Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Save the Date

by Marcus Sakey

So I was looking at my calendar this morning and realized something.

My debut novel The Blade Itself comes out in 41 days.

Holy crap.

This is very exciting news. One thing a lot of people outside the publishing industry don’t realize is just how long the process takes. I finished my first draft of the book eighteen months ago. Sold it fourteen ago. Hell, I finished the draft of my second book four months ago, and Blade is still not out.

But on January 9th, just 41 short days away, it will be. And in one of those moments of strange synchronicity, another debut novel drops that same day—fellow Outfit member Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood.

This, we have decided, is worthy of celebration. And we’d like you to join us, because, hey, that’s what a celebration is about.

If you live in Chicago or the outlying area, come to our launch party. Hoist a beer and chat with authors, reviewers, booksellers, and friends. Beer, wine, booze, and apps are on us. Both our books will be available for sale, but you don’t have to buy one to get in, so come out for a couple of pints and some chicken wings.

Sheffield’s Tavern
3258 N. Sheffield (two blocks from the Belmont red/brown stop)
Thursday, January 11
Technically 8 – 10 pm, but we’ll be there till they toss us

Very much hope to see you there!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Giving the Devil His Due

By Libby Hellmann

Probably the most common question we writers are asked is “what made you start writing crime fiction?” I’ve always answered that I can tell you how and when I started writing, but, aside from the fact that I’ve ingested a steady diet of thrillers and mysteries over the years, I was never exactly sure why I felt compelled to write.

Well, thanks to the events of the past week, I think I know. In fact, it’s been one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments.

It was OJ. Or, more accurately, the OJ trial.

I was free-lancing in 1995, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of the proceedings, which began pretty much at the beginning of the year. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict – in other words, everything you could want in a crime novel.

First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor , the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone, the racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, as well as the avuncular king of defense lawyers.

Then there were the forensics. I knew very little about police procedure when I started watching and even less about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the timing – all those issues opened up a new world for me. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled… maybe even manipulated – well, that played to all of my latent conspiracy theories, not to mention my tendency to rebel against anyone in authority.

Finally, of course, there was the denouement. How absolutely noir an ending it was! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn’t have done it better.

I remember how swept up I was in the day to day events. I remember screaming at Marcia Clark to object when Barry Scheck made a salient point….I remembering calling my husband, a lawyer too, to rant and rave ... I even remember the nagging feeling that the real issues were being buried and obfuscated (although I wasn't sure how or why). The only other seminal event I was involved in to that degree was the broadcast of the Watergate Hearings in 1973 (I worked for public television and was part of the crew who broadcast the hearings at night.) In retrospect, actually, I find it curious that I was more emotionally involved in the murder of a woman than in a President who tried to subvert the constitution. But that’s another blog.

I’m sure it was the denial of justice… the fact he got away with it… that justice was NOT served… that stayed with me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but the verdict came down in October of 1995, and by spring of 1996 I’d written my first mystery. It was a police procedural, btw, about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. It was never published, and it shouldn’t be. Still, I kept going and eventually published the Ellie Foreman series.

In a way, I’ve been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? I was thrilled when Fox News (in an uncharacteristically rational move) cancelled the book and the interview. At the same time, I have to admit that OJ had a tremendous impact on me. I can even say he changed my life.

What about you? What inspired you to write – or read – crime fiction?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"George, I Wish You'd Look at the Nursery."

by Kevin Guilfoile

In The Veldt, possibly the best-known story by America's second-greatest short story writer (my official top-five are available on request), Ray Bradbury imagined an automated house with a playroom that could read the minds of the children within and produce a realistic environment--around, above, and below--forged from the kids' imagination. When the story begins, homeowners George and Lydia Hadley are concerned that their kids have been spending too much time in the virtual but frightening African grasslands. (I won't ruin it by telling you what most concerns George and Lydia by the tale's end.)

It's a story about technology, but it's also about the ways that modernity has detached us from nature. That there are consequences to the insulation of our urban/suburban existence.

In recent weeks I've become addicted to a show on the Discovery HD channel. It's called Sunrise Earth and every morning it shows a sunrise. For an hour. In crystal clear high definition.

