Friday, April 30, 2010

Reading for the sheer pleasure of it all

This week's question: Does being a writer change the way you read for pleasure?

By Shane

Clearly, that's not me in the skirt. I don't have the legs.

But the answer's still the same:

Yup. Being a writer changes the way I read for pleasure.

Sometimes, it makes the books better.

Sometimes, worse: That verb could have punchier. This adjective is too arch. Lose the adverbs and the pace will race. That's an awesome character name; I hate you!!! (And, how do I steal it for my next book?) Geez, what a lame-o plot, I knew by the third page that this dog was gonna lift its leg and pee on The End . . .

In other words, I mind-edit every ^&$#% sentence I read.

The better: I know how hard it is to write a book, so it magnifies the pleasure of coming across an astonishing word-portrait. Almost every book out there--even lousy ones that should be donated to the Salvation Army before Chapter Two--has at least one truly nice word painting. Books by writers like John Sandford have them on every page, sometimes every paragraph. Being a writer gives me an appreciation for the craft of writing, for the power of the perfectly chosen word. So it enhances the pleasure of my reading experience.

Unless, of course, said book involves a (take a deep breath) gorgeous FBI agent who's so desperate to have a baby that the unibrow'd kidnapper she's chasing gives her mommy issues so she pulls her Glock and flicks off the safety even though Glocks have no safeties but the kidnapper turns out to be a brilliant Russian-Israeli secret agent who's really on her side so they join hands to defeat the real bad guy, who's the vice president of the United States . . . no, wait, it's the veep's body double! And then they tumble into bed all lathered up from the whiny-white-guy song titled in the lead-up but have a violent argument before Love's Sweet Release and she stalks out nekked and he gets shot by the madman who was hiding in the closet shooting a porno and she feels responsible so they whack the madman and have make-up sex but Himbo's not wearing even a Band-Aid though he was shot 107 gazillion times with a machine gun ...

In that case, I've got a migraine the size of Toledo from all that mind-editing.

If I haven't sprained my wrist throwing the book across the room.


Following is one of the best explanations I've read yet of how Goldman Sachs and its Ayn Rand-inspired ilk caused our current Second Great Depression. (My term, SGD. To call what we are going through "a recession" is to call the Nazis a political party.) Here, Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi argues that the investment bank’s cult of self-interest is on trial against the whole idea of Civilization--the collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even if we can. Even if you don't agree with them, Taibbi's polemics are brilliantly written, which is why I bring them to you today. He's a Brit, so I don't know what his references "s" and "s and s" mean, but it's some sort of reference to the recent past, probably the Reagan era, where America's "greed is good" mantra became most inflamed with the deregulation of everything from savings and loans (remember that collapse?) to Ma Bell. Enjoy!

So Goldman Sachs, the world’s greatest and smuggest investment bank, has been sued for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Legally, the case hangs on a technicality.

Morally, however, the Goldman Sachs case may turn into a final referendum on the greed-is-good ethos that conquered America sometime in the s- and in the years since has aped other horrifying American trends such as boy bands and reality shows in spreading across the western world like a venereal disease.

When Britain and other countries were engulfed in the flood of defaults and derivative losses that emerged from the collapse of the American housing bubble two years ago, few people understood that the crash had its roots in the lunatic greed-centered objectivist religion, fostered back in the s and s by ponderous emigre novelist Ayn Rand.

While, outside of America, Russian-born Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilisation has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom.

Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who’ve never read her books or even heard of her. The right-wing “Tea Party” movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.

Last summer, I wrote a brutally negative article about Goldman Sachs for Rolling Stone magazine (I called the bank a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”) that unexpectedly sparked a heated national debate. On one side of the debate were people like me, who believed that Goldman is little better than a criminal enterprise that earns its billions by bilking the market, the government, and even its own clients in a bewildering variety of complex financial scams.

On the other side of the debate were the people who argued Goldman wasn’t guilty of anything except being “too smart” and really, really good at making money. This side of the argument was based almost entirely on the Randian belief system, under which the leaders of Goldman Sachs appear not as the cheap swindlers they look like to me, but idealised heroes, the saviours of society.

In the Randian ethos, called objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (ie, the rich) and the “parasites” and “moochers” who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics.

Rand believed government had virtually no natural role in society. She conceded that police were necessary, but was such a fervent believer in laissez-faire capitalism she refused to accept any need for economic regulation - which is a fancy way of saying we only need law enforcement for unsophisticated criminals.

Rand’s fingerprints are all over the recent Goldman story. The case in question involves a hedge fund financier, John Paulson, who went to Goldman with the idea of a synthetic derivative package pegged to risky American mortgages, for use in betting against the mortgage market. Paulson would short the package, called Abacus, and Goldman would then sell the deal to suckers who would be told it was a good bet for a long investment.

The SEC’s contention is that Goldman committed a crime - a “failure to disclose” - when they failed to tell the suckers about the role played by the vulture betting against them on the other side of the deal.

Now, the instruments in question in this deal - collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps - fall into the category of derivatives, which are virtually unregulated in the US thanks in large part to the effort of gremlinish former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who as a young man was close to Rand and remained a staunch Randian his whole life.

In the late s, Greenspan lobbied hard for the passage of a law that came to be called the Commodity Futures Modernisation Act of 2000, a monster of a bill that among other things deregulated the sort of interest-rate swaps Goldman used in its now-infamous dealings with Greece.

Both the Paulson deal and the Greece deal were examples of Goldman making millions by bending over their own business partners. In the Paulson deal the suckers were European banks such as ABN-Amro and IKB, which were never told that the stuff Goldman was cheerfully selling to them was, in effect, designed to implode; in the Greece deal, Goldman hilariously used exotic swaps to help the country mask its financial problems, then turned right around and bet against the country by shorting Greece’s debt.

Now here’s the really weird thing. Confronted with the evidence of public outrage over these deals, the leaders of Goldman will often appear to be genuinely confused, scratching their heads and staring quizzically into the camera like they don’t know what you’re upset about. It’s not an act. There have been a lot of greedy financiers and banks in history, but what makes Goldman stand out is its truly bizarre cultist/religious belief in the rightness of what it does.

The point was driven home in England last year, when Goldman’s international adviser, sounding exactly like a character in Atlas Shrugged, told an audience at St Paul’s Cathedral that “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest”. A few weeks later, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein told the Times that he was doing “God’s work”.

Even if he stands to make a buck at it, even your average used-car salesman won’t sell some working father a car with wobbly brakes, then buy life insurance policies on that customer and his kids. But this is done almost as a matter of routine in the financial services industry, where the attitude after the inevitable pileup would be that that family was dumb for getting into the car in the first place. Caveat emptor, dude!

