Thursday, August 31, 2006

Down But Not Out--Return of the Indies! by Sara Paretsky

“I can’t live without cappuccino,” Thomas Jefferson famously said. No, wait, it was books he couldn’t live without (slaves, too, apparently, but we won’t go there just now.) Conventional wisdom for modern bookstores seems to be that you need 150,000 titles and a coffee bar to flourish. Conventional wisdom says the independent bookstore is a dying duck unless it’s like Denver’s Tattered Cover, superstores with cafes that outshine the chains. But suddenly small and mid-sized indies are making a comeback, with market share up two years in a row (according to Ipsos BookTrends data), apparently surviving without caffeine.
I grew up reading Christopher Morley’s Enchanted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels. When I moved to Chicago’s South Side, I came on 57th Street Books. It’s in a cramped narrow basement, a warren of small rooms, that feels like the enchanted bookshop come to life. You can find anything, from Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics or twelve different English translations of the Bible, to Helen DeWitt’s brilliant Last Samurai, which many stores don’t stock now that it’s six years old.
Another Chicago favorite of mine is Women and Children First, one of the nation’s important feminist bookstores. When I was first published, they invited me to do a reading, as they do for all new women writers in the city. No one had heard of me: my first book sold 2500 copies, but they sought me out. Thirty years old now, Women and Children keeps re-shaping itself to speak to readers.
The Raven, in Lawrence, Kansas, is a small general store with an important mystery section. When Borders moved in across the street seven years ago, everyone assumed the Raven would be the next corpse in the mystery case, but it is stronger now than ever.
Murder, Ink on Manhattan’s upper west side is the country's oldest mystery specialty store. Founded in 1972, it used to operate out of a couple of spaces leased from a parking garage. On Broadway now, it’s still small, but a successful venue.
In the neighborhood that Seattle dubs “The Center of the Universe,” Freemont Place Books is a small hip store. In the city that invented the coffee bar, where dentists and laundromats serve espresso, they do it only with books. Amazing.
The indies handsold my books when I was starting out. I’m not sure I would make it in today’s more ruthless market—I didn’t get on the Times list until my sixth book, Burn Marks, came out. Now my books are sold everywhere, and I’m delighted, but I’m happy to see my original base alive, and well.
I shop at my local independents How about you?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's Never Too Early

Sean and his wife have a new baby boy. All my best wishes and congratulations.

Sean also hasn’t slept in a week. And won’t sleep a full night for quite some time, most likely. What you’re supposed to say to a friend at this time is, “Talk about not sleeping. Wait until he’s a teenager and going out for the evening with friends and his brand-new driver’s license.” But no—I have another soapbox to mount.

Reading to children.

You could even start now, Sean. He’ll love to lie against your chest and listen to the sound of your voice.

Read, read, and read, as he grows older.

For everybody out there who looks at our blog—both of you, or more we hope—read to children. If you have young children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, neighbor children, read to them. Some libraries are looking for volunteers to read to children. Go. Do.

Give books for presents. Give books for birthdays, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, give books to children on your birthday. Monday is coming up. Monday is a great day to give books. The Queen’s birthday will be celebrated in Western Australia on September 25. That’s a great occasion to give books, and it’s less than four weeks away, so you’d better get cracking.

Some years ago when one of my children was in eighth grade, he was encouraged to buy his own books at our local bookstore. I got a call from the manager saying the kid wanted to buy an adventure book, but the manager wasn’t sure about selling it to him because it had “racy” elements. Or maybe what she might have called s_x. Oh, please, it was mostly a quest book with a little mild sex, an Eric von Lustbader, as I remember. I said let him buy it. Reading is always better than not reading.

He’s grown up now, by the way, a perfectly civilized and admirable fellow.

Reading takes you into another mind in a way nothing else will. It’s the basis of learning. It’s also [gasp!] fun.

I think I’ll send Sean a copy of Pat the Baby.

Barbara D'Amato

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bouchercon: Pitch Perfect

-Marcus Sakey

As August draws to a close, there are a couple of failsafe signals that fall is coming: the temperature has returned to windows-open level, the days are growing shorter, and half the emails in my inbox have to do with Bouchercon.

The mystery genre’s largest conference, Bouchercon is a four-day orgy of shop talk and writing tips, packed with opportunities to meet your literary heroes in the bar or blow the mortgage in the bookseller’s room. For hundreds of hopeful authors, it also means something else: the dreaded agent pitch.

As a guy who signed with an agent less than a year ago, I relate. So with Bouchercon a month a way, I thought I’d share some of the tricks I picked up, in the hope they’ll help someone else.


In the old days, authors used to submit to editors directly. Today, most of the big houses won't accept unsolicited submissions. To get read at a major house, you need an agent.

But here's the good news: agents want books. Desperately. People become agents because they love good books. All you have to do is show them that yours is a good book.


First impressions matter. Dress appropriately — business casual— and greet them with a smile and a handshake. It's easy to be nervous, but remember, these folks want what you're trying to sell. So take a deep breath, wipe your palms off, and let them see that you believe in yourself.


You paid for your book with sweat and tears. Don't skimp on your pitch. Write it in advance to make it as compelling as possible. Here's the pitch I used for The Blade Itself:

Danny Carter used to be the man with the plan, a cool-headed criminal who always made the smart play. But these days he doesn't think about his past. He's built a normal life, with a job, a long-term girlfriend, and a condo as far as possible from the blue-collar streets where he grew up.

