Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday NY; Cereal Out of the Box; John Twelve Hawks

As you might imagine, the holidays in NY can be brutal, especially in the publishing business. Thriller Guy is exhausted after rushing from party to party as publishers vie to outdo one another with these lavish affairs. Don't be fooled by their protestations of poverty, their slashing of writer's advances, the cutbacks in the fact-checking department; they're eating mighty high on the hog while their writers struggle in unheated lofts, damp basements, slaving away in Bob Cratchit gloves over chilly keyboards. Trust me, fellow scribblers, no matter what they say, they're living way better than you are.

Constant readers know that TG likes to steal snippets from Garrison Kieler's Writers Notebook. Here's a piece from today's by Paul Rudnick, a regular at The New Yorker and scripter of note: "As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It's a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly."

And Now to Business: John Twelve Hawks.

On July, 4, 2005, Bantam Press published The Traveler: Book One in the Fourth Realm Series, a Fantasy/Science Fiction thriller about a future dystopian society where an evil corporation rules the US and is bent on enslaving all of mankind. The author, writing as John Twelve Hawks, had snagged a million dollar advance for the trilogy and declared himself “off the grid," meaning he used no credit cards, had no telephone, nothing that anyone, especially the government, could use to track him down. This was a pretty cool premise and the industry was rife with guesses as to who Twelve Hawks really was. TG offered the opinion that Hawks was, in reality, Joyce Carol Oates, writing under yet another pen name because there are just too many books in that little lady to publish each and every one under her own name. Everyone scoffed, but TG remains of this same opinion.

The last of the three books has recently been published. They are, in order: The Traveler, The Dark River, and The Golden City. TG has reviewed all three of these books and was a big booster of the first, The Taveler. TG loves big fat books, especially series, that promise him hours and hours spent buried in fascinating pages rather than in this vale of tears that is his regular life. (Easy, TG, the narrative is starting to get away from you.) So he overlooked some problematic scenes, some inconsistencies, some clunky writing, to give the book a good review, especially in the hopes that the next two books would be even better.

In the second book, Twelve Hawks went "dark" spending most of the time in a particularly grim realm where various primitive groups stalked and killed each other on a blasted island lit only by flaming gas pipes. In general, it is in the nature of trilogies for an author to go dark in the second book, TG is not sure why, perhaps after the exhilaration of the first novel one feels the need to buckle down and get serious, and serious often seems to mean dark, but that is the way it often goes. Then in the third book quite often the author wakes from this pall and gets back into the spirit of the first book and kicks some serious ass. So, number two received a respectful, if guarded, review from TG.

Unfortunately, Hawks doesn't kick nearly enough ass in this last book, The Golden City. What TG wanted to see is a global war of Good against Evil, where the world's armies clash, the globe is enshrouded in a pall of smoke and dust, entire populations are fried in their homes, swords clash, bombs fall, and in the end there is only destruction and weeping, weeping, weeping. Here, though, the climax comes with the hero making a long last philosophical speech, exhorting his followers to rise up and take back their world. The long speech is OK, I didn't mind that too much, but then instead of showing us how the streets were taken back and how everyone across the globe joins together and rises up, he simply tells us that this happens. A few pages of wrap-up and that's it. I understand that it would have added another hundred pages or so to the book and the publisher would have squealed like Ned Beatty in Deliverance, but instead of the reader being left exhausted and triumphant, one puts the book down with a vague feeling of only what might have been.

But, TG must always keep telling himself that it's not his job to write the book he's reviewing, but to simply review the book he's reading.

All of this makes the series sound bad, which it isn't. Hundreds of personal reviewers on Amazon.com will attest to that. Many will love it; many won't. Read them in order. TG hopes you won't be disappointed. Don't worry about John Twelve Hawks, he got his million bucks, he doesn't care what you think anyway, he's off the grid.

Hey Twelve Hawks! This is Thriller Guy here! It could have been better, man, you could have worked a little harder, listened to an editor, asked a friend his or her honest opinion, pushed it when you were tired, gone beyond philosophy and politics. You could have been a real contender.

You should have kicked some ass; instead, you tried to make a point.

Too bad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Glories, and Perils, of Research

What Is Thriller Guy Reading?

Out last month from Tor, Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice teaming up again with Red Dragon Rising: Shadows of War. This is military adventure at its finest. There's little time wasted on complex characterization or scene setting, instead the authors cut straight to the action. It's 2014, gas in the US costs $14.39 a gallon and the recession continues unabated. China decides to invade Vietnam then take over the rest of Asia; the US has to step in to save the world. In no time at all the missiles, bombs and bullets are flying. If you're interested in the genre, these guys are among the best.

AJ Update.

As a reminder or for first-time viewers, TG is shepherding a first-time novelist, AJ, as he begins a thriller. Here's a sliver of his comment on the blog below: “Part of what does slow me down is the tons of research I find myself diving into on every little aspect of the story. There are some procedural things that I needed to find out, which makes other questions come up, which leads to new ideas, etc.”

