Friday, February 27, 2009

Fear can kill you

by Michael Dymmoch

My all-time favorite coffee mug was from Hallmark’s Shoe Box® collection—“Don’t let the turkey’s get you down.” It had a turkey depicted next to the slogan. (Or maybe it was a turkey vulture—I’m not an ornithologist.) I wish I still had that mug. I wish I could clone it and give it out to friends because I think the turkeys have taken over the national airwaves and are driving us all over cliffs of despair. Every time you turn on the news you get the newest movement of the Dow and NASDAQ—mostly downward, and the latest unemployment rate—8.5% in January. That’s huge if you’re unemployed, but less than during the great depression. And 8.5% unemployment means that 91.5 % of workers are employed. The glass isn’t even half empty! My house may be worth 25% less on paper than a year ago, but I still have a roof over my head. And my standard of living is well above 98% of the rest of Earth’s population. Crying about how much “value” I’ve lost isn’t going to make me rich or secure.

Companies once put a percentage of their profits into R & D before distributing the rest to stock holders or putting it in the bank or whatever they did before we had corporate conglomerates and mutual funds—back when CEOs got paid for managing efficiently. (Not golden parachutes to save their asses when they run companies into Chapter 11.) Now managers gamble that their company won’t continue to generate revenue—which is what I’d call the practice of investing profits in other businesses that have nothing to do with making parts, supplying services, or creating new products for their parent companies.

Every time President Obama tries something to improve our situation, Wall street registers its disapproval with another sell-off. Why is anybody listening? (If Wall Street mavens are such geniuses, how did we get in this mess in the first place?) If I understand Marilyn vos Savant’s explanation of market capitalization in last Sunday’s Parade Magazine, this preoccupation is insane. Companies that were solvent and well run still are. Maybe they’re not paying great dividends, but they haven’t lost what really makes them valuable. And stockholders who have the guts to hang on to their stock will get their “market cap” back in time.

One of the curses of getting old is that you don’t remember things as well as you once did. The flip side is that you’ve lived long enough to know that old saws became clichés because they’re true—Whatever doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. And everything does come back around in time. People who lived through the depression learned to be inventive and frugal, good values in any economy.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I think we should turn off the news and go back to reading books. It might free up our brains to do the creative thinking we need to straighten out this mess. And at the very least, it would reduce our stress.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Sell The House / Sell The Car / Sell The Kids...

by Sean Chercover

And so we come to the end of my magical month in Key Largo. And I'm reminded of the following lines:


Note: A signed copy of the Hardcore Hardboiled anthology goes to the first person to post the source of these lines and the name of the character who penned them.

Anyway, I don't really want Agent 99 to sell the car (I have it with me) and I definitely don't want her to sell the Mouse or find someone else ... but I do want her to sell the damn house and bring the Mouse on down to Key Largo, where we will live on conch and key limes.

What? You think that's impractical? If I were practical, I never would've become a writer.

I really do think I could live in a place like this. All my fellow big city friends say I'd go crazy after a few weeks. But the thing is, I've been here a month. Not crazy yet. I could live here.

There's a game I play, in my head, called I Could Live Here. Like Keller, Lawrence Block's great contract killer, everywhere I go, I find myself wandering the streets daydreaming about what it would be like to live there. Inevitably, I end up saying, "I could live here."

Well, not always. Agent 99 and I were wandering around Wheeling, West Virginia. Agent 99 got that nervous look in her eye and preempted me with, "No, you could not live here." (She has gotten used to the I Could Live Here game and it no longer startles her the way it once did.) In this instance, she was proved right when we stopped at the Visitors Welcome Center to ask where we could find the nearest bookstore. The answer: "Pennsylvania."

So no, I could not live in Wheeling. And I doubt that Wheelintonians are loosing any sleep over it. But the daydreaming about it is also about imagining yourself as a different kind of person. The kind of person shaped by growing up in a town very different than your own. And I've done this kind of deep daydreaming all my life, since I was a little kid.

Maybe I was in training for being a writer all along.

