Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo Done / James Reasoner

So NaNoWriMo ends at midnight. Luckily I finished my novel over the Thanksgiving weekend. However, calculations show I'm ten thousand words short of the 50k word goal; I'm also far short of the 80,000 words I imagined this ms. to be. But do not let your heart be troubled, I have ideas for extending and expanding the ms. and fleshing out the character relationships. More exposition may come in handy, too. The book may weigh in only at 65-70,000 words but I'll take that.

Anyway it was a fun exercise and got me back in the habit of writing every day. Now I'll move through December with revisions and second drafts and have three chapters ready to send out once 2010 begins. Once this is done I want to start on the outline of a novel that I've put off because it's terribly autobiographical, and something like that is always hard to write, yet has the potential, I think, of being a terrific crime story when all the pieces are put together.

Tonight I read a great short story by James Reasoner called "Graveyard Shift". It featured a character who works a convenience store at odd hours who comes up against a potential hold up man and the twist at the end will make your jaw drop. Very short, to-the-point, no wasted space. I enjoyed it a lot. Nice work, James.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update #3

There's no way I'll be done with my NaNo manuscript before the end of the month, but I was never going to finish on time, anyway. The book is too long for 50,000 words; right now, it's looking more like 80,000 by the time I'll be done (30,000 words so far), and I want to be done by Christmas so I can have some clean chapters ready to send around after the first of 2010.

Today I wrote "the spy is captured" scene and it was hard not to fall back on the usual hokum in scenes like this, but I managed to keep it tongue-in-cheek with the villain doing his version of the "if that's you real name" joke from Dr. Strangelove. There's a lot of humor creeping into this otherwise two-fisted spy story. It's really become a fun romp instead of grim and dark, but it's not a change I'm totally comfortable with. The characters seems to like it, though. Give them their head, and they surprise you.

I'll have tomorrow to work some more, and then will have no production over the four-day weekend as I'll be suffering the holiday--I mean, celebrating--with my family.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Remember to be thankful for something, anything. I don't like how the holiday has become a celebration of gluttony and self-indulgence (in other words, just another day) rather than a true thanksgiving of life's blessings, even in tough times like we're going through now. Compared to a Chinese leper colony, we have it pretty good even when it's tough.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chipmunk Go Home; or, California Leads the Way (Sorry, Bill)

Recently I read about a woman named Dixie Goldsby who had a problem: what to do with a chipmunk that had stowed away in her car after she wrapped up a camping trip in Utah. Apparently her camp site had a small population of chipmunks that, attracted by Ms. Goldsby's organic snacks, kept making daring daylight raids into her car to grab the food. When she packed up and left, one of the little critters remained trapped in the car and made the trip back to the lovely hot tub loving town of Marin, California.

Ms. Goldsby brought her new friend to the WildCare animal rehabilitation center in San Rafael, where they had the bright idea to fly the chipmunk back to the campsite where his friends and family would undoubtedly be happy to see him and ask, in their beautiful chipmunk language, what the heck he was doing in a state where the population likes actors so much they keep electing them to run the state. This had to be done, because, as Ms. Goldsby correctly opined, if it were anywhere other than Marin, the animal would be shot. I'd like to add that he'd also be smoked and slow-roasted and enjoyed with a cold glass of beer.

Karen Wilson, WildCare's executive director, explained why they were taking the time and expense of dropping the critter back on his home turf:

"We are trying to make the point of how each animal that comes through our center, we do our best for," Wilson told the Marin Independent Journal.

In other words, animals are people, too.

A Marin pilot donated his time and airplane to take the chipmunk back; Goldsby and a member of WildCare went along, and as of this writing the critter is back home and presumably happy, though I’m sure he misses the hot tubs that are a state requirement for every home in Marin. But what the article didn't say was whether or not they dropped the critter from the plane and expected him to open a parachute.

I’m trying really hard to come up with why this operation was a colossal waste of time, but deep down I understand why they did this. After all, don’t you remember those classic cartoon chipmunks known as Chip & Dale? Those two have seen to it that chipmunks everywhere get a little extra care and attention. This chipmunk had no name--he was christened “chipmunk 1344 from Utah”--which makes it sound like he was an undercover secret agent. That would actually make a pretty good movie. Imagine the whole car trip as the only way to insert Chipmunk 1344 into California to stop a great chipmunk criminal conspiracy involving Chip & Dale, who, tired of being on the shelf, are cooking up a scheme to murder Mickey Mouse and recapture the spotlight. Or something.