TG loves doing research for a novel. The subject is always a place, time or concept that he's interested in, so what can beat whiling away hours on the Internet, in bookstores and libraries? Nothing. Certainly not writing, the painful act of putting words on paper. TG's suggestion is to do a small amount of research while you're getting your concept together, making sure things will work, then doing your outline to get the story down, go back and do any specific research you need for your first several chapters and then START WRITING. Everyone's schedule is different, but if you've got all day to write, a solid four hours in the morning, followed by a couple of hours rewriting what you did the day before followed by another couple of hours of research is a good day's work. A ratio of 4:2:2. If you're squeezing the writing in around a day job, try to stick with the ratio, even though your time will be shorter; splitting the various aspects up over several days if need be.

Research will suggest new lines of attack, new plot twists, new characters and sometimes entirely new directions. It is (usually) wise to follow these leads; beware of thinking that because it means going back and rewriting what has already been written to make the new material fit, that it will be too much work and not be worth it. This is a mistake. Plots, characters and concepts grow because they are fed new material, either from your own brain where you make it up or from outside sources. Research, in other words. You will be amazed how your book will grow from what you will come to see as the paltry, spindly little thing it was when it was first conceived, to the big, strong bruiser it will become when it is finished.

Another Useful Book.

At the other end of the spectrum from Zuckerman's, How to Write the Blockbuster Novel is the newly published, Talking About Detective Fiction, By P.D. James. TG has not had the time to read this, but it's obviously going to have some good stuff in it. Everything that P.D. James writes has good stuff in it. Perhaps some kind soul out there might find a copy of this and review it for us on these pages? For a look at the first chapter, go here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Story, Story, Story

Our new resident thriller writer, AJ, has turned in half of his first assignment, the backstory of his character, Victor Wallace, protagonist for the novel he is calling, at least for now, Mississippi Running. Aj did an excellent job, and TG was happy to see that the extended bio gave plenty of room for future expansion. He's thinking series, in other words, which is a good thing because publishers always think series whenever possible. So he now has a credible character with lots of interesting backstory and is working on the plot one-pager. So far TG is very impressed with his writing.

TG is working with another writer, a friend of his daughter's, we'll call him DF for the time being. (And why are we continuing this weirdness of the initials? TG is not exactly sure, but it feels as if, at least in these early stages, a certain amount of discretion is necessary. But as TG is not much one for discretion, he'll probably drop the initial silliness and go with real names, but for now, TG, AJ, and DF it is. DF, a first-time novelist, sent TG a 60 page chunk of a novel he had finished and was shopping to agents. It is not an unusual occurrence for TG to read for folks he doesn't know, as he feels it is part of the job of being a writer to look at other writer's work, if asked, and make recommendations, if asked. Or as much as possible. One only has a certain amount of time to devote to worthy causes. DF's chunk was as good as anything TG reads at his regular reviewing day job, and, actually, better than most. DF is meeting soon with a big agent (BA) (Stop! Stop! No more initials!) in NY (I thought I told you no more initials!) soon, to kick around some ideas, and the agent suggested DF read Robert McKee's book, Story, which is a how-to-write tome much revered by publishers and everyone else in the business. Well, revered by everyone except TG, who is an aficionado of the genre, as explained in these pages before. I found Story pretty boring, very textbooky. (The same seems to be true of McKee's seminars on this subject.) While all writers should probably read it because it's such a standard, and there are certainly many good points therein, TG would like to make his own recommendation.

For those of you who want to write big books from big concepts with big characters and earn big money, at least in the thriller genre, TG recommends Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Every time TG begins a new novel, he sits down and rereads this book. Zuckerman doesn't screw around with “theory,” he just tells you what to do and what not to do. It's entertaining, it's fast and it gets the job done. If you've got that and Masello's Roberts Rules of Writing, you are on your way to mastering the form. In other blogs TG will discuss some of the more esoteric How To books that have influenced him, but for now, get those two, read them, get your ass in the chair and get to work.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

AJ Signs on; Narco Gangs, Our First Line of Defense; Cormac McCarthy's Damn Typewriter.

Last week an anonymous commenter, (now known on these pages as AJ) wrote in saying he wanted to write a novel. TG offered to help him if he had a decent idea. AJ sent a description of the idea and it is, indeed, good. He's got an action hero working for a well known but little used, by thriller writers, federal agency, a geographic venue that is interesting, and he, AJ, writes a clear, cogent sentence. That's pretty much all you need, besides guts, to turn out a presentable thriller. But of course it's the guts, the ability to do the very hard work that separates the wannabes from those who have published. So TG gave AJ his first assignment: one page about the hero character; one page about the plot. Keep it general, don't agonize over it, don't worry about style and polish, just get it done. Send it in. Keep a notebook by the bed, in the car and at work to write down ideas as they occur. Always write them down immediately! Otherwise you will always, always forget them. When TG is working on a novel he may get up two or three times a night to go to the computer and write notes. This goes on for years. It must drive MTG crazy. It certainly drives TG crazy, but he does it.

