Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Drinkin' Wine Spo Dee O Dee...

by Sean Chercover

We opened five bottles of champagne tonight, but drank only two. Lemme tell you why...

My dad used to receive bottles of champagne as Christmas gifts from people with whom he did business. Every year, some bottles of bubbly would come in, and my parents drank most of it, but they usually put a bottle aside, to keep "for a special occasion". Those "special occasion" bottles piled up over the years, and gathered dust in the wine cellar.

Actually, I should call it a "wine cellar" - the quotation marks are important - it was really just a small room in the basement, where my dad had made a wine rack using concrete and terracotta. No climate control. Just slightly cooler than upstairs, the way basements often are.

And that's no way to store good champagne for the long-haul.

Starting when I was a teenager, I'd often suggest that my folks might want to drink the good stuff before it turned to vinegar. I mean, they had bottles of Dom Perignon that were older than I was (1966, thanks for asking).

But they were always saving those "for a special occasion".

Birthdays came and went. Children graduated, moved away, got married ... grandchildren were born ... the Berlin Wall came down ... a rock from Mars was discovered to contain fossilized bacteria ... no occasion ever seemed special enough to motivate my parents to open those bottles.

But a few weeks ago, I convinced my mom that we should open an old bottle of Heidsieck, to celebrate the occasion of it being a Tuesday. I opened it, and the cork did not 'pop'. The fizz was gone, and the champagne was vinegar. So we moved on to a bottle of '69 Dom Perignon. More vinegar. And so on, through four more bottles.

The game grew depressing, and we ended up drinking a regular bottle of wine.

Tonight, we tried again, this time to celebrate today's Wednesdayness. Opened three bottles of Dom from the 1970s (totally corked and flat), a bottle of 1976 Bollinger (ditto), and finally, desperate for something drinkable, we moved forward in time and opened a bottle of Pol Roger from the early-'90s.

It was fine, so we drank another.

I'm sad to report that there are a whole bunch more bottles of (once) really good champagne from between 1966 and 1990 left to open, and it's a safe bet that they've all turned.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with writing? Glad you asked.

Admittedly, I'm hopped-up on champagne, decongestant, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but I see a parallel. I've heard writers talk about how they have a fantastic idea for a scene or a character or whatever, and the idea is so great that they're gonna save it for their next book.

Do not save it for your next book. Great ideas are like great champagne, and the next book is like that hypothetical "special occasion". By the time the occasion arrives, the champagne is vinegar. And the idea may not be so great by the time you're on to the next book.

We live in a universe of plenty. Drink the champagne now; they'll make more. Use that great idea in the book you're writing now; more great ideas will come to you when you're working on the next book.

I leave you with The Killer, drinkin' wine spo-dee-o-dee...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Books that got a second chance

By David Heinzmann

I get tired of reading crime fiction sometimes. I hope that’s not too much sacrilege to utter on this blog, but it’s true.

The last two books I’ve read have been novels that I had set aside years ago after reading a few chapters and just not connecting. I’ve had that experience more than once with literary fiction over the last few years. And from time to time, it’s made me feel I’ve gotten too used to easy-to-read mystery novels and become a lazy reader.

These resurrections started with writer’s block. A few months ago I blamed part of my inability to make progress on my third novel on a muddle of too much of other writer’s crime fiction in my head. So I picked up Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, which was one of the few Greene books I’d not read. Several years ago I bought it in a used book store when I was in the middle of a Greene obsession. But it was so different from his complicated espionage and political works that I set it aside, only to have the sight of its cream and lavender binding ridicule my failure for several years.

The novel opens with a confirmed bachelor mourning the death of his mother, and discoursing on his hobby cultivating dahlias. Maybe I’m just too enamored of my Greene books opening with prostitutes and political violence in the Third World. Dahlias weren’t cutting it.

But I opened the book on a whim this summer and was soon past the dahlias and firmly on a train to Istanbul. No looking back. What a great book.

Emboldened by my success, and not wanting to return just yet to our shared genre, I became more ambitious and plucked down my copy of Light in August from a shelf. I concentrated on American writers of the 20th Century in college but I never really connected with Faulkner. I forget when I first tried to read Light in August. Probably after college when I was feeling like a schmuck for never having really read him. But I didn’t even get into the telling of a story that time around. Didn’t even know what was there. It collected dust for a couple decades. But this time it has just clicked.

