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I SO Wish I Hadn’t Said That…

March 21st, 2015 · Uncategorized

Wow, I’m famous.

Sarah Weinman, a book reviewer I’ve long admired, has finally blogged about me:

Last Saturday night, after the (Left Coast Crime Conference in Portland, OR) banquet meal but before the awards were given out, Toastmaster Gar Anthony Haywood conducted an auction on behalf of authors who were giving out prized “name a character” slots. Guest of honor Timothy Hallinan auctioned off a name for $800; no comments of import ensued. Guest of honor Chelsea Cain also auctioned off a name for $800, and once the winning bid was announced, Haywood quipped, “She’ll take off her dress and give you her hotel room key.” Uncalled for enough on its own, but Cain’s 10-year-old daughter was in the audience, too.

I’d say maybe half the room heard the comment; there was a fair bit of noise in the ballroom. Those who did groaned or muttered. Or thought something along the lines of, “did I just hear what I thought I heard?” Cain voiced understandable displeasure and she and her daughter left the ballroom not long afterwards. Haywood didn’t apologize publicly.

This is the second time I’ve been at an awards banquet where the host or toastmaster made, to understate, an exceedingly ill-advised comment. One was racist, and well-publicized; this was sexist, and not heavily publicized except for this and on the night itself, Cain’s tweet callout. We don’t need crap like that but at the same time, I can understand — never excuse – how this sort of thing happened, and why the audience might not have reacted with Internet-ready pitchforks.

Haywood, like Daniel Handler, was asked to entertain the audience. Sometimes the jokes landed. Sometimes they did not. And sometimes you think something works in your head and it’s only in mid-sentence, or some general point when it’s too late to take it back, when you realize it not only doesn’t work but is just about the opposite of what you intended. It’s not just foot in mouth, it’s the speech version of BSE. And being in the audience, trying to absorb that, there’s this dissociation that happens from a bunch of competing stimuli that, watching on a computer screen or seeing live tweets, does not entail. Which is why outrage, right and wrong, is more likely to erupt online. It’s why there was that overnight delay on Handler’s remarks about Jacqueline Woodson. And likely why there’s been this weird quiet about what happened last Saturday night.

Ultimately, no community is immune from sexist and racist crap, comments and actions. We have to do better every damn day, even a little bit at a time. So here I am, saying it is completely, utterly, uncool to sexualize a female guest of honor, or any female writer, or any female. They deserve respect and dignity. We deserve respect and dignity.

Hmm. Not exactly the rave review I’d been hoping for. But there’s one good thing I can take away from this public shaming, at least:

Sarah’s right. On the night in question, I said a stupid and sexist thing about Chelsea Cain, and nothing that follows here – nothing – is going to change, nor excuse, that simple fact.


Every story comes with context, and there’s quite a bit of context missing from Ms. Weinman’s account of the incident. So, in the hopes of being forgiven sooner rather than later, and in the interests of setting a slightly bent record straight, I’d like to fill in the blanks a little, for those of you who weren’t in Portland to see and hear my faux pas for yourselves.

As Sarah so accurately points out, the job of convention toastmaster for an amateur like me is a thankless one, and the part I found most challenging by far was the auction. People were bidding on the right to have their names used in a book by Guests of Honor Timothy Hallinan and Philip Margolin, respectively, and I was muddling through the assignment of playing auctioneer when disaster struck. Ms. Cain went Kanye on me and stormed the stage to make the same offer to the crowd as Misters Hallinan and Margolin, because why should they have all the fun? Suddenly, the toastmaster had become but a conduit to the Chelsea Cain Show, and if I wasn’t a flustered boob before, I certainly was now. Chelsea relieved me of the microphone not once, not twice, but three times in order to up the ante of the bloody mess she would make of the winning bidder (”I’ll flay the skin from your bones!” or words to that effect), and it was at this point that I said, “I think she’s going to take her dress off next!”, meaning to suggest not that she was hot for teacher, but that her dress was likely to be the next thing tossed into the winner’s prize pool at the rate she was going. (My apologies to anyone there that night who, like Ms. Weinman, completely missed this rather important distinction.)

Moments later – and not in the very next breath following my comment about Chelsea’s dress, as Sarah mistakenly recalls – Chelsea sweetened the pot yet again with a handcuff key, and that’s when I uttered the words that ultimately, and justifiably, sealed my doom: “I thought it was your hotel room key that you always give away.”

Yuchh. What an asinine, insulting, and painfully unfunny thing to say. The crowd did moan, and internally, so did I.

As for the charge that Ms. Cain’s ten-year-old daughter was in the room, a fact I was completely unaware of – nothing about this incident brings me any greater shame. I’m a father of four children myself, and I guard them with my life, so the idea that the child came away from the dinner thinking I felt “that way” about her mother is deeply troubling to me.

(Of course, the girl also heard her mother gleefully refer to the act of peeling the skin off another human being, but I’m sure there was some wringing of hands about that, too, somewhere. Wasn’t there?)

