks to our overcrowded asylums) McKinley will be lucky if he makes it to the next election without some lunatic putting a bullet in his head. In fact, your beloved William Hearst might very well do the job himself. The lie known as Santa is a variation on an ancient European myth used to manipulate the behavior of incorrigible children. In a few years time his image will be wholly appropriated by the Coca-Cola beverage company as part of its 100-year plan to become the most powerful political, social, and commercial organization on the planet. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, Santa will be remembered as a symbol of unchecked capitalism, which devoured the Earth’s natural resources and returned mankind to a feral, Neolithic state. In this post-apocalyptic wasteland, devolved tribes of men and apes will fight each other with the bones of their own dead over precious reserves of fresh water, and they will live in fear of the bearded and apple-cheeked hell-deity they believe delivered such crushing misfortune to their protruding brows.

No Santa Claus, Virginia? I wish.

Sincerely,

Francis Pharcellus Church
Editor, New York Sun


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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Holiday Cheer

By Barbara D’Amato


Bring a quart of good apple juice to a low boil.

Drop in about six to eight whole cloves, a whole nutmeg, and a stick of cinnamon. Not cinnamon stick candy, but the real cinnamon that looks like a piece of bark. If you don’t have whole spices, the ground-up kind will work, but they don’t look as pretty.

Reduce to a simmer and simmer about an hour. Besides extracting flavor from the spices, the long simmer should reduce the quantity of juice about one-quarter, concentrating the flavor of the apples.

Serve it as is or add Grand Marnier. Some people add rum, but there’s no accounting for taste.

Besides being delicious and festive, the aroma with make your whole house smell happy.

A good new year to you all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pets & Gifts

by Michael Dymmoch

At this time of year the Anti-Cruelty Society is busy vetting prospective pet owners as parents try to fill requests for kittens or dogs. One of the disadvantages of pets is that children are rarely born with the capacity to research the care and feeding of small non-human beings, so parents have to step in and be the back-up when a child forgets or the cop when a child takes his bad feelings out on smaller creatures. Abusive parents demonstrate abuse ; pets give abused children a chance to practice cruelty before they pass the behavior on to their own kids. Children come programmed to learn, whatever the lesson.

Great parents show their children how to become loving adults, demanding that a child think “How would you feel if…?” My mom was such a parent—great. I’m sure she used that line on me, though the first time I remember hearing it was when she stopped a younger sibling from stomping on an ant hill—“How would you feel if a giant smashed your house and killed all your brothers and sisters?” It’s one of those questions that generalizes to other situation, even acts as a brake to road-rage. (Along with “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”) I know how it feels when some thoughtless driver cuts me off, so I know that guy’s parents fell down on their job.

Properly supervised, pets not only teach children how to care for others, they teach children how to deal with the ultimate road-rage situation—loss of a loved one. The accidental death of a mouse or hamster can show older children the necessity of caution. Death of an old pet, or one afflicted with an incurable malady, can prepare us to deal with the inevitable when our parents go, or friends, or those whose deaths we cannot contemplate—partners, children…

My mother always let me have pets—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, even snakes and a ten-pound snapping turtle (as long as I didn’t bring those in the house). The donkey I talked her into buying when I was 15 (in lieu of the horse teen girls covet) taught me to deal with difficult people. Mom let me keep the pregnant pony I brought home to keep the donkey company. And the pony demonstrated the miracle of birth to all the neighborhood kids when she foaled in our back yard. My younger sister raised the foal and learned the tragedy of carelessness when it was struck dead by a car. The foal’s death inoculated me—as much as possible—against the shock of my sister’s death-by-careless-motorist a few years later. When the donkey finally succumbed to old age, I learned to let go, which prepared me for my parents' deaths.

At this end of the year, I’m taking time to remember all the great teachers I’ve had—starting with my parents—who were never thanked properly for the gifts they gave me, many of which were pets.

Have a blessed holiday, whichever one you celebrate, and a healthy, prosperous new year.

And please consider saving the live gifts for after New Years.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What A Difference A Word Makes...

by Sean Chercover

As I've mentioned here before, I added a short scene in the middle of the final chapter of TRIGGER CITY, for the paperback edition. I felt that the hardcover version ended a little too abruptly, but I didn't know what was missing.

Then it hit me: Ray Dudgeon (my protagonist) should visit the dead woman's apartment one last time, sort of a coda to his relationship with the woman he only came to know after her death. It was a very short scene - less than a page - but it added a little breathing room, and I hoped it would give the ending a stronger emotional resonance.

According to people who've read both versions, the difference was striking.

All that, from less than one page out of 300.

But how about one word?

In my current WIP, I had a character (one of the antagonists) with the name of Lucky. Not an unreasonable nickname for a Las Vegas bookmaker, I figured. My early readers liked the character, and the scenes in which he appeared, but a couple said that, while the humor of the scenes worked very well, the menace was lacking.

I read over the scenes. I'd already decided to change Lucky's name, so I did (to Jackson) but I couldn't see how to address the 'menace' problem, so I moved on, resolving to come back and fix it later.

And a funny thing happened. Next time my early readers got a copy of the ms., they all said that the humor had been toned down and the menace was now there in abundance, and they asked about the changes I'd made to fix the problem.

But I hadn't made any changes. I'd only changed the character's name from Lucky to Jackson.

Somehow, just the name Lucky signaled readers that humor was imminent, and that the character was not to be feared. Amazing.

I learned a hell of a lesson, and will never approach the naming of a character quite the same way.

One more thing: If you're stuck for a last-minute Christmas gift, (and also want to help a good cause) allow me to suggest Bob Dylan's new album, Christmas In The Heart. A terrific collection of holiday standards, plus this catchy tune that is new to me:



All of Dylan's royalties from the sale of this album are going to feed the hungry. Another good reason to pick up the album.

Until the next time, have a Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Beer, cheeseburgers and books

By David Heinzmann

First of all, if you're in Chicago and find yourself downtown tonight please stop by the Billy Goat Tavern, where I'll be signing copies of A WORD TO THE WISE most of the evening. Apologies that I didn't post notice here earlier, but it just sort of came together at the last minute. I'll be there by 6:30 and am likely to stay later than I should.

It's been a messy, but fun two weeks since the official publication date of my first novel. Messy because maybe December is not the smoothest time for a first book to come out from a small press.

Dec. 9 was the publication date, but Five Star didn't start shipping orders until a few days after that. Many people, bless them all, ordered copies of the book as Christmas presents but because of the lag between publication date and actual shipping notices from the publisher, Amazon sent notices out saying orders were unfilled and could be canceled if people didn't want to wait.