It has been a magical month in Key Largo. I could live here.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ain't Good Lookin', But You Know I Ain't Shy

Coudal has posted the odds for contenders in the 2009 Powell's/TMN Tournament of Books, which we discussed here last week. Bet $20 on your favorite and you could win a fantastic prize package. All money wagered, plus matching dollars from participating sponsors, will go to the wonderful charity FirstBook to help buy books for underprivileged kids.

If you want to get serious, here's some betting advice as well as a statistical analysis of past tournament contenders, including the original morning odds so you can see how effective Coudal's handicapping has been.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sean! Sean! Sean!

Sean has been nominated for an Edgar for "A Sleep Not Unlike Death."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Chutzpah Factor

by Libby Hellmann

For me one of the joys of writing fiction is creating larger-than-life characters -- brash, colorful people whose personality and behavior jump off the page and stay with you long after the story ends. Think Emma Bovary, Willy Stark, Jay Gatsby. Some prevailed. Some didn’t. Some prevailed temporarily. But all of them had certain qualities in common. Boldness. Nerve. Chutzpah.

These days though, you don’t have to go into fiction to find characters with chutzpah. And while people in public life aren't known to be shy and retiring, the things some are doing and saying are so out there you can't even label them clichés. I continue to be amazed and shocked– shocked -- at their antics. I suspect some of you do as well.

So, I thought a vote might be in order. Who do you think has the most chutzpah these days? And why? I’ll offer up a few candidates to start.

First he didn’t. Then he did. Maybe a little. Well, more than a little. A lot. But it was all legal. He has nothing to hide. You can believe him.

Suspected of killing wives #3 and #4, ex-cop Drew Peterson crowed to reporters last week about his 23-year old girlfriend moving back in: “Looks like the Devil won this round.”

Wore out his welcome in Illinois. Wearing out his welcome on National TV. Likely to be welcomed into a federal correctional institution with open arms.

He stole billions and didn’t buy a single stock with the cash. Then had his wife withdraw $15 million from the brokerage days before he was arrested. Pocket change.

GOP Congressmen:
The ones who gave thumbs down to the Stimulus package are now climbing all over it to make sure they get their share. Let’s throw Bobby Jindal in too, for refusing $90 million for Louisiana. Good way to build your 2012 platform, Bobby.

Mortgage lenders. Also the Big 3 Automaker CEOs who flew into DC the first time on corporate jets. Enough said.

Finally, it wasn’t enough that she spent $150,000 on clothes. Now she’s charging the state of Alaska a $60 for a phone call.

The polls are open. Vote early and often.

BTW, those of you who want to see Pay-to-Play/Chicago style might enjoy this. (Thanks for the heads-up, Sara)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"The Connectors"

Great little story about Crime Spree's Jon and Ruth Jordan in today's Tribune.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Some We Like and Some We Hate

By Kevin Guilfoile

Over at The Atlantic film producer Lynda Obst is wondering whether anyone will watch the Oscars this year, in part because the Academy didn't nominate The Dark Knight, which, it's true, totally deserved it.

As a result all of America's awards anticipation has been redirected to The Morning News, where the brackets and judges for this year's Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell's, have just been released. If you're not yet familiar, this is the event in which 16 of the most-hyped, best-reviewed books of the past year are seeded into an NCAA basketball-type bracket and forced to compete in a "Battle Royale of Literary Excellence," with the winning author being crowned Champion of Books and awarded a live rooster. (Full disclosure: I am affiliated with the ToB in that I got drunk one night and invented it, although the credit for actually making it into the book world's most coveted award belongs with others.)

Past champions include Junot Diaz, Cormac McCarthy, Ali Smith and David Mitchell, some of whom are even aware that they won. This year's combatants include Roberto Bolaño, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Marilynne Robinson, while the star-studded judges include not only last year's winner Diaz, but also the hilarious writer and actor John Hodgman, whom you know as the PC in the "I'm a Mac and I'm a PC" commercials, as well as, in a mind-blowing moment of cross-geekery awesomeness, a brain surgeon on last week's Battlestar Galactica.

