Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Messy Desk, Messy Mind?

Thriller Guy works in a basement. There are no widows to speak of; the only indication of daylight is a small window in a door at the far end of the room.  That’s the way TG likes it. TG once had a very rich wife who bought a many-roomed house and TG had a fabulous workroom that looked out at the Bitterroot Mountains and the beautiful big sky of Montana. That lasted about three weeks before TG moved his “office” down into the basement next to a giant furnace. No windows.

Ahhh, nothing to do but work.

Not really TG's desk.
So down in the present basement… TG’s office (that’s what we call it in case the IRS is listening) is a couple of tables nailed together with his iMac, a printer and all manner of junk atop. Books, pens and pencils, various sticky notes, books to be reviewed, books recently reviewed, electrical fuses, wires, many wires, old CDs that may or may not contain anything useful, piles of recipes downloaded off the Interweb, research stuff and a ton of other crap. It’s a real mess. Every time TG starts a new book, he begins by cleaning up the desk. That means it gets cleaned up every couple of years. Sometimes TG begins to feel a little bad about this.

But hark! TG hears the voice of science, saying…

Working at a messy desk may actually help you think more creatively!

Much of the rest of this blog is stolen verbatim from the journal Psychological Science.

Scientists found that being surrounded by clutter can promote creative thinking and stimulate new ideas. In contrast, working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity and conventionality. The new study was conducted by psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs and fellow researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. They mapped the behavior of people working in a messy room and clean room with a series of experiments.

Participants in the study were given a choice between a new product and an established one. Those in the messy room were more likely to prefer the novel one - a signal that being in a disorderly environment prompts a release from conventionality. Professor Vohs said: "Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of - creativity. Previous research has found that a clean setting leads people to do good things, such as not engaging in crime, litter and showing more generosity. We found, however, that you can get really valuable outcomes from being in a messy setting."

In the first of several experiments, participants were asked to fill out questionnaires in an office. Some completed the task in a clean and orderly office, while others did so in an unkempt one where papers were strewn about and office supplies were cluttered. Afterwards, the participants had the opportunity to donate to charity and were allowed to take a snack of chocolate or an apple on their way out.

Being in a clean room encouraged people to do what was expected of them as they donated more of their own money to charity. They were also more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar. However, messiness had its virtues as well. In an alternative experiment, participants were asked to come up with new uses for Ping-Pong balls. Overall, participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts, but their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges. (TG has to admit that he can’t think of any clever uses for Ping-Pong balls other than playing Ping-Pong and choosing winning lottery numbers.)

Professor Vohs said: "Just making that environment tidy or unkempt made a massive difference in people's behavior."

The researchers are continuing to investigate whether these effects might even transfer to the Internet. Preliminary findings suggest that the tidiness of a webpage predicts the same kind of behavior. Coupled with the findings published, this is especially intriguing because of their broad relevance. Professor Vohs said: "We are all exposed to various kinds of settings, such as in our office space, our homes, our cars, even on the Internet. Whether you have control over the tidiness of the environment or not, you are exposed to it and our research shows it can affect you."

So there you go. Just try to write a novel at a clean desk.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

How Much is Too Much? Rape, Murder and Torture in the Modern Thriller.

There are a couple of things that can be agreed on: Thriller Guy is one tough hombre and
that thrillers are, by their nature, going to concern death and destruction in all its possible varieties.  Over the course of, say, a years worth of reading thrillers for review, the body count involved reaches staggering numbers. But it isn’t the numbers that give TG pause, it’s how the deaths are depicted, and even more disturbing, with what ease and sometimes, eagerness writers show in the depictions. The joy they seem to take in writing about cutting off the fingers and more of helpless women, the rapes, the obscenities they create first in their heads and then on the page. TG finds these details disgusting. Wait, you say, you’re missing the point, TG, they’re supposed to be disgusting. That’s how the author seizes the reader, how he manipulates the reader’s emotions so that his villain ascends to that place in the reader’s imagination where his destruction becomes paramount. It is how justice is defined, in opposition to absolute evil.

Yeah, well, sure, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is Wilbur Smith.
He’s the mega-selling author of various series, i.e. The Courtneys, The Courtneys of Africa, The Ballantine novels, The Egyptian Novels, and others. Fortunately, Thriller Guy has never been assigned any of these books to review. Unfortunately, he’s had to review Smith’s last two: Those in Peril, and his latest, Vicious Circle. In the review of Those In Peril, TG warned readers that the book was ultra violent, particularly in its treatment of women, though he also pointed out that was what Smith’s readers seem to like. In Vicious Circle, Smith really pours it on, degrading and torturing two girls, one of whom has been driven insane. Many of you will say, “it’s not Smith doing the torturing, it’s the character in the book.” Yeah, well, that’s just an excuse for what Smith seems to relish writing, and this is sick stuff.

