Monday, August 31, 2009

When Does It Feel Real?

by Sean Chercover

Trigger City just came out in paperback, and today I got a box of 'em in the mail from HarperCollins. Always exciting to open the inaugural "box o' books" from your publisher. You cut the tape and pull back the flaps and - at least for me - the first thing that hits is the smell. There's nothing like that "new book" smell.

I plucked one from the box, riffled the pages, reflexively checking to make sure that the changes from the hardcover edition had been made...

...and thought: Now it's real.

Don't get me wrong - I love the fact that my work first comes out in hardcover and, as a reader, I love reading (and collecting) hardcovers. I love the larger type and the substantial feel of a hardcover. But on some level, a book isn't real to me until it is available as a paperback.

I think this goes back to my teenage years (and earlier). Back then, books were mostly paperbacks, in my universe. All the classics we read for school assignments - and the equally influential stuff we read between assignments - we read in paperback. Poe and Faulkner and Twain and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Orwell and Camus and Shakespeare, and ... well, everything. To Kill A Mockingbird, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Slaughterhouse Five, Native Son, The Little Sister, Brighton Rock, Notes From Underground, The Postman Always Rings Twice ...

Paperbacks (often used paperbacks) were what kids can afford. And this continued into college. As a college student, I splurged on a hardcover now and then, but most of my reading - most of the books that made me who I am - came to me by way of that most convenient (and economical) format.

Praise be, the mighty paperback!

As I said, I love that my stuff comes out in hardcover, but when it makes the leap to paperback, it becomes accessible to a huge number of people who simply do not drop 25 bones for a book.

It becomes ... democratized. And in that instant, it becomes real to me.

And it also becomes final.

I don't know who said it, but some big-shot writer once said that a piece is never finished, it is simply due. I'm an unrepentant tweaker, and given the opportunity, I could tweak forever. As you might imagine, I came up with a few changes between the hardcover and paperback editions of Trigger City. A few very small corrections and tweaks.

And one thing that was a little more significant: I added a new scene, in the final chapter.

Now, it's just a little scene (less than a page in length) and not at the very end, so the book finishes the same - but I felt that the added scene deepened the resonance of the final chapter. And, to my great joy, my editor agreed.

So I now hold the paperback version..., because there are no more opportunities to tweak...

and real, because it is available for the price of a couple of beers.

And it makes me happy.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

First Impressions

by Libby Hellmann

Over the summer The Outfit (Michael, Marcus, Kevin, and I) conducted crime writing workshops for teenagers and adults in a program sponsored by the Chicago Public Library. I think we were all blown away by the talent of the kids: their imagination, fearlessness, and an innate understanding of suspense.

One of my favorite parts of those writing workshops – in fact, of any writing workshop -- is first lines. As writers, we know the first line should hook the reader. We also know it’s better to start “in media res,” in the middle of things. I often can’t start writing a new book until I have the first line. I may change it later, when a better line materializes, but that first line is critical – if it’s good, it gives the reader -- and me -- an indication of the pace... setting… and mood of the story.

In the workshops Michael and I did, we handed out examples, then asked the kids to write their own. I don’t have the kids’ lines (I wish I did), but below are some of the first lines we handed out. I’ve collected them from a variety of places – other authors’ lists as well as my own, so thanks to people who contributed. And a big hat’s off to the authors who wrote them in the first place.

“The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.”
The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”
Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

“Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them.”
Before The Fact, by Francis Iles (basis for Hitchcock’s Suspicion)

“For a week, the feeling had been with him, and all week long young Paul LeBeau had been afraid.”
Iron Lake, William Kent Krueger

“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.”
Fat Tuesday, by Earl Emerson

“My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.”
Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris

“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down.”
Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were."
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Btw, Michael and I had a lively discussion on last lines and whether they need to refer back to the first. (In fact, Marcus did a post on last lines a while back.) Michael believes they should – perhaps not word for word, but thematically. I don’t. Maybe it’s because I wrote too many corporate speeches in another life, speeches in which the intro and conclusion had to be linked.

What do you think?

And in case you were wondering about the first line in DOUBLEBACK, it’s

“Panic has a way of defining an individual.”

So, let us know what your favorite first lines are. Short Stories count...

In fact, let's do a contest. The best 3 opening lines (judged in a totally subjective way by me) get a prize. Which I will tell you about later.

Women of NCIS

I'm a huge fan of NCIS, even though some of my friends criticize the banal dialogue and predictable story trajectories. Like Abby, I know I can count on Gibbs, the stern but kindly ex-Marine, to keep me safe and make all well--unless I'm a female agent. Agent Todd: shot through the forehead by Ari. Director Shepherd: killed in a shoot-out while battling a life-threatening illness. Agent Cassidy: killed by a terrorist bomb. Agent Lee: a dastardly traitor, taken off in handcuffs and seen no more. And now--Ziva David, the Mossad operative, who saved Gibbs' life, looked after Tony when he got involved with the anorectic Jeanne--when last seen, her left eye was dangling from the socket as she was brutalized in a Somali torture camp.
The new season premieres on September 22, which happens to be the kick-off date for my new novel, Hardball. I don't know whether to skip out on my book tour to see whether Gibbs rescues Ziva and she returns to the team, or to count myself lucky that I won't have to see another woman agent maimed and murdered.

Friday, August 28, 2009

In the Unlikely Event

Of one's own death, what happens to all your emails, websites, blogs, bank accounts and bills with online only access? Searching for another topic, I came on a nifty article in Time Magazine, "How to Manage your online life when you're dead." There are several companies now that will store your details--passwords, and so on. They'll check in with you periodically to see if you're still alive, and if some number of e-mails go unanswered, they'll release your information to a designated recipient--who has to present your death certificate in order to get access to your files.


I've actually often wondered about how my husband or estate would tell American Express and everyone else to cancel my accounts. These services seem to provide the answer. Now, all we can do is hope that they're not run by enterprising 28-year-old hackers like Albert Gonzalez. Who, I gather, is not related to another criminal mastermind, a former US attorney general of (almost) the same name--Alberto Gonzalez was one of the key promoters of Bush's policies on torture.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

News! More Izzy books on the way...

By Laura Caldwell

I don’t know why I didn’t write a series before—a continuing character with a posse of interesting people around her. It was my friend, Sarah Mlynowski, an author friend, who sat me down one day in a Manhattan diner and asked me why I wasn’t writing about someone who was a lawyer and why all my redhead characters were always slutty or evil and why I wasn’t using Chicago even more than I had before. I opened my mouth, had nothing to say in response, and the Izzy McNeil books began to be hatched that day.

And I have news today—there will be more Izzy books! Specifically, my excellent editor, Valerie Gray, through my excellent publisher, MIRA, have asked me to write four more and my answer was a quick, loud, YES! I admit I did pause for a second and ask my excellent agent, Amy Moore-Benson, if the deadlines were going to look the same as they did with the Izzy trilogy (editing 1 of them and writing 2 of them in one year, while I also had to finish a non-fiction book). When she told me I’d get more time than that (at least a little), I was in. (We’ll be making an announcement in September about exactly when the fourth Izzy McNeil book will be out.)