I’m sure a real writer can come up with a plot. And, perhaps, somebody already has.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Donald Hamilton is the BEST

If you have never read a book by Donald Hamilton, you have cheated yourself out of experiencing one of the best authors ever to put pen to paper.

I’ve been a Hamilton fan for years. I have most of the Helm set, a couple of his westerns, and the one-shot thrillers that set the stage for the Helm series. I reread the first Matt Helm book, Death of a Citizen, recently, and I’m currently working through the Deadfall novella, and Hamilton is amazing.

I don’t know how to describe how he sucks you in, but he does. There’s something hypnotic about his writing. Once you get started, you can’t look away. His characters, especially the heroes, are always well characterized and you feel like you are the hero. They’re drawn so well that you can’t help but identify with them, especially with Matt Helm and his first-person narration. Max Allan Collins says he wrote the Quarry character as somebody who might repel readers, but is compelling anyway, and Matt Helm is the same way. He’s ruthless as a secret agent, cold blooded like James Bond isn’t, yet Helm is totally human, with ideas and points of view that make him more than somebody who fights and *ucks and loves America. He’s as crusty and cranky as I am sometimes, and that’s why I stick with him before, during, and after the fight.

I think Line of Fire is my favorite Hamilton book, or maybe Assassins Have Starry Eyes. It’s impossible to choose. Maybe Assassins, after all, because who can beat those opening pages, which describe a hunter’s morning camp activity followed by his mistaken-identity shooting in a fashion that is just… wow. He really grabs you by the neck like nobody else. What about Hamilton’s westerns? Mad River. The Big Country. Amazing novels, both, involving heroes who go their own way despite the harsh criticisms others around them, and they’re never quite what you expect them to be, until the end when they’re up against a wall and have to grab the six-shooter or the long knife and then get ready for some action that is so subtly written it leaves you a little chilled afterwards. Hamilton’s violence is very matter-of-fact. A guy gets shot, he falls down bleeding. Nobody has ridiculous monologues before the guns go off. Hamilton’s heroes have no patience for that. Get the fight going, get it over with, move on. It feels like a real fight. Almost.

Everything Hamilton writes is worth reading, though I tend to shy away from the Helm novels written after The Terrorizers, which aren’t as good—they’re too long. Hamilton is an example of an author who is at his best when the story was written in 50,000 words or less. Everything is tight and to the point with shock and surprise and plot twists well done. When you double that length, everything suffers a little.

I haven’t finished Deadfall yet, but despite its Cold War plot it’s a winner all the way. It’s too bad that Hamilton left us. Every man’s life has an end, but what Donald Hamilton left us with is a body of writing that is ten times better than half a dozen other writers of his time—and today.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update #2

I've given up going to the NaNoWriMo site to update my word count. Every time I go, I have to reset my password because, for some reason, it doesn't remember my password, so I'm just going to go on my own and forget the "support" of the site, which seems to consist of a bunch of pep talk emails and forums where writers in my area can piss and moan and share achievements. Sorry, guys, I'm too busy writing.

Anyway I hit 20,000 words this week, which is nice, but I discovered something. While I enjoy reading and watching action-packed spy stories and action shows, I don't necessarily like writing them. My crime fiction may have bursts of shoot-em-up action here and there, but not consistently, and this new novel requires consistent shoot-em-up action. Luckily I'm midway through the book where intrigue replaces gun play and I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters interacting instead of blasting. Not that the action scenes aren't good but I like the character scenes in between much better.

I suppose saying the book "requires" shoot-em-up action is wrong, because I can always rewrite the damn thing, but I like the way it's going so I don't see a reason to alter it (plus, the action really does fit in with the plot; they're not a pointless exercise in blowing things up). But during the revisions, the action scenes will need more attention to make them better because right now, I feel like I'm rushing through them.

I'm also tired of the nomenclature of equipment and guns other action stories have a lot of. Does a reader really care if my hero is shooting a customized Colt Government Model .45 auto or if he carries an M-16A2 on an island assault (is the M-16A2 still being made???? See, I should know that). But I don't care. "Automatic rifle" is just as good, "pistol" is just as good. Saying a speed boat has a machine gun mounted on the bow is better than going into detail about it being a .50-caliber air-cooled Browning whats-it. I'll leave the technical details to Clancy (is he still alive?) and just tell the story. Heck, it worked for Robert Ludlum; of course, Ludlum also had characters screwing silencers onto revolvers, which makes no sense since you can't silence--or "suppress"-- a revolver, so maybe he's not the best role model in this case. Maybe it's better to say I'll emulate Jack Higgins in this matter, though his books, over the last fifteen years, have sucked royally. Former IRA man Sean Dillon working for British Intelligence? I don't believe it. Higgins never quite made Dillon's loyalty change work for me. (Sorry, Jack, love the pre-1990 books, really I do.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jerry Ahern: King of Adventure

Of all the authors who influenced me when I first started writing, Jerry Ahern is one of the top three, the other two being Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Ahern is the author of close to 100 novels, and you probably know of some of them. Such series as The Survivalist, The Defender, Track, and The Takers bear his name, and that of his wife, Sharon, his co-author.