But when his former partner Evan is released from prison, Danny's carefully constructed world begins to crumble. Evan is now a hardened killer with dreams of a big score. He wants to ransom the son of Danny's millionaire boss — and he needs Danny's help.

Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

It's a character-driven thriller about 90,000 words long, in the tradition of Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos.

Can I send you the first 50 pages?


Notice how brief that is? The goal is to trim out subplots and side characters, and boil the plot down to its essence. Get people excited with the idea.

Also, you shouldn’t expect the agent to remember a lot of names. They're listening to this, not reading it, and they may hear a hundred more over the course of a conference. To assure you don’t lose them, use the name of your main character and refer to others by their role.

Lastly, and this is crucial, the pitch must establish the stakes. What is at risk? We read novels to see how characters perform in situations we've never had to face. There has to be risk, and you need to lay it out clearly.


While there's no rule against bringing notes or a printed sheet into a pitch, it doesn't inspire confidence.

At the same time, don't memorize word for word, or you'll seem mechanical. Instead, read it over and over until you have the gist down cold. That way you'll be fresh and engaging. Don't worry if you don't say every single word you wrote.


For an agent, attending pitch sessions can be grueling. They're locked in a tiny room in the basement of a hotel, listening to a series of strangers. Sure, they're panning for gold. But there's a lot of mud to sift through.

That means that one of the best things you can do is be brief. Sessions are often scheduled to last ten minutes; be able to finish your pitch in one. Don't worry that you won't hit every detail. You’ll have allowed plenty of time for the agent to ask questions. And with brevity, you demonstrate that you understand the rules of storytelling well enough to clearly explain your own.

Besides, an author who leaves an agent time to go to the bathroom and get a cup of coffee is an author who can count on that agent's goodwill.


If you’ve been confident, prepared, and respectful of their time, chances are good an agent will ask you to send a partial (usually the first 50 pages) or even the whole manuscript. Congratulations!

When you send it, include a brief cover letter reminding them where you met and summarizing your story. Be sure to mark the envelope or email REQUESTED MATERIALS in big black letters. Agents get hundreds of blind submissions a week, and you don't want to be lumped in with them.

After all, you were pitch perfect.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


One of the first movies I saw in a theater was Walt Disney’s Cinderella. At the time, I was young enough to be fascinated by small animals and indifferent to members of the opposite sex. So I was particularly intrigued by the part of the movie where Cinderella and her little animal friends scrounged enough discarded material—ribbons, beads, and such—to construct a presentable ball gown. After Cinderella got slapped down for her efforts, her fairy godmother supplied the spectacular replacement ensemble that caught the eye of the prince. You know the rest.

Years later, I realized that Cinderella was pretty passive after that first failed attempt to manage her own destiny. Her principal virtues were industry and grace under fire. But her ultimate success was more the result of her godmother’s generosity, and the prince’s obsessive crush, than her own efforts.

Even at a young age, I was inclined to identify with active heroines. But there weren’t many of those when I was little. In books and movies—at least the ones I was exposed to, women pretty much got rescued or played supporting roles à la Dale Evans. Nancy Drew was okay, but she always relied on Ned or her dad to bail her out of whatever she charged into. The Hardy Boys were more to my liking because I was impressed by what men got to do. When Wonder Woman finally came to prime-time TV, I was an avid fan. (But why did she have to wear that stupid costume?)

I didn’t think about Cinderella for decades—until Jim Huang asked me what classics had influenced me as a writer. By that time, I’d studied history and literature, and discovered Joseph Campbell. And I realized that all stories are reiterations of a few basic plots. What makes a writer great is her particular spin.

Where Cinderella comes in—at least to my story—is her example of recycling objects discarded in her environment to make something new and beautiful. Most of my stories rely on such bits—snatches of overheard conversation ("I must've been wearin' my beer goggles when I picked her up."); slightly out-of-the-ordinary events (The time the cat brought a live mouse into the house and lost it.); poignant or unbelievable news items (A crash on the interstate liberated 500 chickens); or striking or eccentric individuals (Like the poised young woman, “Lady,” singing Billie Holiday tunes on the Jackson Street Red Line platform. And the disconcerting Colin Farrell look-alike with the fresh-water-pearl-and-platinum bracelet that looked like something Paris Hilton might wear to the Oscars.) . Writing, for me, isn’t so much creating a linear narrative as it is solving a problem—like working one of those 5000-piece-giant-jigsaw puzzles—reaching into the puzzle box of my head for something to fill in a border or match that spot of red in the center.

My finished dress may not be as flashy as the fairy godmother’s, but I’ve stitched it together on my own. And I have Cinderella to thank for her example.

ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: For those who don’t already know that real forensics isn’t CSI, Connie Fletcher has come out with a terrific new book—EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). Ms. Fletcher will be the guest speaker at the next MWA Meeting (see

Also The Skokie Public Library will host Jan Girten, Deputy Director of the Chicago Division of the Illinois State Crime Lab Forensic Center, Edgar winning author Jan Burke, and me, Thursday, September 7, at 7:30 pm.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I Must Be Hallucinating…

-Sean Chercover

I haven’t slept in a week. Actually, that’s not true. I’m lying. Well, not lying, really. Exaggerating. For effect. That’s what we do when we write. We exaggerate, for effect. The truth is: in the last week, I have slept very little. But, “In the last week, I have slept very little,” is not nearly as dramatic as, “I haven’t slept in a week.”

I’m hoping the hallucinations start soon. The hallucinations are welcome in my little house and I’m looking forward to them. My hoping that they start soon already conveyed the fact that I’m looking forward to them. Bad writing, that.

