Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From 7th Century Irish Monks to Fifty Shades of Grey

Thriller Guy’s sermon, lecture, rant of the day sprang (sprang?) from a remark by one of his readers, and after research -- too much research -- splintered into a number of blogs that began to circle on TG’s computer screen. Eventually, after a journey through 20 or so centuries, we end up home. So buckle your seatbelts and put on your thinking caps, you’re in for a bumpy read.

Blog reader and writer pal Mark sent TG this suggestion in an email.  “I have been wondering about whether mathematicians still write their formulas on chalkboards or greaseboards. I have a scene in my novel with dueling mathematicians and needed to know. Turns out they mostly do it on computers these days, but some old school types still like the smell of chalk dust. Anyway, it begs the question, how do writers stay ahead of technology in today's world, where today's new feature is old news next week. Tell us, oh Thriller Guy, what's a diligent author to do in this golden age of discovery?” For some reason this sent TG’s mind into the world of technology and how these days we usually consider that word in terms of computers, iPhones, stealth airplanes, advanced medical procedures, electric cars, self driving vehicles, etc. etc. Machines, in other words. But TG began thinking of the technology of deep time, i.e. the invention of copper allowing ancient Egyptians the technology to make saws that could cut giant blocks of stone, which could then be piled up into pyramids, and other ancient technologies which were modern and cutting edge for their time. But not necessarily machines or physical objects. Technology that springs directly from the intellect. For example…

Blog Number One. Around the year 370 A.D. Augustine of Hippo, who was not yet a
St. Augustine
St. Ambrose
Christian nor a saint but a famous philosopher, had gone to see Aurelius Ambrosius, who was later to become a saint himself, Ambrose, in Milan. Ambrose was very famous, and it was the custom to allow people to come into the rooms of the famous and stand and watch them as they went about their business. The rule was you couldn’t speak or in any way interrupt these great minds while they were at work. So there’s Augustine, standing in a small crowd of people, watching Ambrose reading a book. After a few minutes it came as a shocking revelation to Augustine that Ambrose was not only reading his book in complete silence, he wasn’t even moving his lips!  Augustine would write about this at a later date, saying, “Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.” What struck TG as amazing was the realization that silent reading was an “invention,” that Ambrose was seeing something he had never seen before and until this time did not exist. Up until then, everyone read out loud. (For a number of reasons that TG will get to.) So silent reading itself was a kind of “technology,” an invention. But before TG could write about this, he needed to do some research to get his dates and other facts correct, which led to…

Blog Number Two: research, and the dangers, pleasures and profits of submerging oneself into the warm, distracting intellectual pools of the Internet and its wonders. TG is intimitaly familiar with this danger, or at least his alter ego Allen Appel is. Appel is, among other things, an historical novelist. (See and buy his Pastmaster time travel series here. You’ll be glad you did.) Historical novelists spend huge swaths of time on the Internet looking stuff up. Imagine the face of a clock in an old movie as the hands circle the clock face indicating hours flying by by as TG starts out to look up a few simple dates and along the way wastes an entire day
Lincoln's boots
on this blog post instead of reading the books he is paid to read or writing the book he has pledged to write. And it is always thus: when writing a novel you stop to look up the size of Lincoln’s boot and surface back to reality  hours later, dazed, but now knowing everything from the invention of shoes to the amazing modern day technology -- there’s that word again -- of the shoemaking industry. (For the record, Lincoln wore a size 14.)

Back to Augustine and Ambrose. Some interesting facts, because there are always interesting facts; who can resist them?

Ambrose: There is a legend that as an infant a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology. He is alleged to have founded an institution for virgins in Rome. Because he refused to be drawn into a conflict over which particular church had the right liturgical form, he said, "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are." Which has come down to us as the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Augustine. From Wikipedia: “As a youth Augustine lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, associating with young men who boasted of their sexual exploits with women and men. They urged the inexperienced boys, like Augustine, to seek experience or to make up stories about their experiences in order to gain acceptance. It was during this period that he uttered his famous prayer, ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’ At about the age of 19, Augustine began an affair with a young woman in Carthage. Possibly because his mother wanted him to marry a person of his class, the woman remained his lover for over thirteen years and gave birth to his son Adeodatus who was viewed as extremely intelligent by his contemporaries. In 385, Augustine abandoned his lover in order to prepare himself to marry an heiress.” His conversion to Christianity was prompted by a childlike voice he heard telling him to "take up and read" (Latin: tolle, lege), which he took as a divine command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw. Which was, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” So that was the end of Augustine’s life of concubines and lechery. His feast day is August 28, the day on which he died. He is considered the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians, and sore eyes.