People have to understand this Randian mindset is now ingrained in the American character. You have to live here to see it. There’s a hatred toward “moochers” and “parasites” - the Tea Party movement, which is mainly a bunch of pissed off suburban white people whining about minorities consuming social services, describes the battle as being between “water-carriers” and “water-drinkers”. And regulation of any kind is deeply resisted, even after a disaster as sweeping as the 2008 crash.

This debate is going to be crystallised in the Goldman case. Much of America is going to reflexively insist that Goldman’s only crime was being smarter and better at making money than IKB and ABN-Amro, and that the intrusive, meddling government (in the American narrative, always the bad guy!) should get off Goldman’s Armani-clad back.

Another side is going to argue that Goldman winning this case would be a rebuke to the whole idea of civilisation - which, after all, is really just a collective decision by all of us not to screw each other over even when we can. It’s an important moment in the history of modern global capitalism: whether or not to move forward into a world of greed without limits.

Matt Taibbi is a political reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, a sports columnist for Men’s Journal, and he also writes books for a Random House imprint called Spiegel and Grau. Visit his blog at The above article was posted at Information Clearing House.


All right, all right, it's Friday. Your reward for having read all that serious stuff is this, one of the worst chase scenes ever shown in a real movie that wasn't a spoof of real movies: the 1973 action-packer "Hard Streets." Grab yer popcorn and . . . action!

Shane Gericke is keen for you to see the fancy word-paintings in his new book, TORN APART, which launches at ThrillerFest on July 6, and did he mention he's festival chairman this year so you should come to the party and say hello? Please visit him at, where you can read an excerpt of TORN APART (but not ThrillerFest, for which there is no excerpt cause it's not a book though if someone paid Shane enough he'd certainly turn it into one and he thinks he's finally at 1,000 words so he can quit typing, phew) for FREE.

Hey, we all like free.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Decline of Pleasure

As I type this, I'm in New York City for the Edgar awards tomorrow night ... so my title makes reference to a famous book by a wonderfully prescient and wise theater critic by the name of Walter Kerr, who was very much a New Yorker.

The Decline of Pleasure, though written in the '60s, is right on target with the 21st century, and gets to the heart of why other countries seem to embrace the idea of pleasure as a goal, while Americans remain suspicious of it.

It probably wouldn't surprise you that Kerr believed the puritanical underpinnings of the American psyche (you know, the whole violence=good, nudity=bad thing)--combined with a strongly philosophical embrace of Utilitarianism during the nineteenth and early 20th century-- rendered us incapable of truly savoring pleasure.

We either must find a use (usually related to money) for whatever we do--or we divert ourselves with silly, time-wasting activity (hey, anybody see that funny YouTube video with Shatner singing Total Eclipse of the Heart? ... but I digress).

This is one explanation of the relative popularity of non-fiction to fiction books ... the former are more easily labeled "utilitarian", and therefore worth buying and reading.

So ... to get back to the actual question -- I, too, confess that my reading habits are suffering from a decline of pleasure, and for utilitarian reasons, too. My time is no longer my own--I owe books to my publisher, articles to blogs, signings to bookstores. All "pure pleasure" activities have been severely truncated ... if not eliminated. No museum wandering, no spontaneous travel. Everything--including my reading--has been sort of swallowed up by the all-consuming obligation--and uber-pleasure, if you will--of writerly commitments.

I don't read fiction when I'm heads-down on finishing a book--I don't want that world to rub off on mine. So some of the year is eliminated already. And then there are books I need to read for responsibilities like Edgar judging, which I did last year ... books that I must make time for. My TBR pile focuses on friends' works, and novels to blurb go to the top--also with top priority scheduling. And, of course, all the myriad books, newspapers, articles and other bits and bobs I read as part of research.

Now, the good news is that this is all fun ... but those carefree days of wandering and wondering are gone. The idea of simply picking up a book and reading it without any other thought than that it might be enjoyable ... well, it just won't work.

I'm too busy with the uber-pleasure of being a writer and all that that entails.

But one of these days, I will take a vacation ... somewhere with a beach ... and a big stack of books I buy at an airport. And rediscover some of that old sense of pleasure ...

Someday! :)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Business or Pleasure

Every time I book a trip Expedia asks me that. Now Criminal Minds is following suit its own devious way. Has becoming published changed my reading habits? Can I take the Fifth?

--Sinister (Off Screen) Voice: No! You must answer!

Really? Alright then - the answer is: of course it has - but not in the ways you might think. First off becoming a published writer has meant many, MANY, hours staring at computer screens and the virtually indecipherable scrawl of my own handwriting. As a result I can't read a damn thing without wearing contacts or glasses.

--Sinister Voice: That's not what we're talking about. Don't make us hurt you.

Okay. Take it easy, I'm getting to it. (Seriously though, can anyone not born on Krypton read line 11 - why do they even have that on there?)

Anyway - beyond the eye chart, I've found the same pitfalls as CJ and the other bloggers here. It sort of sucks when you spend your time trying to figure out what the author is doing, it worse when you succeed. Like when a character announces that "they hate snakes" it immediately tells you that: they're are going to be some big ass damn snakes on the big ass damn plane. (Thought I was going Indiana Jones on that one didn't you ?)

--Sinister Voice: No.

Really? Cause I was going to, for a moment. Then I switched on you, cause I'm tricky.

--Sinister Voice (bored): Please get on with it. I have a tractor pull commercial to record in an hour and the traffic is going to be bad.
Fine. So, yes, being a writer can make it annoying to read books that are not quite up to code. But to me that's not the biggest problem. A far bigger issue arises when you read something incredible. Something brilliant and powerful enough to make you forget you're supposed to be examining and dissecting and studying the framework of the piece.

Because when that happens and you close this masterwork and compare your own writing to it you think: "Dude - I am nothing but a freaking hack!"

This is the real problem with being published and also knowing how to read.

--Sinister Voice: I'm not sure there's anyway around that.

I suppose not but it would certainly be easier on the ego. And that's why writing is such a painful job. You can only really learn from your own mistakes and other peoples greatness -

--Sinister Voice: That's not true. Stop mis-informing our readers.

What are you talking about, Sinister Voice?

--Sinister Voice : Go to Chapter 15 of Black Rain. Or Chapter 45. Or Chapter 22.

(Sound of pages turning)

--Sinister Voice: Read it.

Oh man, I wrote this a long time ago... I just... Hey wait a minute.

--Sinister Voice: You like it?

Yeah. This is good stuff. Man I forgot how good this is. Hey maybe there is a benefit, maybe being published does have some advantages after all, maybe the fact that you can find your own best works and look at them and be proud of them.