It's a little more than that, but not much. Each episode is shot in a different, beautiful location. One morning it's the woods of Maine. The next might be the Everglades. The next rural China. Or Yosemite National Park. They shoot with multiple cameras which could capture a moose bathing in a river, or insects converging on an opening flower, or lobstermen preparing their boats. There's no narration, just an occasional clock giving you the local time and a line of text with some trivia about the landscape. I normally turn it on when I come downstairs in the morning and let it run in the background as I get breakfast ready. It's hardly a show you watch with rapt attention; it's more like having a window with the most amazing view you can imagine. My three-year-old loves it, too. He's obsessed with maps of the United States and he likes being able to put these magnificent pictures to the names he's learned--California, Massachusetts, Florida.

So the other day I was bringing a sippy cup of milk from the kitchen to the living room and as I handed it to Max and glimpsed through my television window a seal wriggling up some California beach I thought to myself, "Holy cow. This is The Veldt."

I live in an old suburb with plenty of mature trees and park space and woods. It also has a Starbucks and McDonald's and shoe stores and bars. And the landscape is flatter than the top of a Green Beret's head. I understand that much of the appeal of Sunrise Earth is nostalgia for my upstate New York childhood, a time and place where I really could wake up in the morning and open my bedroom shade and watch the red sun appear over actual mountains and lakes. But who would have thought that one of the stars of high definition television would be some dude who plants his camera in a relatively unspoiled part of the country and films the sunrise for folks who live in the parts that have been bulldozed and paved over?

Ray Bradbury, actually.

Some of the action in my book Cast of Shadows takes place inside an online computer game called Shadow World, in which every detail of our cities and towns--down to each home and store and alley and brick--is duplicated in a virtual environment. When I talk to people who've read the book, at bookstores and libraries and reading groups, Shadow World seems to be the great divider of readers. For many it's their favorite thing in the book. For an equal number it's the thing they most dislike. I can't even count the people who have said to me, "I had no problem accepting the doctor who clones his daughter's killer, but I found Shadow World to be completely implausible. There couldn't possibly be a game like that."

And I have to tell them that there already is. Almost.

I started writing Cast of Shadows in 2001 and at the time I imagined Shadow World as a game like The Sims taken to its extreme. I included it not only for structural reasons, but I also thought the idea of people cloning themselves in a virtual world was a thematic fit with the rest of the book. (I wasn't the first to imagine such a world, BTW--check out Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash for a fun, earlier example). I finished CoS in 2003 and that same year an online game called Second Life opened to the public. Second Life wasn't exactly like Shadow World--it's a fantasy landscape rather than an exact twin of our earth--but much of the social interaction is stunningly similar. With over 1.5 million players, Second Life has its own exploding economy (as I write this over $600,000 US has been spent in the game just in the last 24 hours). Real life businesses have opened branch offices in Second Life, Reuters has a bureau there, there are plans to stage a Second Life version of the reality show Big Brother, and there's an operating exchange rate between US dollars and Second Life's Linden dollars. There's even been some discussion in Congress about taxing the fictional transactions in the game. Imagine having to pay income tax on those little red hotels you put up on Park Place.

I'm excited by the possibilities of an environment like Second Life, although I have to admit I'm a little disappointed it has arrived so quickly. While I was only imagining it, a much smarter someone was actually making it happen, which surely takes some prescience points away from me as a writer. Shadow World is almost, but not quite my Veldt.

Anyway, I'm not sure anyone is reading this over the holiday weekend, but here's something I'm wondering about if anyone's still around. What other Veldts are out there? What are some literary inventions that have recently come to pass, in one form or another, in the real world?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Red State/Blue State by Sara Paretsky

Red State/Blue State

Okay, Illinois, home to the Outfit, is officially a Blue State—we voted Democrat even down to Todd Stroger, who was appointed by the local polit-buro—sorry, Cook County Democratic Organization—to head the county ticket after his father suffered a stroke in the middle of the primary. Cook County’s budget is over $3 billion, with some 30000 employees, a patronage nest that makes the county presidency a prize worth fighting hard to keep. But is Illinois a liberal state? Is Chicago a liberal city? has some interesting comments on this.

I first came to Chicago in 1966, when Dr. Martin Luther King was here, trying to support Al Raby and others in their fight to integrate what is widely thought of as the most segregated city in America. The white south side erupted in violence that shook Dr. King to his core, as Taylor Branch reports in At Canaan’s Edge. ( Like a lot of bloggers, I’m a new and enthusiastic Branch reader.)

