Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another Book TG Won't be Reading Anytime Soon

Followers of the Thriller Guy have heard reference to TG's writers group, Squatting Toad, six published mystery writers who have been meeting for Chinese once a month for the last fifteen years or so. TG couldn't make last Friday's meeting because he had to wait for the repairman to come and fix his broken AC unit (you probably thought TG had staff to handle these sort of problems; sadly, no) and by doing so he missed meeting a Literary Great. This report in from one of the members:

“We had been drinking for some time when I noticed two men and a woman come into the bar and sit down. I leaned over to one of our group and said in what I thought was a whisper, but I'd had a few drinks so it probably wasn't, 'Hey, that guy who just came in looks just like Jonathan Franzen. Remember when Oprah picked his book for her book club and he bad-mouthed her and she dumped the book. Ha, ha.' I then sensed movement on my right, and I looked up and the guy standing there said, 'Hello, I'm Jonathan Franzen and that's not the way it happened.'”

Franzen went on to explain his version of events, nicely, then went back to his table.

TG was mighty glad he wasn't there. While it would have been nice to meet America's Greatest Living Writer, according to several recent reviews of his new book, Freedom, but the fact is, TG has been unable to read any of Franzen's work without falling asleep, in particular his last novel, also greatly acclaimed, The Corrections. Every decade or so a new master of literary fiction is anointed (TG calls to mind Harold Brodkey in the early nineties) and the Reading Public rushes out willy-nilly to buy their book and proclaim themselves devotees, even though most of them never actually read the book. These are the same people who display tomes by Stephan Hawking on their coffee tables but never consume much more than a single page.

So TG wonders if this “fault,” his inability to read literary blockbusters, is because he has become stupid in his later years, that perhaps his brain has grown slack and lazy after reading hundreds of thrillers rather than “quality” material? Are thrillers somehow of less quality than literary blockbusters? Certainly many of them surely are. TG figures that of all the books he reads in a year, 10% are terrific, 20% are terrible and the other 70% run the gamut from barely acceptable to pretty damn good. Does TG now need the stimulus of action and adventure to keep him mentally engaged, where more subtle writing is too soporific to keep him turning the pages. Perhaps.

Ah, to hell with it. Even writing about it is getting boring. TG will leave you with Franzen's 10 rules for writing fiction. These appeared in an article in The Guardian in February of this year. Some of these rules TG agrees with, some he doesn't, and some he doesn't even understand. Maybe all these thrillers really are making him stupid.

1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2. Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.
3. Never use the word "then" as a conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.
4. Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.
5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.
7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8. It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction (a TIME magazine cover story detailed how Franzen physically disables the Net portal on his writing laptop).
9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How Many Times Does TG Have to Tell You?

Thriller Guy thought that by now several things would have become obvious: one, any thriller writer with the sense God gave a goose would have by now become a strict follower of this blog; two, all thriller writers would have received the word: Stop knocking people down with bullets! Now you've done it, you've made TG use a damn exclamation point. You're lucky he didn't resort to ALL CAPS.

TG is continuing his practice of noting these errors and, for the time being, no names will be mentioned. But be warned, you've got about another six months for the word to spread, after that when TG “outs” you for this foolishness he's gonna start naming names. This is akin to having your moniker published in the newspaper for frequenting prostitutes, or, as Lincoln supposedly told the story, when the man who had been tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail was asked how he liked it, said, “If it were not for the honor of the thing, he would much rather have walked.”

This week's honoree of shame...

The report of the pistol was little more than a cough, but McLeod's body was flung backward by the impact of the shot. His chair toppled over and he crashed to the floor, limbs splayed, his mouth opening and closing, his eyelids flickering.”

Pretty exciting, but wrong, wrong, wrong. For those of you who are new to these pages or those of you who can't remember why you're not supposed to knock people down with bullets, here's the original entry on the subject. 

Now let's move on to more pleasant subjects: What TG has been reading that's good. But wait, first another complaint: in the last five books TG has read and reviewed, the following words were found in the titles: Secret, Templar, (twice) Code, and Ark. In fact, the last two novels TG read were both about a couple who, over the course of several books, seeks to find the lost Ark of the Covenant and in the process stumbles upon a secret that will Change the World as We Know It. Interestingly, one of these books was good and one was terrible; why this is so will be the topic of a future entry. Suffice it to say, TG is getting tired of these DaVinci Code knock-offs though he supposes that there are still plenty of readers out there who can't get enough of the religious artifact thriller. These books often enough make the bestseller lists.

The hard part is winnowing out the ones that are good and add something original to the overall concept. One such recent novel is Search, by Judith and Garfield Reeves Stevens. Their take on the archeological quest format includes alien visitors seen as Gods by early man and an entirely new species that cross breeds with humans. Modern day humans are tasked with the keeping of the Secrets of these early visitor/ancestors and their vicissitudes in doing so makes for a compelling read. Those of you who aren't still entranced with these sorts of thrillers should probably not bother, (TG is weary of hearing from people who take all of his recommendations to heart and end up disliking his suggestions) but aficionados who still can't get enough of the genre, this is a good one.

