Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tarting Up the Classics

By Hilary Davidson

Back in high school, when I read Jules Verne's classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I remember thinking, "This book would be perfect if only Jules had added some Fifty Shades of Grey-style sex!" And now, a British press called Total-E-Bound Publishing has done it, launching a new imprint called Clandestine Classics. Thanks to Mr. Verne's new coauthor, Marie Sexton, there's a "sexy and temperamental harpooner" aboard to mix things up. Ahoy, matey!

Truth be told, it hurts my head to imagine classic novels being used — and abused — like this. I love it when someone reinterprets a classic novel in a fresh way — or even a twisted way — in film or theater.  But the concept of having a new writer hack apart the original book, insert some sex scenes, and stitch the whole thing together feels like a literary Frankenstein monster. (What do you want to bet that Total-E-Bound Publishing has Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on deck next? Because what that book lacks is a solid monster-on-scientist spanking scene.)

According to the founder of Total-E-Bound Publishing, Claire Siemaszkiewicz, "We're not rewriting the classics. We're keeping the original prose and the author's voice. We're not changing any of that. But we want to enhance the novels by adding the 'missing' scenes for readers to enjoy."

Enhance? Enjoy? There are fine examples of writers taking works created by another author and doing something wonderful with them. Robert B. Parker took four chapters of an unfinished novel by Raymond Chandler and created a book, Poodle Springs, with them. More recently, Ace Atkins wrote an original novel based on Robert B. Parker's own immortal detective, Spenser. Hell, I'm still planning to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But the idea of a publisher pawing at classic books, tarting them up and making them turn tricks, is downright creepy. Trading all of the sexual tension in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice for a "sexy and temperamental harpooner" is as unsexy as it gets.

*          *          *

Huge, heartfelt congrats to two friends with new novels that are out today: Megan Abbott with Dare Me and Sean Chercover with The Trinity Game. Both books belong at the top of your must-read list!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fifty Shades of Wrong

By Reece Hirsch

British e-publisher Clandestine Classics recently announced that it will be issuing sexed-up versions of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and the Sherlock Holmes stories, hoping to capture some of the readers who have made E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy a mega-seller.  There is so much wrong with this concept that I don’t know where to begin.  Does anyone want to see Watson’s man-love for Holmes portrayed as explicit scenes of, well, man-love with Holmes?

There is a note on the Clandestine Classics website that reads:  “You pay only for the words our authors have added NOT for the original content.”  What a relief to know that if this money-grabbing scheme works, the estates of those great authors will not benefit.  If this is supposed to make me like you, Clandestine Classics, it’s definitely not working.

I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey so I will resist the temptation to bash it (even though, from everything that I have heard about it, it appears to be eminently bashable).  But anyone who thinks that the E.L. James phenomenon will usher in a new era of popular erotic fiction is likely to be, well, unsatisfied, because it’s some kind of minor miracle when the term erotic fiction isn’t an oxymoron.

There is a reason why explicit scenes aren’t found in many great books, and it’s not just deference to the sexual attitudes of a time – it’s a matter of craft.  The sex scene has been the undoing of even some brilliant writers (John Updike’s queasily clinical approach comes to mind).   And after perusing some truly appalling excerpts from the new versions of Jane Eyre and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I can confirm that the writers involved in perpetrating the new Clandestine Classics are not aspiring to the mandarin prose of Updike.

One of the few examples of an effective erotic scene that I can think of is the library sex scene between Robbie and Celia in Ian McEuen’s Atonement.  And even that walks (I was going to say straddles) a very fine line between the evocative and the cringe-inducing.

I think that Barbara Kingsolver got it just about right with her sex scene in Animal Dreams, which says it all in just four words.  The narrator decides that if the man she is with has a condom in his pocket, then it’s her lucky day.

“He did,” she writes.  “It was.”

Friday, July 27, 2012

Chasin' the Q

by Gp

Stephen King in the November 2011 issue of Wired magazine was interviewed about time travel in a piece called “The Time Keeper.”  The Grand Master of sci-fi and horror opined that if you’re going to go back in time, preparation is everything.  The further back you go, the more the complications set in the author of 11/22/63 noted.  His book as I’m sure you know is a time travel novel revolving around the Kennedy assassination.  Sharon Fallon, the interviewer stated a truism of time travel stories, “The more the potential a given event has to change the future, the more difficult that event would be to change.”
Now all I want to do in preparation of the Criminal Minds summer potluck is go back eleven years ago to my old South Central neighborhood to Gadberry’s Bar-B-Que - the greatest emporium of West Texas Q in Los Angeles there ever was.  The joint was sandwiched between a VFW hall and the Shell gas station.  I grew up eating Gadberry’s.  For years after I moved out of the old neighborhood, I’d make a semi-regular trek back to get some links, sliced beef (brisket they call it in other parts of the country) ribs of course and even their heavenly smoked chicken – the meat literally melting off the bone. 
And then the horror.  About ten years ago I was in the ‘hood on another matter and seeing it was around lunch time, I swung by Gadberry’s.  Like in a King novel, my jaw went slack at the sight of the closed-up restaurant.  No, maybe I wasn’t seeing right.  I parked, got out of the car and like a somnambulant staggered up tot eh door only to confirm my worst fears…Gadberry’s was no more. I nearly cried I tell ya. 
How good was Gadberry’s?  Words fail but here’s what a cat I know, Pulitzer-Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold wrote about Gadberry’s in his February 7, 1991 column, Counter Intelligence, entitled “Smokin’!” in the L.A. Times:
“The front inside wall of Gadberry's is the most amazing thing, a life-size, pale-green plaster frieze of a forest scene that includes finely wrought 3-D leaves, singing birds, and a textured brown tree trunk that extends down to include most of an employee's entrance. The sylvan effect is almost enough to make you forget that you are in fact standing in a bare, harshly lit lobby, the only furniture a couple of ashtrays, the tile floor scrubbed clean, in a part of town not known for trees at all. That wall is kind of the Ghiberti doors of early-'50s barbecue kitsch. (The Bear Pit, a mediocre Ozark-style barbecue joint in Mission Hills, is barbecue's Sistine Chapel.) Customers pace back and forth as if they were expectant fathers outside a maternity ward. Anticipation of great spareribs can make a person feel that way. Gadberry's has been in business since 1953.”
I’m heading out to Lowe’s now for some parts I need to finish my time machine.  What possible complications could transpire just picking up some Q?  Surely the universe wouldn’t hinge on whether I got more links versus ribs for the potluck…could it?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Killer Dish

by Alan

What am I bringing to the Criminal Minds Summer Pot Luck Party?