Maybe it’s helping me re-connect with my agrarian roots this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time in the small towns of my youth, lately. I took my boys, who are about to turn 6 and 2 for a ride in a combine harvesting corn a few weeks ago and watched them sit riveted in the cab of the green monster as it devoured twelve rows at a time. A great munching calamity that reduced a whole field into a few truckloads in a matter of hours.

And last weekend I drove down to tiny Bradford (pop. 600) to talk to a group of book lovers at the local library. This part of the state is where my parents grew up, and where my mother’s family has farmed since before the Civil War. It’s a land of endless flat expanses that in the last few years has been transformed dramatically by fields of windmills sprouting up on top of fields of corn and beans.
It’s not Yaknapotawpha. But it’s sure as hell not my Chicago, either.

I think everybody ebbs and flows as a reader. Certain kinds of books we can’t grasp at one moment in our lives, we open up to down the road. There are lots of reasons: how much mental energy we have at a given time to dissect certain kinds of prose, what are friends are reading, how engaged we are in our work life. Sometimes we want to escape. Sometimes we want information. Sometimes we want poetry and art.

The jury is still out on whether I’ll actually finish Light in August. At the Tribune, we’re in the final weeks of a crazy campaign season and I’m covering a chunk of the governor’s race. I’ll be out on the road a bit in the coming weeks following candidates, who keep telling voters they know how to fix Illinois. I’ll likely be criss-crossing hundreds of miles of harvested land. I’ve made it through All the King’s Men the first time I tried. So maybe Faulkner’s just the thing.

Anyway, here’s to second chances for the books we missed the first time around. And for the books we write, as well. May they get second, third and fourth chances.

Friday, September 24, 2010

When the Author Says You Can Do Much Better, Put His Name in Giant Letters

By Kevin Guilfoile

First, a couple of housekeeping notes.

On Sunday, I'll be making two appearances in the Chicago area. The first is in the western suburbs, at Centuries & Sleuths in Forest Park at 11 AM. I will be there as part of C&S's 20th Anniversary celebration along with fellow outfitters Bryan Gruley and Barb D'Amato, as well as Theresa Schwegel, and D.C. Brod. Then at 2 PM I show up on the South Side at the Beverly Arts Center as part of their Author Afternoons series. If you're available I would love to see you at either event.


In the months before Cast of Shadows was published, the cover changed many, many times, almost none of them having anything to do with me. This happens all the time and the reasons are complicated and probably not all that interesting. But I do know that the cover changed an unusual number of times because Publishers Weekly actually did a big story about the unusual number of times the cover changed.

When I got the email with a subject line promising a peek at the cover art for The Thousand, I was apprehensive. If I didn't like it I was reluctant to start a second war over one of my dust jackets. So I was relieved when I opened the attachment and loved, loved, LOVED the cover. I think I actually did a little dance, and if you were at my wedding that has probably created an unpleasant mental picture.

Anyway this is the cover that made me dance.

Does it look familiar? Nope. Because not everyone loved it as much as I did, and within a few weeks the jacket had changed. And then it changed after that. And it changed after that. (Some of these changes might have had something to do with me.)

An aside: When a publisher is desperately trying to get you to approve a cover, your name tends to get very large.

We finally ended up with the cover you see in bookstores, and none of this should be interpreted to mean that I don't like that jacket. I do. And in my informal surveying of readers and booksellers, a majority prefer the Pythagoras cover to the Wolf cover.

The only reason I bring it up is that it's amazing to me that two jackets with such different sensibilities could both work so well (according to me) for the same book. And yet I bet if we had gone with the wolf cover, readers would have a very different expectation of the novel than they do now. It's impossible to know how it might have affected their enjoyment of the book (for better or worse), but it's fun to wonder about. Certainly all the things we know (and assume) in advance about a novel--story, characters, genre, voice--have some sort of impact on how we respond to it.

I'm interested to know, whether you've read The Thousand or not, how your impressions of the book change when you consider one cover or the other.

And if you're an author, give your book designer some love. It's an impossible job in which you have to please a hundred people who never agree, and the only time you ever hear from an author is when he's belly-aching.

