Monday, December 20, 2010

Busy Busy Busy... Leigh Russell... Tom Clancy

OK, OK, Thriller Guy is well aware that he has been remiss in his blogging duties, but it's been a very busy time here in the shop. You probably thought TG was going to use the hustle and bustle of Christmas as an excuse, but he hasn't even begun to come to grips with all that entails. No, the latest celebrity novel proposal has had to have extensive work; why can't agents just understand that their job is to obtain TG money so he can just write the damn book. Why all the fuss over plots details, structure, advance endorsements and on and on. Please, the book will get written expeditiously, and it will be good. Just get TG the money! And don't get TG started on whatever the foolish publisher is going to want before they fork over the cash. As if they knew anything anyway.

The there was the rush review on the new Tom Clancy book. What a behemoth. 950 pages. When TG started this job, lo those many years ago, he thought that he would soon acquire a newfound ability to speed read, but it hasn't happened. Barring that, he figured that in some dire circumstances he'd just cheat and skip along, pausing to dip into a page or two every once in awhile just to keep track of things, but that hasn't worked out either. TG has found, much to his annoyance, that he's unable to cheat on the reading. First of all, there's his eagle-eyed editor who often has queries about various plot points, and if that isn't bad enough TG has found that rattling around in the further reaches of his fervid brain is a set of moral standards that don't allow cheating, standards that he wasn't even aware of before he became a paid member of that elite crew, Big Time Book Reviewers. So, no luck, it's just read every damn page, which, Thank the Book Gods, wasn't really a chore because the Clancy was good, just long. More on the actual book later. And the length of manuscripts and books is a good topic for another day. TG's agent has two of his unpublished novels -- and he's had them for quite some time now -- one is really really long and one is really short, but both of them remain unsold. Come on, Bob, get with it! Sell at least one of them! Does TG have to do everything?

Now that we have that out of the way... the last several entries here have dealt with the problems of coming up with an idea worth building an entire novel around. Those of you who aren't up to speed, jump back and read a couple of the earlier blogs... There. All caught up? Good. Note that the British crime writer Leigh Russell commented on the last blog – thanks, Leigh – saying “My plots always seem to start with a body... and everything spins out from there.” TG went to her excellent blog and found she had addressed the point of coming up with good ideas herself. Leigh was recently interviewed by TG's pal Syd on his fabulous Scene of the Crime Blog, and in a private note to TG, which proves that he wasn't just trying to suck up to a writer, Syd said that Leigh's books were damn good. TG looks forward to the day that he can actually pick up a book that isn't a thriller and just read for pleasure. When that day comes, Leigh Russell's books will be at the top of the heap. Anyway, here's what Leigh had to say...

"Readers often ask how I think up plots for my crime novels and the answer is simple; I start with a ‘What if...?’ question, imagining a worst case scenario. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a job in an office. One evening you are the last person to leave. Going to bed you remember that you left your mobile phone on your desk at work, so you go in early next morning to arrive before any of your colleagues. Entering the office you discover a dead woman sprawled on the floor. Only a few people have keys to your office, and no one admits to knowing the murder victim. This raises a number of questions. Who is the unknown victim? Why was she killed? You were last out at the end of the day and first in next morning - does suspicion fall on you? How do the police find the killer? If you write answers to the many questions raised by the body in the office, a basic crime thriller will virtually write itself. Of course it’s not that simple."

Not that simple, indeed. TG would contend that in some way all novels begin with the question What If? And that question comes up again and again as one writes, until one doesn't even notice it any more, it just becomes the engine that pushes the plot forward. Leigh's What If always begins with a dead body and she works her way forward, and backward, from there until she's filled in the why and who. This is the way to build a mystery novel, and it differs from a thriller. For thriller writers, the What If plotting begins with a situation, rather than a body. There will be bodies involved, of course, but the What If usually is the primary entry point: What If Terrorists steal an atom bomb and float it down the Potomac River in a boat just as the president is being sworn in; What If the head of the CIA is a sleeper mole who has been groomed as a spy since birth? You get the point.

And since it's Christmas, TG is going to leave all you writers out there who are searching for a cool plot, character or situation, with a news report that came out this week. But hurry, I guarantee that someone's already got the first chapter written.

And I guess the discussion of the new Tom Clancy will have to wait.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Three Excellent Plots

So, as promised, here are three plots that TG liked in the last year. This doesn't mean the resulting books were necessarily that fabulous, just that the plots had a lot of promise. Please don't write TG that you went out and bought the books and were disappointed. It's plots were talking about here, people, not execution.