Each year the good folks at set a betting line where you can wager money that goes to charity for the chance to win one copy of every book in the tourney. When that goes live I will let you know. The tourney itself begins March 9.

In the meantime, if you want to know what to read next, this list is a great place to start. That's not to say you'll like every book--I've read 12 of them so far and of those I would recommend exactly six. But from its unsober beginnings, the Tournament of Books has turned out to be a fascinating (to me) exploration of the subjective nature of reading--the sometimes sophisticated and sometimes random reasons we prefer one book over another. Why books engage us or why they don't. Why some books enthrall us and others bore us. Why we sometimes prefer a book we "enjoy" over a book we "admire" and vice versa. If you want to get hardcore, check out this terrific and geeky statistical analysis of past tourney results. If you want to start a pool, Vroman's Booksore has the stuff.

Or wait until the judgments are in. Either way Powell's is offering a 30% discount on all the titles in this year's tourney.

Good deal. Plus there's a t-shirt.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sean's Up for a Dilys!

Major congratulations to our own Sean Chercover, whose TRIGGER CITY has been nominated for a Dilys Award!! The Dilys is given out by IMBA, the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, for the mystery their member booksellers most enjoyed selling.

The list of nominees can be found at The winner will be announced next month at Left Coast Crime in Hawaii.

Yay Sean!!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

And the Winner Is!!!

It's that time of year, winter bleeding into spring, when we celebrate Black History, Women's History, and the Oscars.  So here's a little quiz to get you in the mood.
1...Who is Loveleen Tandan?
2.  Recent reviews of work Tandan co-created appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, the New Yorker, and Time-Out Chicago.  Plus or minus two, how many times was Tandan's name mentioned in total in all these reviews?
3.  Age Cannot Wither Her
a.  What was the age difference between Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate?
b.  What is the age difference between Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Last Chance Harvey?
c.  How old was Julia Roberts when the studios decided she was too old for the dramatic love interest and was now the quirky aging feminist, Katherine Watson, in Mona Lisa Smile?

Note: This just in--Roberts may be brought out of mothballs by an industry desperate for a big female box-office draw
4.  Match the person to the organization/movement they founded or led
i.  Ella Baker 11 James Bevel iii. John Lewis  iv. Doris Nash  v.  Fannie Lou Hamer  vi.  Dorothy Height  
   vii.  Martin Luther King, Jr.
a. SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee
b.  Mississippi Freedom Party
c.  National Council of Negro Women
d. Nashville-Jackson Freedom Ride (kick-off for the Freedom Rider & voter registration SNCC projects)
5.  Which of the women leaders listed (or others not listed here) were invited to speak and appear with Dr. King in front of the Lincoln Memorial when he made his famous "I have a dream" speech in 1963?
6. Sticks and Stones
"Hottie," "chick," and "babe" are often used as synonyms for the noun "woman."
List three synonyms for "man" that are in common parlance and convey, to you, a similar meaning
7.  Three years after graduating from university, women's salaries are what percentage of men in the same jobs, both working full time?
a. 100 (equal)
b. 62
c. 127
d. 75
8.  Thirty years after graduating from university, women's salaries are what percentage of men in the same jobs, both working full time?
a.  127
b. 62
c. 75
d. 100
9.  Before becoming White House social secretary, Desiree Rogers headed:
a. The Social REgister
b. North Shore Gas
c. The Illinois State Lottery
d. The North Shore Gourmet Club
e. People's GAs
10.  Support for contraception for low-income women was removed from the economic stimulus bill because:
a. Women need to have more babies to pay for the stimulus package down the road.
b. Babies require women to spend money on health care and diapers which will provide important economic stimulus
c. Women who decide when and whether to get pregnant are "playing God" with t heir bodies and need men in religion and/or government to tell them "how to live their lives right."
11.  What percentage of movies released between 2004 and 2008 depict the female lead as a stripper, a hooker, or both?
a. 13
b. 33
c.  53
d. 83

The person with the fewest correct answers gets a free copy of Freedom's Daughters.  The person with the most gets a copy of Tales of Graceful Aging from the Planet Denial.  Answers will be posted at a later time.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Got Your Attention?

by Barbara D'Amato

The child in this picture is seven years old. His name is Adam. What in the world has he been doing?