The white south side was furious with Mayor Daley for sending police out to Marquette Park to protect Dr. King. Shouting the kind of epithets that got Richards in trouble on national TV this week, they vowed never to vote Democratic again. They packed up their marbles and stomped off to the western suburbs, where they formed a Republican machine every bit as corrupt, powerful and dangerous as the old Daley or the new Stroger operations. And they send some of the reddest of the reds to Congress, including Judy Biggert, Illinois 13th and the outgoing speaker, Dennis Hastert, Illinois 14th. So whether we’re red or blue or progressive or reactionary—it’s all where you’re registered to use that Diebold machine!

Monday, November 20, 2006

No More Re-gifting, No More Fruitcake

by Barbara D'Amato

The holidays are right around the corner, and so is your Aunt Martha with her annual gift of Turkish paste and Cousin Dan with his annual subscription to A Guy’s Basement Workshop. Plus you feel a need to head out and buy presents that you know may turn out not to be the right size or the right thing. And work on your smile of delight at the Turkish paste.

I have the solution. No more re-gifting. No more fruitcake.

Find a family in need. One year a friend in North Carolina told me about a family whose possessions had been wiped away by a hurricane. Another year a Chicago cop found me a family whose wage-earner had died and whose oldest child had medical problems. Your minister, priest, or rabbi may know of such a family. Or with two degrees of separation, I guarantee you can find one.

NOTE: Make sure the family’s permission has been obtained.

Find out the composition of the family, and the gender and ages of the children.

VERY IMPORTANT: If there are children involved, get an alternative address to which the presents can be sent. I don’t think you should ever give out addresses of children. There are just too many creeps in the world. But a neighbor, grandparent, or church contact works well.

Inform all the people who give you gifts that you want gifts sent to the needy family instead of you. Tell them you will be very, very, extremely upset if they give you a gift instead.

Good gifts include:

Towels. Everybody has old towels. New towels just aren’t a priority when you are in dire need. And new, fluffy towels are a great comfort.

Luxury items. It sounds strange to give luxuries to a family that needs essentials, but luxuries are the first things that disappear in a crisis. Chocolates and holiday cookies are very appreciated. Alcohol isn’t so good

Children’s toys. It depends on the age, of course. Dolls, balls, checkers, or dominoes, catcher’s mitts. Crayons, art paper, knitting equipment and yarn, paints, markers, coloring books and so on are good. Books of course. And nobody ever has enough Legos.

Tell your friends to send the gifts, but not their name. Keep it anonymous. That way there are no comebacks and you have no fear that somebody in the giftee family is going to turn up later for a handout.

I don’t know where the petrified fruitcake that has been making the rounds for thirty years will go, but this year it won’t be your house.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Garret

by Marcus Sakey

I’m a new writer. My debut, The Blade Itself, comes out January 9th (notice the subtle plug?), and so I’m in the thick of the marketing and self-promotion jungle.

I’m setting up signings. I’m planning a launch party. I’m expanding my website. I’m also doing something new that’s quickly becoming the norm—I’m partnering with other writers.

More and more often, groups of authors are working together to accomplish what might be tough on our own. Take this blog: sure, we like each other’s work, we write in the same genre, and we’re all in Chicago, but I’ll let you in on a secret—the real reason we formed The Outfit is that we’re too damn lazy to run our own blogs.

Working together, we can create a forum for ideas and discussion without having to worry about the time blogging takes away from novel writing. It’s a good arrangement.

Sean and I are also part of another group, Killer Year. It’s a collective of suspense novelists with debuts coming in 2007. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I joined, I figured, hell, why not? I imagined that while it probably wouldn’t do much good, it also wouldn’t take much work.

As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

It’s a lot of work. Even deciding what to do takes a long time when there are fourteen people with vested interests.

However, it’s paying off. Killer Year was adopted as an official program of International Thriller Writers. We each have an ITW mentor to guide us through our debut year (mine is David Morrell, creator of Rambo and the godfather of the modern thriller). We’ve chipped in to print a collection of our first chapters and ship it to several hundred independent booksellers. And in the biggest news yet, we just sold an anthology to St. Martin’s Minotaur. Edited by Lee Child, it will feature work from all of us and some of our mentors, including contributions by Laura Lippman, Duane Swierczynski, and Ken Bruen.

All of which is very groovy, and I couldn’t be happier. But the reason I bring it up is because I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the benefits—and limits—of authors working as a group.

This is a hot topic. Group blogs are popping up all over the place (without any thought at all, here’s one, here’s another, and a third). Authors are teaming up for signings and hitting the road together to bring down the cost of tours. We’re co-writing, link-seeding, and critique grouping.

