Thursday, December 8, 2011

A lack of Imagination?

In a recent post about Matthew Dunn's book, Spycatcher, commenter Jack states that he feels that the cover art is kind of "cheesy." Thriller Guy had not given this much thought, he generally doesn't pay much attention to the covers of the books he reviews, but on thinking about it, a small bell began to jingle in the back of his mind. So he looked at the ever-growing mound of books that sit near his desk and just mining the top layer of the most recent books turned up the following. Is it just TG, or do these covers not illustrate a paucity of imagination on the part of the editors and art departments in the world of publishing? In all but one the color scheme is the orange at the top with darker colors at the bottom, except in the case of the Grippando where it is reversed. TG bets that a trip to the bookstore would turn up even more examples. And yes, it is true, book cover styles tend to go in cycles with styles going in and out of fashion, but really...


Perhaps TG can summon his pal Bhob Stewart, who knows about these things. Bhob has an excellent Blog about the history of comics, Potrzebie that is well worth a gander for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Bhob, oh Bhob, are you out there?


But first...


Here's the Dunn...



And here are some others



Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adventures Redux

Jack, one of the followers of this blog, asks if anything more has happened with the robbery that occurred at casa TG a few months ago. Well, Jack, not a hell of a lot. To refresh the story, (see several blogs earlier) TG had used the reverse phone book and found the address of the criminal, Juan, (the perp) who seems to reside not far from where TG lives. There are two Juans listed, which TG assumes are father and son. It's unclear if they are any kin to the lady, Ms Cash, who seems to be renting the townhouse where they all reside. For the first several weeks after the robbery, the local detective answered all of TG's phone calls, and after TG gave him the names and address of the perp, promised “to go by with a couple of uniforms and see what they have to say.” After a couple of weeks, TG called again and the detective said that he went by twice and the woman who rents the house said there was no Juan living there. Which is bullshit, because TG has been driving by the house most days of the week and the guy who must be the Juan the father is often outside standing around. But no sign of the younger Juan.

The detective tells TG that there's nothing more he can do at this point. That he can't get a warrant to get into the house, so he's going to leave it to TG to get a look at the young Juan, at which point the detective will bring some books over and if TG can ID the kid then the detective will have reason to go in and get him. Or something.

This all sounds pretty thin to TG. But he understands. TG lives in a county right outside Washington DC that is known for its crime. In the last month there have been four robberies and an assault at his local metro station alone, to say nothing of the almost daily murders and other assorted crimes. TG himself was attacked one night at the subway station when coming into the parking garage after a night out with his writer's group. TG fought his way out of that situation, (the transit cop said, when TG reported it, “That was really stupid, buddy, next time just throw them your wallet and get the hell out of there.” Goods words of advice which TG intends to follow. Next time. Well, probably not. TG's point is, he understands that the detective doesn't really have the time to investigate and pursue a $300.00 crime which very well may have been committed by TG's next door neighbor. So TG rides by the perp's house every day or two, but has never seen the kid. Someday he will. Then we'll see what happens. And TG is not going to throw his wallet at the kid and run.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dunn, continued

TG is taking some heat for giving Matthew Dunn's book, Spycatcher a good, if qualified, review. TG's wife (TGW) read it and took great pleasure in reading aloud the clunkier sections of dialogue while making noises of great disgust. Others have written to say that TG is an idiot. Oh well, it's not the first time.

Almost everyone (checkout the slams on http://Amazon.co.uk/) starts off by mentioning a scene right at the beginning of the novel where Dunn's hero, Will Chochrane, takes three slugs to the gut during a firefight in Central Park. A couple of days later and Will is on an airplane headed for London with barely a complaint about any medical difficulties. Readers are crying foul. Impossible! Ridiculous! Totally unrealistic! Yes, TG would agree wholeheartedly. When TG read that, he thought much the same thing, but where most readers found this a fatal flaw, TG just thought, “Oh, so that's the sort of book this is: a superhero spy who will do near superhero deeds.” Indeed, TG was looking for a scene late in the book where Will's extraordinary physical abilities are shown to be of biomedical or some other fantastical property. In other words, TG decided at that point to just strap in and go along for the ride where many (most) others decided that they weren't having any of it. These are both perfectly reasonable responses.

One of the dangers publishers face is over-touting an author's background and capabilities. Much was made in the business about Dunn's five years as an MI6 professional with 70 missions, which was announced on the back cover of the book. Right away, that seems to be an inflated number, averaging out to be more than one a month. Or perhaps some were just mini-missions? The reader certainly doesn't know. And then after a few pages into the book one reads of Will's serious wounding with little noticeable result. It's too much, too quickly for most folks, so they complained bitterly.

TG wonders, though, if readers are sometimes unfair this way. Most thriller readers, especially of the military/spy variety, are quite willing to read through innumerable scenes where the hero is able to dispatch legions of evildoers in the most fantastic ways. These readers not only don't question these supernormal abilities, but relish them. Incredible feats of strength, endurance, marksmanship, stealth and man-killing go by with nary a quibble. But a guy gets shot and these same readers expect the author to take his hero through three months of medical procedures and rehab before the story can get back on track? All in the sake of realism? So why, you might argue, have the hero shot at all? Because that's what happens to heroes, they get shot because they shoot a lot of people, and you figure at least every once in awhile one of them has got to get hit. After all, are you looking for realism or not?

TG thinks this disconnect may come because of the way readers think as real human beings. They know they have no abilities when it comes to man killing and performing feats of daring, but they know what it feels like to get hurt. You fall down and you hurt yourself, you get a damn paper cut and it hurts, you twist your back weeding the lawn, bang your head on the car door, all of these things hurt. So what must it be like to get shot? It's your everyday hurt multiplied a gazillian times. The point being, we can relate enough from a small hurt to imagine what we would feel like with a gigantic hurt and we know that if we have to lie down and rest after a hard day working on the lawn that we sure as hell aren't going to be on a plane three days after taking not one but three to the midsection. So it's OK for the hero to perform extraordinary feats of physical prowess except when it comes to physical damage? That's the point where the reader feels justified, and even smug in crying foul? Maybe, but it seems a little ingenuous to TG.