Back to Blog Number One, about technology. When reading about the invention of silent reading, I learned that until the 7th or 8th century all writing -- and by this I mean Latin writing -- there were nospacesbetweenthewords. Think about that. Because books were dictated aloud, the scribes, usually monks, wrote everything down in one long continuous line. (Scripto Continua.) Because when we speak there are no spaces between our words. And it was worse than that, they also didn’t use any punctuation and there was no upper and lower case. But it was the spacing between words thing that led me to…
Blog Number Three: Whereby Thriller Guy continues his rave against those writers who are still putting two spaces between sentences. This practice has often been said to stem from when writers wrote on typewriters, which use what is called a monofaced font. But in reality it goes back centuries before that in rules for typesetters who felt that the extra space between sentences made text more readable. This practice was adhered to until just after World War II when it was abandoned by typesetters, only to be continued by writers using typewriters. Now, in the computer age when spacing is no longer a problem, the only writers who do it are folks who refuse to change, showing that they are old both in years, and old in that they are resistant to change. Thriller Guy has been told that when an editor receives a manuscript where a writer does this, they almost always immediately reject it. So stop it! you idiots, because, as TG has written a number of times, (Blog Number Four) that writers have to perfect their manuscripts in all ways before sending them out. No matter how they may cry out in protest, TG feels that working editors in major publishing houses aren’t looking for great manuscripts to publish, they are looking for ways to reject those manuscripts that are sent to them. And if you show that you’re old fashioned and hard headed, your manuscript is going to get rejected by editors and agents alike. This also extends to those dopes who send TG manuscripts whereby they have decided not to use quotations marks to indicate dialogue, write in second person present tense, or do other foolish stunts because they think it makes them look cool.
It doesn’t.
Which takes me back in full circle to Blog Number One: spacing between words and the invention of silent reading. It turns out that separating the words was an invention of Irish scribes, for a number of reasons. (By doing so they could remember longer passages without having to refer back to the original text so often; because they were often monks sworn to a vow of silence so they couldn’t be muttering to themselves in the library where they were working, and others.) Eventually, the value of silent reading filtered down to the lay classes in a number of interesting ways. You could read books that advocated rebellion and overthrowing the king and not be heard plotting out loud, and finally it allowed and boosted the “circulation and consumption of pornography.” !!!
Thus proving, once again, that everything -- and TG means everything -- always comes back, somehow, to rest in the primal and exciting arms of pornography.
So let this be the lesson: Without spaces between words and those Irish monks who invented the concept, we would have had no Fifty Shades of Grey.
Go, my children, and may the message of Thriller Guy’s words lead you and guide you, forever and amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bastard Stepchild

Yo. Thriller Guy has a question: Why is the novella the bastard stepchild of the writing world? What is it about this not-so-short, not-too long, form that makes it so unattractive that even TG, or rather his alter ego Allen Appel, hardly ever buys or reads them? TG realizes that this is a question that approximately two or at the most three of his readers will find the slightest bit interesting, but that’s the thing about a blog, since you’re doing it for free you get to choose the subject.

Every once in a while you’ll see an article or blog post that announces that the novella isn’t dead, or that it’s making a comeback, and then in another couple of years there will be another article saying the same thing, which means that the form is pretty much dead if they have to keep announcing its resuscitation every couple of years.

TG used to think, and it was probably true, that the uncomfortable length made it difficult to market for traditional publishers. You know, the guys who printed stuff out in “books” and sold them in emporiums cleverly named “bookstores.” Let’s get technical, then TG will get back to ranting about something or other in a minute.

All professional writers who are working on a fiction project always know how many words they are “up to” at the end of every working day. Those that tell you they never pay attention to word count are lying sacks of shit posers who will also tell you how much fun they had cranking out their 2,000 words every day, whether they feel like it or not. TG has written many times -- probably far too many times -- about how difficult it is to be a professional novelist. (Note that no one ever describes themselves as a “professional novella-ist.”) So he will skip that whine, and point out that since there’s no everyday payoff for a written work that can take, usually, around a year to produce, novelists have to find things that are positive enough to keep them coming back to the desk every day. Counting words is one of the major benchmarks. So if you got in 500 words for the day, that’s ok, at least you’re hacking away at it; 1,000 is damn good; 2,000 is a remarkable day, one that leads you straight to a largish glass of whatever alcoholic beverage you use to congratulate yourself. As Constant Readers of this blog know, that’s gin for TG, but everyone has their own comfort drink.