TG's alter ego, Allen Appel, writes book reviews for an interesting website called Homeland Security Outlook. They put out a lively newsletter and run interesting articles on the site. This week they put up a piece that answers a question that has always bothered TG. You never hear of arrests of terrorists who have entered the country by scooting across the Mexican border along with the thousands of illegals who are coming in. (TG knows that there are more than a few paranoid morons with blogs and sites that say terrorists are pouring in across the border, laden with bombs and guns, but they never have any proof of this.) This HSOutlook article says that the reason there are no terrorists coming over the Mexican border is because the narco gangs keep this from happening, and will sometimes turn these people in to our own border patrol. They, the gangs, know that if this ever starts really happening our government will crack down so hard they'll never gat another drug shipment across. If this isn't a cool premise for a thriller, TG doesn't know what is. There you go, someone. An excellent, free idea that no one has done.

Is anyone else beside TG sick of reading articles about Cormac McCarthy's old Olivetti typewriter being sold for $245,500? It's not the price that the machine fetched, but the fact that McCarthy still uses such a clunker. A friend bought him a new/used Olivetti for $20. TG understands that he (TG, not McCarthy) will now receive scores, nay, hundreds of comments (well, maybe three or four) from writers extolling the joys of pencils, pens, legal pads, composition books, index cards, quill pens and rolls of parchment. Yeah, yeah, yeah. TG remembers having to cut and paste pages of novels together like Babylonian scrolls; having to completely retype drafts of books over and over to arrive at a finished, clean copy. Completely retyping books seven or eight times. Going back and reading pages and deciding not to make changes because you'd have to retype everything again. Whiteout. Oh, God, whiteout. Maybe Mr. McCarthy doesn't make mistakes. Maybe he doesn't need to rewrite. Maybe he pays someone else to do this sort of chore for him. Good for him. But for the rest of the world of working writers, trying to scratch out some sort of a living by putting words on the page, the personal computer is a godsend.

Here's one more gripe about Cormac McCarthy, which TG will preface by saying he loves Cormac McCarthy and remembers with fondness his younger days when reading a book like Blood Meridion was akin to doing a two week hitch in Vietnam under fire or sitting through the entirety of Wagner's Ring Cycle in one long go-around. Back in the days when McCarthy was really tough. The Road? A kid's book compared to the early stuff. But here's what annoys TG. McCarthy claims that his greatest joy is writing and to him heaven is sitting down facing a blank page. TG guesses he'll have to make an exception for the esteemed Mr. M., but normally when TG hears a writer say this TG is absolutely sure the person is full of crap and his writing, if there really is any writing, sucks. Here's a long interview where Cormac espouses these views and talks about The Road movie.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

OK, Tough Guy, So You Want To write a Novel

OK, Thriller Guy has a proposal to make. Those of you who haven't read Anonymous's respons to Anonymous the writer (this is getting difficult. Let's call the guy who wants to write a novel who wrote the interesting post below, Anonymous J, or AJ, from now on) go ahead and read his comment, which TG put up as a post, rather than a comment. AJ wants to write novels rather than doing his regular day job. Fine. He can't seem to find time to “knock out a novel or two or three.” Also fine. But you're not going to knock out anything, you're going to have to write every frigging word, rewrite every frigging word, and agonize over it all. But it's not impossible. So here's the deal.

Thriller Guy will lead you through the hell that is writing a novel. It's mostly a matter of breaking every step down into doable size, doing it, then moving on to the next step. The difficulty usually is, most folks don't know the steps involved. TG does. TG has published, geez, he's not even sure how many books it is now, but at least five novels. And written at least five more. TG knows what he is doing.

If you, AJ, want to really write your novel, send TG a one page explanation of what your book is going to be about. If TG thinks it has promise, he will start you at the beginning and in small steps lead you through the process of writing the book. When you are done, he will send your book to one of the many agents he knows in the business, with his recommendation.

And not just AJ. If anyone else out there wants TG's help, send him an email. Use his alter ego's email address, appelworks@gmail.com. TG will pick someone else to go through the same process. TG doesn't care if the book is already written or just the germ of an idea. Send a one page explanation of what the idea is and who you are and TG will pick someone else to mentor. Everyone will remain anonymous, but TG will occasionally run blogs about the process and how it is going. The limit here is two people at this point. TG has his own books to write and he can't help everyone. If this works, well, maybe he'll expand the idea.

So all you writers out there who can't figure out how to get a toe in the door, this is it. It's not a matter of time, no one has the time to write a novel, it takes years. But anyone can MAKE the time to write a novel, if they break it up into small enough pieces. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

So let's kick some ass with this thing. If you've got the guts to do the work, send Appeworks@gmail.com an email. If you don't, stand back and let the others through.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I, Write: Another View

TG received the following in response to the Anonymous writer's screed two entries below this one. Because the commenter asks so many intelligent questions I'm posting it as a guest blog. In a day or two, TG will answer some of the questions put forth here and also make a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT. Stay tuned...

Anonymous says:

I write, because it's a creative outlet. So yes - like your inane social gathering ninny I'll say that it's just a hobby for me at this point because I have so many demands on my time that it is difficult to do more than put tiny slices of time into it.

