Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Thriller Procedural

Thriller Guy is in the midst of a real time crunch so he’s going to institute a series of blogs where he deals with a few short ideas in the same entry rather than going in-depth all the time. Though if you add them up, TG supposes, it will take just as long as it would to do the in-depth discussions. So will TG be saving any time? See, it’s wasting time thinking about questions like this that eat into TG’s writing quota, so let’s just move along here.

A couple of weeks ago, TG was reviewing a book and came up with a brand new Thriller genre: The Thriller Procedural. This is obviously a takeoff of the well-known mystery genre, the Police Procedural. The idea in the police version is pretty simple: a crime has been committed and the reader/TV, movie viewer, watches a police department, usually under one or several detectives, as they go about the procedure of investigating that one or several crimes. Examples would be the novels of Ed McBain, George Simenon, Tony Hillerman, and perhaps the greatest of them all (at least in dealing with the police element,) Joseph Wambaugh. (Sidebar from Wikipedia: In 1956, in his regular New York Times column, mystery critic, Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase "police procedural.")

So TG was contemplating the book he was reading, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center: Out of the Ashes, (which he liked) and he realized that with this re-boot of Clancy’s ten-year-old Op-Center series, he was seeing a clear example of the police procedural transposed into the thriller genre. In Op-Center, a terrorist event has occurred and the President of the US tasks a retired four star Admiral with re-establishing a now-mothballed unit, the Op-Center, to hunt down the perpetrators and remain a shadowy existence to persue other terrorists in the future. (And thus reinvigorate an old series into a new moneymaker.) The reader gets to sit at the Admiral’s elbow and watch as he goes about setting up the infrastructure of the unit and the staffing and development of all the various components that will make up the whole. And after he gets his organization built and wound up, the Admiral turns it on and we watch as the members preform their jobs until the mission is successful. There were several other books TG reviewed around the same time that added to this Thriller Procedural notion. Most of the many series in which the term SEAL Team Six is in the titles, or Delta Force or other permutations of Special Forces branches, follow a structural mode that could easily be procedural: terrorist event occurs; secret unit is assigned the job of hunting down the perps; warriors execute the mission with a minimum of twists and referencing the private lives of the characters; conclude the operation in a successful manner; prepare for the next mission. Terrorist Procedural.

Thought for the day, from Lauren Weisberger, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada.
"It's all about setting aside just a little time to write each week. ... Figure out what works and make it completely non-negotiable."

TG has repeated this advice many times, and would add the warning: it’s making it non-negotiable that’s the difficult part. If a writer has not had success, (and success is defined by most non-writers as having had a book or other writing published and/or having made money from the work), his writing time is often seen by family members and friends as a waste of time. Oh, everyone encourages the effort early on, but as time goes by the supporters begin to fade away and some of them actually become antagonistic about what they see as a waste of time. This is where it gets tough for the writer. Thick skin is necessary and anger should be put aside as counter-productive. Until someone tries writing over an extended period, they’re never going to understand the will and self-control it takes.

Remember TG’s mantra: Sit down, Shut up, Get to work. And do not become discouraged, my children, the work can be its own reward. (How thin and pale this shopworn bromide can become over time. But it is still true.)

And with today’s great self-publishing industry, if you finish what you set out to do, you can put it up on the Internet, publish it on paper, and stick it into the faces of the nay-sayers. “See,” you can say. “I did it.”

And Thriller Guy gives you permission to add, to yourself, “No thanks to you.” 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

To Reveal, or Not Reveal.

Thriller Guy has a writer pal who just got dinged in a review of his latest novel in Publisher’s Weekly. He’s well established, so it isn’t going to hurt him in any significant way, but still, any negative words cause a certain amount of pain. It’s an overall positive review, then kind of out of nowhere at the end the reviewer calls the author to task for revealing that the evildoer in this case was someone who everyone would guess before they got to the official reveal. Actually, TG saw a draft of this book before it went off to the publisher, and he was pretty sure the antagonist would have not been so easily guessed. Perhaps the reviewer is particularly astute, or perhaps he wasn’t particularly sold on the revelation. TG has his own pet peeve about reveals, which he calls the “suspect of least plausibility.” Yeah, kind of a clunky term, but what it means is when you’re reading a mystery and trying to figure out who did the crime you pick the one person who seems least likely to have done it. The librarian, maybe, or the kindly old cook. And when this guess turns out to be true, TG is annoyed. As a writer, he understands that it’s difficult to come up with a perfect reveal, and in many cases the writer isn’t even sure himself who the guilty party is going to be when he starts in on writing a book, but still, Least Likely is a lazy writer’s way of solving what can be an exceptionally thorny problem, one that takes a lot of concentrated brainpower to get exactly right.

TG allows that he’s OK at guessing perpetrators, though not nearly as expert as his wife (MTG) who is great at this and always figures out who the killer is, either in a movie or a book. And when he applies his Least Likely theory and is proven correct, the temptation to say so in a review is almost unbearable. Sometimes it’s relevant, after all, twisting plots are designed, at least in mysteries, to keep the reader guessing, which, again in mysteries, is a big part of the fun. So if it’s too easy, it’s not as much fun. And it’s legitimate to point this out.

