Friday, November 27, 2015

The Secret

In the six years that Thriller Guy has been lecturing from this particular pulpit he has, many times, repeated his mantra: Sit down; Shut up, Get to work. In the early days this no bullshit advice was relatively rare. Most writers of the self-help writer’s advice manuals used kinder and gentler terms to encourage would-be writers to do the work of writing. Perhaps it simply became clear that pats on the back and gentle words of encouragement had little effect on writer behavior or maybe book bloggers and self help gurus just decided to copy Thriller Guy, because that’s the way a lot of people get their material. When they can’t be original, they steal. So they got tough. At any rate, TG is no longer going to slap people around to get them to work. There will still be thousands of unoriginal book blogs and books telling you the same five things over and over (First drafts don’t have to be good, Write two pages every day, etc, etc.) Listen up aspiring writers, either do what needs to be done, or not; TG doesn’t really give a shit. So to all those out there who can’t seem to figure out how the process works, let’s let Neil Gaiman (who was the subject of last week’s entry) have the last word. Here’s everything you need to know to become a successful writer. Take it away, Neil…

Write the ideas down. If they are going to be stories, try and tell the stories you would like to read. Finish the things you start to write. Do it a lot and you will be a writer. The only way to do it is to do it.

I’m just kidding. There are much easier ways of doing it. For example: On the top of a distant mountain there grows a tree with silver leaves. Once every year, at dawn on April 30th, this tree blossoms, with five flowers, and over the next hour each blossom becomes a berry, first a green berry, then black, then golden.

At the moment the five berries become golden, five white crows, who have been waiting on the mountain, and which you will have mistaken for snow, will swoop down on the tree, greedily stripping it of all its berries, and will fly off, laughing.

You must catch, with your bare hands, the smallest of the crows, and you must force it to give up the berry (the crows do not swallow the berries. They carry them far across the ocean, to an enchanter’s garden, to drop, one by one, into the mouth of his daughter, who will wake from her enchanted sleep only when a thousand such berries have been fed to her). When you have obtained the golden berry, you must place it under your tongue, and return directly to your home.

For the next week, you must speak to no-one, not even your loved ones or a highway patrol officer stopping you for speeding. Say nothing. Do not sleep. Let the berry sit beneath your tongue.

At midnight on the seventh day you must go to the highest place in your town (it is common to climb on roofs for this step) and, with the berry safely beneath your tongue, recite the whole of Fox in Socks. Do not let the berry slip from your tongue. Do not miss out any of the poem, or skip any of the bits of the Muddle Puddle Tweetle Poodle Beetle Noodle Bottle Paddle Battle.

Then, and only then, can you swallow the berry. You must return home as quickly as you can, for you have only half an hour at most before you fall into a deep sleep.

When you wake in the morning, you will be able to get your thoughts and ideas down onto the paper, and you will be a writer.

And if all of that seems too difficult, you can just, well, Sit down; Shut up: and Get to work. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

If You're So Smart, Why Ain't You Rich?

Pity the poor book reviewer. Authors love him if the review is good; revile him if there’s the slightest hint that a book is flawed. Underpaid, (if paid at all) and usually characterized as a failed writer… “If he’s so smart, why doesn’t he write his own book? And why isn’t it a best seller?” I have been asked many times if reviews matter. After having written just shy of a thousand book reviews for many publications, I think I have an answer: Maybe. Sometimes. It depends.

Amazon publishing and book selling certainly changed the landscape of traditional book reviewing. For hundreds of years book reviews appeared in newspapers and journals and sometimes magazines and pretty much nowhere else. These publications, some impressive and powerful, some not so much, were the most important places (and usually only places) to get the word out by publishers and authors that a book had come on the market. For the last fifty years or so, the three most important publications were Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. If you got a good review from all of these three, your book was pretty much guaranteed to do well. Even if it didn’t sell as many copies as you hoped, you had excellent blurb material for the softbound version when it came out, and publishers were more inclined to accept your next effort if your first received this sort of critical reception. Of these three, only Publishers Weekly remains really relevant.