Is this the new way of doing business? Or is it a phase?

Some aspects, like group blogs, make such obvious sense that I think they have the legs for the long haul. But will our traditionally solitary business now be about working as a team?

And if so, how far does that go?

I can imagine a day when in addition to individual writers, there are collectives, with shared characters, plots assembled by committee, and quarterly releases. You go to the store and buy the new Good Girls Kill For Money novel.

Good? Bad? Improbable? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I got the assignment because I earned it, beating out cut-throat competition to interview the world’s foremost expert on death. It was a plum, made sweeter by the rumor that the dean of death was dying; there might be no more interviews after mine. He offered me a day--sun-up to moonrise, a curious division.

I arrived as the first third of the sun’s disk cleared the horizon, casting its warm rays down the central corridors of his house. The place was white and architecturally austere. He’d employed simple materials everywhere--wood and wool and cotton, slate and stone, glass and linen. The effect was pleasing. A slab of polished marble for table. Dried flowers in a spheroid vase. The steel ring of an engine gear framing an ivory Kali.

His books filled an entire wall of shelves. He had classical representations, from Bosch to Mozart’s Requiem. His photographs were hellish--corpses at Aushwitz, mountains of skulls in Cambodia, piles of body parts in Africa. His own monument to mortality had raised the subject to an art form. He had immersed himself in death, its lore refined and polished.

“All this will go to the University, one day,” he told me. A pernicious bequest.

He took me through the course: “Homo erectus was a cannibal. Death obviously meant a full belly. For someone. “Neandertal buried his dead with flowers. Cro magnon surrounded his with magic and red ochre. “The Egyptians and the Maya planned for eternity... “The Vikings cheated death and grave robbers simultaneously... “The Jews were divided... “And so we come to Christianity, the ultimate death defying feat. Behind the sacristy curtain we find the wizard of Oz--but he gave them what they needed, didn’t he?”

He pointed to pictures of Arlington cemetery and Flanders Field and said, “War has been always with us. Wars throughout history have served Death and left it monuments... So to the present.”

He held up the photo of a skeletal man on life supported by tubes and wires and monitors. “The ultimate absurdity. We’ve made a living monument to death.” But no one gets out alive.

For luncheon we had the blood of grapes and little silver fishes, eyes fixed and dilated.

Afterward, he took me room to room and showed me violent ends in slow-mo.

“Hollywood captures the excitement without the loss," and "God is dead. Neitche. But Neitche is also dead, so where did killing God get him?”

“Have you ever killed,” I asked.

He shook his head, sadly I thought, and I believe he murmured, “Not yet.”

He showed me videos of creatures--chickens, small dogs, monkeys--killed with knives, with wire, with flaked obsidian and jade, with a remarkable paucity of blood, or with blood that seemed black as in a photograph, not red, not vivacious.

No acolyte was more lovingly instructed. I took copious notes.

He tried to interest me in joining his experiments but I resisted. “Objectivity is all,” I said. “I can’t retain my credibility without it.”

The sun passed overhead. When its gold probed the white hall from the western end, he took me to his kitchen, where I watched his chef murder a rabbit. It kicked once, and its life slipped down the drain. My host seemed to drink in the experience, then to dismiss it. “Dinner,” he said.

The rabbit was delicious, and later, over dessert, he promised me the ultimate experience.

I recalled how my mother (of the huge, guilt provoking eyes), on hearing of my fortunate assignment, told me, “He will cause you pain.”

“Well, then, I’ll suffer,” I had said.

I recalled this conversation after dinner, after soporific wine. As my lids closed, weighted by the day, by death, perhaps by laudanum in my coffee.

I awakened on his couch (but I had not been ravaged), covered with a shroud of eggshell linen.

He was not in the room, but I became aware of sounds, in the adjoining room, of knives being stropped.

I was filled with fear such as I’d never known, with dread, with loathing, and the conviction I would soon experience death in the most immediate way. I threw the cover off with terror to find a cord tied round my waist, a dark, fibrous umbilicus of natural hemp. When I released the tension on this thread, he came in, rushing from the nether room in panic.

“No! It’s too soon. I'm not ready yet!”

I tried to push past, but he anticipated my evasion like a dancer, like a lover, knowing his beloved’s every whim.

He raised the knife, and I was mesmerized.

The blade gleamed in the shining moonlight. I was immobilized.