Not today.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Differences between Lawyers and Writers

by Jamie Freveletti

A while ago I blogged on my web page about the differences between lawyers and writers. I feel I have some perspective on this, having been both now for a while, as are my fellow bloggers here at the Outfit: David Ellis and Laura Caldwell.

My first conference ever was Bouchercon Chicago. I dutifully paid my fee and had a wonderful time attending panels and wandering the halls, watching the famous writers casually stroll by. In between panels I did what most lawyers do during the day--I went to the nearby Starbucks to get a shot of the caffeine that propelled me through my day. When the evening rolled around I also did what most lawyers do: I headed home to catch a quick bite in order to see the kids, put them to bed, and then begin working again. For the lawyer, billable hours are what you strive for, and those hours must get recorded no matter what else you did that day. No rest for the weary.

Little did I know that the writers were in the hotel bar, having a great time. It would have never occurred to me to go to the bar--if I did, how would I stay sharp enough to bill those late night hours?

The other thing I've noticed is planning. Now, many writers I know are great planners, but they don't engage in it the way lawyers do. Many lawyers plan like extreme athletes: they organize weeks, even months in advance. Writers? Not so much. Arranging lunch during a business trip can be a last minute affair, but it's safe to say if the meal gets arranged the writer will be calm and far less stressed out than their legal counterpart. I've been known to get texts from writers suggesting a quick drink one hour in the future! If that had been a lawyer he would have arranged the drink a week in advance and sent me a link to not only the bar, but reviews and a google map.

But there is one thing that is absolutely the same between the professions--networking. Whether done in the hotel bar or a law firm conference room, meeting others in your profession is still the best way to further your career, make friends in the profession, and learn the ropes. This is an important fact that many people forget--writers and lawyers alike. There is no substitute for that face to face meeting.

And, one other thing--both lawyers and writers can be fascinating company. They're intellectual, smart, curious, and often quite funny. I love hanging out with both. They have a curiosity about what make people tick and most have insightful views into human nature. Perhaps this is why so many lawyers write, and why so many writers are able to make characters in their books leap from the page, but whatever it is, let me just say there is no better way to spend an evening!

Monday, September 20, 2010


by Libby Hellmann

This is a story with a happy ending. In fact, it’s one of those experiences that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about technology, connections, and the internet.

A few months ago, I started researching a new novel. Some of it is set in the recent past, specifically the late ‘70s and ‘80s when Cuba sent forces to Angola to help that newly independent country defeat South African rebels and insurgents.

I knew absolutely nothing about that part of the world. Or what some called the Cuban “Vietnam.” So my first stop was Google for a basic understanding of the issues, timeline, and outcome. Within an hour, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know. I needed more.

On a whim, I decided to tweet that I was seeking more information. I used the Twitter hashtags #Cuba and #Angola, but I wasn’t really expecting any responses. Twenty minutes later, though, I was surprised when I got a reply. The tweet was from a Brit, Edward (Tedd) George, who said he’d written a book called Cuban Intervention in Angola.

I couldn’t quite believe it, so I went to Amazon. Sure enough, there was Tedd's book, which turned out to be an expansion of his doctoral thesis and was highly recommended. There was a problem, though. Since there was limited distribution, the book cost $140, too expensive for my meager research budget.

So I went to the WorldCat online catalog to look up the book. I discovered it was in 6 Chicago libraries, called my branch library to tell them which ones. Within three days I had the book.

Not bad, huh? Except that’s not the end of the story.

I read the book, took copious notes, but realized I still had questions. By now, Tedd and I were emailing, so I wondered if he’d be willing to talk to me. I was surprised when he asked if I had Skype – I probably shouldn’t have been -- and I replied I did. He did too, so we set up a time to talk. His only criteria was that we talk after the World Soccer cup match of that day.

At the appointed time, I skyped him, and we talked for 45 minutes. I came away with some excellent ideas for my novel, and I think Tedd enjoyed the brainstorming, too.

So, in a period of a week, I accomplished what probably would have taken months. None of it would have been possible without Google, Twitter, Skype, Amazon, Worldcat, and the internet. And it was all free!

I love technology when it works like this… don’t you? What are some of your good technology stories?