Fellow bloggers, you’re in for a tasty treat.

Being a crime writer, I immediately thought of bringing “mystery” meat. Or maybe a rare, bloody steak. But I don’t really eat much meat, so I think I’ll bring a vegetarian dish.

Of my own creation.

Here’s the recipe, for those of you who won’t be able to make the Pot Luck Party:



One small onion, dicedtofu artists rendering
One pound block of extra firm tofu, diced
Half pound of frozen corn kernels, give or take.
Green or red pepper, diced, optional
A few tablespoons chopped or minced garlic. Or not.

BBQ sauce
Hot sauce

Heat 2 Tbs oil in wok or large skillet. Stir-fry onion (and pepper, if you’re using it) on high heat for about 2 minutes. Add tofu, and stir-fry another minute. Add corn. Dump in mustard, ketchup, BBQ sauce, and hot sauce, to taste, stirring well. Cook until everything’s nice and hot, about 5 more minutes.

Serve over rice or noodles. If the thought of eating a vegetarian meal unnerves you, toss in some leftover cooked chicken or shrimp.

The best thing about this dish? Not everybody likes tofu, so there’s more for me!

See you at the party! And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Smoked Herring

by Tracy

Before I share what I will be bringing to the 7 Criminal Minds annual pot luck picnic, I need to tell you about last year’s event.

It was a lovely day. The sun was shining. Birds were chirping. The ladies were elegant in their oversized hats. The men were dapper in their linen pants. (I heard that. No, it was not 1920, and besides it’s very rude to openly scoff at the dress code of another’s imaginary annual picnic.)

Anyway. It was a lovely day. Until he showed up.

I knew from the moment that I saw him that he was trouble. His lips were pulled back in a perpetual sneer, and he surveyed us with palpable contempt. (And no, it wasn’t because of our outfits. Seriously. Let it go.)

As he wandered among us, he made sure that he said something to each of us. Something cruel and personal. We soon realized that while he was a stranger to us, we were not strangers to him. He knew our names, our lives, our secrets. He was playing a game with us, but we didn’t know the rules.

When he got to me, he leaned in close (well, as close as he could given he extraordinary size of my hat. Honestly, that hat was gorgeous.) In a voice laced with scorn he said, “Jane Austen was nothing more than a dried up spinster hack. I see why you like her.”

Before I knew what I was doing, I had flung my glass of homemade sangria (my humble offering for the event) into his face. His eyes widened with surprise, and he staggered back coughing. “Get out,” I hissed at him. “Leave.”

Surprisingly, he said nothing. Still coughing, he backed away from me towards the refreshment table. As I glanced down at my empty glass, I noticed that my dress was now stained red from the sangria. When I looked back up, the man was nowhere to be seen.

I tell you this because apparently it was considered highly suspicious to the police after they found the man dead next to the punch bowl filled with my sangria. It appeared he drowned in it.

Of course, later it was revealed that my splash of sangria had triggered coughing fit, which then triggered a fatal asthma attack. I was quite relieved because I did not like the way the chief of police was looking at me. (And no, it wasn’t because of my damn hat!)

Anyway, I tell you all this so you understand why I am not brining my sangria -as delightful as it is - to this year’s picnic.

Instead, I have decided to bring something much less harmful.

Smoked red herring.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Blueberry Pudding Cake

I am so ready for the 7 Criminal Minds first annual potluck.  My only problem will be deciding what to bring from my vast repertoire of desserts.

First, some background. I have recently fallen in with a fabulous group of women of a certain age in the area in which I live.  I tend to be a somewhat shy and retiring person (really, in real life I am) and although I've lived here for four years, I hadn't met many people. Then a friend from the old days moved nearly and she, being the opposite of shy and retiring, began meeting people.  So she suggested I come along to the pot luck dinner party she was attending.  I did, and had a great time.  In fact, everyone had such a great time that we decided it had to be a monthly event. 

I love to bake, but doing a lot of baking wouldn’t do my waistline any favours.  So I try to bake something special to bring to the party. This time of year I’m keen to use berries plucked straight off the local bushes.  By coincidence, tonight is our July party and I’ll be bringing what I modestly refer to as my “World Famous Blueberry Pudding Cake.”

I’ll make two batches, and one can do us for the 7 Criminal Minds Pot Luck. 

Vicki Delany’s Blueberry Pudding Cake

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp cornstarch
2 cups fresh blueberries
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 375. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. (I have a silicone baking pan which works just great and no need for buttering.) 

Stir together 1/3 cup sugar, water, lemon juice, cornstarch in small saucepan over low heat. Stir in blueberries. 

Simmer, stirring occasionally for 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, 1/2 cup sugar in a medium bowl. Whisk together egg, milk, melted butter, vanilla in a large bowl, then add flour mixture, whisking until just combined. 

Spoon batter into baking pan, spreading evenly, then pour blueberry mixture evenly over batter.

Bake about 25 to 30 minutes.

I'd love to know what's your favourite pot luck dish.  Include a link to the recipe if you have one.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Time Deadlines Suck

It seems there is a Criminal Minds summer pot luck coming up and my fellow bloggers want to know what I'm bringing.

How about my laptop?