Old veteran thriller writer Frederick Forsyth has a new book out, The Cobra, and TG gives it his stamp of approval. All newbie thriller writers are given one piece of advice first thing, read Day of the Jackal, by Forsyth. The book was published 40 years ago and was one of the first, if not the first, to use journalistic methods in writing fiction. Forsyth was a journalist and he meticulously follows The Jackal as he researches his target -- General DeGaul -- and assembles his sniper kit and makes his way to the killing ground to set up his attack. The book is still a good read, and while many, many others have followed in Forsyth's footsteps one still can do far worse than structuring one's thriller on Forsyth's template.

In Forsyth's new book, The Cobra, an American President who sounds a lot like Obama decides that he will bring all the resources of the U.S. to bear on eradicating international drug trafficking. He does this by first declaring drug traders and their cartels to be terrorists, which allows him to use all new and extensive legal procedures to destroy them. He brings in retired ex-CIA director Paul Devereaux to head up the team that will implement the effort. Devereaux, known as The Cobra from his CIA days, is old school, smart, ruthless and unrelenting in using his widespread powers within every arm of the government. Forsyth meticulously lays out the way this would work in the real world, and gleefully goes about putting the operation into motion with devastating, for the drug traffickers, results. Then he shows why this wouldn't work in today's world, and it's a rare reader who won't wish that it weren't so. TG's only reservation is that Forsyth is a strict conservative and occasionally his political leanings come through a bit on the soap box level and mar the even flow of the action. While it is true that no president will ever give any individual the powers to take on such a task, most readers will feel, as did TG, that wouldn't it be nice if our politicians would some day stand up and have the balls to actually kick some bad guy ass? Don't look for it happening any time soon. If ever.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drowning in Books and The Writing Life

Thriller Guy has too many books. They are piled high around what the family laughingly calls his office, threatening to topple over and crush him as he wends his way between stacks to get to his chair and computer. Like one of those obsessive recluse collectors they unearth every once in awhile in an old Manhattan brownstone, entombed in a pile of old newspapers. The photo above is a pile of approximately 100 Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of recent thrillers that have already been reviewed. There are many such piles around the room, and many more reference books used in the creation of TGs novels. What, oh what, is to be done with all of these books?

In the old days, book reviewers considered review copies to be part of their pay. Back then you received an actual copy of the book you were reviewing, which you could resell to a used bookstore. You weren't supposed to do it, but what were the publishers going to do? Hunt you down and have you thrown in book reviewer jail? In the age of the Internet it's possible sell them on ebay and many do, though TG frowns on such behavior. Used bookstores won't buy ARCs because they aren't supposed to be resold.

Several years ago TG's wife (Mrs. TG) had a friend at work who sent boxes of books to her son, a soldier in Iraq and TG gave the ARCs to her, but the Army changed its policy and no longer allows this because of security concerns (TG can't figure that one out). You are supposed to do it through organizations. A search of the Web turned up only one such place, and it's religious in nature and had some weird conditions that TG was loath to agree to. So that route seems to be out.

Recently he has taken to putting boxes of them out when the used item donation people come to collect the old clothing that Mrs. TG donates to charity. That works, but somehow it seems disconnected from TG's desire to hand the books over to someone who actually wants to read them. Any suggestions, Thriller Guy readers?

A Room of One's Own

TG gets letters and emails from The Little Ones Who Long to Write, plaintive missives that say, If only I had a room to write in, a room to myself, if I had the right surroundings I could pen a book that would make publishers, readers and critics like TG weep at the beauty of my words. TG reads these wistful notes and stops to look around the office described above, the one with the teetering piles of books. This “office” is in a basement with no windows, a room only slightly removed from a bellowing furnace which blasts on and off over the winter months. It is dark, lit by table lamps and some harsh fluorescents. Damp, untidy, cobweb festooned. Piles of paper and more books are strewn around the computer which rests on a desk which is just a door on two-by-four legs. It's a real mess. TG's wife hates it. TG loves it. TG comes down here every morning to work, not host a damn tea party.

A modern fairy tale... Many years ago TG was married to a Very Wealthy Woman (VWW) and lived in a beautiful house in a far western state in a town chock-a-block with other writers, all far more famous than TG. He lived like a modern-day prince. Shortly after moving into this grand abode he decided he would write a book. After all, he was just as smart as the other folks in town who wrote books for a living. Besides, how hard could it be? So he decided to set up a writing room that would fulfill all his fantasies of such a creative haven. The room chosen (one of the half-dozen spare bedrooms) was on the top floor of the manse and looked out through a wall of windows at a breathtaking view of snow-topped mountains. The light streamed in on the beautiful oak work table where a fancy electric typewriter sat, neat stacks of lovely white bond on one side, freshly sharpened pencils, erasers, paperclips and sundry writer's items on the other. Spare, modern bookcases lined the walls. There was a comfy chair where TG could sit and read after a hard day of writing. It was lovely.

