Saturday, July 31, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

By Michael

The first of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules of Writing is to “Never open a book with weather.” But I like the weather. And I like darkness, storms, and especially stormy darkness.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton's famous opening, “It was a dark and stormy night,” is a joke to most of us, a gothic cliché. And it’s not even a new joke and wasn’t new when he penned the line in earnest. Two hundred years ago – well before Bulwer-Lytton wrote the words – Coleridge riffed in Christabel, asking, “Is the night chilly and dark?” and answering, deadpan, “The night is chilly, but not dark.” In later years, George Sand, Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, and many others used Bulwer-Lytton’s line in one form or another, usually mockingly. In the 1960s, Charles Schulz still was laughing when he allowed Snoopy, sitting on top of his dog house, to type the line as the opening of his great novel.

The line is a cliché that never gets old, and so is the joke – still funny after all these years. Why? Because storms and darkness scare us – often in a pleasant way – and have scared us since the time when storms flooded our caves and our pussycats sank saber teeth into our legs at night. It’s primal, the way many fears are. If you jump out of a closet and yell, “Boo,” I’ll jump, though I’ve heard the word thousands of times, and if you set a scene in a dark storm – call the scene what you will: Key Largo, Frankenstein, whatever – I’m hooked. Yes, I’m guilty: I like dark and stormy nights.

The main problem with Bulwer-Lytton’s line is neither the darkness nor the storm. The problem is the first two words: “It was.” These words are dead weight, and you should never start a book with dead weight, unless you are, say, Charles Dickens and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Otherwise, start the book with action: The storm stormed and the darkness darkened. Or something like that.

Even Elmore Leonard, when pressed, has allowed that dark and stormy nights are okay if handled right. “Never open a book with the weather,” he says. “Never” – except when you do: “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather,” he adds to his proscription, “you don’t want to go on too long.” In other words, you can say that “It was a dark and stormy night” if that information tells readers about a character (or about other key features of a story). So, don’t write the following: It was a dark and stormy night. The killer, with switchblade in hand, went hunting for blondes. The darkness and the storm tell readers nothing about the killer or, for that matter, the blondes. Instead, you need to make the weather and the atmospherics matter. So, write, It was a dark and stormy night. The meteorologist, with switchblade in hand, went hunting for blondes, who also were meteorologists.

Or something like that.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Dark and Stormy Jingle Bells Night . . .

By Shane

Hmmm ... write something clever that starts, "It was a dark and stormy night." What to do, what to do ...

Got it.

Santa, stage left.

It's eight hundred million degrees outside, you dummy! you might protest. Christmas ain't till December! Well, I couldn't agree more. But some of the shitwit retailers out there are advertising Christmas stuff already. Inglorious basterds, indeed.

But I'll use it as the excuse I need to present this original production of ... A Dark and Stormy Jingle Bells Night!

Before we begin, you'll need a refresher on the song, seeing as your brain is sodden with summer beer and humidity. So I thoughtfully posted this video to remind you how the song goes for real. Well, sorta for real ...

Yeah, baby.

But the fun isn't over--now YOU get to sing along with Mitch, using my special lyrics. As you might expect, this being Friday and me being Shane, it's about Santa getting his ass robbed by a coupla trailer-trashers. Here's an instrumental version of Jingle Bells, to provide your musical accompaniment. Lyrics are below. And don't worry that you're in the middle of a busy office--just sing, sing, sing. Bosses love happy employees!

And a-one, and a-two, and a ...


Twas a dark and stormy night,
When Grandpaw said to me,
It's time to find that Santa guy,
And knock him to his knees.


So I went and got my gun,
And Grandpaw took his knife,
And we jumped into the four-by-four,
And sped all through the night.

O! Stormy night, stormy night,
We're goin' huntin' now,
Cause Santa's got that bag of gifts,
And dang we want it now ...
O! Darkest night, darkest night,
We're bearing gun and knife,
Cause unless we rob that bearded gent,
We'll have nothing for The Wife.

So we drove down Raven Lane,
And turned at Nevermore,
We flew the hill at Sherlock Place,
And ran up Watson's Noir.

We slapped Jack Reacher's head,
And spat on Alex Cross,
Then aimed our truck at Rizzoli,
But she saw our lights and ducked.

O! Stormy night, stormy night,
We're goin' huntin' now,
Cause Santa's got that bag of gifts,
And dang we want it now ...
O! Darkest night, darkest night,
We're bearing gun and knife,
Cause unless we rob that bearded gent,
We'll have nothing for The Wife.

Then Grandpaw spotted red,
And bearded whitey stuff,
Said put your foot to the pedal, boy,
Or surely he'll take off.

So I gave the Ford the gas,
Ran up the sled's back ass,
Then Rudolph gave the evil eye,
And caused us to back off.

O! Stormy night, stormy night,
We're goin' huntin' now,
Cause Santa's got that bag of gifts,
And dang we want it now ...
O! Darkest night, darkest night,
We're bearing gun and knife,
Cause unless we rob that bearded gent,
We'll have nothing for The Wife.

We jumped out from our truck,
And waved the gun and knife,
Ol' Santa's eyes went shiny red,
As he cried, "Please spare my life!"

I said, Hey Santa man,
Just give us all your loot,
Pile it up in our SUV,
And then we'll let you scoot.

O! Stormy night, stormy night,
We're goin' huntin' now,
Cause Santa's got that bag of gifts,
And dang we want it now ...
O! Darkest night, darkest night,
We're bearing gun and knife,
Cause unless we rob that bearded gent,
We'll have nothing for The Wife.

We saw him nod his head,
We put down gun and knife,
And then we heard a snort so loud,
It felt like End of Life.

We turned back to our truck,
To see the reindeer play,
They used their hooves as hockey sticks,
And our gas tank as their prey.

O! Stormy night, stormy night,
We're goin' huntin' now,
Cause Santa's got that bag of gifts,
And dang we want it now ...
O! Darkest night, darkest night,
We're bearing gun and knife,
Cause unless we rob that bearded gent,
We'll have nothing for The Wife.

Then Santa kicked our butts,
And stuffed us in his sack,
Said the brand-new reindeer games,
Would feel like hacky-sack.


So Prancer took a shot,
Then Vixen beat us hot,
Then Donner, Blitzen, all the rest,
They beat us into snot.

And Rudolph made a cell,
From wind and snow and ice,
Said, Boys, you both get one phone call,
I'd make it real nice.

So Grandpaw called his wife,
And asked her real sweet,
To put up both our bails right now,
Or we'd surely be dead meat.

Then Santa set us free,
With a final mighty kick,
Said, Good thing that I'm gone tonight,
Or I'd beat you both with sticks.

O! Darkest night, stormy night,
We wanted Santa's stash,
But the jolly gent was way too smart,
And turned us into mash ...
O! Truck's burned up, money's gone,
What will we give the wife?
Hey, wait! Ol' Santa left a gift ...

A lump of coal! All right!