In any case, the rest of the evening went swimmingly, and no one had an unkind word to say about my performance. Still, I knew I’d fucked up and that an apology to Chelsea was in order. I went looking for her but didn’t find her until she was in the bar, surrounded by other people. I should have manned-up and apologized to her right then and there, but coward that I am, I held off until I could catch her alone.

Mistake #2.

The next morning, I learned that the proverbial shit had hit the Twitter fan and that Chelsea was gone, taking with her any chance I had of apologizing to her, face-to-face.

Let the record show that I emailed Chelsea to personally apologize immediately upon returning home from the conference on Monday, and before I’d read a single Tweet (I still haven’t seen any). And that would have been the end of it, as far as I was concerned, until I learned that Sarah Weinman had fired up the internet to take me to the woodshed, to all extents and purposes lumping me in with all those other sexist, male buffoons in the literary universe who expose their shallow opinion of women every time they open their mouths.

Uh, no. That’s not who I am. Not even close.

In fact, I would suggest this is why there’s been that “weird quiet about what happened last Saturday night” to which Ms. Weinman alludes near the end of her blog. I’m not that guy, and anybody who’s ever spent more than five minutes with me in a conference hotel bar – anybody – will tell you that. If leading the rush to judgment in this case has proven to be an oddly lonely business for Sarah, perhaps the reputation I’ve cultivated over twenty years in the business as a man who treats women the exact same way he treats men – with all the “respect and dignity they deserve” – has more than a little to do with it.

Sometimes, a boneheaded, sexually-offensive joke is not a window into a man’s soul at all, but just his sad and pathetic attempt, in a moment of distress, to find a punchline where there is none.

Which finally brings me full circle to the way I started this post: Sarah’s right. On the night in question, I said a stupid and sexist thing about Chelsea Cain.

And for that, I am genuinely sorry.

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The Most Stupendous Blog Post You Will Ever Read!

March 10th, 2011 · Uncategorized

Self-promotion sucks. Maybe you’ve heard a writer or two say that before. This is because, for the most part, writers want to write, they don’t want to sell. If they wanted to sell, they’d get a real job pushing iPads at the Apple Store or Civics down at their local Honda dealership.

It isn’t that we’re filled with self-doubt. Despite all our well documented insecurities, deep down inside, most of us firmly believe that what we write is better than all that other dreck out there, and you should be reading us instead of that other guy right now.

But how to express this opinion without sounding like a narcissist in a bragging contest? That’s the trick.

Some authors know how to soft-sell their work to perfection. Their self-promotional efforts state all the positive facts relative to their writing (”award winning,” “bestselling,” critically acclaimed,” etc.) in a professional, straightforward manner that achieves the desired effect of drawing a reader’s interest, rather than his ire.

But the delicate balance between confidence and hubris isn’t an easy one to strike. Many authors either err on the side of humility and do next to nothing to publicize their work, or they say far too much far too loudly, holding up their every four-star review and glowing cover blurb as proof of their indisputable genius. When members of this latter group go on the self-promotional attack, their ads and online announcements hit you like a mallet-head to the skull. There’s more subtlety and nuance in a car bomb.

Self-published authors have always run this risk of bombastic self-promotion because they’ve got no one else to handle publicity for them, and, left to their own devices, they over-sell. Say what you will about the value of a big traditional publishing house, but most know how to create an effective print ad or press kit that doesn’t read like something put together by Charlie Sheen for Charlie Sheen.

However, with e-books fast becoming the default way to publish, more and more authors, with and without the support of a traditional publisher, will be dabbling in their own promotion, and so will face the dilemma of balancing plain truth with bravado.

On one of my favorite writers’ blogs, I recently came across an ad announcing a forthcoming short story anthology produced by twelve very smart and competent crime writers. The ad was graphically striking and professionally executed. But the copy featured the following descriptive flourishes:

Wickedly clever




Master storytellers at the peak of their powers



Shocking twists

Breathtakingly original

Gale-force suspense

Writing so sharp that it will draw blood

Now, once upon a time, a reader could see an ad like this and think, “Wow, that publisher’s really in love with its author — but damn! That sales pitch is way over the top!” All the blame for the copywriter’s rather comical bent toward overstatement would be reserved not for the author in question, but for the overzealous publicity department of his publishing house. In other words, the writer would get a free pass.

But what happens when such ads are the creation of the author himself, as they increasingly will be when the product in question is an e-book? With the curtain yanked aside to reveal the writer behind all the hoopla, are readers likely to be as forgiving of ad copy so blatantly self-aggrandizing?

I wonder.

Does the chest thumping carnival barker approach to advertising still work? If so, wouldn’t Hollywood still be selling movies that way, with trailers chock full of supers and voice-overs promising “The Most Incredible, Fantastic, Awe-Inspiring Experience in Cinematic History”? I suspect it would, and that the reason Hollywood doesn’t is that times have changed and the innocence that once made filmgoers susceptible to such bold, grandiose claims to greatness no longer exists. Filmgoers (and readers) are a more sophisticated bunch these days, and they don’t have the affection for hot air advertisers used to rely upon.