Thank you, Sinister Voice: Maybe people won't think I'm a hack after all. At least, that is, until they read this blog.

---Graham Brown is the sleep deprived author of Black Rain and its forth coming sequel Black Sun (August 31st). He will be appearing at the RT conference in Columbus Ohio, this week.

---Sinister Voice is an undefined entity and will be appearing in the Fresno Area, doing radio commentary for the Fresno Tractor Pull and an upcoming WWE match.


by Josh

What she said.

No, really. CJ’s post pretty much summed up my own slightly deformed reading habits. Is it possible to read for pleasure? Sure. But if I’m keeping one eye in willful suspension of disbelief, the other is surely dissecting and deconstructing the prose. And if that metaphor strikes you as particularly obtuse and, well, cross-eyed, imagine how disconcerting it can be for me.

I know, I know. Woe is I, reader of fiction.

See, the thing of it is: I’m actually doubly doomed. I have two barriers to overcome when reading a novel. The first is the aforementioned inevitable judgment of a colleague’s craft. The second barrier is my master’s degree in English. Some of the finest bone_marrow professors in the state of New York trained me to suck the juices out of literature so as to better analyze the marrow along any series of literary theories.

Yes, while reading the new Harlan Coben missive, there is in fact a part of my brain critiquing its socioeconomic worldview a la Terry Eagleton or its objective correlatives a la TS Eliot.

Have sympathy for me. I’m a damaged boy.

As far back as I can remember – and as regular readers of my column here can testify, I alas can remember pretty far back – I’ve read literature as a writer. And I’m sure every regular writer who is reading this now has too. How better to learn craft than by studying those who excel at it? It’s the same dictum I apply in my creative writing classes. But, like knowing how a magician performs his tricks, it does take a little bit of the joy out of the experience. Do I miss being able to read a novel purely for pleasure? I wouldn’t know.

Don’t get me wrong. I still can appreciate the aesthetics on display in a great work of escapism. I am currently reading Catherine evil_genius Jinks’ Evil Genius and it’s a really fun ride. But would it be even more fun if a part of me wasn’t, at the same time, wondering how Ms. Jinks constructed her novel or if this particular character was created to serve as the protagonist’s foil or why she chose this particular chapter and not the one before it or the one after it to introduce a specific plot twist? Maybe. Although there is a certain joy in admiring another craftsman’s work, isn’t there?

Case in point: I just finished reading Sophie’s A Bad Day for Sorry. I loved it. Her protagonist, Stella, is a glorious woman, full of all-too-human contradictions and good humor and righteous motivations and, as I told Sophie, I want Stella to be my new aunt (and I’m still waiting for you to make that happen, Sophie). Stella is fully realized and so is her client, Chrissy, a woman whose child has been abducted and who at first appears to be little more than a sobbing, slobbering mess but is in fact…well, read the book. I’m glad I did. And surely, one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because I also read it as a writer. It takes a lot of effort for writing to appear effortless, and Sophie achieves that here and we, as writers, are burdened, yes, by our knowledge of “trade secrets,” but we’re also blessed by them, as they allow us to appreciate a great novel not only on the superficial level of what works but also on the subtextual level of how and why it works.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Help a starving writer!

Has becoming a published writer changed how you read for pleasure?

There is one thing about being a writer that I’m not too happy about. It’s ruined me as a reader!

All my life I’ve been a voracious reader, following my favorite authors blissfully into the worlds they created for me. But now that I’m a writer and know the “tricks of the trade” I no longer travel blindly into these fictional realms.

Instead, I now proceed with eyes wide open, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. I dissect technique, scavenge evocative word choices, flag areas where the pace lags or the characters feel contrived.

I no longer can accept that a character does something “too stupid to live”—like going down into the basement when the lights are out and there’s a serial killer on the loose—unless they have a darn good reason to do so—something more than simply the author needing another action scene.

Romances where the only reason the hero and heroine remain apart is because they don’t stop sniping long enough to actually talk about their problems smack of melodrama. And thrillers where the main goal is simply racking up a body count rather than changing or saving the hero’s world seem lackluster.

Yikes!!! Now instead of reading 3-5 books a week, I find myself starting new books, quickly casting most aside within a few pages, or setting down the rest and never feeling compelled to pick them up again.

I long for the days when I would pick up any book in any genre and devour it like candy. Now I’m left with an often fruitless search for literary sustenance.

But then I’ll find that jewel—that precious gem of a story that draws me in, introduces me to characters I not only understand but care about, makes me feel that saving their world is as important as anything going on in my own.

You know what books I’m talking about—those keep-me-up-all-night books.

Suddenly they seem harder to find than ever, but once I find one I savor the experience, reading much slower than my usual headlong rush, trying to prolong my enjoyment as much as possible.

So help a poor starving reader/writer out here!

What books have you read lately that gave you more than entertainment, that were fresh and different, able to transport you to another world that you were reluctant to leave? Which characters have you fallen in love with lately and why?

I’d love to hear about the books that moved you—and what made them stand out from all the other ones out there.

Thanks for helping this hungry reader!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, October, 2009. Her newest project is as co-author of the first in a new suspense series with Erin Brockovich. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Oh, the Pain

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

What is the hardest scene to write? I’ve been thinking about this one for a while now and came up with two answers that are really just the same answer put two different ways. How’s that for lawyer equivocation and qualification? Some days, I am a product of my educational upbringing.

The hardest scene to write is the one with the staring blank page. Except maybe for the very prolific Stephen King, every writer has this particular scene in every book. Sometimes, this scene is in every chapter particularly as a deadline looms. As the author, you may know what it is supposed to include. What clue, what character revelation, what invitation to the reader to really bond with the story…but it just won’t materialize. You start. The murderer stalked, no not stalked. He wouldn’t stalk. He’s still limping from being shot in the last action scene. And murderer. I can’t call him the murderer. It’s page fifty. If I refer to him as the murder now…backspace, backspace, backspace and on and on. Okay, start again. The man moved…that’s not right. It eliminates half my suspects. And moved? What the heck kind of verb is moved? People move for new jobs. Barbara Walters moves interviewees to tears. Suspects do not move through…yikes, delete, delete, delete and on and on. At this point in time, you can almost feel the laundry taking on the immediacy of a national disaster. Yep, better take care of that. And the dog needs walking. When was the last time the oven got cleaned anyway? Oh, the ways this scene can take on epic proportion if only in its ability to get the unnecessary details of life to magnify into the most pressing of tasks.