When Shane Gericke isn't channeling his demons into songs like this, he's out beating the bushes for TORN APART, his brand-new crime thriller from Kensington. Please visit him at

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Fall of Sean “Fo Nuff” Ferrell and Dan “Danny K” Krokos

by Bill

You may notice something about today's blog. First, it's not by Kelli, even though it's her turn. And second, it's not by me, even though I asked her if we could go tradesies this week. That's because it's by my pal Harley May and it's in honor of a really awesome book which is about to be released. Numb by Sean Ferrell isn't a crime novel in the strictest sense, but it does explore a mystery, and it does so with humor and pathos and a lot of damn fine writing. It's a book I think everyone should read, because I think everyone will love it.

I'm going to turn things over to Harley, who will explain to you how you can win a copy of Numb for yourself.

Hi, everyone. My name is Harley May and I’m very thankful to Bill for letting me use his slot here at Criminal Minds. I am a wife, mother, avid reader, and writer of all things YA. Recently, I won an ARC of Sean Ferrell’s debut novel, Numb, coming from Harper Perennial August 2010, and wrote a review of it on my blog.

I thought of a giveaway involving the following photos:
  • A man who drives nails through his body for profit.
  • A lion fight.
  • A man on fire.
All three scenes are from Numb and if you’d like to learn more about the novel (I think you will — it is brilliant) head on over and check out the contest.

Unless you include the Nancy Drew series, I’d never read anything in the crime/mystery genre until Bill’s Day One. Result? I am now a big fan. So, seeing as I’m a fan of Bill Cameron, Sean Ferrell, and their books, I wrote a tiny bit of fan fiction in honor of Sean’s book release. There’s some Dan Krokos thrown in for fun.

Here is a tale that began one dark and stormy night.

The Fall of Sean “Fo Nuff” Ferrell and Dan “Danny K” Krokos

Bill Cameron, stage manager to the Caucasian Duo, ushered the pair on their tour bus. They could still hear the pelting of metal on stage and the boo’s of the crowd as they drove away.

Dan rubbed a spot on the back of his head. “I think that was a coke can that hit me.” He glared at his rapping counterpart. “Why’d you just walk off the stage, Sean?”

Sean didn’t reply.

“You know he doesn’t answer to Sean anymore. I believe it was the lack of Evian available back stage.” Bill pulled an orange peel out of his beard. “I didn’t eat an orange today. Was that from the crowd?” He noticed a box on the floor of the bus. “Ooh, your action figures came in.”

Bill tore into the cardboard box and pulled out several Ken-sized replicas of Danny K and Fo Nuff in their performance apparel.

Dan stared at Sean. “No one gives a shit whether or not you get your Evian before a show. There are two people in this group, Sean. Two.” He held up two fingers to Bill.

Sean picked up the action figures. He made the Fo Nuff doll beat up the Danny K one.

“He’s doing that on purpose.” Dan pointed his finger at Sean and looked to Bill for action.

Bill cleared his throat. “Sean…”

Sean kept his gaze on the action figures, sighed and shook his head.

Bill cleared his throat. “Sorry. Fo Nuff, the Caucasian Duo can’t survive any more of your outbursts. Half the venues cancelled after they heard about what happened in Tempe.”

Dan played with his iPhone. “Who throws a fit over one green M &M? I’m tweeting about this.”

Bill put a hand on Dan’s shoulder and whispered, “Let’s not do anything else to aggravate Sean tonight.”

Dan adjusted his pants. “I don’t care who he thinks he is, I’m not going to…”

Bill stopped him again. “I’ll go speak with him. You know he doesn’t respond well to anger.”

Dan mouthed, “Two people. Two”

Bill trekked across the bus aisle and sat down next to Sean on his monogrammed love seat. The trusty stage manager pat the pockets of his bedazzled hiking vest until he found the one he wanted. Sean looked up from his action figure fight expectantly. He knew what was coming. Bill handed him a piece of bacon.

Sean took a bite and chewed thoughtfully.

“You know Dan loves you.”

Sean nodded.

“We all love you. No one is out to get you. The Evian was a hiccup – nothing intentional. We don’t want to see this group come to an end.”

Sean took another bite of bacon, and put a gloved hand in front of his face. He waved it back and forth. “I’ve got the money right here.”


Bill shot Dan a warning glance over his shoulder. He handed Sean another piece of bacon. “That wasn’t very nice. Why don’t you go over and talk to Dan. I hate seeing you two argue.”

Sean thought this over while he ate the second piece of bacon. Reluctantly, he stood. The dangle of bling from his neck swayed back and forth as the bus jostled him. He neared Dan’s seat, paused, and looked at the Danny K action figure still in his hand. He began to undress the Dan doll and allowed a short giggle. He turned his back on Dan to show Bill. “Look, Danny K doesn’t have any—”

Dan interrupted Sean by tackling him from behind.

Now you all know the tragic story that ended the short-lived rapping career of the Caucasian Duo on that dark and stormy night.

Today, you can find the Caucasian Duo semi-successful in their everyday lives. Dan Krokos teaches martial arts to little old ladies at the Rec. Center. Sean Ferrell can be found whittling the words “Danny K + Fo Nuff 4 Eva” into every tree in Brooklyn. Bill Cameron has discovered a rewarding career in squirrel rearing. All three declined to comment.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Fond Farewell, and Welcome Tracy Kiely

by Sophie

I've loved being a member of the Criminal Minds since the beginning. I knew a few of the CMs way back then, but our little community has grown and multiplied and now I can count dozens of new friends made through the blog. Earlier this month at thrillerfest we had a Criminal Minds lunch where I laughed probably more than I have for the last year. I wish there were pictures...but we barely managed not to get kicked out so perhaps it's just as well.

It makes me sad that it's time for me to pass the torch to a new writer, but also happy and excited because I get to share one of my favorite writing friends with you. Tracy Kiely and I share both an editor and an agent - the fantastic Toni Plummer at St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, and Barbara Poelle - and we've shared a few hijinx and a few beers as well since we first met a couple of years ago.
here's Tracy with me and, from left, Juliet Blackwell and Brad Parks

My daughter is a huge Tracy Kiely fan, and has devoured both her books - MURDER AT LONGBOURN, which came out last , and MURDER ON THE BRIDE'S SIDE which will be out next month. (We "know people" so we snagged an advance copy - ha!) I'm a giant fan too and even wrote up this little blurb to describe BRIDE'S SIDE:

Tracy Kiely’s new mystery, MURDER ON THE BRIDE’S SIDE, pays homage to Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. But one needn’t be an Austen fan to appreciate Kiely’s gentle humor, irresistible characters and whip-smart pacing as she sets up a classic mystery in a sumptuous contemporary setting. Clever, appealing heroine Elizabeth Parker returns to do maid-of-honor duty for best friend Bridget during a wedding weekend at a lavish Virginia estate. When Bridget’s dreadful Aunt Roni is murdered, few tears are shed, but an abundance of suspects emerge among Bridget’s large extended family. Unexpected twists add to the intrigue as hidden agendas, rivalries, and love affairs emerge. A satisfying conclusion leaves the reader hungry for the next installment of Austen-quoting Elizabeth’s adventures.

