What a Coincidence!

9b79cc1eafb91eaee61a2aff4f199fd84348f0548280814346f2c382abbee05fCoincidence is the duct tape of fiction writing. It’s used to fix all kinds of problems in a novel, but although it kind of works, it’s not a pretty fix and readers, like the homeowner who hired a lazy plumber to fix a leak, will not like it. I’m not talking about coincidences that are big reveals that shake up the plot and send the hero for a loop. (“Luke, I’m your father.”) I’m talking about the ones that usually come toward the end of a book to make some plot point make sense. How is it that Mr. Dude knows ancient Sanskrit and can translate the Yoga Killer’s mysterious messages? Well, it turns out that Mr. Dude was the Yoga Killer’s Sanskrit professor back in college. Wait, what? The author introduced Mr. Dude on page 12 and she’s giving me this crucial piece of information on page 393? Twenty pages from the end? Is this perhaps because Ms. Author did not think ahead when she was planning this novel and she found that she needed someone who could translate Sanskrit and this was the best solution she could think of without going through a total rewrite? Is this being lazy? Is it a bit of a cheat? A patch she hopes will get her through to the end of the book and no one will notice? Ha!

OK, I will admit I am as guilty as the next writer of trying to get away with the coincidence fix. Writing a book is a Sisyphean task. You push the rock up the mountain day after day for many days, weeks, months, even years. You ache to get to the top. Then finally you get there. You think you’re finished. It’s done. It’s perfect. Except there are one or two or three little things that need to be explained. No problem. Just patch it up with a coincidence. Don’t get into too much detail. Maybe no one will notice. Readers will forgive you and keep reading. Ha!

Readers do not forgive. When I read someone else’s work, I do not forgive. Not when it comes to coincidence. This is probably why I prefer thrillers to mysteries. We’ve  all probably read badly constructed mysteries where a coincidence inserted late in the book explains why the hero knows who the killer is. I cry foul. Yes, coincidences can happen in real life, but if the author can pull rabbits out of his hat, and in his fictional world anything can happen, I lose interest. I guess that’s why I don’t care much for most science fiction. If anything can happen, where’s the tension? It’s restrictions that create drama. (Vampires, sunlight, crosses, garlic, mirrors–get it?) Also, coincidences can make the protagonist passive, and there’s nothing more boring that a hero who lets things happen instead of making them happen.

Authors invite readers to come into their fictional worlds and share the story. The author gives the reader information in order to become invested in the characters and what’s at stake. In most cases (the Unreliable Narrator being the notable exception),  the reader should feel that he or she knows as much about the story as anyone. But a quick-fix coincidence tells the reader that he doesn’t know everything, that he’s ignorant of the true nature of things. The reader then feels betrayed. The author has been holding out on him. Groans, grumbles, and book hurling ensue. (Listen to the angry clicks of computer keys as the reader bangs out a negative online review.)

But you say you like complicated plots with lots of twists and turns and surprises. That’s what you want to write, you say. Fine, no probs. The solution is simple. Put that coincidence information early in the book and present it as fact, not coincidence. Mr. Dude, among other things, was a professor of Sanskrit once upon a time. Undoubtedly this will require a rewrite. Yes, another slog up the mountain with the boulder in front of you. But it will keep readers from throwing your book against the wall and giving it one star on Amazon. Otherwise it won’t be a coincidence when your publisher declines to take your next book.

The 99% (Writers Division)

1350845502845114I’m having trouble figuring out where I fit in these days. In years past I’d get a modest contract from a book publisher and more or less live off that money. I’d pay for things, like CDs, cable tv, hotel rooms, and cabs. But today decent book advances are hard to come by, and like many people I find myself searching for more economical alternatives to the things I used to  buy routinely. When I travel, I rent apartments from individuals through Airbnb. I’ve “cut the cable” and get all my televised entertainment via the Internet through my Roku box and Chromecast connection. I occasionally buy music online from iTunes, but more often than not I just stream it for free via Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes Radio. I think all these alternative services are great–they cost less, are sometimes free, and offer a lot of variety.