The diagnosis may be writer’s block, of course. I’ve been working on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way course and I see staring at that evil blank page more clearly as an opportunity to evolve creatively. Okay, that’s self-delusional rah-rah that might not work but it doesn’t mean I can’t try. It also doesn’t mean I’ve got the foggiest clue how to get past it other than to write the horrible scene. Get it down on paper. Call him a murderer. Give the ending away. Move people like piles of earth with a back hoe. It’ll never make it into the final draft but the crumpling sound I imagine I hear when metaphorically ripping that “it was a dark and stormy knight” crap from the typewriter to pitch it, Michael Jordan like, into the waste paper basket on the far side of the room will be satisfying in its own way. And if I’m lucky, or just a little out of the flow, maybe my brain will break loose. It sounds more painful than it is. Unplug the dam and the words, those elusive themes and reversals and pithy comebacks will, well, come back. And I will feel positively giddy about it. That is, if writer’s block is the problem. Sometimes, the diagnosis isn’t an exact science.

My second answer to the what is the hardest scene question is really just a corollary of the first. The hardest scene is the one I’m not interested in writing. If I don’t want to write something, it doesn’t get written. Best to cop to it. It’s not a dodge either. A lack of interest is like a car accident. You can’t look away and it’s never pretty. How much an author enjoys the moment always comes through on the page. You can’t fake it like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. The joy, the “I crack myself up” laugh out loud scene, the where is my box of Kleenex sob moment cannot be manufactured. That joyful noise from a keyboard humming with I can’t wait to get to the next line can make every other structurally necessary transition or set up scene very hard to write.

I make it worse for myself. I write non-sequentially. When I’m in a funny mood (or at least when I think I’m funny), I pick a richochet repartee scene from the rough outline and let my smart mouth have at it. When I’m in a romantic mood, my characters end up, well, relaxed. But at the end of a book, or when I’m in rewrites, I don’t always have the luxury of matching my head space to my editorial requirements. It’s a lot like matching socks. I love my Pippi Longstocking pair but they are best kept for circus school. If I wore them to work, well, people would talk. There are days that the work socks are the ones you’ve got to pull on to get the job done. It’s the business of being an author. The necessary evil. Every day isn’t a Ringling Brothers event I am sorry to say and pretending I’m not circus people in a button-down office environment can be really tough. Like the blocked scenes, I just have to keep putting one key stroke next to another until I get to the other side. Then, I need to rewrite until it works.
I know a lot of authors will say it is the sex scene that is the hardest (no pun intended). All that orchestration like naked Twister. And the euphemisms. How many ways can you say he got lucky? Add in the ‘my mother is going to read this’ psychic scarring and you can have a pretty tough scene to write. Or a murdered child scene. I don’t use them at all because I don’t want to write that. For me. It’s not the hardest scene to write. I just don’t choose to go there emotionally. Those are choices. For a control freak like me, that’s okay. As long as I’m driving, I’m happy to be in the car. It’s when I don’t have a choice, when the writing gods say today is not my day to produce, that I feel the pressure of pushing through the hardest scenes. Here’s to defeating the monster of the blank page and the unwilling heart.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

The scene with a mind of its own

When I have difficulty writing a scene, I have now learned to stop and ask why. Sometimes I have to beat my head against a wall a couple of times to remember to ask why, but I have gotten much better about that, I promise. Usually there is a problem with my story, not me (except for the bloody forehead), and something needs to change.

Often the problem is with my protagonist. She or he refuses to do what she or he needs to do for my plot to continue on merrily. Since I’m stubborn, I will spend more time than is good for me trying to force my character to do what I originally planned. It's my plan, after all. I wrote it. It's terrific. It is necessary for my story. But still my protagonist refuses.

So now I figure that I have three choices.

1) Write the scene anyway. It'll be stilted and terrible, but it will be done JUST LIKE I PLANNED. Isn't that what's most important?

2) Beat up my character. This is very difficult to do with a virtual person, though. But perhaps it's time for him or her to have a near miss with the villain and get a little scraped up, huh? Of course, I'm kidding. I'm not violent at all, and would never think of doing such a thing to anyone virtual or otherwise. But it doesn't matter. These violent acts and threats of violence always seem to fall on, er, deaf ears anyway…

3) Or write something completely different, something that my character wants to do. This requires a different kind of writing, a seat-of-the-pants kind that can be a little scary for someone like me who loves to outline and know where I’m going. If I'm not too bull-headed, something new and exciting usually comes out of choice number three. Something that makes my book better.

My favorite moments are when my characters feel like they’re driving the story (and I’m doing less of the work). In my second book, Dead in the Water (coming out in just a few weeks), I needed a car service driver to get Lydia McKenzie from point A to B. I decided he should be Hispanic, as many of the drivers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn seem to be. But when Lydia slid into his car service, he announced his name was Emmanuel and he was Jamaican. Whoa, I said. Jamaican? Yes, he said, Jamaican. He was so confident that I listened. And he turned out to be such a cool guy that I gave him a much bigger part in the story than I planned. I didn’t regret it, hurt anyone, or even hurt myself. Just the way I like it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Writing is easy ... emotion's the killer

I hate hurting children.

Despise it.

Even in books.

I was attacked by a pair of knifemen when I was 11, and the terror of those several moments when they debated how to slit my throat and stuff me in the state campground's two-holer is as vivid today as it was back in 1967. So. I. Hate. Hurting. Children. Even. In. Books.

I do it anyway. Sometimes art is a Nazi, and I write crime fiction. Meaning, crimes, not daisies and puppies and sunshine. Realistic crimes. Brutal crimes. Crimes that make your soul take a long shower cause they're so greasy.

Occasionally, against kids.

Because that's real life.

So: The Hardest Scene I've Ever Had to Write (To Date) is in my current book, Cut to the Bone. The bad guy is Corey Trent, who's sitting on Illinois Death Row, waiting to be electrocuted tomorrow for a double homicide:

A pregnant mother and her unborn child.

Which I now gotta write.


To this point, the book is a maddening tease: Did Corey Trent commit the crime for which he is going to be electrocuted? Or is he an innocent victim of Death by Politician, my term for our current system of capital punishment. (Not that I've taken sides, mind you.) The secondary story I show throughout Cut to the Bone (in a series of flashbacks) is of an innocent man burned to death in the Illinois electric chair for a crime he did not commit. So, the reader naturally fears that Trent is being wrongly accused too.

Below is the scene, word for word, I wrote to show not only that he's guilty, but that he was happy to have done the inhuman crime and would do so again if given the chance. It's the first time the reader knows this for sure, so the scene had to be strong, nearly medieval, to depict the stunning depravity of Corey Lucas Trent. The images were so strong in my brain (Trent's act was based on a real murder that occurred in the Chicago area, not too far from my home) that the words poured out my fingers like a broken hydrant. One draft and done.

But that didn't make it easy. I cried throughout, heart pounding, jaw muscles pulsing like little hearts. Took me a day or two afterwards to want to get back to the story.

