Monday, May 30, 2011

Why British Thriller Writers Are Better Than American

Boy, I'm really fixin' to offend some of y'all with this article, but I have lately been reading a large amount of thrillers from British authors, and I have come to the decision that British practitioners of the thriller are much better at it than their American counterparts and there is much one can learn by studying how they do it.

How can that be, you say. British thrillers are slow and clunky and there isn't any action until the end--if any. Some just, you know, end with a half a whimper and a slow wheeze, like the British Empire itself. Thrillers are supposed to "thrill", you say. Fast pace, mystery, action, and naked ladies! Americans do it better because of those things!

First, let's not insult our British cousins (they have the best dentists on the planet, after all.) Second, British thrillers are slow, yes. But if all you see if a lack of gunfire, explosions, and naked ladies, you're missing out. The four authors I am using as my example do not write "slow" books. They write books that develop in layers, each one more complex than the last, each character element stronger than the last, until you get to a climax that makes you hold your breath and beg for more once you've turned the last page.

Who are these authors? Ian Fleming. Eric Ambler. Frederick Forsyth. Stella Rimington.

They write carefully detailed stories, so detailed that you feel included in the action. You know the characters. We know The Jackal better than we know Jason Bourne. And we don't even know The Jackal's real name.

Stella Rimington, with her female protagonist Liz Carlyle, is the only female author I have read who can make me identify with a feminine point of view. That's a scary thing to this male carbon unit! But Liz is drawn so well that you think she could be your neighbor, girlfriend, wife, sister, or concubine (if you're into that sort of thing). Check out her 2005 debut, At Risk. You will be glued to the page.

Eric Ambler is the expert at using the Everyman hero. Nobody does it better (sorry, Ian). Journey into Fear, my favorite Ambler, has 90% of the story take place in the confines of a boat. The hero is trying to get home. Somebody on the boat wants to kill him. He mixes with the other passengers and the results are just magical. He gives you 200 pages of nail-biting intrigue and suspense without a shot being fired or a bra being undone or something going kaboom. In fact, I think the final battle between the hero and his potential killer takes up two of the final four pages. And what a payoff! It's one of the best climactic battles I have ever read.

Ian Fleming. He wrote James Bond with a much faster pace than some of his contemporaries. There's a little more action. Maybe a little less character building (though I'm sure that's debatable), but he does make you "see" his characters with their interesting physical traits. Each book is carefully plotted and developed. Notice how I keep saying that. The attention to almost every conceivable detail is what sets these British authors above Americans, and when done right, it is an absolute joy to read. Most of the Bond books under-promise and over-deliver in regards to their entertainment value, and if you read nothing else by Fleming pick up Casino Royale, Moonraker, and From Russia, With Love (then read the second chapter of Dr. No to find out how Bond survives the end of From Russia).

Frederick Forsyth. Wow. What do you say about Freddie? My only complaint is that he doesn't rely much on dialog and tends to data-dump for pages and pages, but every loose thread comes together at the end in ways you won't expect. Yes, sometimes he hurries his endings as if he's run out of paper. "Ooops, only got three pages left and I'm too lazy to go buy more so we'll just zip this up. Right! Smashing bit of work! Time for a crisp!" But despite that, his books are like what Donald Westlake described as the best kind of book: a snowball with a rock in it. But which of his books should I recommend? Try Icon. Avenger. The Devil's Alternative. The Dogs of War. The Odessa File. And don't forget one of his short story collections, No Comebacks.

For me, British thrillers are simply more satisfying than American thrillers (and this from somebody who once worshiped at the feet of Robert Ludlum), but there is one exception, an American who belongs with the best of the Brits. I nominate David Morrell as the best American thriller writer. I do not know of any other American author who loads his books with as much action while developing sharp characters and telling a story as layered and complex as he, all of which is backed up with a tight writing style that I envy very much. The Brotherhood of the Rose should be memorized. I challenge you to read it and ever forget Chris and Saul and Erika and Eliot. Or the heartbreaking ending. All you writers out there: study that book for an example of pitch-perfect pacing, plot, and structure and you will get an education you cannot put a price on.

Now, Americans do crime fiction ten times better than the Brits. Any piece of British crime fiction seems like it imitates what the Yanks have done first, just relocated to the UK where the food is bland and everybody talks funny. But that's another article.