I know you are going to love getting to know Tracy. As for me, I will be busy working on the next Stella Hardesty novel, as well as getting ready for the release of my young adult novel, BANISHED, which will be out in October.

And I will be lurking around quite a bit, so don't be surprised to see me popping in here and there. After all, once a Criminal Mind...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Words of Pow...

by Josh

“It was a dark and stormy night,” Silverman typed, self-satisfied, and then a hair-strewn crimson arm with eighteen bladed fingers outstretched from his computer monitor and weed-whacked his head off his torso. Thus divorced from the rest of his body, Silverman’s head smacked into the top corner of his room with such force that it became wedged and stuck. It was from this comfortable vantage point that Silverman watched the rest of the beast emerge from his monitor screen. Its head resembled a shoot of broccoli dipped in cherry sauce. Its torso was as hairy and crimson as its arms, although darker near the neck, which suggested the tan-lines one might associate with a sleeveless T. As the beast crawled across the expanse of Silverman’s desk and the blood-honeyed remains of Silverman’s body, its hindquarters finally came into view, although the less said about them, the better.

Silverman, to his credit, never closed his eyes.

“YOU!” growled the beast. Its broccoli shoot head shook violently, as if caught downwind from a mighty fart. “YOU DARE SUMMON ME?!”

At this point, Silverman became confused. “I was just writing a story,” he said. “I’m on deadline.”


“It was an accident. Really.” Silverman noticed that his mouth was becoming dry and concluded that his saliva was probably dribbling out the hole at the bottom of his head. Oh, what he would have given at that moment for a tall glass of water. “I was just trying to set a sinister mood before I introduced my protagonist who is hard-on-his-luck. He’s a PI, you see, and his wife just divorced him and and he’s in his office, staring bleary-eyed down the long neck of a bottle of Jim Beam and—“

Another beast emerged from the computer monitor, a twin of the first save for its skin color, which was all of one shade and thus lacked the embarrassing two-tone tan lines of his brother.

“WHO INCANTS THE SACRED SPELL?” the second beast asked. “WHO SUMMONS US?”

"My name’s Silverman. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’ve published fourteen stories online, not counting my Law & Order: SVU fan fiction. There’s a contest at this website and the winner’s story gets included in this chapbook that all contributors can purchase for a discount and I was just writing my entry when all this started. I really didn’t intend to cause a ruckus.”

The two beasts glanced at each other, if two mounds of cherry-sauced broccoli could be said to glance.

“HE WILL BE A WASTE OF OUR TORTURES,” they decided in unison.

Silverman was mildly offended by this, and he opened his mouth to retort but by now all the saliva left in his mouth had left his mouth and he couldn’t speak.


They shuffled back to the desk, which by now was more a basin of ooze, and returned to their netherworld via Silverman’s computer monitor. The moment that the hindquarters of the final beast had passed through the gateway, Silverman felt a rush of sensation fill his skull, stopping up each of his senses, and as soon as the sensation ceased and his senses returned, he realized he was back in his desk chair. All the gore had vanished from his room and the document on his monitor was absent of words.

“Well,” said Silverman, “I’m sure not going to begin with that sentence.”

He cracked his knuckles, thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and typed out his fresh opening: “Once upon a time…”

This time when Silverman's head was lopped off, it bounced off one of the walls of the room and landed with a wet thump in the bottom of his wicker-sewn wastepaper basket.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Casual Interest

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

You caught me. It's not my usual blog day and I am completely off topic. Yes, I have (temporarily) hijacked the blog. Think of me as the Alexander Haig of cyberspace. The kinder explanation is that I am researching. Maybe I'm plotting a high-tech defamation leads to murder scenario. Or I could be working on a new identity theft. Then again, it might just be the first Monday I could ever get my act together. Many are the explanations. Pick your favorite.

I wanted to thank Stephen for being such a good stand in. If you missed the ever inciteful Shane's comments from late last week, Stephen as a house guest is without peer. He picks up his wet towels from the bathroom floor without being asked but some of Shane's scotch is apparently missing. Like any of us believe that was Stephen.

Since I'm going off the cuff today, I thought I'd talk about how being a mystery writer changes the way you interact with people. I've spent a fair amount of time checking out true gore in crime scenes and autopsies to make sure that my books read believably. All of which is interesting and great. But over the last couple of weeks a friend of mine has had some medical setbacks including two surgeries. There's been draining lymphatic fluid and necrotic tissue and secondary infections. All of which I've documented with my handy iPhone while asking a hundred questions like how deep can you probe into his foot while it is gaping open and he isn't under the influence of anesthesia or any pain killer? When the doctor makes the incision will she remove bone to the metatarsals with a scapel or a drill? These are very good questions and the type of questions I have no doubt every health care practitioner has fielded from a well-informed, trained doctor/family member. When it's just a family friend who wants a better view with camera in hand who is also their lawyer, people go strange. Really strange.

At first I didn't notice. I was busy with the zoom lens. Then, the silence reached defeaning. Do I seem like the fire bug turning up at the scene of every blaze? Would you think I might be a serial confessor and need details to tell a more convincing story? Fine. Be that way. I seem deranged. I clearly have a strong stomach. I definitely find the real world stuff interesting while still providing my friend with some emotional support when I'm not busy being entranced.

I know it's only a matter of time before one of these guys calls the cops. Well, that will be interesting, too.

Thanks for reading.

Monday Gabi (not to be confused with Sunday Gabi)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Creating charismatic villains

This wraps up Stephen's week as GrandMaster. Thanks for stopping by and answering our questions. Best of luck with Boulevard's paperback release this week and with Beat at the end of September! I think we all want to see the next stops on Hayden's journey...

From Gabi: You’ve been compared to James Ellroy, one of my favorites. How do you make your villains so charismatic? Do you cast the characters in your head so the body language and sly wit off-set the horrible things they do?

Stephen: I can only hope my villains have a flavoring of sly wit. Personally, I’d like to spend more time developing my villains. We really don’t get to know them that well in my books. This is because my books are written in third person close, so you never know more than my protagonist. I’d have to change my style a bit if I want to get inside my villain’s head. It’s actually very frustrating, because I feel my bad guys run the risk of seeming two-dimensional. Or, we end up discovering all their motivation in the climactic scene where the hero meets them face-to-face. That kind of stuff can get overdramatic, real quick. It requires a steady hand. I really walk the line on that in Boulevard. I think I’m more successful with it in Beat, where Hayden gets the opportunity to meet and talk with the villains at different points in the story.

While I love a complicated villain, I do believe that the villain only exists in order to challenge the hero. We learn what kind of man (or woman) our hero is by the choices he makes when confronted by the obstacles the villain throws in his path. There is a great Clint Eastwood film called “Tight Rope,” which I reference in Boulevard, where we know nothing about the killer. We never see him, we never get any inkling of why he does what he does. And yet there’s a relationship between him and the hero, we can feel it in every scene. We feel it because of the way the hero reacts. It’s all about the protagonist.