Art is a nail-studded bitch sometimes.

So, the scene. If you're squeamish about blood, don't worry: it's only a conversation. Two murderers on Death Row, talking. Repeat, it's only a conversation; no blood, no gore, no knives, no guns. Only words.

Only words ...

Which tells you that anyone who dismisses wounding criticisms as, "Hey, it's only words," ought to have his or her head examined ...

6:19 p.m.

"How's the tooth?" the grandma strangler said.

"Wiggles some," Corey Trent said. "Healing all right though."

"Cool. Be a shame to lose something that first-rate."

Trent nodded. He'd implanted a steel tooth in the smile-gap the cop had created by stomping his face into goo during the arrest. Looked cooler than hell, the tooth did, all shiny and stainless, and it burnished his rep as a genuine bad-ass. But the other day he'd taken a ferocious beat-down from some prison guards pissed about something or other. Feared he'd lost his sparkler, it wiggled so much. But it was turning out all right ...

"So what'd you want to talk about, man?" Trent said, stretching.

The grandma strangler pried apart the baked food loaf the prison claimed was a square meal. A couple of beet chunks, greenish and hard, flopped onto the grimy concrete floor. He picked them up, popped him into his mouth. Get sick they can't execute you, that was the law. The cons ate all kinds of shit hoping ...

"My brother got into town today," the strangler said, looking away in case Corey was uncomfortable talking about this topic. "Couple cousins too. Gonna witness my burn next Friday. So I was thinking I could ... well, you know."

"No, I don't know. What?"

"I could ask them to come by tomorrow."

"Come by for what?" Trent said, genuinely puzzled.

"For your burn, man. You said your family's not coming. You won't have no one when you die. That sucks." The words burbled freely now. "You can have my family if you want. They're good old boys. Won't mind seeing it twice."

Trent was touched by the offer. Couldn't say it, of course. But still.

"Naw," he said, punching the strangler's arm. "Be all right. Just cause my people's a bunch of pansies doesn't mean yours should do double-duty." He grinned. "Not like I'm gonna die anyway."

"Shee-it, boy, you gonna fry like hash browns," the strangler said, wincing as he bit on something hard. "Just like I'm gonna next Friday. So, since we're dead men talkin', I wanna know something. I want the no-shit truth, Corey."

Trent arched an eyebrow. The strangler's slightly crossed eyes gleamed, and he moved closer.

"Are you guilty?" he whispered. "Did you really cut that big ol' cow into McNuggets like they say?"

Trent snorted. "Hell, no, I didn't," he scoffed. "I've never killed anyone in my life."

"Me neither," the strangler said, spitting out the hard piece. It bounced into a urine puddle in the corner. He briefly considered retrieving and swallowing. Stayed where he was. Some things were more disgusting than death.

"If you're innocent, then why you on the Row?" Trent said.

"I was framed."

"Me, too," Trent said.

They stared at each other.

Burst out laughing.

"You sure you wanna know what happened?" Trent said.

"Yeah. I do."

"Aw right then," Trent said, settling back against the concrete wall. Its dungeon coolness radiated through his prison-issued denim. "Here goes ..."

Old lady wants a kid. Me too. I don't want her screwing up her figure, though--that ho is hot and I got her broke in just right. So I grab my keys and go shopping.

Few minutes later I'm at the preggo store. You know, toys and stuffed elephants and diapers and shit. A preggo's in the parking lot, waddling back to her car. Like a walrus, all stuck out. Looks beat as hell.

I roll down my window, ask directions to a church. Real polite, ma'am and miss and I pray your baby's blessed. She smiles, leans close, all trusting. I whack her in the head with my tire iron. Jump out and throw her in the trunk. Tie on the gag and take off.

Hour later I'm at the abandoned gas station where I take all my side ho's. Variety is the spice of life, right? Ha! Anyway, this place is out in the country. Nothing around but crickets. Boarded up tight. I know which nails are rusted away, of course.

Drag my preggo inside. Bout broke my damn back cause that balloon of hers ain't exactly helium. I rope her hands to a busted toilet, her feet to a pipe. Stretch her like a hammock and slap her awake. Big cow eyes flicker open.

I pull the knife from my pants. It's eight inches long and thick as a--no, man my knife. T'other's a yard long and a foot wide. At least. Ha.

Preggo whimpers into the gag. She already knows what's gonna happen to her. Since I know it too, I figure let's get it on. She follows the blade like one of those hypnotized snakes.

I cut away her clothes, then her panties. Take my time; she's good-looking for a preggo, why not enjoy it? I rub her down there to open things up, then put in the blade. She's screaming like Judgement Day into the gag. Guess it was, for her. I start sawing, adjusting my angle as the red squirts out. Gotta do this right, you know. Can't damage Junior or the ho will be pissed.

Meanwhile, I'm slurping them plump ol' titties. Man they tasty. All fat and goobly cause a bun's in the oven. Salty like pretzels, they are. Maybe peanut butter.

I cut straight up to her ribs, then across, then down. Her belly falls down. Kinda like the flap on long johns, right? Kid's right there, all webbed in like Spider Man. I yank him out. I know it's a boy cause of his Johnson, though it's shrimpy as a prison guard's. Ha! I smack his ass to make him breathe--saw that on TV once--and he starts yellin' like he's been shot.

I tuck Junior into my coat. Don't want him catching cold. Preggo's dead, bled out. I thought about fucking her, but t'weren't nothing left down there to fuck, right? Besides, it'd be kinda weird, her dead and all. So I walk away.

Three steps and something's tugging on me. I forgot to cut the cord! So I grab a handful and pop it off. Preggo bleats like a sheep. I hit my head jumping so high--it was fuckin' zombie time, man. I stab her in the neck till she's dead dead. Then tuck the cord under the kid, so it don't leak all over my leather seats. We leave.

I'm just about to my car when the kid starts bawling. Shut the hell up boy or I'll cut you like your mama, I say. He's not obeying, so I shake him. Gotta let 'em know who's boss or they walk all over you.

Next thing you know the little bastard's taking a dump on me. Damn, it stinks. Hey, quit laughing, it was damn awful smelling that shit. Anyway, the kid stunk like a hog farm, and now I do too. He's screaming harder. So I smack him till his eyes wobble, jam a hanky in his mouth. Now he's quiet.

That's when I hear crashing steps. I turn around. Two big bastards, rushing me like nose guards, something shiny in their hands. They hollering Police, freeze, don't move or we'll blast ya. Like Miami Vice except their clothes are shitty. Turns out they're on stakeout a couple miles away and stopped at the gas station to drain the lizard. Looked inside while shaking 'em off and saw the butchered preggo. Heard the kid howling, spotted me.

