Sunday, July 25, 2010

Stupid, Like a Publisher & The Vagaries of Fate

The International Thriller Writers organization recently released their prizewinners at this year's Thrillerfest. They are:

Best Hard Cover Novel:
THE NEIGHBOR, Lisa Gardner
Best Paperback Original Novel:
THE COLDEST MILE, Tom Piccirilli
Best First Novel:
Best Short Story:

Also receiving special recognition during the ThrillerFest V Awards Banquet:

Ken Follett, ThrillerMaster
in recognition of his legendary career and outstanding contributions to the thriller genre.
Mark Bowden, True Thriller Award
Linda Fairstein, Silver Bullet Award
US Airways, Silver Bullet Award (Corporate)

Thriller Guy was stunned to see that he had not read or reviewed any of these books. How could this have happened? TG has no idea. Mistakes were obviously made somewhere. But TG assures one and all that these books are quite probably excellent, so put 'em on your list, Thriller Readers.

One name did strike a note with TG, and reminded him of a day many years ago...

TG's alter ego, Allen Appel has written many books, among them a little gem, From Father to Son: Wisdom for the Next Generation. This book, first published in 1993, was the originator of the entire genre of parenting gift books. It stayed in print for many years and sold quite well. In 2001, Appel was contacted by his editor at St. Martins, who were the publishers of the little book, and told that the NBC Evening News had asked them if they could run an interview with Appel as a Father's Day feature on June 11, the interview to be conducted at their studios in NY. Appel's editor and the marketing person at St. Martins (both were around 14 years old, or seemed so) in all their publishing wisdom decided that the cost of this venture – around $40.00 train fare – outweighed the possible results. So they had turned NBC down.

Unbelievable, no?

Appel informed the two idiots at St. Martins they were nuts, got on the phone to NBC and told them he would be glad to do the interview. They said fine.

Appel showed up at the studio at the appointed time and was whisked into the makeup chair and made to look fabulous. After makeup Linda Fairstein swept into the green room, accompanied by a posse of minders, assistants and marketing folk. At that time Fairstein was still the head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office and had written three or four of her mystery series starring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. She was being interviewed about her most recent novel. Appel sat quietly, trying to choke down a very dry bagel while the Fairstein army, all of them in constant motion, barked orders on cell phones, studied sheafs of papers and held important whispered conversations with their boss who never removed her cell phone from her ear. No one even said hello.

The interview went off without a hitch. Appel held up his little book, chatted amiably and charmed the world.

That night, back at home, Appel and his family counted down the minutes to the Evening News.

Fifteen minutes before 7:00, Timothy McVeigh, the Kansas City Bomber was executed. Officials had not announced that the execution was eminent. The event led, and dominated the news show.

Appel's piece never ran. Actually, that's not true, a few weeks later a fan from Australia sent an email saying he had seen it on a program at three AM in the morning.

Linda Fairstein's piece probably ran somewhere. She has gone on to quit her job as a prosecutor and pen a total of 12 books in her extremely successful series.

Whenever TG is assigned one of her books he gives her a respectful, if not very enthusiastic review.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Questions, Questions

First, this Public Service Announcement.

Anybody who works the thriller genre should take note of the multi-part series of articles focusing on the world of anti-terrorism forces in America now being published by the Washington Post. If you don't take the Post, check it out at The series has been two years in the making and while the complicated intertwining connections may be too dry for most thriller readers, any writer worth his salt needs to know this information. Yes, you are writing fiction, but you'd better get the underpinnings right if you want Thriller Guy to not come down hard on your mistakes.

Now back to our regular blather, where TG is working with his alter ego, Allen Appel, on an extensive project. After being hounded by his writer pal, Larry, Appel has decided to put the first of his renowned time travel novels starring Alex Balfour up as a Kindle edition. First published back in the Paleolithic era (1985) there is no handy Word file (who knows what computer, if any, he was using in those days: Eagle? Atari?) so Appel is having to scan in the original hardback and use an OCR program to turn it into an editable file. What a pain in the ass. A competent typist could probably retype the book in less time than the scanning takes, but Appel is a two-finger man who can't touch-type so that option is off the table.