So, while there are a number of differing opinions on what constitutes a short story, novella or novel, we’ll just use the Science Fiction and Fantasy writers of America’s word length for each category:

Short Story --- under 7,500 words; Novella --- 17,500 to 40,000 words; novel --- over 40,000 words. In general, a mystery novel is usually 60,000 to 80,000 words, a thriller is 100,000 words. The SF&F folks also have a category, Novelette, that takes up the 7,500 to 17,500 category, but that’s a no-man’s category in TG’s estimation. Besides, what we’re talking about in particular is the novella, which usually comes in at 60 to 120 pages when in printed form. And how does a novella differ from a novel? Besides the obvious answer, being shorter, a novella is usually about one character and there are no subplots and fewer conflicts. Thriller Guy is sure he’ll get some arguments, but here’s a list of some excellent books that are considered novellas by most, though TG thinks some of them are really short novels.

 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess; Coraline, Neil Gaiman; Heart of Darkness,  Joseph Conrad; I Am Legend, Richard Matheson; Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison; The Mist, Stephen King; The Snow Goose, Paul Gallico; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson; The Tenth Man, Graham Greene; The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells; The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick; The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

If you haven’t read all of these, shame on you; hop over to Amazon or somewhere and download them or order them used or whatever. Wait a minute, why did TG even start in on this topic? Oh, yeah, he was going to expound on his own experience with the novella form.

The Christmas Chicken was written first and came from an idea hatched with writer pal
Larryabout a little Victorian blind boy who asks Santa for a dog and ends up with a chicken, though, being blind, he doesn’t know the difference. Hilarity ensues. (Really) It started out as a short story, but I am at a total loss when writing in that form; it kind of got away from me and, like Topsy, just growed. (Are we allowed to say that these days?) It got longer and longer and eventually ended up at 20,336 words, around 43 pages and in solid novella territory. Sometime later, while sitting on the porch with a glass of gin, I decided that as a challenge to myself, I would write another story featuring a chicken. I have no idea why I decided to do this, it was probably the gin talking.

At the time I was reading a very cool book by another pal, Peter Cannon, who is a Lovecraft scholar who had written a pastiche called Forever Azathoth, which is very funny. If you’re into Lovecraft on any level I recommend it highly. So I had Lovecraft on my mind, and thus was born The Flock. It’s about a man known simply as The Hunter who sets off into the dark
woods to undertake a life-threatening mission. What he finds in the strange community he arrives at is, well, fairly disturbing. It’s not written to be funny. It came in at 12,500 words, around 26 pages. Not quite in official novella territory but certainly not a short story.

By this time I felt like I needed one more
chicken story, so I decided to write one that was in no one else’s style, just my own. This is a modern tale, a thriller that centers around a chicken: The Maltese Chicken, titled to honor the falcon but not as a joke. The chicken actually comes from the Isle of Malta. It ended up being 36 pages, 17,232 words. A solid novella. By then I was pretty much through with writing about chickens. But I was happy with the three stories and happy to see I could write something besides novels and blog entries. So I put the three stories up on Amazon and charged $.99 for them. I would have simply put them up for free, but Amazon doesn’t like that. They’ve been up for several years and I haven’t sold a single copy of any of them. Well, maybe a couple of copies of The Christmas Chicken. My novels continue to sell, slowly, true, at least compared to Hugh Howey and J. Konrath, but it’s clear if a person buys the first in the Alex Balfour time travel series that person goes on to buy the next four as well. So I know people like my stuff. Occasionally I sell a copy of my novel, Abraham Lincoln: Detective, which I figure has probably been bought by one of my time travel readers who has finished the series. But never the novellas.

So what’s the deal? Why don’t people buy novellas? Or maybe the better question is why don’t people buy my novellas? Huh?

Yeah, you. I’m talkin’ to you. Check them out.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Women Showing

Thriller Guy was reading the stats concerning this blog the other day and noticed a curious thing. There was a short list of keywords that some viewers used to find the site and among them were, “Author of Sexy Page Turner” and “Library Sexy Womenshowing.” Now, TG will be the first to admit that he is pretty uninterested in the labyrinthine ways of the Interweb, but what’s up with that? Even though he knows the vagaries of sexual behavior encompass a vast land of unusual scenery, who the hell sits down at the computer and enters those two phrases looking for some fun? So TG, of course, sat down at the computer to see if he could have some fun with the two search terms.