I take off. I know these woods like the back of my hand, so it'll easy to lose two big dopes who don't, right? I wish! They're gaining on me every step. So I wind up and bounce the kid off a tree stump. They're police so they have to stop to save him. This I know like the gospel of Jesus--they gotta stop to save a life.

Wrong again. Martin Benedetti, he's a sheriff's guy, he stops. Starts doing that CPR. But the other one keeps charging. Branch, his name is. Local cop. Got some goofy name like Caesar or Detroit ... Hercules. That's it, Hercules Branch.

Anyway, Branch is about caught up to me no matter how fast I run. So I fall to the ground, start hollering I give up, don't hurt me none man. But I'm hiding my knife under me. He lands on top, jangling handcuffs. I snake around and sling my blade. Catch him right across his ugly face. He springs a dozen leaks, eyeball to chin. Keeps fighting, but weaker now. I wiggle out of his grasp. Gonna stab him in the heart fore he gets to his gun and triggers a buncha bullets in my ass, then lose myself in the woods.

I hear a bellow. Like Godzilla or something. I look up. It's Benedetti, and man is he pissed.

I get up the knife but he don't care. Kicks my arm like a football. Knife spins into the trees, arm goes the other way. Benedetti rips out a chunk of my hair, then locks up my good arm. Snap, it's broke too. Hollers crazy stuff about my son, his son, dead sons, everyone's son. Knocks me down and starts stomping. Those boots hurt like crazy so I kick him in the nuts. It's like they're made of cement--he don't care. He's on fire. He kicks the snot out of me. Smashes my face on a tree root, knocks out my front tooth. I know I'm gonna die, right then and there.

Then he's off me. Branch is yelling at him, Can't do it, man, can't kill him, ain't got no weapon no more. Dumb-ass cops. I'm them, I kill me dead and stick the knife back in my hand. These knuckleheads, they're too "moral" for that. They got "rules." I don't. That's why I always win. Always, always, always.

Only thing I regret is not having my son no more. Woulda been fun having one of them. They play ball and shit, fetch beer when you say. Make you look good. Walk tall. But Benedetti screwed that up. Forced me to kill my own damn son. If he hadn't made me do that, who knows? Maybe Junior woulda come by Sundays to visit his old man. Maybe even show up tomorrow to watch the burn. Me and Junior, we were close, he woulda come ...

"Now that," the grandma strangler said, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, "is one bitchin' good story."

Trent punched the man's arm, happy to have the audience. Saying he was innocent all the time when he was actually proud of his work got pretty damn old.

"Stick around for tomorrow," he said happily. "The sequel's even better."

- - -

Like I said, the writing went fast--it poured out in one take. The most emotionally fraught scenes are the easiest for me to write, as my fingers feed off their raw energy.

But seeing the computer screen through my tears?

Now that's tough.

My only regret in writing this was choosing that particular scene to read to an audience. (Bill was there, he'll tell ya.) I thought it was profound, and it was. But I could see in their faces they didn't like it one little bit. I should have picked something more benign, left this strictly in the book, to be dug up like a slime worm in a graveyard. Live and learn.

As you probably figured out, I didn't get killed in 1967--the two attackers heard someone coming and broke it off, choosing instead to flee. (Hey, if they hadn't, some zombie-guy would be typing this instead of me. Ha!) But the memory lives forever, and in a funny way, helps make my writing better. Emotion is a great motivator.

And, I killed Corey Trent in the execution chamber.

Payback, in books as well as life, is sweet.


That essay was way too serious for Fridays with Shane, wasn't it? All right, here goes:
Archie Comics announced today that Riverdale High is getting its first gay character. In an issue out Sept. 1, the long-running comic will introduce its first "openly gay" character, Kevin Keller. The strapping blond hunkety-hunk will defeat Jughead in a burger eating contest, win the affection of Veronica and wrestle over how to gently rebuff her flirtations. Jon Goldwater, co-CEO of Archie Comics, says the introduction of Kevin is "about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive."

My comment: Cool beans, and about time--gays have been part of society since the first human crawled out of the primordal ooze and said, "Hey, do you work out?" But more important: Will Betty out herself in solidarity? Or finally get it over with and get laid with SOMEbody for God's sake ...

Shane Gericke is the author of Blown Away, Cut to the Bone, and starting July 6, 2010, Torn Apart, the third in his national bestselling crime series starring hard-charging police detectives Martin Benedetti and Emily Thompson. For excerpts from all three books, please click here to go to his website.

A … trapped in a writer's body

by Bill

What is the most difficult scene you've ever had to write?

The last one? The next one?

And how did I get through it?

With the crying and the procrastination and the ice cream sandwiches.

But on a more serious note, I find there are different kinds of difficult scenes. For me, the most common struggle is also the most mundane. It's that getting from here to there stuff, the transitions between scenes. The good news is often the best transition is no transition at all. Just skip the interstitial hooey and get on with it. My problem is I rarely recognize what's hooey until after I've struggled through walking down the front steps, out to the car, fumbling with the keys, driving off, turning left at the light, then right at the Pizza Palace, then …

Yeah, you get it. Booooor-ing. Ergo, Baleeted!

The other kind of trouble comes when my reach exceeds my grasp. This is likely a familiar problem for many writers. I suspect it's a rare author of serial killer thrillers who is also a serial killer. (I hope.)

But there's always that whole research and imagination thing, so somehow we trundle along. Arguably, the act of writing (and any other kind of creation) is always an act of reaching beyond ourselves. While I don't think every scene we write should be the challenge of our creative lives, I do think if it isn't hard, perhaps we're not doing it right.

In Day One, among the goals I set for myself were to write from the point of view of a young woman and to write from the point of view of a teenage boy. Both offered challenges, but of course writing as a young woman was the greater reach. At least there was a time in my life when I was a teenage boy. I even remember those days sometimes. Especially when I watch The Breakfast Club for the umpteenth time. (Did anyone's high school life ever feature a cool dance montage, because mine never did. Damn it.)

Turned out the boy was a lot harder to write than the young woman. This did not surprise me. Years and years ago, I wrote a scene in which a woman gives birth after a long, difficult labor. The scene wasn't easy (I'm kinda the polar opposite of a woman giving birth after a long, difficult labor), but it turned out to be not as tough as I thought it would be.

At its core, I believe good story telling is about empathy, and I believe we strengthen our empathy the way we strengthen anything else: through practice and use. The question is then why I find it easier to empathize with females than males, at least to the extent that I can winnow my way into the voice of these female characters more readily than the males.

I'm not suggesting I somehow figured out how to practice being a woman in labor. (I'm not this guy.) I suspect the reason is related to why I find those mundane transitional scenes (including those I don't subsequent baleet) so difficult. It's a matter of familiarity.