But TG is probably over-thinking this. Readers say they want realism in their fiction all the time. We conveniently overlook the fact that 99% of spying is sitting in cars, standing on street corners, drinking in bars and chatting up people at cocktail parties, to say nothing of listening to thousands of hours of phone recordings and untold hours of reading the Internet. Only the biggest blockhead would want to read that sort of realism.

So maybe TG cut Dunn too much slack. Is he a great writer? Not by a long shot. He gets the job done while using more than his fair share of cliches and awkward dialogue. So do a hell of a lot of other writers, many of them best sellers. His hero's romantic moments are sometimes silly, his background is needlessly tortured, the villains are absurdly villainous. All the same “sins” perpetrated by legions of the same bestseller writers. Trust TG, he reads more thrillers in a year than any reader of this blog, and he knows how bad this stuff can be. And yet many of the same books TG reads sell in the hundreds of thousands and millions of copies. So do thriller readers really care about realism, much less good writing? They seem to when it comes to details about the hero's medical maladies. But they're also able to swallow any number of other absurdities for the author's they love.

Here's the lesson, Matthew Dunn: you can make your hero able to leap tall buildings, but beware of having him bleed. At least excessively. TG may let you slide, but your Amazon reviewers are taking you to task.





Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Spycatcher


Several months ago, the Washington Post reviewed Spycatcher, by Matthew Dunn. (Review here)
Thriller Guy also reviewed the book, favorably, and also interviewed Dunn. The author is a veteran of Britain's intelligence agency MI6, having led more than 70 missions around the world. He is now retired and living in London. Faithful readers of this blog will know TG's opinion of “insiders” who turn to thriller writing in their retirement: he doesn't like them, as a rule. They usually seem primarily motivated by the possibility of making vast sums of money off their expertise, and driven by the thinking, hey, what's so hard about writing a thriller anyway? The results are usually clunky at best, and generally show the authors have no working knowledge of the rules and regulations of writing a thriller. TG says to hell with these opportunists, and they usually get a bad review.

But Dunn is different. Spycatcher is a solid debut. TG has a question for you, gentle blog readers, but it will come at the end of this piece, so hang in with TG here.

Dunn's MI6 agent, Will Cochrane, code name Spartan, is in New York City on a mission involving an Iranian intelligence source. The mission goes bad, as these things are wont to do, and Will is shot a number of times. After a brief (very brief) stay in a secret hospital, he is assigned a new operation whose goal is to find the mastermind leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as Meggido, who is planning a massive terrorist attack. Will tracks down Lana Beseisu, a freelance journalist now living in Paris and rumored to be the one-time lover of the terrorist leader. Will and Lana form an alliance and an instant attraction, though Will knows he has to keep his hands off this beauty until the mission is successful. When Will learns that the Iranian terrorist was responsible for the death of his own father, revenge adds impetuous to the search. The stage is set for the inevitable clash between the super terrorist and the super agent.

It's not exactly a novel plot as these things go, but Dunn's book is redeemed by his knowledge of the spy world and the dark arts therein. The writing is good, the pace assured and the structure hews to the standard rules of the genre. The man seems to have done his homework and even to have read within the genre. This is good, honest craftsmanship and TG always enjoys seeing someone new whose first book promises more good things to come. If TG has a quibble with the book, and TG always has a quibble, Dunn struggles a bit with the romance between Will and Lana, making Will too susceptible to Lana's charms, too juvenile in general for a guy who is supposed to be this hard core. This is a common mistake in many thrillers and TG thinks this happens because the authors want to show that their heroes are “human.” Bullshit, heroes aren't supposed to be human and vulnerable. Here's TG's advice to all thriller writers: if you've simply got to have a romance, make it low key, or better yet, don't do it at all. It's a cliché the way most of you are handling it, at worst laughable and at best, usually only a bit less laughable.

But the Washington Post had another beef, which raises the question TG wishes to pose to his blog readers. Here's an excerpt from the Post review...

“But while building this compelling storyline, Dunn falls into some unnecessary exaggeration. Not just a special agent, Cochrane has to be a super agent — the sole member of a top-secret Spartan program. As one handler tells him: “You are the ultimate killer of killers, the man who terrifies his enemies and allies, the man who can start wars and end them, the man who is the West’s deadliest and most secret weapon.” Similarly hyperbolic, Megiddo’s plot promises “a huge massacre the likes of which the world has never seen before,” and Megiddo himself is cast as some dark overlord: “Not one major terror act against Western or Western-allied targets can take place without his implicit or explicit authorization. Even groups that are the sworn enemy of the regime of Iran find themselves working for him, usually without knowing they’re doing so.”
That unevenness — stark realism meets cartoonish excess, male fantasy mars persuasive credibility — undermines what otherwise stands as a stylish and assured debut.”

Hmmm, it seems that TG has blathered on and run out of space. Rather than continue the discussion now, TG will make this entry a two-parter and ask his question in the next issue. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read Dunn's book, TG will send the first person who asks for it a crisp new hardback. Send your request as a comment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Free Book!


Listen up, out there. TG has been telling you in these pages the secrets of how Big Time writers crank out their boatloads of thrillers, year after year. Yes, much of it is crap, but like the old saying goes, much of everything is crap. As a man who has read more than anyone's fair share of thrillers, TG can reduce the formula for success to a couple of sentences: What readers want in a thriller or pretty much any genre novel, is a story that follows the rules of the genre, and adds something different. Easy, no?

The first part, following the rules, can be learned easily enough. You just have to read long and hard into the genre you intend on working. But you'd be surprised how many writers sound like unoriginal dopes because they don't bother doing their homework and turn out novels that have all the elements that have been done to death. TG has found that the most egregious sinners here are European writers who get published in this country by swinish publishers trying to ride on a European best seller and reader be damned if it's a copy of what's already been done in the US, or by stupid publishers who are trying to capitalize on the thriller genre's successes in recent years. For whatever reason, TG always, always, gives these boring, copycat thrillers a shit review. So beware, publishers. These unoriginal books are also often written by “insiders' who are ex-spies or worked at NSA or some other government organization, now retired. Publishers are suckers for these people and pay them chests of money for the possibility of something new, and 95% of the time the result is, yes, you guessed it, just more of the aforementioned crap. Why? Because there are no more editors who actually edit, rather than just acquire. But don't get me started, that's another blog for another time.