It is often said that lead characters in books must grow. I’m not so sure. But they certainly need to present the reader with some kind of mystery. Like --who are they, really? Not quite what they seem? Is the character as bad as he is first painted or not? Much more complicated? Is that wonderful old gentleman next door really wonderful? Is the sweet motherly lady with the chocolate chip cookies really—rather different underneath? If a character need not grow exactly, he or she should at least unfold. And what will the character do in the challenging situation set up by the author? By the end of the book, a central character should be more than she was at the beginning, or less, or different.

What has this child been doing? What was he up to? The photo isn’t just a cute picture of a cute kid. It’s interesting because it raises questions. See the brightly satisfied eyes. Where’s he been?

Will some of you be brave enough to speculate? Go out on a limb and tell us what you think he’s been doing. After you do, I will tell you in “comments” what really was going on.

And for all you suspicious souls out there—yes, this was also a way to put up a really great picture I’ve always wanted to use one way or another.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER: Graham Verdon

Posted by Marcus Sakey

Besides being one of my best friends, today's guest is an accomplished columnist and editor, an aspiring novelist, and a gifted songwriter. We were having a conversation about the creative process as it related to songs versus stories, and I found it so interesting I asked him to write on the subject. Be sure to check out his music at

Country Music: Why the music we love to hate should get more respect from storytellers

I was watching an episode of Kath & Kim, a sitcom about a white-trash mother-daughter duo (the mother played hilariously by Molly Shannon), and it kicked off with a great exchange:
"Can you believe this? Country singers. All they do is cry in their beer over some girl or some daddy that don’t love ‘em, and then - BAM! - $10 million dollars."

"Maybe you should be writing country music. You have huge problems."

"Problems? My moms are doing just fine, thank you very much. Just got my own phone line put in my room. Solved all kinds of problems. You’re the one with the crazy-ass relationship and the crazy-ass wife!"

"Yeah, you’re right, man. I probably got a million songs up in here!
We’re gonna be rich!"

"You know it! Country rich!"

Besides being funny, this illustrates three country music truths:
  1. No one, not even white-trash characters created for sitcoms, admit to liking it, despite the fact truckloads of the music is sold (sort of like Celiné Dion CDs)
  2. Most of us live lives filled with the same cliched dramas that populate the very country music we disdain
  3. Everyone thinks it would be easy to write a country song
Country music is clearly the ugly stepchild in the family of popular music. But the truth is, for those working to achieve mastery in the craft of storytelling, country songwriters are close cousins.

We may like the creativity and innovation of a Radiohead, Beck or Air. But the stories contained in your average genre novel, for example, have much more in common with your average country radio hit than the majority of the songs of these “serious artists.” These serious artists are impressionist painters, creating miraculous moods with the interaction of lyrics and sounds. Most of us don’t really know what they’re talking about half the time, if we’re honest with ourselves.

Country music, on the other hand, strives to tell stories that hold universal truths, and to tell them succinctly and simply. It plays in themes so common as to be cliche. But as we know, all the best cliches achieve that status for a reason.

Just as the stories of genre novels follow conventions in character, structure, tone and theme, so too, country music follows traditional musical conventions. Country is not about innovative song structure or time signatures, and it’s not about experimentation in production. It’s not about stretching musical boundaries, and for many serious music appreciators looking for surprising sounds dancing around the edges of custom, this is an unacceptable sin.

But the very rigidity and straightforward nature of the sounds serves to put the words center stage. In country, the lyrics are the star, and the simple music the delivery mechanism of a compelling story.