A friend and world traveler once told me he found it easier to adjust and feel comfortable in places which were the most foreign to him. He grew up in Ohio and began traveling as an adult. "Vietnam and Cairo and are easier for me than Toronto, which is just familiar enough that my assumptions get often the better of me. In a city half a world away where I have no shared language or cultural touchstones I have no assumptions to fall back on."

Something similar is at work with me when I write. 13-year-old Eager Gillespie is just familiar enough to me as a former 13-year-old boy that it's easy for me to forget he's still very different not only from who I am now but from who I was then. In contrast, I have no illusions about my understanding of Ellie Spaneker. It goes without saying I'm going to have to do a lot of work to develop a sense of who she is and how to express her feelings, values and experiences on the page.

In the end, the trick is not to make assumptions about any of my characters. Skin Kadash is an adult male not much older than me who lives not far from where I live. But he's not me, any more than Eager or Ellie or any of the other characters I've created over the years. With all of them, I need to find a way to empathize with who they are, not who I assume they might be.

To help celebrate my joinage of Criminal Minds, I'm giving stuff away. Here is me holding galley copy of my next book, Day One, due out in June from Tyrus Books. Anyone who comments on this post or on my April 8th entry will be entered into a random drawing to win this galley. The drawing will take place on April 25. I'll also throw in a few Day One tchotchkes to the winner, including one super secret prize. In fact, I'm leaning toward TWO prize winners, cuz why not? So say hello for your chance to win.

I will announce the winners on both my Twitter stream and in the comments here on this entry on Sunday, April 25th.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Digging Deep to Make It Real

by Sophie

What is the most difficult scene you've ever had to write? And why?

The most wrenching scenes are actually the easiest for me to write. If a story stirs me up, it’s usually because my emotions are already invested in the setup or outcome, usually because the scene somehow reflects an event in my own life that was evocative, either positively or - more often - negatively. (No mystery there - happy doesn’t make for satisfying fiction. Trouble does.)

This is not to say that these scenes trip gaily off my fingertips. I live in the emotion: the grief, fear, rage or whatever feelings I am trying to describe in my characters and invoke in my readers are present as I work. In fact I would say that the more they take over my head-space, the more successful the writing is likely to be.

Odd as this may seem, though, it’s not a negative experience. For me, the act of writing allows me to process and eventually purge the effects of the inciting action. If it’s on my mind sufficiently to motivate me to write it in the first place, it usually means that I have not finished with those emotions. I may not have forgiven myself for a mistake made long ago, vanquished an old fear, recovered from a past hurt, or gotten over an old love.

The experience has proved most cathartic when the emotion at the core is shame.

I think this is because for me, the act of writing is in part the act of identifying and accepting the things I resist. (The reverse is true; when I have resisting writing about something I was usually trying to keep it buried.)

In my young adult novels I wrote about being rejected and shunned in high school. While this was not the central theme of the book, writing it was a powerful experience for me nonetheless. I found that the words poured forth with the immediacy and vivid pain as though the experiences took place yesterday, not thirty years ago. In that sense the writing was easy. I had access to the sensations, thoughts and emotions of the awkward and isolated teen - I didn’t have to imagine or invent any of it.

You might think that I would find the experience painful and, in fact, in the past I have skirted the subject and had to retreat from it because it was still too raw. What’s different now, I think, is that I understand that I did not engender my own pain. I have no remnants of the belief that I was truly flawed. Unburdened by mistaken beliefs, I can access the feelings and, finally, eradicate them through fiction.

(Anyone who doubts the therapeutic powers of fiction really ought to write the story of their most painful moments in the third person - a little authorial distance seems to be endlessly freeing for the inner storyteller.)

I use shame as an example, but it really works for any powerful memory. I recently wrote a relationship scene while thinking about a boy who broke my heart when I was twenty. Again, the passing of time has allowed me to see a number of things far more clearly (e.g., what I perceived as charisma was really self-absorption) but I still can call up the sharp-edged emotions the experience evoked for me (longing, obsession, indifference to everything else, despair). The memories allowed me to create a far more convincing scene.

It takes a fair amount of guts to write the hard stuff, but the hard stuff is often the best stuff. Personally, I think it's fine if you have to work up to it; that's what "starter books" are for.

Well, I must say that I can't think of a single appropriate image to slap on this post. That's never happened to me before! Ah well...I'll try to be more visual next time. :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sex and Death

This week the quirky and fascinating Tony Hays is guest blogging for me, Rebecca Cantrell. Tony Hays travels a lot. He's a novelist and journalist who has visited nearly thirty countries, living and teaching in six of them, including three and a half years in Kuwait.

But Tony doesn't just travel in space, he also travels in time. His mystery series at Tor Forge is set in Dark Ages Britain. When the first of his series, The Killing Way, was released in March 2009, it received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal. The second, The Divine Sacrifice, was released on March 30, 2010. In yet another starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called it “brilliant.” And Booklist proclaimed it, “another edgy installment of this superb, Arthurian-inspired mystery series.”

Tony, amongst all those stars and accolades lurk some scenes that were difficult to write. Which scene was the worst?

The most difficult scene I’ve ever had to write. Hmm. I’m afraid this might be a cliché, but the most difficult scenes for me to write fall into two camps – sex scenes and death scenes, for many of the same reasons.

Now, it’s not that I don’t have a pretty clear understanding of sex; I’ve been married twice. (Hold up. That might not be the best evidence.) At any rate, the problem with writing sex scenes is that the sexual experience can tend to defy definition. And that makes most sex scenes either dry and dull or just downright silly. Writing them, that is. They either come out with so many anatomical terms that they read like a sex ed textbook (which I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth) or the prose becomes so purple – “engorged members, maidenheads, etc. - that they read like an entry from the “On a dark and stormy night” competition.

In my new novel, The Divine Sacrifice, two characters had developed an intense attraction for each other. (Like Faulkner , I believe in “character possession,” when the characters rise up and take control of the story.) For it to be completely unrequited was just not in the cards. I twisted and I turned. I looked at all the metaphors and the similes, all the euphemisms, and each time I rejected them. The novel is a first person narration, so I opted for the Raymond Carver path: “I took her.” In this instance, less is more. I’m not sure that that needs any further description. And I remain pretty satisfied with that decision.

Death scenes are equally difficult to write. Make them last too long and they seem staged and melodramatic. Make them too brief, and you end up leaving your reader dissatisfied and wanting more. Towards the end of The Killing Way, a character dies. Initially, it played out in a rather short sequence. My editor thought it should be expanded, and rightly so. Because I have concerns about writing death scenes, I had under-written it, so to speak. I did expand it, but as a couple of readers have pointed out, the revised version comes off as a little staged and melodramatic. Obviously, I still have something to learn.