Friday, September 17, 2010


by Michael Dymmoch

Couple years ago, I brought eight rolls of film to Helix for developing, and the camera guru said, "You know it's 2008? They have these new cameras that don't require film."

"Yeah," I told him. I've got one. It's a pain to use, so I don't."

My Pentax finally quit in 2009. When I brought it in for repairs, the camera guy told me they could fix it—if they could get parts for something so old. He suggested I enter the digital age and offered me a Cannon that he assured me would take point-and-shoot pictures as good as anything my Pentax ever made.

It does. Even when I forget to set the right ISO, it takes great pictures. Even when I forget to correct for backgrounds that are too bright or too dark.

And I've just discovered Photoshop, so I'm looking forward to fixing the color when I forget to use the flash, and to removing the stray arms and butts that my brain edits out when I'm shooting—details my Cannon G10 never misses. (Notice the product placement? You have to give credit where it's due.)

So why should my misadventures with photography be of interest to writers? Or readers for that matter?

Maybe because ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Huh??? (Scroll down to "Modern Observations.") I started out as a child, drawing (not very good) pictures of things that interested me. I had to be forcibly detained in school, where I (eagerly) learned to read, but had to be forced to write. Years later, my writing skills improved when I had to write papers to pass courses. I also had to learn to use a typewriter. Decades later, when I was hired to write, my boss told me I was going to learn to do it on a computer.

My first personal computer was a TI Pro, the machine computer magazines said was better engineered than other available desktop models. (Better engineered, maybe, but—alas—not better supported.) My word processing program was WordStar. Ultimately I was forced to go to a PC (I've blocked out the brand name—too many freeze-ups, restarts, and disk cleanups.) Consequently, I was forced (adapt or die) to learn Word :( . (My son could tell you this was traumatic for both of us. After one particularly nerve-wracking intervention, he patted me on the shoulder and said, "Mom, millions of people use Word. You can do it.")

When I volunteered to do the Chicagoland Sisters in Crime Newsletter, I had to learn to use novel fonts, add columns, insert pictures, and include symbols.

Which led me to appreciate Pages when I got it. No more tearing my hair out trying to get the photo to go where I want it with respect to the text. No more having the inserted picture disappear entirely only to reappear somewhere else or in duplicate.

Which brings me back to my camera. Now that I've gone digital, I notice I take pictures instead of notes. Why try to describe a fuzzy trailer, if you can just get all the details right by shooting it?

Addresses? Shot of a street sign and the number on the building—no written explanation required. (It's what good CSIs do to document the location of a crime.) And a photo has the advantage of reminding you what's at that address.

But, as in Nature, unused features tend to atrophy or disappear. (Our tails are now vestigial, our appendices more a hazard than an asset.) Taking photos soon takes the place of creating concise pictures with words. Adding a smiley is so much easier than describing precisely how you feel. The software that makes writing or blogging so easy leads us to jot off stuff without much thought or care, leads to letting superficial observations replace careful study and analysis. And Google is replacing research as a source of information.

Virginia Woolf retyped her manuscripts numerous times to get them right (on a manual typewriter!). Today, writers have cut and paste and Spell-Check and digital dictionaries (You don’t even have to know how to spell it to look it up!!!), but they often don't bother to make subject and verb or noun and pronoun agree, or to use the correct homonym.

Ansel Adams spent years in Yosemite waiting for the right conditions for the perfect picture. Today, millions of photographers luck on to prize-winning photos, or digitally manipulate poor ones. (Or good ones. Have you seen Neil Armstrong swinging a golf club on the moon?)

A hundred years from now, how much of what is being written today will still be read? How many of the pictures being shot with all these digital cameras (and in HD!) will be looked at? For that matter, who has time to scroll through all the words or pictures available on any given today to find something worth the time? Writers can now churn out novels in weeks and self-publish e-books or print-on-demand paperbacks with cover art they made themselves. How many of those books are worth reading? How do those of us who take the time to plot and proof-read compete? How do our signals stand out against the background noise?

I know this has been a long rant. (I'm old and cranky. It's what I do.)

What do you think?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

David Thompson

Outfit member emeritus, Sara Paretsky, asked if she could post this about David Thompson. Please feel free to add your thoughts.