So what does this mean for American authors? I think more time should be taken with the development of plot and characters and less time spent on things getting blowed up real good. But I hear from authors who have many thrillers under their belt who say that American editors don't like that sort of thing. If that is true, it's unfortunate, and once again proves the "legacy publishing" doesn't know everything.

Avoiding Work

I don't know about you, but lately I seem to find any excuse whatsoever to do anything except read and write. Like today. I'm actually getting laundry done instead of working on the new book--which I need to do. I also have another story to outline, and another after that... I got stuff to get done! So far all I have managed to do is clean the house, which needed it, and do the aforementioned laundry, which also needs doing. When I sat at my computer forty minutes ago to start working, all I did was surf around the internet and argue with pals about politics on Facebook. I thought a post about the slothful activity may get me in the mood to turn off the internet and start working. I think it has. Oh, first I need to check my favorite cigar site for something...

Friday, May 27, 2011

What I Have Learned Through E-Publishing

You never realize what you have learned until you actually learn it.

I have been publishing ebooks for over a year now, and I am pleased with the results. But I have discovered something that should be mentioned.

Quit reading stuff on the internet.

I do not mean stop surfing or researching or clicking on those pictures you should not be clicking on, but I mean stop reading about e-publishing and what people think about it. Quit clicking on blogs where it is the subject of discussion, or web sites, or forums, or what-have-you. There is nothing to learn there. You will only find three things (and it is always the same three things):

1) The Cheerleaders. These are the folks who are carrying the flaming log against the wall of the castle. They are believers! "There is no God but Konrath, and Hocking is his prophet."

2) The Nay-sayers. This group is usually made up of out-of-print mid-listers, critics, and folks in "the industry" who think self-pubbers should be thrown into a pit of lions, stabbed, and then shot (we're hard to kill) because we are somehow cheapening the Sacred Written Word that only a select few are allowed to write. "There is no God but the Publisher, and the Editor is his prophet." (Where the Agent falls in that chant I leave to your imagination.)

3) The Wait-and-See Gang. This group thinks electronic self-pubbing is interesting but they are not sure it will last and they want to hang out with both sides so they stay on the fence. "There may be a God, but we need more evidence."

The self-publishing debate has been repeating itself since it began. After the first day, the arguments did not change. Nothing more can be said that has not been said already, but that does not stop folks from continuing to scream about it because they think they can change somebody's mind.

If you are trying to learn more about the business of self-publishing, that is a different story. There are plenty of forums where you can pick up information to help you find readers, and those sites are valuable indeed, but eventually it all sounds the same, too, and all you want to do is say fuhgetaboutit and get back to work on your next book. Which is what you should be doing anyway.

So my mid-year new-year resolution (I just made that up!) is to quit reading about self-pubbing and do more self-pubbing. Watch this space for details--three new titles are on the way.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Revisions, revisions

I love revisions, yes I do!  I love revision, how ‘bout you?

I think revising material is my favorite part of writing a new manuscript, especially one that has been so well outlined that the basic foundation is solidly in place.  When that happens, revisions are a matter of playing in the house you have built from scratch, and seeing what improvements you can make along the way.

The current example of this is The Rogue Gentleman, a story featuring an international adventurer who rights wrongs wherever he finds them, which I will release as an e-book this summer.  I am so excited about this story and the characters that I am going to immediately start a sequel.  In fact, while planning the sequel, a line about a character inspired yet another sequel, so you can expect many adventures for the Rogue and his band of merry marauders.

Anyway… I have been going over the book and, from my notes, am making various changes.  This manuscript needs a lot of work, really.  It was written under a cloud of personal turbulence which has, thankfully, settled down.  This manuscript is all action and the story, but the detail that makes such stories come alive is missing.  What I am doing is fleshing out scenes with descriptions, adding character back story where appropriate, and chipping away the stuff that does not work.  And this is where the fun comes in.  Further research on a police character, for example, allowed me to include bits of physical detail and family history not present in the original draft, and I am now sorry that this particular policeman is only in the book for a short time.  I would certainly love to have him take part in more of the action, but forcing him to do so would not work.  So out he goes after the first act.  He can always come back in a sequel…or his own book.