Ugh. I’m tired. Haven’t slept in a week…

Where was I? Hallucinations. Sometimes when we sit down to write a scene, we see it so vividly in our “mind’s eye” and we hear it so clearly in our “mind’s ear” that it is quite akin to hallucination. We know, of course, that it isn’t real. But we act as if it could be, and we write it.

An act of faith.

If we see it and hear it (and smell it and taste it and touch it) and if we find it believable, then perhaps someone who reads what we write will agree to share in this hallucination with us.

When we write, hallucinations are our friends. Hallucinations & Exaggerations. And a strong cup o’ Joe. Cigarettes, for some. A crutch is, after all, just another tool. And we need all the tools we can get.

Maybe I’m not really typing this. Perhaps that is my hallucination, and my blogmates will be angry with me tomorrow, when there’s no new post at The Outfit Collective.

Not to worry. I am definitely typing this. I know that because I just got up and left the computer and went into the bedroom and changed a diaper.

For the last week, I’ve been up to my elbows in baby shit. See? There I go again. Lying. Exaggerating, for effect. I’m not really up to my elbows in baby shit. But my little house is fragrant and I’ve been peed upon many times. And there’s a baby crying in the next room and I can’t think straight and I haven’t slept in a week.

And you know what? I couldn’t be happier.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Skype Me at Seven: The Future of Book Signings

In addition to being the President of Sisters in Crime for another month (btw, you can find a recent article about the current status of female mystery authors at the the Christian Science Monitor*, I am also a member of the International Thriller Writers.

A few weeks ago ITW proposed a new feature for their website, called “TalkBack.” It will be a repository of author interviews on their website, available for anyone to hear. ITW's David Hewson recommended getting Skype and experimenting with it to get the project off the ground.

First, you need to understand that I’m no techie. All I know how to do is push buttons. (I do that well, I’m told.) But I am a former radio-TV-film person, and any new toy that enhances communication between people fascinates me. As a kid, for example, I desperately wanted a way to talk to my cousin, who lived next door (the phone was for amateurs). We tried the old string and tin can arrangement. We stretched string from her window to mine. We attached tin cans. Didn’t work. Our fathers drilled holes in the bottoms of the cans. Still didn’t work. We finally abandoned the idea, settling on walkie-talkies, which we paid for, in part, by returning glass soda bottles to the grocery store. For the next month – until we got bored – we ran around the neighborhood radioing each other from dawn to dusk. We were cool. Cutting edge. High tech for our times.

So…given that I’m still a kid who’s simply aged a few years, and given that Skype is free, I downloaded it right away. And I was just as excited as when I was a kid! For those of you who don’t know about it, it’s a program that allows you to call anyone, anywhere in the world from your computer-- for free-- if they are a Skype member. If they aren’t, you can still call them for a less than a penny a minute, and if you’re in the US, you can call them for free, at least till the end of the year. I immediately called everyone I knew and recommended they get Skype. A few actually did, including author Zoe Sharp, who lives in Britain. She and I have been in touch regularly since. All you need is a headset and a microphone, which you can pick up for less than twenty dollars. The connection is marvelous. No hiss, no static, nothing, in fact, except your voice.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with writing. Here it is. Pretty May is a companion program to Skype that, among other things, records your conversation digitally. It’s new, and it has a few bugs, but it does work, and it’s easy to use. And, like Skype, it’s free. Zoe and I have already interviewed each other, recorded the interviews, and saved them as MP3 files. We will submit them to “Talkback”, but in the meantime mine is up on my website for anyone who wants a listen. Do check out the quality of the audio – it’s a far cry from tin cans and walkie-talkies.

But that started me thinking. Skype has or will shortly have a video component, and cameras for computers are pretty cheap. What’s to keep an author from contacting a library, or better yet, a book club, to arrange a live video event via Skype?

Think about it. You, the author, settle in with a glass of wine for the evening. You're at home in Chicago; the book club members you will be talking to are gathered ‘round the computer with your book in Seattle. Or Florida. Or England. You talk, maybe read a passage from your novel, answer questions about your work. The conversation lasts half an hour, forty-five minutes. Maybe it’s recorded. Maybe not. Then you’re done. Without ever leaving the comfort of home. True, you can’t sign books personally (or even Margaret Atwood style) but what about sending personalized bookplates after the fact?

Video conversations are already being tested for online dating services (it beats meeting at Starbucks)… why not apply it to author events? Especially since authors and publishers are always questioning the cost and worth of book tours. (There’s been a brisk discussion of this on one of the MWA lists). Here is a marketing tool that requires only a minimal investment. Couldn’t this be a worthwhile alternative for authors who don’t want to -- or can't -- travel?

I’m not suggesting these events would replace bookstore signings – it probably wouldn’t work well in a store environment, and one of the objectives of an author tour is to meet booksellers personally, anyway. It might not work in libraries, either, unless they have a huge monitor or screen. But there are thousands of book clubs all over the country. Seems like it would be wonderful way to reach and interact with them.

There is one drawback: most book clubs fly under the radar, and there’s no directory or index of them. But there could be. All it would take is someone to ferret out those clubs, create a database, and start booking authors. Yes, it does takes time. But not money.

I thought of moving this to the next step myself, but I don’t have the time or energy. I’ll wager someone out there does, though. And I know there must be even better ideas on how to use the technology.

If you have any thoughts, let me know. I’ll be there with my headphones and mike.