I’ve been saying it all summer, but now it’s more true than ever—if you’ve read the Izzy books and have any thoughts on where she should go from here, the characters you’d like to see return, those you’d rather see disappear into the Chicago night or any interesting journeys Izzy might make, let me know about them. If I haven’t already stumbled upon what you’re suggesting and I use it, I’ll put the readers who contributed in the acknowledgements of the book, because really, you guys have been amazing. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of you who’ve spent time with Izzy or have written me to tell me your thoughts. And I truly do want to hear more—anything! So write a comment, visit me at or write me at and don’t hold back.

PS – Those of you who’ve read the books know that Izzy has been long trying to weed curse words from her vocabulary, replacing things like God damn it with God bless you, Fu#$ you with Flub you, and Son of a bitch with Son-of-a-motherless-goat. I got Izzy started on this campaign after my college friend Amy kept saying, “Mother hen in a basket!” instead of what she wanted to say when she was angry. (You can figure it out). So anyway, do you have any replacement swear words you’d be willing to share and let Izzy use? Let me know about that, too. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

R.I.P., Senator Edward Kennedy

by Marcus Sakey

As I’m sure you all know, Teddy Kennedy died last night. While hardly unexpected—the man was 77, and battling brain cancer—it’s still a blow. The end of an era.

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, this was a man to be admired, a man who spent decades fighting for the larger good. Civil rights, voting rights, Americans with disabilities, healthcare, immigration, these were his central causes. In a world that was increasingly focused on personal gain, he fought for a better nation.

It’s interesting to me—his father, Joseph Kennedy, was not a good person. A brutal businessman, a bootlegger, a machine politician, an insider trader, a briber of politicians and journalists, he amassed a fortune by breaking the rules. The parallels to today’s shady tycoons are easy to draw.

But for all the reasonable comparisons you can draw to Ken Lay and James Cayne, one crucial point of difference is the love of country and the dedication to service that he instilled in his children. Joe Kennedy may have been a relentless grasper after money and power, but once he had both, he used them to assure that his children would do better than he had. It’s sort of a dark version of the American dream.

John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy all had personal failings. They all had skeletons in their closets. But they also had a dedication to making the world a better place that makes it hard for me to judge them.

These days, politicians have learned that it’s better to be seen as not standing for anything at all than to risk being seen as human. Watergate, the war, the eighties, the other war, the Bush administration, 9/11, the other war, they’ve shaken the system to a point where it seems like politics is less about country and more about campaigning.

Edward Kennedy was one of the last of the old guard. A sinner? Sure. But a man who fought to make the world better. And I for one will miss him.

May he rest in peace.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fundamentally Challenged

by David Ellis

I remember my high school baseball coach once telling me that he taught his little league team the exact same things he taught us at the high school level. The fundamentals never stop being the fundamentals. If you keep your head down on a ground ball and your head still, back foot planted on an incoming pitch, you’ve put yourself in a position to succeed, whether you’re 6 years old or 36 years old.

It’s never a bad idea to be reminded of the fundamentals of writing. One of my problems is that I am not entirely sure what the fundamentals are. Like many of you (some of you? most of you? I have no idea), I was never trained in writing. I was a finance major who went to law school. Creative writing was just a hobby when I was younger. Even once it became a devouring passion as an adult, I never really took classes, other than half a class at a U of C continuing ed program which I dropped after the teacher focused too much on poetry. I digress.

Point being, my idea of the fundamentals may just be my idea. I’ve never taught a class like Michael. It’s hard for me to imagine what I would tell them. But one thing I do know is that I have been a little out of practice over these last couple of years (thank you, Mr. Blagojevich), and I need reminders. So while I am reminding myself, I will share with you. And mind you, as I am writing this, I am not even sure what will come next. Like my daughter’s good friend Dora, we will explore.

1. Write what you know. Just kidding. I enjoyed Marcus’s entry a few days ago on this and refer you to what he said. But whatever else, I do believe you are bound to entertain the reader more with topics you know well. I am much better writing about the law than about terrorism. I wrote about a terrorist in one book and I thought it was fine, but I had to gloss over details that I didn’t know and regardless of whether I “got away with it,” the fact remains that what was missing were the little insights and nuance that come with expertise.

2. Just write it. I have suffered some serious writer’s block these past few months—stolen months for me, when the General Assembly is not in session, so it’s about the only time I can write. When I come up to a wall, I need to remember to just keeping writing through it. If you are not entirely sure what will come next, write out of order—skip ahead, knowing that you can go back. Most of the time when I do that, the fog clears. I am surprising absolutely nobody with this piece of advice … and yet, I still fail to follow this pearl of wisdom far too often.

3. A follow-up on # 2 … you don’t necessarily have to write through that wall—you can also rewind and avoid the wall. I know this. We all do. Maybe the rest of you don’t need reminding but I do. If you have written yourself into a corner, you can put the car in reverse. It’s a novel. It’s your story. You can change things. Alter facts. And nobody will ever know that your character, in an earlier draft, had accidentally shot his sister as a child or slept with his law partner’s wife or inadvertently left an earring at the crime scene.

4. Just re-write it. If you are really stuck, it’s always a good opportunity to go back and re-read an earlier part of your manuscript. I have never reviewed any part of any manuscript that couldn’t benefit from a little editing. And I often find that it helps what I am writing going forward; ideas crystallize or the juices flow enough to get my mind straight again.

5. Keep a journal of your observations. I think most of you do this. I used to, and I gained invaluable stuff that never would have survived long enough in my head until I got in front of a computer. I am reminding myself to do this again. If I had a dime for every time I had one of those What-was-that-great-thought-I-had-earlier-today? moments, I would have, well, a lot of dimes.

6. Someone once showed me a technique of picking a scene and simply writing whatever came into your head on a piece of paper—talking pen or pencil here, not computer—without fear of anyone else ever reading it. No worry for grammar or punctuation or sentence structure or anything else. Just write whatever comes into your mind. I tried that a couple of times, especially in my first novel, comfortable in knowing that I could change whatever I wanted later, or scrap it altogether. I did that with two scenes. For each of them, I ended up putting the prose into the novel without changing a single word. Verbatim. From that scrap of paper to the bookshelves. That taught me a lot about raw creativity and how we mess with it by filtering it through our emotions and insecurities and egos. So, reminder to myself—do this more. Like once every five books, at least.

7. Time is not on my side. I am happiest when I have a thick block of time carved out to write, by which I mean a few hours. I anticipate banging out a couple of chapters, moving the plot forward with new ideas, the whole nine yards. But I am almost always disappointed afterward. Give me four hours to write, and just as likely I will write more (and better) if you’d only given me an hour. Something about focusing, I guess. Hey, I said these were my fundamentals, not yours.