The combination of the first words, “Author of Sexy Page Turner” resulted in the usual 3 and a half million results, but they were pretty disappointing. The top hit was for a book of erotic poems titled “Libido” by the author J.M. George on a website, the PuRR.com, hosted by PepperBrooks, who seems like an intelligent young lady who says she is a business coach. The entry about Libido is a short interview Pepper conducted with the author of the book. TG rooted around on the site but didn’t turn up much that was steamy other than the cover of the book, which TG reproduces here.
If any of TG’s readers would like to take a gander at the book, it is linked to Amazon. TG will give anyone who would like to review these poems space on this site. Good luck with the book, Ms George, and Pepper, keep up the good work! The rest of the search results were pretty damn tame, so not much fun there.

Library Sex Womenshowing heated up the search, but not nearly as much as you would imagine. The first few hits were of the scholarly/feminist variety before setting into a number of sites about women who shave their fishwhistles, bless their hearts, and like to post pictures of the results. TG decided to sharpen up his search term by separating the word “women” and “showing” and was surprised to learn that rather than making things hotter, this was a real buzz kill. The top article being a news report about a woman who was arrested for soliciting sex in the library in Tewksbury, Mass. Because of the common injunction against talking in libraries, all negotiations between the undercover detective and the prostitute (I think we can safely say that description probably fits) were carried out by passing a piece of notebook paper and a pen back and forth between the two individuals. Cost for the unspecified act was $60, which could be a real bargain or a rip-off, depending on the act. It turns out that this particular library is kind of a sex hot spot, with the emphasis on the word hot, as a homeless man was arrested there several months earlier on the same charge. Hey, Tewksbury, what the hell’s going on up there? Is it something in the water!

The rest of the results over the next three search results pages were really boring. I would counsel anyone looking for sex fun on the Internet to not include the word “Library” in his or her searches. Just a little tip from TG to his readers.

The actual topic TG had planned for this entry was sparked by a silly little article on the excellent site io9.com that reports on science stuff. The article, titled An Architect’s Guide to Famous Villain’s Lairs made TG realize that he hadn’t read any thrillers for the last year or so where the villain had a secret lair, usually an island in some remote corner of the ocean, or underwater in the tropics. This has been a fixed thriller trope forever, one that TG has grown heartily sick of and was glad to see fade out of the thriller landscape. Really, it has become almost impossible to invent one of these mad scientist laboratory hideaways without immediately thinking of Dr. Evil’s lair in Austin Powers series.

But then TG started leafing through his towering stack of old reviews and realized that the secret lair plot hasn’t really disappeared at all, though it has morphed somewhat into variations of that theme. Recent examples include Robert Tanenbaum’s Butch Karp series where one of the good/bad guys has set up shop in abandoned subway tunnels under Manhattan (a classic favorite lair setting); Apocalypse by Dean Crawford has a vast undersea lair in the vicinity of, you guessed it, the Bermuda Triangle; a recent thriller TG can’t remember the name of  houses its secret headquarters under the Mall in Washington DC; then there’s Chimera, by David Wellington about a group of genetically designed savages who have escaped from a secret laboratory prison camp in rural New York. And with his memory thus jogged, TG now faintly remembers plenty more of these various takes on the secret lair plot or subplot. So, once again, TG has proved himself wrong after actually looking beyond the surface of one of his fleeting thoughts concerning a possible blog topic.

The truth is, the Secret Lair, or Secret World, is a powerful image, one that springs from 19th century fiction where boys, young men and older adults stayed glued to the page in rapt fascination as evil scientists and maniacal, power-mad, fiends plotted their wars on mankind from the bowels of their underground, undersea, remote mountain, jungle, lairs.

So, ok, go ahead and give us the modern equivalent, thriller writers. But be careful. The slightest misstep and the image that will come to the readers minds will be this one
 rather than a classic H. Rider Haggard novel.

TG may have spoken of Haggard before, the name and especially the novel She reminds TG of a powerful memory. At about age eleven in West Virginia TG caught scarlet fever, a rather Victorian disease, and was put to bed for several weeks. In the days before the discovery of antibiotics this was a disease that killed many. Thomas Edison’s partial deafness was thought to have been caused by scarlet fever. Or scarteltina as it was known in those days. At any rate, the young TG was in bed and bored, having read every one of the Tarzan books in the preceding weeks, when he heard his mother and aunt talking in the hall outside his room. “Do you think he’s old enough?” TG heard his mother ask. “Well, probably. At any rate, he’s read everything else in the house,” my aunt replied. So pretty soon they came in bearing a book bound in the same red binding that all the Tarzan books sported, and gave me She, which I devoured because not only was it a fabulous, exciting tale, but because I thought there must be some mystery in why one had to be a certain age, and I suspected, maturity, before being allowed to read it. Actually, it was kind of sexy, as the following dust jackets will suggest. In its day it was wildly popular and as of 1965 had sold 83 million copies making it one of the biggest selling books of all time. TG wonders, a bit sadly, if anyone ever reads it these days. Probably not, and we are a poorer world for it. OK, check out the covers, they are hot!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mistakes Have Been Made. Or Have They?