Aside from how effective the “Hyperbole On Steroids” method of self-promotion is in selling books, however, there’s the question of what such ads say about the writers who compose them. Personally, I believe everything an author writes — from his laundry list to his Tweets — offers clues to the quality of his prose. If Bob’s Facebook posts tend to be cogent and thought provoking, the chances are good his books are much the same. Conversely, if the announcements he posts on blogs and online message boards touting his latest novel are reminiscent of an old Texaco Star Theater radio commercial, that to me is a strong indication that said novel will probably not remind anyone of Raymond Chandler writing “at the peak of (his) powers.”

Getting your work noticed in an e-book world that’s becoming more competitive and glutted by the day is no simple matter. And there is plenty of truth to all those idioms about squeaky wheels being the only kind that ever get greased. But there is also a good deal of truth in the expression, “All things in moderation,” and among those things, in my opinion, should be the bluster with which an author promotes his own work.

Unless, that is, he doesn’t mind leaving readers to wonder if he isn’t just trying to sell them a Colossal! Stupendous! Fantastic! Astounding! bill of goods.

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It Only Hurts When I Write About It

January 25th, 2011 · Uncategorized

I know this hardly makes us unique as married couples go, but my wife Tessa and I rarely agree on what movies to rent from Netflix. Not, as you’re probably thinking, because I like testosterone-driven action flicks and she prefers romantic comedies, but because T has this thing for films that depress the living shit out of me. She’s very much the realist, my wife, so movies that dare to gloss over man’s inhumanity to man strike her as a missed opportunity to be reminded of same. Why settle for the fleeting warmth of a ridiculous fiction like THE EXPENDABLES when you can have your heart ripped out of your chest for days at a time by the gripping authenticity of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG?

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well-told story dealing with the darker aspects of this thing we call “life” from time to time. I do. How could any fan of crime fiction do otherwise? But books and films that seem to exist for the sole purpose of basking in the cold, black light of human suffering are a mystery to me, like people who drive nails through their eyebrows for reasons strictly cosmetic. Sure, there’s no law against it, but what exactly is the point?

Some would ask that very same question about noir, I know. Noir is, after all, a genre dedicated to the proposition that losers and criminal types inevitably meet the sad end they so thoroughly deserve. Nobody in their right mind ever picks up a noir novel expecting to feel better about the human condition after having read it (which is why I so rarely dabble in the genre, as I’ve posted previously). And yet, for all its disdain for happy endings, noir is rarely, if ever, sad, because nothing bad ever happens to a noir character that he or she did not have coming. They make their bed and they wind up laying in it, and that’s not heartbreaking, it’s poetic justice.

No, the kind of downer fiction I object to is the kind that features decent people like you and me being dragged through a gauntlet of pain and humiliation just so things in the end can get . . . worse. The end is often just the implied beginnings of more of the same for whatever surviving characters are left behind to pick up the pieces. Because that is the author’s personal world-view, after all, and the only message (such as it is) he or she cares to convey: that life is just a continuum of random, predominantly unpleasant experiences completely out of our control. We suffer through it and then we die. Happiness is an illusion, no more real or long-lasting than a mirage.

Give me a break.

Yes, as a crime writer, I occasionally write about terrible things happening to good people. Innocent blood is spilled, hearts are broken. But these things are never the sole point of the exercise. They are simply the necessary accoutrements to the kind of gritty and suspenseful stories I like to tell. I neither downplay these elements nor glamorize them; I treat them with the respect and level of attention realism demands, and no more.

Some might say my inclinations toward redemption and hope make me soft, and my fiction less than fully hardboiled. But I would disagree. I don’t believe realism and optimism are mutually exclusive. I think it’s possible to end a hard-edged crime novel with at least a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel for one’s characters to see without lapsing into fairy tale, and that doing so is more of a challenge than simply writing everyone off the cliff you’ve propelled them toward from Page One.

In a recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Jacob M. Appel, a literary author who teaches writers workshops in New York City, wound up an article profiling Kevin Brockmeier—who apparently writes beautifully constructed, “heartrending” (of course) stories about people dealing with great adversity—with a few lines about the ways Brockmeier has influenced his own writing and creative ambitions:

“What I will be doing is attempting to conjure up metaphors of my own in a way to capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering.”

Say what? This is the goal to which you will dedicate your life’s work? To “capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering”?

Well, okay. Different strokes, and all that. But I don’t get it. Of all things to set one’s literary sights on, why choose human suffering? Why would anybody consciously decide to make the examination of pain and heartbreak the very focal point of their work?

It beats the hell out of me.

I’m sure I’m oversimplifying both Mr. Brockmeier’s talents and Mr. Appel’s professional ambitions. The former is an O. Henry prize-winner several times over and, based upon his Writer’s Chronicle article alone, the latter seems more than capable of writing “poignantly” about a great many subjects. Still, if “human suffering” is in fact as highly prioritized in their work as Mr. Appel would appear to suggest, I can’t help but wonder why.

And hope to God no work of either gentleman is ever adapted to a film my wife Tessa can come across on Netflix.

