Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rapidly Changing Technology

A couple of blog entries ago,  Thriller Guy purportedly answered a question from blog reader Marc who asked “How do writers stay ahead of technology in today's world, where today's new feature is old news next week.” TG uses the word “purportedly” because rather than answering Marc’s question, TG used it as a basis to wander off into a thicket of other ideas, never really addressing Marc’s excellent question. So Marc, the short answer to your question is: they don’t. Or perhaps a better answer would be: it’s impossible anyway, so you can’t really worry about it.

We could just leave it at that and wrap up the blog for this week, but as TG’s regular readers know he would never miss an opportunity to opine and digress and maybe rant a bit. TG would like to put some words in Marc’s mouth, because what TG thinks the question really is about is both the ongoing search for cool technology to hang a plot on and then the rapid descent of that same bleeding edge technology into the ho-hum commonplace. TG has written about this in an earlier blog about the proliferation of drone books in the last couple of years. The first of the drone books presented the new technology in all its gee-whiz glory, but as time went on, the following novels had to elevate the technology by adding new tech elements and/or more convoluted plots that expanded the possibilities of drones beyond their simplest uses.

TG would like to digress for a moment, as you know how he loves to do, with a short discussion of the rather old-fashioned words “gee whiz.” After using this term in the above paragraph, he decided to look it up and found that it is what is known as a “minced oath.” Which means using innocuous words for those that are considered taboo, in this case substituting them for the oath “Jesus Christ.” Here is a short but interesting article on minced oaths

Gee whiz, Thriller Guy, you do love to go on and on, don’t you?


Will you please get back on topic and answer Marc’s question?

Sure, but first, digression number two, on the subject of drones: While recently reading an interesting thriller where the main character was a woman scientist who built tiny but deadly robots, (This was an excellent book, but TG can’t remember the title) a character was discussing why ordinary people have what seems like an instinctive fear of drones in all forms. “People see them as insects,” the character said. “And in this case they’re insects with guns.” Nice image, nice writing.

So to get back to Marc’s question, yes, thriller writers are always, well, thrilled to come across some new piece of technology upon which to build a plot and thereby a novel. But the professional thriller writer knows that what is new today is not going to be so by the time a book is written and published. You can hope that your tech discovery remains undiscovered by other thriller writers, but the truth is that there are a lot of guys and gals out there who write these kinds of thrillers and who are always combing the Internet for the next big tech marvel, so don’t depend on your chances of keeping your cool idea a secret. If you found it, so did someone else, and maybe he/she is a faster writer than you are.

There’s a corollary problem here that is also interesting. What do you do about Fidel Castro? His name comes up in thrillers quite often, but the guy is 88 years old and in bad health. It takes a regularly published book 12 to 18 months to go from completed manuscript to bookstore shelves, plenty of time for Fidel to drop dead. The best idea is to just not use him in any way in your thriller. Or, as in a thriller TG is currently reading for review, the author just went ahead and said he was dead. It probably looked like a pretty good bet many months ago when the manuscript was turned in to the publisher, about the time Fidel was in dire health straits. But he beat the odds, and now he’s in this guy’s book as being dead, when he isn’t. Does it make a difference? Not really, but little glitches like that always startle a reader out of the suspension of disbelief that writers want to keep them in. There are plenty of other major historical events that can derail a thriller that is in the production process: the Twin Towers can fall, as can the Berlin Wall. Young Kim can be dethroned in North Korea, and even presidents can be felled by assassins. The best you can do is not worry and soldier on.

Now we’ve come to the place where the Association of Those Who Think They Are Experts in Giving Writing Advice (of which TG is a proud member) insists that we say that you shouldn’t be hanging your novel on a cool piece of technology or fabulous historical find and expect that to carry your book onto the bestseller lists or even the Pretty Good Seller lists. We are obligated to remind you that good books are built on the backs of good characters with interesting multi-layered plots and attention to all the details of good writing. Yes, sure, but we’re talking about thrillers here, not the next great American novel. Here comes the rant…

Thriller readers don’t really give a shit about good writing. You can easily learn this by simply reading, say, ten thrillers that are on the bestseller lists. These should be the cream of the vast thriller crop, and yet it is TG’s experience (also vast) that of those ten, one might be considered to have what is considered excellent writing (that is writing that might be commonplace in a work of what we call literature) seven more will fall into the spectrum of damn good to OK to not very good at all, and two will be just plain bad.