I was reading a Frederick Forsyth novel this week called Avenger and it’s a crackling good read if you have not had the pleasure, and one thing Forsyth does very well is give detailed histories of his characters.  I have been afraid to do that, because such detail, I always believed, bogs down the narrative and never really, to my mind, made much of a difference.  Not so with Forsyth’s style, which means the practitioners who led me to my earlier opinion were not very good at that portion of their craft.  I have emulated the Forsyth Way as best as I could, careful to keep it short, and I must say the result is fantastic.  The characters feel stronger to me than they had previously, and by keeping the bits spread out, a little here and a little there, I think, at the risk of being redundant, that the information really strengthens the whole show.  This is a good thing.  If I feel the characters are stronger surely readers will, too.

There are some authors who say they just make up their stories based on a slapdash outline and never have to revise; I think that that is promotional mumbo-jumbo.  I wrote that way for 15 years while I was learning, thinking I was a hot shot, only to be told that everything I wrote fell flat.  I started outlining, giving characters more attention, adding details and descriptions and arcs, and the resulting improvement showed me that was the way to go.  Perhaps you have had a similar experience.  If not, give it a try.  I think you will like it.  I may not be as cool as those other guys, but who cares?

This is not my first experience with the Joy of Revision; I added a substantial portion to my recent effort, Show No Mercy, which had the same effect.  At the time I wondered, as I do with every book, if I can pull it off again, but my effort on The Rogue Gentleman says yes indeed.  Does every writer think that? 

I cannot wait to release this book!  Or the next one!  I hope you like it, too.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

New King Story Shows Why You Should Not Listen to Critics

As a follow-up to my Alligator Skin Required post, check out the latest from Stephen King at The Atlantic. Read the comments at the end of the story, and then convince yourself that you should listen to every critic you hear from. In the end you will know that the only thing you can do is write your story the best you can, and your way.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Alligator Skin Required

Tough reviews and less-than-stellar reader feedback are par for the course when you're scribbling and making your scribbles available, and you either need a thick skin or you need to keep your scribbles in a drawer. How do I know this? Trust me, I know this.

Take my most recent novel, Show No Mercy. It's a spy story and a departure from my earlier crime novel efforts (all three books are available at the left) and has sold OK--just OK. (So far.) The other two books, my short story set and an action story both of which borrow heavily from the Black Mask school of crime fiction, have sold much better. When I try to specifically promote Show No Mercy, readers buy the other two instead. It makes one want to scream, but at least I have sales.

So where does the thick skin comes in? Example: Some may say the characterizations in Show No Mercy are a little thin; I say, I don't have enough feedback to agree. My editor didn't think there was a problem, so there are two who say there's a problem and one who doesn't. It's not exactly a push, but I have a reason to doubt the second critic because he's my father and he hasn't finished the book yet. I told him to finish the book before he committed to his remarks.

So, thick skin, and stick to your guns. I worked hard on making sure the characters had some life. Perhaps it was too subtle, but I thought it was layered pretty well. This is like the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, in some ways. There are those who think the movie is unintelligible rubbish and those who cheered at the end and watched it two or three times to enjoy the nuggets of prime storytelling that made us want to try the same thing. Why? Those of us who cheered finally had a James Bond movie that made us think and pay attention to what we were being shown rather than just have everything spoon fed to us. With all due respect to the Bond producers, as I've been a fan for ages, you can check your brain at the door when you turn on a 007 flick. Perhaps that's what the audience wants, but there are those of us who want a little more meat, too. Unfortunatnely the complainers were pretty loud so the next Bond movie will be as brainless as all the others. And I'll go watch that one, too. Maybe that's the case with Show No Mercy; perhaps it is not. I have no trouble sticking to my guns but there's no sense trying to fight an avalanche. Right now we hear rumbles but there is no reason to run.

I flat out refuse to spoon feed my audience. I think readers are smarter than that. Newspapers may be written at a fifth grade reading level, but that doesn't mean I have to do the same thing.

In the end, it's all in a day's work, and nothing is going in a drawer. Don't miss out on the important thing: people are reading my work (or your work) and feel strongly enough about it to make a comment. Mission accomplished!