Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Squatting Toad II

Thriller guy has, reluctantly, agreed to let me, his alter ego, Allen Appel, step in on occasion and do a guest entry. So TG has been stuffed back in his box for the moment while I continue my earlier discussion, found directly below this entry, about my writers group.

TG, ahem, or rather I, have been asked to explain the name of the group: Squatting Toad, and the origin of the rest of the logo: Spawned in Bilge Water Since 1991. Sometime in our first year of meetings we were discussing terrible first lines from novels and stories. One of us had a favorite line, taken from a story in Redbook Magazine, which used to publish a lot of fiction: “The squatting toad of hatred settled slowly on her shoulders.” We all laughed and somehow the phrase kept coming up in conversation and pretty soon we just applied it to the group. One year at the beach we were watching a terrible movie late at night, a popular pastime with us, and a grizzled old sea captain referred to a group of bad guys with the bilge water line, which became a catch phrase from that year's Beach Week. Then, a few years ago, we decided to set up a line of products at Cafe Press so we could order Squatting Toad coffee mugs, T-shirts and sweatshirts. I designed the logo you see at the head of this column. If anyone would like any of these products, mugs, shirts or thong underwear bearing the logo, let TG know here on the blog and I will resuscitate the Cafe Press account.

One of the Squatting Toad members, Anonymous, sent in the following comment after the original writer's group piece, found below this current entry, was posted. I think it nicely catches the spirit and closeness of the group. I always recommend that writers and folks trying to be writers find other like souls and start a group. I don't believe that most writers need the business of reading work to each other and commenting on it. One can get good feedback, I guess, by doing this, and God knows the Iowa Writers Workshop has turned it into good business, but I believe just being able to talk about the terrible, lonely, unprofitable, difficult job of being a writer, and yes, the unparalleled joys, sometimes, of the job, is what is really important.

I am one of TG's group, a founding and persistent member of the Squatting Toad. I am the one who wrote one book, had a taste of success, mishandled his writing career and took a real day job (of course, my agent mishandled my career, but I'll blame myself anyway). I think I earn more than the others, yet I view myself as a failure because I'm not sweating over my next project. Instead, I've been sweating over the same incomplete novel for years. Like all of us, my life has had its twists and turns, at times full of pleasure, at times full of sorrow. But for the past ten years, the most contented time for me, the time I am most at peace with myself, is during the beach week described by TG. His description gives the week as much justice as one can with the written word. Yet it does not do it justice at all in terms of the spiritual effect beach week brings to us all. Our connection is as familiar as brothers, the camaraderie as thick as members of a tight-knit athletic team. Underlying it all is our love of writing. I once tried to leave the group over a perceived slight. They refused to let me leave. Lucky for me they did, for it would have been one of the great losses of my life. As to how we started, my recollection is that we were all invited to a Library of Congress dinner honoring mystery and thriller writers living in the Washington, D.C. area. Tony Hillerman was the keynote speaker. We started getting together after the event, and had a rather large group, comprised of men and women at one point. The ones who remain are the equivalent of the 300 Spartans, tenacious, dedicated, unduly loyal and largely insane. But like the Spartans, we would take on - and defeat - a larger army. There is an intangible quality to our group that I can't adequately describe. But the underpinning is the writing, the love of books and the clinging to the age when bookstores and coffee shops were mom and pop operations.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Where Oh Where Has TG Been?

18 years ago Thriller Guy and a few other writers who live in and around Washington, DC, started a writer's group. We put an ad in Writer's Digest asking for published mystery authors who wanted to get together once a month for Chinese food and to talk about the state of the industry and our own situations. We had to insist on the “published” requirement because we found there were too many folks who fit into the wannabe criteria. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but trying to get published and already having been published but needing to keep getting published are really two different sets of problems. Our group, which has always averaged around six or seven members, became known as “Squatting Toad,” for reasons I may go into if anyone is interested. We are now all male, though there have been women who have put up with us for varying periods of time. One of our members, who is a Nancy Drew, married another of us, though she no longer attends the meetings. Probably a wise idea. We have been eating dinner together once a month since the group's inception

There have been five members that have remained at the core of the group. Some of us published mysteries years ago and have gone on to “real” jobs (not TG) while writing only sporadically. Others have stayed in the business as working writers, turning out novels and non-fiction books, articles and anything else that would earn a scribbler a few bucks. We have two Edgars in the group and plenty of other awards. We've had good years, even great years, and seen years like these that are now upon us, bad years where advances have been slashed and publishers seem too frightened to buy much of anything.