Last week Thriller Guy put up a blog about an error that one of his readers found in Mark Greaney’s, Tom Clancy Support and Defend. It turns out that Thriller Guy was wrong, or sort of wrong, or a little wrong, or something. Several comments came in, as well as some email, which TG will lay out for you so you can decide for yourselves.

First of all, in the course of TG’s long career he has learned if he makes a mistake in a novel, to please, God, not have it be a mistake that has anything to do with guns. Many thriller readers are gun enthusiasts, and those folks don’t take it lightly when an author makes a gun mistake. To recap, the “mistake” pointed out in Support and Defend was when two Iranian Quds force operatives shoot two blameless SSG surveillance officers then calmly clean up their mess including rolling out a roofer’s device called a NailHag magnetic nail sweeper that picks up the spent brass. Then one of TG’s readers pointed out that brass is not magnetic, so it wouldn’t work. The mail started rolling in, including a note from the author of the book, Mark Greaney. TG would like to reiterate, before he goes any further, that this whole discussion is a side issue, mostly a chance for TG to rave, cranky old reviewer that he is, about the shoddy state of publishing today, and YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN!

Ahem. Greaney’s book is actually quite good, and in fact TG gave it an excellent review and is looking forward to reading more from him, writing as both a Clancy author and his own novels, known as the Grey Man series.

Back to the NailHawg issue. After putting the last entry up, TG received a note from a Constant Reader and TG pal who pointed out “I caught this one, too, but believe it or not, the magnet will work even on brass. Really? The word brass is used these days as an encompassing word to mean any shell. A bit of nomenclature: the bullet is what comes out of the shell. The shell and bullet make up a cartridge. Anyway, in the old days all shells were made of real brass. Now, mostly, they are steel alloy with a yellow color and look like brass or contain brass and steel which means that they can be picked up by magnets. For many of your high-powered weapons, the shell is all steel. For many of your lower powered shells, like for a .22 or 9mm it's all brass and the magnet will not work. For proof, come to my house and I will put my magnet to an AK-47 shell and you can watch it click to the magnet like a hooker walking on a tile floor.” Another email from the same reader offered this Wikipedia page that goes into the matter in more detail

The author of Support and Defend, Mark Greaney, came in next: “Hi Thriller Guy - This is Mark. I have a gross of Russian Wolfe Barnual steel case 9mm ammo in my garage. Russia supplies Iran with ammo via Rosoboronexport, so I expect an Iranian government employee might have easy access to it.

 Any steel case ammo will be picked up by a magnet - I can send you a few spent rounds to test. 

I do have copy editors and they did ask me about this - but I told them to stet it. I probably could have specified in the book that they were using steel case ammo - and honestly should have done so - but I don't see it as an error that the nail-hawg picked up brass made out of an unspecified metal. (brass is a catch all term for spent casings)

 Thanks for letting me air this.”

Thriller Guy is pleased by the response for several reasons, one: Greaney could have been pissed off at TG for dragging him up on charges of Making a Gun Mistake and gotten upset, whereas instead he chimed right in with a reasonable and temperate explanation, and two, that he points out that there actually are still good copy editors who had flagged the material in the manuscript editing stages. Perhaps traditional publishing is not as far gone as TG thought.

Other readers sent in messages about the problem of flying brass, including this one by Joel Lovett: “Of course, even better, is what my bad guy uses in Mississippi Running - a brass catcher. No need to hang around and hope you grab all the brass...”
Mississippi Running is the name of a thriller Joel is working on, and the picture shows a simple little black mesh bag that fits on the side of a weapon and catches the brass as it is ejected. TG has to wonder, though, would this accessory take away from the general bad-assedness look of a sniper’s rifle or a silenced handgun? One needs to remember that the reason to collect the spent casings is to prevent crime scene investigators from identifying the type of weapon used, not that the evildoers or even good guys are picking up their brass because it’s just good housekeeping, bad for the environment or that a passing duck may ingest a couple and get sick.

OK, has TG beat this particular horse if not to death at least into submission? The answer is obviously yes. Unless someone else out there wants to be heard. Comment away.