As long as I have been published, I've had a deadline at the end of the summer. This summer - 2012 - is no different.  My 8th Odelia Grey novel is due at the end of September.  I'm not very far along on it either. In fact, I have 71 days to get my big ole butt in gear and produce a full, clean, and entertaining book.  Count 'em - 71.  Half way through those days, Hide and Snoop, my 7th Odelia, will be released, and I am booked solid with book signings.

Glen Ivy - Doesn't this look like I'm working?
 So what's a girl to do?  I ask you - What would any girl do? This past Saturday I spent the entire day at Glen Ivy  enjoying mineral pools and mud baths, and being catered to by charming cabana boys who brought me and a friend fresh fruit, drinks, and lunch. Upon returning home, I was too relaxed and exhausted from the sun to work on anything but sleep.

Before you cast judgment, and start giving me schoolmarm pursed lips, remember, all work and no play makes Sue Ann a dull girl, not to mention slightly nuts and bitchy.

And it's not like I've frittered away the beginning of the summer. I turned a novella into one publisher at the end of June, and took a week off from the day job to research another book that is due shortly after the first of the year. (Okay, I admit, I did also squeeze in a bit of vacation during that week.)  And I also set my schedule for the rest of the year. Just yesterday I realized, with quite a start, that in the next 14 months, I have one novella and three novels due to two different publishers. At least one of those novels is started.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work.  Oh, and you other Criminal Minds - just put me down for potato salad, purchased from a local caterer. I'll have them deliver it. That'll work, won't it?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Slow down and enjoy the heat

by Meredith Cole

Southerners get a lot of grief from the rest of the country. People make fun of our accents, our culture, the way we cling to history. We have a rep for being lazy and eating a lot of fried foods.

Fine. We have our flaws, but Southerners know how to do summer right. Instead of rushing around trying to accomplish a million things, we slow down. We’re not lazy, we’re just conserving our energy. After a long siesta, we’ll get moving again once the sun goes down. We hang out on porches and patios sipping cool drinks and chatting with the neighbors.

Our most frequent greeting this time of year is “hot enough for you?” It sounds like a dare, but it’s really an acknowledgement of our inability to control the weather. With global warming, the rest of the country has a lot it can learn from the South.

So you might guess that I have a few summer indulgences. You would be right.
  1. Live life with a different rhythm. I like to vary it up in the summer. Some days I sleep late, and stay up later. Or I get up really early to go running. I like to spend some time in the afternoon lying down reading a book when it’s too hot to do anything else. Or go to the pool in the evening with my family and let everyone just eat pizza and ice cream for dinner.
  2. Go away for the weekend. We go away at least every other weekend in the summer to the mountains or to the beach. When you’re not in your house, you’re forced to relax and just be. I always end up having lots of new ideas when I go away, and write long involved journal entries. I come back home feeling refreshed and energized.
  3. Swim. Pool, Ocean, Lake or River--I love them all. I love to swim and I love to be next to or in water in the summertime. I swim indoors in the winter, but it’s not the same as floating on my back and watching the clouds go by.
  4. Garden. It's important to get outside in the summertime, and I love digging in the dirt and coaxing plants to grow. We spend lots of energy on our garden and eat up the few tomatoes, blueberries, etc., that we get. Each flower that blooms on a plant in my yard feels like a triumph. In the winter I can dream about how it will look, but in the summer I can make it happen.

My fellow Virginians love their seasons. I admit to longing for sweater weather sometime in mid-August, and for shorts and T-Shirt weather in February—but most of the time I just try to enjoy the season I’m in. It’s over 100 degrees, so it’s the perfect day to slow down and enjoy the heat while it lasts. And go swimming, of course.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summertime Rolls

by Chris F. Holm

Ah, summer: those lazy, hazy, sticky days when those as pink-complected as me wonder just what the eff their ancestors were thinking leaving those cool, fog-draped moors in the first place. I confess, I'm partial to autumn myself, but I'll reluctantly admit that summer has its charms. So allow me to present to you my Hastily Transcribed, Entirely Ad-Libbed, and Quite Possibly Made-Up List of Top Ten Summer Indulgences:

1. Lobster Rolls
Yup: lobster ain't just for the tourists. But we who live in Maine year-round (I won't dare call myself a Mainer, seeing as how I'm From Away) are far too lazy for the bib-and-crappy-plastic-plier-thingies routine. So nine times out of ten, we go for the lobster roll. Succulent claw and tail meat tossed with mayo and herbs (or, according to some, butter) and mounded high atop a buttered, toasted frankfurter roll... mmmmmm.

2. Flip-Flops
Shoes suck. Enough said. 

3. Cold Drinks on a Warm Deck
Beer, cocktails, or wine, it's all the same to me. Whether I'm on my front porch with a view of our sun-dappled street, or a waterfront bar looking out at the icy Atlantic, I really can't go wrong.

4. Ocean Breezes
One of the great delights of living on the coast is blowing raspberries at the poor saps living inland of you every time you happen to catch a weather report. Five miles inland, it's usually sweltering, but the coast's always a few degrees cooler. (Can a breeze be an indulgence? Who cares? I've got a list to pad!)

5. Daylight
During winters in Maine, circadian rhythms can be a bitch. The sun goes down, and so do my energy levels. But when the sun rises just after five and doesn't set till nearly nine, I've got ample juice to get through my day. Suddenly, cramming in the day job and a run and a little strumming of the guitar and then some dinner followed by writing doesn't seem quite so untenable a schedule. Heck, every now and again, I manage to cram in a little...

6. Cheesy Summer Programming
White Collar. Covert Affairs. Psych. Burn Notice (at least until it started sucking.) The late, lamented Eureka. Summertime is rife with breezy genre fare, and I happily gobble up as much of it as I can. Man cannot live on The Wire alone.