About ten years ago we decided to rent a house together at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in the fall. So every year now we pack up our laptops, research materials, fatty snax, alcohol in its many varieties, and abandon our wives and children for a week of solid writing, laughing, arguing and eating imprudently. We get more done in this one week than we do in any regular month, or even months. Everyone has a project: proposals, outlining novels, writing novels, editing novels, editing one of the other guy's novels. We sit around a large table and work all day long. Questions and talking is acceptable. We have found that real writers don't need the hothouse climate of silence and solitude that our more effete brethren espouse. So if you want to argue over the merits of the serial comma, go ahead and toss it out, everyone is going to have an opinion.

Some years, some of us have found ourselves with nothing new or interesting to work on. This can be unsettling. For a writer, if there's no project, there's no hope. No future. The spark that lights the fire of a novel or new non-fiction project has not struck, that moment of illumination writers know so well, that blinding second upon waking from a dream when you sit up in bed and think, yes, yes, that might work. Or maybe it's just a vague possibility nourished into fruition by a glass of fine scotch, a good cigar. If it hasn't happened, if this is one of those dry years where you're afraid you'll never have a decent idea ever agin, there's only one thing to do. You go down to the beach, alone or with one of the other guys, set up your folding chair and plant yourself. You sit quietly. You listen to the waves, look up at the stars, unhinge your mind, let yourself float, go away to some other place, and maybe it will appear if you're very lucky, maybe it will hover in around the edges of your mind until you can just make it out. A Big Idea. If it does, you tease it around for awhile until you turn it into a concept, one that you can articulate in a sentence or two, then you go back to the house. From the street, the house will be bright with light, with your friends inside drinking, playing games, watching movies, reading or even still writing. You go in the house, tell everyone to shut up and throw out your idea. Usually you're told that it sucks, has been done before or it will never sell and why. But sometimes...

Sometimes they all nod, agree and say it sounds good. Workable. Suggestions are tossed out. You take it in, the pieces falling into place. The next day you start on an outline, or maybe a first page. And if you're lucky, if you work hard, next year at the beach you are passing around a finished draft and asking for edits and ideas. Sometimes.

So that's where TG has been: at the beach. Working. Thinking. Dreaming.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fun Fact to Know and Tell

While reading the International Thriller Writers online monthly magazine, I came across an interesting thriller writer's fact in an interview with Alex Kava. All thriller writers, published and unpublished, should belong to this interesting and helpful organization. Check them out here.

Factoid: When parts of a body are found in different areas, the county that has the heart holds jurisdiction over the case.

THIS JUST IN! Perspicacious poster Bo, sends along the following. TG has been duped again!

Dear TG: You've done it again.
First, you went with the Dan Brown make-believe story about the new book being the first of a two-parter. Now, it's the heart/jurisdiction myth.
I realize that you're just echoing what Kava said but either she got it wrong or the interviewer miswrote. You need to check these facts on your own.
To correct the record: If body parts are found in various jurisdictions, each one is obliged to run their own homicide investigation. If they decide to team up with another jurisdiction, that's their perogative. They may, if they wish, give the investigation over to a larger agency such as their state police but the heart location idea is mythic.
Now, I am wondering if Kava meant that's how the FBI might handle such a case if body parts were scattered over several of their own federal jurisdictions, but that's not what she said in the interview. Also, murder is not a federal crime, so the FBI would have to be asked to enter a homicide investigation by local authorities or, they could go in on their if it fit within another federal statute such as kidnapping or a hate crime.


And now, a New Library Story, this one from Ray Banks.

Our city library just re-opened this summer (on a Sunday no less) after two years in refurbishment limbo. What once resembled a Le Corbusier nightmare is now one of those bright Scandinavian open-plan spaces, complete with meeting rooms, a performance space and a coffee shop. There’s also a 24-hour vending machine, a clutch of download stations and a self-service checkout which resembles those found in supermarkets, except this one works properly instead of bleating on about an unexpected item in the bagging area.