Then along comes Amazon and book reviewing becomes something new, more a matter of numbers rather than content. Reviewing is no longer the sole province of professional reviewers – who are often authors themselves -- but the territory of regular readers as well. If you love a book or hate a book you can go on Amazon and express your opinion, and other readers can make decisions of whether to buy and/or read a book based on what someone who is more like them has to say. These reviews have become one more weapon in Amazon’s powerful arsenal aimed at the heart of mainstream publishing. Almost all the self-help independent publication gurus advise that you do everything possible to convince people to give your book a good review on Amazon. The more reviews, the thinking and advice goes, the more copies you’re going to sell, and then the more good reviews you’re going to get. This, of course, has led to cheating and inflated numbers, a subject that I’m not going to go in to, but in general I think that this conventional wisdom is correct: Amazon reviews lead to Amazon sales.

But how about reviews for the really big guys, writers like Stephen King, Brad Thor, Donna Tart, Tom Clancy, etc. Do those people really give a shit? It’s my experience that they actually do. I’ve reviewed and interviewed some of the biggest in the business and they have always been seemingly happy to oblige my requests, been free with their time and willing to answer questions that they’re sick of answering. It seems as if the universal desire to be loved and admired remains strong in all of us. Everyone hates to be told their work sucks, even if that work has brought in boatloads of money.

Some years ago I went to the National Book Festival in Washington and stood in line to have a book signed by Neil Gaiman. I confess, I haven’t read his work extensively, but readers love him, and I really liked his book, The Anansi Boys. Here are a couple of lines from my starred review. If readers found the Sandman series creator's last novel, American Gods, hard to classify, they will be equally nonplussed—and equally entertained—by this brilliant mingling of the mundane and the fantastic.” And… “But it's Gaiman's focus on Charlie and Charlie's attempts to return to normalcy that make the story so winning—along with gleeful, hurtling prose.” So I decided to go to the book festival and ask him to sign my ARC (Advance Readers Copy) of his novel.

I went with my wife, and we were both nonplussed to see the line waiting to speak to Gaiman. It must have stretched as long as a couple of football fields, but I settled in and it inched forward. It took two hours to get to the signing table, and along the way I met many Gaiman fans who all had something he had written to sign. They were all impressed that I had a review copy of Anansi Boys, and it was passed along up and down the line to be looked at. You had to hand your book to be signed to one of his festival helpers, and when she set it on the table in front of him Gaiman appeared puzzled and looked up at me with a frown. I said, “I’m your ____ _____ reviewer.” He stood up, (he’s really tall) came around the table and hugged me. “You wouldn’t believe how much you’ve changed my life,” he said. Well, that was a nice surprise.

He said that before the review I gave him, his publisher saw him in as an up-market comic book guy, a writer who wasn’t basically serious. After the review, they decided to deal with his work in a more serious manner. One immediate pay off was that they were no longer going to put a lightening bolt (a “goddamn lightening bolt,” were his words) on the covers of his books to point up the otherworldly, fantasy aspects. We shook hands and he said if I ever needed anything, to let him know. As I walked away, the folks in line looked at me, awestruck. Well, maybe not awestruck, but with admiration. As did my wife, who had witnessed the whole scene. Suddenly the critic gets some respect. It felt good.

So in answer to the question, do reviews matter to the Big Writers? The answer is yes, maybe, and it depends.

You just never know.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Good Life

For those of you kind enough to ask where the hell Thriller Guy has been, he’s been off in the lush environs of Napa, California, visiting his chef/farmer son. TG has one question: How does anyone who lives out there ever get anything done? It is an undeniably beautiful place with great food and drink and everyone was nice to TG, even on the highway. OK, maybe it’s two questions: What is wrong with these people?