7. Blowing Off Blogging Obligations Because I Feel Like It
See what I did there? Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna soak up as much of 1-6 as I can while they're still around...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summer Thrills

By Hilary Davidson

My confession: I hate summer. I have a vague memory of enjoying it when I lived in Toronto, but in the decade since I moved to New York, it's become my least favorite season. My lack of affection for it is based partly on the sticky unpleasantness of heat and humidity in the concrete jungle. It's also because summer is invariably a crazy time for me. I spend most of it chained to my desk, and when I venture outside, I wish I were still chained to my desk.

That said, there is one highlight: Thrillerfest, the conference of the International Thriller Writers, which takes place in New York every July. While there's plenty going for the conference, the very best thing about it is that it brings so many wonderful people to town. This year, that list included Meg Gardiner, Sean Chercover, Dennis Tafoya, Brad Parks, Daniel Palmer, Jennifer Hillier, Owen Laukkanen, Peter Farris, Jamie Freveletti, Carla Buckley, Boyd Morrison, Sophie Littlefield, Mike Cooper, Shane Gericke, Josh Corin, Pam Callow... um, I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Some highlights from this year. I was having so much fun I forgot to snap photos until the last night, at the ITW awards banquet:

At the Tor/Forge table with my awesome publicist, Aisha Cloud, author Jon McGoran (who has a novel coming out with Forge next July), and editor extraordinaire Kristin Sevick Brown.
Brad Parks and Daniel Palmer rock the house with "Ghost Writers in the Sky"
You cannot imagine how hilarious this was... 
With one of my favorite thriller writers, Jeffery Deaver, at the afterparty. 
With the always-awesome Todd Robinson at the after-afterparty. While Thrillerfest is terrific for bringing out-of-town friends into NYC, it's also fantastic for getting New Yorkers into Manhattan to party. 

Wait, there's more! Check out the video of Brad Parks and Daniel Palmer performing "Ghost Writers in the Sky" at the awards banquet. Many, many thanks to Karen Dionne for recording this for posterity:

If there's one negative thing I have to say about this year's Thrillerfest, it's this: some wonderful writers were missing from it. In particular, I would have loved to see Rebecca Cantrell there, so I could say congratulations on her latest Hannah Vogel novel, A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS. The book is out today from Forge, and it's earning rave reviews. Library Journal gave it a star and said: “Cantrell’s fourth historical featuring journalist Hannah Vogel (after A Game of Lies) is compulsively readable. A palpable sense of dread builds, as we know that Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of November 1938, is imminent. This award-winning series succeeds at weaving a very personal story into a well-researched historical survey. In an increasingly crowded genre period, Cantrell’s series stands tall.”

Check out Becky's website to see more praise for the book. Read an excerpt over at Macmillan's site. And please send email to Becky telling her that she needs to come to New York next summer!

Monday, July 16, 2012

You Ready? Here Comes the Pain!

By Reece Hirsch

I have a confession to make.  One of my summer indulgences is that I watch Minnesota Vikings preseason games – all four of them.  And, yes, I do realize that there are few things in life as useless as an NFL preseason game.  But, then again, that’s why it qualifies as an indulgence.

I would make the case that, since the franchise was founded in 1960, the Minnesota Vikings are the most heartbreaking team in professional sports.  Sure, Red  Sox fans suffered longer, but they eventually got their payoff with a World Series victory.  Other teams have been basement-dwellers longer (see the Chicago Cubs).  But the Vikings have a special talent for reaching the very brink of championships only to self-immolate in spectacular and inventive fashion.

I offer you a few of the more emotionally devastating moments from Vikings history:
·      Super Bowl losses in 1969, 1973, 1974 and 1977.  Back then, the Vikings were in the hunt every year and it seemed inevitable that they would eventually win a Super Bowl.  Or so I thought.

·      In 1975, the Vikings lose to the Cowboys in the last seconds when Roger Staubach throws a last-second touchdown pass to Drew Pearson that introduced the “Hail Mary” pass into the lexicon.  At this point, it had become necessary to coin new terms to describe the ways in which the Vikings were losing big games.  And, yes, I do believe that Drew Pearson pushed off on Nate Wright.

·      In 1998, the Vikings lose in the NFC Championship Game in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons when Gary Anderson caps a perfect season as a kicker (not a single missed field goal or extra point) with a missed 38-yarder that would have won the game.

·      In 2009, the Vikings again lost the NFC Championship Game, again in overtime, this time to the New Orleans Saints.  For the Vikings, losing a championship game during regulation time is for amateurs.

Now when a new Vikings season approaches, Al Pacino’s immortal lines from Carlito’s Way come to mind:  “You ready?  Here comes the pain!”

But, as in any troubled relationship, things can’t be painful all the time, and the preseason games serve to lure me back.  Maybe things can be different this year.  And if they lose, it’s okay because it doesn’t count.  If they win, it’s a sign of better things to come in the regular season.  In the preseason, I can watch the new crop of rookies and mid-level free agents and delude myself into seeing glimpses of future glory.  Is it a waste of time?  Most definitely.  But I seem to take some perverse pleasure in following how the competition is proceeding for that fifth cornerback slot.  And by the fourth quarter, two-thirds of the players on the field won’t even make the final roster.  And so, despite a lifetime of experience that screams otherwise, I’m looking forward to August 10 when the Vikings kick of their preseason – in San Francisco.

My very favorite summer indulgence is reading a book.  Without interruption.  On a beach or beside a pool.  With a perspiring drink at my side.  Most of my reading is done in far too small increments, often on BART trains, which makes it harder to achieve one of my favorite sensations – getting lost in a book.  I’m not sure yet which body of water I’m going to be in front of, but I’m working on it.  I don’t know yet what I’ll be drinking (probably a mai tai, beer or margarita, depending upon location).  But I have picked out my book – Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL.  Let the summer indulgence begin.

Congratulations to this past weekend’s Thriller Award winners Stephen King, Jeff Abbott, Paul McEuen, Tim L. Williams, Jack Higgins, Ann Rule and Richard North Patterson!