Oh joy.

Anyway, Amazon sent new notices when they received the books and it seems to have worked out for the most part. I've gotten emails from people all over the place saying they're holding my book in their hands. It's a very cool sensation. Let the fun begin.

It reminds me a bit of my first newsapaper byline, magnifed many times. Somewhere around here I still have a copy of a tiny 6-inch story I wrote in 1993 about desperate CPA from western Maryland who used a BB gun to rob a bank in West Virginia. I was a cub reporter at the Associated Press in Baltimore with about a week's worth of experience in journalism at the time. Wasn't much of a story, but the Baltimore Sun ran it with my byline and I dutifully clipped it out and sent it to my mother. She of course had it matted and framed and gave it back to me a few months later.

I soon got used to seeing my name in print, attached to reporting in the paper. But this is of course very different. Other writers said just wait till you hold that book in your hand. They were right. I sat in the parking lot of the post office last week after picking up a box of them, turning the book over and over, flipping the pages, reading through passages to make sure last-minute edits had made it. But really just stunned to be holding the thing in my hand.

I've been stalking my local book stores, which are still waiting for their orders, waiting to actually see it on a shelf. I'll probably take a picture.

Afraid I don't have a whole lot of grand thoughts this morning. I'd love to see people at the Billy Goat tonight (the one at Michigan and Hubbard, of couse). If that's not possible, please mark your calendars for Sunday, Jan. 24 at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park. Augie Aleksy is kindly having me in for a signing and discussion, and I intend to drag whoever shows up down next door for a drink afterward.

Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Who Knows What's Best?

As the year winds down, I thought I'd share some of the high? lights in random categories.

Best text messager: Andy House, who drove his $2 million Bugatti Veyron into a lagoon because he was texting at the wheel and what was left of his brain was allegedly distracted by a low-flying pelican. The link's headline says "$1 million," but other sources put the price at around $1.8 million." Although--what are a few zeroes among friends?images

Best explanation of why we need to have our handguns with us AT ALL TIMES. The gun enthusiast's website, Frontsite goes through how to do just this. What about when you go to the bathroom?their newsletter asks. A question that has often worried me. And the answer is both logical and practical.

"If your gun is in a holster attached to your belt, keep it there. When you pull up your pants, the gun will still be there. Where you get into trouble is when you are not using a holster and set your gun aside in the bathroom. THIS is at least an embarrassment and at worst a tragedy waiting to happen. Do people leave guns in bathrooms? ALL THE TIME simply because they set their gun aside rather than keeping it in the holster or (if not wearing a holster) placing it on top of their dropped trousers between their legs...Private citizens, law enforcement, and government agents leave their guns in hotels, airports, and restaurants on a regular basis... DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU. The result of your carelessness will cost you and can be tragic."images-1

Or ludicrous, depending on your sensibility.

And, while we're on the topic, Most creative marketing plan of the year goes to beer vendors at the Washington, DC, pro football stadium.

Best book moment of the year: Amazon's decision to remove some 57000 authors it deemed riské or offensive, from its rankings and search engine. These included most LGBT authors, including James Baldwin. Just a computer glitch, they assured us after 18000 people signed up for a boycott.

Best politician of the year. This is such a crowded field I wouldn't presume to decide, especially since I'm biased in favor of my own Rod Blagojevich, who shook down a children's hospital for campaign contributions, and wanted to put Barack's Senate seat onto the market.

South Carolina's Mark Sanford, flying to Argentina to see a lady friend, claimed he was hiking the Appalachian trail instead. The state recently fined him $73000 to cover the cost of using the state plane for the flight, which seems kind of cheap, but the cost of living is lower in the south.

Jenny Sanford is much duller than Patty Blagojevich, who ate tarantulas on some TV show.

And then, New Jersey, which is always stealing Chicago's corruption thunder, gave us some Brooklyn rabbis and the mayors of Hoboken and Secaucus, involved in a money-laundering scheme so complex that V I Warshawski threw up her hands in despair over trying to unravel it. Suffice it to say that a yeshiva's papers were taken as part of the evidence, and that human kidney trafficking played a role.

Please let me know the many wonderful stories I missed.

Saying goodbye to the book....

by Laura Caldwell

Jason Pinter, a good writer friend, tweeted last week that he was "tinkering" with a manuscript. I tweeted back, "God is in the tinkering." I meant it when I wrote it, but it wasn't until today, when I'm supposed to submit my first (completely rewritten) non-fiction book to my editor, that I realized tinkering isn't just a form of polishing your manuscript, it is also, at least for me, a way of saying sayonara.

It's the writer's version of seeing a kid off to college. You're relieved the time has finally come, but it's bittersweet all the same. So instead of sending them with a case of Rammen noodles and some old sheets, you shop the Container Store for the best shower caddies and Bed, Bath & Beyond for matching linens. Writing wise, I have been putting in a comma here, deleting a phrase there (then adding it back in, then deleting it).

Finishing this book is even more bittersweet than turning in my novels, because it's about my now-friend, former-client, Jovan Mosley, who was in a holding cell in Cook County for six years awaiting a trial for murder. Since representing Jovan in 2005, I've been living with this book--writing parts of it in my head, scribbling notes on napkins, reading thousands of pages of transcripts, reliving the trial with my other friend, Cathy O'Daniel, the lawyer who really did the heavy lifting on Jovan's case. But now the story has been amassed and the details nailed down. Like the kid off to college, it's time to say to the book, I'll be here if you need me, but meanwhile, you're on your own.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Best Reads of the Year

by Marcus Sakey

Hard to believe it, but another year has blown by. Time, she passes.

And so in keeping with tradition—it’s tradition if I do it twice, right?—I thought I’d list my favorite reads of this year. This isn’t about books released in 2009, just my personal picks of the 70 or so I’ve read since January 1st. (You can see last year's picks here, if you're interested.)

SAMARITAN, Richard Price
For my money, Price is probably the best “crime” writer working today. He’s got a subtle understanding of humanity, unmatchable style to his prose, and pitch-perfect dialogue.

A MOVABLE FEAST, Ernest Hemingway
I rediscovered Hemingway this year, and I’m thrilled about it. Yes, the complaints about him still ring true, but what he does well, he does amazingly.

IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS, Tim O’Brien
I’ve never been anything but floored by O’Brien’s work. THE THINGS THEY CARRIED remains my favorite, but this one is a masterpiece.

THE POWER OF THE DOG, Don Winslow
One of the most ambitious and accomplished crime novels I’ve ever read. An epic telling of the war on drugs from every angle.

