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?”