In country music, more than in any other popular music genre, you’ll find colorful, three-dimensional characters moving through stories that include the basic beginning-middle-end story structure. Sure, each act is only 50 words long, but the structure is there. Country songs often work to bring a story to a satisfying end, which is rarely even a goal in other musical genres. Sometimes country song stories go even further, offering up sophisticated narratives that explore a theme from the perspective of multiple narrators. Sometimes multiple storyline intertwine, something you’ll never find in pop or rock. You’ll often find a plot twist arriving in the third verse or in the bridge. You’ll often find the bridge or the third verse working to build up the drama and create something like a “second act crisis”. Often the third verse moving into the final repetition of the chorus essentially is a dramatic, emotional climax, and a musical outro serves as a denouement.

Country music is basically an abridged, radio-friendly version of the great American folk tradition; the three chords and the truth brand of pop music. And so, you could argue that Sugarland and Brad Paisley (and the writers that make them stars behind the scenes), beneath all the big hair and sheen, are closer kin to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen than are most the rockers more often associated with them.

The radio-friendly country writer is confined to three and a half minutes, a basic, traditional song structure and clean, unadorned production. It demands a discipline that any writer can appreciate. A genre novelist knows he doesn’t have the luxury of meandering through his mind, dropping personal observations about life into his story willy-nilly, but rather has to stay on the rails and serve the characters and the dramatic arc of the story. So does the country songwriter.

Now, let’s be serious: universal themes don’t necessarily mean deep lyrics. But country writers know their work is to be consumed as little three-and-a-half minute slices of life by radio during drive time. So, they know they can’t obfuscate the message with too much subtlety. (Of course, pop music in general is not the place to look for depth. Take another look at the lyrics of your top five pop songs of all time and you can likely see the bottom just below the surface.) And so, country songwriters know they are often only providing a paint-by-numbers framework, and they expect that the listener will put things in the complicated context of their own lives, they know we will fill things in with all the shades of grey from the content of our own experiences. That’s how we all make our favorite songs our own, isn’t it?

The stories country writers are striving to tell are the ones we all seem to need in our fiction. Country music is about loves blooming, dying or long dead. It’s about the sharp angles of love triangles, and the tattered remains of love ravaged by dishonesty or dried out by neglect or carelessness. It’s about outrunning the ghosts of the past, and the hope that tomorrow will yield something greater. It’s about winning big or losing bigger, and the glory in both.

It’s about our lack of satisfaction in the big relationships in our lives; the maddening spaces we all try to narrow between us and our loved ones.

Basically, country music’s about our day-to-day struggles to be good, happy humans with all those other pesky humans around. In 200 words or less.

So, next time you’re out with a posse of your good friends, drinking too much and solving the world’s problems, listen to the stories leaking from the hearts of those in your beloved circle. You’ll hear country music to the uneven rhythm of clinking glasses.

Graham Verdon is an editor of custom magazines specializing in vice: gambling, booze, cigarettes and cars.

In his spare time he tinkers with the first five chapters of his novel and writes shiny, happy songs in the pop, rock and country genres. He says you haven’t tasted freedom until you’ve written from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.

Click here to listen to some of his work.

Graham will be checking back to respond to comments and questions, so please, fire away.

Yea, Libby!

I just got word that our own Libby Hellmann's Easy Innocence won the Lovey Award for Best PI/Police Procedural, given at the Love Is Murder conference.

Congratulations, Libby!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On the job...

Today's guest blogger is the author of On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department.

by Daniel P. Smith

My earliest memory revolves around crime.

It’s 1984 and I’m three-years-old. I walk into our South Side Chicago home to find the television gone, clothes tossed about, cabinets empty, and a white handkerchief on the living room floor. My brother looks at me. My mother cries. The basketball trophy I held in my hand, my first trophy, falls to the ground and shatters from its base.

The cops couldn’t prove it, but the handkerchief told us all we needed to know. My father robbed his own house. Three kids and ex-wife be damned.


In June 2004, I began penning my first book. Inspired by my roots in a Chicago Police family, I wanted to explore the work-life juxtaposition Chicago’s officers face.