BAD MONKEYS, Matt Ruff
Matt Ruff is one of this year’s discoveries; I’m actually reading another of his right now, FOOL ON THE HILL. A fantasist with a wonderful sense of play who also has something to say.

THE SONG IS YOU, Arthur Phillips
Phillips continues to dazzle with this novel of music, love, and obsession.

THE HUNGER GAMES, Susan Collins
The most fun I had reading this year. Smart, tense, and entertaining as hell, this one is really is pure pleasure.

SATURDAY, Ian McEwan
It’s Ian McEwan.

MARKET FORCES, Richard K. Morgan
Morgan was last year’s big discovery, and the most exciting sci-fi writer I’ve come across since William Gibson.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, Michael Chabon
Chabon can, apparently, do any goddamn thing he pleases, including write a noir fantasy about a Jewish state in Alaska. His style is so adroit and so muscular it leaves me at once thrilled and pissed.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO
Junot Diaz

Probably the second most fun I had reading this year. Diaz’s debut novel is charming, wicked smart, and wonderfully nuanced.

If you’re looking for more recommendations, on my website I keep a running list of books I dug. They’re all over the place in genre and style, but all of them entertained, educated, or inspired me.

How about you? What blew your hair back this year?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deep Thoughts

by David Ellis

It’s three in the morning and I can’t think of a topic for this blog so I’m going to throw out some thoughts I had and see how this goes. I did this before and nobody complained. Then again, maybe nobody read it.

1. “I greatly prefer a good story to good writing.” This is a quote from an author I respect. I’m sure all of us writers would like to think we don’t have to choose between the two, but it’s an interesting thing to debate. My initial reaction is that I prefer good writing. For example, with my favorite novelists, I like to pick up their books from time and time and just open them to any page and start reading, just for the sheer pleasure of the prose. Pretty much anything Joyce Carol Oates has written will inspire me in some way—different ways, depending—or Scott Turow, another of my heroes. Recently Tana French has joined that club. It is a happy fringe benefit that their stories are compelling, too, but I think I would enjoy reading their description of dust settling or paint drying.

But do I prefer that to a good story? I actually think not. Other than fancying the darker side a little, I think I’m a pretty mainstream reader of commercial fiction. I still read many of John Grisham’s novels, for example, which would not go on most people’s lists of well-written but contain good basic story lines. I don’t think he ultimately executes his ideas as well as I’d like but he can still set up a nice dilemma. And I keep reading them.

The more interesting question, my point here, is from the viewpoint of the author. If I had to choose, would I rather have someone say my book was extremely well-written but the story was boring, or the prose left a lot to be desired but the ultimate story itself was quite gripping? I’m not sure why but I think I would rather that people respected my prose than the plot, if I had to choose.

If it weren’t three in the morning, I might be able to come up with some argument that a good story is good writing, or something deep like that. It’s actually a quarter to four now so it’s not going to happen.

2. I was just in France researching for a novel. Here is a lesson I learned in France. Don’t get arrested in France.

3. Keeping with this theme of being arrested in a foreign country, I wrote a while back about how the press doesn’t cover stories well enough, doesn’t give enough detail, etc., and I was just thinking about this Amanda Knox thing in Italy. The general gist of the coverage is that she’s innocent. But I heard one commentator talk about how Amanda Knox, the morning after the murder, was waiting for a store to open so she could go in and buy bleach … and then the whole apartment was scrubbed with bleach, before the authorities arrived. True? False? I would not by any means put her down as guilty based on that fact alone—I’ve been a lawyer way too long to jump to conclusions—but that is a rather damning fact that I didn’t know, if indeed it is a fact at all. The bigger point is that there must be all kinds of inculpatory and exculpatory information from that trial that we know nothing about. Frustrating.

4. Did you know that in France, they can detain you for at least 48 hours and interrogate you without the presence of a lawyer, without a phone call, without any outside contact whatsoever?

5. I was complaining to someone the other day that the plots of my novels don’t make for good “elevator pitches.” You know, a four-sentence, thirty-second summary. I think in some silly way this has been a source of pride for me, like my stories are somehow too deep or intricate to lend themselves to such summaries. But as I have thought about it more, I am beginning to think that the elevator pitch is more than just a marketing idea—it is good discipline. It makes you hone your story. If you can’t give a compelling summary in a few sentences, maybe your story isn’t as good or tight as you think it is. I have found, as I mature in this business, that I am trying to make my plots less complex, not more.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Writing Jones

My name is Libby Hellmann, and I’m an addict.

There. I've admitted it. After years of denial, I can’t evade, lie, or talk my way out of it any longer. Nor can I get away with being “just a little bit addicted.” I’m one of the people I've always pitied. I have the writing jones.

The discovery was painful. And recent. Just the other day, in fact. See, I never subscribed to the theory that people could be addicted to writing. I thought those who claimed to be were pretentious and showy. Which, of course, couldn’t be me. I hate to write. It's the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. When it comes to my daily page count, I am an expert procrastinator. (My latest diversion is Sudoku. I’m still on the easy level, but I’m getting better.) So how could I be addicted?

Then I came to the end of my current WIP. I began it last January, and throughout the year I focused on the end date. How great it was going to feel. How satisfying to actually complete a draft in less than a year -- I am not one of those two or three book a year geniuses. I promised myself a rowdy celebration. A mental vacation. Lots of socializing and partying and staying out late. ‘Tis the season and all that.

So I finished. And promptly went into a funk. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started moping. Staying in bed. Hiding under the covers. Eating too much chocolate. I couldn’t figure out why. Then it came. For almost 12 months the WIP (as yet untitled) was the major focus of my life, requiring most of my intellectual energy. Now it’s over and it’s time to move on.

But to what? What comes next?

I should have known. I usually get restless when I’m within 50 pages of the end. I slow down and take my time. I used to think it was because I’m blocked, or that I needed extra time to pull together all the threads. But I now see I was fooling myself. I slow down because if I’m not writing something, what am I? Just an empty vessel filling air and space. I need to be writing -- all the time. I need to be vested in characters, settings, plots, twists. I need to write.

And here’s the kicker – or the really crazy part. I don’t even get high from the process. I usually come to the keyboard feeling scared or irritated or unequal to the task. Indeed, I want to shoot people who say words flow out of them like some swift running river. Who say once they get going, they can't stop. I can always stop. I start my writing day with half-baked thoughts tumbling around my brain and hope that one or two will make sense eight hours later.

Yet I keep coming back for more. Am I a masochist?
Addicted to pain and suffering? Please tell me I’m not. Please.

At any rate, the good news is that I brainstormed a short story (thank you Barb) the other day, and I’m ready to roll. It’s kind of a prequel to the novel I just finished. So I’m mining familiar territory.