In a larger sense, it is perfectly logical that these sort of scenes, the creation of life and its departure, would prove problematic. Both are highly intense, personal experiences, and how a person deals with them in real life is as individualistic as you can get. In the final analysis, I think the secret for me is to make these admittedly difficult scenes as true to the character of the participants as possible.

The Dreaded Body Scene

“What is the hardest scene you’ve ever had to write and why?”

Wow. Tough question. Let me think… Ah! Yes, I know – The Dreaded Body Scene. Now the question becomes how much to reveal without dropping a huge spoiler because the hardest scene I’ve written (so far) is in the second book – the one I’m currently racing to finish before my deadline smacks me in the face.

Hmm…the scene… This particular scene haunted me for weeks. Normally I don’t shy from writing about dead bodies. I’m not squeamish by any means, (though I keep the gory bits to a minimum, or at least try to, for others) but The Dreaded Body Scene was really hard for me to sit down and write. I’ll tell you why in a moment. As for the scene itself, let’s just say involves a body in the trunk of a car in a salvage yard and leave it at that.

Now, to address why The Dreaded Body Scene was so difficult… It wasn’t difficult from a literary or technical standpoint because I try not to be too graphic in my descriptions. No, this was difficult on a deeper, more personal, and emotional level. As many of you may (or may not) know, my mother passed away very unexpectedly in December. I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that I was present when she passed. Mom and I were very close and the last few months haven’t been easy, especially when combined with the added stress of a deadline. Within a week or so of Mom’s funeral, I was faced with writing – you guessed it – The Dreaded Body Scene and I chose to handle it as a professional, with grace and dignity.

In other words, I avoided it like the freaking plague for weeks.

However, I couldn’t keep avoiding it even though I sort of like my tags of [Refer to the DBS]. Events later in the book hinge on that scene and what is discovered/uncovered. I eventually found myself in a position where I couldn’t continue without actually tackling The Dreaded Body Scene. So…I did…and I survived.

It wasn’t easy. In fact it was the only scene I wrote that entire day. After writing it, I had to find my Happy Fluffy Place again so I binged on Walt Disney movies and turned to some friends for comfort and fun. Nothing counters the effects of a Dreaded Body Scene like fuzzy faces.

To the far right is Hercules, a Chow/Shepherd mix, who I recently re-inherited from my mother. He's about 13-years old now and not as spry as he used to be, but he's a good companion.

To the left, from the top, are Panic, Disorder, Chaos, and Nugget. Yes, the first three cats do live up to their names. They came as "a set" because they're siblings. Nugget, on the other hand, came later and is a special case. But, that is a story for another day.

Difficult scenes are going to happen, regardless of the "why" behind them. I think the better question would be how do we respond to and cope with them when they occur. For me, animation and warm fuzzy piles of fluff work best.

-- Jeannie

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Red Pencil Skid Marks

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

How do I know which editorial changes will fundamentally change my book for the better? Crystal ball. Ouija Board. Dial-A-Psychic. Okay, so you’re not buying and I don’t blame you. The truth is I don’t.

First, let me be clear. I make even dumb mistakes that my eagle-eyed editor spots. I don’t think of these so much as editorial changes as much as the head slap I could have had a V-8 moment. Not that my editor ever suggested as much or was anything other than gentle about the glaring boo-boos. But let’s face it. When a character’s eyes change color like mood rings when he has 20/20 vision and no need for contact lenses, that’s not an editorial change request. That is an author-attributable brain cramp and an editorial savior keeping me from sitting in the corner answering the five hundred emails that my equally sharp readers would send me to tell me that I didn’t have my best day. Although they, like my editor, are always gracious about it. Not that it stops me from banging my own head against a wall. What can I say? After doing draft ten or twelve or forty-one, I develop a forest for the trees blindness.

The real challenge lies in the content edit. When has a character become a caricature? When does a plot twist give readers whiplash requiring immediate chiropractic intervention? When does sexy start to feel pervvy and funny become, well, not? Unlike the protagonist holding things in three hands, these change requests are shades of gray. They are subjective and like all things subjective don’t come with a bright line. I don’t know when an editorial content change is going to make the entire work better, more believable, more readable or more entertaining. I also don’t know how making one change will shift the kaleidoscope of the story as a whole. I write mysteries. Every element is intertwined. Think of editorial changes as a literary version of Jenga. If I pull the piece from the middle, will the stack fall? Can I slide in something new without disrupting the structure? I’m no engineer but I bet even they couldn’t tell me in advance.

Sometimes my writer’s instinct baulks from the jump. I know the characters. I know the story. I’ve lived with them for a long time before my editor got to meet them. That doesn’t make her wrong so I actively fight against the urge to defend myself. Editing is collaborative and no one said my baby is ugly and looks just like me no matter what my ears might hear in the first moments. I have to process the request. Try it on like new shoes. Even if they are the same size you’ve worn for years, each pair fits a differently. You’ve got to walk around the store a little bit before you know if they feel like pillows are are definitely going to give you blisters. So I take a chapter or two and pick an editorial suggestion I’m not necessarily comfortable with implementing. I change the POV character or take the edge off the sarcastic tone or even just send someone from the room. Then I let the scene sit. Like wine, edits require fermentation. I do this in a few places using just one content edit suggestion or two, max, at a time. Trying to change too much at once can easily turn a reasonable draft into a bit pot of word soup. Then, I read it again. I ask a couple of my regular readers to chime in (they aren’t shy). I might even go back to the editor to double check if we are a) in agreement on the meaning of the suggestion as implemented and b) think it makes the book better. The answer can be an obvious one. Yes or no. But certainty is rare. Sometimes I have to expand my experimental field. Sometimes I undo what I’ve just done. Sometimes, my editor asks me to go back. Or forward. Editing is the push me-pull me of the writing process. One step forward, two steps back. Or is it two steps forward, one back? I never was a dancer.

When I get to that last page of the proofs, with my new book ready to go to press, I’ll know that most of my editorial changes made for a better book. But I’ll always wonder about some of my choices. No matter how much editorial input I am fortunate enough to get, they are, in the end, my choices. Or my fault, depending on your perspective. I’ll question each choice over and over again. I can’t help it. I’m an artist, anal-retentive and a perfectionist. I know. Perfect art is a figment of my imagination and yet I will continue to self-flagellate in its pursuit. Second guessing is second nature. The trick is to stick to the real question. It’s not are the red pencil skid marks worth the road rash? The real question is did I write the best book I could? Can I put my name on the cover with pride? Can I see the funny side when the darn cat changes color…again?

Thanks for reading and forgiving me my blunders.