Just to recap. For those of you who have not read the previous two entries (shame!) they focused on Clive Cussler and son and their process of coming up with mind-stretching plots. TG's method of plotting usually consists of discovering an interesting historical event and then writing fiction around that event. (See his alter ego's Pastmaster, time travel series starring historian Alex Balfour.) The Cussler's approach seems to come up with several historical events and then find ways to connect them. They certainly didn't invent this method (though on giving it two seconds of thought, TG wonders if Cussler wasn't right there on the cutting edge of this tactic, at least as it applies to thrillers?) But the connection system, even though it can produce excellent results, seems forced to TG at times. As if those employing it are trying not to just find interesting events that can lead to a connection, but to find two events that are so radically different from each other that to connect them shows brilliance on the part of the writers. Which is not the same as brilliance on the page. And now, TG fears he has strayed too far into what his wife, in commenting on these pages, calls “inside baseball.”

And so, without further ado, three interesting plot ideas:

Venom, by Joan Brady. A new species of honey bee produces a venom that turns out to lead to a serum that cures radioactive poisoning. Bad guys are testing it on unsuspecting residents near Chernobyl. This is a sequel to Brady's Bleedout. Brady can write well, very well, but regular thriller readers used to non-stop action will find it kind of slow. But the whole deal with the bees is cool. Who could have thought of such a thing?

The Capitol Game, Brian Haig. A company discovers a polymer that when painted on military vehicles cloaks them with an invisible barrier that is impenetrable to enemy firepower. A kind of Armor in a Can. The book is not about the polymer, but the predatory companies who seek to own the process and market it. It's a financial thriller, and a damn good one, but TG would have gone with the implications of the polymer under combat conditions. In the hands of one of the genre's military practitioners who specialize in military action, this could have led to terrific battle scenes. Haig, son of former US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, usually concentrates on his wisecracking series hero, JAG lawyer Sean Drummond, and his adventures as a military lawyer. Here he seems to be setting up a new series.

The Cobra, Frederick Forsyth. The U.S. president, disgusted by the horrors wrought by illegal drug trafficking, decides to bring the entire weight and resources of the federal government to bear against the international cocaine trade. The first, and most crucial step, is to declare drug traders and their cartels to be terrorists, subjecting them to new and extensive legal procedures that the government can employ under those conditions. Then he brings in ex-CIA director Paul Devereaux to head the team that will implement the effort. Devereaux, known as The Cobra from his operations days, is old school – smart, ruthless, unrelenting, and bestowed by the president with free rein to call in any arm of the government to support the effort to crush the cartels and their leaders. Forsyth lays out how it would all work, and readers will follow eagerly along, always thinking, yes, why the hell don't they do this in real life? Sadly, Forsyth supplies a convincing answer to that question as well. Many readers might be under the impression Forsyth was dead. After all he's the guy who wrote The Day of the Jackal, which pretty much invented the modern thriller, but no, thankfully, he's still alive and working at the top of his game

There you go. See, it is possible to come up with a new idea. Get to work.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

More on Cussler and Killer Plots

Over at the excellent mystery and writing blog Murderati, Pari Noskin Taichert interviews Dirk Cussler who talks about how he got into writing, how he works with his father and what he thinks makes a good thriller. TG recommends heading over there for a read not only of this interview, but of the blog in general.

The Cussler's latest book is Crescent Dawn. TG reviewed this book and was decidedly underwhelemed. While TG likes much of Clive's work -- the man certainly deserves the Thriller Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement – but Crescent Dawn, while initially intriguing, quickly descends into an undistinguished compilation of subplots and ideas that have been around for years in one form or another, i.e. the Church of England attempting to hide details of the life of Christ; (at least it wasn't the Vatican) ships laden with explosives headed toward familiar targets; an attack on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (snore) and others. One has to wonder if the Cusslers have fallen into the trap that snares so many thriller writers today -- not keeping up with what other writers in the genre are doing. But realistically, TG has to ask if a writer was as successful as these two guys, father and son, are, would you be spending your time reading the work of others? Especially if your readers didn't seem to care? If it were TG, he would be driving fast cars, diving the seas, drinking, eating at fabulous restaurants, buying his wife expensive baubles and generally living the good life someplace warm. Which is probably what the Cussler's do with their well-earned cash. But that's the subject of another blog.