And I have my fix.

All words of caution, wisdom, or empathy will be accepted.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Captured Here In My Quotation Marks

By Kevin Guilfoile

Yesterday, our six-year-old neighbor Norah came over to play with my five-year-old son. We were all in the basement. The kids were on the floor playing with Legos and a toy castle. I was sitting in a chair reading. And then, almost to the room, not even like she was specifically talking to Max or to me, Norah says:

"I've been watching the news. People are worried about germs."

And I thought to myself not that this was an interesting thing for a six-year-old to say, or that it was odd, or precocious. I thought:

Man, what a great piece of dialogue.

Composing dialogue is one of those challenges of writing that I suspect some novelists really sweat over and others don't give much thought to it at all. But if you get a handful of good writers in a room and bring the subject up, you're almost sure to get an interesting conversation. What the conversation probably won't be, however, is good dialogue.

Because writing good dialogue isn't really about writing the way people speak. If you've ever read a transcript of a wiretap, for instance, you know that when people actually speak in conversation it comes out as a total mess. There are way too many ums and uhs and tangents. People interrupt each other at exactly the wrong moments. And people, especially adult people, rarely say exactly what they mean. Conversation is loaded with agendas. I'd bet 70% of everything that comes out of a typical grown-up's mouth is intended to either deceive or impress another person, which, for a novelist, is probably either unhelpful or irrelevant, unless the specific point of the scene is that this character is either deceitful or impressive.

So the goal in writing good dialogue is to make your characters speak efficiently in order to advance character and plot, and do it in a stylized way that is believable in the context of the story. Writing good dialogue isn't about writing words real people would actually speak, it's about convincing the reader that people actually speak this way when they really don't.

We always use David Mamet as an example because he writes this hyper-stylized dialogue that is immediately recognizable. I realize Mamet isn't to everyone's taste, but for me his genius is creating these worlds of heightened tension in which his weird and funny dialogue is completely believable. Here's a section from American Buffalo:

TEACH: You want to know about a safe?

DON: Yes.

TEACH: What you do, a safe...you find the combination.

DON: Where he wrote it down.

TEACH: Yes.

DON: What if he didn't write it down?

TEACH: He wrote it down. He's gotta write it down. What happens if he forgets it?

DON: What happens if he doesn't forget it?

TEACH: He's gotta forget it, Don. Human nature. The point being, even if he doesn't forget it, why does he not forget it?

DON: Why?

TEACH: Cause he's got it wrote down. [Pause] That's why he writes it down. [Pause] Huh? Not because he's some fucking turkey can't even remember the combination to his own safe...but only in the event that (God forbid) he somehow forgets it...he's got it wrote down. [Pause] This is common sense. [Pause] What's the good keep the stuff in the safe every time he wants to get at it he's got to write away to the manufacturer?

DON: Where does he write it?

TEACH: What difference? Here...We go in, I find the combination fifteen minutes tops. [Pause] There are only so many places it could be. Man is a creature of habits. Man does not change his habits overnight. This is not like him. And if he does, he has a very good reason. Look, Don: You want to remember something, you write it down. Where do you put it?

DON: In my wallet.

TEACH: Exactly! [Pause] Okay?

DON: What if he didn't write it down?


I could go on for a long time about why I think that's brilliant, but the point is in that entire conversation there aren't three words in a row that any real person would actually say. Somehow, it's totally believable. (Also real people don't pause that much when they speak, for fear that someone else will start talking.)

Other writers of good dialogue are usually more subtle about it. So effortless, in fact, that examples aren't easy to come by. I can tell you I think Charlie Huston writes great dialogue, but I'm not sure if I took a passage out of context it would have the same impact. For novelists, good dialogue usually has a cumulative effect.

Which is why my antennae went up when I heard Norah say that yesterday. I've been watching the news. People are worried about germs. It sounds like the beginning of a Margaret Atwood or a Ray Bradbury story or something.

A story I would keep reading.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fire

by Barbara D'Amato


This is not the blog I intended to post.

Last night around one a.m. I woke up to the sound of sirens. Now, I live two blocks from the huge Northwestern University medical complex and two blocks from a fire station, so we have more sirens than crickets here. But this was different. In minutes, the street was full of fire trucks and ambulances.

It turned out to be a 5 alarm fire in a high rise around the corner from us, at 260 E. Chestnut. The fire department had responded very rapidly to a call from the thirty-sixth floor of the building. Eighteen ambulances, over twenty fire trucks, and three hundred firefighters responded, one-third of Chicago's firefighting force. A helicopter hovered over Lake Michigan, training a spotlight at the building.

Two hundred residents escaped. There were twelve people injured, including five firefighters, and one fatality, apparently a woman in the apartment where the fire started.

It's been reported variously as a forty-four or fifty-one story building. The fire "lapped over" as the firefighters say, from floor thirty-six to thirty-seven, shooting out of the windows of thirty-six, breaking the windows of thirty-seven with its heat and then being sucked into thirty-seven.

Our building was never in any danger. But it reminds me of how vulnerable you feel living in a highrise.

I lived in houses until just a few years ago. I don't know whether, statistically, you are safer in a house or an apartment building, but you feel more in control. I believed in a house I could jump out of an upstairs window if I had to and run into the back yard. In a highrise you are dependent on other people doing the best thing.

The fire department last night did a great job. They searched the building, making sure everybody was safe, including a 105-year-old resident. A man and his young child had climbed onto the roof and called 911 from there. Firefighters took a canvas up to keep them warm until it was safe to bring them down in the freight elevator. And they and the EMTs were working in seven-degree weather. The EMTs were out on the street from one a.m. until five. And yes, the ambulances are heated, but they aren't toasty warm in weather like that.

Which leads me to some reminders. In a fire:

Stay in your apartment if at all possible. As the fire chief said this morning "We'll find you.".

But help them. Tell 911 where you are. The man on the roof called 911 to tell firefighters where he and his daughter were.

Put wet towels under the doors to keep smoke out of your apartment.

Keep a flashlight where you can find it easily and make sure it has working batteries.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Poetry

by Michael Dymmoch

When I was in my salad days and still thought writing was congenital or inspired by God, I hung out with artists and poets and waited for inspiration. And in the occasional near-suicidal depression I managed a couple of poems and a short story or two that passed as not bad for a college kid.

Now that I'm a writer, I know that inspiration only gives you ideas. And everyone—including scientists and engineers, mechanics, teachers, and moms-at-their-wits end-with rambunctious-kids—has ideas, sometimes even inspirations. Successful writers (and scientists, moms and mechanics) also have the discipline to turn ideas—which are otherwise just fleeting notions—into actual creations. And successful poets—who seem the most inspired of writers—are the most disciplined of all.