And here’s a song to accompany your summer indulgence:


Friday, July 13, 2012

The Plots of Characters

by Gp

Hawk nodded. He was slouched in the driver's seat, his eyes half shut, at rest. He was perfectly capable of staying still for hours, and feeling rested, and missing nothing.

“Something will develop,” Hawk said.
“Because we're here.” I said.
“Un huh.”
“They won't be able to tolerate us sitting here,” I said.
Hawk grinned.
“We an affront to their dignity,” he said.
“So they'll finally have to do something.”
“Un huh.”
“Sort of like bait,” I said.
“Exactly,” Hawk said.
“What a dandy plan!”
“You got a better idea?” Hawk said.
“Me either.”

That’s a scene between Hawk and Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novel Double Deuce.  The two amigos are sitting in Hawk’s Jaguar in the middle of a housing project, nicknamed the Double Deuce, looking to shake things up with the gang that controls the complex in their pursuit of who killed a teenage mother and her infant in a drive-by.

I used this passage, which has resonated with me since I first read it years ago, among some others in an essay I wrote published recently in the Parker tribute book, In Pursuit of Spenser, edited by Otto Penzler.  I’m not what you’d call a fervent fan on the Spenser books, but certainly there were some of those novels that melded plot, characters and setting in such a way that you could see as a reader why Parker, at times, could be at the top of his game.

Like Alan, setting doesn’t come first for me except maybe in science-fiction.  I love the locked room aspect of murder mysteries like Asimov would write set on space stations.  Then there’s the film Outland, High Noon in space or the recent one about a prison break on a floating prison. I’m a sucker for those.  Something about the characters in this large thing, but really they’re trapped unless you have a rocket shop or a transporter to get the heck out of there. 

But I suppose to be the contrarian somewhat, as a reader I vacillate between being initially drawn to a book because of plot versus character.  For instance there’s this true crime book called King of Heists by J. North Conway.  It’s the story of a robbery that took place on October 27, 1878 of almost $3 million -- $50 million in today’s monies – of the Manhattan Savings Institution during the Gilded Age.  That’s the gist of what it says on the back cover of the trade paperback.  I was hooked (as was apparently actor Jeremy Renner who I find out later optioned the book).  But the copy then went on to say the man who planned the score was a playboy society architect named George Leonidas Leslie. 

Now I had to read the book to know how they pulled off the robbery and who this guy was.  So was it plot that got me or Leslie…or like in Double Deuce, I couldn’t be separated from the other? 

Ah, but there’s a twist.  I bought the book, which I hadn’t heard of, when me and the wife were prowling about the now gone Barnes & Noble once in the Westside Pavilion during its fire sale.  So the title had me pick it up, the backcopy intrigued me, and the deal was sealed because I got the book for a steal as it were.

Hmmm, maybe I’m just cheap and that’s what comes first as I troll remainder bins?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

All About the Character, Baby.

by Alan

As a reader what comes first, character, plot, setting?

Well, obviously, all three are fundamental building blocks of a novel, so to disregard any of them will result in a story that is less than structurally sound. But…

I’m not a “setting” guy. There, I said it.

phone boothI know many people (hi, Tracy!) choose books based primarily on the setting (quaint English village, Southern plantation, Hooters restaurant), but I’m not one of them. A story could take place in a phone booth (remember those?) and if it has interesting characters and a driving plot, I’ll be happy.

Now, between character and plot, which is most important to me? Again, I consider both to be vital components of a story well told. But I’d have to give the slight edge to character. You see, it’s the characters who stick with me long after I’ve finished the book.

I’m a big fan of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. I can tell you what clothes he wears, where he prefers to go for drinks, and where he lives. I can also tell you the size of the bites of food his girlfriend Susan Silverman eats (microscopic). For the life of me, however, I couldn’t tell you the plot of any particular Spenser book (Wait, wait. Somebody goes missing. Spenser snoops around, angering the people he talks to. Then he finds the missing person, but refuses, at first, to send him/her back. Finally, all are reunited.)

Now, while I read them, the plots keep me following along, but it’s the characters I remember: Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Belson, Quirk, Rita from the law firm, Henry from the gym, and all the thugs and semi-thugs Spenser deals with.

Ditto for Jack Reacher. Same for Harry Bosch. Likewise for Lucas Davenport (I only remember snatches of the plots from the “Prey” books. And the setting, wasn’t it cold? Some northern state starting with M—Michigan or Minnesota or Maine or Manitoba?).

Give me a compelling character and I’ll follow him or her anywhere, through any dire situation.

Just don’t ask me to remember the details about the setting or the plot.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Setting, Character or Plot? What Draws Me To a Book? Why Do You Care? Can I Possibly Get More Words In This Title? By Charles Dickens (or Tracy Kiely)