When asked about Crescent Dawn, Dirk describes it thusly on Murderati:

As with most of the Pitt books, a historical element provided inspiration for the story. In this case, there were actually two events. I became interested in the loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire, a British cruiser that sank under mysterious circumstances in World War I, while transporting Lord Kitchener to a secret meeting with the Russian Czar. Dozens of rumors and theories abounded after the sinking, including speculation that the ship was sunk by the IRA or even the British government, rather than a suspected German U-boat. It all seemed to me like good fodder for a fictional sub-plot. At the same time, Clive was intrigued by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who traveled to Jerusalem in 327 A.D. to search for relics of Christianity. The trick was then to tie the two events into a contemporary-staged thriller.”

TG finds several points of interest here. The loss of the H.M.S. Hampshire with Kitchener aboard is an interesting plot device, one which has been explored before but still remains a fresh subject for thriller writers. Then there's his father's interest in early roman relics of Christianity. These relics (paintings of Jesus, the writings of Jesus, etc.) are a mainstay of religious conspiracy thrillers and are becoming pretty shopworn, which is one of the reasons TG found the book unoriginal, which is not a word one often uses in the same paragraph with Clive Cussler. What is instructive here is the way the two men took two wildly dissimilar topics and set about finding a way to bring them together. TG will now define this as the Seven Degrees of Separation for Developing Plots. The linking of two disparate plot ideas in the same way it is possible to connect Kevin Bacon with any other human in the world. All one needs to do this is to sit down with a pal, set a bottle of booze on the table along with two shot glasses and get to work. Don't forget pen and paper to take notes; trust TG, you're going to need them.

Taichert asked several other questions that are of interest to TG and the readers of this blog:

What's the division of labor? “
Most of our joint work is at the front end. We'll meet together regularly over the course of several weeks to kick around plot ideas and then hash out an outline. Once that is set, then I'll go off and do the bulk of the actual writing, with my father editing along the way. I would say the challenges of working together are few, beyond the normal struggles of writing a book. It's a real pleasure picking the brains of my father, however, as his creativity seems to have no bounds.

What do you think are the essential elements of good storytelling? “
I might say that the three C's of Character, Conflict, and Compulsion are at the heart of any good story. Writing action adventure tales, we don't necessarily delve too deeply into the psyche of the characters, but it's always important that the reader can empathize with one or more of the main figures. Some measure of action is required, typically driven by a conflict or odyssey of some sort that leads the characters forward, either physically or mentally. And it all must be done in a compelling manner that keeps the reader turning the pages, be it by mood, dialogue, style elements, or the conflict or action itself.”

Add Dirk's Three C's to TG's Four B's and you've got the basic formulae for developing a winning thriller. Now just make sure you're reading what others are writing so you don't bore TG with shopworn retreads. Oops, TG has run out of space once again.

Next: Those three new interesting plots that TG keeps promising.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Old Plots, New Plots

This turned out to be a long entry so Thriller Guy is going to break it up into two. He'll be putting the other half up in a few days.

TG has spoken many times about the difficulties in coming up with great plot ideas. Oh, how many times have the Little Ones gathered at his knee and pleaded, (pled?) “Oh, TG, tell us your secret, how can we too come up with killer plot ideas?” Constant readers of TG's thoughts know that he is a big fan of Gin when it comes this question, and he ascribes to the Four Bs of Creative Cognition – that's Bed, Bath, Beach and Bus – which are great places for ideas to suddenly spring into one's head. Don't forget to keep that notebook somewhere close so when brilliance strikes in the middle of the night you can get up and write your brainstorms down. If any of you pros out there would like to share your secrets vis-a-vis plot concoction, send them in and Thriller Guy will post them for the edification of us all.

TG reads a ton of books, and most of them are running through the same old plots, mash-ups and ripoffs. As he pointed out in last week's entry, he is heartily sick of Da Vinci Code imitators and all their secret codes and other paraphernalia. TG understands that there is a solid core of readers who love this sub genre and he is happy to point them to the best (and warn them away from the worst) of this material, because that's TG's job, but personally, he's mighty tired of these books. Most of the military adventure genre are still cranking out copies of Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, although the spy books are being refreshed by a new bunch of British writers who are using terrific writing to reestablish themselves as the heirs to not only le Carre (though le Carre is still writing beautifully) but all the other classic espionage guys.