His grip twisted til he held the knife before him, palm inward, point upward, like a talisman. He held my eyes with his. Then he brought the blade across with a sure and savage joy, with a cry like a lover's climax. The blade bit silently. The line between life and death drawn definitively, across his throat’s white flesh with his own lifeblood, with a single, clean stroke. He managed only two words, at once a challenge and a plea.

“You see?”

© 2000 by MADymmoch
first published in Blue Murder Magazine

Monday, November 13, 2006

Violence and Darkness. . .

by Sean Chercover

Over at John Rickards’ forum, there’s a discussion about darkness, graphic violence, and how far is too far.

There’s been a trend in recent years, a one-upsmanship of graphic violence, an unspoken competition to see who can be the Grand Puba of Noir. Yet, for all the arterial blood and brain matter smeared all over the page, many of these stories are not affecting, and their violence seems cartoonish, rather than dark.

Memo to would-be tough guys: An exquisitely detailed description of eyeballs popping out of their sockets does not, in and of itself, make a story dark, and it doesn’t make the writer a badass.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against graphic physical violence. I do some of my violence on-screen when I write, and I appreciate realistically portrayed violence when I read. When done well, violence is messy and disturbing, and it needn’t be prettied-up and sterilized.

Excellent use is made of graphic violence, for example, in Lawrence Block's Edgar Award-winning Matt Scuddder novel, A Dance At The Slaughterhouse. The story deals with snuff films, so we’re talking about some ugly sexual torture here. Without wallowing in gore, Block offers enough graphic detail to make the violence truly disturbing. And that’s as it should be. The graphic violence in A Dance At The Slaughterhouse is not only justified, it is necessary, in my opinion.

What Block does so masterfully, is to offer a few specific details (one sickening detail, in particular) that stick in your mind. He then summarizes the rest of the torture without detail. In retrospect, you think you’ve seen more detail than you actually have.

And there may be a lesson here for the rest of us. Given the opportunity, the reader will make the violence more horrific than the writer possibly could. Because each reader will fill in the details with specifics to match his/her own worst personal fears. Block describes selected details that send a signal to the reader - this is very dark stuff - and then he lets the reader’s own imagination take over.

But when you spoon-feed every gory detail, you take that power away from the reader. The reader is no longer a complicit partner. Your worst personal fears are not shared by everyone, and will not be as affecting. Pile detail upon detail, and the scene starts to look like a cartoon.

And the writer starts to look like the kid in the schoolyard trying too hard to be a badass. Trying too hard is fatal, and has the opposite effect.

Now, I don’t know where the perfect balance is, and I don’t know how to find it. I just stumble along in the dark, trying this, trying that, until it feels right. I suspect that the point of perfect balance is different for each of us.

Where is yours? What writers do you admire for their use of violence, and for their ability to recruit your imagination in the commission of violence?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The 15 Minute Solution

by Libby Hellmann

First -- some personal news. The first book in my series, the Anthony-nominated An Eye for Murder is being re-released as a trade paperback by the wonderful folks at Poisoned Pen Press. If you’ve never read the Ellie Foreman novels, this is a good place to start. Or, if you just want to reconnect with an old friend, you can order it from your favorite bookstore or directly from Poisoned Pen Press.

Second, I have a new story up on Amazon Shorts. "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared " won several contests when it first came out. Set in 1938 in Chicago’s Lawndale, it introduces 16 year old Jake Foreman (Ellie’s father), who has a crush on actress Miriam Hirsch. Unfortunately, Miriam only has eyes for Ben Skulnick, aka Skull, who may or may not be a gangster. Is all fair in love and war? See for Yourself-- It's only 49 cents.

Now… onto something weightier.

Most of you reading this are part of an extended community of readers and writers. Given that we tend to hang around with each other, it’s sometimes hard to realize that most people in the country don’t read. Or do so as little as possible. I won’t reiterate the sobering statistics – you already know that the time Americans spend reading has declined. You’ve heard how book sales have plummeted, particularly mass markets. You’ve read how newspapers are phasing out their book review sections.

Maybe you’ve signed in one of the chains, as I have, and experienced a person passing your table. You ask if they read mysteries, and they reply, rather defiantly, it seems, “Oh, I don’t read. I don’t have time.” You bite back the obvious reply, “Then what are you doing in a bookstore?” and go on. Inside, though, you’re fuming.

At least I am.