Books have undergone a similar transformation. Ebooks are generally cheaper and often free. The ease of self-publishing and the rise of do-it-yourself marketing has made $2.99 the new line in the sand. Many readers won’t spend any more and would prefer to pay less or nothing at all. Everyone can publish a book, and it seems like almost everyone does. There’s an ocean of content to choose from, and much of it is cheaper than what I’m offering. And herein lies my dilemma. While I want to buy my goodies cheap, I really wish readers would buy my books, which aren’t always the cheapest ones out there.

It seems that we writers, as both producers and consumers, are caught in a downward spiral. We earn less, so we seek out ways to pay less for what we want. Peer-to-peer commerce, the Internet, and social media have made this all possible. But where will it all lead? Will Uber drive traditional cab companies out of business? Will the hotel chains take a major hit from Airbnb, laying off thousands of employees? With so much free music online, will anyone ever discover a new band and actually pay for their songs? How long can a band without paying fans stay together?

Same deal with writers. Why pay $25 for a hardcover or $9.99 for a new ebook when you can get other books for free or for 99 cents? Sure, some will argue that it’s a matter of quality. A book that goes through the traditional publishing process–groomed by an agent, selected by a discerning editor, edited by a good copyeditor, packaged attractively–is a higher quality product. But as we all know that isn’t always the case. The Big Five publishers all put out stinkers and not just once in a while. These books are marketed to look like winners, but ultimately they disappoint and often infuriate.

So the way I see it, here’s where we are: Big Publishing maintains the 1%–those authors who have become household names (or have been anointed by household names–yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Colbert). (And just to be clear, I’m not saying that the 1% are lighting Cohibas with hundred dollar bills–traditional publishing contracts have a way of keeping profits out of the hands of the writer. But that’s a topic for another time.) The 99% consists of mid-list authors (often writers  sidelined because they have disappointed their publishers in the past), writers trying to break into the business, wannabes who might not have the chops yet and aren’t getting the kind of direction they need to get any better, and frankly people who have no business putting their dubious content on the market in the first place. The long tail has gotten so long it’s strangling all of us.

So what’s a writer to do? Write the best book you can possibly write. Yes, of course. That’s always been the best advice, but is that enough? Self-promotion is essential, and if you can’t afford to pay a publicist thousands of dollars a month to do it for you, you have to do it yourself, and that means establishing your brand on social media. Post frequently on Facebook, tweet like George Takei, post pics of your favorite everything on Pinterest, make clever little Vine videos, maintain a website, tell the world every day where you’ll be, share you opinions in your blog posts (as I’m doing right now). But this is all very time consuming. When are you supposed to have time to write that wonderful book?

Now I know there are writers who do all this and do it successfully. They expand their fan base and presumably sell more books. But having followed several mystery and true-crime writers online, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re mainly talking to each other. Just because someone has liked your page or skimmed through a post, does that make that persona a dedicated fan who will reliably shell out for your latest book? I doubt it. I’ve “liked” many Facebook pages on a whim or because I was in a good mood and then never returned to those pages, let alone considered buying what those people are offering, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

So what’s the solution? I have no answer. Maybe a real economist/social scientist could enlighten me. (Paul Krugman? Nate Silver? Freakonomics guys? Anyone?) Perhaps what the 99% writers are experiencing is a wrenching transitional phase. Big Publishing will continue to create and promote a 1% just as the music biz does with the dependable familiars, like Springsteen, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift. The rest have to persevere, keep creating, keep pushing, seize opportunities when they show up, and hope for a little luck to strike. That’s the optimist in me talking. The pessimist says the game has changed drastically, and legions of amateurs are lumbering over the scorched landscape like zombies. Maybe it’s time to rent out the couch and start offering rides in my car.

 

2 Words I Hate

frustrated-writerOK, hate might be putting it a little too strongly, but there are two words that really bug me when I’m writing: Now and Suddenly. I use them all the time in first drafts, and without fail I end up deleting them. They’re annoying. They make me cringe when I find that I’ve used them. Why? Because if the sentence/paragraph/page was written well in the first place, these words shouldn’t be necessary. Their presence tells me I’ve failed. The words that surround them cry out to be rewritten. I beat myself up. I have to do better.