But instead of continuing to rail against the paucity of today's plots, TG is going to reprise an old plot and give you some new ones he likes over the last year's reading.

Clive Cussler used to be the master of the over-the-top, bizarro plot. He's still cranking them out (plots, that is) but back in the day when he was probably still actually writing his own books he really stretched the limits of credulity, even when most readers are/were happy to suspend their disbelief. Take for example, the plot of Cussler's 1992 Sahara. Click here if you really want a long Wikipedia dissection of this complicated plot, but let TG summarize...

It's 1865 and the Confederate ship CSS Texas takes on a special prisoner and fights her way out through a Union blockade. Flash forward to 1931 when Kitty Mannock is flying over the Sahara in an attempt to set a new aviation record. She crashes into the dessert and records in her diary finding an “odd ship in the sand.” Enter Cussler hero Dirk Pitt (still going strong today) who is in Egypt searching for the source of a strange pollutant that is causing an overgrowth of red tide that, dare we say it, threatens the existence of the world. Much mayhem ensues as Dirk is taken captive, escapes, taken captive again, escapes again, builds a wind powered sand yacht out of pieces of Mannock's airplane, then...

OK, TG is too tired to go on. Suffice it to say that it turns out that Abraham Lincoln is the prisoner on the CSS Texas and he and the ship itself have ended up in the desert. That guy who got shot in Ford's Theatre? That was an actor who was hired by Edwin M. Stanton.

The point is, it's one hell of a plot. It must taken a serious amount of gin to come up with it. Crazy? Lincoln captured by the south and the ship carrying him away ends up in the Sahara desert? Totally whacky. But Cussler pulls it off because he's not afraid to plunge ahead in the face of believability through sheer balls and a story that refuses to slow down. Could you pull off like this today? Hard to say. Maybe. TG is happy to read what you come up with.

Next up: More about Cussler and his son and co-writer Dirk Cussler (yes, he named his kid after his series hero) and three new plots TG thinks are pretty cool.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Comments and Conundrums

OK, Thriller Guy needs to discuss some of the comments that have come in over the last few entries since he can't convince most readers to actually click on the comments button. TG made the point in the last entry that he is getting mighty sick of the same old plots, characters -- both heroic and evil – situations, geographic venues and motivations, again, both heroic and evil. Syd, from over at Scene of the Crime, comments “Problem here is lack of contact with your product area; if readers don't read a lot, they don't know they're being a copycat.” My point exactly, Syd, except I think you meant to write "writers" rather than "readers." I find this to be particularly true of our European cousins across the pond who produce thrillers that are pale imitations of American books that came out years before theirs. TG always advises that anyone who writes thrillers should read deeply in the genre if they are not intimately familiar with those who have gone before. The International Thriller Writers have a good book titled Thrillers: 100 Must Reads that anyone wanting to work the genre should study, and yes, they should read all 100 thrillers recommended therein. Patrick Anderson, the Thriller reviewer for the Washington Post has an excellent book, The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction that gives a solid history of the backlist with many examples that should be read. It would seem that anyone with a modicum of intelligence would understand that this sort of research would be just as important as making sure you get the caliber of the weapon correct, but TG has to say that this is, sadly, not the case. And, in fact, he's going to go out on a limb here (one of his favorite places to be) and say that it seems like these European writers seem to take a particular satisfaction in being uninformed. That they somehow feel as if they are so good they don't need to bother with what the provincials have done. Not the British writers, but those on the continent. So keep it up, fellows, and you'll keep on receiving those reviews from TG that point out your utter lack of originality.
On this same topic, Anonymous comments on this entry as well: “The bigger question is: why do publishers pay authors to write this stuff? We know that good writing seems to pass the publishers by – is the “sameness” and “familiarity” you describe required to sell a book these days? Are there any publishers reading your blog who'd care to comment?” Anyone who's been in this business very long quickly notes that most publishers are terrified to try something new and vastly prefer to crank out copies of a winning formula. The Day of the Jackal, The Silence of the Lambs and The Da Vinci Code are just three examples of books that spawned sub genres that are still selling strong today. Publishers and movie folk still like to hear their pitches refer to these sorts of progenitors, as in...”You're going to love this C.J. the show's a cross between The Da Vinci Code and Glee.” They love it because the examples are known even to them as popular hits that have made money. And making money is what they're all about. So, Anonymous, to answer your question, yes, familiarity can be a big factor in selling a book these days. Always remember that most publishers are craven, greedy corporate whores who are interested only in their bottom line. Not all of them, but most of the big ones. Though even in the big ones TG has worked with many decent, courageous editors and others who struggle against the machine to put out good, original books. Lucky is the hard-working writer who has found his or her way to one of these angels. But for the most part, they are no longer interested in a quality product, only how much money they can make. And you know what? They're probably right. TG has read many a book that is so bad that he would be ashamed to have his name anywhere near it, and these same books shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. Why? Thats a subject for another blog.
Any of you publishing professionals out there who want to take TG up on this? We'd love to hear your side.
Time for one more comment: Joel writes: “You ever think, perhaps, that you are reading too much of other people's crap and it's wreaking havoc with your own creative process?” Curiously, Joel, I don't think that is the case. The problem is that I read so much of other people's crap it discourages me to the point of giving it all up. But we've already been through that, haven't we?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pink Mist and Burritos