I've managed, in my lifetime, to write three successful (not necessarily great) poems and a fragment. One got me an A in creative writing and the ultimate compliment—"Damn you!" from a dog-lover. One made it into a school anthology. The third and the fragment I self-published; I used them in my novels.

I once asked a great teacher, "What is a poem?" She said, "It's the ultimate economy."

Which is why I love Denise Levertov and Michael Ondaatje, John Ciardi and Norman Nathan, among others. Why I can't quote my favorites without permission—they are too short to even include a line. But check out something like Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle...(Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, Hugh Smith). See if you can read "For a Dead Kitten" (Sara Henderson Hay) without tearing up. It is only eight lines long, but manages to evoke the immensity of death. That's power. That's great poetry.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Writing About Writing About...

by Sean Chercover

When I was very young, my mother worked as a dialect coach. Mom is from Atlanta, had majored in Theatre at the University of Georgia, and was a stage and television actress before she had children. So whenever a Tennessee Williams or Lillian Hellman play was being staged in Toronto, they'd call in my mom to teach the actors how to talk Southern.

I remember, as a little boy, spending the day up in the darkened balcony, watching actors on the bright stage as they worked on their lines and blocking with the director, and of course on their accents with Mom. As rehearsals progressed, the stage began to morph into a set, with furniture and props added, and flats painted like the walls of a living room. And the actors morphed too, as they developed their characters with distinct body language and costumes and makeup.

It was magic.

When I grew a little older, I'd sit with the script and read along, as the actors rehearsed. And I'd listen to the actors complain when a line just didn't 'ring true' for them. Of course, you didn't mess with the script, so the director would work with the actors to try and find 'the truth' buried in the words, so they could perform the line with conviction.

In 1978, my mom started working as a scriptwriter in the television industry. She would sometimes call me into the living room for a "story conference" and ask for my input on a script she was writing. She'd explain the characters and the scene, and ask what I thought the characters might do in that situation.

At the time, I was of course pleased that Mom treated me like a grown-up and valued my opinion. But looking back, I realize what an amazing thing it was to grow up in such an environment, with such a Mom.

She also subscribed to Writer's Digest, and I started reading the fiction column around that time. The fiction columnist at WD in those days was Lawrence Block.

Lawrence Block! Can you believe my luck?

Block's WD columns are collected in two books, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB. If you haven't read them, you should. He also wrote an excellent book called WRITING THE NOVEL, FROM PLOT TO PRINT. The "print" part of the book is a little dated, as the industry has changed greatly since 1979, but the writing stuff is as valuable as ever. Still in print, and well worth reading.

Anyway, it was the first "book about how to write a book" that I ever read. And I must confess, I've been reading books about how to write books ever since.

The funny thing is, I think the best way to learn to write fiction is (as Stephen King says in his terrific ON WRITING): write a lot and read a lot. He means, of course, read a lot of fiction - not read a lot of books about how to write books.

Reading books about how to write books often becomes a procrastination tool. You read a book about how to write a book, and you tell yourself that you are working on your craft. But unless your ass is in the chair and your fingers are on the keyboard, you are not working on your craft. In most cases, you can learn more if you dedicate your reading time to reading great fiction.

That said, I do believe I have gained a great deal from some of those books about how to write books. Some offer mostly inspiration, while others roll up their sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of writing technique. The vast majority are eminently forgettable, but here are a few that have stuck with me over the years:

THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, by Lajos Egri
This is actually a book about writing a play, not about writing a book. But it is a classic in the field for good reason, and most of it is directly applicable to writing a novel. And it nails character development and human conflict in dialogue like no other.

ON WRITING, by Eudora Welty
I love Eudora Welty's fiction. Love, love, love it. ON WRITING is a collection of her essays on both the craft and philosophy of fiction writing, written from 1943 to 1979. A mere 106 pages, with gems on every page.

STEIN ON WRITING, by Sol Stein
A roll-up-your-sleeves volume of writing techniques and strategies, it is impossible to read this book and not improve your craft. Yeah, Stein is often dismissive of "commercial" writing techniques, but he was James Baldwin's editor, so just shut up and read this.

IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, by Brenda Ueland
This slim volume is more inspiration and philosophy than technique (although there's valuable craft stuff in here, too). Ueland writes beautifully about writing, and it has stuck with me for many years. And the chapter, "Why women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing," is worth the price of admission, alone.

ON WRITING, by Stephen King
Probably the best "book about writing a book" that I've read to date. The first half is a literary memoir of sorts, the second half is nuts-and-bolts fiction writing stuff. Great book.

Those are some of my favorites. Now I'd love to hear some of yours, since I still haven't broken my addiction to books about writing books...

Oh, and one more thing: My mom is one of my first-readers, and now we have "story conferences" about my work. Pretty cool, how things come full circle, isn't it?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

By David Heinzmann

So my first novel, A WORD TO THE WISE, is published Wednesday. My wife asked me today what I wanted to do to celebrate. But I’m so anxious and nervous about it that the idea of celebrating the actual publication date hadn’t really crossed my mind. The other thing I thought about was a little gem of reality that my agent, Jeff Gerecke, gave me a few years ago when he took me on with this manuscript. In our first conversation when he told me he thought this book was good enough for him to represent, he said: Get ready to be published; and then for nothing to happen.

As a journalist, that’s the sort of skepticism I find healthy.

But, in reality, plenty is happening. Earlier this year the charter members of the Outfit asked me to join them here. It has been a really rewarding and enriching experience. It has opened doors, given me an outlet for a style of writing that just doesn’t fly in my reporting for the Tribune, and on multiple occasions membership in the Outfit has provided people to drink with in situations that might otherwise have been awkward for my shy self.

Over the last few months I’ve met a bunch of wonderful writers, editors and publishers—at Bouchercon and smaller events. They’ve offered enormous support and great advice. I ginned up a website that carries my name (which still seems absurd), or rather I should say my generous and industrious brother-in-law, Joe Driscoll, ginned up a web site for me. I’ve seen A WORD TO THE WISE listed on Amazon and other vendor’s sites.

And the name Augustine Flood is no longer just an idea acting out my imagination in a scattered collection of computer files. He’s a character on the page trying to sort out a deadly mess during a bitter Chicago winter, unraveling the lies that bind a collection of desperate businessmen, unhappy spouses, mobsters and college kids. He’s somehow become real. At least that’s the idea.