The Chicago Police world is one I knew well: four of my six uncles were cops, my estranged father was, and my only brother is—and for much of my life I couldn’t reconcile the public perception of officers—one that frequently labeled Chicago’s cops as lazy, corrupt, and prejudiced (titles some officers have certainly earned throughout the years)—with what I knew from my home life. With the exception of my father, the other men in my family who wore the Chicago Police star put their best effort forward each day for their families, communities, and city. They had their faults, but their passion for Chicago Police work and the city could not be mistaken.

Last year, On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department arrived, a non-fiction account of the lives, culture, and history of one of the world’s most famous (and infamous) law enforcement units. Gratefully for this young writer, On the Job has earned favorable reviews for its candor and sincerity, challenging the Hollywood stereotypes as well as what we think we know of cops. The book is far less blood and guts and far more heart and soul. And the truth is that real police work requires more heart and soul than just about any profession in America.

It’s easy to be pulled into the silver screen lore or CSI’s drama, but real cops often snicker at Hollywood portrayals of their work. Dirty Harry shoots the bad guy and walks into the sunset, right? Well, it doesn’t happen that way, particularly for the cops who reflect on their work in the realm of human relations. Police work consumes the soul as much as the hours on duty. It’s work that alters one’s view of the world as well as one’s perception of life’s fellow travelers. As soon as officers take that oath, they sacrifice a piece of themselves—perhaps their trust or faith or relationships suffering from the job’s constant tension. That’s a helluva price to pay for a civil service job. Any cop who says he or she’s the same as the day they entered the job is either: a.) lying; b.) not reflective; or c.) has never really been the PO-LICE. The job changes minds and souls and futures. It does not allow for stagnation.


Ironically, the most chilling, forceful criminal event to infiltrate my life happened three years before I was born when a six-year-old boy named Tony Canzoneri went missing on the city’s West Side.

My mother always told me that my father’s downward spiral began when he found the Canzoneri boy, murdered and slashed under a set of basement stairs. Though my father was on a self-destructive path, which included alcoholism and the eventual abandonment of his family, the Canzoneri case accelerated his decline. He hit the bottle harder. He woke daily from nightmares. And he started plotting his own future.

Perhaps driven by his own mortality as well as the nightmares, my father left us. Though I’ve seen him in the 25 years since, I can’t say I’ve ever known my father or, to be truthful, wanted to know him. He remains unapologetic, defiant, and 1,000 miles away.

As I wrote On the Job, I wondered how my life would have been different if the Canzoneri boy had never gone missing and my father hadn’t discovered the boy’s tortured body? Would my parents have remained married? Might I have grown up with a father?

Over 30 years later, the case of Tony Canzoneri still impacts my life. It was the crime that defines my life.


I suppose readers enjoy crime—both real and imagined, There’s certainly an abundance of literature out there on the topic. Truthfully though, I think there’s something else readers—even devout crime readers—enjoy even more. Call it sincerity or humanity or reflection, but it’s not the story of the crime that captivates us (though such descriptions can surely compel or intrigue us), but it’s the back story—the personalities, the motivations, the aftermath that truly capture our consciousness. I set about writing On the Job for the same reason so many of you pick up a book, open the cover, and offer your time to the voice speaking from those pages—curiosity.

I suppose I could’ve written solely about crime in On the Job: Jim’s shooting of the armed robber; Brian’s rookie year shootout with gang bangers in West Humboldt Park; or John’s discovery of murdered young girl named Miracle Moon. I suppose those tales alone might have been compelling enough to justify the $17.95 cover price. But for me, those tales alone failed. I wanted to know how the subsequent decades treated Jim; how—and why—Brian returned to work the next day and the next; how John changed as a father after Miracle Moon’s death.


In the years since that 1984 robbery, I tried to understand my father. I wanted to love. I wanted to forgive. I invited him to Little League games and basketball games and sent him my report card in the mail.

Today, it’s been nearly 14 years since our last meaningful conversation. It’s complicated—like so many father-son relationships can be—but a piece of the silence rests in that night I returned home as a three-year-old to the scene of the crime. But if I just told you about that night, would it be enough? Wouldn’t you want to know what happened to him? What happened to me, that little red-headed boy with a broken basketball trophy?