However, I do recognize that it is going to take a lot of hard work to get that first book published, not only on the writing and re-writing but in staying focused on doing that instead of going off on wild tangents like this posting, but I felt compelled to say something about the essay by the writer, Anonymous, below.

My day job - designing and selling disaster recovery solutions for data centers, certainly pays the bills for me. I get to work out of my home, travel a bit here and there, and help people solve technical problems. But...I get restless - the need to create becomes almost obsessive. So I do videography, machinima, (an animation technique) and write. Sometimes my work involves a lot of the creative process, so I am fortunate to get some creative outlet as well as see it contribute to my successes. I enjoy a degree of industry recognition as an expert in my field, but it's NOT what I'm dying to do.

I'd like nothing better than to find a way to be successful at doing creative things that I enjoy - and by successful I mean make enough money at it that I can indulge in it full time and not miss any mortgage payments. None of my hobbies can top what I do for a living currently, on a financial level, so most of my hopes will rest on knocking out a novel or two or three over time and see what happens.

But the earlier posters point bothered me - I'm sure electricians and plumbers aren't sitting around thinking of interesting ways to rewire houses and rework pipes to increase their income. I'm also sure that these tradesfolk aren't going from job to job and mostly getting rejection slips.

Basically, the idea that real writers don't have muses they have mortgages - that it's just a trade - I don't buy it. I realize there is tradecraft involved, but I'd like to know what are those writers doing who put out best sellers? Are they so in debt that they just work at it a bit more and voila! They become millionaires? No, they write well enough, creatively enough, and then what? What other random magic happens that they then trigger the addiction to their stories in a large enough reader base to become celebrities?

So yes, I'm a wannabe, and I've published here and there in my industry, little articles about this and that, but I'm not content with taking that further - but to instead write fiction. I want to make great stories that become highly successful published novels. Anything and everything I can learn to that end would be great, and I'm sure the dumb questions that may make a writer want to shoot me are going to be some of the first things I end up doing.

As a result - I've learned that I basically need to:
1) Get my butt into gear and write.
2) Re-write. Avoid cliches. Grind. Work at it until it's done.
3) Actually get it out to agents for rejection.
4) Maybe, eventually, hopefully, by some tiny little chance, after steps 1-3, it could be possible that a book I someday finish, could get published. Oh and don't expect to make anything nearly worth all the time to put into it.

So - let's assume I'm smart enough to make myself finish a novel, and persistent enough and somehow talented enough to get it published.

Let's say even Thriller Guy thinks its a darn good read. Is it going to be a total crap-shoot to have it become best seller material?”

Friday, November 27, 2009

I, Writer

Anonymous' writer's screed (see previous blog) stirred up a swarm of comments, some of which are posted below the entry. Obviously there are a lot of hurtin' scriveners out there; TG once again invites them to use this space to unload any excess baggage they're carrying, vis-a-vis the writing trade.

Commenter Morgan asks the question: In your experience, was writing an avocation before it became a vocation, and if so, does it now mean that 'the thrill is gone'? For a young buck such as myself who enjoys writing but would not enjoy the stresses associated with typing my dollars, is the take away message to court writer's block and other fictitious problems, rather than face the misery of real problems like deadlines and unemployment?

Writing was certainly never an avocation for TG. It was a career move occasioned by the stark fact that his work as a free-lance illustrator/photographer (FLI/P) was never going to bring in much in the way of real money. So, one day whilst sitting in the Washington Post newsroom after turning in a job, he looked around and realized that he was just as smart as most of the rest of the people in the room, so why not take up the writing trade? Flash forward six or eight months and the first draft of Cross, a thriller about a human/chimpanzee baby was born, so to speak. The book never saw publication, but it garnered a ton of terrific rejection letters and led directly to TG's first published novel, Time After Time. If anyone is interested, TG will be glad to relate the tale of the writing of Cross at greater length, as it's somewhat instructive, but the point is, TG approached it as a job, the skills for which were learnable, realizing that as long as one worked hard enough and stuck to it, writing might eventually bear fruit. In short, a vocation, Morgan, to answer your question. TG finds it hard to imagine writing to be fun enough to be an avocation. Luckily, TG turned out to be pretty good at it, or at least as good as most writers, so that's what he does for a living. As far as the last part of your question, there's no need to invent excuses to not write -- just don't do it. If you're the sort of person who enjoys the process and has no need of gratification in terms of money, keep at it. Someday, like love, when you least expect it, success, fame and fortune may descend upon you.

But probably not.

TG's wife (MTG) recently pointed out that these pages were becoming too “inside baseball” and there needed to be more about actual thrillers. So, here are some books that came out this month or are due to come out in December.

And for an interesting assessment of TG's opinion of the Vachss book, read the comment section at the end of the blog.

What Thriller Guy Is Reading.