When TG visits a new place he tries to imagine himself living and working there. In this case, maybe in Yountville, or St. Helena, in the valley, a little, light-filled bungalow, avocado tree in the backyard, sitting in his studio in front of his computer, looking out on the surrounding mountains and vineyards, having a glass or two of excellent local wine with lunch, maybe TG will just lie down for a minute and rest his eyes, zzzzzz. Then the day is over and nothing got written. Listen to TG: You can walk down the street and pick your food off the trees that hang over the sidewalk. Even the homeless live the life of Riley. (Aside… do young people today even know who Riley was and what the phrase Living the Life of Riley means? A quick dip intothe waters of Wikipedia turns up some interesting and valuable time-wasting information. TG is not going to go into it here, but anyone who remembers the hapless Riley uttering the words, “Ain’t this a revoltin’ development” with any fondness at all will probably enjoy the article.) Back to the homeless.

The weather in Napa pretty much year round makes sleeping under the bridge as easy as a trip to a spa. TG saw homeless people with several varieties of pets. If you can convince someone to slip you some gin, you can make a decent martini just from the landscape around you. Would you like lemon or olives with that, sir?

It makes sense that this is where most of the screenplays get written. Writing a screenplay -- as opposed to a novel -- is like going on vacation. TG should know, he’s got a drawer full of them. They’re only 120 pages long and most of that is white space. There’s plenty of software free on the Interweb that will format the thing for you. You can crank a decent script out in a couple of weeks. Any movie producers out there? Want to see a couple of scripts? Just ask TG, he’ll get them in the mail right away.

TG has written before about his life in Montana when he was married to A Very Rich Woman and how they lived in the mountains in a beautiful house. TG sat for a couple of weeks in his bright, airy writing room, looking out over the beautiful, snow-capped Bitterroot Mountains, getting no work done until he moved his desk and chair into the basement next to a giant furnace and finally got cracking. TG still works in a basement with no windows to the outer world. When the clock says 8 o’clock, TG has to stop and think – AM or PM? TG needs seasons to force him to his desk. Adversity. Snow in the forecast? Good! Let’s get to work! Heat. Over a hundred degrees outside? Great! It’s cool down here in the basement, let’s get to work!

All this got TG thinking about how it might work if he were hired to go to California to write a movie or something. Maybe he could get set up at a seedy hotel like Barton Fink in the movie of the same name, a movie that was all about a writer trying to write. A really ratty place where there was nothing to do except hunker down and write. This led TG to head over to Wikipedia where he found that the Coen brothers wrote Barton Fink because they were in the middle of writing Millers Crossing and they got stuck. So they left California, went back to New York, wrote Fink, then finished Millers Crossing. The way I see it, they needed to get out of California and experience the wonderful adversity of New York to bump them back into creativity.

Nothing of any real importance gets written in California. Yeah, sure, I know you’re going to throw names at me like Raymond Carver and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but really, there are historically and presently ten times the number of excellent writers in New York City alone compared to all of California.

And why not? If TG lived there, he’d be just like everyone else. Yes, he’ll have a couple of olives in his martini. You can pick them off that tree right over there.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reaper Report

Henning Mankell has died, and he will be sorely missed by all intelligent mystery readers. Is it just TG, or did Mankell begin to look more and more like Johnny Cash in the last few years? Just asking. His long-running Inspector Kurt Wallander mysteries are wonderfully written with complex characters and complex plots. They have been made into several series, both in Sweden and by the BBC, where Kenneth Branagh stars as Wallander. Many of Thriller Guy’s friends like the Swedish version better, but TG, being a big Branagh fan, likes the BBC series the best.  

TG is going to be out of town for a few weeks, and he suggests that you check out his friend Allen Appel's memoir about growing up inWest Virginia in the 1950s. Lotsa sex and laughs. And while you’re at it, why not scoot over to Amazon and pick up some Appel novels? Even if you’ve read the entire Alex Balfour series there’s other gems that are just as good, so give them a try.

Thanks. See you in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Two Spaces After a Period

Thriller Guy thought he'd step in here because he knows A. Appel doesn't have the stones to properly address this important topic: Those dinosaurs who are still putting two spaces after a period.

