Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Into the Bottle, Once Again

An aside: In the last two weeks Thriller Guy has read and reviewed three books with some form of the word “betrayal” in the title. Enough, publishers, let's use a little imagination!

OK, back to the topic under discussion.
When TG was just growing into manhood, his father took him aside to offer the following advice. “There are two rules our family has about drinking: 1. We take our iced tea without sugar;  2. We drink our liquor straight. Now get the hell out of here.”

Damn good advice; words of wisdom that TG has followed down these many long years. Old dad drank scotch, so that's what TG learned on, as it was the only liquor in the house to steal. TG and his pals would pour off some of whatever booze their parents had, not enough for it to be immediately noticeable, and then meet up of an evening in the city park where we would dump it all into one bottle (that would be scotch, sweet wine, bourbon, rye or anything else, all mixed together) and drink it until we were pretty high; then we would shoot each other with guns. My friend Steve Widemeyer had a derringer he stole from his father. It was a .30 caliber, but Steve found if you loaded it with a .22 shell with a matchstick jammed under it, the gun would fire just fine. We'd get sort of drunk and then Steve would shout “Run!” and everyone would take off in all directions and he'd shoot one of us. The bullet came out kind of rattling around at less than full speed, but it would hit you in the back and it would hurt like hell. How's that for stupid?

There is a current rage in TG's writers group, Squatting Toad, (see earlier entry about this group) for drinking chocolate vodka. Yes, it tastes good, but TG feels that this is less than a manly drink, maybe OK for mystery writers and hack poets, but Thriller Writers? No. Back when TG was with the “Boats” if that was your drink of choice you'd have gone to bed in your rack and awakened head-first in the latrine, dumped there by your buddies. And TG's daddy would have approved. Those boys drank beer and whiskey and didn't mix candy bars into the equation.

TG does love a great scotch and the newish single malt bourbons in this country are excellent libations. But until some astute publisher decides to pick up one of TG's novels currently being flacked by his agent, (those interested can contact TG through his alter ego or his first-class, really smart, very cool agent.) TG will have to stick to gin. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Gin has a long and esteemed pedigree and in eighteenth century England enjoyed a period of popularity that threatened to, at least according to the government, destroy society, at least among the lower classes. In 1743 the people of England were drinking 2.2 gallons of gin per head. Contrast that with American drinking of all spirits at .73 gallons per capita. (2007 data) We've become a nation of namby-pamby teetotalers. Wake up, America. For an interesting look at the 18th Century gin craze, click here.

TG believes, and this is after years of dedicated research, that the finest gin in the world, at least that's easily available in this country, is Hendricks. TG has long been a Tanqueray man, but after recently working his way through a giant bottle of Hendricks he now declares it his favorite. The problem is, it's expensive. Once this current bottle is empty (it was a birthday present from TG's excellent son) it's back to the cheap stuff. TG feels that it's easy to buy a superior product of anything if you throw enough money at it, but the real trick is finding something inexpensive that still remains of real value. So, as promised in an earlier blog, (insert drum roll) the winner of the Best Cheap Gin In America is... Burnett's. It's hard to get much, or any cheaper, than this gin, and yet the quality is high. Or at least high enough. It's usually found on the bottom shelf of your local liquor store, down with the real rot gut, in the clear green bottle. The convenient plastic bottle is just fine; when it slips out of your drunken grasp there's no chance of breakage. It runs around $15.00 or less for a half gallon, which makes it affordable to writers everywhere.

Give it a try. In the spirit of hewing to some modicum of responsibility, TG asks once again that you drink heavily only when you are in the throes of Writer Hell, unable to solve that difficult plot problem, title search, structural conundrum or any other problemo that faces real writers every time they sit down at the word machine. See the entry directly below for instructions on that particular process.

So how about it all you Real Writers out there? Any suggestions on types of or specific brands of liquor employed either for general enjoyment or particularly in the service of solving stubborn writerly problems? TG is here to learn.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Alcohol and the Writer, Part Two

The above photo was taken by Thriller Guy's daughter as she and TG were tucked into the Lee Street Lounge in Charleston, WV, a cozy neighborhood bar suggested by TG's brother-in-law, Francis Fisher.

Part Two.

One of the troubles with blogs is they live life backwards. Thriller Guy is presently caught in the throes of explaining why drinking (alcohol) can be helpful to your writing. So if you are new to the blog, or at least new to this thread, take the time and read the entry directly below this one. The rest of us will wait while you do so. (Sound of fingers drumming impatiently on tabletop.) OK, TG is tired of waiting any longer.

Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter, (Body Heat, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) once said, “Being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life.” Absolutely true. It is one hell of a lot of work. Writing is much more (though civilians don't understand this) than just putting a story down on paper. The structure of what one is attempting to write is at least as important as the characters, the voice is all important, the damn title is crucial. As you work your way through a 500 page manuscript, the plot must, and will, shift and break out in directions you never envisioned, at least at the beginning. There are scores, no, hundreds of decisions to be made and problems that have to be solved along the way. And no one is there to help you work through them. You're on your own, Bunky, so shut up and start writing.

But first, maybe it's time for a drink.

Here's TG's take on the situation: A writer's mind never stops working, (remember having homework for the rest of your life?) at least while you are actively banging away on a novel or even thinking up a novel. When TG is immersed in the process, he is up and down at least a couple of times every night, getting out of bed to write down stray bits of prose or solutions to problems that have arisen during the day. But sometimes TG gets stuck, and no matter how hard he thinks, he can't come up with an answer. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) used to say that whenever he would finish writing a novel, he was empty. That he could not write another word. He had no ideas about what he would write next, no creative thoughts whatsoever. But if he waited a night, a day, a week, the “well” (his creativity) would fill back up and before he knew it, he was back working on his next project. TG has found, over the years, that sometimes the solution to thornier problems involves just STOPPING his brain from working, taking a break from the constant barrage of problem-solving and word creation. At least for one night. And the best way to do this, at least for TG, is by drinking. (Twain was a great drinker. He left his wife written instructions that she was to, everyday without fail, put a shot glass filled with whiskey on his bathroom sink so that in the morning he could brush his teeth then down the shot of whiskey so his day would start out in the right direction. This is not something TG has ever tried, but, the man was one of our greatest writers. Maybe he was on to something.)

Sigh. TG is going to get so much grief from suggesting this problem-solving method. Let's all try and remember such drunks such as John Cheever, Dylan Thomas, Raymond Carver, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway and a host of others, all alcoholic, all doomed by their alcoholism at least to some degree. For more on the perils of the bottle, go to this article, which is titled Writers and Alcohol and appeared some years ago in The Washington Post. It contains the authoritative statement, “ More writers die of cirrosis of the liver, a disease associated with alcoholism, than people in other occupations.” so Be Warned. Please, do not take TG's suggestions here as license to drink to excess, to sink into the slough of alcoholism thinking you are just working out your plot. Use your head, people.

Here's the deal: say you've got a problem that you can't figure out – your character has been captured by an evil CEO and Our Hero is imprisoned in a laboratory where the resident mad scientist and his minions are threatening to suck the very essence out of his body. (Think Neo in The Matrix) How is Our Hero going to escape? TG can tell you from long experience, if you don't know how to get your man (or woman) out of this pickle when you head into this scene, the answer is probably not going to just jump into your head. Trying to hammer out a solution to a problem like this can drive you nuts. What you need to do is to stop trying to figure out the answer, and let your subconscious come up with a solution. To do this you need to stop your brain from working so hard, to let the well fill up, by itself. Send the kiddies off to bed (if there are any kiddies) kiss the wife goodnight, (if there is a wife) pour yourself a stiff drink and settle into your chair. Then have a couple of more drinks. You can noodle away at the problem while you're sitting there, but only in a general way. Drink too much, stagger off to bed, and go to sleep. And if you're lucky, the next morning, when you go back to work, the answer will pop into your head. Almost unbidden. Ditto if you're trying to come up with a title, solve a plot problem, searching for a “voice” to tell your story, a structure on which to build your novel. You need to stop trying to sove the problem, and let your writer's brain solve the conundrum on its own. This is actually one of the few thrilling moments when being a writer seems almost like magic.

So...when the Little Ones gather at TG's knee and ask such questions as, “Please, sir, I don't know how my story is going to end, how will I ever know?' TG tells them, relax, just write your book, the answer will come if you just let it alone, if you just stop trying so hard. And if it doesn't, have a drink. Or two, or more. And it will come to you as if in a dream.

Trust me.

Stay tuned for Alcohol, Part Three.