I would love to write a villain in first person, like in Fowles’ “The Collector” or Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me.” Those are brilliant characterizations because the villain is also the protagonist. We have to be able to understand his motivation, or else we don’t participate in his journey. Remember, every character is the hero of his own story. In Hannibal Lector’s mind, he’s the hero. He might revel in the fact that he’s a bad guy, he might enjoy calling himself an “anti-hero,” but he’s the protagonist of his tale.

Another good villain is Alan Rickman in “Die Hard.” Classy, educated, smart, volatile. Gives Bruce Willis a run for his money. Probably my favorite literary villain is Wolf Larson from Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf.” Fucking brilliant. Dark, angry, frightening, and possessed with a great will to become an educated man. I would love to create a character like that someday. But there’s a lot of that in Hayden, too. I almost don’t need a villain because Hayden is his own worst enemy. His life would be much simpler if he just learned how to get out of his own way. As Abbey says to him in Beat, “Are you ever going to stop beating yourself up?”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Am I writing a film or a novel?

From Meredith: I am intrigued by your career path since I was an independent filmmaker and screenwriter before I started writing novels. How do you decide if a new story idea is going to be a film or a novel? Or do you plan for all your novels to eventually become films?

Stephen: Oh, boy, do I wish all my novels would become films. From your lips to Scorcese’s ear. I really thought Boulevard would get optioned to a film producer, even in galleys. When I was a development exec in the film business I was always looking for something just like it. But things changed a lot in those years between. The biggest change was that producer and “vanity” deals (big actor and director deals) fell by the wayside, so there were fewer buyers in the market. That, combined with the worst economic downturn the film industry has ever seen, pretty much killed my chance of getting an early option. My plan was to attach myself as the screenwriter and work my way back into the “business” as an author/screenwriter. I would love to see what a director like Fincher, Scorcese, Steven Soderbergh or Jason Reitman could do with Boulevard. Someone with edge and an independent spirit.

I was lucky that CAA was interested in shopping the project. But they wanted to go TV all the way, seeing Boulevard and Beat as seasons in a show that could be pitched as “Dexter” meets “Californication.” A very good agent there basically convinced me that TV was a better way to go, that there was much more flexibility and creative room for a project like this in the world of television. And there are a number of cable outlets very willing to produce dark, edgy material. She sold me on it. Of course, it means that I have no chance of writing the pilot episode, because in TV you need a well-established showrunner to pitch to the networks. I have a shot at being a staff writer, perhaps, but I’m not sure I want to spend all my time writing TV when I need to be writing a novel a year. I think if I get the shot I’ll have to take it, and figure out how to make it all work out. So, we’re going out to showrunners presently.

As you know from writing screenplays, the experience is completely different from writing novels. A screenplay is really just a blueprint for a director’s vision. I don’t know any happy screenwriters, unless, of course, they direct their own films. Even then it’s a collaborative medium. Most directors do not have final cut. So, the studio can do what they want. Who’s the author? After you’ve spent a year writing your baby, someone passes it along to the next writer, and from there itgoes to the next and the next. You’re lucky if you recognize a single line from the finished film. You’re lucky if you get to share screen credit. I’m much happier as author than I ever was as a screenwriter. But, if I knew I had a “go” picture, and I was the only screenwriter working with a major film director…now, that’s a different story.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing long vs writing short

From Shane: It took me awhile to adjust to writing 90,000-word book manuscripts after years of popping out newspaper stories that averaged, oh, 500 to 1,000. Did you have a similar experience going from your tightly coiled screenplays to nearly limitless novels? Also, Das Boot is one of my favorite movies ever. Did you work with Wolfgang on that?

Stephen: Oddly, I didn’t have a problem adjusting to the size of novels after writing screenplays. The process is very similar for me. I wrote outlines and treatments before sitting down to write a screenplay, and I do the same thing when I write a novel. What I did have to adjust to was writing in past tense, since screenplays are written in present tense. I also have trouble “filling out” a scene with all the little actions that characters do when they talk to each other. You don’t want to spell that out in a screenplay, you leave it up to the interpretation of the actors. And you don’t want to over-describe your characters in a screenplay, because it’s not your job to cast the film. So, my editor had to make me add more to my scenes, until I got the picture. It still doesn’t feel natural for me, however. I like to write long, run-on descriptions, a la Jack Kerouac, and counter that with rapid-fire moments of tight dialogue. I also like to mix it up a bit with tight scenes of action or description.

I resist describing every little movement or action a character makes in a scene, even though I know those bits of information reveal character tone and perspective. It just feels like I’m making shit up. Like, okay, the guy scratches his knee, wipes his sweaty palms on the sides of his pants. I’d rather infer his nervousness by how he responds through dialogue. I don’t know, it’s all hard stuff. Sometimes I want to set a camera in there and film it, and say, “Just watch the footage!”

I’ve got this odd sense of tempo that definitely comes from having read thousands of thriller screenplays. The Three-Act Structure is firmly etched in my mind. I think it’s very strange that Boulevard came out to be 335 pages in print, and Beat came in at 336. This was not intentional. But something in my brain tells me this is the proper length for a thriller. I come from the Jim Thompson school of writing, where character and psychology give dimension to a fast-moving plot. I read a lot of Thompson as I wrote my last two drafts of Boulevard, and I learned to cut and tighten and cut even more. Thompson is a good teacher.

I think writing short stories would be another great way to hone my skills. As the great writer once said, “If I’d had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter.”I don’t know who that great writer was, but I agree with him.

As far as Das Boot goes—it’s one of my top ten favorite films of all time. If you haven’t seen the director’s cut—see it. Sub-titled, not dubbed. Never see dubbed. The director’s cut is 3 ½ hours of pure fucking edge-of-your-seat action. That was the film that really brought Wolfgang to the U.S. He was becoming a sensation in Germany before that, but Das Boot took him international. So, I didn’t get to watch him at work on it. But I was working with him when he did the director’s cut (he did this while he was directing Air Force One) and I had the pleasure of going to the Director’s Guild premiere, with folks like Harrison Ford and every studio exec in town. They filled us full of food and champagne and then Wolfgang stood at the podium and said, “Now, there’s no intermission in this thing, so I better not see any of you getting up to use the bathroom.” Now, I’ve got a notoriously small bladder and those words began to torture me as soon as he said them. Half-way through the film I couldn’t take it anymore. No one had gotten up and I didn’t want to be the first. But I also didn’t want to be the first one to pee in my pants. I stood, burying my head in my chest, and walked up the very long aisle, not looking at Wolfgang as I passed. When I got to the top of the theater I turned and saw that I’d opened the floodgates. Probably thirty people were coming up behind me.

Great, great film. Although, I’ll never know what happened during those six minutes I spent in the can.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A detective addicted to sex?

From Kelli: BOULEVARD is an amazingly gritty look at an addictive personality—and not the usual-suspects kind of addiction, either. What inspired using sex addiction as a key part of your protagonist’s character?