Digression number three: In the ten years or so that TG has been in the professional criticism business, he has seen the quality of writing, in general, rise. Snooty critics will tell you that it has fallen, but they are wrong because snooty critics don’t know anything about genre writing. TG attributes this rise in quality to the old timers who really built the thriller genre and are now aging out and hiring other writers to help them or even take over their writing duties. You’ve got guys like Jim DeFelice and Mark Greaney and a bunch of others who are building on already established series characters and venues, guys who are actually better writers than the originals who invented their brands. There are reasons that they are better writers, but that’s a topic for another blog entry that TG may get around to writing some day.

The point is, Marc, and all you other readers and writers out there who have stuck with TG this far, while TG would love to see every book he reads and reviews be a work of excellent craftsmanship, if not literature, that’s not going to happen. So when TG picks up a new book, he is always on the lookout for a really great, new, inventive high tech, low tech, new or brilliantly refurbished plot concept or single device that will be the linchpin that holds the novel together and gives it power. (If a linchpin can actually power anything.) It doesn’t always happen, in fact it usually doesn’t, but smart writers who find such a device, and the lucky ones who hold it close and are first out of the gate with it, are a rare and blessedly fortunate bunch.

So there’s your answer, Marc: pursue this thriller grail, and if you find it, hold it close and write fast. If you can’t come in first with it, try to come in better than the other guys. But if you worry about it, you’re just going to drive yourself crazy. And writers already have enough to drive themselves crazy without adding anything to the pile.

So TG will remodel the mantra:

Sit down, shut up; get to work. And stop worrying.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Can Good Fiction Writing be Taught?

That was the question asked of two famous fiction writers on the back page of the New York Times Book Review section last week. Thriller Guy forgets their names and is too lazy to look them up, mostly because their answers were kind of wishy-washy and not very interesting. TG, who is known for his blistering, forthright, unsparing opinions, would answer this one with a resounding, um, maybe?

TG loves books, web sites and blogs that purport to teach folks how to write good fiction. TG has a stack of these books, some good, some bad, and mostly offering up the same advice as everyone else over and over again. It used to be Allen Appel’s custom to read a few of these books every time he started in on a new novel, his experience being that if you learn one thing from one book the reading time was worth the effort. Now he no longer does this because he can get the same benefits by cruising around the thousands of book blogs that litter the Internet. Also there’s another reason, and that’s because TG writes on of those book blogs himself. But you already knew that. This has led TG to consider a different question: Why does Thriller Guy burn up his writing time and rapidly failing mental abilities writing a blog about books, writers and how to write good fiction? Especially because there are so many perfectly good blogs doing the same thing already out there.

It sure as hell isn’t because he’s done so well in the business he wants to give back to those who haven’t achieved his exalted position of power, influence and wealth. TG is scratching out a pathetic living just like most of the writers he knows, older and wiser, yes, than he was years ago but probably worse off as far as traditional publishing success is concerned. Here’s a harsh truth, Little Ones, the longer you stay in this shithole business without overwhelming financial success the less likely it is that any of the regular print publishers are going to publish your novels. You think that fashion models hit a ceiling and age out? Corporate execs who never rise to the top positions? Musicians? Dancers? Pretty much anyone in any of the arts? They’ve got nothing on writers these days. Thank God for Amazon and Kindles as they have given a last shot for aging mid-list writers to sell books, or at least get them in a venue where they have a chance of selling, as opposed to where even if one of the legacy guys takes a chance on you, your book hits the shelf with the lifespan of a mayfly, up there today, gone in two weeks, sloughed off by a system that doesn’t recognize that a book needs time and a decent push if it’s going to sell. And then they scratch their heads and whine about electronic rights and how writers aren’t toeing the line, and why, oh why, their business model is headed for the crapper.

Hey, TG just figured out why he writes a book blog: so that he can write a paragraph like that last one and not care what anyone thinks of him or that it might piss someone off. So he can start an entry with the purpose of asking and answering a question: Can good fiction writing be taught? then go off on whatever tangent his dark little heart desires, and we do know how TG likes to go off on wild hair tangents. Yeah, that’s pretty much the reason for doing this week after week. It’s kind of a release. Though he does have a soft spot in his aforementioned heart for the odd folks who read this blog and comment and send him emails, and yes, every once in awhile who go to TG’s Amazon page and buy a Kindle book and then sometimes another and sometimes another. Has TG thanked you for this recently? Probably not, but thanks. You all must be about as crazy as TG.