By now, the mystery community knows the sad death of David Thompson, who was the founder of Busted Flush Press, and managed Murder by the Book in Houston. Everyone who’s ever been to the store knows how extraordinary David’s experience and expertise were. He started work as a shelver in the late 1980’s, when the legendary Martha Farrington still owned the store. I remember him as a shy teenager, but one who had a mature knowledge of books, writers, and how to bring readers and writers together.

Every loss makes me want to say “It isn’t fair,” but never more so than David’s. He was only 38. He had just started a marriage with McKenna Jordan, the current owner of Murder by the Book, after a long storybook courtship. He had made a modest success of Busted Flush, no mean feat in today’s killer publishing world, and had recently completed a sale of the press to Tyrus Books.

If you will be in Houston on September 26, please drink margaritas in David’s honor at The Briar Club, between 2 and 5 p.m. Alafair Burke, David’s lifelong friend, has set up fund in his honor; the charity will be determined later, but checks should be made out to “In Memory of David Thompson” and mailed to Alafair at 7 E. 14th St, #1206, New York 10003.

For tributes from people who knew David well, go to Sarah Weinman’s blog.
We are all made less by his passing. And all of us should make sure we give our heartiest support to McKenna and the store during this terrible time in her life.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


By Marcus Sakey

I’m inventing a new genre.

To be more accurate, I’m inventing a name for an as-yet-unrecognized genre. Just like in music, literary genres evolve and change. Where once there was just rock & roll, it wasn’t long before artists began to experiment with the form, and names had to be created to describe their efforts: punk rock and indie rock and heavy metal and so forth.

Literary genres evolve the same way, and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on those trends. After all, the word “trend” is just a way of saying “something a lot of people like,” and writing something a lot of people like is always a good idea.

So. My new genre. I’m calling it “Alt-Fi,” short for “Alternative Fiction.” What defines alt-fi? Glad you asked.

In essence, it’s about a world that is very similar to ours, and yet which has one or two significant changes around which the story is rooted. Alt-fi is a cousin to sci-fi, but more populist, appealing to a broader audience. It’s also rather like speculative fiction, but here the emphasis is on a world which is otherwise almost completely recognizable.

And it’s a huge market.

Take the movie Inception. It’s usually described as science fiction, but that’s not accurate. Yes, in this movie it’s possible to enter and direct a dream. But otherwise, the world is almost identical to ours.

This is an important point. Framing things this way allows an artist to explore an idea in a fascinating way that is also enormously popular. Inception has grossed $300 million in domestic box office alone. That’s because it appeals to a wide audience—not just geeks like me, but also my wife, my mother, to boys and girls and men and women.

Alt-fi is for everyone.

Here are some other examples:

  • Lost. A modern story, real people with richly detailed lives, stranded on a desert island by a plane crash. That’s a classic story archetype. But here, there’s a twist. This island is more than it appears to be…
  • Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. One man doesn’t live linearly, but rather jumps back and forth across the length of his life. But Niffenegger makes the very cool—and audience-friendly—move of focusing not on the technicalities of time travel, but on his relationship with the love of his odd life.
  • Or how about Inglorious Basterds? It’s a fun piece of storytelling on its own, and sure, who doesn’t like to see Nazis clubbed to death. But it’s the ending that gives the film meaning. Tarantino steps into alt-fi by rewriting history and ending World War Two in a stroke.
  • Most vampire novels fit this definition too, although they really comprise their own subgenre. Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE, however, is more alt-fi than it is vampire novel. The “virals” in his book introduce a change to a world we otherwise recognize, and the rest of the novel is an exploration of what happens as a result.
  • Then there’s a book called UNDER THE DOME by some dude named Stephen King. A small town is suddenly surrounded by an invisible force field. This single shift in reality changes all the rules for the people who live there.
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
  • The TV show Heroes.
  • Scott Smith’s THE RUINS.

I think it’s interesting to note that all of these were huge successes. People flocked to them. I don’t think it’s hard to see why. We’re hungry for something new. We always are. Alt-fi feels fresh. It’s a way to explore issues while also entertaining. It promises an adventure, that most elemental clarion call to fiction, for which we are especially hungry in these rather gloomy times.

What do you think?