Circle continues the story of series hero Hector Cross. Here’s the rundown on the book, taken from Smith’s website: Hazel Bannock is the heir to the Bannock Oil Corp, one of the major oil producers with global reach. While cruising in the Indian Ocean, Hazel's private yacht is hijacked by African Muslim pirates. Hazel is not on board at the time, but her nineteen year old daughter, Cayla, is kidnapped and held to ransom. The pirates demand a crippling twenty billion dollar ransom for her release.
Complicated political and diplomatic considerations render the major powers incapable of intervening. When Hazel is given evidence of the horrific torture which Cayla is being subjected to, she calls on Hector Cross to help her rescue her daughter.
Hector is the owner and operator of Cross Bow Security, the company which is contracted to Bannock Oil to provide all their security. He is a formidable fighting man. Between them Hazel and Hector are determined to take the law into their own hands.

Cayla, is subjected to intense graphic, repeated, sexual torture by her captors until they chop off her head and send it to Hector and Hazel. The torture scenes are well over and beyond anything that was needed to make his point. Well into pornographic territory.

Circle is even worse. I have been debating if I should put some examples up on this site. I won’t put up any of his sickness with the little girls, but here’s a nice little para as the bad guy is debasing on of his minions, who we are told really loves this treatment.

“He slid his finger out of her and held it up in front of her face. “Now look what you’ve done, you dirty little whore. You have made my nice clean finger dirty with your filthy pussy.” (p172)

On the next page he cuts off both her ears and makes her eat one of them; on the next page he jams a knife into her gut and disembowels her.

He saves the worst for the children. On page 200 he depicts the bad guy having sex with little Sacha, “Three weeks before her ninth birthday party.”

Sacha is driven mad by this treatment and later on he writes a very long torture scene where Sacha finally dies and her sister is fed alive to a herd of pigs. Of course this scene is being filmed to be sold to perverts on the Internet.

TG has a very wide tolerance for the levels of mayhem. But what he has no tolerance for is when an author seems to be taking enjoyment in writing this stuff. Of course TG has no way of knowing if this is so, but the extreme torture of women and children occurs again and again in these two books.

Is Wilbur Smith to blame? Of course he is. But so are the people who buy his books, and they are legion. I have no idea if this sort of thing is on the pages of his many other series, and I’m not going to read them to find out. If for no other reason than he’s a terrible writer.  “Hazel,” he said with rising anger. “Fight, my darling. Fight the bastard.” He knew the black angel had come for her. “Don’t let him take you!” (p49)

Those in Peril was a bestseller, as are most of Smith’s books. I assume Vicious Circle will be if it isn’t already one. Thriller Guy will never review another one.

Anyone who reads this crap, and enjoys it, should be ashamed.

Anyone who writes this crap should be ashamed.

Shame, shame, shame. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Michael Crichton Reboot

Are posthumous works a road to legacy or simply a belated gift for hungry fans?

Tom Clancy's recent death prompts Thriller Guy to wonder how long it will be before his publisher starts cranking out all the unpublished novels that are possibly sitting in Tom's desk drawer, how long before authors will be hired to write new novels under Tom's name. Then there's that treasure trove of ideas scrawled on the back of cocktail napkins that they're bound to discover when all the aforementioned books dry up. Here with thoughts on this phenomena, Guest Blogger Frank Zubek ponders this thorny question.

Frank is a Cleveland-based writer and is TG's eyes and ears onto the world of popular media, keeping him updated on what is going on outside TG's basement bunker. To find access to Franks writing, check out his bio information at the end of this post. Thanks, Frank.

A hopeful writer hammers out a handful of novels and despite the odds, gets published. Over time, if they get very lucky, they become a “Name” and enjoy the good life of fame and all of its fortunes and spoils. Then, inevitably, as what happens to us all, they pass on, leaving behind a number of works that, depending on their popularity, continue to be published.

Decades later, if the works continue to prove popular, the work continues to see print and becomes a classic, outliving the author ten fold. Sometimes, a forgotten manuscript is found and with the help of a ghostwriter, gets published. A final work by the author that may have been lost to history finds new life. Countless examples can be found here.

Or, thanks to e-books, forgotten books from several decades ago can find new readers today. For example, if you have enjoyed the work of author Michael Crichton, you’ll be happy to know that eight novels he wrote in the sixties and seventies have been re-released.

These were written under the name John Lange and the titles are: Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go, Zero Cool, The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, Grave Descend and Binary. They were released as e-books in July, through Open Road Media, and will be released as paperbacks starting October 29 through Hard Case Crime. The links to these books can be found on his official web page.

Now while this may be a lucky break for long-time Crichton fans, I find myself wondering if this is what he wanted?

Once he became a successful writer, he must have known that re-releasing the eight out-of-print books would be a happy discovery for his fans. But what if he figured that these eight books, having served their purpose back in the day -- helping him pay some bills while he studied to be a doctor -- should remain in the past? While they could no doubt still be found on a few dusty shelves of a used bookstore, the more recent works (Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Timeline and Prey), were written by a more skilled and practiced hand.

Granted, I have no knowledge of Crichton’s actual wishes for his intellectual properties, but is this truly the preservation of a legacy?  In fact, the market is ripe for additional work from a number of authors. The problem is, how do you continue the brand without the writer? The solution is to marry up a writer’s work with another writer who agrees to carry on the legacy beyond any known original work and this practice has been going on for decades.