In Thriller Guy's last entry he asked for readers to supply some alternative to the tired cliché used to describe someone who has just been head shot: “His head disappeared into a pink mist.” How about this from a novel TG recently reviewed: “She saw his head explode like a burrito in a microwave.” A little over the top, and probably not true, but TG kinda likes it. Later on in the same book the author gives us: “His head exploded as if touched by the hand of God.” Nice. Unfortunately, the rest of the book was just rehashed thriller tropes. TG hates to say it, but he is really getting sick of reading novels that are just more the same: head shots, females in peril, the hero's family is always killed so he first quits the life, retires to a shack on the beach and lets his beard grow until he is coaxed back into service to avenge his loved ones and save America. The villains are always the same -- Arab terrorists attempting to restore the Caliphate, their families (brother, mother, father) have been killed years earlier by the Crusaders; evil industrialists who feel that America is headed down the wrong path and can only be saved by their ultra-conservative agenda, suitcase nukes (in reality the half life in these Russian bombs has run out and they are now longer workable), various bio weapons, suicide bombers, blah blah blah blah. It makes TG tired to even write such a list, which could go on and on.

Yes, it's tough coming up with an original plot. TG has faced this problem himself and recommends to those flailing about for an original premiss to just say no to writing anything until you come up with something new. If your book never gets written, then that's a plus; one more unoriginal thriller that TG doesn't have to slog through. One more bad review that TG doesn't have to write. Anyone who thinks that reviewers like to write bad reviews, that it's “fun” are sadly mistaken. Bad books are difficult to read, the pages seem endless, and saying they are bad in print always feels as if one were trampling on some writer's dreams and children. And then there is the feeling one experiences when one has, sadly, tried to warn readers away from a book only to see it rocket to the top of the best seller list. This is not in any way a new phenomena – bad books selling millions of copies – but it doesn't ever get easier to take by those who enjoy well-written books and who are paid to help others of like mind find these books and warn them away from the stinkers.

Which is why TG always tries to simply describe a book so that those who like a particular sort of book can be alerted to when one comes along. But it is a reviewer's duty, usually in the first line or two, to say whether a writer has succeeded or failed. TG tries to be helpful with his criticism; TG tries to not rub it in. But... A recent book under review featured a villain who at one point is trying to get a woman to tell him something. He tortures her for awhile. When that doesn't work (the woman doesn't know anything to tell) he pokes out the eyes of the woman's eleven year old daughter while the woman watches. Really, does anyone really need to read this sort of thing? Does this sort of heinous behavior make a reader say to himself, gee, that's really cool, this man is really bad. I love this book. But does TG's personal repugnance at this sort of overkill (pun intended) allow him to let these feelings color his review? No, it does not, but fortunately those authors who go to those lengths almost always fail in many other ways, thus garnering a poor review in any case. Yes, TG knows he has railed about this before, but it never seems to go away. Thoughts?

This weeks Gunfire Hall of Shame: “The hailstorm of automatic weapon fire that slammed into his body sent him dancing off the floor like a marionette.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

TG Returns

Thriller Guy is back in harness after his week at the beach with the Squatting Toad, his writer's group. He found, once again, that he's not very good at introspection: sitting on the beach, gazing out at the endless waves, pondering his future. Boring. So TG would like to thank all the commenters who wrote to tell him to just shut his cake hole, quit whining and get back to work. Point well taken. TG promises no more of this sort of self indulgence.