But here's the interesting point, which leads to a question, or rather several questions. In the course of scanning the material and fixing the inevitable flubs that the OCR process produces, it quickly became evident that Appel is a better writer now than he was those many years ago. The book is good, but here we find the author making many of the same mistakes that he rails about on this very blogsite: The use of the various forms of get/got, words repeated within a paragraph, to name just a few. These are sins we all commit, but these shortcomings should be taken care of in the rewrite process. Here's the question, or one of the questions: Should Appel bother to rewrite the manuscript for this version? Who knows what he might start changing if he dives into the pages and begins tinkering? Where does it end? Thoughts, anyone? And this is not strictly confined to Appel, as the questions will apply to other authors as they turn to the task of putting up e-editions and the like.

More interesting, though, are two other concerns. When writing a first draft, Appel just plows along, not bothering with writerly niceties, which leads to blank spaces left to be filled in later and sections marked FIX!. Also of concern are cliches. Appel believes they are fine in first drafts when he doesn't want to take the time to come up with an original way of description; he marks these offending passages and goes back in the first rewrite to fix them. (Appel does seven complete rewrites on every novel.) But, as we all know, errors will be made, resulting in the following paragraph in Time After Time:

Alex jammed his hands into his pockets and found a surprise. Gloves. A pair of leather fur-lined gloves. Alex held them to his face, smelling the leather and feeling the smooth softness of the high-quality hide; imagining the former owner, some dissolute younger member of the pridvorny who had pawned his coat before heading off to an evening of vodka, women, wild Gypsy singing, and then later perhaps flinging himself off one of the many bridges of the city onto the frozen Neva. Alex sighed for his imaginary doomed young Russian as he slipped on the gloves. They fit like a glove.”

While Appel was writing the para the first time, he came to the end and thought about the last could he describe how well the gloves fit? Like a second skin? Nope. Like they were made for him? God, no. So he just wrote, They fit like a glove. and appended a note. Cliché! Fix!

Who knows where that note went? Through rewrite after rewrite the sentence hung in there, somehow passing unnoticed, hiding, probably snickering to itself behind its gloved hand, and sure enough, it made it into print. Small matter, you might think. Think again. The book was extensively reviewed from the New York Times on down, and all of the reviews were pretty much glowing, except 85% of them, or so, had a line something like...”The writing is solid, except for the occasional cliché. At one point Appel's hero slips on a pair of gloves and remarks, “They fit like a glove.”

Oh, the horror.

So this time through, Appel was going to fix the damn line. He sat and thought, and thought and you know what? He still couldn't come up with anything good. So he simply wrote:

They fit perfectly.”

OK, not fabulous, but it gets the job done. In fact, TG himself is unable to come up with anything better. So here's what we'll do, all you hot-shot writers out there. See if you can come up with something better. TG will run the best of the entries and he will have Appel send the winner a previously owned, personally autographed paperback copy of this fine book.

And stay tuned, in the next installment regarding this scanning/OCR process, Appel will discuss a HUGE, TOTALLY EMBARRASSING MISTAKE he made in this novel which he will fix...or perhaps not. No one has ever caught this goof, and Appel has sworn to go to his grave with the offending error unrevealed. But here is an opportunity to right this grievous wrong. But should it be fixed?

Or should it remain, a mystery for the ages...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Science of Rewrites, Geography and Good Reads

Weighty Matters

Thriller Guy was recently reading a review of a new book on touch, the name of which escapes TG who is too lazy to look it up, and found a piece of info that fits right in with one of his rules of good writing. Scientists discovered that when giving test subjects a document to review and edit on a clipboard, those subjects who had the heaviest clipboards did better work than those who had lighter. They seemed to feel, at least psychologically, the work was “weightier” and more important, so then worked harder. While not advising writers to go out and buy heavy clipboards, TG feels very strongly that rewrites are always best done in hard copy. Initial rewrites are fine on screen, but before any piece of writing leaves a writer's hand, it should have been printed out, edited with pen or pencil, reentered and then printed out and gone over at least one more time. Words on screen have no weight; words on printouts have a presence that demands attention. And final copy should be on better paper than early drafts, literally heavier and brighter than cheaper paper. Writing is serious stuff, hard work and important. Treat it thusly.