V.C. Andrews continues to be a popular author of note despite the fact she died of cancer in 1986. Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which had originally been just six novels (the last book, Chapterhouse, Dune, was published in 1985), has grown into a successful franchise starting in 1999, thanks to his son, Brian, and noted sci-fi writer, Kevin J. Anderson.

While I have no problem keeping a popular brand in print after the author is gone (I myself buy some of these 
kinds of books), is it morally right to continue creating new work from the original stock? Does the success of a growing brand dilute the power of the original work? Arguably, the estate should be allowed to benefit as long as there is a market for the brand. And while most every writer would love to be remembered for at least a generation or two beyond his last breath, just how much is owed to the fan? If not for the fans and their devotion, where would the writer be? A book is published and the fan buys a copy and reads it. The unspoken contract has been fulfilled. Hasn’t it?

 And yet there is this popular business of keeping the name going through posthumous branding. Is it possible to know when to stop? And even once the inevitable happens and the brand sputters to a stop, there are several cases where, after some time has passed, it can be rebooted for a new generation of readers.

How much is enough? After all, as long as each generation of fans are willing to read and experience new material, who’s to say when the proper stopping point might be? As a brand builds its foundation, the long-time readers reap the benefits just as much -- if not more -- than the new readers do.

For example, the Ian Fleming estate continues to allow new authors the freedom to write new books, which not only work to feed the popularity of the ongoing films but also encourages new fans to explore the original Fleming classics.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this. Should a book series that ran out of time and lies buried in the past…remain there? Willing readers and commercial freedom can argue that point. Should a number of new books by different authors keep the name in the public eye until the readers move onto other names and brands? Ultimately, these are all questions that maybe one day, only the endless footsteps of time can answer.

If you wish to explore this subject further, here is a near complete overview of the most popular book series

Frank Zubek, a writer based in Ohio, has a number of short stories and novellas available on kindle or in audio format.

Frank Zubek
Cell  440-364-0628

Friday, October 4, 2013

Reaper Report: Tom Clancy: Dead

As readers of this blog know, Thriller Guy is always happy to speak ill of the dead, so, he would like to announce that it is well known in the book world that Tom Clancy was, personally, an insufferable ass. Before you chastise TG for being cruel, be aware that many in the Publishing Bizz also think that TG himself is an insufferable ass. And TG would like to state right up front that Clancy’s early books were favorites and that he has reviewed the books over the years and has always admired the work, even if the middle years were sort of boring. But the guy could be a real mean, arrogant bastard. Many are the stories, and if one goes back into the thriller Guy archives one would find this one by my friend Kathleen Ewing but TG will not report any of the better ones here because the people involved are all afraid that somehow this will anger the book gods and go against them the next time they’re trying to peddle a book or manuscript. Today’s Washington Post is the first to touch on this touchy subject with a piece about an interview Peter Carlson did with Clancy years ago. If anyone would like to chime in with one of these stories TG would be glad to put it on the blog.

Clancy lived just down the road from TG. When his first book, The Hunt For Red October came out and was beginning it’s phenomenal rise up the bestseller lists, TG went to the local bookstore in our small community. TG can’t remember what this bookstore was, but it was a small version of one of the big chains. It was always an odd store, with books piled haphazardly on the floor and scattered carelessly across the shelves. The manager and seemingly only employee was a gray-haired frazzled woman who always looked like she was in way over her head. On the day of TG’s visit, he noticed a pile of Clancy’s Red October book on top of which the woman had written in ballpoint pen on a piece of shirt cardboard: Local Author. I commented on the book and sign and she said that since she had put up the sign Clancy had become a bestselling author. TG asked a couple of questions, but the woman firmly believed that the sign was the single cause of his success. TG went home and wrote a little note to Clancy to tell him this mildly amusing story and sent it off. Of course he never wrote back.

But TG has a more important reason for bringing up Clancy, besides the fact that he enjoys speaking ill of the dead and saying things that everyone else is too polite and afraid to say. Here’s a lesson in the business of writing.

The story of Clancy selling his book to the Naval Instituted Press has been told over and over again for years. How they gave him $5,000 for what was the first novel they had ever published, having done nothing but non-fiction before that. How Ronald Reagan plugged it and the rest was history. So skip ahead to the day Clancy wanted to dump the N.I.P. for a Big Time Publisher, Putnam, in this case, where he could make even more millions than he was currently making. Turns out that the first contract he signed with N.I.P. – he had no agent – gave all the rights to all his characters to them. In other words, they, not Clancy, owned the rights to his series character, Jack Ryan. Clancy had to go to the mat with the N. I. P. and in the end had to pay them a bundle -- TG heard at the time it was a million dollars -- to get the rights back. Think this sort of thing is rare? When TG signed his first contract for the first book in the Pastmaster series (available for Kindle here) his brand new agent pointed out that the same clause was in his contract. TG only wishes he could go on to say that after the Pastmaster book and a couple of more came out that he had to pay a million bucks to get his character, Alex Balfour, back. No such luck. TG’s agent, the Nedster, Xed out that pesky clause and made sure it never crept back into the contracts of the many books that were to follow.

Oh, did TG remind everyone already that all of these wonderful books can be found on Kindle here?