Stephen: I made the decision to be honest about this topic from the start. I first opened up about it when I did the TV interview with Connie Martinson, just as my tour for Boulevard began. I also discussed it on the recent Spinetingler interview with Eric Beetner. I also shocked a room full of authors and readers when I discussed it during my Left Coast Crime panel, called “Sex and the Author.” I think I even managed to shock Christa Faust, if that’s even possible.

The reason I wrote about sex-addiction is because I struggled with sex-addiction myself. I never knew sex-addiction existed until I had a marriage counselor tell me to go to a Twelve Step meeting. My life turned around after that, especially since my wonderful wife was willing work with me in an effort to fix our relationship. Boulevard was a catharsis for me, for both of us, really. I realize now that, if a “Boulevard” had existed years ago, if I had read a popular novel about a character struggling with this issue, I would have seen myself in the pages. I would’ve known there was a name for it, and I would’ve sought help. I’m hoping that others out there will see themselves in the book and learn there are places they can go for help.

Sex-addiction is like any other addiction; like alcoholism or drug addiction or addiction to cigarettes. There’s a hole in someone’s life and they fill that hole with the thing that sets off the dopamine in their heads. I wanted to present a character who exists right in the middle of his addiction, facing it every day, and trying to do the right thing. Hayden goes to the Twelve Step meetings, he has a sponsor, he gets his thirty-day, sixty-day, 90-day chips. He succeeds and falls and he gets back up again and tries harder. But, when there’s pressure in his life, like when a serial sexual predator and killer is targeting the people Hayden cares for, well, Hayden falls. He falls hard.
We’ve all seen the alcoholic detective. But, Hayden’s addiction is probably just as common, if not more. I’ve met surgeons, rabbis, priests, policemen, politicians, actors…it runs the gamut. This is a very common problem and it’s rarely taken seriously in the media. I figured I was the right guy to bring a character like this to life.
What is really interesting and unique is that my wife and I became so much closer after my disclosure. Many marriages break up. Few partners get closer. She is a fantastic story editor and reads every sentence I write, too. She gave me a hundred typed pages of notes on BEAT. And she’s very, very good. I agree with 95% of her comments. And she’s the one who pushes me to go darker, reaching into the memory of things I used to do. It’s a fascinating dynamic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is it in the blood?

From Sophie: You’re raising a couple of fine young sons. Do they show any signs of wanting to pick up the pen – and do you think a writing gift or inclination is passed down?

Stephen: My boys (aged ten and twelve) are definitely showing signs of wanting to pick up the pen. But I think that has more to do with the fact that they live in a household engaged in a love affair with books. I have this enormous wall of built-in bookcases and the books simply spill out from there, covering every surface, tripping the dog as she tries to come greet me at the end of the day. The most important factor is that my boys have been able to witness their daddy’s struggle and ultimate success. So, they know it’s an attainable goal. I think this is why you see sons and daughters of lawyers becoming lawyers, sons and daughters of doctors becoming doctors, sons and daughters of electricians becoming electricians. It’s not just a matter of following in their parent’s footsteps. There’s a message from the start that tells the kids, “Look, this is something you can do.” My father was a doctor and I knew I’d have support if I chose to go that route, if I set the goal of attending medical school. My father could have provided me with the map that worked for him. But I wasn’t made for medicine. I had to take a harder route, in a sense, because I had no close relationship with anyone who could encourage me to “stay the course.” If anything, my doctor-father encouraged me to “have something to fall back on.”

But my boys are doing some incredibly creative things with story. Since my eldest was about three years old he did this performance thing he called “Imagination,” which was a story he developed in his head and acted out for us at home. It wasn’t long before we realized it didn’t matter if he had an audience or not, the story in his head would continue. At some point he brought his younger brother into the scene and now the two of them spend time every day performing their “Imagination.” The story and the characters have become so evolved that they had to create this giant family tree, with drawings of all the characters and descriptions of how one relates to the other. The plot lines are brilliant and multi-layered. I don’t really think that way. I like a lean, linear story where I can add rich, multi-layered psychological dilemmas. What my boys do is create worlds within worlds and the whole thing becomes this giant, three-dimensional chess game. They have also begun writing their own stories.

Unfortunately, my boys aren’t permitted to read my work. The stuff is just too mature. This is frustrating because they are both so interested in my process. If I ever get any time, we plan on writing a YA piece under a pseudonym, where my boys can really run with the story content and my wife and I can help shape the narrative and writing. It would be a family project. Something like what Robert Rodriquez did with his kids when they wrote “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lavagirl.” I hope I get the opportunity to do this while they’re still young.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Los Angeles vs San Francisco?

Today is Stephen Jay Schwart's second day as GrandMaster.

From Rebecca: You did such an amazing job of setting the stage in your previous novel, BOULEVARD, in Los Angeles. After working so hard to set up the city, why did you move your next novel, BEAT, to San Francisco?

Stephen: I wanted Los Angeles to be one of the characters in BOULEVARD. In the same way, I wanted San Francisco to be a character in BEAT. And, if I get the opportunity to write a third Hayden book, then Amsterdam will be a character in that book. Yes, I know, Amsterdam. Where do I go from there? I might have to establish a sex colony on Mars.

Wherever Hayden Glass goes, he brings his baggage along. I like to see his mindset juxtaposed to different environments. Los Angeles is a cool, dark setting, one he knows well from having cruised all the major boulevards. He feels comfortable in its creepy, dusty corners. While there are many beautiful things in LA, Hayden sees only the grime. Much of that has to do with being a homicide detective. But a lot of it comes from his addiction and where it takes him. In some ways the City is a co-conspirator. It knows the real Hayden, it has shared his many dark secrets. In one section I write about how Hayden arrives at a murder scene and he recognizes the hotel from having spent time there with a prostitute years before. I describe it as such: “The two-story motel sat like a dirty old heroin addict nodding slowly, as if recognizing Hayden from a hazy night they’d shared long ago. The second-story windows had yellowing shades pulled half-mast like drugged-out eyes squinting at the streetlamps.”

I took Hayden to San Francisco because I wanted the city to befriend and torture him, to lure him into her secret, private places then slap him down for trusting her. San Francisco is such a vibrant city, filled with sexual triggers. It is a city that challenges his morals. It has a completely different attitude towards sex, too. The residents almost voted to legalize prostitution recently, so a lot of them don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s just sex, right? How can you be addicted to sex? But Hayden can’t even enter a strip club without falling into a binge cycle. He’s always on the edge, and the city tempts and challenges him every step of the way. Plus, I like him out of his element, a fish out of water. There’s a lot of inherent humor that comes from his LAPD attitude juxtaposed to the freewheeling attitude of the San Francisco cops. I think the characters in BEAT are richer and more vibrant, too, since I leaned on real SFPD officers as models.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grandmaster Stephen Jay Schwartz

This week 7 Criminal Minds is honored to host author Stephen Jay Schwartz as Grand Master. Formerly Director of Development for noted director Wolfgang Peterson (Stephen worked on Air Force Once, Outbreak, Red Corner, Bicentennial Man, and Mighty Joe Young), Stephen currently writes the LA Times bestselling Hayden Glass mystery series. The first in the series, BOULEVARD, follows Hayden through the sordid streets of Los Angeles as he battles crime and his sex addiction. The writing is dark and poetic, and I don't think I'll ever view the streets of Los Angeles in quite the same way since reading his books. BOULEVARD will be released in paperback this week (hooray!) and BEAT will be out at the end of September.