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In Praise of the Tortoise, With All Due Respect to the Hare

December 11th, 2010 · Uncategorized

At the MWA SoCal chapter’s Holiday Party last weekend, a fellow author I much respect asked me an interesting question:

“How do writers get better?”

Well, that’s the mystery we’re all trying to solve, isn’t it? What exactly do good writers do to become great ones? Try harder? Read more? Make a blood pact with the devil?

No. Here’s what I think writers do to get better:

1. They listen to their conscience.

You know the conscience I mean. Not the one that tells you not to cheat on your wife, or screams bloody murder when you’re contemplating voting Republican. The conscience I’m talking about is the inner-voice that nags you like a Jewish mother when:

a) The line of dialogue you’ve just written sounds like something a walk-on in a bad soap opera would say;

b) There’s a hole in your plot that needs filling worse than a painful tooth cavity;

Or (nightmare of all nightmares) . . .

c) The whole third act of your latest novel-in-progress is garbage that has to be tossed, and any further attempts on your part to “fix” it instead will be as pointless as racing stripes on a Segway.

Sure, every author heeds such warnings most of the time; the nagging’s just too insistent to do otherwise. But I think many writers turn a deaf ear to their inner-editor more often than they listen to it, because fixing things that are broken is work, and it takes time, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to convince yourself that what your writer’s conscience is telling you is not sound editorial advice, but the baseless grumblings of insecurity.

“Of course that line of dialogue is fine,” these people think to themselves. “I’ve rewritten it four times already, how could it not be?”

Well, here’s the answer to that question: For some authors, the fifth time is the charm, not the third. I know because I’m one of them. It ain’t fair, but that’s just how it is.

2. They don’t settle for “good enough.”

Overhauling one’s writing to fix something that flat-out doesn’t work is a no-brainer; what isn’t is tweaking something that’s not broken, but could be improved upon. Changing a word here or there to make a good paragraph great, or a great paragraph incredible.

Sound exhausting? You’d better believe it is. But that, in my opinion, is what separates writers stuck in neutral with those who get noticeably better, book after book after book. The latter sweat the small stuff. They bite the bullet and do a third, or a fourth, or a fifth rewrite on something that may be perfectly fine as it is, but could be better. They refuse to settle for anything less than the best work they’re capable of producing, every time out of the box, no matter how much that impacts their rate of output.

Which brings me to:

3. They turn a blind eye to the clock.

The biggest problem with refusing to publish anything but your best possible work is that all that rewriting eats up time. Some authors can produce their best stuff in the blink of an eye, but most of us can’t. Most of us have to beat a story or novel to death, word by word, before we can find that magic draft that represents everything we’ve got to give, and that means we have very little hope of ever being described as “prolific.”

Some writers fail to get perceptibly better over time not because they lack the skills to do so, but because they move too fast to fully utilize them. Either too sick of their present work-in-progress to rewrite another word of it, or too focused on the quantity of their writing to pay the proper respect to its quality, some writers leap from one project to the next without taking the time necessary to make any of them a real gem. I see it time and time again. Talented men and women who exhibit the potential to write fantastic stuff, but whose work cries out for just one more pass beneath an editor’s critical blue pencil.

And now that I’ve mentioned the word “editor,” here are two more things writers do to get better:

4. They learn to know the difference between “good” and “great.”


5. They view criticism objectively, and treat it as an opportunity to identify the weaknesses in their work.

Sad to say, but some writers simply lack the perspective to see what others can: that their writing is less than perfect. They don’t get better because they’re unaware that such a possibility exists, so the flaws in their work follow doggedly after them, book after book after book. These people aren’t conceited, they’re just oblivious.

On the other hand, there are also those who fail to see the imperfections in their work because they refuse to see them. They’ve convinced themselves that they’ve already achieved greatness, and anyone who suggests otherwise simply doesn’t “get” what they do. If they would only read the negative reviews they receive with an open mind, they might gain some insight into how their stuff could be improved upon and do something about it. But they don’t. Instead, they chuck every negative review into the Just One Person’s Opinion file and miss out on learning something valuable from the experience. They equate criticism with cluelessness or, worse, a personal attack that has no basis in fact.


6. They don’t let their good reviews go to their head.

When somebody at The New York Times, or Washington Post, or People magazine, raves about your latest book as if Raymond Chandler himself must have risen from the grave to write it, or dares to compare you to Michael Connelly at the height of his powers, it can be easy to think you’ve arrived. But people who write book reviews are biased and human like all the rest of us, so their likes and dislikes should never be confused with the Voice of God. Writers committed to getting better find encouragement in the praise some reviewers heap upon them, but they don’t interpret such praise to mean their work has suddenly become the gold standard by which that of all others must be measured. The motivation to improve doesn’t come from overconfidence, it comes from humility. A willingness to consider the possibility that, despite what that nice book reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly wrote about you back in 2006, you haven’t quite reached the mountain top yet, and you’ve got a lot more work to do before you get there.