Good day, Gentle Reader. Our topic today is “Setting, Character or Plot? What Draws You As a Reader?”
Which you probably already figured out from the above title.
Well, you know what, Gentle Reader? Smugness is always unattractive.  Especially at this hour.
But I digress.   
I was relieved to see that “Cover” was not one of the offered options. I once chose a book based on its cover. It held the same disastrous results as the time I picked a wine based on its pretty watercolor label; headache, nausea, and a fervent promise NEVER to ever, ever do that again.
However, that (perhaps unnecessarily) said, I think I do tend to lean toward setting in picking my books, which is odd, now that I think about it, as I write based on character. When I write, I spend a great deal of time with that character. I know what they like to eat. I know what kind of toothpaste they use. I know everything. Everything. I have to like them, or I would end up like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and chuck them off the nearest cliff to a watery grave.
Of course, if I did succumb to such a temptation, and push my Austen-quoting sleuth Elizabeth Parker off a ledge I suspect – oh, hell, I know, that there would not be a public clamoring for a miraculous revival of my fair heroine.
Not that I’m bitter.
I’m digressing again.
(This is what happens, Gentle Reader, when you plan your day out beautifully – as in the angles in the heavens are SINGING beautifully – and you have a teenager in need of his social security card and IT IS NOT IN THE PLACE WHERE IT ALWAYS IS AND THREE HOURS GO BY AND YOU STILL CAN’T FIND THE DAMN CARD AND YOUR FACE DOES THAT THING THAT MAKES THE DOG CRINGE AND SUDDENLY IT’S ONE IN THE MORNING AND YOU STILL HAVEN’T WRITTEN YOUR BLOG.)
Deep breath. Focus. FOCUS!! (Echo! Echo! Echo!)         
Right. When I pick the book I want to read, to disappear into, I tend to focus on the place it will take me, rather than the people who I will meet there. I may have mentioned this once or twice before,* but I am something of an Anglophile. I love England. I love Ireland. I love Scotland. I love books set in those locals, as long as they are set in a certain time period. I prefer books set in the past rather than those set modern day. I’m not exactly sure why – I’m sure there are those who would say that it has to do with a yearning for a more innocent time, but I think not. After all, please remember, I like those times with an inconvenient dead body sprawled on the heirloom Persian rug in the library. And maybe one inexperienced maid who might be counted on to drop the silver breakfast tray she just lugged up the curved mahogany staircase upon discovering said corpse.
(Except that I’m pretty sure – based on extensive experience in playing the game Clue – that the library is generally found on the first floor.  Whatever. Someone, at some point, must drop the damn tray.)
I love losing myself in a different culture, with different architecture, cuisine, and social etiquette. (Well, as much as England in the 1930s is “different”).  
After some deep reflection on this juxtaposition of my preference in reading to my preference in writing, I realized why I prefer books set in distant lands in the past.  
*Once or twice before roughly equals 8,435 times.       

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Starting your Crime Novel with Impact

The question of last week was asked by me. I had an ulterior motive in this, in that I am presenting the optional workshop at the Scene of the Crime Festival on Wolfe Island, Ontario, on August 11th.  Here’s the info if you are interested in attending. www.sceneofthecrime.ca.  Wolfe Island is one of the Thousand Islands, and is accessible by Ferry not only from Kingston, Ontario, but also from Cape St. Vincent, N.Y.  Scene of the Crime was recently called by Quill and Quire Magazine, one of Canada’s five most intriguing literary festivals. 

But, I digress.

I was hoping my fellow Criminal Minders would supply some tips for me to use in my workshop. As expected, they certainly did. 

“Seduce the reader” says Hilary.  Lovely idea.

As I always tell my workshop classes, there are no rules (with the exception of ensuring the work has been properly proofread and how to submit a query letter and proposal) in writing, so all I give are guidelines.  I hope you find them useful.

I don’t advise new writers to have a body on the first page, or even in the first  chapter or two.  (Sorry,  Meredith).  This is easy to do if your protagonists are police officers:  the most realistic beginning of the book is likely when the police are called to the scene.  I’ve done that myself in the Constable Molly Smith books more often than not.  Come to think of it, I’ve done it in every one of those books.  

I will hasten to say that I don’t believe a crime novel HAS to involve murder at all.  No murder? Can still be a very effective crime novel (which is why I hate the phrase “murder mystery”).  Some good books ask the question, has there even been a  crime committed here? (eg. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George).

It seems to me that in books other than police procedurals the body in the opening pages doesn’t always work.  In an amateur sleuth book or a psychological suspense you might be better working at establishing the characters and the setting first.  Create the mood.  When I do manuscript evaluations and critiques I come across bodies dropping in page one with no attempt to first ask the reader to care what’s happening here.  They don’t know anything about the characters, they have no reason to care what’s going on.  Curiosity has not been tweaked, the reader has not been seduced.

A body is found in a field. Shocking! Wow, that takes you right into the story!

But does it?  You are writing a crime novel. It is almost guaranteed that someone will be murdered. So there is actually nothing shocking about it at all.  Without atmosphere, conflict, character, the body in the woods or hidden behind the pew of the church is pretty boring.

What do you need in an effective opening?
·         Begin at the beginning.  Not before.  What is the absolute latest this book can begin in order for it to make sense? That’s where you begin.
·         Conflict. Not necessarily even between two characters. Remember what you learned in high school about the six types of conflict (man vs. machine etc.)
·         The inciting incident or question. The point from which all the rest of the story flows. The question that must be answered.
·         NO background.  Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel says no background before page 100. (see point number 1)
·         Not the weather.  Okay, you might be able to get away with this if the inciting incident is a storm uncovering an old grave or a ship being tossed at sea.  But not a bright sunny day or a light drizzle as the protagonist heads off to the grocery store.
·         Don’t start with an exchange of information. Two friends meet for lunch and discuss how poor Mary is having trouble with her ex-husband. Later Mary ends up dead.  The discussion was not an inciting incident nor did it present a question to be answered. It was just an info dump.

I’ll echo Meredith here. Don’t try to create the perfect opening when you first sit down to begin your book.  If you do you’ll probably never get any further.  Maybe  YOU need to know the background before you can get down to the to the nitty-gritty.

But before you consider your novel finished, ask if the opening is as effective and as good as you can make it. 

More than Sorrow, Coming Sept 4, from Poisoned Pen Press

Monday, July 9, 2012

Such a Character!