Berkeley Breathed has done a number of strips on his web page devoted to this topic. Over the years, TG has asked on these pages that those of you who are still doing this, please stop. As always, you're not listening. TG notes that for each of the strips Breathed has done on the topic, especially the Sunday strips, there have been 40 to 50,000 likes, comments, and shares. Yes, that is the correct number. And most of the comments are of the variety, "You can have my two spaces when you pry them from my cold, dead hands." That's a lot of people who are delusional.

People, writers, who do this should just tack a message at the beginning of their manuscripts that speaks directly to the YOUNG editors, agents and readers who are reviewing their query letters, partial and complete manuscripts or any other communications that has come across their desk, via email, snailmail or in any other written form. That message says, "I am old. I am clinging to outdated rules. My work will be old fashioned. My ideas are unoriginal. I am a loser."

Go ahead, howl with indignation. Gnash your self-righteous teeth. If you'd like a kinder, longer explanation why you have to stop doing this, read this web article.

Not long ago, one of the agent sites TG likes to look at on occasion ran a piece written by an agent about how he judges manuscripts. The sentence read something like this, "When I open a manuscript, and I see that the writer is using two spaces after a period, I throw it in the trash." You think that's kind of harsh? If you've got a slush pile of fifty manuscripts to work your way through, you'll use any shortcut you can find to winnow out the "bad" ones. Agents and editors don't have the time to read all the submissions that flood in on them every day. It's your job to write the best book you can write, and present it in the best possible manner. 

Years ago, TG used to do the two spaces thing. His son, TG Junior, laughed and gave him the scoop on the practice. TG quit. It took about a day to replace the habit with a single space. TG wishes he could say from that moment on his manuscripts found instant homes and the money poured in. They didn't, and it didn't. But you know what?

His writing no longer made him look like an old fool.

So keep it up if you think you must, there are thousands like you. You know who they are, they're called the unpublished.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


While guiding my skiff through the backwaters of cable tv the other night, I stumbled across an old movie I had never see before. Across the Pacific, starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Mary Astor. I’m not recommending the movie as being fabulous, or even very good, but it did offer me a moment’s revelation.

It’s set in 1941 and Bogey plays a disgraced Coast Guard officer who is on a boat headed to China where he hopes to enlist to fight the Japanese. Also on the boat are Aster, who doesn’t seem to have any function in the story other than looking good, and Greenstreet, who isn’t very fat in this one, but who is an enemy spy. The ship is held up in Panama, and all go ashore. Some stuff involving perfidious Japanese spies occurs, and Bogey ends up shooting it out with Japanese soldiers who are launching an airplane whose mission is to bomb the canal. He is successful in stopping them.

At some point in the movie – I was beginning to drift off in my chair -- Bogey is being questioned about some action he has taken and he says these words to justify what he’s done: “A dame gave me a bum steer.” That snapped me awake. What a great noir line. I started listening to the dialogue, which was way above normal snappy:

Astor (to Bogey): “I can do without money.”
Bogart: “Stick with me and you’ll get plenty of practice.”

Bogart and Greenstreet both pull guns on each other at the same time: Bogart: “Mine’s bigger than yours.”

At that point I looked the movie up to see who had written it. Richard Macaulay, who was later a “friendly witness” in the McCarthy hearings, which I guess is neither here nor there, but interesting. Macaulay wrote some other noir movies, among them Born to Kill, which pretty much everyone agrees is both terrible and reprehensible. Sample dialogue: "You can't just go around killing people when the notion strikes you. It's just not feasible." You can read about Across the Pacific here on Wikipedia.