Then there are the writers who get it right. TG recently reviewed Sanctus, by Simon Toyne. Billed as the first in a trilogy, TG found it perfectly fine as it dealt with all the familiar elements of the religious artifact thriller. Set in the fictional city of Ruin in modern day Turkey, within the ancient halls of a church called the Citadel, carved out of a mountain, inhabited by cowled monks, blah blah blah, a young woman who comes to the church to find her long lost brother, a secret that will change the world, blah blah blah, yes, yes, fine, just get to the damn secret that's going to change the world. You see, there's always a secret that's going to change the world.

Here's the thing. If a book promises one of these world-changing secrets or weapons, or villains, then TG had better be surprised when the big reveal is, well, revealed. TG has read them all. TG knows that right now, even as we speak, someone is penning another thriller, probably in France, where it's going to turn out that there's evidence that Jesus Christ was just a regular guy who didn't really rise from the dead, didn't cure the lame and the halt, and didn't rise up to heaven in a blast of glorious trumpets, and of course the Catholic Church has to suppress this evidence, so they send some coldly efficient madman who whips himself with scourges, pokes holes in his hands, wears wires around his balls or some other nutty religious nonsense, to kill the hero and his girlfriend. And what always happens is this nutter is defeated by the hero and then here comes a landslide or a flood or an avalanche and the evidence is lost forever. Snore. Wake me when the last page is turned. And this is just one of the many tropes that have been written over and over by people -- TG hesitates to call them writers -- who are attempting so suck off some of Dan Brown's money. They are legion, and TG curses their names.

So, OK, TG is reading along in Sanctus, having a pretty good time, Toyne is staying in the thriller boundaries and the writing is good, when he gets to his big reveal. When it comes, well, picture one of those comic book illustrations of surprise where the character's jaw drops to the ground and the eyes bug out like they're on springs. Yup, that's TG to a T. The surprise, the Big Secret in Sanctus, was something the jaded, seen-it-all writer and reviewer known as Thriller Guy has NEVER thought of and COULD NEVER have thought of. Yes, TG is aware that he's shouting. That's how surprised he was. Enough to even employ an exclamation point, and you know how TG feels about exclamation points.

YOW! TG gulped. He sure didn't see that one coming.

So here's the deal. The publisher has slung a free hardback copy of the book TG's way and he's now going to send it to one of you lucky readers out there in blogreaderland. For the first person who gets me a new follower, (those are the gang of folks on the right hand side of the blog,) TG is going to send a copy of Sanctus. Then they can write in and tell us if they were as surprised as TG was. Or they can tell us that TG is full of crap and doesn't know shit from Shinola. (Do folks out there even know what Shinola was?) So sign someone up and let TG know. When the little ticker over the Follower section goes up by one, we'll have our winner. If there's a tie, I've actually got a couple of these books. So keep checking in on the Comment section under this blog. Let me know when you've signed someone up, TG will respond in the Comments and then you can send him your address in an email.

What a deal, a 26.95 book. Who sez TG doesn't love ya?



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Adventures


TG was out of town for much of the last month. He arrived home on Tuesday evening and found that he had been robbed. Someone came in, pushed under the mattress, looked through his wife's drawers (no, not her underwear, her underwear drawer) and jewelry boxes. They left computers, iPads, jewelry behind, and stole a very heavy jar where TG keeps all his change for beach week. (That's the week he goes to the beach with his writer's group, referenced in an earlier blog.) Probably $200.00 to $300.00. Sounds like a kid crime, no? So TG's next door neighbors have keys to his front door and have been picking up the mail and putting it inside. Their son,who will now be referred to as D, 15 years old, is the only one who was around much of the time. On Monday he was playing basketball with his friends Juan and Donald. At one point he went inside to change his clothes. TG figures that's the time the crime happened. TG, after discovering the crime, tells D that the police are going to suspect he and his friends of doing the deed. D swears he had nothing to do with it. At this point it's late, so TG tells D to call his friends and ask them if they know anything. In the morning (Wed.) TG sees D and D says he called Juan and Juan said he did it. He spent the money and the jug (a family heirloom) is somewhere in the back yard where Juan threw it. TG tells D to look around the yard (large, 3/4 of an acre) while TG changes his clothes to help in the search. TG comes back downstairs and lo and behold, D has found the jug! It was behind a tree in the back yard. Took him about two minutes to find it. This, of course, means that either D is one hell of a locator, or maybe he knew just about where that jug was?

An aside. TG is really good friends with these neighbors. Eat at each other's cook outs, take mail in and out when on vacation, keep an eye on each other's houses when away, the usual neighbor stuff. TG knows many of D's friends, though he doen't know Juan or Donald. Oh, yeah, D does not know either Juan or Donald's last name, though Donald is in his class at school.

So TG is loath to immediately call John Law when dealing with a neighborhood problem. TG's local cops can be pretty rough and he's tangled with them a number of timeslf in the past. So TG tells D to call Juan and tell him that TG is pissed and wants his parent's phone number, that if he pays TG the money back and sits down with TG and his parents to discuss the situation TG won't call the cops. D has until 5:00 to get this done. At 5:00 D shows up and says Juan has not returned his call and begs TG to wait till the next day.

The next day, D not having come up with anything new from Juan, TG I calls the cops and gets a massive response, 5 patrol cars roll up all at once, etc. TG calms everyone down and begins dealing with a detective. Nice guy. TG spends the day on this bullshit and eventually D shows up and the detetctive questions him. D gives his usual story. Cop asks for Juan's phone number. Whatta ya know, D's phone "cut out" last night and wiped out part of his phone numbers, Juan's included. He doesn't know where Juan lives, exactly, just the general area. Eventually D leaves and the cop and TG agree, it looks like D is our man. This is upsetting to TG because it's about to change what has been a years' long relationship with these neighbors. OK, hang in there, TG is getting to the funny part.