*And yes, I did make a mistake in that interview. I said Chandler and Hammett wrote 40 years ago. It was more like 60 years ago. I knew that. Really.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Finding Out the Hard Way Can Be an Endless Affair

Last week, Joshilyn Jackson, a novelist who lives in Georgia and whose sweetness is as self-evident as the rindy-ness of an unpeeled orange, was arrested and jailed because her maiden name was on her Social Security card and her married name was on her driver's license. I'll give you a second to read that again and think about how ridiculous it is before I tell you that it wasn't even true. She had a legally acquired and properly matching Social Security card in a nearby safe deposit box. Nevertheless two police officers from Austell, Georgia (which, according to its web site, "has the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of a small, southern town") pulled Joshilyn from a van full of Sunday School teaching materials, handcuffed her, impounded her car, and took her to jail.

This was not a case of mistaken identity. There was no hardened felon named Josh Jackson hiding from US Marshals in a seedy motel room with a collection of black market rocket launchers and underage hookers. The first cause of her arrest was a clerical error at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the mistake itself is probably understandable. Mistakes happen. Incompetence happens. What didn't used to happen is moms getting thrown in jail because a low-level state functionary with a Band-Aid on his pinky missed a keystroke. As Joshilyn points out, police officers used to be able to make a judgment call about what action to take when such a discrepancy turned up on the dashboard See-N-Say. Now, thanks to "tougher anti-terrorism laws," the officers explained to her, they no longer have such discretion.

The absurd details of her incarceration (which, believe it or not, include being forced to watch Gigli in her jail cell) are, like everything she writes, good reading. But after you feel Joshilyn's pain, it's a short leap to the next, inevitable thought.

Every day the government asks us to give it more power. More power to eavesdrop and to search and to detain. They will say, perhaps without much evidence, that bad guys are likely to have problems with their documents and if we just arrest everyone who fits that profile the numbers of incarcerated might include a few terrorists in mid-plot. Sloppy ones, but perhaps dangerously sloppy. They will say it is necessary. And we might very well say yes, because we're feeling vulnerable.

But let's think about what, I guess, we've already given up. Right now, we live in a country in which they've arrested a PTA mom for the quaintly Eastern Bloc reason that her papers were out of order. They jailed a soccer mom because of alleged irregularities in her documents and the arrest was not an error, but policy. Maybe that doesn't sound outrageous to you and if it doesn't that's okay. Write me an angry note about how I'm a chicken liberal who's always chattering on about how the sky is falling on civil rights or whatever. But trust me, because she's a better person than all of us together, if they want to arrest Joshilyn Jackson, they want to arrest you. Or they want to be able to arrest you if it turns out to be convenient.

I'm not going to traffic in silly, Godwin-invoking hyperbole over a minor event, but as the government creeps slowly into our cars and our phones and our computers, it's worth remembering that totalitarianism doesn't have to look like we imagine it. In dictatorships people eat at restaurants and get married and more or less get on with their lives. In fact, the only fundamental difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is that in a dictatorship leaders take power, and in a democracy leaders have to ask for it. That's no small thing, of course. The idea that the weak can say no to the strong is probably the most radical notion in the history of political thought. But in theory a dictator could choose to grant as many rights to his subjects as he liked. And in theory people living under a democracy could choose to surrender as many of those rights as they wanted. Reason tells you that neither of those things should be likely to happen.

Yet our leaders are constantly asking us to grant them more power anyway. They do this because, like people who use narcotics, individuals who wield power will always want more. And if we never said no to them, the difference between other people's dictatorships and our democracy would be rhetorical. People who willingly surrender their rights don't have any more freedom than people whose liberty is stolen from them.

Actually if we never said no to our government, the difference between their dictatorships and our democracy would be that the people who live under dictatorships would be blameless.

Joshilyn's suspended license arrest will not go down in the annals of miscarried justice. She is not Anthony Porter who sat ten years on Illinois's death row for a crime he didn't commit. Joshilyn is a woman of above average means and cleverness and notoriety and this misunderstanding is already on its way to being straightened out and the bail check she wrote for $1,083 will be returned in full and her criminal record will be scrubbed clean with bureaucratic bubbles, although the memory of Ben Affleck wooing a lesbianized Jennifer Lopez will no doubt leave emotional scars.

Maybe her story doesn't give you a little chill. Maybe you think that if a few random and innocent citizens have to suffer the humiliation of a mugshot and fingerprinting and a few hours in lock up it's a small price to pay for the alleged security we're receiving in return. Maybe you think it's okay that a few dolphins get caught in the tuna net. Maybe you don't think the government has crossed any line. I won't try to convince you otherwise. But what I'd like you to do, no matter your political persuasion, is quietly ask yourself where you think that line should be. Is it when they arrest a novelist, not arbitrarily, but because of something she wrote? When they detain people on the street for not being able to produce a state-issued ID? When they start telling you where you can drive your car and when? When it's finally you and not a stranger they pull over and handcuff and fingerprint?

By our definition of democracy there ought to be lines somewhere, lines that an elected government should never be able to cross, but I'm not sure we spend much time thinking about where they are. (Maybe we all just expect the Constitution will draw those lines for us, but it seems like every politician has a proposed amendment or a signing statement that says the Constitution is written in chalk.) Anyway figure out where you think that line is and you don't have to tell anybody but just file it away in your head. Remember it. Because if we never say no to our government, our leaders, be they Republicans or Democrats, will eventually cross that line. I promise you they will cross it. Not because they're bad people. Not because they're incompetent. But because they think we will give them the power to do it.