When TG was a brand new reviewer, he used to become upset by geography mistakes in thrillers. Syd Jones over at Scene of the Crime always asks his interview subjects if they have ever made any mistakes in setting for which readers have called them to task. The answer is almost always yes. This is something that most novelists dread, almost as frightening as making a gun-related mistake. (See entry below.) And yet, these mistakes are common, though over the years TG has noticed that they have become fewer and less egregious. TG lives in Washington, where an inordinate number of thrillers are set (Note to publishers: TG is heartily sick of seeing covers of thrillers featuring night photos of the Capitol Building. Please, is there no other, cleverer way of saying “Washington?”) Since TG lived in the District of Columbia for many years and now resides nearby, he is acutely aware of these geographical mistakes. One of the worst was when a writer had his hero come out of the Pentagon, go to a coffee shop across the street and then walk down the Mall to the Washington monument. Sorry, there are no coffee shops across from the Pentagon and the hero would have had to walk through the Potomac River to get to the Mall. Terrible mistake. TG has long ago stopped mentioning such errors in his reviews, but it is not wise (publishers, trust me on this) to send out a book that has errors that annoy the reviewer. So thriller writers, when you have a character set out to walk, ride or fly from one location to another, be very very careful.


Mike Lawson is an author who always gets his geography right. Mike has a series set in Washington that stars Senate investigator, political fix-it man Joe DeMarco. DeMarco has a crappy office deep in the bowels of the Capital building and answers only to his boss, John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Washington's premier political puppet master. The five books in the series, in order are: The Inside Ring; The Second Perimeter; House Rules; House Secrets; House Justice. There's no reason to read them in order, though TG suggests that you do so, that way one will keep DeMarco's various problems straight. One of the significant joys of the series is the colorful Speaker Mahoney, a Tip O'Neil politician whose outsize flaws approach if not encompass criminality.

While TG has enjoyed every one of these books, he feels that in House Justice, the most recent, Lawson is straying into a “problem” that often besets successful series writers at about this point in their work. Justice is a bit too long, a bit too complicated and a bit too serious. TG would counsel Lawson, not that he's asking, to ease up a bit both on DeMarco and on himself in his next entry in the series. Often it's a good idea to take a break and write a stand-alone (for a writer it can be a good idea, publishers hate it when a tried and true money-maker abandons a cash cow, even for one book) just to get back a little perspective on what was enjoyable about a character and setting in the first place.

Whatever Lawson does, TG will be looking forward to it. For those who want to see how good a Washington thriller can be, check him out. And you can be assured Joe DeMarco never, ever, takes a stroll through the Potomac River.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Blow 'Em Away

Every book Thriller Guy reads has someone getting shot -- gunfire, snipers, up close and far away. Virtually everyone of them has the victim being knocked back, out of their shoes, generally ass over teakettle (how's that for an old-time phrase?) It's bullshit, and TG is tired of it. Thriller writers! Stop it! TG knows you love these action scenes, and he also knows that 99% of you are just regular guys with no expertise in firearms and particularly no expertise in actually shooting another living, breathing human being. You've done your research by watching Hollywood movies and they are totally bullshit.

TG hates to get into this gun stuff. Every writer I know who mentions a gun, shooting, ammo or anything to do with the above is courting a letter (email these days) from a gun aficionado who is eager, nay, frothing at the mouth to set the author straight. Usually these letters are vituperative, to say the least. But TG is also heartily sick of his beloved thriller writers perpetuating this stupid Hollywood myth. Listen up: people who are shot don't get knocked back. And they sure as hell don't get knocked out of their shoes.

Those of you normal humans who have no interest in the subject are now advised to tune out and head over to your favorite other site, whatever that may be. This is going to go on for awhile. Those of you who are interested, or who have a professional (writerly) interest, keep reading.