It’s not just that we’ve evolved from being a culture of ideas to a culture of the mouse. It’s not just that we've dumbed ourselves down to become ignorant. It's that we’ve become arrogant in our ignorance. We’re proud of the fact we have more important things to do than read.

Okay – enough whining. I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway. But I do have an idea, and I’d like your reactions. It’s not a total solution, but it may be the beginning of one. Unless I’m hopelessly naïve. You tell me.

How many of you remember the ”Get Caught Reading” campaign about 10 or 15 years ago? I think it was library-based, and it consisted of photos of celebrities reading a book. (Today’s “Got Milk” capitalized on the idea).

So… what if there was a new campaign? With the message: Just turn off your computer, Ipod, or cell phone (and, yes, even the blogs) for 15 minutes a day and read. Just15 minutes.

Think about it. In 15 minutes, a person might read 10 pages. Over a month, that’s 300 pages, which is an entire book. Over a year’s time, that’s 12 books. And that doesn’t take into account that some people might actually enjoy the experience and read more. Everyone can find 15 minutes a day, can’t they?

You’d get famous people to appear, everyone from to LeBron James to Brangelina to Barack Obama. You’d blitz the media, including cable, print, and banner ads all over the Internet. Maybe you could tie in book giveaways at the same time, although I really don’t see this as a commercial venture.

The key would be to make a big splash. To make sure the message is heard by young people as well as adults, kids as well as parents. In order to do that, of course, you’d need to get the entire publishing industry involved: publishers, distributors, bookstores, libraries. Walmart and Costco. Even Oprah.

And that’s the problem.

I’ve been told it would never work. That the publishing industry is too fragmented. That publishers prefer to spend their marketing dollars promoting individual authors and titles. That you’d never get all the different entities to cooperate.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t want to believe that. Why wouldn’t a company want to promote behavior that encourages consumers to buy their products? I can’t imagine the chains wouldn’t want to take part in it, either. Or libraries. Independent bookstores. Or authors. It’s one of those win-win situations. All it would take is a little cooperation. And money. And, if all the interested parties pooled their resources, how much could it cost any one player?

So, what do you think? Could it happen? Is it even possible to restore the culture of reading?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I'm Goin Way Down South to Mexico Way

Last month The New Yorker reported on a staff reunion of the long-defunct New York Herald Tribune. Among the many excellent old-time newspaper anecdotes in the story is this one:

The Daily Mirror was on East Forty-fifth. Bishop was doing rewrite on the night shift. The elevator opened right in the city room. This young fellow walks off the elevator. He has a gun in his hand, blood all over his shirt. The first desk he comes to is Jim Hurley’s. Hurley was the hunting-and-fishing editor. The guy says to him, ‘I came home and found my wife in bed with another guy. So I shot her. I want to turn myself in.’ And Hurley says, ‘This is outdoor sports. Indoor sports is over there.’

I'm a big fan of the police beat columns in my local paper (as well as the hilarious police log at the Arcata Eye). They are not only a great way to keep up with the juiciest neighborhood gossip they offer a wealth of stories about oddballs and idiots, all important material for a writer to squirrel away in his hollow tree trunk of story and character ideas. I remember a few years ago when there was a rash of people assaulting the rhinos at the zoo with their hats.

Darren Stephens is a talented actor, musician, yodeler, and voiceover artist in Chicago. I knew his fine work when I was working in advertising (it's difficult to forget someone working in the biz who shares a name--at least homophonically--with the most famous ad exec in television history.)

Anyway I ran into Darren at a wedding recently and was extremely excited to learn about his latest project, the twice weekly STOP! Police podcast. On STOP! Police Darren basically reads the Chicago police blotter and offers his own sarcastic commentary. It's sort of like Hill Street Blues meets Best Week Ever and each episode is only about ten minutes long which, conveniently, is about the same length as my bi-weekly cardio workout. Short, brilliant, check it out.

Also, a program note. Tonight, (Wednesday, November 8) I am appearing on a panel sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council titled How Free Are We? exploring the relationship between nature and nurture and the potential challenges advances in genetics pose to the notion of free will. This was an important theme of Cast of Shadows and I'm extremely flattered they've included me on a panel with actual, proven smart people. One of those people, by the way, is panel moderator and award-winning Tribune science writer Jeremy Manier who, in a remarkable coincidence, was my housemate 13 years ago when we both first moved to Chicago. It will be great fun to get together again with Jeremy and revisit the great metaphysical questions, only this time in front of hundreds of people and not over a six pack of Old Style on our Barry Avenue roof.