I love it. But then I’ve been a library nerd since the days of separate slot tickets for kids (Tintin books, Richmal Crompton) and adults (Man-eating crabs, serial killers and vampiric stillborn-yet-sentient foetus novels). Fast-forward to university, and my two favourite places were the library and the bar. The latter might explain why my formal academic career crashed and burned after a couple of blurry years, but the former continued to provide a polymath education long after that sweet, sweet liquor lost its allure. I have libraries to thank for introducing me to authors I was either too wary or too poor to take a chance on. Without Longsight library I wouldn’t have come across John Fante , Jack London or Jim Dodge. Without Earlsdon library, the collected works of Jim Thompson and David Goodis would’ve passed me by. And without Forest Hall library, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have become besotted with Charles Willeford. So, y’know, there’s an argument to be made that without all these places, I wouldn’t be a writer, or at least I wouldn’t be a published writer. And that alternative existence is something I don’t really want to think about, thanks very much.

So yes, there’s been some general consternation about our new city library – the self-service replacing staff (when I’ve actually found that the staff there have more time to help rather than mess around stamping out books), the purists appalled at the idea of a coffee shop in a library (these were the same people who reeled at the idea of CD/DVD rental, too), and some just annoyed at the amount of money spent on a public building (these people would normally prefer to see that money spent on deporting immigrants). But then, the people who are annoyed by this glorious new building tend to be precisely the kind of people who wouldn’t set foot in it anyway (see also: The Sage Gateshead and The Baltic art gallery).

And that’s just fine by me.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Dome Cover

This week's guest blog, actually it's Thriller Guy's first guest blog, goes to
Frank Zubek who is a writer and who keeps TG apprised of all things geeky and cool. Frank chimes in here on the new Stephen King cover, which is really one fabulous piece of art. You may ask why TG didn't upload this new cover? He can't get it to work. Probably part of some vast Stephen King conspiracy. To see it, click on the word "here" in the following...


A small, critical suggestion about book covers and selling books, from a Stephen King fan.

Over the past few weeks, Scribner has been slowly unveiling the cover to the new Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, in small chunks. (Front, back cover and then the spine and the text.)

The final cover design can be seen here-

Granted, it’s a striking cover and will definitely stand out from the rest of the few dozen other books that will be on sale November 10. But personally? I don’t see what the big deal is about releasing the cover. After all, this is the new Stephen King novel! A huge one that weighs in at 1,088 pages. His other ‘paperweights’, IT, has 1,152 pages and The Stand, has 1,153 pages, respectively.

The book will sell. In fact, Stephen King’s name on a plain brown wrapper would sell.

To be fair, considering the current state of the economy, I can see the reasoning behind the move. Scribner, no doubt, would like a few hundred thousand people who haven’t yet read a Stephen King novel to try this one out.

Still, if it were me, in addition to the cover, I’d build up the novel over the next five weeks by releasing choice chapter excerpts in five different venues. For example, USA Today, The New York Times, TIME or Newsweek, maybe one of the better literary magazines, and just to spice it up, a small sample through Kindle. That way, the book attracts a much larger demographic of potential new readers than just a small web page on the internet showing off the cover. ( No offense to the marketing folks).

While I do understand the point of the big cover unveiling (attracting new readers), fans of King, while they may like the new cover, get Stephen King, to read Stephen King. I think (as a fan), that it would make more sense to release a five week teaser (with five different, exciting chapters) that will get everyone excited about November 10th, which is the release date of the novel. But that’s me.

If you are interested in an excerpt, 15 pages worth can be found in the back of the new paperback edition of his latest short story collection, Just After Sunset. There is one other excerpt scheduled in an upcoming issue of Entertainment Weekly as well. But that hardly strikes me as an exciting build up to November 10. Though I could be wrong since there is still a full month left and all the campaign plans have yet to be released ( I have timed this cover critique with the date of the cover reveal).

While a great looking cover has been known to help sell a book, times have changed and the need to attract paying customers is more important than ever. While releasing 50 pages (over a five week period) to sell a 1,088 page novel VS. showing off one cover might not be a good marketing plan (for whatever reason), it would sure get ME interested in buying the book.

Especially if I had never bought a Stephen King book before now.

But that’s just my opinion. I do hope the book sells out since over the long term, it will help bookstores in these tough times.

Frank Zubek