8. There are five senses, not two. Smell, touch, taste. Three senses I neglect in setting a scene or describing a moment. This is another thing we’ve all had hammered into our heads at one point or another. I guess that’s why we call it a fundamental.

I can’t think of anything else, so I guess that means I have exhausted my list of reminders. Class dismissed. See you in two weeks, when I start reminding myself how to be a father of a newborn again.

The cartel war around the corner

By David Heinzmann

Two tons a month.

Cocaine, that is. That’s how much the Flores brothers were allegedly moving into and through Chicago’s streets over the last several years. The 28-year-old twins were just the local wholesalers for two Mexican cartels trafficking the stuff. And they got into a jam when the cartels went to war with each other along the Mexican border and each threatened the Flores twins if they didn’t pick sides. Stuck in a dead if you do, dead if you don’t fix, they turned to the feds.

The result, last week, was the biggest narcotics trafficking indictment ever in Chicago, and one of the biggest in the country. More than 40 people were charged, though the top players are still on the loose, honchos of the Mexican cartels involved an ongoing bloody war for control of U.S. supply lines. The indictments went all the way up the ladder to three international kingpins, including Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman-Loera, a billionaire on the Forbes richest list.

Covering crime in Chicago, these glimpses into the economic engine that drives the killing and misery on this city’s streets are relatively rare. Most of the drug busts are at the retail level—Chicago street gangs distributing and selling the stuff on street corners, and shooting each other when something goes wrong.

But the details of this case go a long way to explaining why Chicago has had a hard time reducing its homicide rate to levels that New York and Los Angeles have achieved. The drugs moved by the Flores twins weren’t just staying in Chicago, they were being cut up and moved across the continent, from Philadelphia to Vancouver. Because of location, and highways, and the size of its growing Mexican population, Chicago has emerged over the last several years as the major distribution center of drugs across the U.S.

A few years ago I wrote a story about the police patrol beat with the most murders in the city. The city is parceled into about 280 patrol beats, so each one is just a few square miles. That year, the deadliest beat wasn’t in Eglewood or Garfield Park, traditionally the most violent parts of the city. It was Beat 1413 in Logan Square, the gentrifying hipster hot spot on the North Side. With its mix of young yuppies, real estate speculators and working-class Mexican families, Beat 1413 had 10 murders that year.

Part of Logan Square’s edgy appeal for some, is the grip the Hispanic gangs still hold over some of its streets. But the crime that put it over the top was a drug murder, but not a gang murder. In a garage on a quiet Belden Avenue alley, police found three bodies, a .45 and $97,000 in cash. The victims were from L.A., San Antonio and a quiet neighborhood near Midway Airport. The killer was in the wind. It wasn’t gang crime. It was cartel crime.

Police believed the men were cartel couriers who had been transferring drug proceeds back to Mexico, and had stopped at the garage on Belden to divvy it up. Something went wrong. The rest was a mystery.

Law enforcement experts say the murderous cartel wars going on along the Mexican-U.S. borders will eventually trickle into American cities. The Flores case shows just how that might happen on a grander scale than the triple murder in Beat 1413 a few years ago.

Last week’s indictments accused the traffickers of using garages and warehouses all over Chicago, from the South Loop to Palos Hills Hills to Hinsdale. See for yourselves.,0,4228031.story Maybe there’s location near you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

I Can Stare For a Thousand Years

By Kevin Guilfoile

I have a pair of sick kids and an 18-year-old cat who is demonstrating the onset of feline insanity by standing at the foot of my bed and screaming at the top of her lungs for four straight hours beginning every morning at 3 AM. It's true cats can sound just like distressed babies when they want to, the crafty, tiger-striped, whiskery bastards.

So I'm sleep-deprived, is my point, and that's my excuse for repurposing one of my Infinite Summer posts for a second time this month.

This week I wondered if Infinite Jest, a book I am growing to love, a novel I am beginning to think belongs on the rarified important shelf, is nevertheless a book people will still be reading in a hundred years. This is an old writerly concern, of course. A book seems so sturdy, so permanent, but precious few novels outlive their authors. Indeed looking back at the publishing year 1909, I can't find a single novel that I would expect any of you to have read with the possible exception of L. Frank Baum's The Road to Oz. Even reliably prolific authors of the time had an off-year in aught-nine. I was a devourer of H.G. Wells when I was young and yet I have never cracked, nor even heard of, nor even can pronounce with a straight face, Tono-Bungay. So much for the three weeks H.G. spent writing that one.

(The Phantom of the Opera was published in 1910 but began serialization in Le Gaulois 100 years ago next month. An oatmeal-raisin cookie to the non-French person who can name the author of that famous story without looking it up.)

So my predictable question to you is what authors (and specifically works) from say 1970 to the present, do you think future generations will still be reading? This isn't an invitation for you to just name your favorite book, of course. I'm asking what books have the stuff to endure, to remain entertaining and relevant to a generation that has levitating magnet shoes and grows genetically modified broccoli with the cheese already on it.

The proprietors of this blog in 2109 will reward the descendants of readers with the most accurate replies with first edition neuronovels by Helo Chercover and Numbersix Sakey plugged directly into their basal ganglia and imprinted with the author's DNA...

Jeepus Crow, I'm tired. "Basal ganglia" probably won't sound so funny after a nap.

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

DNA -- I Counted on You

By Barbara D'Amato

DNA evidence can be fabricated, accoding to a report in The New York Times [August 17 2009].

Scientists in Isreal have made up samples of saliva and blood with DNA that's different from the donor of the samples. And there's even worse news. If they had your DNA profile, say from a law enforcement database, they could construct the DNA without needing any blood or physical tissue from you.

Dan Frumkin, the author of the paper that appeared in Forensic Science International: Genetics, says "Any biology undergraduate could perform this."

Tania Simoncelli, from the ACLU, warns that DNA is easier to plant at a crime scene than fingerprints. As a person who once moved fingerprints in a book, I can testify that it's difficult.

But there's hope. Frumkin has also apparently developed a way to tell faked DNA apart from real samples. He's working to sell his method to forensics laboratories.

Unless the way to tell faked from real turns out to be successful, DNA forging is enough to send most writers who deal with crime scenes back to the drawing board and give them fits for a while. But like most scientific developments, for a writer, the question is whether this one is a boon or a disaster. It will certainly "date" many books if it becomes generally used.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Poor preparation

by Michael Dymmoch

Chance favors the prepared mind.* Louis Pasteur

A recent news story reported that the Washington D.C. school system is not just teaching to the tests, but taking the idea to an extreme. They’re making up tests of what they think students ought to know and teaching to those tests. Not surprisingly, test scores are up.

I’m really glad I’m not a student in that system. I went to an old-fashioned grammar school that taught reading, grammar, math, geography, history, and civicsamong other things. As a result, I’m a great reader, a pretty good writer, better than average at grammar, fair at practical math, and a regular voter. I never knew tests were supposed to be an ordeal, so I always took them as a chance to see how much I’d learned. For me, they were fun. And I did well enough in school, and on the tests, to get a scholarship to college. I don’t recall ever being told that any particular thing I was being taught was important because it would be on a test. Presumably everything taught in my school had some value, so students were expected to try to remember all of it.