Oh, wait. I almost forgot this last one:

7. They don’t look to their friends or peers for validation.

Back when I was just a wee lad, writing awful short stories on a manual typewriter in my mother’s kitchen, I used to show all my stuff to my beloved Aunt Hazel, who was and remains a big mystery buff. And you’re not going to believe this, I know, but she always loved it. Every story, every word. For a long while, I thought this meant that all those professional editors who kept rejecting my work had to be out of their minds. And then one day, a light went on over my head and I realized something:

She’s my Aunt Hazel. Of course she’s gonna tell me how great my writing is!

Now, most writers don’t have an Aunt Hazel, but we all have friends and homeboys, some of them authors just like ourselves, and the reason these people are our friends is, they like us and care about us. They’ve got our back. They don’t want to see us fail, and would never do anything to hurt us. So when we ask for their opinion of something we’ve shed blood, sweat and tears to create, something we’ve already sent off to our publisher thinking it’s another flawless masterpiece — but it isn’t. . . What do they do?

They lie to us, of course. Just like my Aunt Hazel.

Oh, sure, your literary brothers-in-arms might offer you a word of criticism here or there. But they’re not going to do anything to disabuse you of the notion that this book was even better than your last, because they’re counting on you to fluff their feathers similarly when the shoe’s on the other foot. Honest, straightforward criticism of your work is something best left to people who have nothing to lose by offering it; readers and reviewers who don’t know you, and so have no fear of hurting your feelings by assessing your work in a less than glowing manner.

In other words, writing buddies are good for buying the next round at the convention bar, not for judging your stuff with anything approaching real objectivity.

In closing . . .

My friend at the Holiday party? When I mentioned Bullet-Point #1 above — specifically the part about tossing whole chunks of a book in the can when our conscience says we must — she was aghast.

“But two-hundred pages? I can’t just throw out two-hundred pages and start over again!”

And I thought, of course you can’t.

Unless you want to get better.

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P.T. Barnum Would’ve Loved the Internet

August 11th, 2010 · Uncategorized

You probably saw the online notices about this: A beautiful young thing ingeniously quits her job by writing her resignation notice to an insufferable boss in 33 parts on a white board.

Yeah, right.

Well, here’s what I think about all the knuckleheads out there who didn’t catch the whiff of a publicity stunt coming off these images a mile away. My apologies to thechive.com, if any are actually warranted.


Quit Girl slide 1

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Only the Living Need Apply

July 29th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Several years ago, my bud Robert Ward, a brilliant crime writer in his own right, was one of the subjects of a brief Q & A series the Los Angeles Times used to do with local authors, and one of the things he was asked about, somewhat predictably, was what he was reading at the moment.

As I remember it, Bob named two or three books, all by very fine authors who just so happened to be both famous and dead. He was entirely within his rights to do so, of course, and I’m sure he was just giving the Times an honest answer to their question, but the next time I saw Bob, I gave him some good-natured hell about his choices, along the lines of, “Hemingway? Really? Hemingway’s dead, Bob, he doesn’t need the free pub.”

Which, needless to say, was my not-so-subtle way of suggesting that a writer like myself — critically well received, struggling to build a readership, and still among the goddamn living! — could have used the mention in the Times far more than old Uncle Ernie did.

I wasn’t really serious, because only a raving egomaniac could have been. But I’ve since come to realize that the point I was making for the sake of levity was not an entirely invalid one. When an author is given an opportunity to show some public love for another author, should he not make a concerted effort to choose a deserving party who could actually benefit from the nod, rather than someone who is beyond giving a damn because they are either six feet underground or already a household name?

If I’ve learned anything in the twenty-plus years I’ve been a published author, it’s that the best publicity is free publicity, and free publicity — especially the positive kind — is hard as hell to come by. The value of having a bestselling author (Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Harlan Coben, etc.) drop your name in a radio interview or newspaper article may be debatable, but I think we can all agree that such shout-outs in the media sure as hell can’t hurt.

All of this has been on my mind lately because Jen Forbus, the brilliant and lovely mastermind behind the exceptional book blog, Jen’s Book Thoughts, routinely posts photos of her favorite authors caught in the act of reading, and she’s recently asked me to take part in the fun. I haven’t yet gotten around to posing for a picture, let alone sending her one, and this is primarily because I can’t quite decide which book I want to be seen reading.

It would be a simple matter to flash the latest title by one of my favorite writers — Martin Cruz Smith, Donna Leon, Robert Crais — which is precisely what I suspect most of the authors already pictured on Jen’s site decided to do when they were asked to submit a photo. But it’s occurred to me that going with a New York Times bestselling author would be a missed opportunity to provide someone who isn’t one — a relative unknown with mad talent whom I’d like to see find the larger readership he or she richly deserves — with a little free press.

Granted, no photo of Gar Anthony Haywood with his nose in their book is going to make or break anyone’s career, no matter where it’s posted. But it could make a reader or two aware of an author they’d never heard of before and send them off to the nearest bookstore in search of that author’s work. Cover blurbs sometimes affect people that way, don’t they?