The event takes place from 6-8 PM at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, 1001 W Roosevelt Road in Chicago. Admission is free but I think you need to register or RSVP or something so check out the the web site.

Finally, if you can't make tonight's event, on Monday, November 13 I'll be joining the Gapers Block Book Club for a more intimate discussion of Cast of Shadows, which has been GB's November reading selection. All are welcome so if you've read the book and want to talk some more about it with me and others, come down to The Book Cellar, 4736 North Lincoln, Monday at 7:30 PM.

And if you show up at either event, please be sure to say hi.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Caught in the Web of Words

In Arabic, there’s a single word that expresses “the pleasure one gets from listening to music.” One of my former writing students told me this recently. Her first language is Chinese, English her second, she knows smatterings of French and Spanish, but she wanted to learn Arabic because her own pleasure in music is so intense; she feels a thrill that hovers between the erotic and a yearning for eternity when she listens to some compositions. The Arabic word itself might evoke the essence of what she responds to in music. She saved her money for a year so she could go to a language institute in Oman. I asked her what the word is; she said her Arabic is too rudimentary, and that there are too many versions of the language; she’s still trying to track it down.
I asked her about Chinese poetry, which I’ve been told translates badly into English and she said, yes, because a line of Chinese characters contains a universe of meanings and if you aren’t steeped in the nuances, you miss them.
Elizabeth Murray wrote a loving memoir of her grandfather, James A. H. Murray, who created the Oxford English Dictionary. She called it Caught in the Web of Words. My student is caught in that web, drunk with language, wanting more, deeper, wanting meanings and layers. She wants to go to writing school, to an MFA program. She has a lot to learn; I’ve taught people with a better sense of style, or structure, or craft, but I haven’t taught anyone as passionate about words, the raw material of our craft, as this young woman.
I think whatever we’re writing, however we’re writing it, we must all come to our craft because of the love of the word on the page. I envy my student; I’ve gotten to be almost sixty with only one language, and half of another, and I don’t have the time or the energy to master a third really well, but I would love to know how to say in one word, the deep pleasure I get from Mary Oliver’s poetry.
--Sara Paretsky

Friday, November 03, 2006



Writers of crime fiction are often taken to task about sex and violence in books. The issue of whether the sex or violence is gratuitous is a stylistic one. We don’t seem to call extra scene-setting or characterization gratuitous. But if we are going to call sex and violence socially harmful, maybe we should take a look at some recent speculations about pornography.

In a way I am cheating here, since I am using research my husband developed and cited in a recent article on the Social Science Research Network. [1] He is Anthony D’Amato, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law.

Headlines today report a sharp decline in forcible rape. [2] Tony says, “Official figures just released show a plunge in the number of rapes per capita in the United States since the 1970s. Even when measured in different ways, including police reports and survey interviews, the results are in agreement: there has been an 85% reduction in sexual violence in the past 25 years. The decline is depicted in a chart prepared by the United States Department of Justice See The National Crime Victimization Survey The chart shows there were 2.7 rapes for every 1,000 people in 1980; by 2004 The same survey found the rate had decreased to 0.4 per 1000 people, a decline of 85%.“

There are many possible explanations for this decline, including women avoiding unsafe situations and sex education classes telling boys that no means no. But it’s hard to believe that they are sufficient to explain this large a change. In addition, decreased reporting appears not to be a factor. If anything, since the advent of more sympathetic treatment of victims by police, the courts, and society in general, the proportion of rapes reported has most likely increased.

As Tony says, “There is, however, one social factor that correlates almost exactly with the rape statistics. My theory is that the sharp rise in access to pornography accounts for the decline in rape. The correlation is inverse: the more pornography, the less rape. Pornographic magazines sharply increased in numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. Then came a seismic change: pornography became available on the new internet. Today, purveyors of internet porn earn a combined annual income exceeding the total of the major networks ABC, CBS, and NBC.“

National trends are one thing. Tony asked, what do the figures for the states show? From data compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2001, the four states with the lowest per capita access to the internet were Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, and West Virginia. The four states with the highest internet access were Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington.
While the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the least access to the internet showed an actual increase in rape over the same time period. This result, Tony thought, was almost too clear and convincing, so to check it he compiled figures for the four states having the most access to the internet. Three out of four of these states showed declines (in New Jersey, an almost 50% decline). Alaska was an anomaly: it increased both in internet access and incidence of rape. However, the population of Alaska is less than one-tenth that of the other three states in its category. To adjust for the disparity in population, he took the combined population of the four states in each table and calculated the percentage change in the rape statistics:

Combined per capita percentage change in incidence of rape. [3]
Aggregate per capita increase or decline in rape:

Four states with lowest internet access--- Increase in rape of 53%
Four states with highest internet access--- Decrease in rape of 27%

These results he found to be statistically significant beyond the .95 confidence interval.