Andrew Vachss has a new book out and TG wishes he could recommend it, but, alas, he cannot. Haiku. Pantheon, $24.95 (224p) Anyone else out there remember how great the Burke series was when Vachss had a few of them under his belt? Then they slowly started to get weird and just not very good. This one seemed like it was going to work (it's a stand-alone, not a Burke) until Vachss does a very strange thing. He starts off with an intriguing plot about a white Rolls that plunges into the sea off the end of a pier. A group of homeless guys are the heroes, in particular Ho, an elderly martial arts teacher who has rejected worldly goods and taken to the streets. He and the other homeless guys decide to solve the mystery of the white Rolls, then about two-thirds of the way through the book Vachss switches plots to one far less interesting. Why did he do that? I think he couldn't figure out the plot himself and just gave up. This leads to interesting blog topics about such matters as knowing the ending of your book before you begin writing, outlining, etc. Maybe we'll get to them one of these days. There are a few lame excuses as to why the hero suddenly abandons the mystery, but it just doesn't work. Vachss has a deep track record of many published books, so someone, his agent? his publisher? his editor? doesn't seem to have had the balls to tell him the whole plot thing was bogus. If it had been you or TG who tried this stunt, they would have taken back the advance and never published the book.

Mariposa. Greg Bear, Vanguard, $25.95 (352p). Most readers know Bear from his lifelong science fiction work, but he seems to be attempting to break into thrillers with this, the second in a series after Quantico. Set in the near future, the Texas based Talos Corporation helmed by CEO Axel Price is attempting to take control of the US. A few hardy FBI agents are trying to stop him. Chief among Price's weapons is the mind-altering drug, Mariposa. It's all pretty cool and Bear's excellent science fiction chops add plenty of realism to the gadgets and future science.

The Wrecker. Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Pantheon, $27.95 (480p). TG likes a lot of the recent Cussler, but this series that features trains in the Olde West, not so much. Isaac Bell is an investigator for the legendary Van Dorn Detective Agency and this time out he's chasing a fiend known as The Wrecker, who has been destroying trains and railroad facilities, particularly in the West. The writing takes its style after early Dime Novels, which is a bit off-putting. If you've got a thing for trains, you'll probably love these books.

Here's a particularly good one, coming out at the end of December: I, Sniper. Stephen Hunter, Simon and Schuster, $26.00 (432p) TG likes Hunter's writing in general, even his movie reviews in the Washington Post, now, sadly gone since he took an early retirement deal. This latest is part of the excellent Bob Lee Swagger series. Swagger is a simple, home-spun sort of guy who chases evildoers and kills them dead without any blubbering introspection. Here, an unknown sniper is gunning down folks who were big in the 1960's peace movement. In a puzzling structure move, Hunter bases these characters on real-life people, only changing their names slightly. Think Jane Fonda, Vietnam War sniper Carlos Hathcock (here known as Carl Hitchcock) and others. It's kind of a bold move, and TG isn't sure it really works, but the rest of the book is terrific. In other venues about other books, TG has stated that Hunter writes the best gunfight scenes in the business, an opinion that he stands by in spades after this new novel.

If anyone out there wants any of these books, send a comment to TG and he'll send it to you. Please, just one book per customer. TG makes this offer because he values his readers and because he's drowning in books and will actually pay postage just to get them out of the house. That is if TG can actually find the requested book in the giant pile. TG promises nothing, but he'll make the attempt.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Real Writing Life

When the little folk gather around TG's knees to ask their innocent questions, one of the first out of their mouths is the statement, “Oh, TG, I do so want to be a writer.” TG's response is, usually, “Why on God's green earth would you want to do that?” Really, for the most part, it's a terrible job, a terrible life, though public perception gives it a sort of glamour. It's like the way people now see chefs as heroic, extremely cool figures. I agree, they're heroic, (full disclosure, TG's son is a professional chef) but for the thousands of regular chefs who aren't on TV, it's an incredibly grueling and dangerous job. Ask one of them who's been in the kitchen for 12 hours, eight of them in front of a six burner Viking with the flame on high, hair singed, burn scars on their hands and arms, sweating like a pig, having to down quarts and quarts of liquids to keep from passing out, ask that guy how cool it is to be a chef.

Now find a regular, working writer who's facing a deadline, or worse, has no work at all, who can't come up with a decent idea or paying project, who's spent years working on a book that's perfectly good but no publisher will touch because they've heard that no one is buying books these days, who knows that the only money he's going to make is a product of beating the bushes, pleading, sending out queries and thinking, thinking, thinking. Ask that writer how cool it is to sit alone in a room facing a blank computer screen.
So when a writer comes to me with an essay like the following, I say good for you. Will I put it up? You bet. This is a place for Thriller Guy to bitch and moan about the business. All you other real writers out there, you got a beef? Send it in.
Reader, sit back away from your computer. Anonymous here is about to burn down your screen.

(And click on the comments to hear what other writers have to say.)

The One Phrase About Writing That’s Makes Me Want to Kill

I cheerfully admit that I have a lot of hate. It keeps me going. We all draw our strength and creativity from somewhere. I get mine from anger. (Also from absurdity, but that’s a different story.)

There’s one thing that I hate more than anything else. It’s not a certain country, a person or even how jalapeno peppers are not hot anymore. Before I tell you the collection of words that makes me want to puke, let me offer some back story about me.