But instead of writing darkly lyrical works, he'll be answering our questions this week. First up: CJ Lyons!

From CJ: Do you consider your main character in Boulevard to be an anti-hero? If so, what challenges did that pose in writing him and finding a way for the audience to engage with him?

Stephen: First of all, I want to thank everyone at 7 Criminal Minds for invitingme in to blog this week. I know a lot of you personally and I think youguys are just the cat's meow. It's going to be a fun week.

Now, on to CJ's question! I didn’t think of Hayden in terms of hero or anti-hero, but instead focused on depicting a deeply flawed, recognizably human protagonist. I’ve always been impressed with how much counterpoint exists in the real people I know, and, before Hayden, I noticed my heroes didn’t even exhibit the same complexity as the elementary school kids in my neighborhood. Real people are brimming with contradictory behavior. As writers we want to make sense of the characters we create. We search for a cause and effect. But, when I pull back the layers of character on the people I know, I discover vast universes of persona I’d be hard-pressed to invent. It just so happens that I like “dark,” and so my protagonist’s journey takes him to the dark side of things. And, because he is sometimes cruel, he might be labeled an anti-hero.

I had one journalist ask me why there was so much violence towards women in BEAT, my second book, and I had to think about that for a moment. I answered that violence to women exists in this world, and Hayden, my character, spends the entire novel fighting against the men who are perpetrating this violence. In fact, Hayden never hurts women. He uses women to hurt himself. He is a sex addict and, like any other addict, he is down on himself and wallowing in shame. He is hurting. But he’s in recovery—he’s trying. He goes to the Twelve Step meetings and he has a sponsor. He is good and bad, right and wrong. And yet, because he is a police officer, he is held to a higher standard. He really shouldn’t be picking up prostitutes off the street. He’s fighting his inclination to do this. Sometimes he wins the battle, sometimes he loses.

I think the character is engaging because he’s broken, like many of us are. Like many of our readers. Hayden doesn’t pretend to be heroic—he doesn’t strive for it. And yet, he is heroic. This becomes much more evident in BEAT. In many ways, BOULEVARD ends in the middle of his journey. It’s the second act crisis. BEAT challenges Hayden to step up his game. To find a way to make up for the mistakes he made in BOULEVARD. I think Hayden is engaging because he knows he’s a piece of shit and he’s asking for help. I think the reader wants to help him.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Political Rodents

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

I was deprived as a child. My mother wouldn’t let me watch television. Okay, so the Wonderful World of Disney and Wild Kingdom were exempt but, as for the rest, she was convinced the evil tube would rot my delicate brain and I’d grow up to be, I don’t know, a writer or something. It wasn’t all her, of course. We lived in the country with three channels. One didn’t come in without significant snow even in summer. One was a regular station where programming seemed endlessly pre-empted by a show called ‘Center Ice.’ This is a program where for hours at a time the coach of the college hockey team would talk endlessly about, well, hockey. They didn’t show games or even clips. They just talked. And talked. And sometimes, on a big day, they’d bring in an expert trainer or the water boy for their take on the metaphysics of hockey. Did I mention hockey was big? Which left one station – PBS. Fortunately for me, along with Kermit and Oscar the Grouch, PBS showed the only cartoon worth watching – Rocky and Bullwinkle.

R & B was the Shrek of the seventies. Kids could watch it with or without supervision. I mean the aw-shucks moose and the flying squirrel, complete with aviator cap, were frothy and fun. No one made fun of Bullwinkle for his slow demeanor or slower brain activity and Rocky was the mainstay of the morality tale (and tail), zooming in at the last second to save the day. He had the wisdom of Solomon, the certitude of Winston Churchill and the flying oh-so-cool of Charles Lindburgh. Even at a young age you knew that femme fatale Natasha was up to no good and Boris, well, who trusts a guy named Boris?

On the other hand, like the subtextual green ogre of more recent vintage, Rocky and Bullwinkle worked for the savvy adults, too. Because of that, it is even a little gut clenching today. It is a cartoon about foreigners usurping American society. Hello terrorist cartoon. Replace the black leather trench coats for the scary garb of the day and you get an animated version of fear as political compass. My grown up self appreciates how Rocky’s world, like ours, still seems to need individuals, even those who aren’t the sharpest moose in the herd, to step up and participate or the big picture of our bucolic lives will suddenly go mushroom cloud shaped. I can even feel myself placing eBay bids on goggles when FOX news hails the recent rash of conservative ideal mandates from behind the Iron Curtain of the Supreme Court. Rocky and Bullwinkle had it figured out decades ago. Stereotyping and conclusion jumping are only weapons if you sign up. And being different, in outlook, intellect or approach doesn’t mean you can’t hang out at the watering hole after you’ve worked together to save the day. Isn’t that the American way? And is there anything that screams America more than the Saturday morning cartoon?

Maybe I was sitting close enough to the television.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

They just don't make TV like they used to...

I have a confession to make. I don’t actually remember watching Saturday morning cartoons. My mother didn’t have a TV, so Saturdays were spent reading, swimming, and running around. But I probably watched some while I was visiting my dad.

Anyway -- I was surprised to find out that one of the standout shows from my childhood, which I watched in the afternoons in the late 70's or early 80's in reruns, actually began its life in 1970 as a Saturday morning cartoon. Who knew? Not me.

All I can say is that if you've never seen “Lancelot Link Secret Chimp" you've, uh, missed out.

It was a spy spoof starring chimpanzees. "Get Smart" with fur. I’m not kidding. The chimps drove golf carts, wore clothes and ambled around like people. Sort of. And I think they gave them chewing gum to make it look like they were talking while they dubbed in voices. It was both appalling and fascinating at the same time – kind of like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You just couldn’t look away.

Describing the show to the uninitiated, I always get weird looks. They think I'm crazy or pulling their leg. But I'm not. And here's proof:

Have a great Saturday everyone!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wake Up, Little Shaney, It's Time to Blog . . .

By Shane

This will be a creaky effort at best, I'm afraid. I'm STILL hoarse and sleep-deprived from ThrillerFest, and smack in the middle of my launch frenzy for Torn Apart.

BUT . . .

I loved TV. True, it stunted my potential (as those smug Family Councils like to scold with little waves of their Pall Mall-yellowed fingers) as a Fine American Citizen, so much so that I was forced to become a novelist cause polite society wouldn't have me. I didn't care. Still don't. I loved TV, adored it. (And still like it a lot.) I watched a lot of it during childhood.