I liked Ahern’s books because they were loaded with heroes you wanted to cheer for. Full of the usual red-white-and-blue, yes, but there was something more. They were motivated to take on the bad guys not because they had to, but because they could; in other words, they were willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater good, which is something that set Ahern’s heroes apart from, say, Batman, or Mack Bolan (The Executioner), who only wanted to get even with the villains for the murders of their (respective) families. Ahern’s heroes battled terrorists, the Soviets, and scores of other evil-doers who had world domination or other nefarious goals in mind, and when I was in junior high and high school, his books were perfect for reading on the bus or between classes (or during class, ha ha) and never failed to entertain.

So imagine my delight when Mr. Ahern, through his web site, answered my (embarrassingly) gushing fan letter and agreed to an interview for his blog.

We talked a lot about his books and his writing style, and even though nothing he’s done is particularly noir or hard-boiled, he shares something with the best hard-boiled authors that is worth pointing out: his attention to character. In the massive crop of action novels produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s and early ‘90s, character never seemed like an important concept. Not so to Ahern.

“If people don’t care about the characters it doesn’t matter if you have somebody hanging over the edge of the cliff,” he said. “If you [as a reader] don’t care, you won’t care if he or she falls. You want people to care.”

Not only did Ahern create characters you cared about, he was lucky enough to do that over and over as readers gobbled up his series, and those recurring characters continued to grow into their own personalities.

“Characters get a life of their own and you sort of allow them to do what they’re doing,” he said, adding, “and then you have to be true to that character so they aren’t doing something that character wouldn't do.”

Ahern kept the actions and reactions of his characters fresh by putting himself in their shoes, something he calls “method writing” as opposed to method acting. And this method writing brought out the kind of attention to detail not every author adheres to.

“We have a real passion for realistic detail,” he said. “We try and actually make people suspend disbelief by anchoring the situations in reality as much as humanly possible.”

An example?

“In a gunfight we actually count the shots.” he said. “There are [also] a few [of my] books I’m aware of where the main character starts out standing in the forest taking a leak. People rarely eat or answer nature’s call in fiction. The more you suspend disbelief the more you want to put in realistic detail.”

Through it all, Ahern maintains a simple philosophy when it comes to his fiction.

“You want to write things you’re interested in reading. If you’re bored with it, readers will be bored too.”

Thinking back over his body of work, Ahern summed it up this way:

“I was writing about things that were commercial. I wasn’t going to write the great American novel that no one was ever going to read. If you write the great American novel and nobody reads it you haven’t done anything. If you write an adventure story and get good ideas across to people, you have done something. Sharon and I would much rather touch individuals with good ideas and thought-provoking situations for them in a way that is palatable rather than get that message across in a way that’s non-palatable that people won’t necessarily read.”

And while there hasn't been many spine-tingling thrillers emerging from his typewriter lately, Ahern hasn’t stopped writing.

In March of 2010 you’ll see an interesting book coming out, “Survive!--The Disaster Crisis and Emergency Handbook”. Ahern calls it “a practical guide to what you can do to stay alive” during a disaster. (Perhaps it will finally replace my old, worn out Boy Scout handbook!) Also, Ahern just finished a new novel, but there’s no news on that yet. Hopefully it will be released soon. The Soviets may no longer be the villain of choice, but there are plenty of terrorists running around the world, and real life good guys, as usual, are hamstrung by rules and regulations and political correctness. Get that new book out quick, Jerry. The world needs your kind of hero now more than ever.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Quarry Dead On Target

Whenever a new book by Max Allan Collins comes out, I stop what I'm doing, acquire the book, and set aside whatever else I'm reading, and read the book until I'm done. Which usually takes a couple of days. Collins makes the pages fly.