TG has a weird skin condition. Probably picked up in Nam, probably has something to do with Agent Orange. At any rate, it crops up every once in awhile and one thing that helps is to slather TG's skin with mineral oil. So on this particular morning, TG slathers his body with oil. and then figures, what the hell, there's no one around, so why not walk around naked until the stuff dries. Eventually, TG is sitting outside on his screened in porch, naked as a jay bird, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, when he hears voices from the side of the house, in the driveway, which TG can't see. He realizes instantly that, A. the thief has returned either to pick up the coins stashed somewhere in the back yard, or B. the thieves have returned to rob the house because as far as they know, TG is still on vacation, and C. TG is completely naked! TG is tough, but even he finds it really difficult to fight in the nude. Yes, sure, the Spartans did it, but these are modern times. TG leaps up, dashes through the sliding glass door, (after opening) runs upstairs and pulls on jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. TG dashes back downstairs, outside onto the screen porch but there's no one there. Pant, pant. TG comes back inside and notices, in a half second, out the window on the other side of the house that there's someone, male, black, looks young, wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and he's carrying a red plastic cup. He's walking through TG's side yard away from the house.

TG runs to the front door to grab his axe handle, (main weapon of self defense) and of course someone has moved his axe handle, TG finds it, leaps out onto the front porch and there's no one there. TG runs around to the side of the house, ditto, the miscreant has run off.

No luck. The kid is no where to be found.

That night, TG is going to bed and wifey goes next door and suggests that the father go on the Net and find the son's Verizon account and the calls coming in and out. Great idea, since one could then find the call to the mysterious Juan, the perpetrator, when D called and heard him confess, on Tuesday evening. Remember, D has said, to the detective while being interviewed that his phone "cut out" and there is no more phone number for Juan. Convenient, no? So the father does so and hands the list over to TG, who now has a list of phone calls from the Internet from the kid's phone three weeks old. (Can't get anything more recent than that.) ITG starts with the first number and goes to one of the reverse phone book sites on the net. TG doesn't want to spend any money on this, but he knows from past experience if you screw around with it you can get at least the first one free. So he gets a hit, a Lavern Cash right in the neighborhood. TG thinks, why not do a cross search with Juan and Cash? Bingo! there's a Juan Cash at the same address. TG has found the mystery thief.

So TG calls the detective, and he picks up and TG tells him of his brilliant sleuthing which is met with dead silence. TG says, jokingly, hey, detective, how about a little kudos here for cracking the case. The detective says, distractedly, Oh, yeah, good job, it's just that I'm in the middle of a shooting here and can't really pay close attention. TG, chastened, imagines bullets whistling overhead. The detective says to print everything out (already done, chief!) and he'll be over later tonight when he can break free.

Is D innocent? TG has got so say, he thought that the Juan business was complete bullshit. But but he doesn't believe in coincidences. TG drives by the address he has for Juan Cash, the perps house and there's a car up on jacks out front. And if that isn't a sign of criminality TG doesn't know what is.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book Covers: Flops and Tops

Thriller Guy's alter ego, Allen Appel, has had a lot of books published, hence there have been a lot of book covers. Makes sense, no? His first cover, for Time After Time, the first in his award-winning, mildly successful series (soon to be available as Kindles one of these days) of time travel books, sucked. There's nothing like the feeling of opening that box of just printed books for the first time, and seeing a cover that you know is going to doom the book to oblivion because it's just plain bad. The book was published by Carroll and Graf, a small publisher who didn't do any of their art in house, so they threw a few bucks at some second rate designer who would cobble together some sort of cover illustration. To be fair, they published a number of these books and most of the rest were pretty good. But not the first one. We'll save the example for the end of this entry.


TG always has a good laugh at the Little Ones who write to him and talk about what their book covers are going to look like when their book is published, how they're going to be fully involved in the process, blah, blah blah. No way, Little Ones, publishers don't give a crap about what the author thinks the cover should look like. Sure, some of the really Big Guys may have some say in the cover art, but most of them know to keep their noses out of that end of the business. And TG has writer friends who tell him they have a clause in their contracts that allows them to consult on the cover, or even approve, but when TG asks to actually see these clauses, excuses get made. That's because publishers don't easily give such rights and agents don't like to fight for them because they're far more interested in money issues. So listen up, Little Ones, just write your damn book and forget about thinking you have anything else, artwise, to bring to the process.


Oh, what's that? You have written your book? And you're going to put it up as a Kindle so you're going to have to come up with a cover? Hmmm, TG spoke too quickly. Yes, the earth has shifted under the publishing industry and ebooks are gaining ground and for the first time in history writers actually have an opportunity to participate in the marketplace without prostrating themselves under the boot of a "legacy" publisher. The chances these authors will succeed are just as dim, if not dimmer, than their chances of being picked up by a regular publisher, but what the hell, the opportunity is there, so TG salutes all of those folks who are flinging themselves into this particular fray.


So where do you get a cover? You can make your own, it's not that hard with photoshop these days, or you can hire yourself a designer who, for money, will be happy to lend you a hand. If one is having a book printed by an on-demand publisher, they will put you in touch with a designer, or you can just hit the Interweb and find one yourself. These days you can get quality work even in the $250 to $350 range. Really top notch art is going to cost more, but really, how much difference is it really going to make?


What's the purpose of the cover anyway? To catch the eye of the reader. The book buyer approaches a shelf, (or browses through the Amazon Kindle book section) sees something that looks interesting, picks it up and reads the publishing info to learn what the book is about. If it sounds good, he/she may very well buy the book.  So the cover actually is important, because if you can't compel someone to pick up your book and take a closer look your not going to sell a copy to anyone who's just browsing. So what makes a great cover? TG is glad you asked, because he's got a couple of examples. The first is the cover of Time After Time, produced by a cheap publisher, and the second is the cover for the same book when it was republished by Dell, a far classier operation.
Cover number one.

Cover number two.

The second cover, the Dell edition, was made by the legendary Fred Marcellino, who, unfortunately, is now dead. You can read about him here on a Wiki page, where this book cover is used as an illustration of his work.

So which cover would you pick up off the shelf if you were browsing? See, it matters. Quality pays.

Next week, TG asks his faithful readers to help one of his pals pick a cover for a Kindle edition.



Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ah, Vacation

Yes, Thriller Guy has been on vacation. And for once “vacation” didn't mean humping an 80 pound pack, lacing up the desert boots and carrying heavy weaponry. The thing is, Thriller Guy's wife (T.G.W.) doesn't allow weaponry when on holiday. And that's a good rule, generally.

You may remember (if not, shame!) TG's rules about creativity, primarily the four places that are particularly conducive to creative thought.