Over the years, most of my teachers were excellent, especially in high school and college. I think this may have been because they loved teaching or at least loved what they were teaching. (I learned more physics from a novice plant physiology instructor who desperately wanted to share his love of plants than I did from two different physics teachers.) And I was an indifferent student. I didn’t learn how to study until after I’d dropped out of grad school. What I did learn early on is that learning is valuable in itselfnot because it enables one to pass tests or get into a great school.

Which is why I spent the money (over and above my tax contributions) to send my son to a Montessori school through fifth grade, though when I enrolled him, I knew nothing of the Montessori philosophythat children come programmed to learn and all they need to succeed at it is an environment that encourages them to do so. Most Montessori schools provide a learning environment, as do most wealthy suburban and city magnet schools. But they take only the best students‡, so the teachers assume most of the kids will do well. Andsurprise!—they do. A teacher who believes in students' ability to learn is part of a great learning experience.

Judging by news reports, my teacher-friends’ horror stories, and my ownadmittedly limitedexperience, most schools today are not preparing students to do much more than show up for work, follow orders whether they make sense or not, and pass tests. And I may be just getting old and cranky, but I believe the practice of giving students money to get good grades is just wrong. It discourages students from learning for its own sake. Which limits what people will learn. Which limits what they can learn. And that limits their ability to adapt to situations they can’t begin to foresee without a broad knowledge base, including history and geography.

It seems to me we’re preparing students to pass tests, but we’re not preparing them to learn or think. We’re not preparing them to live in our complex world.

What do you think?

*Actually Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.

Some elite schools refuse to take troublesome students or make it clear they’d be better off in night schoolbut that’s a story for another blog.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Desperately Seeking...

by Libby Hellmann

There was a fascinating article in Slate the other day about why some of us seem to be addicted to Texting, Twitter, and Facebook. (Btw, childrens’ author Laurel Snyder, a self-confessed Twitter addict, describes in Salon what it’s like to go cold turkey.) Without getting into too much detail, especially since my science proficiency is shaky, the article says the addiction exists and there’s a reason for it: our brains are hard-wired to crave the interaction.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Apparently, we’re not Twittering and Texting and FB-ing because it gives us pleasure, or calms us, or in some way pacifies us. Just the opposite.

Remember the tests they did on all those rats, when they discovered they could train them to push a lever repetitively, until they collapsed, just so they could get a tiny release of dopamine? At the time they thought dopamine was a brain chemical that dispensed some kind of happy pill, that it was in charge of the pleasure center in the brain.

Then one of the scientists, Jaak Panksepp, changed his mind.

"Those self-stimulating rats, and later those humans, did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes... were 'excessively excited, even crazed.' The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging.

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. ..'Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.' It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world…. For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing… 'the dopamine circuits promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,' Panksepp writes. It's a state humans love to be in.'”

So we seek. That’s why some of us constantly check Twitter, emails, and Facebook. The dopamine makes us do it.

But what does this have to do with writing?

Last time I blogged I talked about hating to write. How unequal to the task I usually feel. As I read about "seeking", I kept thinking that writing is a form of seeking. We’re always seeking the perfect prose, the most genuine characters, the most compelling plots. I wonder if people like me – who find those tasks difficult -- are deficient in dopamine, while those of you who absolutely revel in the process, who say you're addicted to writing, have more of it than you need. You seek, you get dopamine, you keep going. I seek, I don’t get dopamine-- or enough of it-- I struggle.

OK, admittedly, it’s a little far out. I may be trying to rationalize something because I like to whine. And bear in mind at the end of the process, when I’ve finally finished a book or story, I do feel pleasure. It could be the opiates kicking in, the brain neurotransmitters scientists say actually are responsible for pleasure. The joy of finishing a tough job. Or not.

Either way, I think it’s an interesting theory. Check out the article. And then tell me what you think.

Izzy Breaks Out!

And, a great review of Laura's Izzy McNeil series in the Sun Times today. Click here to read.

Le Treatment

A terrific piece by Sara in today's NY Times Magazine.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Below the Belt

Usually, I'm a huge Gary Trudeau fan, but I think his August 14 strip is grounds for class action by all Cub fans. We may live in a world of illusions, or even delusions, but we're not nut jobs!!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here?

A reporter asked me recently how I feel, as a Jew, when I tour in Germany. I said I feel like a ghost--in every major city there's a Jewish museum with an armed guard outside, housing relics of a people who've vanished. At the same time, I find that history weighs heavily on the people I meet, making them grave and hesitant.
I wonder sometimes if our history weighs on us European Americans, not just the history of slavery, of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, but of the deliberate creation of a poverty-ridden ghetto in a city like Chicago.
In April, 1917, the Chicago Real Estate Board drew up a plan for block-by-block segregation. Housing would be opened to Negroes in an adjoining block only when every unit in the current block held an average of four people per room.

Chicago's realtors adhered enthusiastically to this plan until it was finally declared illegal in the late 1960's. The city was by then the most segregated in the nation, a dubious title which the Chicago Tribune says still stands today. Not only that, the forced over-crowding created poverty-ridden slums. Schools in the black community were never funded at the level they were in white neighborhoods.

One of the programs I support in Chicago is called Girls in the Game, which provides a combination of sports, health, and self-esteem education to about 2,000 Chicago public school girls. The need is particularly important for black and latina girls, because recess and physical education have all but disappeared from schools in Chicago's non-white neighborhoods. It's cheaper, and easier, to keep kids penned up all day, cramming rote memorization down their throats so they'll do better on test scores.
In many Chicago public schools, children are punished for speaking to each other in the lunch room. The now-dead and unmourned Henry Horner homes on State Street were dubbed "Public Penitentiaries" when the first Mayor Daley built them: many of our city's schools take on that role today.

Boys have as much need for physical exercise as girls, but for them, at least, there are organized sports programs after school. Girls in the Game reaches about 1 percent of Chicago's public school girls. It's a drop in the bucket, but at least someone is putting in a drop.

I thought about this history during the recent brouhaha over Professor Gates and the Cambridge police. When the great John Hope Franklin taught history at the University of Chicago, his teenaged son was stopped by the police when he was going up the steps to his home.

When Barack Obama was first elected to the Illinois legislature, he also taught at the University of Chicago law school. One of his colleagues, a friend of mine, told me back then that Barack had been stopped by Illinois State police for driving while black between Chicago and Springfield. The President has never alluded to his own experience with Chicago's fraught racial history, but that might explain his own off-the-cuff remark about the Cambridge police when he first heard of the incident.

I don't know how we move forward from here. If you have any useful thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

P S On a completely different subject, Chicago writer Tim Chapman had his first story published in Alfred Hitchcock--the haunting & surreal, "A Closer Walk with Thee." Congratulations, Tim

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Future of the Publishing World: Are we talking too much and not doing enough?