It’s all sort of… unsettling. My reporting and writing has been published and delivered to hundreds of thousands of homes, thousands of times over the last fifteen years or so. You’d think I’d have a pretty thick skin. But this is different. This is my imagination, and my own view of the world. I hope readers like it. I hope they’ll come back for the next book.

With any luck, you’ll be hearing more about A WORD TO THE WISE over the next couple months. Barring some giant, schedule-crushing news event, I’ll be on WGN-AM 720 Wednesday morning at 8:10 talking to Greg Jarrett about the book. I’ve been on the WGN morning show many times over the years, usually talking about the latest real-life mayhem and scandal in Chicago. This time it will all be made up.

There will be other events and appearances on tap soon. I hope to see some fans of the Outfit there. I have some of the bases of self-promotion covered. Some others, I’m still getting there. (Hey, join the A WORD TO THE WISE fan page on Facebook—the charter members are lonely) Now if I can just commit my soul to Twitter, I’m sure everything will be fine. In the meantime, we’ll try to find a babysitter so my wife and I can go out Wednesday night to celebrate.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Weighing the Output


I was a chubby kid. When we lived in town, a couple of boys in my school used to stand on the sidewalk and chant a rude verse at me on the way home ("Fatty," it began. I sometimes think that if my brain disintegrates with age and I begin to regress like Hal, instead of "Daisy, Daisy," I'll start chanting the "Fatty, Fatty" rhyme. ) I was almost thirty when I lost close to 60 pounds through Weight Watchers. I don't know what WW is like now, but back then, you'd get on the scale, and, if you'd lost anything, the group would applaud; if you'd gained, they offered warm support for the struggle.

At the same time I was going to WW, I was struggling with my doctoral dissertation. A friend of mine was struggling, as I was, with weight and dissertation; we'd go to Weight Watchers together, but we thought we should start "Dissertation Watchers." Each week you weighed the number of pages you'd written. "Two more ounces of deathless prose: well done, Eileen. Ooh, threw out six ounces, too bad Sara, but you'll do better next time."

I think about Dissertation Watchers often because writers seem obsessed with how many words we've written. I notice my fellow Outfitters talking about their weekly quota, or producing 4 or 5000 words a day. One of the pernicious attributes of word processing is the word count on the screen. I do the same thing--when I had more stamina, I could write 4000 words a day. That dropped to 2500; since my car accident 3 years ago, a good day for me is now 1500.

But I also find the word count stultifying. Even back when I churned out 20 pages a day, writing to the quota very often ended up with unusable text--I was so driven to produce that I wasn't thinking about either the quality of the writing, or whether the story was going in its rightful direction. I throw out more when I'm writing to quota. For me, too, the hardest part of writing has always been thinking--figuring out how to tell the story so that it gets me to where I want to be.

How does it work for you? Do you try to write for a set number of hours? A set number of pages? Or are you one of the fortunate ones who gets lost in the Web of Words and writes blissfully, without thinking?

By the way, I did finish my dissertation, which has the catchy title, The Breakdown of Moral Philosophy in New England before the Civil War. I see it as a pulp paperback, with "Breakdown" in jagged orange caps on the cover.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vilification Doesn't Work in Fiction or in Life

By Laura Caldwell

I’m not a big fan of vilification, whether it's in fiction or in life. But more and more, I seem to be the only one who doesn't have the stomach for it. Public figures these days are either on pedestals or, once they have committed some transgression (at least in the mind of the media), they are smacked to the figurative ground, then beaten silly by gossip and strident tongue-lashing from news “experts.”

I find the whole vilification process not only distasteful, but false. We crime writers have been taught that a villain in a novel who is a 100% evil is, generally, just not interesting, in part because the character won’t strike the reader as true. I guess this is why, to date, I have not written about any serial killers. Yes, they do exist, but they seem so evil as to not be particularly fascinating to me. I don't know what the answer is in terms of the media's handling of news "stories," but I do know what the answer is for me in my writing. I want to write people--characters--whether they're considered good, bad or in-the-middle, who have complex reasons for their actions, who are motivated by one thing at one time, and then maybe something else entirely a few days down the line, just like the rest of us. Because really, the villains, "the bad guys,” are just like everyone else—maybe they're just nastier, maybe they just care a little less about their consequences.

I recently finished Dan Chaon’s novel, Await Your Reply. Sakey and I met Dan a few months ago when 57th Street Books organized an author support group of sorts (of course at a pub) following one of Dan’s local signings. I bought the book shortly after, didn’t have a chance to read it until a recent trip, and am now am terribly disappointed that I’ve finished it. Because Choan masterfully works with the concept of good and evil, making the reader guess—or maybe just decide on their own—who the real villain is in the story, or whether there is one at all.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

How To Spin Out A Moving Car

by Marcus Sakey

I had a gig in Los Angeles the week before Thanksgiving—just a quick in and out, sorry to the peeps I didn’t call—and while there, I took a cop buddy up on his offer to visit the LAPD’s Davis Training Facility.

This is one of the best things about being a writer. You get to do so much fun stuff. I spent the whole day saying, “Yes!”
"Would you like to fire a gas-operated Benelli Tactical Automatic Shotgun?"
"Yes!"

"Would you like to jump on the slick track and try to recover from a full-drift spin?"
"Yes!"

“Would you like to try the laser simulation system we use to train in use of force?”
“Yes!”
Probably the most fun part was the track; an extensive, sinuous system of curves and twists used to train recruits in pursuit driving, maintaining control under dangerous circumstances, and, my personal favorite, PITting.

What’s that, you say? Glad you asked.

It stands for Pursuit Intervention Technique, and it’s a carefully calculated way to spin out a car you’ve been chasing. Done properly, there’s minimal risk of harm to either officer or suspect, and little to no damage to the vehicles.

You know all the ramming you see in movies and TV? This isn’t like that. It’s a finesse move, and far more effective than a blunt crash.

What you do is, as the pursuer, you close in on the offender at a steady rate. Pull up alongside until your front bumper is aligned with their rear wheels, and then match their speed. Then gently ease your car over to touch theirs.

This is the hard part—it runs counter to every instinct you have as a driver, and about five kinds of alarms go off in your head. You want to pull away, or else you want to yank the wheel hard and get it over with. But the key is to ease into a static touching position, your car riding against theirs.

Look at it this way. Take one hand and punch yourself in the other arm lightly. It moved, but less than you’d think, right? Now place your hand against the arm and push, steadily, with the same amount of force. Notice how much more effective that was?