 But TG reviews mostly in the thriller genre, which throws another element into the equation.

Let us go back for a moment to TG’s definition of the differences between a mystery novel and a thriller. Veterans of this blog may remember many scintillating discussions of this over the last years, but for the moment we’ll pretend that newcomers here haven’t already read these riveting entries.

Mystery is when you have a crime and the reader watches as the “detective” (or whomever) figures out who committed the crime. Thriller is when there is going to be a crime, and the reader watches as the “detective” (or whomever) goes about thwarting the commission of that crime. What TG’s friend did, was to write in the thriller genre and at the same time include the mystery element of not divulging who the perpetrator was until the very end. This is not necessary to the genre, and in the end, at least in this case, was counter-productive. He could have identified who the perp was in the beginning and then allowed the reader to watch how the hero went about thwarting this fellow and it would have been enough. Did the hiding of the perp’s identity add enough juice to the plot to justify it? In this case, since the PW reviewer dinged him for it, probably not. But this brings up a side element that TG himself struggles with as a critic.

TG has reviewed more than 750 thrillers. Well, mostly thrillers, some of the reviews in the early days were mysteries with a few other genres thrown in. The point is, TG has become pretty damn good at figuring out perpetrators. And would assume that whomever the reviewer who dinged his pal was, as a professional reviewer, he/she is also pretty good at figuring these things out. As such, should this reviewer then use his special, knowledge and expertise gained from years of professional reading that “regular” readers may not possess, to criticize an author? After all, who does a writer write for? Critics? Well, maybe a bit, but one’s work should be aimed at readers who pick up a novel for pleasure, not because someone is paying them to read it. TG doesn’t have an answer for this, other than to say that he no longer mentions it in a review when he figures out a mystery long before the Big Reveal comes, unless it’s so egregious that it must be mentioned.

What’s the takeaway here? TG suggests that thriller writers should adhere to the general TG-supplied-thriller-formula and not bother to hide the identity of the perpetrator. That the dynamic of having the reader know the identity of the evildoer, and the difficulties of the hero not knowing, makes for more reader fun than trying to fool both the reader and the hero. And this is not to forget those thrillers where the writer makes clear who the perpetrator is to both the reader and the hero, but just not how to stop him.

TG spent some time trying to come up with examples of each of these various scenarios, and while it was easy to come up with those books where the evildoer is identified from the beginning – Silence of the Lambs, James Bond and others, he couldn’t readily come up with examples of where the villain isn‘t revealed until the very end. Perhaps this speaks more to TG’s martini consumption while he pounds out these blogs than to his normal state of intelligence, but perhaps TG’s astute readers might weigh in here with some examples of their own.

When you’re planning your next thriller, make sure you incorporate this into your considerations. If you’re in the middle of the writing, make sure you fulfill all the demands of whichever way you’ve decided to go. If you’ve finished your book and you’ve gone with the Big Reveal, pray to whatever publishing Gods there be that you’ve made it so perfect, and so astonishing that no one could have guessed it beforehand. And when you do reveal it, the reader (and the critic) will feel that you’ve got it exactly, wonderfully, right.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bill Adler, My Friend

The Reaper has hit Thriller guy pretty hard recently. Two friends and mentors have left our earthly
plane, and the world is a poorer place for it.

Bill Adler Sr. died a few weeks ago. He has a son who lives in Washington, DC who is a friend and is also named Bill Adler, (Jr.) so we called them, of course, Big Bill and Little Bill. I met Big Bill when Little Bill recommended me for a writing job. For the purposes of this blog, unless otherwise indicated, Bill will be referring to Bill Senior.

Bill is, was, what is known now as a book packager. He would think up an idea and then call one of the many writers he knew and hire them to write a proposal. He would then call around to his many contacts in the publishing industry and see who was interested, go have lunch with them and if he made the sale, the deal was signed with a handshake. The writer was then contacted, told what the money was going to be for the completed book and if you agreed, you got the green light. The check would show up when you started work and/or when you turned in the book. No one ever signed anything, and no one ever got stiffed.

TG believes Bill has more titles in his name than any author in the US. (TG just checked Amazon. Bill has 1,565 results. Some of these were written by his son, but you get the point.) Of these books, he wrote maybe 2%. If that. The rest were penned as work for hire by a long list of writers whose names never appear anywhere on or in the books. Bill became particularly prominent in the early 80’s when he “wrote” a book with Thomas Chastain (who wrote popular historical novels) called Who Killed the
Robbins Family. They, Bill and Chastain, offered $10,000 to the person or persons who could solve the murder mystery related in the book. It was a terrible book, badly written, poorly plotted and blindingly confusing, but they made millions of dollars with it. Bill went on to milk the idea in an amazing number of sequels. Before The Robbins Family he had an early hit with Kids Letters to President Kennedy, which he put together in the early 60s. Here’s the way he told the story of this book to me. Imagine the lack of security in the White House in those days. Bill had a great, raconteur’s way of speaking, so picture your garrulous old uncle smoking a cigar and telling you a story. “So what I did, Al, was I sat down and called the White House. They had a number in the phone book! Guess who answered the phone? Pierre Salinger! I asked him if I could come down and read any mail that Kennedy had received from kids, and he said sure. I hopped on a train and was there the same afternoon. They gave me a couple of big boxes of mail and a table to sit at. I read for hours and took notes. Towards evening, pretty much everyone went home, so they told me when I was finished to just turn out the lights on my way out.” After that book was a hit, he followed it up with Kids Letters to Santa Clause, Smokey Bear, Obama and a bunch of others. Every one of them made money.