I am a working writer. Even having to put the word ‘working’ before the word writer makes me gag, but that’s what separates me from people who think they want the glamour of being a writer and those who actually do it. And before you jump down my throat for being a jerk… when people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a writer, their next question usually is: Really, have you had anything published? Of course, you idiot. How else could I be writing for my job. Would you ask a lawyer if he has any cases or doctor if he has any patients? (Have you guessed the phase that bugs me yet?) It’s related, as you’ll see in a minute.

For the past 30 years I have earned my living as a writer. I have written books, magazine articles, I worked in newspapers, newsletters, speeches – if you can write it, I have written it. Anything that makes a buck. I am one of a handful of people who actually make a living – some years are better than others – by sitting my ass in front of my computer and typing out dollars. Aside: I mainly write non-fiction books but also a mystery novel which paid my admission to the Squatting Toad group. Currently, I am making dough by writing and editing a website about Homeland Security.

I’m what you call a journeyman (probably a politically incorrect word but journeyperson sounds dumb). I get up every morning and go to work. In many respects, I’m like the adults in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up who were plumbers, electricians, mailmen, movie projectionists. They got up and did their jobs. Sometimes they liked it and sometimes not so much. But what held it together was making money to support themselves and their families.

And that brings me to the phrase that doesn’t pay. The one I abhor.
Writer’s Block.”

What the hell is that?

Do plumbers have have plumber’s block? Do electricians have electrician’s block? Do people who work in McDonald’s have hamburger block?

That’s often the second question people ask me. “Do you ever have writer’s block?” My answer always involves plumbers and electricians delivered with a sneer. I hope the listener gets what I’m saying, but usually not.

Yeah, I have days that I don’t feel like working, but who doesn’t? And there are days I’m sick of writing. Do teachers want to face snotty-faced kids everyday? No, but they do it.
Like them, I can’t afford not to work. So when I hear the phrase writer’s block it demeans my life’s work, as if I have a choice of working or not.

If my angry countenance has not chased away the cocktail party questioner who wants to further discuss writing, the third question is often this: “I would love to write if I had the time. I know I can do it when I get my creative juices flowing. You know, when I feel my muse. How do you get your ideas?”


Real writers,” I say, in my best condescending voice, “don’t have muses. They have mortgages.”

This usually drives them away, and under their breath I often hear them mutter: “What an asshole.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Those Were the Days

Several commenters have written in asking about Thriller Guy's experiences with the Special Boat Services unit of the Royal Marines. As noted in the entry below, the Military Secrecy Act (MSA) prohibits TG from expanding on this experience, but several questions can be answered without running afoul of this legislation. TG was serving in an American military unit that traded training time with the SBS. This included dressing in full RM formal uniform. In the picture above, TG is the last soldier on the right. (Click to enlarge) Obviously, a much slimmer, younger and fitter man than he is today.

Anyone interested can check out the Royal Marine's official webpage, and for a really cool video about the SBS, go here. Of course in our day we didn't have all the advanced gear that these guys do; picture TG in more traditional frogman gear.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Under the Dome

Before beginning today's entry, just a quick note. Eagle Eyed Marlene comments that TG misspelled the word “judgement” in the entry below. Au contraire, Marlene, you are applying the American spelling (AE) whereas TG has inadvertently slipped into the British spelling (BE). That is because TG spent several years training in England with the Royal Marines in their Special Boat Service (SBS) ((motto” “Not By Strength, By Guile”)) and occasionally applies the BE spelling to certain words. Sorry about that. God, those were the days. TG would really love to talk about that period of his life, but modesty and the Military Secrecy Act (MSA) forbid.

Today, (Sat., Nov. 14th) the Washington Post gave Stephen King's Under the Dome pretty much a rave review. Publishers Weekly did as well. TG wishes King and his book only the best, but a sigh of relief was heard in these environs when it was clear that there would be no review required from TG. A thousand pages? Spare me.

When TG was a young man, he eagerly awaited each year's new King novel. He and his mates in the Marines would hang around the barracks, oops, sorry, can't talk about that. Suffice it so say that each book, Misery, etc. would get passed from hand to hand among the lads until it became tattered beyond repair. But as TG grew older, there seemed to be less and less time for King, and, really, the books just didn't seem as interesting. Then there came a point when TG would find one in the library, attempt to read it and just couldn't get through to the end. The last attempt was with Cell. After that, TG quit.

Can someone out there give TG a good reason to try again? All other books, books for which TG is paid American dollars to read and review, would have to go on hold, so it's going to have to be a pretty good reason. Oh, how he loved, so many years ago, reading The Stand. Will Under the Dome return him to those days of yesteryear?

And finally, a Stephen King story. About a decade ago, TG, who lives in a small hamlet just outside Washington, DC, was getting his hair cut. In the next chair a woman was asked by the stylist how her son was doing. She replied he was doing very well because he had come up with the money to attend the local college. Where did he get the money? It turns out that he's a very distant relative of Stephen King, who has a special fund set up to pay for the college education of even his farest flung relations. Good for the kid. Good for Stephen King. The man deserves his gazillion dollars.