The problem with “suddenly” is pretty obvious. We see it in bad writing all the time. The writer wants to convey quick action, excitement, surprise. “She opened the door, and the vacant eye of a .357 was suddenly staring her in the face.” It’s a cheap fix. A glop of Spackle smeared on the page. The content of the sentence and what leads up to it should provide the surprise, not the adverb. (The late, great Elmore Leonard advised writers to eliminate all adverbs.) A good writer will shape the way he or she phrases things to startle the reader. Short sentences and partial sentences work well in action scenes. Cut out every word that isn’t absolutely necessary, and trust the reader to imagine the scene the way you intend it. Pare down the details. Give just enough to suggest the larger scene. Readers are smart, and smart people get impatient with overloaded prose. Don’t bog them down with too much description and too many words, then try to make the writing cinematic with a “suddenly.” Doesn’t work.

“Now” is another cheat I find myself using whenever I’ve muddled time and tense. It’s a red flag telling me that I need to rewrite, correct, and clarify, so I guess in that sense it is a useful word, sort of like a stop sign (as in stop writing so badly). Whenever I read over something I’ve written, “now” invariably rattles me, like hearing the wrong note in a musical scale or a driving over pot hole. The only time I will spare “now” from the chopping block is when it’s used to differentiate times (now and later) or for emphasis in dialogue (“Shoot that mofo now!”). Otherwise I just cut it.

Which reminds me of another problematic word: Just. I use it too much. It sometimes works in dialogue (“Just leave me along, will ya?”), but in narrative it often feels unnecessary because it usually adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Unless I’m just trying to give it a colloquial feel.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and I don’t mean to be dogmatic about my pet peeves. I mean, suppose I had written this: “Just when I thought I had time to finish this blog, I suddenly realized I had to be somewhere right now.” I might leave that one as is because it says exactly what I want it to say and sounds the way I want it to sound. As you can see, writing is not a science.

Boob Tube No More

luther

Back in the 1960s, the phrase “Made in Japan” generally meant that a product was cheap, poorly made, and unreliable. A few decades later companies like Toyota, Honda, Sony, and Panasonic turned that on its head. Japanese products became synonymous with quality and value. Similarly, there was once a time when any type of entertainment made for television was automatically considered inferior, mindless, and second-rate. TV was dubbed the “boob tube,” and some people snobbishly bragged that they didn’t even own a television set, or if they did, they only watched educational programs on PBS. I had some relatives who kept a tiny portable in the closet and only brought it out for “worthwhile” broadcasts.

Well, times have changed. While Hollywood feature films try to lure the lucrative teenage male audience with super heroes and eye-popping CGI spectacles, many television series are taking chances, appealing to a more mature audience and producing some pretty good shows. This is particularly true in the mystery and thriller categories. There are so many entertaining shows out there I can hardly keep up. And we crime writers had better keep up. Our competition isn’t just on the printed page (or digital screen, depending on your reading preference). Crime fans have only so much time to satisfy their craving for good stories, and the opportunity to binge on a new TV series can keep people from reading books. And even though I write books (as well as screenplays), I find myself watching a lot of TV these days, and really enjoying it. But I’m also scoping out the competition.

Take the BBC series Luther, for instance, starring Idris Elba. He’s a London police detective with issues. He’s brilliant and self-destructive, and the scripts are very smart. There’s a seductive serial killer, played wonderfully by Ruth Wilson, who keeps Luther on her speed-dial. When I write, I have to ask myself if my protagonist is as interesting and complex as Luther.

Speaking of the BBC, their remakes of some of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales in Sherlock are absolutely terrific. Who would have thought that old bag of bones still had any life in him? But Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the great detective is inspired, the best since Basil Rathbone in the 1940s. The stories are updated and re-imagined, but stay true to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s originals. It’s bad enough that authors have to compete with one another, but now we have to face off with the father of all modern fictional sleuths, all dressed up in new duds, armed with a smart phone, and streaming on our TV sets.

Breaking Bad broke new ground in crime drama. The whole concept of taking an average Joe and watching him transform over the course of five seasons from hero to villain was a remarkable achievement. How can any of us create a drug dealer anymore without thinking of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White? Like Tony Soprano, he looms large and cannot be ignored.

rust_cohleLawmen chasing down bad guys and facing evil is our bread and butter. HBO’s True Detective put a new spin on the ball with the two Louisiana detectives played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. It’s not unusual for detectives to be battling inner demons, but McConaughey’s demons are cosmic while Harrelson’s are all too human. And then there’s Raylan Givens in Justified. As played by Timothy Olyphant, Givens has good pedigree, based on a character created by the great Elmore Leonard. But I tip my hat to the creators of the TV show who have kept Givens going strong for five seasons and counting. He’s sly and sexy, and he’s got it together. I’d sacrifice a limb to create a character with that kind of staying power.