Aside from whatever promotional value can be found in such photographic endorsements, there’s something else to consider: The ego boost to the author whose work is being touted. Or am I the only writer in the world who gets the warm-and-fuzzies from such tiny moments of recognition? (If I were to read in Essence magazine tomorrow, for instance, that Halle Berry is a big fan, I would keel over dead with a smile on my face a friggin’ army of morticians would not be able to pry from my lips. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

It isn’t often that we mid-list writers get the chance to offer our opinion on things for the benefit of a wide audience; nobody much cares enough to ask what we think about anything. So when the opportunity presents itself, I think it’s incumbent upon us to make the very most of it, which is to say, in a manner that could do somebody other than ourselves a little good. This is why, when I finally do get around to sending Jen Forbus a photo for her site, the book you’ll see me holding in it won’t be there just to demonstrate how steeped in the classics (OF MICE AND MEN), brainy (A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME), or up on the latest Big Thing (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) I am. It’ll be a book written by an author whom I firmly believe kicks ass and warrants your attention.

And who, not incidentally, is neither deceased nor too successful to appreciate the gesture.

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Going There

June 26th, 2010 · Uncategorized

I did something this past weekend I really didn’t want to do: I watched the movie Precious. Lord knows I tried to avoid it; critical acclaim or no, any film about a poor, obese, teenage black girl growing up as the live-in slave of an equally obese, abusive, welfare-queen mother had to be the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery, right? Why would I ever want to subject myself to that kind of misery?

Well, surprise, surprise — the film was brilliant. Well written, smartly directed, and performed by a cast of actors deserving of every accolade and award nomination it received. In short, I’m glad I saw the movie.

But yeah, sitting through it was a living nightmare.

In part because its subject matter was cringe-inducing, yes, but mostly because it was real. The people who made this film — and I would assume this is also true of Sapphire, the author of the book upon which the film was based — didn’t pull any punches. Hell, no. They took a story dealing with some incredibly sordid characters and situations and presented them in all their horrific, obscene, and gut-wrenching glory. It could be argued that the language in Precious alone should have earned it an NC-17 rating. I mean, nothing Linda Blair ever regurgitated in The Exorcist comes close to the bile that comes out of the mouth of Precious’s mother, in particular, throughout the course of this film.

And all for only one reason that I can imagine: authenticity. A commitment to depict these people exactly as they would appear in the real world, grotesque warts and all. Choosing to hew this close to the ugly truth could not have been an easy decision; the filmmakers had to know that doing so would cost them a sizable part of the crossover audience movie studios so covet. Yet they held to their convictions and did it anyway, trusting that the quality of the film would win out over the criticisms it was bound to receive for its almost unrelenting darkness and vulgarity.

So what does any of this have to do with crime writing, you ask?

Well, only days before popping Precious into the ol’ DVD player, I finished reading my first Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel, THE HUNTER. Following my reading of James Crumley’s THE LAST GOOD KISS, this was Step Two in my ongoing effort to finally read masters of the mystery/crime/espionage genres I should have read a long time ago (Ian Fleming, George V. Higgins, Rex Stout, etc.). I had a particular interest in THE HUNTER — one of a series of books Stark wrote about a ruthless professional thief simply named “Parker” — because it served as the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, 1967’s Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin. In the film, Parker (renamed “Walker” for some odd reason) is a single-minded, sociopathic killer relentlessly blasting his way through the Mob in order to get somebody, anybody to pay him the $93,000 they owe him. Walker is also driven by revenge — his former partner double-crossed him, stole his wife, and left him for dead in the aftermath of a heist, then used Walker’s share of the take to buy his way back into the Mob’s good graces — but his primary interest is recovering his money. Because it’s his money, he earned it, and he wants it back, goddamnit!: $93,000, not a penny more and not a penny less.

You’ve gotta love that kind of manic tunnel vision.

(Of course, were the film remade today [as it was earlier in the form of the 1994 Mel Gibson stinker, Payback], Walker would find his motivation in the fact that his backstabbing partner, who raped and killed Walker’s parents and kid sister fifteen years before, is now holding his wife and two children hostage in an impenetrable Mob fortress guarded by an army of ex-Special Ops psychopaths blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…)

I’d been warned by fans of Stark/Westlake that Point Blank’s Walker, as cold and violent as he was, paled by comparison to THE HUNTER’s Parker, so I was prepared to meet a somewhat less likable protagonist. But damn! Parker makes Walker look like a Salvation Army Santa Claus. It isn’t so much that the body count in THE HUNTER is higher than it is in Point Blank, it’s the ease with which Parker adds to it that makes for such a jarring contrast. Parker may only kill those who “need” killing in THE HUNTER, but it doesn’t take much in his estimation for someone to meet that qualification. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or knowing something he doesn’t want getting around, is enough to make you better dead than alive in his book. And remorse? Forget about it. That’s for relative softies like Darth Vader to fret over.