And here's a recent video of the master speaking at a signing for Under the Dome. And how he keeps from going berserk when he's asked, probably for the millionth time, “Where do you get your inspiration?” I'll never know.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Odds and Ends

A Roundup of Random Thoughts and Comments

I'm not sure what's wrong with the font and linespacing on this entry and it is resisting being fixed. TG should have it fixed in the next blog.

"I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split." Kurt Vonnegut
I stole that from this morning's edition of
Every day TG starts his writing day by reading the Almanac, which comes into his e-mail box. There one will find several mini essays on a famous writer, dead or alive, whose birthday occurs on this date. The above came from a Vonnegut entry and seemed particularly apt as TG had recently engaged in a real knock-down, drag-out with his wife, Mrs. Thriller Guy, (MTG) normally an intelligent and perceptive book reader, who had loathed the new Dan Brown book and was taking TG to task for giving it a good review. TG admitted that the book was perhaps not up to high, or even medium high literary standards in the main, but was not intended to be such and that as far as thrillers go it was perfectly fine, offering lots of interesting facts and a few chills and thrills. TG then reiterated his reviewing code, probably stolen from some other far more intelligent reviewer. Said in a slightly haughty voice:
My goal is not to pronounce literary judgement, my goal is to alert writers who like a certain sort of fiction where they can find good examples of the sort of thing they like. If a book is really bad, I'll always say so, but you don't get dinged for not writing Literature.”
She didn't buy it. Comments?
Another feature of the Almanac is there's always a poem. TG feels it's always a good thing for a writer to start the day with a poem. Kind of sets the tone for the writing to come. And those of you who think poetry is too twee for tough guy thriller writers, check out Toby Barlow's Horror/Thriller novel, Sharp Teeth, which features werewolves and is written as a book-length, epic poem. Fast-paced, gut-wrenching and sexy.
On other matters:
Commenter Joel responds to two of TG's questions: Has anyone ever written anything successful at a Starbucks?; and, how can TG make money from his blog?
I wrote a successful piece once. I typed an email that said to my boss that it was crazy to try and rely on Starbucks free wifi to get internet access. The noise and music made it impossible to use the phone too, so can I please get a mobile wireless adapter so I can get the heck out of here and do some real work on these bazillion dollar sales proposals you are expecting from me?
He agreed, so I guess that counts as successfully writing something at Starbucks.”
Make money off the blog? Sure, this is how: Get the Squatting Toad Gang to open their calendar up once in a while to paying newbies such as myself, a Writers Workshop. I'd pay good money to go to that, I'm sure others would too.”
TG admits that getting the boss to agree to the wireless adaptor was the result of a successful piece of writing, though TG will now amend the question as... a successful piece of fiction.
As for the writer's workshop idea, Squatting Toad has indeed kicked this around and if there ever was enough interest we just may do a Beach Week Writer's Workshop. Let us know and we may get serious about it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Robert's Rules III

Commentor writer-maven Marlene chimes in with a few more writing pet peeves. TG was relieved to have passed muster (to measure up to a particular standard) when correcting his mistake with the passive voice in the original Robert's rules blog, which can be found two down from this one. Let's hear from Marlene.

Ouch, Marlene! But you are quite right, and TG hangs his head in shame. It should have been: “Robert, write in if you feel wronged..., Others, send us your tips..." At least I think that's correct. Marlene?”

Marlene writes:

Yes, you are correct! In the interest of credibility, I should mention that I too am a professional writer, and also teach writing to college journalism students.

They get tired of my constant hammering about the passive voice and other favorite nit-picks, such as:

- don't use ``over'' and ``under'' when you mean ``more than'' or ``less (or ``fewer'') than''

- don't use ``that'' when you mean ``who''

- don't use nouns as verbs (such as ``impact,'' or ``network.'')

I know much of the above is quickly becoming common usage (as my students so often tell me) and eventually may become acceptable. But it still is not acceptable in my classroom - or in my own copy! (if I can help it.)

Having recently completed a graduate degree, I became crazed with the frequent use of passive voice (as well as the use of first person) in academic scholarship. (A decades-long career in newspaper journalism made me sensitive to both.) I vowed to respect syntax in my own dissertation, while striving to make it reader-friendly. It was quite a challenge! I could go on and on about academic writing - but that is for another day, and another (non-thriller topic) blog.

OK, Marlene, rest assured that TG will never agin use the passive voice. Listen up, thrillerwriters, think about it, what place does “passive” have in our work? None, exactly. Oh, and Marlene, lets watch the overuse of the exclamation point!

So let us bid a fond goodbye to writers tips and usage. At least until someone else out there sends in their very own favorite peeve.

Oh, what the hell, TG can't resist one more rule from Robert. This one is about those morons you see in Starbucks, the ones with their laptops, writing away, or whatever the hell they're doing. Here's Robert...

Starbucks is where writers who want to be seen in the act of creation go, who treat writing as if it were some sort of performance art. They want to be admired, they want to be soothed by the ambient noise and the occasional glance from an attractive patron. They want to be asked, “What are you working on?” so they can sit back and talk about it.

When if they really and truly wanted to be undisturbed they'd stay home in the first place, make a cup of Folger's instant (for about a nickel) and concentrate.