Read or seen anything that you think fits?

Monday, September 13, 2010

You Still At It?

You can't talk about Chicago crime fiction authors without including David Walker. David has published ten mystery/suspense novels. His first novel, FIXED IN HIS FOLLY, was nominated for an Edgar award, and he's just releasing the 5th entry in his "Wild Onion, Ltd" Series. TOO MANY CLIENTS features a husband and wife investigative team not unlike Nick and Nora Charles. Walker is a life-long Chicagoan. He has been a parish priest in Chicago, an investigator with the Chicago Police Department, and an attorney. He's also the anchor of a writing group, to which both Michael Dymmoch and I belong.

So there I am, ready to launch my tenth novel in the last fifteen years, and bragging to Carl, this friend I run into every few years. “It’s called Too Many Clients,” I say, “the latest in my Wild Onion, Ltd. series.” He stares at me over a forkful of pasta. “You remember,” I say, “the series with Kirsten, a Chicago private eye, and her lawyer husband.” He washes the pasta down with a gulp of Chianti and grins. “Jeez,” he says, “you still at it? That’s great. I think I got both your other books.”

Some things don’t change.

And some do. In fifteen years the publishing world, the crime fiction scene, even sweet home Chicago…they’ve all changed dramatically. But on a personal level…

In 1994, as a kid, literarily speaking, I’d attend MWA meetings at Binyon’s in the Loop with forty or so other crime writers, post- and pre-published, and hear Hugh Holton (cop, author, everyone’s hero; gone too soon) announce the “news”— who got an agent, who got a contract, who’s doing signings, who won an award. These days our news flashes to a hundred times the people…without the drinks, the turtle soup, and the handshakes.

Back then I knew “hardware” from “software,” but wasn’t personally acquainted with either. Still, I managed to finish a manuscript. I queried thirty (yes! I went back and counted) publishing houses, and twenty-two agents. Remember driving to the post office? Waiting for mail delivery? Of your SASE?

I made the Holton news with a contract, and in 1995 with a real book. I had a great launch party, then spent the year speaking and signing in every venue—bookstore, library, barroom, church hall—that would have me, hoping to fill at least one row of those chairs…usually the back row. In 1996, while drying the dishes, I got word of my Edgar nomination. Remember that phone thing, hanging on the kitchen wall?

Off to New York, sans tux; home again, sans Edgar. But with book number two on its way. In fact, six books in six years, then four in the next nine. That’s me, leaving the day job and taking twice as long to get a book out. Did I mention a tough market, with… what?…five major publishers?

But yeah, I’m still at it. And the mantra I’m chanting? Not better, not worse; different.

Oh, and those two books Carl mentioned? Ten years ago I found one I’d inscribed to him, and bought it back…at the church rummage sale.

What about you? Seen any changes? Got any mantras to recommend?

David J. Walker will be signing Too Many Clients on October 2nd at 2:30 pm, at The Bookstall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm Street, Winnetka,
followed by a reception in the courtyard at Avli Estiatorio, 566 Chestnut, Winnetka.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

by David Ellis

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard to say good-bye. Because I always knew the day would come. I always knew it wouldn’t last forever.

You’re ready, I told her, though I wasn’t sure I meant it. But when are you ever? When do you ever know that it’s time to let go?

I’d done everything I could for her. I’d reared her from infancy, challenged and coddled her, criticized her and obsessed over her.

I had hated her and loved her, all at the same time.

Ridiculed her and praised her.

She wasn’t my first and probably won’t be my last. Is she my best? That’s such a difficult thing to say, so subjective. I think the answer is yes but who knows?

The last week was the hardest. We both knew it was coming to an end. I took one last hard look at her. Was she ready for New York? Was she ready for the criticism and scrutiny?

They will try to change you, I told her. They will tell you everything that’s wrong with you. You’ll have to be strong.

It’s been three days now. And already things have changed between us.

Now I hate her. I am convinced she is worthless and incomplete. I am embarrassed by her but I vow that I will do better next time. Next time, yes. Next time will be the one.

When I see her next, she will look so grown up, dressed in her Sunday best, or as they say in the industry, the page proofs. She will look like an actual book for the first time. Everyone else will see the finished product. Only she and I will know the hours and hours of labor, imagination, debate, and obsession that went into her. Only she and I will recall all the molding and fine-tuning and spit-polishing at the end.