He was also an agent, and some of his clients were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Howard Cosell, Mike Wallace, Ralph Nader, Bob Dole and many others. He got in trouble with Nancy Reagan when a bio of the Reagans he had hired to have ghosted included the fact that their son might be gay. Of course she didn’t know Bill had probably never read the manuscript before it was published (he told me quite proudly that he had never read any of the books that were published under his name.) Nancy didn’t speak to him for many years after that.

TG can’t remember what the first book was that he signed on to do. Somewhere around here TG has a hefty file stuffed full of Big Bill projects. Bill would call at all hours of the day or night. The phone would ring at three AM in the morning, TG’s wife would answer it, roll over and hand it to TG saying, “It’s Big Bill.” She’d roll back and go back to sleep. There was no putting him off, so TG would get up, put his robe on and go to his desk and take notes as brilliant sparks flew off Bill’s brain. Next day TG would go to work on the idea. As often as not, Bill would forget he’d even assigned TG the project, sometimes mixing him up with TG’s writer pal Larry (oft mentioned here in this blog) who also did books for Bill.

TG edited a bunch of books under other people’s names for Bill. There was a memoir about growing up in Baltimore during the Second World War, supposedly by a famous newscaster, or at least he was famous years ago. There was a feminist treatise by, again supposedly, the daughter of a famous entertainment journalist. This resulted in a funny story.

Bill was trying to fire up yet one more iteration of the “Who Killed the Robbins Family” franchise, this time using the Internet to base all the clues and offering $200,000 as the prize. TG roped his writer pal Dan in on this one, because Dan’s smart and he could use the money as much as TG. We took the train to New York to pitch the idea to a guy who was the new chief editor of HarperCollins. This guy was really full of himself.  We were sitting in his office, TG, Dan and Big Bill, with the hot-shot editor and a bunch of his people, establishing our bona fides, and the editor asked TG who he had ghosted for in the past. TG told him a good ghost never gives up his clients, but said he had written a book for a prominent feminist titled, XXXXXXXX. (Sorry TG can’t tell you the title. Remember, a good ghost never tells.) The editor went deathly pale, stood up, turned red and shouted, “You’re telling me that (Insertnameofprominentfeminist) didn’t write that book? I published that book!” He turned to his longtime faithful assistant and said, “Did you know this? Did you know this!!!” She turned deathly pale and insisted she had no idea. All this time, Big Bill is sitting there behind me, laughing, because he’s the one who sold the feminist book to the guy in the first place!

 We were back out on the street in a couple of minutes, having had our proposal pretty much shot down. Big Bill then took us to lunch at the legendary Friars Club where we drank Bloody Marys for a couple of hours and listened to Bill’s funny publishing stories. It remains one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

Most of the time Bill would pay TG to write a few chapters and an extensive outline for whatever fiction project he had dreamed up. Then he’d try to peddle the book. Sometime these books would sell, and TG would write them and they would never get published for many screwy reasons. TG wrote one about a sitting President who gets Alzheimer’s. (Bill got Sandra Day O’Conner to write a letter attached to that one recommending it. He convinced Reagan’s son and both Nixon daughters to submit letters of recommendation as well.) TG and his son, Little TG, wrote another one that was a mystery involving Jackie Gleason back in Miami during the Bay of Pigs days that was to have been written by Larry King. It was actually pretty good. That one was being handled by the William Morris agency and after we turned it in some sort of shit hit the fan (Bill never told TG what happened, but someone was pissed off about something TG had written.) The agent who was handling the book declared TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, “The worst writer in the world,” and they got someone else to do the story and paid them $250,000 for it. Which was, as TG’s son put it, “The most money we’ve never made for writing a novel.” As far as TG knows, that one, by the other guys, was never published either.

As noted above, the Big Bill file is fat, and most of the projects fell through at one point or another, but TG made some money on some of them and doesn’t regret a minute of the time devoted to these projects. Big Bill was an original guy, really sui generis, and TG is very sorry he’s gone. There was an obit in the Times (NY) last week.

Old age hit Bill pretty hard, and his last years were vastly different from when he was working on all 18 cylinders. They took away his cell phone, which he had never really mastered anyway, and the phone calls stopped.

TG misses those middle-of-the-night phone calls, his brilliant mind, his great stories and his always hopeful, indomitable spirit. Once again, the world is a poorer place for his leaving it. We will not see his like again.

Rest in Peace, Bill.