The point of my rambling isn’t the movie, it’s that line: “A dame gave me a bum steer.” I’ve been talking in this blog lately about where writers come up with ideas. It’s question that always gets asked because it’s so damn important. Some writers can crank out a story by coming up with a particular character, and some might fall in love with a place and craft a story that fits into it, but most of us need an idea, and the more original the better. This is especially true if you’re a thriller writer. But it strikes me that sometimes it might be better to start with a broader concept and hone it from general to specific. In this case the concept is, yes, you guessed it… “A dame gave me a bum steer.” How many noir books and movies have been grounded in that simple statement? And how many more can take flight from that one sentence?
So the next time you’re wrestling with an idea for a new project, start with a bigger theme and work smaller. (A man hates his father: Why? That might be a good take-off point for a time travel series.)

Let’s see… A naked, muscular man is being interviewed. In the background is a naked woman with an aggrieved look on her face. A snake hangs from a branch of a nearby tree.

Interviewer: “Adam, just how is it that you’ve come to be cast out from the Garden of Eden?”

Adam: “A dame gave me a bum steer.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Because of a recent turn-down in both the stock market and sales of Allen Appel’s books, Thriller Guy has decided to turn the blog over to Appel for perhaps the most shameless appeal for sales ever attempted by an author. Yes, here we go, it’s

Writers With Cats!

Here’s a photo of the writer Edward Gorey with a cat. I came across the photo while searching for a picture of Rasputin with a cat. Why? The first book in my series, Time After Time, was set in Russia before, during and after the Russian revolution and there’s a long Rasputin death scene in the book. What is truly amazing is I was unable to find a picture of Rasputin with a cat anywhere on the Interweb. So this one will have to do because Gorey bears an uncanny resemblance in both appearance and spirit of the Mad Monk. I'm pretty sure Gorey is stoned in this picture.

And here's the book. Copies can be found on the Internet or you can go to Amazon and fire it up on your Kindle by clicking on the book cover. It's priced at an incredibly low $.99 because we're sure that once you read the first one you're going to want to read the entire series. You know, the way folks did with the Game of Thrones, only this series is a lot shorter.

Click on the book cover to go to Amazon's Kindle page and order the book.
Time After Time. Volume One in the Pastmaster series. Revolutionary Russia is the setting. After dealing with Rasputin, Lenin and other villains and fighting his way across Russia, Alex Balfour finds himself outside the house where the Romanovs are about to be executed. And why does present DNA research show that not all of the family was killed that night?

"Best novel of the Year." American Library Association
"A keep-you-up-all-night book. It doesn't end, it pauses to let you catch your breath." The Washington Post
"A ferociously paced adventure whose chief object is to keep us reading." New York Times Book Review

Yes, it's Mark Twain, who has appeared in not one but TWO books in the series. He makes his first appearance here in the second book in the series...

Twice Upon a Time. Volume Two in the Pastmaster Series. Ten years after the Civil War the great American Centennial Exhibition opened to the astonishment of the entire world. This tale takes Alex Balfour from his mysterious awakening at the Exhibition through his friendship with Mark Twain and ends on the killing fields of the Little Big Horn with General George Armstrong Custer.

"Best books of the year." American Library Association
"Riveting... Highly recommended." Library Journal
"A compelling adventure." The Coast Book Review


Ernest Hemingway, of course. Why? Because the third book, Until the End of Time is set during WWII and Hemingway was working then. I believe that there are more pictures of Papa with cats than any other writer, living or dead. And this is a good one though kind of sad. I wonder if there was a cat around the day Hem picked up the shotgun and did himself in? If there had been, maybe he would have stopped to give the kitty a good head scratch instead of pulling the trigger.

Till the End of Time. Volume Three in the Pastmaster series. From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, Alex Balfour is trapped in some of the bloodiest battle of the Second World War. Back in the present, girlfriend Molly deals with a terrorist threat. This time, Alex is not sure if he'll ever make it back. And he doesn't.

"Best books of the year." American Library Association
"As rousing as ever." Kirkus
"Keeps readers glued to the page." The Washington Post


These are the first three books in the six volume series. I'll be featuring MORE PICTURES OF WRITERS WITH CATS in the near future, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and buy a book and get started on the series that many have declared, "Better than Game of Thrones but with far fewer naked women."