Just from the last three books I have read, and these are excellent books:

“The force of the bullet had knocked him off balance...”
“He saw the smoke and fire explode from the barrel of Foster's nine. Then the blockheaded cop was flying backward and crumpling to the floor next to Shannon's feet.”
“The force of the bullets lifted her off her feet and she flew face first into the pool.”

TG could go on all night. This sort of thing is in every one of the thrillers TG reads. Here's a small piece of an essay by Joel L., known to readers of this blog as the fellow that TG is helping with writing a thriller. (BTW, Joel is roaring right along with his book and doing an excellent job.) Joel has extensive knowledge of firearms.

“But no way will any of these lift someone off of their feet. Period. Hollywood is terribly guilty of this, and has for years. Writers are too. One author had in his story two guys being ambushed, great scene. Only problem was one when they were shot, they were flying 'out of their shoes, or off their feet when hit. This stuff just doesn't happen that way. Remember that every 'action' according to Newton, has an 'opposite and equal' reaction. Thus, if the bullet or shot has enough force to lift someone off their feet, the shooter would have an even greater force applied to them. There are very strange physiological reactions to getting shot however, but that is not what was described. Sometimes, when the adrenaline and endorphins are really cranking, someone might not be aware that they are hit, or at least not aware that they were hit by a bullet, until after the fight. Sometimes a person can be ambling along and get shot by a .22 in the foot and die from shock and another person can be in a raging fight and take multiple hits from a .357 and keep going. It astonishes me how hard people will fight to hold onto this myth. Not even a Barret .50 sniper rifle, which can penetrate stone walls or engine blocks, can ‘lift’ someone off their feet. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Mythbusters video...