And do one other thing. When they cross that line, wherever you think it is, promise me you'll be mad as hell.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

In Memoriam

Dorothy Uhnak died last month, by her own hand, at the age of seventy-six. Never heard of her, Blogospheroids? Uhnak was one of the first women police officers in New York, and one of the first crime novelists to create a strong woman hero, police officer Christie Opara. The Bait won the 1968 Edgar for best first novel. She was one of the writers who opened the door that Muller, Grafton and I walked through more than a decade later.
When The Godfather was a runaway bestseller, Michael Korda approached Uhnak to write a competing blockbuster from the police perspective. She succeeded admirably with Law and Order in 1973. She wrote slowly; her last published book came out in 1997.
Two years ago, Carolyn Heilbrun, another door opener for women, also committed suicide. She was close to eighty, in good health, with many friends and admirers, who are still trying to puzzle out her death.
I didn’t know Professor Heilbrun well, but well enough to know how much I owed her for supporting my career. I know she was deeply concerned about the invisibility of older women, a topic she explored in Writing a Woman’s Life. She resigned her named chair at Columbia University because she was frustrated at the impossibility of her male colleagues attending to her views. But I still can’t make sense of her death.
I never met Dorothy Uhnak. I don’t know if she, too, felt invisible, unattended to, as she got older. I don’t know if she felt a dwindling of her powers, or if the market had left her behind.
I’ll be sixty next year. I struggle constantly with depression, with a sense of being out of step with the times, the market, with my own voice. When my literary godmothers give up the struggle, I’m terrified about what lies ahead.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Cheer Me Up, Please

At the request of several beginning writers, I’ve been reading a lot of first chapters of books. The writers are unpublished but eager and hardworking. The plot and situation look promising. And I am saddened that many of the same problems crop up again and again, killing the promise.

Too much background in the early pages. At one of the first iterations of “Of Dark and Stormy Nights,” the Midwest Mystery Writers of America’s writing workshop, Dorothy Salisbury Davis said, “Begin with something happening, after something has happened, and before too much has happened.” Yes, I know this sounds like the stock market advice “But low and sell high.” But think about it. Get into the story first. You can explain background, when and if it’s necessary, later, after the reader is interested in what’s going on.

Too many adjectives, and especially too many double adjectives. Example: “The hot, amber sun rose over the wide, green lawn on that last, long day of my vacation.” The reader feels like he’s wading through a swamp. A good exercise is to take any three pages of the manuscript and go through with a red pen, asking, “Is this adjective necessary?” Also, see if you can show the same info by action, or by the reaction of characters in the story.

Too many tentative words. Words like almost, practically, nearly, partly, and such are signs of self-doubt. While I certainly am victimized by a whole lot of self-doubt, I go back after the first draft and take words like this out. In fact, I’ve done this long enough that my brain has started to say, “Dummy, don’t put them in in the first place.”

Too many “conclusion” words. Conclusion words: beautiful, arrogant, ugly, magnificent, ghastly, stately, scary, and so forth. Pick words that give facts, and let the reader form the picture in his mind.

I want your writing to work for you. Write the book. I need more mysteries to read.


Friday, August 11, 2006

The Saddest Thing I Ever Learned

When we launched, we promised to tell stories, true ones and imaginary ones. The one I have today is of the weirdest variety—the true kind that seems like it was made up.

For the last year, I've been at work on my second novel, a standalone thriller set in Chicago's south side, gang territory. Even saying that is something of a fallacy—the truth is that all but the most affluent neighborhoods of Chicago have some gang presence—but the south side has the poorest areas, so correspondingly the highest crime.

While the gangs are only one factor in my novel, they're a fascinating world, and I've spent a good chunk of time doing research. I've ridden with Chicago's elite Gang Intelligence unit, interviewed cops that work gang beats in South Central L.A. and New York, and pored over hundreds of pages of studies and autobiographies. I've toured the neighborhoods and stood on disputed corners that have seen seven, eight shootings in a single year. Some of the things I've discovered are funny, some are frightening, and almost all are sad.

As an author, one of the tricky parts is that you can't include all the research you've done, or even all the good stuff. You have to winnow and wean, because ultimately, research is secondary to plot and character and theme (Kevin wrote about this beautifully here.)

Luckily, there's The Outfit. So I can share a few of the more eye-opening things I've learned:
  • In Chicago's Area One, a police district covering the most active neighborhoods, 6 – 10 shootings is a pretty average weekend. During the heat of the summer, it's more like 12 - 18.
  • Graffiti is the newspaper of the street. Gang tags mark territory and issue warnings. Painting another gang's sign upside down is a serious insult—definitely not something you want to get caught doing.
  • These guys—and it is mostly guys—are clever. A standard drug corner is a multi-man operation: one guy who talks to the buyer, another who takes the money, plus a runner, usually under 15, who fetches the dope. Serious players will also have lookouts posted with Nextel cell phones, the ones with radio capability, at the end of the block, or in a second-story window.
  • The average gangbanger is recruited between 12 and 14 years old. The officers I spoke to had dealt with kids as young as 7.
  • We're exporting more than democracy to the Middle East. A recent Sun-Times article claimed that a startling number of active-duty soldiers were also active-duty gang members. Gang tags have been springing up all over Baghdad, and more than 300 soldiers that have come through Fort Lewis alone have been identified as bangers. The article makes it clear these men are serving their country well, but it's hard not to wonder what happens when they return to their neighborhood armed with military training and connections.
  • Gangs don't covet good guns. They covet more guns. From the gang perspective, ten $60 Chinese-made automatics beat one $600 SIG-Sauer.
  • Many gangs have a "beat in, beat out" policy. Part of a gang initiation involves the crew beating the hell out of a prospective members, usually for a specific amount of time (one gang does it for the length of a cigarette). If a member can negotiate the right to leave the gang, he'll have to endure the same thing—only this time he's a lot less likely to survive.
  • According to a high-level member of NYC's gang unit (who spoke on condition of anonymity), the more established gangs recruit the 'good kids' not to sling rock or do shootings, but to go to school. Gang leaders will pay for college and even law or business school, in order to homegrow their own legal and financial teams.
  • And finally, the saddest thing I've ever learned. It comes straight from the mouth of a CPD Gang Intel officer, a twenty-year veteran. I was asking about the size of certain gangs, about their power structure, and this was his reply:
"You know the best way to gauge the power of a gang?" He paused, made me wait. "Count how many schools they have on their turf."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Objects in Mirror