What I’m describing, of course, is the archetypical noir protagonist: a deeply flawed, self-serving lead character who’s usually surrounded by a supporting cast cut from the same nasty cloth. Altar boys and Girl Scouts need not apply. To write fiction deserving of the “noir” designation, an author has to accept the fact that his work will probably turn off a lot more potential readers than it turns on. He has to write about unpleasant people doing terrible things to innocents and scumbags alike, without remorse or regret, and to do it realistically, he has to show little or no regard for the reactions of his reader. I call this “going there,” “there” being a place not everyone will care to visit, and I think embarking upon this journey is one of the most courageous moves any writer can ever make.

Because going there is entirely counter-intuitive to what we authors are hardwired to do from Day One: seek a wide, all-encompassing readership. Deliberately choosing to write the kind of book you know going in will have only a limited appeal, and then writing that book as faithfully to the form as possible (which is to say, without artificially toning things down to soften the blow), is gutsy as hell, and not every writer has the cojones to do it.

Most only have enough to do the job halfway, at best. These people write, either consciously or subconsciously, what I like to call “Noir Lite”: novels that feature noirish characters and situations, but none of the hair-raising dialogue or on-screen violence that should naturally follow. The latter elements have been either sanitized or, worse, excised altogether, to better reduce the author’s chances of offending those readers for whom “noir” is a dirty word. This, to me, is a joke. A kinder, gentler noir? There ain’t no such thing.

Which is why I’ve actively avoided trying to write a legitimate noir novel to date. I don’t want to go there. I’ve got no problem writing dialogue that could peel paint off a wall, or describing certain acts of violence in gruesome detail, but I don’t want to write stories in which the good guys are, to all extents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from the bad, and can only end on a definite downer, as all true noir stories must. It’s just not my thing.

Neither is faking it.

To write noir, you have to do what the people behind Precious did: You have to go there. Not part way, not halfway, but all the way to that dark, funky, foul-smelling place in which noir resides. Some readers won’t be able to stand the stench of your kitchen, but those are the breaks.

As I’m sure Parker would say were he around to ask for an opinion: “Deal with it.”

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The Awful ‘G’ Word

June 6th, 2010 · Uncategorized

I admit it: All of the eleven books and numerous short stories I’ve written and published so far can only really be classified as “crime fiction.” For the most part, crime and mystery is what I grew up reading, so it’s only natural that this is what I most enjoy writing. By any honest definition, I’m a “genre” writer.

Many people in my profession would say I should treat this fact like a dirty little secret. Or, at the very least, I should be discreet about it. Because the word “genre” kills. It kills credibility, it kills book sales, it kills any chance a writer might have of winning the most prestigious literary awards. To some folks, “genre” is just shorthand for “brain candy,” and no amount of reasonable argument on your part will ever change their minds.

Because, let’s face it, a lot of genre fiction is crap. There, I’ve said it.

Ironically, though, I don’t think it’s the general quality of genre writing that haters find so objectionable. It’s the mere fact that genre fiction seeks to entertain more then anything else. The genre author’s great crime is a lack of ambition; we don’t aim high enough. If we were really trying, if we held our art in the proper esteem, we wouldn’t much give a damn how much “fun” our work is to read. What we’d care about is how deeply affected it leaves every reader, how much effort it takes to absorb and properly comprehend. “Real” fiction doesn’t go down easy; it burns and catches in the throat, then sits at the bottom of the belly where, over time, it can be fully digested.

Needless to say, this is a very myopic viewpoint that lumps immensely talented writers like James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith into the same gene pool as Grandy Pike, Jr., author of the Pioneer Spring Water Delivery Guy mystery series, and C.C. Hurpington, the writer behind the Optometrists of America’s Cornea Award-winning thriller, EYE THE JURY. It’s a ludicrous generalization that does insult to the many great writers whose work within genre could easily measure up to that of most authors working outside of it. It’s like saying Count Basie and Lawrence Welk were equally insignificant because they were both just bandleaders.

Still, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to humor those who think there’s a concrete difference between genre fiction and non-genre fiction and concede the point, at least to this extent: As a general rule, genre fiction does indeed tend to be less emotionally wieldy than literary fiction. It reads faster and ends on a more satisfactory note (which is to say, it doesn’t leave the reader seeking out the nearest bridge from which to take a suicidal leap).

So given the above, you’d think that, if genre fiction were to get its fair share of media props anywhere, it would be on the annual “Summer Reading” lists that fans, reviewers and bloggers like to compile at this time of year. Isn’t summer the time for deck chairs, fruity mixed drinks and long naps in the shade? For escaping from all of one’s troubles to pretend, just for a week or two, that all is right with the world? If you can’t dispense with the need for everything you read to be intellectually demanding and edifying in the summer, when can you?

Well, it seems that some literary experts can’t bring themselves to stoop all the way down to genre level even for the brief respite from mainstream fiction that summer vacations offer. I’ve just taken a gander at NPR’s 15 Soaring Summer Reads, compiled by three independent booksellers, no less, and there is nothing remotely resembling a bonafide genre title on the list. The intro pretty much explains the snub:

As days get longer and the sun’s rays get stronger, books that are lighter and brighter stand a better chance of squeezing into packed beach bags and suitcases. But that doesn’t mean summer books need to be weightless.