By Laura Caldwell

In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, editor Graydon Carter had this to say about the demise of the newspaper business and the accompanying bitching about it: “I’m not one to complain, and I’m sure you’re not the sort to, either, but aren’t you growing just a bit tired of reading about the demise of newspapers—in the papers themselves? It’s no wonder readership is down. Who has the patience to hear endless whining about someone else’s misfortune when your own fortunes are rickety? This is not to say that the health and vigor of the nation’s dailies are not vital to the intellectual health and vigor of the commonwealth as a whole, or that newspapers aren’t an essential force in keeping a watchful eye on corrupt politicians and venal corporate overlords—neither of which are in short supply these days. I would also hope you feel that the loss or even weakening of the nation’s principal daily, The New York Times, would mark an end to life as we know it. The Internet is partly to blame for all of this, and perhaps micro-pricing or gated content will be part of the solution. “Youthing” down a paper to attract 21-year-olds isn’t the answer: the only way you’re ever going to get the average 21-year-old to read a daily newspaper is to wait 9 years until he’s 30. My suggestion to newspapers everywhere is to give the public a reason to read them again. So here’s an idea: get on a big story with widespread public appeal, devote your best resources to it, say a quiet prayer, and swing for the fences.”

Is the same true of the publishing world? Are we talking too much about the days of yore and not moving on enough? Certainly, there has been a fair amount of woe-is-us going around and for good reason. On “Black Wednesday” last December, some powerful publishing houses laid off a significant amount of people. The Kindle and other e-readers are confusing things, people have said, and killing the art form known as The Book. Then there was the Google battle over the scanning of millions of library books and the subsequent litigation filed by the Author’s Guild and a number of publishers. (By the way, has anyone seen any cash on that yet?)

But despite the grumblings, I’ve found, for the most part, that authors, their publishers and agents are, at least by their actions, semi-optimistic. Maybe it's because the publishing business is, and always has been, an oddball industry. Take, for example, the fact that book retailers can send back the product they don't sell (at a discount). Such books are then destroyed. You won’t find that many other businesses. In part because of that oddity, there's also the fact that authors sometimes don't find out how their books are truly selling for months, or even almost a year, after their release.

And yet, at its core, the publishing business is a gentleman's business. If someone says, "We want to publish your book," there's a very, very good chance they're going to do it. (Unlike some other entertainment businesses, which may talk a good game but rarely produce results that have been promised). Also, authors seem to be highly adaptive. Notice the acceptance, and even huge enthusiasm, around social media. Sure, there were some people (like our own Marcus Sakey), who initially refused to get on Twitter, but now you can't stop the guy. He’s running contests to give away books, as are many other authors. Jason Pinter ( isn't just giving away books, but music and a character named after a reader as well.

And then there are the many authors who are finding social media to be one of the best avenues for reader feedback. On my own Facebook and Twitter (@LauraACaldwell) accounts, the more reader comments I get, the more I want, especially now that I’ve released the Izzy McNeil books (the third, Red, White & Dead came out two weeks ago). This reaction of mine is not so much because I'm attempting to adapt to a new economy and, therefore, a new publishing industry. It’s mostly to do with the fact that I write (like most authors) in order to be read. I write in order to entertain. And with my recent Chicago mystery trilogy—and hopes of more Izzy McNeil novels on the way—I really want to know where my readers see these characters and this story going.

And so, although Kindle may change reading somewhat, as will cell phones (many in the business predict that the next generation will be reading their books on their personal media device—something between a cell phone and a laptop), I’m one who doesn't believe that The Book will ever die. Maybe there’ll be fewer of the printed variety, but I tend to believe that this art form, even if it changes and appears drastically different in the future, will survive. The written word and the audiences’ ability to imagine, in their own head, the way a story plays out, can never really be lost. And us authors, even with our bits of grumbling, are addicted to what we do. We can’t stop even if you want us to. And so, as editor Graydon Carter suggested, we’ll write the big story, say a prayer and swing for the fences.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bad Writing Advice

by Marcus Sakey

There’s an axiom that writers should “write what they know.” It’s one of those nuggets of threadbare wisdom that has probably screwed up a whole passel of aspiring authors:
“Write what I know? Okay. Well, I’m a administrative assistant with a pug, so I’ll write about an administrative assistant with a pug…who solves murders!”
If that’s the book you want to do, great. But don’t get suckered into it.

“Write what you know” isn’t terrible advice; it’s just been elevated beyond its inherent value. It’s like a solid character actor who reliably nails bit parts. That’s valuable, but it doesn’t mean they should carry the starring role, and “write what you know” has been given far too much weight.

Here’s what I recommend. Forget “write what you know.” Replace it with these three statements instead:

“Write from the inside.”
Consider the person who is serving as your point of view character. Describe the world, and their reaction to it, according to what kind of person they are. The same place, event, or individual will look very different to a bubbly high-school cheerleader than it will to a world-weary journalist. Different even to a man and a woman. Think about those differences, and exploit them in your writing. That way you not only paint a more vivid scene, you define the character at the same time.

And remember cultural and temporal factors. Medieval characters aren't disgusted by open sewers, modern travelers are more interested in their seat assignment and free drink than the wonders of aviation, and no one on Star Trek thought tricorders were particularly neat.

A hamburger is a different thing in Texas than in Mumbai.

“Learn something about what you’re writing about.”
AKA, research. Depending on your topic, that might mean riding with cops, reading histories of the Boer Wars, or taking swimming lessons. You should always try to get close to the things your characters are doing, especially if it’s a major part of their world.

The caveat is that research isn’t the same as writing. Don’t let research get in the way of page count. Most of us aren’t writing Clancy novels, where the info dump is part of the fun.

“Write what you know…about people.”
This is the most important component. Don’t worry about applying the explicit details you’ve learned in a job, or a hobby, or a religion. Just because you’re 20 doesn’t mean you can’t write about someone 90. But every experience you’ve had, and most especially those involving other people, has some impact on the way you write. That’s good. Use it.

One of the central goals of storytelling is always to render life to the page as accurately as you can. Even if you’re writing the most fantastical piece of magical realism, you should still be trying to capture accurate truths about the way people think and act. Without that, you got nothing.

A Monologue on Dialogue

by David Ellis

Some random observations about dialogue. These are sufficiently disjointed that I will number them. The opinions contained below are solely those of the author. Please do not read while operating heavy machinery or juggling sharp objects.

1. Like any other aspect of a novel, when dialogue is done well, it elevates the overall work. But to me, at least, when it’s done poorly, it detracts disproportionately from the product. It can ruin a book for me. And I think I discovered why. Most of our novels push the envelope of reality at least a little. I know mine do. But dialogue is one of the things that can make things seem more realistic. If the words sound like those that a “real” person would say, it makes the whole thing more plausible. But if they don’t ring true, the whole thing loses its impact for me.