Like Sophie, we didn't have a basement. (The Zenith color TV was in the living room.) Just a crawl space lined with plastic and bedded in gravel. The trap door was in the floor of my parents' closet, under some fake carpeting. When the town siren went off, we could dive through that door in seconds flat, because other than calling the volunteers to fight a fire, the siren meant only two things: a tornado was ripping toward our homes, or the Rooskies were dropping the Big One and we had to duck and cover. Waving the "Rooskie's-gonna-getcha" flag was as natural as breathing in the late '50s and early '60s. Now we wave Evil Terrorists to get ourselves overly frothed. Same shit, different day . . .

But I'm digressing from myself. As usual. So on to Saturday morning TV.

I got up extra-early so I could watch Space Theater. It started at 7, and alternated between Flash Gordon and other space-related mini-dramas. Then, it segued into cartoons. Lots of Bugs Bunny, of course. Speed Racer. Thunderbirds. Jonny Quest. Fractured Fairy Tales, which were part of the larger Rocky and Bullwinkle franchise. Diver Dan. Clutch Cargo, the weird yet strangely addictive cartoon in which only the characters' mouths moved--the rest of Clutch, Spinner and Paddlefoot's bodies were as immobile as cardboard cutouts. In fact, they probably were cardboard cutouts. Watch and see:

All of which served mere prelude to my all-time favorite:

I've mentioned Undie before on CM, when writing about classic TV theme songs I liked. But the show itself was great, too.

Modern cartoons, in contrast, are very weak tea. Way too commercial, or much too earnest. Not politically (and hilariously) subversive like those '50s and '60s cartoons . . .

Except for Spongebob Squarepants. That cartoon is terrific. Terrific writing, lovable characters, top effects and music. Mr. Crabs, Patrick, Sandy, the big happy yellow Spongebob--I happily sit and watch the whole episode when I come across it surfing the cable.

And that's everything I know about that.

Time for another nap.

My book tour for TORN APART kicks off Sunday with a signing in Naperville, the Chicago suburb where I live and where my crime series is set. (And is also the home of world-famous crime fighter Dick Tracy!) Check out the Events page on my website for a signing near you! Then, watch a video series made by RT Book Reviews in which I discuss my book, the writing life, and ThrillerFest. But only if you have nothing better to do . . .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Which I Suddenly Remember What I Forgot

by Bill

I woke up yesterday and thought, "Yes, today I will get X, Y, and Z done." I then proceeded to get halfway through X before I wandered off to eavesdrop on criminals and their lawyers outside the county courthouse downtown. We all have those days. Some of us have those days every day. I tend to have those days every day.

But here's the thing. I got to overhear some cool stuff. For example:

Guy dressed like Snoop Dog: "Hell, yes, I stabbed him. Fucker took my beer."
Guy dressed like Harried Public Defender: "You really shouldn't have told me that."
Me (out of earshot, I hope): *laughs*


Guy Who Looks Like Smug Frat Rat (shouting into cell phone): "So I show up at the Gresham P.D. to turn myself in, but they're all, 'Dude, your warrant isn't active.' And I'm all, 'Dude, I'm turning myself in and shit.' And they're all, 'You have to go down to the county courthouse. They can activate your warrant and shit.' So I'm thinking, Jesus, what does it take to get arrested in this town? But I figure what the hell, so I come down here to the courthouse, and it takes me like five days or something to find someone who can help me." [pause to smoke vigorously and, presumably, let his conversant get a word in edgewise] "Exactly, man. So anyway, they're all, 'We have to get a judge to sign this. Sit over there.' So I go sit down for like a hundred hours or something. I'm freezing to death because they keep the courthouse like one degrees or something and I'm only wearing flip-flops. I think a couple of my toes fell off and shit." [He's wearing Nikes] "So finally some suit comes up to me and asks me why I want to be arrested and I'm all, 'Dude, you tell me. It's your warrant!' So I guess I have to come back tomorrow or something."

You cannot make this stuff up. I mean, think about it. If I put this in a book I would get so many, "That would NEVER happen in a million years" emails my computer would explode. Still, you can see why this would be late. I've been so busy contemplating my eavesdrops I totally forgot to write a blog post.

You buying this?

My favorite Saturday morning cartoons? Tons of them.

As a kid, my life revolved around the tube. Saturday morning? Duh. Bugs Bunny, check. Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, check. Jonny Quest, check. But I also watched TV before and after school, and at times, even during school. in 3rd and 4th grade, I'd run home for lunch to watch Bullwinkle and Underdog.


Yes, I read too, and plenty. We didn't watch primetime television, except for The Waltons, which I was forced to watch at gunpoint because "it was good for me." Yeah, whatever. (Today, I am a writer in spite of John Boy Walton—definitely not because of him, the sanctimonious dingbat.) So I read in the evenings. But days were for cartoons!

I know television is bad for you and stuff. It probably makes you into the kind of people I eavesdropped on outside the courthouse yesterday. But I liked it, and I think I learned a few things about story structure and suspense from many of the shows I obsessed over. And about the dramatic reveal. I mean, remember in Speed Racer when Speed had the accident and Racer X took him home to care for him, and Speed almost got to find out that Racer X was actually his brother?! OMG. Yes. I loved that stuff.

And I still love that kind of thing, though mostly in book form now. Though, man, isn't Spongebob awesome? And now that I think about it, the guy who couldn't get arrested isn't nearly as weird. So maybe there's hope for him in print after all.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hey, Hey, Hey - I Miss Fat Albert

by Sophie


We weren't much of a TV household (something you find rather frequently among book people - correlation, perhaps?) We lived in the sort of late-60s split-level ranch you find all over the midwest, and our TV - small, basic, none too reliable - was housed in the partially-finished basement. Now, as a resident of basement-less California, I'd kill for some concrete-walled, window-welled, subterranean square footage to store stuff in, but at the time my brother and sister and I thought it a less than ideal place to hang out. The floor was linoleum, the furniture was hand-me-down. There was a faint odor of moulder.

I was and am a fidgety person. Sitting still wasn't easy for me, unless I was reading, so there weren't very many shows I'd make the effort for. (Star Trek was one; Land of the Lost, too; and later I was a huge Love Boat fan.) There was really only one Saturday morning show I watched with any regularity and that was Fat Albert.

Why did I love that show so much? Looking back on it, I suppose there were any number of reasons. My heart belongs to the underdog, and that bunch of North Philly kids was all underdogs, every one of them as hapless and, by turns, as unlucky as the next. Among them they seemed to have the full spectrum of social awkwardness covered, and since I thought I was permanently and innately mis-fit, I loved them all the more - for their terrible hats and indifferent style and inattentive parenting.

And of course I knew that Bill Cosby himself was half the voices on the show. I didn't mind. If Cosby animated half the real people in my life, I would have found it an improvement. He was grandfatherly before his time, benevolent to the core. He never slipped - his textured inner life, if he had one, was never revealed by loose-lipped mistresses or disgruntled ex-employees or wounded children.

Then there was that crazy music. There's nothing like 70's sitcom jingles, in my mind; it took me a few decades but I can say that I sort of miss that oog-y synthesizer and bouncing beat.

There have been various remake efforts and spinoffs and such. I don't care and I'll never watch them; I doubt the innocent, earnest, bittersweet milieu of that show could be duplicated outside of its time.