Ah-ha. Did you get that? It’s okay to celebrate summer by lowering your reading standards to the “lighter” and “brighter” levels, but that “weightless” stuff publishers’ catalogs actually refer to openly as “mysteries” and “thrillers”? Surely there’s no need to take things that far.

It’s a crying shame. Because it’s readers who lose out when booksellers and reviewers blow golden opportunities like this one to relieve them of the misconception that any book centered around a fictional crime can’t possibly be worth their time.

Even during the summer, when they’ve been given a free pass to simply enjoy the act of reading for a change.

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And the Winner Is … (Maybe, Sometimes, Sort Of)

May 21st, 2010 · Uncategorized

It’s an annual rite of spring: The winners of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar awards are announced, and all the whining, crying, and second-guessing begins. Readers and fans alike debate ad nauseum the worthiness of the winners, the sanity of the award judges, and the fairness of the selection process. Some claim the results were just, others insist they were a travesty. Accusations of bias and conspiracy run rampant.

Usually, I’m just as happy as the next guy to take part in the festivities. Exposing as in idiot someone who thinks Book A was more deserving of an Edgar (or Shamus, or Hammett, or L.A. Times Book Prize, or…) than Book B is a kind of fun you just can’t have doing anything else.

But this year, rather than partake in the same, old argument that can never be won — people are gonna love what they love and hate what they hate, no matter how irrational you make them feel about it — I thought I’d ask a simple question instead: What does winning an award like the Edgar for Best Novel really mean?

Obviously, the organization behind the award would like it to mean that the winning book is the most exceptional of its kind written within a 12-month period. A panel of judges qualified to make such a determination have read a representative sampling of all such books published that year and found this one to be better than all the rest.

Okay. So far, so good.

But how do judges define the word “better”?

That subjectivity always plays a hand in the voting process, no matter what writers’ organization or guidelines are involved, should go without saying. And anybody who would either deny this is true, or lose a great deal of sleep over it, isn’t playing with a full deck. Judges are human beings; human beings have their biases. Asking someone to read dozens of books and then choose a mere handful of the best without regard for their own personal tastes is like asking them to judge a beauty contest without taking their own ideas about what beauty is into account. It can’t really be done.

Is that in itself a problem? Generally speaking, I’d say no. An award panel’s biases should only be an issue when they aren’t diverse enough to balance each other out. Put nothing but cozy lovers on a panel, or three thriller fans and one hardboiled one, etc., and you create a rigged game almost certain to give short shrift to a whole slew of worthy books. But mix it up a little, take pains to ensure that an awards committee consists of judges of varied sub-genre stripes, and you’re more than likely going to get a fair outcome. Not every time, mind you, but most of the time.

I’m sure all of this is stuff you already know, and there isn’t much to be gained by my writing, or your reading, a blog post about it. The thing I’m most interested in examining today is, accepting the fact that personal bias is a natural and relatively benign byproduct of the voting process, what kind of book in these popularity contests usually takes home the prize? One that adheres to the time-honored conventions of the genre or sub-genre involved, to the extent that it represents a virtually flawless example of it? Or one in which the quality of the writing (as opposed to plot, character, satisfactory puzzle and denouement, etc.) is so extraordinary, it trumps all, even at the expense of those aforementioned conventions?

My answer: the former.

While I’m sure every judge on every awards committee starts out hoping to find a book that strikes a perfect balance between great writing and a masterful command of those things that make a mystery a mystery, or a thriller a thriller, or — I think such a balance is rare, indeed. So in the absence of it, judges end up weighing one strength over the other to select their winner: superior writing over homage to form, or vice versa. As a result, what an Edgar/Shamus/Hammett/Whatever award actually says about a book is constantly changing. Sometimes it means one thing, and sometimes it means something else.

It’s probably unrealistic to think that this inconsistency is avoidable, but if we were to pretend for a moment that it is, what statement should readers expect an award to make about a book every time it is handed out: That it’s brilliantly written, or that it hits the sweet-spot of the applicable genre?

I’m not sure I know the answer myself. But I think it’s dependent upon how comfortable one is with the idea that, in the end, a private eye novel (for example), if true to the form, is just an entertainment, and anyone who tries to make it something bigger than that is overreaching for no good purpose. Hence, it’s okay for the Shamus to be given to a book that any fan of the P.I. genre would find exceptional, but would do little or nothing to impress someone who ordinarily never reads the stuff.

Personally, I have always felt that sub-standard writing should disqualify a book from winning any “best of the year” award, no matter how entertaining it is. We call what we do “writing,” not “storytelling,” so the “best” of what we do should offer a reader the whole enchilada: great story, involving characters, and above-average writing.

Given the choice between a book that nails the demands of its genre down cold but reads like a first draft, and one that plays loosely with those demands but leaves you wishing to God you could use language that way, I’ll take the latter every time.

And vote that book a winner.

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Short But Sweet #2

May 6th, 2010 · Uncategorized

Observation: I came across this on an otherwise great, writer’s blog:


Reaction: Blog spam is wrong. Very, very wrong. (My condolences to all authors involved.)

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