Tony’s interest in the rape-pornography question began in 1970 when he served as a consultant to President Nixon’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The Commission concluded that there was no causal relationship between exposure to sexually explicit materials and delinquent or criminal behavior. The President was furious when he learned of the conclusion. When President Reagan put together a similar commission, he did not ask Tony to participate.

After the SSRN article posted, Tony received a lot of email, including messages from people with examples of similar effects outside the U.S. One man wrote from Australia that the same phenomenon had been noticed there. The Australian Crime and Safety Survey, which is published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, reported a fifty per cent drop in forcible rape between 1995 and 2005, during which time internet access was rapidly increasing.

Of course, correlation is not cause. Killing turkeys doesn’t cause winter. But it’s not a stretch to suspect that for some people, watching porn can get the urge out of their systems. In addition, the ready availability of porn, as well as sex ed in the schools, may eliminate the forbidden fruit effect. Sex has been demystified.
Porn to many may be distasteful. Distasteful does not necessarily equal harmful.

In the words of the immortal Hercule Poirot, this gives one furiously to think.
[1] Porn Up Rape Down. Social Sciences Research Network,
[2] For example, Washington Post, June 19, 2006; Chicago Tribune, June 21, 2006.
[3] Statistics on forcible rape compiled from

Barbara D’Amato

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Revise *This*

by Marcus Sakey

I have a novelist friend who loves doing revisions. The way she sees it, the first time around the book is ragged, rough, and when revising you get to draw out the soul. Revising is her favorite part.

My friend is insane.

As you may have guessed, I’m in the midst of revisions myself. I turned in the draft of my second novel about two month back, and three weeks ago I got my editorial letter. It was full of nice things, kind and friendly comments about how much my editor liked the book, how he thought it was really good.

Then came twelve pages on how to make it better.

Let me get this part out of the way first—he’s right. I don’t agree with everything he said, but damn close. Which makes sense. First, he’s a pro. Second, and this is the kicker, he’s pointing out things that I didn’t see because I was too close.

For this book, I had the standard sophomore-novel worries, which truly are a bitch. Of course, I know it doesn’t really get all that much easier—I was talking to Tess Gerritsen after ThrillerFest, and she was telling me that starting her new book, her twentieth, most of them bestsellers and award-winners, that starting this one has her absolutely terrified.

Which is at once creepy and comforting.

But besides the usual writerly worries, with this novel I was trying for a broader story than in my first book. I wanted a more complicated plot, filled with twists and reversals, and some elements of mystery. Creating these things, I have discovered, is hard.

Feel free to quote me on that.

But for me, revising these things is harder. Some writers, like my friend, race through a draft. To them, finishing the first is the equivalent of a sculptress choosing her marble. A draft provides limits and boundaries, but the real work is yet to come. They go through the book over and over, chiseling out plot lines, polishing up characters, chipping away to find the form of the thing as a whole.

That’s not the way I write. For me it’s more like weaving a tapestry. I have an outline, and I write steady and methodical, a thousand words a day. I polish the hell out of things as I go, and when I type the last page, knot the last string, the book is close to submission-ready.

Which means that when my editor points out a weakness in a plot line, or suggests combining three characters, I stagger and stutter and say “Ummm” a lot. Not because he’s wrong, but because that’s the equivalent of cutting a thread and yanking it. And in tapestries and novels both, that results in a snarled mess.

I’ve spent the last three weeks banging head-shaped holes in my walls. And though it took a while—and my forehead connecting with more than one stud—I now know what I need to do. I’m combining three characters, and dramatically shifting one. I’m adding more warmth to one guy and making another colder. And the tug of each of these changes has altered the pattern of the piece as a whole.

Which is, of course, the point.

It’s not a fun process for me. A crucial one, one that will result in a better book. And at the end of the day, writing a good book is our only true responsibility. But fun?

On par with repeatedly poking myself in the eye.

What about you? Do you enjoy the revision process? Have you found any ways to make it easier?

Or is this pretty much just the way it goes?