Probably only physicists and writers pay attention to the warning stencilled on auto rearview mirrors: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

A physicist might observe that there is really nothing IN a mirror but molecules of glass and silver (or polymer and alloy). The images that APPEAR to be in the mirror (that actually appear to be behind it, as if the mirror were a window into a looking-glass universe) are virtual images, not real ones. A writer would note that the illogic created by the statement is due entirely to its awkward structure. It would take no more effort to say OBJECTS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR IN MIRROR. It would take only one more word, “the,” to make the statement grammatically and logically correct.

News reporters regularly announce that someone has died of “an apparent heart attack.” Wrong! No one dies of an apparent anything. People die of real heart attacks and from disorders that have similar symptoms. If a heart attack is suspected, one might say, “Apparently, he died of a heart attack,” or “He apparently died of a heart attack.” After the autopsy, we’ll know for sure.

Carry this lack of precision to its illogical extreme (no extremes are logical). What fun defense lawyers could have at trial—“The victim died of an apparent gun shot wound? Maybe he’s only apparently dead.” Recently I heard a news reporter announce that the Indiana State Police were looking for an apparent sniper. I hope not. When someone’s shooting at motorists on an interstate, I hope the police are looking for a real sniper.

We all know what the reporter means, so why get your shorts in a bunch?

If you’re a writer you ought to be as incensed by a professional’s careless use of words as a carpenter would be if you drove a nail with a crescent wrench. You could force the nail in, but you would probably make a mess of the job. It would certainly mess up the wrench. Words are a writer’s tools. When we use them carelessly, we damage them. In Chicago, for example, the police routinely refer to suspects in custody as “gentlemen” (on camera. In private they call them assholes.). Would it be so much harder to say, “We believe we caught the offender,” or “We have an individual in custody”? It’s that OBJECTS IN MIRROR thing again. Calling someone a gentleman used to be a compliment. Now it’s an insult. And what word can we use for a man who’s considerate and polite?

It’s a tribute to the human brain that we can sort out intended meanings, however illogically presented. But we shouldn’t have to. Writers should write what they mean. Much of the trouble we have with others comes from misunderstanding, which is easier to avoid in conversation because body language fills in for unclear prose.

Fuzzy writing is indicative of fuzzy thinking. Unless you’re being paid to obfuscate, you ought to take pride in making your meaning unmistakable.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Is It The Jacket...Or Is It Me?

- Sean Chercover

Chicago has changed…and, as much as I hate to admit it, so have I.

A few months back, I was dog-sitting for vacationing friends. I stayed in their condo in Lakeview and marveled, as I always do, at how the neighborhood has changed.

I first met Lakeview shortly after moving to Chicago in 1987. I was a student at Columbia College and I lived in the South Loop, but many of my fellow students lived in Lakeview/Wrigleyville and I spent a lot of time there.

It was, at the time, a neighborhood in transition. On the path to gentrification, but still funky and affordable for the students and hippies who called it home.

Now everything has gone condo and what rentals remain are out of reach for college students.

The Dunkin Donuts at Clark and Belmont draws fewer punks than it once did, but still enough to retain its nickname, Punkin’ Donuts. The punks, however, look to me both younger and more retro than they did in the late 80s.

The Dram Shop is still a true dive, and a good spot to hang out with the older hardcore drinkers. The day drinkers, who claim their barstools early and stay for hours, trading stories of how it used to be.

I spent some time shopping at Reckless Records and the fantastic Selected Works bookstore, and the neighborhood got me feeling nostalgic. I called my old friend Jay, who lives on the south side, and he hopped on the Red Line and came up to Cubs country for a night of Remember When…

Still the troublemaker, Jay wore his Sox cap. He arrived after the end of a Cubs game, and took some verbal abuse as we walked north through the sea of postgame drunks.

We stopped for pre-dinner libations at the Underground Lounge. When we were college students, the place was called Club Lower Links, and it featured Free Jazz, seriously alternative music, poetry and fiction readings, or (God help us) Performance Art, depending upon the night.

Jay and I used to be regulars, on the nights when the Hal Russell NRG Ensemble played their ear-splitting, beautifully anarchic free jazz.

But Club Lower Links went out of business in the 90s. Now it is called the Underground Lounge. Unfortunately there’s now a big screen TV and there were a couple of tourists in baseball jerseys sitting at the bar. In the old days, people like this never would’ve set foot past the door. And the place now serves fancy Belgian beers in even fancier glassware. But after moaning about the changes for a few minutes, Jay and I conceded that we were just being old guys. Truth is, the Underground Lounge still has the general vibe of the old place (once the television is switched off) and it still hosts great live music.