2. I don’t particularly care for most of the dialogue I read in books. Most of it just rings hollow to me. I think I do it pretty well. But I suppose all writers think that about themselves, right? I mean, if you don’t think your dialogue is good, why did you leave it in the final draft? It recalls the line from When Harry Met Sally: All people think they have good taste, but not everyone has good taste, so you do the math.

3. I struggle with words like “gonna” and “shoulda” and with truncating the ends of words (fuckin’ instead of fucking). I try to write as realistic dialogue as I possibly can—I’m sure we all do—but these words confound me. Most people use them in their daily speech. I certainly do. Yet if I write those words in dialogue, it has the effect of making the speaker seem less intelligent. So I use them when I’m projecting the voice of a mafia thug or maybe a child, but not for my protagonist, who I consider very intelligent. Now that doesn’t really make sense, does it? I mean, if I’m looking for the most realistic dialogue, why am I making that distinction? My only reasoning is that, for whatever reason, it has that unintended effect, and I recognize it and don’t want it for my protagonist.

4. Along the same lines as # 3 above …. I was reading some transcripts from the Blagojevich intercepts and some of the government’s intercepts from the Tony Rezko trial, and it reminded me of how mundane our speech patterns can be. Lots of uhhhs and ahhhs and stammering. Some of the entries from Stu Levine (a government informant, if you didn’t follow this) have an incredible amount of stammering. And, and, and, and, and, that kind of thing. Now that’s how people really speak, right? But here again, while I try to do that a little, I don’t use “uhs” and “ahs” as much as I would prefer, and the reason, again, is that it will have a perverse effect. The principal effect is that it will imply reluctance or uncertainty. It could also imply lack of intelligence, like “gonna” or “shoulda.” So when I want to project those traits, I do it, but otherwise I keep it to a minimum. Listen to Barack Obama speak. Count the number of times he says “uh.” Yet everyone marvels at how gifted a speaker he is. But if you had a character who was an intelligent president and you wrote “uh” in his dialogue as much as President Obama uses it, he wouldn’t sound intelligent. Even though he is. I find that interesting for some reason. And unfortunate, because I am knowingly violating my quest for realistic dialogue. Life’s full of conflict.

5. One thing I find really cool in novels is when the dialogue reveals something about the character that the prose otherwise has not, particularly in first-person narratives. I remember reading John Connolly’s first book (and God help me, it’s late and I just can’t remember the name of it), and his main character, writing in the first person, was a very dark and sad man. But in his dialogue, he had a wicked sense of humor. It was great. He didn’t reveal even a hint of the comical in his narrative, but then this dry sense of humor came out when he was talking to his buddy. Memorable.

6. A teachable moment for new writers, and always a helpful reminder for established novelists: Not everyone talks the same. To put it another way, some people talk differently than others. In other words, one person may talk a certain way, and another person will speak differently. Raise your hand if you already knew that … really, all of you? Then please write different dialogue for different characters. And before I am accused of being overly snarky, I am writing this because I just caught myself violating this very simple rule in my current manuscript. It’s actually fairly difficult to differentiate dialogue. But I think it’s essential.

7. Very early on in my career, someone (a reader on Amazon, I think) said that my novel was “mostly dialogue.” That comment stayed with me. It’s hard to know when there’s too much. I mean, I follow a rule most of us follow—write only what is interesting. And its cousin—leave out the parts that readers skip. But I often find myself in a dialogue-intensive scene wondering if I need to break it up some. Sometimes, you want the rat-a-tat-tat of consecutive exchanges of dialogue, but sometimes it can be too much. Do you throw in a line about someone taking a swallow of their scotch or rolling their neck or shrugging their shoulders or sighing, just so it’s not one set of quotation marks after another? (Jeez, sometimes I think my characters shrug and sigh more than any other people on the face of the planet.) I don’t really have an answer here, other than to follow those rules—do what works best.

8. Do you hate it as much as I do when proof editors clean up grammar in your dialogue? Hey, I’m trying to speak the way my character does. They don’t all speak the King’s English, right? So leave it alone. Every day, I hear people screw up the use of “who” and “whom.” Or they use the reflexive pronoun, thinking it makes them sound intelligent when it’s flat wrong. (“It was the three of us. Laura, Libby, and myself.” Ack.) Or they screw up the difference between “me” and “I,” again thinking they sound intelligent. (“They gave free passes to Laura, Libby, and I.” No, they didn’t.) My point here is not to vent about poor grammar in our society, because that would be selfish of me to use this blog to vent about that … uh, where was I? Oh, right—but this is how people talk so sometimes we have to forget the rules and just write how people talk.

9. My friend Joe Konrath (J.A. Konrath to those who don’t know him but I think he’s pretty much given up on the gender ambiguity, except in his sex life) once wrote that you should only use the words “said” or “asked” in reference to dialogue. “Hi,” he said. “Why?” he asked. Nothing beyond that. On the other hand, a friend of mine once praised me for using other words like “answered,” “replied,” “continued,” “went on,” and the like. My take is that you don’t need to stick with “said” or “asked” but you shouldn’t be distracting, which I think was Josephine's point. If you’re not sure of what to use, stick with “said” or “asked.” But a well-placed “hissed” once in a while can drive home a point.

10. I really don’t like exclamation points. It has to be pretty damn important to merit an exclamation point in my view. I feel so strongly about this, I will not use an exclamation point.

Hey, uh, thanks for, uh, listenin' to myself.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Mistakes, I've made a few

By David Heinzmann

Marcus' launch party for The Amateurs the other night was a great event, but the best part for me was the new sensation of walking in and immediately feeling at home.

Over the years, I've been pretty self-conscious about writing. Most of my colleagues at the Tribune--even good friends--had no idea I was writing fiction until I told them last summer that my novel was going to be published. It's just not something I advertised. I didn't belong to a writer's group and I didn't have many fiction-writing friends. I figured I'd come out of the closet when I had something real to show for it.

I know this is a deeply flawed approach. One of the ways you improve as a writer, moving toward having something to show for it, is to get out there and let people examine your work--talk about it, tear it to shreds, hear their suggestions, and generally commiserate about how nothing's ever going to come of it.

Why did I avoid all that? I have a handful of excuses, both painful and petty. I've mentioned before that I had an extraordinary writing teacher and mentor in college, A.E. Claeyssens. The summer after I graduated, just as I was setting out to take a year to finish a novel I'd started in his class, he became ill and died. He had been chronically ill for years with complications from liver failure. But he'd lived with so much adversity and pain, his students had come to feel he was industructible. I was devastated. I should have gone out and found some place to be heard, and read, and moved on. But I was crushed and instead retreated inward, feeling nobody would understand the book like he did. I wrote on, but in a funk. When I finished the rough draft I was exhausted and deluded myself into thinking I'd finished something. It withered and died.

When I moved to Chicago a few years later to take a newspaper job, I started writing again and joined a seminar, led by the editor of a literary journal. But it was a lousy experience. The other writers all had long relationships with the instructor, and it felt like they were all picking up a conversation that had merely paused at the end of the last seminar. I found the whole thing cliquish and off-putting. Oh, and they hated my stuff.