Some will compliment her. Some will scorn her. I will love her like only a parent can, observing her success or failure on pins and needles, quick to praise and even quicker to criticize.

And then moving on to my next child …

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Step it Up Chicago

By Laura Caldwell

Yesterday, Richard Daley announced he would not run again for mayor of Chicago. I was on the road, driving from my house on the other side of Lake Michigan back to the city, when his press conference came on the radio. In shock, I almost pulled over. Instead, I listened as the wash of accolades for Mayor Daley came in, along with the flood of potential candidates for his position.

As I neared Chicago and saw the skyline in the distance, I was struck that things that were about to change. Seriously. Say what you want, about Richard Daley but one thing is for sure, when he steps down, the city will be different. Is it possible it will be a better different? A brighter different? A future that is less violent, more optimistic, but still as hard working and determined and generous as the city has always been? Yes. Possible. But it is very clear-things will be different.

I like when these times come up in life—times when you get a red flag that the fairly predictable road you’re travelling is about to take a major curve, only you don’t know where. These are good times to reflect and to appreciate.

So as I drove Lake Shore Drive, I stared at Navy Pier, remembering when it was just a string of carcasses of buildings. Now, yachts line one side, bars and cafes and a Ferris wheel on the other. Daley did that. He also was responsible for Cloud Gate, the sculpture in Millennium Park by Anish Kapoor. I remember when that was under construction, massively under-financed and over-due, and I grumbled along with the rest of the city who said we did not be need to spend bizillions on a reflective, enormous jelly bean. But when it was done, I was stunned. The thing is a beauty, reflecting the whole city behind you no matter where you stand. Daley did that too.

There are so many things Daley, and all the people who work under him, accomplished. And now with his giant shadow fading, we as a city have an opportunity here, one to become even more than we already are. But his are big shoes to fill. So let's go Chicago. Let's step it up.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Facts of Fiction and Facts

By Bryan Gruley

Because I’m a long-time newspaper guy, people often ask me if writing facts is all that different than writing stuff I made up.

Yes, I say. Then I think about it some more and say: maybe not that much.

Some of my smart-ass newspaper sources will insist I’ve been writing fiction for years. But I couldn’t have made up some of the true stories I’ve reported and written: A man strangles a deer with his bare hands. Another guy goes undercover to catch karaoke jockeys who use counterfeit discs.

Writing non-fiction works like this: You assemble a big, lumpy pile of clay out of interviews, documents, observations, and whatever else you can scrounge in however much time you have to report a given story. Then you hack and carve and whittle the pile down to its essentials. What remains is your story.

Writing fiction is no different insofar as you’re also amassing a pile of clay for sculpting. But that mound is constrained only by your imagination and your memory, by everything you’ve ever seen, heard, read, tasted, touched, smelled, dreamed, or just stumbled upon. That can be a pretty big mound. The carving can be a bit more complicated.

In either case, you have to figure out what happened before you can render it properly as a tale. In either case, that’s a journey of discovery, whether you’re wheedling documents out of a reluctant attorney or conjuring the scene of a strip-club magnate expostulating on the meaning of capitalism.

The key difference—at least for me—is in how I take those journeys.

The journalistic one involves shoe-leather reporting, plain and simple. The novelistic one is about sitting down and writing. I do a little traditional research for my novels, but my day job (that journalism thing again) limits my time for it. Most of my “reporting”—the figuring out of what happened—occurs on early mornings with my hands on the keyboard of my laptop.

The months I spend writing the first draft is the equivalent of the weeks I might spend reporting a complex newspaper story. Sometimes I pretend that, instead of imagining what Gus Carpenter did the night his team lost the state hockey championship, I am remembering it.

After that, it’s all about cutting, shifting, adding, revising, trimming, enhancing--my favorite part, actually, because the hard stuff is behind me. I know what happened. I just have to figure out how best to get the reader into the room and keep her there—and that’s no different whether you’re giving people the facts or making them up. Either way, if you do your job well, you might even approach truth. And either way, you'll probably have fun.