And let’s not forget the law-women. Belfast Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson in The Fall is hard-nosed, unsentimental, and sometimes shocking in her behavior, but as played by Gillian Anderson, she’s fascinating. This character has expanded the bounds of acceptable behavior for a protagonist.

In Top of the Lake, creator Jane Campion has taken the police procedural to an unfamiliar locale, rural New Zealand, where Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, has to navigate treacherous waters stocked with violent locals, dogmatic cult members, and sexist colleagues to get to the bottom of the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.

The female protagonists of The Bletchley Circle were skilled code-breakers during World War II, but with the war over, they’re itching to use their considerable intellectual abilities at a time when society wants women to go back to traditional subservient roles. They band together to track down a serial killer targeting women on trains in and around London. And they do it without computers or cell phones.

The women in Orange Is the New Black don’t take any crap. It’s an after-the-crime dramedy about an upper middle-class woman coping with life in a women’s correctional facility. The show is funny, perceptive, and on the money, maybe the best of the new shows I’ve watched in the last year. The next time I create a woman with a criminal past I’ll be thinking about these characters and working hard to make mine just as compelling.

keri-russell-the-americans-sliceThe Americans gets my vote for the cleverest setup–a family of KGB sleeper agents in the United States in the 1980s. Remarkably the creators have made these characters sympathetic even though they’re the enemy. Their personal stories are touching and as riveting as the details of spy craft. And there’s considerable action, especially from the kickass Soviet spy played by Keri Russell.

Another clever premise drives the action in The Following in which Kevin Bacon’s retired FBI agent matches wits with a diabolical serial killer who’s worshipped by a legion of acolyte killers. In this show anyone could be a murderer, and the twists keep you on your toes. The days of cops chasing down simple bad guys are over. High concept is sky high on TV, and crime novelists have to keep up or be relegated to the distant outer reaches of the Amazon rankings.

I’m in the middle of writing the first book of what I hope will be a new crime series. It features an ex-cop private eye who I hope is unique enough to stand out from the pack. But as I write, I keep looking over my shoulder–not only at the great crime novels out there but also the great crime TV shows. The competition is daunting, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. These shows are just too good.

You Can Make This Stuff Up

swisscheeseI’m always on the lookout for juicy crime stories that will inspire new fiction ideas–“ripped from the headlines” as they say on Law and Order. Some of my best characters have been modeled on real-life criminals. A newspaper article about a drug bust, a mob shakedown, or a road-rage incident might contain an interesting detail that will take seed in my imagination. If I’m lucky, that seed will grow and become a novel. It has happened, though to be honest most of these seeds don’t germinate.

Recently I came across a story in the local paper about the “Swiss Cheese Pervert,” a man who allegedly exposed himself to women and asked them to pleasure him with sliced cheese. There are a lot of flashers out there, but how many of them have a fromage fetish? It got me thinking: How can I use this? The great Elmore Leonard might have had a comedic field day with this one. Maybe I could do the same.

But the more I thought about, the less appealing this idea became. Yes, the cheese part is funny, but what he did with it isn’t funny at all. Who wants to read about a sexual predator in a comedic context? I’ve never shied away from difficult subjects, but some elements just don’t mix.

Last night I happened to be watching A Young Doctor’s Notebook, a British TV series starring Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, about a young doctor in the Russian hinterland around the time of the revolution. In one episode the very inexperienced doctor is trying to amputate the legs of an unconscious little girl. We see him making a mess of it, blood and gore everywhere, but incredibly they play it for laughs. And just when you think the scene is over, they keep it going. More blood, and more blithering incompetence. It didn’t work. I came  close to turning it off, and probably won’t be watching any more episodes. It’s not that I’m turned off by graphic depictions of surgery. It’s how it’s presented. A normal human being will not find mirth in an 8-year-old losing her legs. This show is based on a real doctor’s memoirs, and I assume this incident–or some version of it–really happened. But just because it happened doesn’t make it fodder for entertainment. Handled differently this material could have been powerful, but the way it was presented was lame and off-putting.