Then Joel cites a real life lawman who has written extensively on the subject:
Commander Jeffry L. Johnsons article:
(TG gives a big hand to Commander Johnson)
P1 Exclusive: The truth about handgun knockdown power
By Commander Jeffry L. Johnson
Long Beach Police Dept., Detective Division
Special contributor to PoliceOne
There is undoubtedly no other myth more perpetuated and closely held (even now) by many law enforcement professionals than what I have previously referred to as the “Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy,” or in plainer terms, the idea that any handgun of any caliber has “knockdown power,” in that the sheer size and force of the bullet can knock a person down. Closely related is the myth that bullet size — rather than shot placement — can determine or ensure a “one shot stop.” Both are inaccurate, unscientific, and dangerous, and have no place in the training of law enforcement professionals.
Not that any of this is new information. This fact has been generally known for about six hundred years or so. Notable intellects such as DaVinci, Galileo, Newton, Francis Bacon, and Leonard Euler all studied physics and ballistics, as did many others. It was Newton’s research that led Benjamin Robbins to invent the ballistic pendulum in 1740 (the first device to measure bullet velocity).
There is no mystery here — the truth has been documented time and again. So how is it that we still don’t get it? One word: Hollywood.
Ever since Dirty Harry came along with his .44 Magnum hand-cannon, when someone gets shot in the movies or on TV (and don’t forget video games) two things happen: 1) the victim is thrown back convulsively, through windows, off balconies, etc. and 2) there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood spewing forth from the wound, leaving no doubt that this person has been shot, and pinpointing exactly where the bullet has struck.
Many firearm and shooting magazines picked up on the idea as well, discussing and propagating the pseudo-scientific idea of handgun “knockdown power” and “one shot stopping power.”
The Truth
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Firearms Training Unit published a concise yet insightful report that speaks directly to this issue of firearm wounding ballistics and the misconceptions that have surrounded this area.
These so called [knockdown power] studies are further promoted as being somehow better and more valid than the work being done by trained researchers, surgeons and forensic labs. They disparage laboratory stuff, claiming that the “street” is the real laboratory and their collection of results from the street is the real measure of caliber effectiveness, as interpreted by them, of course. Yet their data from the street is collected haphazardly, lacking scientific method and controls, with no noticeable attempt to verify the less than reliable accounts of the participants with actual investigative or forensic reports. Cases are subjectively selected (how many are not included because they do not fit the assumptions made?). The numbers of cases cited are statistically meaningless, and the underlying assumptions upon which the collection of information and its interpretation are based are themselves based on myths such as knockdown power, energy transfer, hydrostatic shock, or the temporary cavity methodology of flawed work such as RII. (1)
The truth is, the whole idea of handgun knockdown power is a myth. It simply doesn’t work that way. The FBI report further clarifies:
A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball. Tissue damage is the only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e., instantaneously. (2)
The report cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and impact power, concluding that the “stopping power” of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight being dropped from the height of six feet. A .45 ACP (45 auto) bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe, and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have come to mistakenly believe.
The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, seemingly longer if one is engaged in a firefight.
Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso, causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time. For example, there is sufficient oxygen within the brain to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed. (3)
More often than not, an officer firing at a suspect will not immediately know if he or she has even struck the target. The physics are such that the body will rarely involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no noticeable spewing of blood or surface tearing of tissue. Often there is no blood whatsoever. (4)
That is why military surgeons and emergency room physicians take great time and pains to carefully examine gunshot victims for any additional small holes. Often that is the only indication the person has been shot.
Personal Experience
But let’s be real here. I can cite numerous additional academic and scientific sources that support this article, but I know how cops think. We’re not always the most trustful of academics, especially when it comes to our street survival. So let me add my own personal experience to the data. Please allow me to go beyond the cold facts and share with you why I know what I’m telling you is the truth.
In the mid-1980s I was involved in my first shooting as a police officer. But to give the story context, I must go back to 1982 when I graduated from the Long Beach Police Academy. The first thing I was told by experienced training officers I trusted and looked up to, was to “get rid of that pea-shooter 38 they issued you and buy a real gun with some knockdown power!” Although we were issued .38 caliber revolvers, we were authorized to carry a number of different caliber weapons on duty, the largest of which was the 45 Long Colt.
The .45 Long Colt round next to the diminutive 9 millimeter.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted by a suspect armed with a shotgun in a dark alley and my Long Colt didn’t live up to its billing. I fired five rounds at the suspect. It wasn’t until I fired my last shot — intentionally aimed at his head — that he went down. I can’t begin to relate to you the surprise and horror I felt when there was absolutely no outward indication I was hitting my target. It was the kind of situation cops have nightmares about.
What actually happened? I fired five rounds at a distance of about twelve feet. The first one missed completely. The second struck his upper leg and broke his femur. The third struck him in the shoulder/chest. The fourth round hit him dead center—in the heart. And of course, the fifth was a headshot. Three of the five rounds created fatal wounds, though only one had immediate results.
Needless to say, I was pretty shaken by the whole thing. Not by the morality of what I’d done; the suspect had already fired at a bystander and taken a hostage earlier. He was also high on PCP. That wasn’t my inner struggle. What shook me was how unprepared I felt; how totally off guard I was taken by what occurred. No one ever told me it would be like that. The reality was contrary to everything I thought I knew about deadly force.
That experience more than any research or study is the reason is why I am writing this article. Police officers risk getting into shootings every day; we need to know the dynamics of how a shooting incident may unfold. It will affect our equipment, tactics, and most important, our mindset. We need to know that rarely will one shot incapacitate an assailant. We further need to be able to explain this when our fellow officers are involved in shootings where multiple shots are fired. The public honestly believes it’s like the movies. Why would we ever need to fire twenty or thirty rounds to subdue an armed suspect? Problem is we can’t teach it or explain it until we understand it ourselves. (5)
1. Patrick, Urey W., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Firearms Training Unit, “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” p.13. (1989).
2. Ibid., p.9.
3. Ibid., p. 8.
4. Newgard, Ken, MD, “The Physiological Effects of Handgun Bullets: The Mechanisms of Wounding and Incapacitation” (1992).
5. For you visual learners still unconvinced, I highly recommend viewing the Discovery Channel MythBusters segment, “Blown Away,” (Brown Note Episode, Second Season), where the knockdown power myth is visually and scientifically debunked once and for all.