As a reader, I’m character driven. That doesn’t mean a plot can be half-assed or badly planned and executed, or that the setting can be cardboard, but that I read for the people involved in the plot, not the plot itself.  I love getting into the heads of characters and following them from one incident to the next. I want to get to know them, faults and all. I even enjoy learning about the bad guys and their motivations. I read novels to be entertained, and part of that entertainment is learning how people tick. It doesn't matter if a book is funny, an international thriller or a slice of life.
Specifically, I love coming of age books. Take two of my all-time favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Yearling. I read both in high school and have re-read them since. Both continue to speak to me. In To Kill a Mockingbird, while the trial of a wrongfully accused black man is the focal point, the real story is the coming of age of Scout Finch. We follow her as the innocence of childhood is lifted to reveal people and events as they really are. Page after page, our own innocence is challenged as Scout grows and exhibits her own brand of youthful wisdom.
The Yearling is a similar type of book. Yes, it is about the relationship of a young, poor boy and a fawn named Flag, but more importantly, it is about Jody’s journey from dependent child to manhood as he is called upon to make a very adult sacrifice.
Last year I read the entire Hunger Games Trilogy, gobbling all three down in a single week. It could be argued that those books were plot driven, and maybe they were, but for me the development of the three main characters – Katniss, Peeta and Gale – were what drove the book on against a horrific backdrop.
Simply put, if a book does not have great character development, I lose interest quickly and am more likely to dump the book before finishing it. I look for and want characters that stick with me long after the book is finished.  
Hands down, my favorite mysteries when it comes to character is Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins series. Not only is Easy Rawlins one of the best characters in modern fiction, but all the characters in that series, no matter how small a part they play, are superbly drawn. Reading Mosely’s books is like taking an advance class on character development.
And I love learning from the masters.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Start at the very beginning

by Meredith Cole

How should you start a crime novel? A lot of writers get caught on the first sentence and first chapter of their book and have a hard time digging into the rest of their novel. It's easy to see why. The beginning is important and you have to grab your readers right away. My advice to beginning writers everywhere is to scribble something down, write the rest of your book and come back again to the beginning and work on it later.

Okay--so your book is done, and you're examining your first sentence, paragraph and chapter and trying to figure out what it needs to say and what needs to happen to hook your reader. What's the secret to holding a reader's attention, wowing an agent, and getting a wonderful offer from a publisher?

I wish I knew. But here are things that I try to make sure that my first chapter absolutely has and doesn't have:

1) A murder. Yeah, I know. Agatha Christie could wait 60 pages to murder someone, and Dorothy Sayers could write a book where no one got murdered at all. You, on the other hand, need to get the deed done as close to the beginning as possible. Why? Because agents and editors and readers are looking at your book and trying to find out the answer to an important question: can this writer write a crime novel that holds my attention and fascinates me? You have to prove yourself fast, because there is no guarantee that they will read your amazing description of your characters' job history in order to get to the juicy bits. Oh--and you get extra points for the murder happening on the first page.

2) Foreshadowing and suspense. Don't make me feel like I'm reading a sweet romance or a non-fiction guide to marsupials and then--BAM--have someone jump out and kill someone. Give me that tingling tension ahead of time so I can dread the appearance of the killer before they arrive... Y'know, hook me.

3) Characters that I care about. Your characters don't have to be Mother Theresa, but I would like to care whether they lived or died before they, um, die. Otherwise, what's the point? So try to give your characters some traits that make them interesting rather than treating me to yet another big busted blonde stripper with a heart of gold, or fat Italian mobster who likes to torture people. Been there, done that. Give me something that doesn't feel stereotyped.

4) Cut the backstory. Or move it to the second/third/fourth chapter. Do I really need to know that your detective wore braces in 10th grade and attended Woodrow Wilson Elementary School? Don't put your reader to sleep reading all that background information. First, intrigue them. Then tell them more just when they want to know more. It's not easy to pull off, so ask trusted readers if you've managed to pull it off. And if they tell you they're bored, don't get offended. Listen! And then fix it.

5) Present a puzzle/question that the book will take its sweet time answering. Here are some good questions: What happened? Why did it happen? Will it happen again? Here are some not so good questions: What the heck is going on? Who are these people? Why should I care?

6) Keep the cast of characters in check until you're further in. Try to keep things small--two to three people if you can. It's confusing for the reader to have to keep track of the main character plus fifty of their closest friends. They may give up if they feel like they can't keep up with who's who.

So that's my list. I'm sure every writer has their own list of do's and don't's. Do I follow all these rules slavishly? Um, no. But I try to break as few of them as I can. And I revise my beginning as many times as it takes so it does exactly what it needs to do: make you want to read more.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

And they say it rots your brain...

by Chris F. Holm

Man. I drew the short straw this week. I mean, who wants to read my inane blathering when they could be eating hot dogs and blowing stuff up in celebration of our nation's birth? Speaking of, happy Independence Day, y'all. Kindly refrain from blowing up anything that won't grow back.

Now, onto the topic at hand. One of the reasons I got into writing is that it retroactively recasts every bit of reading, internet noodling, and televisual obsessing I've ever done as research, rather than mere slacking. And to that end, I'd like to recommend a technique that works for me when it comes to penning the first chapter of a novel: namely, aping the old TV-writer's trick of the cold open.

The cold open was first conceived as a tease to hook the audience before the title sequence, meant to keep viewers from changing channels between programs. A well-constructed cold open is typically both thrilling and brief, a jolt of in media res adrenaline that hurls the viewer into the thick of the action, typically ending with some kind of twist or cliffhanger to keep folks guessing through the first commercial break. In short, it's the hammer that ignites the powder of the episode. And a good one will propel the viewer clear through to the end of the hour to find out what happens.

Cold opens come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like those often employed on J.J. Abrams' Alias, pluck a choice moment from the story's climax, only to hit you with a title card upon return from the commercial break declaring 72 Hours Earlier, leaving you to wonder how things went so wrong so fast. Some, like the ones favored by investigative procedurals (from House and Fringe to Castle and CSI), feature the crime to be investigated, focusing on perpetrator and victim rather than protagonist. The point isn't so much content as structure and flavor. They're a hit-and-run. They're your best sucker-punch. They're that devastating comeback you never think of until the moment passes. What they're not is exposition, character studies, or back-story. Why? Because they're built for speed. They're built to thrill. And there's no room for luggage in an Indy car.