So, the first order of business is to warn thriller writers that if they continue to use the cliché, “Time to get out of Dodge” he will be forced to eviscerate their puny novels with such lashing invective that the howls of pain and rending of garments will be heard throughout the length and breadth of the land. The last two thrillers TG read contained that hoary old line, as have many, many others of the the last several years. Ditto: “His/her head erupted in a burst of pink mist.” Can we not come up with another way to say this? TG doesn't believe it anyway; any readers out there ever witness such a phenomena when someone is hit in the head by a bullet? And while TG's at it, he is heartily sick of any variation of the old, “If I tell you I'll have to kill you” joke, even when uttered sarcastically. Enough.

Which brings TG to the subject of wisecracking heroes in general, and those who are not funny in particular. Some authors, you can tell when reading their books, find their own attempts at this sort of banter absolutely hilarious. The rugged hero jests back and forth with his underling buddy, accusing each other of various sorts of masculine deficiencies, commenting on a woman's obvious attributes, cracking wise under fire. The results are often painfully unfunny. TG is, and he knows this is difficult to believe, unable to come up with a fix for this problem. Obviously, the writer's friends, family and editors are all either moronic enough to think that the snappy repartee is actually funny, or afraid to offend his/her writerly feelings by suggesting they either come up with better material or just cut out the humor altogether. Which is what TG suggests; if you don't really have solid evidence that you are in fact actually funny, just resist the urge to josh and stick to coming up with thrills.

The same can be said with authors intent on clever dialogue between a hero and his love interest. Before accusing TG of rampant sexism for use of the word “his,” be advised that thrillers featuring a female hero with a male in the buddy/love interest role are virtually non-existent. TG invites any suggestions where this is the scenario. An exception to this rule is last September's Spartan Gold by Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood. This new series features Sam and Remi Fargo who are treasure hunters who stumble upon a WWII Nazi mini-sub which leads them, eventually, to two solid gold Persian columns previously discovered by Napoleon and hidden in the Alps in 1800. The plot is the usual Cussler mind-bending stretch, but Blackwood (TG is guessing here, but after reading a zillion Cussler books he doesn't think Mr. C. is supplying much more than an outline or even just a story idea these days) is the pen behind the witty dialogue between this married couple. Both Sam and Remi are pretty much equal and both are cool under fire and dash into various frays side by side. TG is looking forward to the next adventure featuring this likable duo.

So there you have it. TG hopes one and all will forget his last dip into the well of self pity as an aberration brought on by the loss of a giant book contract that would have changed his life forever. And someday TG is going to tell that story; it's a real doozy.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Could This Be the End of TG?

TG just finished a military thriller/mystery that he liked quite a bit. He can't share much about it until the review runs, but it was by an old pro who also writes a lot of non-fiction. The man has a nice style. Here's how one of the chapters begins. (A group of Army men and women are on the beach at night in Mexico. Is there any scenario more fraught with the possibility of danger?)

“Our fire had gone out. A crescent moon barely shown, but starlight paled the beach. The sea rasped. You could feel the hot weather coming by the lingering warmth in the sand. Jerry passed the bottle of tequila.”

The coming hot weather, that bottle of just know that something bad is going to happen. And it does.

Next week TG is headed out to his annual Beach Week with his fellow members of the Squatting Toad Writers Group, who have been mentioned in these pages before. It will surely be the usual bacchanal: writing, arguing, drinking, staggering along the beach at night (cue the bottle of Tequila) watching an entire season of Dexter over six days. But it is also a time of reflection, a time when the aging TG sits on the porch, smokes a few cigars and thinks over his years in the publishing business and ponders that eternal question: “When the hell is it ever going to pay off?” It hasn't so far.

Sure, TG's life sounds glamorous: reading free books day after day; penning quick, biting reviews that can break or make a fellow writer's career; interviewing famous thriller masters -- oh how we laugh and joke -- drinking heavily to ensure a steady flow of ideas (see earlier blog entry on the place of alcohol in the profession); astounding Mrs. Thriller Guy with his clever observations and profundities. And being paid, albeit poorly, for all of the above fun. Yes, it's a heady existence. But, and TG hates to say this, it's beginning to pall.