We stayed a couple of beers longer than intended, then hit the El Jardin Café. Not to be confused with it’s upscale sister restaurant El Jardin, the El Jardin Café is the place for Mexican food in this part of town. I’m happy to report that the enchiladas still rock, the nice Mexican ladies still sit at your table and rest their feet while taking your order, and the Margaritas are still the best in town.

As I stood in the Men’s room, trying to translate the Cerveza Tecate advertising poster into English, it occurred to me that the last margarita had been, perhaps, one too many. Back at the table, Jay was fading fast. Time for bed. We settled the bill and Jay hopped on the El and I walked down Clark, back to the condo where I was dog-sitting.

But on the way, I stopped at The Alley. The Alley was the place where I bought gargoyles to furnish my little apartment, back in the day. It caters to punks and rockers and sells leather boots, mean-looking belt buckles, T-shirts both funny and obscene…and other essentials for the young rebel.

More than anything else that evening, walking into The Alley made me feel the weight of the almost 20 years that had passed since I’d been a regular in this neighborhood. I didn’t see any gargoyles, but I didn’t leave empty handed. I bought this lovely blazer:

The blazer, as lovely as it is, has been hanging in my closet, unworn and neglected, since that night. Chicago has changed...and so have I.

Truth is, this jacket just isn’t me. Not the 40-year-old me, anyway.

But maybe it is you. So here’s the deal – if you like this jacket and think you can give it a good home, e-mail me at seanATchercoverDOTcom, and it’s yours. I’ll even pay postage. There’s only one, so first come, first (and only) served. It's a 42 am I.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Writers, Gods, and Atheists

In her blog last week Michael said “writers are like gods.” Which reminded me of something an author said at a recent conference:

“A writer can play God, but his characters will probably be Atheists.”

Apparently, the statement originally came from the theater world. Wherever it's from, I can relate. In the past six years, I’ve published four novels and about twelve short stories. My fifth novel is done, and I’m working on #6. You’d think by now it would get easier – that I’m finally getting the hang of it.

You’d be wrong. I find writing fiction to be the single greatest challenge I’ve ever taken on. I’ve always felt unequal to the task, and I’m plagued by all the usual insecurities:

-- I don’t know the first thing about writing
-- They’ll know I’m a fraud... they’ll see right through me
-- My prose is mundane, my plots stale
-- Who did I think I was kidding?

The only thing that sustained me were my characters. At least I was in control of something. I could make them exciting or boring, cynical or sweet, duplicitous or innocent. They would utter sharp dialog, romantic drivel, angry curses... whatever I wanted. After all, I brought them to life. I was their God.

In fact, I used to scoff at writers who claimed the words just started flowing when they sat down at their desks. That their characters took over and that they -- the writer -- were “just channeling.” Sure, I thought. Next you’re going to tell me you’re Shirley MacClaine.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to my third book being published.

I’m originally from Washington, DC, and my family kept asking me to set part of a novel in DC. Okay, I figured. In my third book, my protagonist (single mother and video producer Ellie Foreman) will go to DC, and while she’s there, something important will happen that will affect the rest of the book.

150 pages later, it was time to send Ellie to DC. Except I couldn’t. For the first time in my writing career, I came down with writers’ block. I couldn’t write. I started to do things like go to the grocery store, cook dinner, pay attention to my family. I even did laundry. But no writing.

After a few days, I realized something was happening. It took me another day or so to figure out what (I’m a slow learner): I was sending Ellie to DC, but she didn’t want to go. She had no reason to go. I was forcing her and she was rebelling. I was playing God -- she was clearly an Atheist.

Which was a major problem, since the rest of the book hinged on what happened to Ellie while she was in DC. If she didn’t go, I had only half a novel, half a plot. With a whole deadline looming.

Not good.

At that point, I did the only thing I could think of: I panicked and drank a lot of wine. A day or so later it occurred to me that supporting the local liquor store wasn’t going to solve my problem. So I suffered through a hangover, and once it subsided, I summoned up the courage to print out and read the first 150 pages.

And that’s when the miracle happened. I realized that I had already conceptualized the story -- without Ellie going to DC. All the characters were there – it was just that I didn’t see them. In my Godlike haste to send Ellie away, I’d overlooked the fact that I’d introduced a very credible villain in Chicago. He had a motive for killing, he told me how he'd done it, and he even told me where the climax would take place. He knew exactly what he was doing and why ... it's just that I was just the last to know. When I finally did realize it, it only took about 20 pages of rewriting to bring him into focus. He committed the crimes he'd set out to do, and Ellie stayed in Chicago to uncover them. The result was a much stronger book. In fact, An Image of Death is my favorite of the four novels.

I learned I have to get out of the way of my characters and trust that they won’t let me down. Still, it's not easy. "What do you mean, let them do what they want?" the control freak in me asks. That's when I try to remind myself that the round pegs I was cramming their square little heads into were choking them – making them do and say things that just weren’t convincing. And when characters aren’t credible or authentic or convincing, the story fails.

It helps to write back-stories for all my major characters. But it’s not foolproof. There are still times when a character will do something... well... out of character, and I realize afterwards I’ve done it again -- forcing them to do what I want, rather than what they would naturally do if left to their own devices. I also try to write what I call a “now-story” -- working through the POV of every character in a scene -- and develop the action based on each of their interests. In other words, I've learned to kinda let them take over. Er... channel them through my brain.