As for Tony Canzoneri, his mother, who was sexually assaulted by Tony’s murderer that December night, went on to remarry—and marry a Chicago cop no less. Together they had a child, naming him Daniel Patrick McIntyre. Like me, Danny played Little League baseball, went to school, and grew up to find his own calling. He is now a cop.

Upcoming Author Appearances for Daniel P. Smith
Weds, Feb. 25: Chicago Public Library’s Roden Branch at 7pm
Mon, March 30: LaGrange Park Public Library at 7pm
Thurs, April 23: Orland Park Public Library at 7pm

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Island Time . . .

By Sean Chercover

DATELINE: Key Largo. So, it's February, and it's about 78 degrees outside. That's the good news. The bad? The place I'm staying in has no Internet access. A small price to pay for a tropical February. As Trapper said, "We have to make some concessions to the war."

Oh, Marcus is here too. He says "Hi". I'll tell him you say "Hi" back.

We're writing a screenplay together.

It's been a few years since I've written in screenplay format. Obviously, it's very different than writing a novel. Between Big City Bad Blood and Trigger City, I spent some time writing short stories. Nowhere near as different as a screenplay, but still, the short story demands a level of discipline and economy way beyond the novel.

That's why I find short stories so hard to write.

But I think my second book benefited from what I learned during my time spent in Short Story Land. Will my next book benefit from the time spent in Screenplayland? I suspect that it might. There's so much focus on structure in screenwriting, and I find that I'm paying more attention to structure issues as I plot the next novel.

One thing that has surprised the hell out of me during this trip: Marcus and I have found that we can write together without bloodshed or tears. This is very good news.

There's a lot more February left, but so far, so good. If both Marcus and I return from Florida with all our limbs, you'll know that it stayed good.

I can't imagine co-writing a book with someone, but film is by nature a collaborative medium, and a screenplay is not a finished product. The film is the finished product; the screenplay is the blueprint for that product. So to me, it seems film is the perfect medium for collaborative writing.

Any of you switch between mediums in your writing? How does writing for one improve your writing in another? Or does it?

And what of collaboration? What's your take?

Friday, February 06, 2009

I Screwed Up

by Libby Hellmann

Three simple words. But how refreshing. When’s the last time you heard a President admit he made a mistake?

Not that I want to gush about it – or excuse it-- because, hey, he did screw up. And so did Daschle. It’s clear that you can’t vet administration picks on the Honor System.

Still, the fact that so few people in public life are willing to admit their mistakes is – to me – significant. It shows an awareness, at the very least, of individual humility. It begs the question of where the narcissistic need to always be right comes from. Who says? Why?

Admittedly, Obama wasn’t apologizing for some deep, dark sin or secret about himself or his performance. And I realize that for some people, paying lip service to a problem by apologizing can be a substitute for actually trying to correct it. But I think it’s a good first step. It is kind of cleansing.

So with that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to share screw-ups. What do you admit to screwing up? Again, you don’t have to ‘fess up to your innermost sins or fears. Just your average, stupid, screw-up that you wish you hadn’t made.

I’ll start.

I was hired by Good Morning America when it first went on the air (David Hartman was the host). I was one of two “talent coordinators” -- AKA the person who gets the guests. In addition to other guest segments, I was responsible for something they called “Face-Off,” a rip-off of the old Sixty Minutes’ Point/Counterpoint segment. I had to come up with controversial issues, book ten guests a week on both sides of those issues, plus book -- or dodge requests from agents representing -- other guests, stars, authors and one trick ponies. It was a crazy time. I was going pretty much all day and all night.

For the first four days, everything went well, and I was feeling pretty good. Then came Friday. The two Face-Off guests were Pat Buchanan and Nicholas Von Hoffman. I can’t remember what the topic was, but for some weird reason, they actually agreed. On the air.

Fortunately, that first week of the show was entirely pre-taped for just that reason. And I have to credit Pat Buchanan for being incredibly courteous and helpful – he and I came up with another issue about which they disagreed on the spot, and the segment was re-taped. No problem. They Faced Off.