Bed, bath, beach and bus. Among these four, Beach is the most powerful. Back when TG was a younger man, on vacation with his wife and two fine children, the family would head to the beach, usually North Carolina but sometimes Maryland, where he would rent a fine house and spend a week. TG never headed off for one of these beach trips without a firm writing goal in mind: coming up with a new idea for a novel, beginning a new novel, banging away at a current novel, or finishing a novel. After a fine day spent in the ocean, walking the beach, eating at places that featured the word “shack” in their name, everyone would go to bed. Then, in the hours before dawn, TG would arise and move to the highest point in the house where he would set up his laptop and begin to work in the blessed silence. And as he would write the sky would lighten, the sun would rise, the ocean would supply the steady heartbeat of the surf, and the words, the ideas, would flow and the world was a glorious place. Then the rest of the family would climb out of bed and it would end, but for that day, several hours of hard, meaningful, useful, creative work would have been done. Yes, the same amount of work could have been accomplished at home, deep in TG's subterranean writing lair, but at the beach, in the sun, as the sky turned from pearl grey to brilliant blue, the world, the words, would be golden.

Many years ago TG remembers reading the Author's Guild magazine and finding a little offhand squib in the back about the mystery writer Parnell Hall who had been seen standing in the ocean up to his chest with a small tape recorder (does everyone remember what tape was?) yacking away. TG thought, at the time, what a good idea, what a great way to stretch that predawn morning creativity into the very bowels of a trip to the beach, away from the family, subject only to the forces of the tides as one talked out another few pages in the never-ending struggle to put together a manuscript. So when TG began to write this blog entry on beach creativity, he remembered that squib and thought, what the hell, let's see if Parnell Hall remembers those days. Let us all now thank God, or whomever, for the Internet. TG found Parnell and asked him, did he remember that item?

I never saw the squib in the Author's Guild magazine, but it's quite true. It would have been Jones Beach, and I wasn't writing a memo, I was writing a book. And it wasn't just some fleeting idea, it was the whole damn thing. I wrote my first book longhand in spiral notebooks, then typed it up on an electric typewriter. This was a while back, shortly after man had discovered fire. My agent got me a two book deal, which shocked the hell out of me, I was happy just to have sold one, but it wasn't enough to quit my day job. I was working as a private investigator at the time, driving around New York City signing up clients for a negligence lawyer, and my wife gave me a micro-cassette recorder, so if I had any ideas while I was driving I could click it on and make notes so I wouldn't lose them. It took me about a week to go from making notes to dictating the whole damn book. I've dictated all my books ever since. I can do it anywhere. At home, in the park, in the car, or standing chest deep in the ocean. In the summer I would drive out to Jones Beach a lot. It's at least an hour drive, depending on traffic. I'd dictate all the way out there, swim, stand in the waves and write some more, then dictate on the way home. In the afternoon I'd put on a headset and transcribe what I had written.

TG here. Parnell Hall has been writing excellent mystery fiction for years. When TG first read him, it was the beginning of the Stanley Hasting series, Detective, a book that was funny, true, compelling and an honest mystery, all at the same time. Now there are 17 more in the series, plus his clever Puzzle Lady series that is ongoing. TG can recommend any of these books for a good read and suggests that savvy readers who own Kindles can pick up some great Parnell Hall values on the Amazon Kindle store.

So while TG had Parnell on the line, he asked him a few more questions:

What are you doing these days?

The KenKen Killings is out in hardcover now. The next Puzzle Lady, $10,000 Dollars In Small, Unmarked Puzzles, will be out in Feb 2012. Review copies should be ready soon. In the former, Cora Felton, a whiz at solving crime but a charlatan as a crossword puzzle constructor (she couldn't solve one with a gun to her head--she's the sweet, grandmotherly face on her niece's nationally syndicated Puzzle Lady column), is actually quite good at number puzzles, and is delighted to find a crime involving KenKen puzzles. In the latter, she deals with a blackmailer, a stalker, and a killer, not to mention her least favorite ex-husband, Melvin.

Right now I'm writing Stakeout, my next Stanley Hasting private eye novel. It will be out next year from Pegasus books. Last year's Caper will join Hitman in trade paperback this fall, also from Pegasus.

And I'm making music videos! King of Kindle, on YouTube, is a hoot. It features several well-known writers, including Mary Higgins Clark and Lawrence Block. Check it out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-oGJvgHyKI

Funny video! All you smart-ass mystery readers out there, how many of the faces in the video can you name?

Ahem. Back to business. Any advice for the aspiring writers who tune in to TG's blog?

My advice to aspiring writers is that my advice is worthless and won't help them. You have to find something that rings a bell with you. Shortly before I wrote my first novel, I saw Robert B. Parker interviewed on TV. He was asked, "Why do you think people like your books?" I figured, poor Bob, he'll have to say something about Spenser being not just a macho guy but also a gourmet cook, and intellectual, sensitive to women or something like that. He said, "I think they like the way the words sound." The interviewer was baffled, but Bob said, "Yeah, if the words sound good, people like reading them." I thought, come on, no one reads this stuff out loud, but I went back and reread Looking For Rachael Wallace, and he was absolutely right. The words sounded good. There was a rhythm, a style, and it was great to read. When I started my first book, Detective, a few months later, I had no plot or outline, and I didn't know what I was writing, but I wanted it to sound good. My point is, that helped me, but it probably won't help you. Find something that will.

And how about vacations?

They're a wonderful way of doing research without expending any effort. And if you write about them, you can write it off on your tax return.

Whoa, TG never had the balls to write off his vacations, but if Parnell says it's cool, then TG's tax return next year is going to feature a beach house. Thank God, (or whomever) the IRS is too slow-witted to follow the Thriller Guy blog. Right? Right?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Demo Dick

In Thriller Guy's last post, the joke was how much better, at least as far as getting the story out to the public, the raid on Osama's compound would have been if they had invited along Dick Marcinko and co-author Jim DeFelice to write down the main plot points and add the humorous details. For those of you who don't know Marcinko, (shame! shame!) he's the Navy man who many years ago designed and developed Red Team Six, the SEAL unit that killed Osama. Dick – aka The Rogue Warrior, Demo Dick, Shark Man of the Delta, The Geek -- led Red Team Six for three years, after which he was tasked with coming up with a unit that would test the vulnerability of US military forces around the world. This unit, known as Red Cell, succeeded in infiltrating naval bases, nuclear submarines, ships, airports, embassies, Air Force One and God knows what else. Marcinko claims that he and the boys stole nuclear devices complete with launch codes. And Thriller Guy believes him.