Next time you're watching your favorite show, pay attention to those opening scenes. Then steal their pace and rhythm shamelessly. I bet you'll be pleased with the result.

I'm not saying every opening chapter needs to play by the rules of the cold open. All I'm saying is it works for me. But then, you don't have to take my word for it. Here are the first three chapters of DEAD HARVEST. Read 'em and decide for yourself. Chapter One serves as my cold open. Chapter Two begins to fill in the blanks, answering some of the questions posed by Chapter One. If I've done my job right, you'll get that far.

And if not, there's always hot dogs and cold beer...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Seduce the Reader

By Hilary Davidson

When you're writing the opening scene of a crime novel, there's only one objective to keep in mind: you have to hook the reader so hard that s/he is willing to let work slide, ignore family, and tune out the real world in favor of the imaginary one you've created on the page.

Plenty of writers offer advice on how to do this, so many that I wonder what I can really add to the discussion. I'm not a big believer in rules. My attitude is that you're best off following your instinct and your gut into whatever swamp they lead you to. That old saw about needing a corpse in Chapter One? Forget about it. Suggestions about creating "likable" or "relatable" characters go into the same trash bin. You don't need them.

Ultimately, the writer's job is to seduce the reader.

I use the word seduce deliberately. You can't hit your readers over the head with buckets of backstory and expect them to be intrigued. Think about the last time you went to a party and were cornered by a guy who spilled his guts to you. Odds are, all you wanted to do was get away from him. You didn't want to know more. You wanted to run.

Books aren't really that different. A novel that delivers too much up front is a bit of a bore. It doesn't draw you any closer, making questions spiral through your brain. It kills suspense before the game really gets going. You want to draw your reader in so that, whatever you give them, they crave more.

Enough with the theory. Here are some prime examples of what I mean:

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, 'Screw you, buddy,' yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge. 

That's how THE HUNTER opens. Richard Stark (AKA Donald Westlake) draws a scene that gives a strong sense of his anti-hero, Parker, yet leaves the reader with far more questions than answers.

I want the legs. That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.

The opening of Megan Abbott's QUEENPIN gives you only the scantiest description of the narrator (young, skinny legs), but it speaks volumes about the glamour that she craves, which is far more intriguing.

If she had known she would be dead in another five minutes, maybe she wouldn't have swatted her son so hard. That's just my guess. His balloon had been drifting into my face, that was the problem. It wasn't bugging me, but it was bugging his mother. He was a towheaded kid with a round pink face. The balloon was larger than his head. I couldn't say one way or the other if the kid was having fun, but Mom clearly wasn't.

That's from SPEAK OF THE DEVIL by Richard Hawke. Hook, line, sinker.

*          *          *

I'm back from an incredible week of events in beautiful British Columbia with fellow crime writers Robin Spano, Deryn Collier, and Ian Hamilton. CBC Radio's "The Sunday Edition" interviewed us in Vancouver, and the podcast is now online. It gives a terrific glimpse of how much fun we had together, in spite of our murderous impulses. (We're already talking about our next tour together.)

One more bit of news: the cover and jacket copy for my third novel, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, are now online. Take a look!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Nobody Reads A Book To Get To The Middle

By Reece Hirsch

The first chapter of a crime novel is tricky because there are so many things that the writer typically wants to accomplish in a short space that it’s easy for the thing to get cluttered or out-of-balance.

            Ideally, the first chapter should:

(1)               introduce the principal character and begin getting the reader interested in who they are (without bogging the chapter down with too much backstory);

(2)              establish the tone or voice of the story (without neglecting the plot);

(3)              “set the hook” for the plot by providing a precipitating event that will propel the story forward (without neglecting the characters); and

(4)               draw the reader into a unique or interesting world that you seem to know (without spending too much time downloading your research).

And I know that this sounds terribly formulaic, but in a crime novel it never hurts to kill someone off in the first chapter.

I tried to balance these elements as best I could in the first chapter of my first book.  You can judge for yourself whether it worked, by checking out my Goodreads page, where you can either read the chapter or hear me read it in a YouTube video: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3256547.Reece_Hirsch?auto_login_attempted=true

As I was completing my second book, I began with a chapter that similarly tried to check all of the proper boxes.  But then I decided to add a new first chapter fairly late in the writing that now precedes the more traditional first chapter.  The principal character doesn’t appear until chapter two now and all of the boxes are not checked, but I believe that the new chapter creates a sense of threat and stakes that needed to be in the reader’s mind moving forward through the book.

Lately, I’ve been constantly dipping into “The Secret Miracle:  The Novelist’s Handbook,” edited by Daniel Alarcon, in which 54 excellent writers provide brief responses to a series of questions, including “What Should A First Chapter Accomplish?”  Here are a few of the responses that I particularly liked:

Michael Chabon:  “It should render the reader helpless to do anything but read on.”

Colm Toibin:  “A novel’s job is to hit the reader’s nervous system.  The job of a first chapter is to get this going.  Nothing else.”

George Pellecanos:  “From the author’s standpoint, reading it should inspire you to continue writing and push on.  You should look at it and say, I’ve got something here.   I’m not talking about that the-first-paragraph-of-the-novel-should-hook-the-reader bullshit.  [Note:  see above for that.]  I’m saying, the voice should be strong and it should be compelling.” 

Paul Auster:  “… I feel it is imperative that the writer get down to business quickly and draw the reader in to such a degree that he or she will not want to stop.  I once ran into the crime writer Mickey Spillane at a book fair in Sweden.  In his gruff barroom manner, he said something that has stayed with me ever since:  ‘Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.’"

Andrew Sean Greer:  “It should make the deal with the reader in terms of tone, imagery, scope, and theme.  If it’s a magical story, for instance, there should be a little flash-powder on the horizon.”

Now take Greer’s quote and (1) substitute “crime” for “magical” and (2) replace “flash-powder” with “gun powder,” and I think you have something that we can work with here at Criminal Minds.