And here's another photo of the Lee Street Lounge.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When You Find Yourself in Times of Trouble...Alcohol, Drinking and the Siren Song

Part One

When the Little Ones gather around Thriller Guys' knees, book proposals and sample chapters clutched in their tiny fists, one of their oft repeated questions is, “Tell us, TG, what do you do when you come face to face with one of any number of writing problems such as conjuring up with a new idea for a book, solving a particularly thorny plot problem, figuring out how a book is going to end, or thinking up a great title?” Well, Little Ones, after 30 years in the business TG is no stranger to any and all of these difficulties, and more, plenty more. When these questions rear their ugly heads, TG turns to that Well of Inspiration, the Healing Waters of Creation, his Constant Companion, the Writer's Best Friend:


“Why gin, sir? Why not scotch or good burbon whisky?”

Because it's cheap, Little Ones, and it gets the job done. Thriller Guy has lots of problems, not just writing difficulties, and sometimes these problems require large quantities of alcohol for their solution. TG has lots of writer friends and all of them drink and most of them drink too much, though that particular category gets a little fuzzy, especially after a few hours in one's favorite watering hole. The old cliché of the tortured writer as a drunk has been around for millennia for good reason, or rather a number of very good reasons. Let TG explain the pleasures, percentages and pitfalls of alcohol and how you can use its amazing qualities to further your writing career.

Some poor reasons writers drink:

Writers drink to ease the pain of life. Sorry, TG thinks that's a crappy excuse. TG has never been one to find that getting drunk ever made his general life existence any better. And it never allowed him to forget, even while in his cups, that his advances were too low, he was driving a beat-up car, the next tuition payment was coming up and the nineteenth publisher just turned down his latest novel. If you drink to wipe such difficulties from your mind, you're probably already a drunk or on your way to being one and TG can't help you. We have to put that reason up on the Alcohol Abuse shelf.

Writers are Creative Types, more susceptible to the slings and arrows of normal existence and need the numbing effects of alcohol to ease what normal folk endure without complaint. Please, writers are certainly creative, but it's just this sort of mollycoddling that produces all that precious writing from effete types who can never finish a novel, who refer to their work as their “craft” and who are forever yammering on and on about the “joys” of writing. TG says shut your pie holes and get to work like the rest of us real writers. Or go get drunk, but do it on the other side of the barroom because TG does not want to hear your pitiful mewlings.

On the other hand, some pretty good reasons writers drink:

Writers like to get together to bitch about the Writing Life. Misery loves company. In the course of these sessions, after a certain level of inebriation has been reached, a number of Great Ideas will be hatched, scribbled down on bar napkins and coasters. The next day these notes will reveal valuable ideas that can be mined for new books. Not. (As the kids used to say.) It hardly ever turns out any of the ideas are worth anything, even if you can decipher them. Bar ideas are just that, best hatched in the bar and left unrecorded. Better to fondly half remember the next day what was surely a fabulous million dollar idea than actually see written down what, in the cold harsh light of day, would never work in a million years and would take far too much effort anyway.

Congratulations, you've just made it through another day of writing. After a hard day of putting fingers to keyboard and cranking out an honest number of pages (at least two, five is better) it feels good to open up a bottle of the good stuff and have a satisfying, congratulatory tipple. Most regular people will never understand why this seemingly small output for such painful amount of labor amounts to anything in the real world, and it probably doesn't, but sometimes the work is good and no amount of gainsaying and ridicule will change that fact. Go ahead, have a drink of the good stuff. Your family may not understand, but we, your fellow scribes, do. Cheers.

Go ahead, you deserve it. Let's say you've just spent, oh, maybe a year writing a crafty thriller that's ripped from todays' headlines, one that your wife and friends agree could be your big breakthrough. You've sent it off to a publisher, or rather your agent has and after a couple of months you receive that classic reply, “We think this is an excellent story, and that (fill in your name) is a whale of a storyteller, but it just isn't quite right for us. We have no doubt that you will easily place it elsewhere.” Translation: It sucks. Time to hit the gin bottle! Go ahead, brother. You won't give up. The book will go somewhere new, continue to make its rounds, but TG understands your pain. Drink up.

Some really good reasons writers drink:

It seems that TG has run out of room in this installment. Stay tuned for Part Two, when TG will explain how to harness the powers of Gin or other spirits for the good of your writing, unveil the name of the Best Really Cheap Gin in the World, and put up the recipe for his own invention, The Gin Salad: A healthful meal in a glass.

TG would really be remiss if he didn't tack on a health advisory to the entry: Beware the seductive qualities of alcohol. Addiction has ridden far better writers than TG into the hell of alcoholism.

On that note, here's a Margaret Atwood poem titled Siren Song.