I'd love to hear from others what they think about the difference between writing fact or fiction, even if they don't write one or the other.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Does a Series Character Have To Grow?

by Barbara D'Amato

Many years ago, my husband and I were staging a musical. He was the composer/lyricist; I was the writer/lyricist. During the rehearsals, one of the cast members came up to me to complain about her role. [I’m changing the character’s name here, to protect her privacy.] She said, “I don’t know how to play Petunia. She doesn’t grow.”

I didn’t say what I thought, which was that Petunia didn’t need to grow. Petunia was a minor character. But lately I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism about some popular series characters in detective fiction: “She/he doesn’t grow.” As if that meant the series couldn’t be taken seriously. Unrealistic. Not literary enough.

What is “grow” anyway? Must the character start going to AA? Give up smoking? Learn about her inner devils and exorcize them?

There is a contrary opinion, which goes like this. A fan will say, “I like to pick up an XXX book. It’s like meeting an old friend. He’s always the same.”

Part of the problem with growing a character is that readers don’t necessarily read the books in order. They may happen upon the fifth book and then go back and read earlier ones. It can be quite disconcerting to read about a character’s angst over his divorce and then find an earlier book in which he is delighted with the new love of his life. Or--by the time later books in a series come out, earlier ones are unavailable.

Certainly I’ve now and then bought, say, the seventh book in a series I've read and liked, found the character very different, and been unhappy with the change. In real life, people don’t change much. The person who was irritable and quick to anger at twenty is still quick to anger at fifty. The easygoing, cheerful person at thirty is still cheerful, maybe barring serious illness, at sixty. People may learn a bit about themselves, and with luck overcome their worst habits. But I’d be uneasy if my friends changed very much.

I’m not arguing that series characters should never “grow” whatever that means. But when a character remains quite consistent, it’s not right to use “He doesn’t grow” as a stick to beat the author with.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Kids Are Alright...

by Sean Chercover

There comes an age (for me, it happened when I was still using fake I.D. to get into bars) when most of the "new stuff" - the popular art being produced by young folks - just seems like crap. And this unfortunate attitude seems only to deepen over time (the last great rock 'n' roll album was Exile, wasn't it?).

I know, I know. Get off my lawn. Old guy talk, and coming from such a young man as myself...

I admit to going out of my way to sound like a curmudgeon, and yes, I exaggerate, but really, most of the new stuff is pretty lame. And yes, much of the "new stuff" of previous eras was crap, mercifully forgotten over time. But still...

My friends try to help my condition, suggest new stuff to me, and I give it a fair listen, or viewing, or reading. And some of it is very good, although much of the very good new stuff is also derivative of the very good older stuff. I'm okay with derivative - if it's good, I dig it - but I still hanker for something truly new. For some evidence that the next generation is taking us in unexpected and exciting directions.

Well, they are.

First up, Trombone Shorty. Trombone Shorty (real name: Troy Andrews) is an incredible musician from New Orleans, and you must check him out. His first album (recorded at the tender age of 23) is called Backatown.

Visit Trombone Shorty's website, listen to the music you'll find there, and buy his album. You'll thank me later.

Next up, Christian Scott. Also from New Orleans, and only a few years older than Troy Andrews, Christian Scott has already made four stunning albums (including a live album at Newport). He drives purists crazy with his incorporation of rock and hip hop within jazz, but purists are always going crazy (see: Miles, or Dylan going electric, for that matter). Purists can bite me.

Visit Christian Scott's website, listen to the music you'll find there, and buy his albums. You'll thank me later.

It's not just that these guys are fantastic (and young). They're fantastic, and young, and bold - intelligently taking the music in new directions, while honoring what came before.

So now, I ask for your help. Hit me with some of the great "new stuff" - music, novels, movies - that makes you hopeful about the future of popular art.

But here's the thing: I'm looking for "new stuff" created by people under the age of 30.

And here's the other thing: I'm not looking for "pretty good" new stuff. I'm looking for stuff that you will still think is excellent 20 years from now, when it is no longer new.

Thanks for your help.

New VI Novel!

Outfit Emeritus Member Sara Paretsky's new book is out. It's another VI Warshawski novel, and it received a starred review from PW, among others.

Check Sara's website for her tour, and run, don't walk to your nearest indie store to buy it.