Eventually, the crime and corruption I was covering in my day job started to reverberate a little more forcefully in my mind and I began to write crime fiction. I found some safe harbors in which to open those early pages, including falling in love and marrying a woman who was an English major before she became a social worker. A couple of reporter buddies, and a lawyer friend I've known since high school were also supportive and constructive readers. They all helped me shape my voice and sharpen my stories.

I was thinking about all this the other night at Marcus' party. My wife and I walked in late because I'd been on deadline with a whopper of a story for the paper, and I was a little apprehensive that I wouldn't know anybody and we'd just stand in the corner sipping a beer, say hey to Marcus and then slink home. (With a freshly signed hardcover, of course.) But the first person I saw was a novelist I know, Bryan Gruley. The we spotted a reporter I know, who introduced us to the writer with whom he was hanging out. I felt like I belonged there. It was a lot of fun, and gratifying after years of more or less hiding the fact that I was writing fiction in my spare time.

So this is a little bit of the dysfunctional arc of my writing path. I'm interested in other folks' struggles along the way, especially those who are still working toward that first story that makes it over the wall and into a cover. Do you seek solace and support in groups, a few trusted people, or are you going it alone? What's set you back, and what are the moments that have kept you going?

And now back to the news. I mentioned I was on a big deadline last Thursday that made me late for the party. It was for this:,0,4603832.story?obref=obnetwork

Over the last six months I've branched out from crime reporting and I'm covering Chicago's bid to win the 2016 Olympics. It's starting to get interesting. Tempers are flaring. If you read through the link above, then watch this video to see what I mean about tempers:

And finally, read these, Kass on Daley's blowup:,0,2011958.column and my Sunday story on the fallout:,0,6571115.story I know it's a lot but you're all excellent readers with curious minds.

Friday, August 07, 2009

My Words But a Whisper, Your Deafness a Shout.

By Kevin Guilfoile

As I've mentioned here before, I'm spending the summer as one of the four "Guides" on the Infinite Summer site, which means I've been reading David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel INFINITE JEST, and providing a weekly commentary on it as I read. At the halfway point I'm finding the book immensely gratifying and the group approach to the novel not only great fun but (coincidentally) a valuable complement to the book's structure.

A few weeks back, however, I wrote about a section of the book that gave me pause. INFINITE JEST is very funny and on page 139 there is a comic interlude in the form of a memo between two State Farm employees. One of the insurance guys is passing along a letter from a claimant clarifying the details of an accident that occurred on the job:

Dear Sir:

I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.

I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.

Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.

Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.

Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.

The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a… endtranslNTCOM626

That story is probably familiar to a lot of you. It's a very old joke that more recently has become an urban legend, and a promiscuous email forward. It's famous enough that a reenactment of the accident was featured on the television show Mythbusters. The particular version Wallace inserts into his book is copied and pasted, almost word-for-word, from one that can now be found in thousands of places on the internet (Wallace wrote IJ in the early-mid 90s, when the Internet was still in its infancy). The earliest published version I could track down that uses the insurance claim conceit as well as the exact words and phrases borrowed by Wallace was a 1982 column in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The columnist, longtime Kentucky journalist Byron Crawford, never took credit for it. He disclaimed at the outset that it had been passed along to him by a colleague from Georgia. The person who so carefully crafted this very funny version of the story is lost to history.

Now I'm not claiming this is plagiarism. Without going too much into the nature of Infinite Jest, I think Wallace expected that many of his readers would recognize it. Indeed urban legends are something of a motif throughout the book. And I was somewhat placated by the discovery (very minor spoiler here) that some 400 pages later it is suggested that this claim sent to State Farm was part of an insurance scam perpetrated by a minor character and so, in the layered reality of Infinite Jest, one might assume that the character is supposed to have copied this story from somewhere and presented it as his own.

But that all assumes you are a very savvy reader. Wallace never actually reveals any of that, nor does he give any suggestion that this anecdote isn't his own creation. In the comments to my post on this subject over at Infinite Summer, most readers were willing to defend Wallace's decision, even as many expressed disappointment that one of their favorite sections in the book hadn't been written by the author.

In the end I was still personally a little bothered by it. I give Wallace a pass but I don't think I would ever feel comfortable doing it myself. So I pose the question to the many writers and careful readers who hang out at this site: Do you think this is an acceptable appropriation of someone else's words? Would you be comfortable doing it yourself?

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

There Are Two Kinds of Readers

by Barbara D'Amato

People read for different sorts of satisfaction. Just lately I’ve started looking at a lot of the reader reviews of books that appear on the Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders websites, and I see one type of difference in readers of fiction. I am not talking about things like the ever-popular character vs. plot controversy. I’m talking about reading styles.

STORY DRIVEN. They want to know what happens next. Think pacing-pacing-pacing! For their kind of book, think Agatha Christie or Joseph Finder.

To them content-oriented books don’t seem to go anywhere.

CONTENT DRIVEN. Can be history, technical detail, humor, or reading for the beauty of the language. Think unhurried delight. For their kind of book, think David Foster Wallace or Neal Stephenson.

To them, story-oriented books seem skimpy and flat.

I suppose a reader can be a content-reader sometimes and a story reader at other times, but most of the avid readers I talk with tilt strongly one way.

Most crime novel readers fall into the story-oriented category. Mysteries certainly can be well-written and humorous and many, especially thrillers, have a lot of technical detail, but if the detail gets in the way of the story, and the book loses narrative drive, they will yell “Data dump!”

I’ve been surprised lately, reading reader reviews of books on those Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble sites, at the amount of hostility from readers who happened to pick up a book they didn’t like. A reader who is clearly story-oriented will snarl, “I wasted three days of my life reading this damn thing and nothing happened!”

A content-oriented reader will say, “Don’t bother. This book is trivial.” Or he may call it a “throw-away” book!

The venom in some of these reviews saddens me. I just don’t get why a reader can feel so insulted by a book’s existence, when it’s not poisonous content or shoddy production values that cause his anger.

If you pick up a book you don’t like, don’t read it. Give it to a friend who likes its sort of content Don’t attack it. It hasn’t leaped into your home to bite you.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A stony mystery

by Michael Dymmoch

Here’s the conundrum: When you share information about the existence of something wonderful or unique or brilliant, you risk bringing it to the attention of philistines who’ll destroy it. But if you don’t share the something wonderful or strange or brilliant, it might as well never exist. I guess you have to weigh the risks and, sometimes, take a chance. So here goes…

Some months ago, my son, the IT guy, called my attention to an article in Wired Magazine about the Georgia Guidestones, a mysterious monument erected in 1980 by… That’s part of the mystery. A plaque on the site tells the stones purpose—to guide humanity in rebuilding after the apocalypse, and who constructed the enigma, but only one person knows who designed and financed it. He’s not telling.