So does anyone learn anything worthwhile from this book blog or any other? Can good fiction writing be taught? TG thinks so. Because learning to write is pretty simple, and also pretty damn near impossible, as TG has said so many times. First you read a lot, then you -- altogether now, lets all repeat TG’s writing mantra --

Sit down; shut up; get to work. Talk about pathetic. Can’t you do any better than that? Say it again, loud and proud…

Sit down; shut up; get to work.

Get words on paper. Try to organize them in a way that is like the books you read that you think are really good. Then go back and rewrite them over and over, utilizing all the little tips and tricks you learn from TG and all the other books blogs out there. If you do that, and stick with it, eventually -- actually it takes about a year -- you’ll have a novel. And maybe other people will want to read it. Maybe they’ll even want to buy it.

Readers of Thriller Guys blather will recognize the name of TG’s writer pal Larry, often referred to in these pages. He’s Larry Kahaner, who has written fiction and lots of non-fiction and regularly reads Allen Appel’s work and helps with suggestions and edits. He is also a lunch companion, valued friend, one of the writers in the Squatting Toad, Appel’s writer’s group, and an extremely important resource for working out plot problems and other writer dilemmas. Larry has entered the world of writer blogging with his site, The Non-Fiction Novelist.

What makes his blog different is he contends that people who write non-fiction – journalism, business work, pretty much anyone who can write a memo or a report – can use those abilities to turn out good fiction. TG finds this an interesting concept and is sure he’ll pick up some tips at Larry’s site that will help him beat the novel he is currently battling into submission.

Check him out; maybe you’ll learn something. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Thriller Guy is turning the blog over to his alter ego, Allen Appel, for this installment. Don’t screw it up, Appel! TG wants this blog back in the same shape it was in when he handed it over.

Geez, relax, TG, it’s going to be OK. Today’s subject under discussion is Mark Twain and the wonders and dangers of research. Why? I'll get to that in a moment. Well, as always, it will probably take longer than a moment.

As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a new entry in my series of novels featuring Alex Balfour, a time traveling history professor who has drifted back in time to a number of interesting historical periods, among them the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War, the Old West and WWII. In his adventures out West in Twice Upon a Time, he befriends Mark Twain and the two of them
have a exciting time floating down the Mississippi River on a raft with a pair of American Indians who are escaping back to their homelands. Also on the raft are two homicidal maniacs. Blood, justice and redemption flow like the swift current of the river.

Aside:  I’m often asked, as are all writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Stephan King has a mildly amusing response on the order of “from the mom and pop writing store down on the corner,” but the book with Twain as a character, Twice Upon a Time, came about because of a comment from a film producer. My first book, Time After Time received very nice reviews when it first came out, especially in the New York Times Book Review ((January 26, 1986). What happens when this occurs -- a good Times review -- you get a lot of interest from Hollywood. My agent was flooded with requests from filmmakers for a copy of the book, which he dutifully sent out. Unfortunately, no one bought it. Why? Not because they didn’t like it, they did, but because it was set in Russia during the days of the revolution. Too expensive to produce, they all said, adding: tell Mr. Appel to set his next book in the United States. OK, I could do that. So I settled on opening the next one, Twice Upon a Time, at the great Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and ending it high on hill overlooking the final battle known as Custer’s Last Stand. I figured you couldn’t get more American than that. The Exposition might cause a few difficulties as far as re-creation goes, but surely all the western scenery was still there for the taking. The upshot of the story is while Twice Upon a Time garnered nice reviews, no one bought the film rights for this one either. So much for doing what a film producer advises a writer to do.

Using Twain as the “buddy” in Twice Upon a Time did not immediately spring to mind when I was blocking out the book in outline. It was only when reading about the exposition did I find that both Twain and Custer attended the fair. Did they meet? Who knows? I found no record that they did, but it wasn’t important to my story. The idea was planted and would soon grow into an entire novel. These two famous men might not have known each other, but they certainly met my time traveling hero, Alex Balfour.

Aside: Readers who frequent the Thriller Guy blog know how important research is to TG and to me, and any other genre of historical novelist. TG has warned of the dangers of spending too much time wandering the labyrinthine byways of the Internet, but do I take TG’s advice? Not always. So after writing the above paragraph about Custer and Twain meeting, I thought I would look around and see if they ever did meet. It seems the answer is no, but along the way I discovered a fascinating  historical fact that is more than enough to spark an entire novel in some fertile writer’s mind. I am resisting the pull of this factoid, as I have my own book that must be written. Here it is.