Everything I read in the paper is not grist for my writing mill. Some things are better left alone if they can’t be presented effectively. The Swiss Cheese Pervert is a perfect example. Put him in a novel as a funny character and he falls flat because he preys on women. Make him a tortured character in a dramatic presentation, and he falls flat again because his fetish is so ridiculous. Sorry, Cheese Man, I don’t think New York or Hollywood will be knocking on your door.

Authors, trumped by reality, ruefully shake their heads and say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But you can make this stuff up and you should. Writers have to create situations that make their readers laugh, cry, and identify with the characters. They have to mold reality and recast it for maximum emotional impact. You can’t hack off a kid’s legs and expect your readers to giggle. It just doesn’t work that way.

Amanda, Antonia, Adrienne, Jeanette, and Robert

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Last week while I was snowed in again (our 11th storm of the season here in Philly, but who’s counting), I did what many house-bound people do under these circumstances. I cleaned out my file cabinet. I came across some interesting stuff I hadn’t thought about in years, including contracts for my first few books. It got me to thinking about the path I took to become a writer and how those early books–all of them genre fiction–were an essential first step.

In college as an undergrad at Boston University, I was lucky enough to be admitted into graduate writing courses, studying with Donald Barthelme and Dan Wakefield. I learned a lot about how to construct an artful sentence and structure a paragraph, but I didn’t learn how to write a book–not a book that any publisher would want to acquire and put in bookstores.

I picked up that skill writing genre fiction, specifically teen romances. (It would be a while before my trademark hard-boiled thrillers would enter the picture.) After working for two small book publishing companies that went out of business one after the other, I started freelance editing. One day an agent I knew called and asked if I’d be interested in writing a teen romance for a book packager who had a contract to produce a series for a major paperback house. The agent told me I’d have to use a female pseudonym and asked if I’d have a problem with that. I looked at the balance in my checkbook and quickly told her I’d have no problem at all.

I wrote teen romances under the names “Adrienne Marceau,” “Jeanette Nobile,” and “Amanda Brownfield.” I wrote a teen vampire book as “Robert Brunn. (This was in 1982. Stephanie Meyers was 11 years old. Yeah, timing.) My wife and I wrote adult romances as “Antonia Saxon.” I then moved on to action/adventure, writing a few titles for an on-going series about a tough-as-nails Jack Reacher type. (I know, I know, timing.)

Writing these books was my real-world writing school. It taught me a lot, not just about writing, but writing for a publisher and for real readers. It was valuable experience, and it led to a career. After writing under many pseudonyms and ghosting a few books for other authors, I decided to try to write a paperback thriller under my own name. I had low expectations, but I got a top-notch agent (who by the way still represents me) to handle the book, and he thought enough of it to pitch it to some big-league publishers. To my delight and amazement, Putnam’s bought it and published it in hardcover. That book was Bad Guys, which became the first in a long-running series. (Diversion Books has just brought it out again as an ebook. If you hurry, you can get it for free on Amazon and Barnes&Noble.)

All the books I wrote before Bad Guys are now long out-of-print. Flipping through them now, I’m surprised to see that some were actually pretty good. But the best thing about writing them was that they taught me how to be an author. University writing programs can be excellent, depending on the teacher, but there’s a lot to be said for on-the-job training.

 

Still Missing

murphy_liza2I hear about real-life cold cases all the time, murders and disappearances that go unsolved for years. These cases are tragic for the loved ones of the victims and maddening for the investigators who can’t get to the bottom of what happened to the person. One case was recently brought to my attention, the disappearance of Liza Murphy, a middle-aged mother of three, from suburban Emerson, New Jersey.

Liza was last seen August 19, 2007, and by all indications she did not abandon her family by choice. She and her husband had a rocky relationship, to put it mildly. Days after she disappeared, he threw himself in front of a speeding fire truck to commit suicide, but he survived and recovered from his injuries. He then stopped cooperating with police efforts to locate his wife. Investigators believe that in all likelihood Liza is now deceased, but the circumstances of her death remain a mystery.

Take a look at the details of her case, http://www.charleyproject.org/cases/m/murphy_liza.html, particularly if you were in the Bergen County, New Jersey, area in the summer of 2007. If you know anything that you think might help with this investigation, please contact invesdet122@gmail.com. Thanks.