Since I was going to Georgia for a wedding, last month, I decided to take a little side trip to see them. Although the stones belong to and are maintained by Elbert County, they aren’t promoted as a tourist attraction. No billboards trumpet “Georgia Guidestones” on any part of the approach. If you look, you can locate them on Guidestone Road, off GA-77, 9 miles north of Elberton. If you don’t look carefully, you’ll fly right past them because they’re set back from the road in the middle of a pasture.

Ambiguous signs along the way don‘t help.

My excursion took me half a day from Marietta GA. The roads were quite good (by Illinois standards) all the way. I got to see grain elevators, kudzu and other exotic sights en route. I would have been disappointed if I’d expected the stones to be another Stonehenge. What surprised me was how controversial this little edifice (by Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore—American monument—standards) has become. I was told that an Atlanta preacher is lobbying vigorously to have the stones removed. Although unpublicized and unknown—even to most Georgia residents—the stones have attracted a number of kooks and assholes who’ve felt compelled to leave evidence of their disapproval in the form of vandalism. Sadly, most of them appear to call themselves Christians—judging by the biblical quotes, although their behavior simply marks them as so insecure in their beliefs that they have to travel to the other side of nowhere to challenge what they see as a competing message.

Which is, in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian:
1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
2. Guide reproduction wisely - improving fitness and diversity.
3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
4. Rule passion - faith - tradition - and all things with tempered reason.
5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
9. Prize truth - beauty - love - seeking harmony with the infinite.
10. Be not a cancer on the earth - Leave room for nature - Leave room for nature.

In a country composed of immigrants from everywhere, with social and religious beliefs that are all over the planet, what’s so threatening about that?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Who Do I Write For (or, For Whom Do I Write, if you inisist)

by Sean Chercover

The posts by David Ellis (Compromising Positions) and Libby (I Hate To Write) raised some interesting questions.

Dave asked: would we continue to write, if we were not being paid for it. Like Dave, my answer is yes. I wrote before I was paid for it, and I would continue if I were no longer paid (although I wouldn't give up trying to find a buyer). I know it's a cliche, but writing helps keep me sane (okay, not sane, but less insane) so I will always write, money or no.

But. I would be far less disciplined about it and I would probably write a lot less. And I would get less enjoyment from it. I write to entertain, but also in the hope of communicating something about the way I see the world to my fellow humans. I'm sure my fellow humans would get along just fine without my stories, but I would miss the interaction, and the feeling that my "message in a bottle" has been received.

Because, for me (and I suspect, for most of you) writing is ultimately about communication. I've never been a writer of fan letters, so I was surprised as hell when I got published and started getting emails from complete strangers who were entertained or moved or thought-provoked or just annoyed by my work. It's incredibly gratifying to know that the message in a bottle was not only received, but that it motivated someone to sit down and write to me. And while I don't love being told that I'm a morally bankrupt pervert, even the angry letters are testimony to the power of fiction to provoke a response in the reader.

Communication requires someone on the receiving end. Obvious, I know, but it's a big part of why I write. So writing stories and putting them at the bottom of a drawer would not give me a fraction of the pleasure that I get from writing stories and sending them out into the world. For me, it's like asking: If you couldn't have sex anymore, would you still masturbate. Sure I would, (at every opportunity) but it just ain't as much fun.

Strange, though, that my answer to Dave's second question, (which I'm paraphrasing as, "Do you write with the reader in mind?") is ... not really.

Years ago, I would become paralyzed by thinking about the reader while writing. "Is this what agents/editors are looking for?" "Is it as good as [insert name of admired book] here?" "Will readers hate my protagonist if he does so-and-so?" The questions came at me, fast and furious, until all writing ground to a halt. To get anything written, I had to forget about the imaginary agents, editors, critics, and bookbuyers living in my head.

Somewhere along the way, I came across a piece of advice from a successful author (whose name is lost in memory). The writer said:

Just write the book that you would want to read.

It was the best advice I've ever read. I wrote it on a post-it, and stuck it to the wall above my monitor. And read it often.

And it's not as simple as it sounds. Writing the book you would want to read is not the same thing as writing the book you would want to have written. The book you would want to have written is likely to be far loftier, with Big Important Themes[TM] and elegant descriptive passages guaranteed to impress your mom.

The book you would want to read is likely to be leaner, sharper, and more entertaining.

So I guess I am writing with the reader in mind, after all. But the reader is me.

Libby admitted that, like Patricia Highsmith, she actually hates writing, that it brings her misery, but she loves the feeling of having written. Which just proves that you don't have to love doing it to be good at it. I certainly have days (weeks) of misery while writing, and I've discussed my problems with the blank page on this blog, but I do enjoy it. Actually, I love it. I really can't think of a better job in the world.

Which is why, I hope, I will always be able to get paid for it. And why I would do it anyway.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

I Hate to Write

by Libby Hellmann

I read Dave’s Compromising Positions post (see below) earlier this week, as well as all the thoughtful comments, and I want to put in a vote for the other side. I’m one of those people who hates to write.

There. I said it.

What’s more, I’m envious, insanely jealous, to be honest, of writers who sink themselves in the process and find euphoria. I find misery.

On the other hand, I love having written. (Actually I think Patricia Highsmith said that first). I love the fact that I’ve written nine novels and published six. And I do consider myself a storyteller. I love to create characters, put them in situations of high conflict and danger, and see how it all turns out. But like Guyot, I always thought my storytelling would be on film. I studied film production, got a masters degree, and worked in the industry for years before moving on.

I was the last person in the word to expect I’d be writing books. Using the written word to create images and tell stories. Which probably is at the root of the problem. I usually feel unequal to the task. I constantly second guess myself, rewrite, edit, and rewrite again. I obsess over every sentence, every phrase, trying to elevate it beyond “workmanlike.” Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. For me, writing is the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. And it doesn’t get any easier over time. I don’t expect it too any more. I’m used to the struggle. Kind of like a battered individual who’s used to getting beat up on a regular basis.

Someone once asked me why I put so much pressure on myself. I didn’t have a good answer -- except that the idea of seeing the finished product on sale in a bookstore, and knowing I created it, is immensely satisfying.

Over the years, I’ve discovered one mantra that helps, particularly when I’m facing a blank page: Annie LaMott’s advice in Bird by Bird (a fabulous book for writers, btw) to write “shitty first drafts.” She devoted an entire chapter to them, as I recall. Like her, shitty first drafts are now my goal. I write them all the time. It doesn’t make the process more enjoyable, but it does take some of the pressure off.

But enough from me. What about you? Especially those of you who love the process. What do you love about it? Care to share any tips on making it more enjoyable? I’m all ears.

Finally, a couple of notes… I’m thrilled to report that Easy Innocence is now available on audio. Here’s the link. This is my first novel to make it to audio (although several short stories are on Sniplits) so I’m pumped.

One other thing… There’s a funny series of 10 short videos titled “The Book vs. the Kindle” over at The Green Apple bookstore’s blog. Rumor has it the tenth installment is “f---ing hilarious.” Check it out.