In a Wikipedia  article about Manor House, a stately home in Soho, London, which was built in 1678…    The White House brothel. In 1776 the house, known then as The White House, was bought by Thomas Hopper, who, between 1778 and 1801 styled it as an hotel although all contemporary accounts point to its real business being as a high-class magical brothel. The White House is described as being garishly decorated and had lavish themed rooms including the "Gold Room", "Silver Room" and "Bronze Room", a "Painted Chamber", "Grotto", "Coal Hole" and most famously the "Skeleton Room" which contained a mechanized human skeleton designed to scare the staff and patrons alike. Henry Mayhew called the White House a "notorious place of ill-fame" and wrote: “Some of the apartments, it is said, were furnished in a style of costly luxury; while others were fitted up with springs, traps, and other contrivances, so as to present no appearance other than that of an ordinary room, until the machinery was set in motion. In one room, into which some wretched girl might be introduced, on her drawing a curtain as she would be desired, a skeleton, grinning horribly, was precipitated forward, and caught the terrified creature in his, to all appearance, bony arms. In another chamber the lights grew dim, and then seemed gradually to go out. In a little time some candles, apparently self-ignited, revealed to a horror stricken woman, a black coffin, on the lid of which might be seen, in brass letters, ANNE, or whatever name it had been ascertained the poor wretch was known by. A sofa, in another part of the mansion was made to descend into some place of utter darkness; or, it was alleged, into a room in which was a store of soot or ashes.”

This scenes this paragraph calls to mind just scream to be written into a BBC series. If anyone picks up on this idea, Thriller Guy gets a cut.

What was I talking about? O, yeah, Mark Twain. Because Twain is a character in the book I’m now working on, whenever I see his name mentioned I read what the reference is to. In this case, it was a small notice saying that the only footage ever made of Twain, a small piece a few minutes long, shot by Thomas Edison, had been reworked and cleaned up using modern techniques so the movement was more natural. (Because something is preventing me to imbed the video,) That piece of film can be found here, and I recommend looking at it. I had seen the original footage when I was working on Twice Upon a Time, many years ago, but it was difficult to make out because of the deterioration of the film stock and the herky-jerky movement. While there are still problems, the new version is vastly improved, and I find, fascinating. It’s not often that a historical novelist comes across such a valuable artifact. While the details would probably not interest most people, I was fascinated to note things like how Twain’s famous white suit, which you always see in photographs as being pristine, is beyond rumpled, and Twain looks kind of seedy in it. His hair is likewise not the glowing corona that it appears in official photos, but sort of like the suit, kind of rumpled. Even though the film was made in the year before Twain died, he seems full of life and an easy vigor, which was a surprise. In the early frames Twain walks around the corner of his house, Stormfield, and past the camera and then, magically, appears coming around the same corner and walks towards the camera once again. Why? Then he sits at a table having tea with his daughters Clara and Jean, who laugh at something Twain is saying to them. Jean spends some time putting on her hat and securing it with a hat pin (who sees that in this day and age?) and then they all get up and walk off screen. As I said, invaluable to a writer who is writing about Twain.

It is also interesting to note that we have no recordings of Twain’s voice. Edison made some, but they were on wax cylinders and melted during a fire, and a cylinder made by Giani Bettini (a pioneer audiophile)  was destroyed in WWII. The closest thing we have is a recording from Twain’s famous frog story being read by a noted actor and accomplished mimic of the time William Gillette, who grew up next door to Twain and knew him well. Here is that recording.  He sounds like Hal Holbrook, who must have referenced it when putting together his one act play about Twain.

The point here? Beware of research; it is a wonderful thing for a writer, but a great thief of time. And also a wonderful excuse, as in: “I’ll start my book once I feel I really know my material.” It’s nice to have that confidence and I applaud writers who can work to achieve this mastery and then start right in on their book, but I, and Thriller Guy, think that what you need to do is jump right in on the writing and do the research as you go, or after you finish a draft. Journalists have a wonderful device, the letters TK, which when inserted in a work in progress mean that more information will be added later, TK = “to come.” Use this device whenever you’re really rolling and don’t want to stop and break the flow. You can always look something up and put it in later, but you can’t always regain momentum when you break your train of thought.