Marcinko was such a pain in the ass to his superiors they contrived to get him arrested and imprisoned for supposedly defrauding the government over contractor acquisition contracts for hand grenades. He did his time, and TG bets that no one ever attempted to make a little girl out of Dick Marcinko.

Dick published the autobiographical account of his career in 1992. Rogue Warrior became a big bestseller, and it deserved to be. Thriller Guy, under the name of his alter ego, Allen Appel, began publishing novels in 1985 with the first of the Alex Balfour time travel books, Time After Time. TG was several books into the series and thinking of branching out into military-type thrillers, which he did so in 1994 with Hellhound, written with Craig Roberts and TG's own son, Thriller Guy Jr. As research for this sort of writing, TG bought Marcinko's book and read it with pleasure. Marcinko's schtick, carried on through the thirteen or so of the following novels, is to tell the story of Dick Marcinko in his various adventures as a SEAL and later as the leader of his own military contractor agency, Red Cell, as the story of Dick Marcinko and his band of merry, deadly, warriors. In other words, Marcinko the author refers to himself as Marcinko the fictional warrior. It's a bit too tricky and self indulgent at times, but really, would a guy like TG who refers to himself in the third person have a leg to stand on if he decided to chastise Marcinko for this Point Of View? Of course not. Actually, TG thinks that Marcinko's authorial voice is spot on: funny, self-deprecating and perfect for telling his tales.

So way back in the day, when TG was just starting to write action thrillers, when it came time to write a big battle scene he would head for the bookshelf, let his copy of Rogue Warrior open to virtually any page, read along in one of Dick's action scenes for awhile then head to the computer and dive into his own battle scene. This is a method that TG still recommends to those who write him asking for tips and tricks in the thriller writing trade. TG is not telling you to steal from another writer, simply to use that writer to fire up your own physical and intellectual heat while writing your own scenes. TG doesn't really need this kind of kick-start these days, but he looks back with some nostalgia on those times when he was just entering the thriller field.

So imagine TG's surprise last week when he was assigned the latest Dick Marcinko/Jim DeFelice thriller, Domino Theory, for review. TG has reviewed many Marcinko thrillers over the years, and he feels that they just keep getting better and better. The early ones were co-authored with John Weisman, and they were fine, but TG feels that DeFelice “gets” Marcinko's voice better. TG has no way of knowing how much input Dick has in the books, but one would like to think that he at least comes up with the idea, gets together with Jim and the two of them slam down enough Bombay Gin (Dick's favorite) until they have the major plot points worked out so Jim can head off to his personal writing lair and put the book together.

And if not, if Marcinko doesn't do anything to write the book other than be the headliner and split the profits with DeFelice, if the drinking is all by himself in Rogue Manor where he strides the hallways in his smoking jacket, puffing on a Cuban cigar, where he laughs a little too loudly and flatters the fabulous babes who gather round, and where he dives into his money vault like Scrooge McDuck and gambols – paying little attention to his battle-scarred, aging body -- in his many millions earned from his storied military and writing career, well, fine, good for him. The guy has earned it.

The hard way.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ding, Dong, Osama's Dead

Thriller Guy is not at liberty to say whether or not he was connected with Seal Team Six in any way in the mission to take down Osama. TG can say that the U.S. Government has had an ongoing relationship with thriller writers of note in brainstorming various missions, not that this was necessarily one of them. Enough. TG can say no more.

This is not the first blog entry TG has written about Osama, but the last one has been relegated to the dust bin after the news that the world's most famous terrorist was a porn fiend, casting all of TG's jokes into a weird light. Probably just as well that it's been tossed out.

Of course TG is glad they finally nailed the bastard, but he must admit that it was all, weirdly, sort of anticlimactic. Oh, how many times has TG reviewed military thrillers where various heroes have taken on Osama. In doing so, writers have employed a number of strategies. The lag time of a novel is usually, from turn-in to publication, 18 months. During this time the manuscript/book is in a pipeline and the words cannot be easily changed. This has led to many a nail-biter as the writer waits for history to change the playing field, leaving his/her novel looking kind of silly if circumstances are radically altered. One tactic used in many of the books TG has read where Osama plays a role, is to use weird names for him, as if readers won't know whom they are referring to. I.e. Tom Clancy and Grant Blackwood in Dead or Alive have a character called The Emir, who is obviously Osama. As if they could say, (if Osama were killed before the book was published,) “We didn't mean Osama Bin Laden, this is another deadly terrorist, architect of 9/11 who is purely fictional.”

When the reports began to come in of the real attack, TG felt strangely unmoved because he has read so many fictional battle accounts that were identical down to even the smaller details. Actually, the fictional accounts were generally far more exciting and not just because there was so much more information. Really, what the SEALs needed was their old compatriot, Dick Marcinko, riding into the compound with them, supplying the quips and narrating the action. The same feeling of deja vu occurred on Sunday when TG cracked open his New York Times and saw the headline at the top of the front page on the right: “Secret Desert Force Set Up By Blackwater's Founder.” Well, duh. Snore. How many times has TG read that particular plot? Many.

In Tuesday's Washington Post, Patrick Anderson reviewed Richard North Patterson's new thriller, The Devil's Light. (In the last few weeks TG has reviewed this book, plus Matt Richtel's The Devil's Plaything and James Rollins' The Devil Colony. Time to retire the word Devil for awhile, thriller writers.) Anderson is the Post's chief thriller reviewer and the author of the excellent book, The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction, a history of the modern thriller. Those of you who are writing thrillers, or planning to write them, should read this book if you haven't. Anderson tells you what is important in the genre and gives you a solid list of great books to delve into. The single most grievous error TG finds made by today's thriller writers is not the continual cliches or the knocking people out of their shoes when shot but a lack of knowledge of the genre. This is particularly true of European writers who often turn out books with plots and characters that have already been done, and usually done better, by writers on this side of the pond who have gone before.