So TG sat at his desk every day, a steaming cup of fresh coffee at his side. And sat, and sat, and sat. The mountains were indeed beautiful. The coffee was tasty. And TG's head was as empty as an old tin can. If you dropped a pebble in his cranium you would have heard it echo on and on, finally fading away into silence so overwhelming it was as if the entire world has simply disappeared, vanished, leaving behind... nothing.

So, TG, abandoned this aerie, moved an old beat-up metal desk into the basement right next to a converted coal burning monster of a furnace, surround by walls chipped and peeling. The floor was unadorned concrete and not one damn window anywhere. TG sat down in this damp lair and wrote his first book. Forty years later the Very Wealthy Wife is long gone, as is the castle, and TG is in another basement living happily with Mrs. TG, with more than a solid dozen books written and published and he's glad to be down here.

There's a lesson in there that you don't have to be a genius to figure out. So shut up, you mewling posers, shut up and write your damn book. Write me again when you've finished the first draft.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

He's Back...Le Carre...The Eyes Don't Have It

Thriller Guy has returned from vacation. It was cold there, not winter, but when you get high enough it's pretty much always cold. The hunting was not great, more of a matter of winnowing down the places where something isn't, rather than where it is. Hiking all day, MREs for chow, sleeping on the ground; TG is getting too old for this type of fun. Maybe it's time to hang up the boots – desert, jungle, mountain – all of them.

A bright spot. TG always packs a book. When you're humping eighty pounds already what difference does a paperback make? You're strapped into the webbing of a C130 and you're too old to have an iPod so you need something to break the monotony. In this case it was an advanced reading copy of the new John Le Carre, Our Kind of Traitor. Due out in October.

Of course TG loved the early Le Carre's. What thriller aficionado didn't? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; Smiley's People. You know the ones. But the last three or four, TG just couldn't get into them. Very sad. Had the man simply gone off the rails? Or was it TG himself, grown old and too stupid to catch the brilliance? Very troubling.

TG is happy to report that the new book is terrific. Because of the usual contractual rules, the blog review will have to wait until the publication date, but the cast of characters include a Russian mobster, an Oxford history professor who becomes entangles in a spy operation and the usual back stabbing, ass covering, double crossing perfidy in the upper levels of the secret world that Le Carre does so well.

How Not to Write

And now, back to those less brilliant than Le Carre. TG recently read an author who must remain nameless (one of these days TG is going to start naming names and then the shit is really going to hit the fan), a man who has been around for years and retains the affections and dollars of millions of readers. A man who long ago stopped writing his own books, a description that fits at least ten bestselling authors. TG feels that in most cases the fact that these old bull writers quit writing their own books is a good thing because, in general, the co-authors or ghosts who do the actual heavy lifting are actually better writers than the originators of many series. But this is not always the case.

The book in question was not particularly good overall, but one small pice of crappy writing kept grating on TG's nerves. The descriptions of a character's eyes. This is often a sore spot with TG, but in most books he usually lets it slide because from personal writing experience he is aware that, for some reason, it's a tough thing to do. TG solves this problem by seldom writing anything much to do with eyes, and when it seems necessary, keeping it damn simple. But the particular book under discussion had so many references to eyes, and most of them were so bad it began to threaten TG's veritable sanity. Here are a few, garnered from a quick riffle through the pages:

The drummers eyes lit up.” OK, that one and variations thereof is so common we can let it go.

Her violet eyes beamed with relief.” Ditto on letting it slide. Not sure how eyes can beam, with relief or any other emotion, but...

his eyes red with anger.” Not possible, but you get the point.

His eyes nearly shot flames of anger.” Ugh. The word “nearly” makes it particularly odious.

...he hissed, a rabid glare to his eyes.” Wha? Terrible. Villains who hiss are another thorn in TG's side.

She eyed him with daggers...” Laughable. Terrible, terrible. Really, you could cry if so much money wasn't involved.

He calmly stared back at her with probing eyes that danced above a deep scar on the right side of his jaw.” TG hates eyes that dance. And twinkle.

Gutzman's eyes inflated like balloons.” This seems to mean the Gutzman was surprised. TG was certainly surprised. The image was almost too horrible to contemplate.

And finally, this beauty. A writer this bad should be taken out, buried to the neck and stoned by an outraged community of writers, made up of those who write by night, toiling honestly away to get something, anything published by an industry that is so crass, so greedy they will publish, seemingly unedited, the work of a hack who is an embarrassment, really, a travesty of what we should consider decent writing, not even good, much less superior, writing, not even workmanlike (a word often applied to TG's writing, and one that he is happy to bear) but writing so bad as to be laughable if it did not stray so close to criminal. A book that will, rest assured, land squarely on the best seller list. Shame, shame, publishers. You that have no shame. 

Only his eyes hinted at a personality quirk, dancing constantly in a pirouette of emotional intensity. They twitched with anger as they focused on the woman.”

Dear God, spare me. Oh, what a picture that paints. It's enough to make TG quit the whole business.

That's two careers TG has lost in the course of one blog entry.