Truth be told, the publishing business has been in, as TG has mentioned before, a terrible slump. Two of TG's novels, a long one and a short one, remain unsold even though his tireless agent continues to send them out. (Don't forget, Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before some publisher had the glimmer of intelligence it took to take it on.) And recently TG lost a celebrity ghost writing deal that fell apart at the end because of perfidy on the part of the celebrity, unseemly behavior by a pair of agents, words shouted in anger where TG was pronounced, “Not only a terrible writer, but The Worst Writer in the World!” Surely that can't be correct, can it? And the amount of money that eventually went to some other writer (good luck to you, pal, whoever you are) was simply staggering. Yes, TG has had many such deals such as this collapse under him before. But this one was different, somehow; it had the ring of finality. The sound. as one of my writer friends once put it, of the slap of a shovel on the earth of a newly dug grave. See, now TG is so upset he's gone and mixed his metaphors.

SO TG is going to think about it. Maybe he's spent enough time in this scribbling life. Maybe it's time to wash the stench of ink stained words from his arthritic hands. (God, this man can Really Write.) Let's try out the words to see how they might sound.

I quit.

TG will let you know what he decides.

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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Appel Here...

Thriller Guy is still on “vacation.” A recent rather cryptic note from him refers to some very inhospitable conditions and indicates that he isn't sure when he will be back in mufti, sitting at his desk reviewing fictional derring do. Our best wishes go to TG and our hopes for a speedy, and more importantly, a safe return.

Continuing my fact-finding research to Custer's Last Stand on a lighter note...

After returning from the battlefield, I had a night to kill before flying out of Bozeman the next day. I decided to drive around, check out Bozeman and have dinner. It being a Sunday night, the town was dead, though I cannot attest to the fact that it might be just as dead on any other night. The only action I saw was a group of teenagers in an empty mall parking lot who appeared to be kicking and beating a victim who was on the ground. A closer drive-by showed that rather than kicking someone to death, they were playing a game of hacky-sack. In my defense, I can only say that the same group of kids in my neighborhood right outside Washington, DC would most assuredly have been up to no good.

There were few places open for dinner, so I was happy to come across a Japanese restaurant whose name I no longer remember. This was in 1987, well before there were sushi joints in every town in America, so I was curious how this restaurant ended up in a small town in the wild west.

I went in and found no other customers, only a young Japanese girl who was working on what appeared to be her homework on one of the empty tables. With a big smile, she escorted me to a table and handed me a menue. Her greeting was a jumble of English that was unintelligible, but decidedly enthusiastic. The menue, and the restaurant itself, proved to be pretty generic Japanese, which was fine with me. I went for the sushi and one of those Japanese iceberg lettuce salads with the strange orange dressing. Dinner was fine, unremarkable except for the older man and woman who while obviously making my dinner kept peeking out of the kitchen at me. The daughter, for that's who I decided she was, hovered close, making sure my every need was met. It was all slightly weird and a bit uncomfortable as no one else ever came in.

After indicating that I was finished, I asked for the bill. At which point the older Japanese couple, dressed in what looked to me to be standard Japanese garb, marched out of the kitchen bearing an unordered dish, which was placed reverently on the table in front of me, with much smiling, bowing and clasping of hands. The older gentleman said, in extremely broken English what sounded to me like, “Special for you, Cowboy.” I couldn't help laughing at this because while Thriller Guy could easily pass for a rough rider, I am more the small, intellectual type who looks totally ridiculous in a cowboy hat. But I appreciated the sentiment.

The dish consisted of two iceberg lettuce leaves, on which were two mysterious globs of something; pale white, sort of jiggly, totally beyond my ken. I decided the lettuce was part of the dish, so I rolled each around the glob and ate it. Not bad. Luke warm, kind of squishy with an odd taste which I could not identify. The three Japanese, formed up in a line at the end of my table, watched my consumption with a sort of bated astonishment. When I finished off the leaf and its mysterious filling, they all clapped their hands, smiling and chattering among themselves and bowing in my direction.

“Very good,” I said. “What exactly was it?” not really expecting to understand.

They looked back and forth for someone to come forth who could actually speak English; when no one appeared, the older lady said, “Tess-teek-a.” I acted like I understod while she repeated it a few more times. I smiled, bowed to everyone, paid my bill and drove back to my motel. Yes, you've probably figured it out by now, but it took me a few minutes to work it out.

Test-teek-a. Test-teek-a. Testicle.

I know that are plenty of people who have had them deep fried or cooked in some manner, but I'll bet there are damn few of you out there who have had them sashimi style. I'm pretty sure I'd never order them on purpose, but the entire experience felt right, like I had held up the honor of America.

Special for you, Cowboy, indeed.