Anderson liked, with a few quibbles, Patterson's book. TG agrees with that assessment in general. Patterson is a meticulous researcher and writer, and he has no doubt Patterson walked every foot of ground he used in the novel. In his way, he has written a book like Tom Clancy's latest using the same basic plot. Both men brought a wealth of material to the task; in Patterson's case we get lots of history and the rational behind both the good guys and the bad guys, and Clancy brought lots of great new technical gear and weapons, but both would have been better books if they had had come out several years ago when the nuclear attack by terrorists plot was fresher. TG has to wonder if these two gentlemen are keeping up their end of the research not just in trying to come up with the best detail for their novels, but in paying attention to what others in the field are doing and what has already been done. Is this fair, wishing that a novelist had worked faster, come out with a book sooner? Probably not, but fair isn't always what matters in publishing, or, for that matter, in life itself. Will it matter to the sales of these two books? Probably not a bit. Their fans will buy their books no matter when they come out, or, frankly, what they are even about. But still, TG wishes that he were not reading the same plots over and over. It's boring, even when that particular tired plot is well done. And the one sin that a thriller writer should never make, is to let the word or feeling of boredom anywhere near their work.

So, Osama is dead, and that's a really good thing for thriller writers. No longer do they have to dance around the issue of how he is used as a character. He's gone, so terrorist bad guy characters can go back to being fictional, and no one will ever again have to mention or write around that giant elephant in the room, the old man with the beard. And please, those of you who are out there gearing up what you think is a clever plot where Osama really isn't dead, that it was all a conspiracy, a set-up instigated by a secret cabal in the US government, right-wing military officers, a rogue CIA element, the Iranians, the Taliban or a twin or a double who had been playing the role of Osama for years, or a plan by Osama himself to fake his own death, or whatever, but please, don't do it! It's not clever. It's obvious.

TG is tired, oh so tired of crazed Muslim terrorists planning the big hit against the US. Evildoers who had to watch when they were children as their parents were gunned down or sisters raped or grandpas or older brothers or best friends executed by agents of the US. Terrorists who have finally got their hands on one of those old suitcase nukes the Russians sold off years ago, barrels of radioactive medical waste for dirty bombs, tons of explosives loaded onto ships that are making suicide runs into the Statue of Liberty, all those same tired plots.

TG wants something new. Wake him up. Surprise him.

Osama is dead. Time to move on.

Now, you know the tune, munchkins, sing it loud and proud:

Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.
Wake up - sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.
Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead. He's gone where the goblins go,
Below - below - below. Yo-ho, let's open up and sing and ring the bells out.
Ding Dong the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.
Let them know
The Wicked Witch is dead!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Back Again.

OK, Thriller Guy is back in the blog harness after several weeks away while writing a real article for money. (Note to all those writers who TG interviewed for the article and who did not make it into print. They edited the hell out of the piece because of space constraints, so many of you got cut, for no particular reason. Sorry, your wonderful answers to TG's questions will eventually appear on this site or in another article if TG can talk them into it.)

For all of you writers and readers out there who are successful, unsuccessful, unpublished, happily published, tortured, cursed with longing, blissful, eaten up with envy, or whatever, TG suggests that you go to Salon.com and read Laura Miller's terrific interview with publishing great Robert Gottlieb. There's a lot of excellent material in this article about the process of writing and editing that Gottlieb says far better than what TG has been trying to say over the past few years. And TG knows that some of you, on reading the words 'publishing great Robert Gottlieb,' are going to roll your eyes and figure you don't really have the time, and it will probably be boring, etc., etc. TG would like to say, just read the article because it's really good. Has TG ever steered you wrong?

TG had a recent email conversation with an excellent, extremely popular, bestselling author who TG admires, who said he had looked at TG's website and felt, generally, that it was “... about Fitzgerald and Hemingway and topics like that and didn't have anything to do with me.” And that some day he might read the archives, but that right now he was just an everyday kind of a salt-of-the-earth writer who didn't have time for that sort of erudition. But he did like it when TG told writers to stop whining and get off their asses and write. First of all, TG was flattered that a guy of this caliber would read this humble blog, and, secondly, mortified to think that the advice TG was slinging week after week could in any way be construed as, well, highfalutin? Intellectual? TG sees this stuff as Practical. Necessary. Basic. No bullshit. A kick in the ass. A tonic for what ails the poor, misunderstood, hard-working everyday writer. The men and women who labor without much in the way of recompense or honor, who live in pain while trying to come up with the right word, the right collection of words, to create something, if not of beauty, but at least something that at least makes sense. That tells a story. TG thinks of writing like he thinks of digging ditches: When it's done right, at great physical (and mental) labor, the cool water eventually flows in the correct direction.

Ah, stop it, TG, you're killing me here.

Anyway, here's a little sample, (below) from the Gottlieb piece. TG has always sensed that what Gottlieb says, in this instance, might be the case, but was afraid that it was true. How many times has TG read a book and thought, What a piece of shit. How could any editor, self respecting or not, let this crap through? How many times has TG thought, and even written, “What this book needs is a good editor.” Well, from Gottlieb, here's at least one answer:

Whenever a review says "What this book needed was more editing," it's usually the book you spent the most time editing. That's because its problems were so severe that you've worked the text (and the writer) as far as possible. There comes a moment when either you the editor or you the writer cannot look at it again: It's over, and you have to let it go”

Who knew? TG has been waiting for years to read this explanation. And he apologizes for ever thinking that editors (or at least many editors) were stupid. It turns out that in many cases they have done all that they can do. That they probably feel, professionally, spiritually, and personally that they can do no more. That the contracts and promises of those in the publishing company, made by those who are far above them, have decreed that this book, as crappy as it might be, is going to be published and will make the company money because its readers may not really care about editing niceties or even the basics of good sense, so just shut your damn mouth, fix what can be fixed, don't piss off the writer because he might abandon ship and head to another house. Just get the book onto the shelves.

Or you're fired.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bears and Men

Yes, Thriller Guy is aware that he has neglected his blogging duties recently. In his defense, he can only say that he has been working on a large project where he has been talking to many thriller writers, some of the biggest out there, and this diligence will pay off in material for future blogs.