Collins's new book from Hard Case Crime is Quarry in the Middle and you can't beat Quarry for a hero to spend time with. Despite Collins's claims that his hit man protagonist is despicable, I enjoy his point of view. He can be a punk, but he's the kind of punk I think, in my fantasies, I'd like to be. The first Quarry novel I ever read, because the books are hard to find, was Primary Target, which is still my favorite, because it was the first, but each book in the Quarry series has a gripping plot, terrific characters, and a sucker-punch twist somewhere near the end. Collins always knows exactly where to put the twist, and I have to wonder how much outlining he does in advance, if he does any at all, or whether or not he just makes it up as he goes.

Quarry in the Middle is another great entry in the series, and it feels like the book that covers the territory leading to Primary Target. It takes place in the '80s, and feels like it was written in that time but it isn't written as a period piece. If this had been a trunk novel, I wouldn't be surprised. The story is fairly simple: Quarry tries to find out who has put a contract out on a casino owner, and murder and mayhem and sex and violence follows in the typical Collins glory. It's a short book, and it moves quick, and while the twist at the end is somewhat subdued compared to others in the series, it is still more than satisfying and left me with a wide grin wondering when, if at all, we'll see Quarry again.

I only have one complaint about the book. Somewhere in the book somebody puts a body in the trunk of a Corvette. Problem is, Corvettes do not have trunks, they have glass-covered hatchbacks that let you see inside the car, so stuffing the body in the back of a Corvette would advertise the presence of said body to whoever, like a cop, happens to drive up behind said Corvette. Considering all the bang-up research Collins does on his Heller novels, I'm surprised he let that get through. Looking at a photograph would have done the job, but I only mention that because I'm a Corvette nut. A normal person won't notice.

What a reader will notice is a whopper of a story that leaves you wanting more, and more, and more.

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update

So we are six days into this year's National Novel Writing Month and all's going well. Tonight I hit 15,250 words on the manuscript I'm working on. Call it 2500 words a day, adjusting for the stray 100 words here and there. That's not a bad bit of output for six days, if I do say so myself. I don't think I've ever kept my rear in the chair that long or typed that many words per day. Can I keep up that level of productivity? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Cool & Lam Deficiency; The Orson Welles Hard-Boiled Connection

Gardner’s Bertha Cool & Donald Lam

At the used bookshop the other day I picked up a Bertha Cool & Donald Lam book called The Count of Nine. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the series under the A.A. Fair pen name, and they’re fun, but for the life of me I can never finish one. Gardner’s writing is crisp and the banter between Cool and Lam is fun, but there is something missing from the story. I think the lack of description keeps me at a distance; also, the lack of personal motivation on behalf of the characters makes me not care about their adventures. It seems that Donald Lam, the legman, is always on the verge of saying, "I'm going fishing, solve your own damn murder," and I can't get past that. They don’t even go about the work as work, such as Richard Stark described, which is engaging; so while I enjoy the Cool & Lam books for their pluses, their minuses keep me from reading all the way through. I’ll keep buying the books when I find them, though, because I like old paperbacks and, when there’s nothing else to read, Cool & Lam fill the gap nicely--for about 60 pages or so.

I think Gardner did his best work in Black Mask Magazine, when he was perfecting his craft. The stories he wrote are full of so much scene detail and great characterization that you wonder why Gardner decided to leave out such details in his future work (like in Perry Mason). If he hadn't cut the fat, maybe I'd read more Perry Mason books.


Over the last few Halloweens, I’ve listened to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I’m trying to make it a tradition, I guess, since the program is associated so closely with Halloween. I know the back story of the broadcast; the panic in caused; but I tell you, the show gives me the chills every time I listen. It is so well done, so well acted, and seems so real. You cannot help but be scared by the action as it unfolds. What separates Welles's Halloween broadcast from any other program is that it involves the audience, breaks the fourth wall, if you will. The actors speak to the “ladies and gentlemen of the audience” and because of the “live news” coverage, you really feel like you’re there in Grover’s Mill when the Martians land and deploy their deadly heat ray (can you beat the sound that thing makes?) That’s why I like it so much, and it explains why it caused such a panic in October 1938. If you haven’t listened, you certainly should.

Now you may be wondering why I’m talking about the Martian broadcast on a hard-boiled forum, but there is a connection. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater, not long after The War of the Worlds program, adapted for radio Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. In his introduction of the show, Welles calls it “Hammett’s very best” and seems to have a sincere appreciation of the story. The adaptation is fair, watering down Hammett’s concept somewhat, but Welles as Paul Madvig is spot-on.

Both The War of the Worlds and The Glass Key are available for download at the Internet Archive, which has a huge collection of other old time radio programs as well. Enjoy!