I know the problem. I know the temptation. Nobody wants to lock himself up in a room and write. Neither do I. Most days I trudge into my office like a guy on a chain gang. It's lonely in there – even the dog goes downstairs. And it's scary – I know I'll have no one to amuse me but me, and what if I can't think of anything all that good? Sometimes, at a total loss, I just stare out the window at the guy in the apartment across the way, he's got a plasma screen TV the size of a picnic table, but lately, I've noticed, he's taken to lowering his blinds.

Still, it's in my own little office that the actual writing gets done.

In solitude. In silence. With no cappuccino machine in sight.

And no living witnesses to the act of creation.

When I go to Starbucks it's to reward myself for doing a good day's work.

Never mistake Starbucks for your office – and leave your laptop at home.”

We've all seen these people. OK, confession time. Once TG decided to take his laptop to the coffee shop and give it a try. I mean, it looks so cool to be working away while hogging a table. It was ridiculous. Too much noise, too many distractions... well, Robert has already said it better.

If anyone has written anything decent while sitting at a Starbucks, TG would like to hear about it. Chime in. We promise to be open minded. Really.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Robert's Rules II

Several comments have come in concerning the entry directly below (if you haven't read the entry, shame!) concerning Robert Masello's clever little book, Robert's Rules of Writing. TG has found that most folks don't bother to click on the comments button at the end of each piece, so we'll address these issues here.

First of all, Mr. Masello has learned that TG has been talking about him, and sent the following:

"I'd like to express my gratitude to the Thriller Guy for the fantastic, and unexpected, plug of Robert's Rules of Writing. But TG -- you are too kind. While I do meet my deadlines and write everyday, I have refused to take on some work, and I do bitch from time to time. (Ask my wife.) Once or twice, I turned down jobs ghost-writing books for obvious charlatans (one of whom claimed to be the head of an institute, which was, in fact, her empty storage shed) and on another occasion, I passed on writing a roll of toilet paper -- each sheet was to offer its own very brief anecdote. Even then (I think I was twenty-two) I considered myself above such stuff and hoped to preserve my name for later fame.

As for the bitching . . . if there's a writer who doesn't, I haven't met him or her. (Nor, in all probability, would I want to.) If a writer's career has gone that smoothly, and if he or she is above sniping, moaning, quibbling and cursing, then that writer is far too good to know the likes of me."

You misunderstood, Robert, TG meant that you seemed to be a guy who didn't bitch to those who have hired you to do a piece of writing. Those of us who are continually scrabbling around for writing gigs know that the client may not be right, but if he/she is giving notes on a piece that he/she is paying for, a real working writer should smile politely and then do anything he/she can do to either address the client's concerns or trick the client into thinking their concerns have been addressed. In other words, shut up and rewrite the piece. As for regular writer bitching, well, have at it. TG is known for bitching about the writing life and encourages anyone else who has a peeve or gripe to send 'em in and we'll all join in the fray. (Say, Robert, just between you and TG, do you still have the address for that toilet paper gig?)

Another commenter, eagle-eyed Marlene writes:

TG wrote: “Robert is encouraged to write in if he feels wronged or abused in any way. Other writers are encouraged...”

First writing rule for TG and everyone else: Never write in the passive voice!”

Ouch, Marlene! But you are quite right, and TG hangs his head in shame. It should have been: “Robert, write in if you feel wronged..., Others, send us your tips..." At least I think that's correct. Marlene?

A good discussion of passive voice can be found here.

In short, don't use any form of the pesky “to be” (is, was, are, am, were, etc.) followed by a past participle, unless you want Marlene on your ass, pronto.

And this in from Anonymous: “I hate to say this, but regarding rule #2: Pen pals? That's so old school. Isn't that just an old-fashioned reference to what's now referred to as "blogs"? Aren't you just writing to all your "friendly pen pals" out in the ethernet?”

Hmmmm. I think there's something of a disconnect here, and yet Anonymous makes an interesting point. If I can speak for Robert, (Robert, if you're out there, feel free to speak for yourself.) Robert's Rules ( at least it seems to me) are structured so that the tips sort of start from a new writer's beginning efforts and work toward a new writer's finished product. Many times when fledgling writers (they're so cute) gather at TG's knee, they always ask some variation of that eternal question: “Where do you get your ideas, sir?” By which they mean where do you get your ideas so they can go there and get some ideas of their own. Robert is suggesting when he says write a pen pal, that one should write someone they like about something that has happened to them, or something that they are interested in, and by doing so they can find themselves a subject that might be interesting for them to write about in other venues.

So lighten up, Anonymous!

But there is the interesting point Anonymous brings up about bloggers. When blogging, one writes, in a public way, about things that one is interested in. And by extension, doing so would point up themes that the blogger might exploit for more economic outlets. (Anyone out there have any tips how TG could make some money off this blog? Advertisers are welcomed.) We've all read stories about how various bloggers have been able to expand their blogs into published books. Robert Masello, when you write the next edition of your Rules will you include blogging in some way?

And to answer Anonymous's snarky question, “Aren't you just writing to all your “friendly pen pals” out in the ethernet?”

I certainly hope so.