Spooky? Schizophrenic? Otherworldly? Maybe. And while I never thought I’d own up to it, it does help me write better fiction. Fiction that’s credible and authentic. Sometimes it's even fun! There’s only one problem… it’s getting very noisy inside my head.

Move over, Shirley.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I've Seen The Whole World Six Times Over

Ian McEwan wanted to know how long it would take to hack off another man's arm.

In the Paris Review a few years back, the British novelist (author of Atonement and Amsterdam, two books I'm extremely fond of) described a dinner he had with a well-known pathologist. McEwan had some research questions for the novel he was writing, a Cold War espionage thriller called The Innocent. Specifically he wanted to know how long it would take an inexperienced man to saw through a human arm. The doctor thought about that for a moment and said he wasn't sure, but he had an autopsy scheduled for Monday morning. "Why don't you come along," the doctor said. "We'll saw off the fellow's arm and see."

Horrified, McEwan asked about the dead man's family. The doctor told him not to worry. "My assistant will sew it back on and it won't show at all."

Sadly, I haven't always had such enthusiastic cooperation with my own research. When I was beginning Cast of Shadows, I knew I was going to have to do some investigating of my own. It was a high-tech medical thriller after all, and my practical experience was in advertising and sports marketing. I didn't have the slightest idea how to go about it. So before I had written a word I found a professor (at either Northwestern or the University of Chicago, I don't remember which) who was reportedly an expert in genetic science. I called him and explained I was writing a novel about a doctor who clones his daughter's unknown assailant and waits for the child to grow up so he could see what the killer looked like.

"He clones his own daughter's murderer? That's horrible!" the professor said. "He can't do that! Why would he do that?"

I said, "Well I'm not really asking for your permission, professor. See it's a novel--"

"That would be just awful!" the professor said. "What a terrible thing to do!"

"Yeah that's sort of the point," I said. "Anyway I have a few quest--"

"What a horrible thing!"

I returned the handset quietly to the receiver while the professor continued to condemn my main character for his lack of humanity. I never even got to my first question.

Not wanting to go through that again with another expert, I decided I would just start writing and when I came to a point where I was missing a piece of important information (and I couldn't find a reliable answer on the internet in a few minutes) I would just make it up. Then when I got to the end of the draft, I went back to these passages and came up with a specific list of facts I needed to know and I tracked each of them down to make sure I got them right.

Now there are plenty of novelists who do the journalism thing with great skill and many of them uncover facts and events and characters in their hands-on research that become critical elements in their books. My system just happens to work for the kinds of stories I'm trying to tell. For one thing it doesn't slow down the writing process which is already slug-like for me. When looking up information I have the kind of non-linear curiosity that will always suck me into an infinitely hyperlinked internet wormhole. I might begin with a simple inquiry into DNA but end up blowing an entire morning with a study of third party politics in Trinidad and Tobago.

But perhaps the most important function of my research technique is that it keeps me from filling my chapters with all kinds of interesting (to me) information that isn't essential to the story. I know if I committed hours and hours to research before I started writing I would be tempted to cram everything I'd learned into the book just to show the reader all the hard work I had done.

There's a blockbuster author who is famous for his extensive technical study and his novels are bursting with facts that are barely peripheral to the plot. I won't use his name because someday I might want a blurb from him, but the following is the actual opening to Chapter 26 of one of his most popular novels. To further protect the author's identity I have changed the name of his famous protagonist to "Harrison Ford."

Pellets fired from a shotgun disperse radially at a rate of one inch per yard of linear travel. A lightning flash blazed through the windows, and (Ford) cringed on hearing the thunder immediately after--then realized it had followed too quickly to be thunder. The shot pattern had missed his head by three feet, and before he understood what had passed by him, Blondie's head snapped back, exploding into a cloud of red as his body fell backward to crash against a table leg...

Now the physics of a shotgun blast are obviously irrelevant to the action and worse, that information is now a hurdle the reader must jump before getting to the good stuff. I mean Blondie's brains are about to be blown out the back of his skull and that sterile first sentence takes us abruptly out of an exciting scene. The omniscient narrator doesn't need to prove to me that he took a full load of AP classes, and I assure you Harrison Ford is not doing the math in his head while dodging lead in a room full of terrorists and European royalty.

The unidentified author finds this kind of trivia irresistible, and he inserts examples seemingly at random into his manuscripts. It appears his fans don't mind--he has more of them than I do by the population of a G8 nation. In fact if he's still interested in giving me a blurb after this, I might suggest something like, "Guilfoile's story speeds along like a 700-series Japanese bullet train, whose power output per traction motor can top 300 kilowatts." Nevertheless, as a writer you will always know lots of cool stuff that you can't fit elegantly into your novel and it takes discipline not to force it all on the reader. You might find it painful to delete the lovingly crafted interior monologue in which your main character identifies the primary agricultural export of the Kingdom of Tonga, but will the reader miss it? If the answer is no, leave that little nugget in your Moleskine.

Incidentally, before Ian McEwan could go to that autopsy, he described his predicament to famed stage director Richard Eyre, who told him not to go. "You'll invent it much better than you'll describe it," Eyre said. Indeed the arm remained attached to the anonymous corpse and McEwan still thinks the scene is better for it. "Had I gone to the autopsy," McEwan said, "I would have had to become a journalist--and I don't think I'm a good journalist. I can describe accurately the thing that I imagine far better than the thing I remember seeing."

Also Tonga's primary export crop is pumpkins.

I'm betting you still don't care.