And that’s what this maneuver is about. Once you’ve got that steady touch, you push. You do that by turning the wheel into the offender’s car. Less dramatically than you’d think; call it 20 – 30 degrees. The steady force of your vehicle spins theirs; the moment that begins to happen, their forward momentum does all the work, yanking them into a full-spin and out of the line of your car. You brake, correct your steering, and you’re good to go, while they are backwards and watching fellow officers box them in. It’s beautiful, a ballet of metal and asphalt at high speed.

God I love my job.

Anyway, a little tidbit of Wednesday morning knowledge for you. I know a lot of you are crime writers, so hopefully it will come in handy. It should go without saying, but this is for research only, don’t try it at home, and most important, don’t get me in trouble.

While I’m wrapping up, I’d like to take a moment to thank the Los Angeles Police Department for their generosity--and their service. Whether in LA, Chicago, or Pleasantville, cops have a hard job, one where their daily successes go unsung but every mistake is front page news. It’s a job they do for far too little money and in the face of far too much criticism. I can’t change that, but I can at least say, with all sincerity: Thank you.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twice a Hero, Once a Rascal


At the Outfit we tend to shine a light on Chicago’s political, legal, and police corruption. But we shouldn’t forget that Chicago has some of the best sports scandals in the nation as well. And when sports intersects with politics and religion, the stories can be fascinating. Like this one by guest poster, Mike Bohn.

Bohn is the author of Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports, recently published with Potomac Books. His other books include Money Golf, 600 Years of Bettin’ on Birdies (2007), The Achille Lauro Hijacking, Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism (2004), and Nerve Center, Inside the White House Situation Room (2003). As a freelance writer, he regularly contributes features and golf reporting to a group of newspapers in Virginia. For more information, visit his website www.bohnbooks.com.




As the tryouts for the 1924 American Olympic swimming team approached, Chicago’s Johnny Weissmuller was a mortal lock to make the team. He had broken thirty-eight world records over the course of 1922 and 1923.

Yet as Weissmuller prepared to travel to Indiana, a dark cloud descended over the family home at 1521 Cleveland Avenue in the German Town section of Chicago. U.S. Olympic officials had asked all team aspirants to provide proof of citizenship. Stunned, Elizabeth explained to her anxious son that he was not an American. She and her husband, Peter, had emigrated from Austria in 1905 when Johnny was seven months old.

After arriving in America, the family initially had settled in Windber, Pennsylvania, where their second son, Peter, was born. After moving to Chicago in 1908, Papa Weissmuller worked in a bar, and Elizabeth as a cook. Neither had the time nor inclination to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Johnny burst onto the American swimming scene as a seventeen-year-old in 1921. Bill Bachrach, the swimming director at the Illinois Athletic Club in Chicago, had taken the raw youngster and molded him into a swimming sensation. Bachrach was both an able coach and an inspired con man. He and Johnny connived to shave just tenths of seconds off records instead of shattering them. New records meant new headlines; more headlines brought more money to the IAC.

Just before the Indianapolis meet, word leaked to the press that Johnny had been born in Austria. U.S. Representative Henry Rathbone of Chicago further muddied the, um, water, by asking the U.S. department of labor to investigate.
Elizabeth spoke to the press and, with her fingers crossed, tearfully claimed that Johnny had been born in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reacted with a positive story—“Can’t Bar Weissmuller from Olympiad; Was Born Here.” Rathbone pulled back slightly in the face of an emotional mother and sought a politically safe middle ground.

Johnny and his mother then decided to have him swap birth certificates with his American-born brother. Bachrach was likely involved because he was the Olympic swimming coach, plus Johnny was his meal ticket at the IAC. Within a few days, someone altered the baptismal records of Windber’s Saint John Cantius Catholic Church. Peter Weissmuller suddenly had a middle name—John—albeit written in different ink and penmanship. Bachrach stood ready to spin the press about how the family had always called the boy by his middle name.

Back in Chicago, Johnny gave the Olympic Committee his brother’s birth certificate. Officials, eager to have Weissmuller on the team, quickly accepted the unexpectedly tidy solution to a messy problem. The federal investigation fizzled, Rathbone retreated, and Elizabeth said ten Hail Marys.

Johnny, now as American as apple strudel, swam to Olympic glory, winning a total of five gold medals in 1924 and 1928. A hero twice over, he also starred in eighteen Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 40s. Reportedly worried that he might have to return his Olympic medals, Weissmuller never revealed the secret of his actual birthplace.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

by Barbara D'Amato

Several years ago a friend who had been in a writing group told me this: “There was a lot of competitiveness and sniping at each other. I changed groups and the next one was good, but I had expected published writers to be competitive and envious, too. I’ve been very grateful for the mutual support I see in the mystery world. Friends are actually happy when I get a contract from a publisher.”

I’ve been thinking lately about the various surprises that come to writers when they finally sell a book. Some of the surprises are not very pleasant, but many are. I asked a few people what their experiences were.

Michael Allen Dymmoch:
What surprised me and enabled me to become a published writer was all the help I had getting there. Police officers like Hugh Holton, psychologists, and other professionals gave me information I hadn't thought to ask for. Your gracious offer to read and critique my manuscript--after you'd given me the terrific suggestion to novelize the screenplay I couldn't sell, encouraged me to finish the first draft and helped me make it better. And Ray Powers, my first agent, took me on even though the manuscript wasn't ready for prime time. The two rewrites he insisted on were what enabled the book to win the Malice Best First Mystery award.

Libby Fischer Hellmann:
That there were other (first time) authors like me, and we could do events together. Made road trips so much more enjoyable
That readers sometimes sent me emails with comments on the book
The most delightful part is holding the finished book in your hands and realizing you really did it..

Laura Caldwell:
Book clubs make me incredibly, incredibly thankful. To be in a room (usually with wine) with a bunch of people who have read your book and carefully considered it is amazing. And then there's the book club who do themes surrounding the book. It's so delightful. Once, in A Clean Slate, I had a character with a few freckles under his left eye. The book club made a massive batch of sugar cookies and decorated them with man's face, a few freckles under the left eye. They sent me home with a few on a paper plate and I still have them in my freezer (and this was seven years ago). Thanks, guys!!

Recently I’ve realized too how chancy it is. Over the years I’ve read a lot of manuscripts for people. Some were eventually bought by publishers but many deserving ones were not. A manuscript has to hit a buying editor at the exactly right moment. To those writing I would say keep trying. For my good fortune in finding editors who wanted to buy—thank you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I dropped out of grad school…

by Michael Dymmoch

…to avoid writing a thesis. At the time—40 years ago—writing a thesis seemed like an impossible task. All that research. All that writing. All those pages to fill. (With no Wikipedia or spell-checker!) I’d never written anything longer than a college term paper, and that was a month late because I kept putting it off. Doing a bit more research. Taking a few more notes. Tweaking the prose. Fortunately for me, I had an understanding instructor who accepted the late paper, even gave me an A-. (When she handed it back—with numerous spelling errors marked in black, she asked if I ever proof-read anything. My response surprised her: “Yeah, but if I misspell it in the first place, how would I recognize the error when I proof it?” She subsequently gave me a sweatshirt with the legend: BAD SPELLERS OF THE WORLD UNTIE!)