TG has received several e-mails saying he's being too tough on the cheapskates who own Kindles and who have not immediately bought a Kindle copy of Abraham Lincoln: Detective, from Amazon. TG is grateful for those of you who have done so and assures you that every cent TG makes off the book will be squirreled away to pay for him to write another in the series, someday, maybe in the next hundred years the way sales are going right now. TG is, he must say, a little disappointed in some of you out there. No need to name names, you know who you are. It's the same feeling one has when one has a book signing where sales are disappointing. Regular readers of this blog might remember the rule taught to TG by his early mentor, Kent Carroll of Carroll and Graf Publishers, who told TG the following when asked how many books one should order for a signing: Write down a list of names of those friends and family who you are absolutely certain are going to buy a book, and then cut that number in half, then cut that number in half again. That's how many books you're going to sell, and let TG tell you from personal experience, and the experience of most of his writer pals, it's usually a pretty sad number, but almost always correct. There's nothing like seeing some of your best friends not only leaving the bookstore with nothing under their arms but looking pissed off because you didn't give them a free, personalized copy of the book.

Normal people have no idea that the number of free books the publisher gives to writers is usually very limited and usually written into the original contract between writer and publisher. That number starts out at five and if you can get your agent to argue about it they'll easily go to ten, but anything more and they get really grumpy. TG learned years ago to not worry about it in the contract because you can always get freebies out of the marketing department who will gladly give you as many as you want.

OK, you want to know what's really got TG ticked off this week? He was reading a thriller by a pretty famous guy for review and right up near the front the writer describes a character as “a shambling bear of a man.” TG is aware that most thrillers are, sadly, riddled with cliches, but he was stunned to find that particular old war horse still in circulation. Good God, does the writer have no shame? Does the editor have no shame? Or is he afraid to tell the writer that the phrase makes him look like a tyro? (Now there's an excellent word you don't see around much these days.) Have all the excellent proof readers who used to point out mistakes like this all been fired? TG was reminded of his early days in the business when he read a manuscript as a favor for his busy publisher and was shocked to find two separate characters described as shambling bears of men, and then stunned when another character was described as “a shambling leviathan of a man.” TG gently pointed out that the word leviathan almost always refers to whales or sea monsters, creatures who could hardly be expected to shamble anywhere. The publisher, looking very unhappy, took that reference out but still left the two earlier instances in.

Never forget TG's rule when it comes to cliches: when one comes to mind while in the process of your daily writing, pause and try to come up with something better. If you can't, don't waste time on it but mark the offending phrase in boldface and then go back the next day when doing your rewrites and change it to something original. This is usually pretty easy the next day when your brain is fresh.

Which leads to TG's next rule, which is when starting out your writing day, always read over what you wrote the day before and do quick rewrites. It gets you into your own voice and will put you well into your new day's work.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Word to the Wise, Continuing Sales, Some Recommendations

First of all, Thriller Guy is sick, sick, sick of grown-up thriller writers having heroes, tough guy heroes, chuckle. Enough! No more chuckling! Really, has anyone actually seen anyone chuckle? It's a childish, stupid word. Stop. Right now. Never again.

Thriller Guy's ongoing experiment in selling Allen Appel's period mystery, Abraham Lincoln: Detective, in the Kindle format continues. In the month since the book was put up on Amazon, 12 copies have sold. Pitiful, really pitiful. The roll-out has been purposely slow with mentions of the book on this blog, Facebook and now TG's wife has notified her friends. Profits are hovering around $70.00, enough to buy a middling bottle of Balvenie whiskey. Obviously, if Appel thinks he's going to make any real money on the project he is deluded. Actually, thirteen books were sold and one person came to his senses or something and quickly canceled his order and got a refund.

The book chronicles the adventures of Abraham Lincoln and his sidekick law partner, William Herndon as they try to get to the bottom of a mystery surrounding the disappearance and possible death of an addle-brained visitor to their hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Mary Todd, involves herself in the detecting, much to the disgust of Herndon who could not abide Mary Todd. The fiction is based on a real case that Lincoln once wrote a short article about. He was never able to solve the mystery, but Appel has helped him out with a solution. Along the way readers will, one hopes, learn a great deal about Lincoln and the period.

Here's the deal: the book is fun, funny, clever and damn interesting. If you don't believe Thriller Guy, go to the Amazon Kindle site and take a gander at the three reviews there. TG feels so strongly that you will like this book that he's offering the following terms: If you download the book, read it and don't like it, TG will send you your $9.99 back. Yep, no strings, just comment on this blog with an email and TG will get in touch and send you your money. Now what could be more fair than that? Jesus, what does it take to pry ten bucks out of TG's reader's pockets?

OK, now that's out of the way... On the physical book front -- you know, books, the ones printed on paper -- TG has a few new recommendations.

Mike Lawson continues his entertaining series of mystery/thrillers (House Rules, House Secrets) with House Divided, starring Senate fix-it man Joe Demarco. Joe works for John Mahoney, Speaker of the House of Representatives, a larger-than-life, blustery politician based on the Tip O'neil mold, though in this book Mahoney remains offstage, in a coma. This is a gutsy move for Lawson as this character is a good one and he's taking a chance leaving him off the page. TG can report that the gambit works all right, but he would advise author Lawson to not try it again. TG has some tales of woe that come from his own experience of killing off a well-loved character in a series much to the dismay of readers who were very upset at the move. One of these days, TG will devote an entire blog to this mistake. Anyway, those of you who like a Washington-based mystery will like this series. TG suggests that you start with the first and read them in order, which though not strictly necessary will give you a better look at Joe Demarco's continuing history.

The Burning Lake by Brent Ghelfi is a tough, dark book set in today's tough, dark Russia. Ghelfi's hero is Alexei “Volk” Volkovoy, a man who wears many hats – soldier, spy, criminal, assassin – and who works for the mysterious, dwarfish criminal kingpin known only as The General. The story is built around the disappearance of Volk's girlfriend, a journalist who writes under the name Kato, who is investigating a dead zone in the Urals where a radioactive reservoir exploded 50 years ago. Readers interested in Russia today and who can handle some rough stuff will like it.

TG has some more new thrillers here on his desk to tell you about, but they'll have to wait until next week. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the actual numbers on the book that TG mentored and which was mentioned last week. You will be amazed.