Here - a treat for those who remember, a novelty for those who don't - are the opening lines from every episode:

"This is Bill Cosby comin' at you with music and fun,
and if you're not careful you may learn something before it's done.
So let's get ready, OK? Hey, hey, hey!"

PS. A quick little shout-out to a good friend of the Criminal Minds, Jamie Freveletti, who was awarded Best First Novel at by the International Thriller Writers at Thrillerfest last week! (that's Jamie on the left)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


by Josh

I didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons.

It wasn’t from lack of interest or want of trying. I was as much a fan of Silly Symphonies as the next kid. The idea of curling up in front of a TV set with a bowl of cereal and all the time in the world sounded (and sounds) so appealing…and yet…

Because here’s the thing: I was raised in a conservative Jewish household. We didn’t keep kosher, per se, but we did attend Friday night and Saturday morning services on a regular basis. I had almost all the Hebrew prayers memorized by the time I was nine. Like most children of religion, I didn’t understand the prayers very well – but I could recite them.

By age 11, I was co-leading Junior Congregation. It was my responsibility to make sure that the service went well for the twenty or so other kids in our mini-sanctuary and I took my responsibility very seriously. Were there times that I wished I was at home watching Scooby-Doo? Oh God yes. But the choice wasn’t mine, and I accepted as well as any 11 year-old could.

To be sure, after Junior Congregation was over and we returned home, I went straight for the TV and spent the next few hours drooling in front of its colored lights. My TV show of choice was almost always the Creature Double Feature…but I’ve already written at length about that little obsession.

Once I became a bar mitzvah, my parents eased their mandate on my attending services. I still went, now and then, but more often than not I began to spend my Saturday mornings in my pajamas rather than a suit. I watched reruns. I watched Siskel & Ebert. I watched Casey Kasem’s Top 10 Countdown. I watched Saved by the Bell. I read.

It’s easy for me to look back at those years, especially through the lens of my current agnosticism, with regret for what I missed. After all, Junior Congregation was the reason I couldn’t join Little League (or at least that’s the excuse my father gave me, although I suspect the real reason has something to do with my physical limitations). On the other hand, though, I truly believe that every experience is important, and this cartoon-deprived experience has helped carve out the ill-adjusted human malapropism whose words you just read.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Once a bad puddy, always a bad puddy...

What was/is your favorite Saturday morning cartoon?

I can sum up my favorite Saturday morning cartoon in seven words: "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!"

Yes, I loved Looney Tunes as a kid...and still do. Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Sylvester, Taz, Porky, Witch Hazel, and of course, Tweety were regular visitors to our home on Saturday mornings. I loved them all but my favorite among the favorite was Tweety.

Tweety is just "a sweet little birdie in a gilded cage," happily living out his life as Granny's pet until Sylvester comes along to muck everything up. It's when the "bad puddy tat" arrives that we see Tweety's other side...his Dark Side, if you will.

I think that's why I like Tweety so much. He's complex. Underneath the sweet, adorable exterior is a criminal mastermind. He regularly devises ways to outwit and get rid of Sylvester and shows little, if any, remorse for having done it. Now that I think about it, Tweety exhibits some serious Jekyll and Hyde attributes -- very sociopathic, in fact. For example...

1. He lives of the fruits of another's labors (Granny).
2. He's charming.
3. He has no problem lying to Sylvester when he hands him a stick of dynamite and tells him it's a candle.
4. He shows no remorse, shame, or guilt for hurting Sylvester and is outraged when Sylvester tries to harm him.
5. He feigns innocence for Granny's sake so she will toss Sylvester out of the house, leaving Tweety as the sole object of her attention.
6. He began showing these signs at an early age. From the time Tweety was created, he's been using and abusing his fellow Looney Tunes characters.
7. Doesn't take responsibility for his actions and blames others.

And that's just a brief sketch of one character. The other Looney Tunes are just as bad. Hmm...and these were my favorite cartoons as a kid. In fact, my dad's nickname for me was "Tweety" and I wear a Tweety Bird necklace in honor of him. Wow. I guess it's not so surprising that I write about serial killers, psychopaths, and vampires after all.

-- Jeannie

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nails on a Blackboard

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

What is my grammar pet peeve? Irregardless. Honestly. That one word is enough to get my blood pressure redlining and my hands clenched into fists. It’s not just that it isn’t a word. Plenty of people make up their own lexicon. I was never offended by Dr. Seuss’ enormous enormance performance at the Circus McGurkus. It has rhythm and imagination and true substance. Seuss was using his personal relationship with language to make a point accessible to all. I cannot imagine how long Seuss toiled to find exactly the right meter to teach tolerance and anti-materialism and environmentalism. When the dictionary proved either too sophisticated for his audience or too unimaginative for his dimension, he pushed himself beyond the barriers and gave us all gifts of new words, new phrases, resonant meaning.

No one use irregardless to make a statement. It’s just plain laziness. It exhibits a casualness in word selection. It shows disinterest in precision or articulation. I’ll admit I believe in the structure of language. I grew up with the “rules” and diagramming sentences and, despite the modern reluctance to teach those same rules to the next generation, I find comfort in knowing that the words in my sentences have purpose. I feel better when I’ve taken the time to deliberately choose my language so that my meaning doesn’t become lost in the bump and grind of discordant non-words.

Worse than the casual addition of two confusing and unnecessary letters to the intended word, regardless, and its meaning is the inclusion of such non-standard English in reference books. Yes, I refer to the Oxford English Dictionary. This tome is the go-to manual for English. How can non-standard make the grade when the bar is supposed to be set so high? I cringe even thinking of it. I have heard the arguments in favor of inclusion of irregardless and its ilk on the pages of the most prestigious arbiter of English. I do not believe most of them are valid on this point. Proponents of inclusion of new words in the reference manuals, those words that through cultural changes, technological advances or ethnic expansion have made their way into the mouths of English babes, make a good point. Language is a living thing. There should be new words and phrases that get invited to the OED party. Twenty years ago, facsimile or fax, meant nothing. Now, everyone has one at home. There wasn’t a word for it before. We needed something to call this brave new thing. Like Seuss, we needed to invent a word with substance to fill a place where no words existed to convey the meaning, the texture, the technology of the idea. That’s a valid reason to slide facsimile between facile and factotum. I applaud. I approve. Even better, I don’t break out in literary hives.

Irregardless isn’t one of those words. There is already a good word for the meaning. “Ir” adds nothing except a non-standard designation to dictionary entry. Ouch. I feel personal pain. I flinch when I hear it. It is not an attack on non-native English speakers or an indictment of minorities. Frankly, I’ve only ever heard it used by intelligent, educated native speakers. Why oh why?

As writers, as readers, as speakers, we should aspire in our language. We need to engage our audience whether our product is a new novel, a motivational speech or a political rant. If we are engaging in English, we should use all of the beauty and elegance of the language of Shakespeare. And the OED return to its status as beacon for that journey.

Regardless of its past inclusions.

Thanks for reading.