That was lucky. She was the first teacher who ever gave me the idea that I might be able to write, that I might even be good! But it was also unfortunate. I’d gotten away with procrastinating. In fact, all through college I put off writing papers until the night before they were due. And I got away with it. But the result was that a tremendous dread would set in whenever I got an assignment. And I’d procrastinate even more.

For a few years, I had a job writing meeting reports for a boss who, apparently, liked writing even less than I. He demanded that my work be done on schedule, and after a few all-nighters which left me half dead the next day, I learned to get it over with before the dreaded deadline. That discipline, and the excitement of telling stories that just had to be told, the peak experience of writing itself, carried me through nine novels.

But now that I’m my own boss, I seem to be relapsing. Putting off writing. Doing a bit more research. Taking a few more notes. Tweaking the prose. Procrastinating.

Before you say, “Nine novels is more than most people write. Why not just call it enough?” I have to point out that I can’t. I’m a writer. I have to write. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about it. Or writing about it. Or feeling guilty that I’m not doing it. And I agree entirely with Rita Mae Brown: I believe that after exhausting all other alternatives, I’ll behave reasonably. Which, for me, is sitting down to write.

HAVE A GREAT THANKSGIVING!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Symphony of Science - We are all connected...

By Sean Chercover

Okay, so I'm getting better from my flu-bug, but not 100% quite yet. Not up to a clever post this week. Promise I will have one for you next time.

In the meantime, check out this really cool video:



Here are the lyrics:

[deGrasse Tyson]
We are all connected;
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe atomically

[Feynman]
I think nature's imagination
Is so much greater than man's
She's never going to let us relax

[Sagan]
We live in an in-between universe
Where things change all right
But according to patterns, rules,
Or as we call them, laws of nature

[Nye]
I'm this guy standing on a planet
Really I'm just a speck
Compared with a star, the planet is just another speck
To think about all of this
To think about the vast emptiness of space
There's billions and billions of stars
Billions and billions of specks

[Sagan]
The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it
But the way those atoms are put together
The cosmos is also within us
We're made of star stuff
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

Across the sea of space
The stars are other suns
We have traveled this way before
And there is much to be learned

I find it elevating and exhilarating
To discover that we live in a universe
Which permits the evolution of molecular machines
As intricate and subtle as we

[deGrasse Tyson]
I know that the molecules in my body are traceable
To phenomena in the cosmos
That makes me want to grab people in the street
And say, have you heard this??

(Richard Feynman on hand drums and chanting)

[Feynman]
There's this tremendous mess
Of waves all over in space
Which is the light bouncing around the room
And going from one thing to the other

And it's all really there
But you gotta stop and think about it
About the complexity to really get the pleasure
And it's all really there
The inconceivable nature of nature

For more, visit www.symphonyofscience.com

Peace, brothers and sisters.
-Sean

The plot thickens...

By David Heinzmann

I forget which one of my fellow bloggers told me a while back that when you have a book coming out—as I do next month--it’s acceptable to shamelessly self-promote for at least a couple months worth of posts here on the Outfit. But interesting Chicago crime stuff keeps happening that I think people might want to read about. This week is no different.

Last Monday morning, a little after 6 a.m., I was rudely awakened by an email on my phone that said: Michael Scott is dead. His body found under a bridge in River North.

I jumped out of bed and made a call to a source, and learned something new and chilling. Scott had a bullet in his head.

The last time I had talked to Michael Scott, a longtime close ally of Mayor Daley, he accused me of being out to get him. It wasn’t the first time he’d said it.

Over the summer, my coworker Todd Lighty and I wrote several stories about Scott’s real estate dealings, and their troubling connections to his role as president of the Chicago school board, as well as his position on Daley’s Olympic committee. We had two significant stories, first that Scott was angling to take control of city-owned vacant lots next to the West Side park where the Olympic cycling tracks would be built. The land was currently almost worthless, but if the $30 million Olympic complex was built, the condos and stores he planned to build could have been worth a fortune. Read the whole thing here http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chicagoolympics/chi-090807scott-2016-4,0,2216786.story… And we followed it a few weeks later with this story about Scott’s ties to an even bigger development, herehttp://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-olympic-real-estate-25-sep25,0,2667598.story

After our first story, Daley backed Scott, and Olympic officials initially said it was OK. But when I pressed them with questions about their conflict-of-interest policy, they eventually said it wasn’t OK, and made Scott sever his ties to the development.

It was an embarrassing summer for Scott, and it wasn’t getting any easier. Over the last couple of weeks, Lighty and I were planning to report another story—that Scott had billed the public schools for his $3,000 trip to Copenhagen to be with the Olympic team when the 2016 host city was chosen last month. An internal investigation over Scott’s use of his expense account had been percolating at the schools headquarters since Lighty filed a demand for documents eary this month.

But none of these problems seemed like something an experienced politico would kill himself over. While we dug for reasons last week, the murmurs from Scott’s friends grew louder that it couldn’t have been suicide. Somebody must have killed Scott.

The questions bubbled over toward the end of the week, after the Cook County Medical Examiner ruled the case was a suicide, and Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis balked, saying the police investigation wasn’t ready to rule either way. Then some raving woman ran up to the Tribune Tower and heaved a brick through the plate glass of WGN's streetside studio. She was ranting that we were covering up Scott's murder.

Every cop I’ve talked to about the case, including some who were at the scene, has said this was definitely a suicide. Scott’s own gun. Gunshot residue on his hand. Little details, like the fact that he was left-handed and was shot in the left side of his head.

So why did he do it? I think we’ll be digging on that question for a while. It’s one Chicago’s more compelling mysteries at the moment. And that’s saying something.

I think all of the novelists on this blog would agree, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with plot lines that are stranger than the truth of what goes on in this town. I mean, Patti Blagojevich on reality TV in the jungle would have seemed like it was stretching things a bit if Christopher Buckley had made it up.

But then again, this can give us all a liberating measure of license. Who says it couldn’t happen? This is Chicago.

Oh, and by the way, the next time I blog will be three days shy of my Dec. 9 publication date. I promise (to myself) to shamelessly self-promote A Word to the Wise (AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!!!) then.