Except I was fired. And I suppose I deserved to be. I screwed up.

There. I feel better.

What about you?

By the way, four members of the Outfit will be at Love Is Murder this weekend. If you’re going, be sure to say hi.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

You're Searching For Good Times But Just Wait and See

By Kevin Guilfoile

It was an admission so honest and unexpected that the collective gasp in response should have made your ears pop.

I was scheduled to be on a panel at a large literary conference/festival with four other writers. Before it started, I was making small talk with one of the other authors, a fellow I had heard of but whose books I had never read. He was giving me a pretty frank assessment of his career. His first novel had been an international blockbuster with millions of copies sold around the world. His second book had sold not quite as well. His third novel had sold even fewer copies. He was now on his seventh or eighth book and although his residual readership was still considerably larger than mine, his career had continued on the wrong trajectory. With each book he was losing readers, not adding them. His agent couldn't figure out why. His publisher couldn't figure out why. He couldn't figure out why.

We had a lively, hour-long discussion in front of maybe 200 people. Then somebody asked what books each of us were reading. We went down the line giving brief assessments of our latest good reads. When it was this guy's turn he said,

"I don't read. I haven't read a book since my first novel was published 10 years ago."

As I said, there was a gasp.

He said, "I don't have time to read. Whatever time I have to read I would rather spend it writing."

Remembering our earlier conversation, I thought, "Well there's your answer."

As I've thought about it over the years, I've realized there's more to be learned from that comment than just the reasons for one author's declining sales. All writers have felt the same tension--the occasional guilty feeling when you are reading that this is an indulgence keeping you away from your work. Most writers would never admit to having given up the enjoyment of books altogether, although I often suspect, when reading a particularly cliched or unimaginative novel, that this fellow isn't the only one.

But it gets to the heart of the biggest problem facing the publishing industry. All readers have increased demands on their time and reading eats up hours at a pretty good clip. There are no doubt millions of people who find sitcoms less satisfying than books, but television and internet are both cheap and provide immediate gratification and TV at least comes in a little capsule of time that fits confidently into the daily budget of waking hours. For all the discussion about how to save publishing, this is a problem no one can answer and it's only going to get worse.

Time is the writer's ultimate foe. It puts insurmountable obstacles between readers and his work and then one day, often without warning, it rudely ends his career.

Still there is something especially arrogant about a writer who doesn't read. About an author who expects people to digest his words by the tens of thousands when he has no time for anyone else's.

For the last month I've been furiously reading through the nominees for this year's Tournament of Books (an event for which I serve as both commissioner and color analyst and about which I will have much more to say later). I'm trying to read 16 books, some of them substantial, in about eight weeks, which has basically forced me to about double the amount of time I usually spend reading each day. I thought it would be difficult, but I've found it to be the opposite. It's been liberating. It's forced be to reassess how much of my time is wasted each day on stuff less important and less enjoyable than reading. Its caused me to re-prioritize my leisure time. To ask myself why I am still watching Heroes when, honestly, I no longer have the slightest idea what's going on anymore.

Sometimes a little forced labor will set you free.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The iPod and the cellphone and the YouTube that we know

May just be passing fancies
And in time may go
But the book is here to stay

Or not.  My editor tells me this is the last time the company will let her send me a marked manuscript.  After this, all corrections will be in an electronic file, and I will have to respond to them electronically.  
I write on a machine, I rewrite on a machine, but until I have a paper copy in front of me, I don't see the infelicities of style, nor the flaws in the narrative arc.  I need paper to see where I am in a book, either as a reader, or as a writer.  Is this action appropriate at this physical point in the story?  I can't tell in an electronic universe.

I think the blogosphere and 24 hour web news makes us sloppy as readers and as writers, and that going to a strictly electronic book will make books sloppier, less carefully written, less carefully edited.  
My editor  told me that I needed to learn to live in the present, not in the era of the illuminated manuscript.  
What about you?  Agree?  Disagree?  Am I a dinosaur , or someone with a valid point about the word on the page?

Sara Paretsky