Jan 142014
 

By P.J. Parrish

Way way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting out, I got asked by a local writers group to speak at their luncheon. The group had bagged some big-fish speakers in the past (I remember Les Standiford giving a particularly inspiring talk). But I guess they ran out of literary types so they asked me -- a minnow of a romance writer at the time.

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to tell this group of as-yet unpubbed writers. I finally decided to focus on the marketing and business end of having your book published -- the underbelly stuff like co-op advertising, how "bestseller" slots in drugstores were bought by publishers, how the New York Times bestseller list wasn't really based on sales. I thought they needed to know what they were up against. (Remember, this was pre-Amazon days when if you self-published you were automatically assigned to the eleventh ring of hell).

Well, you'd thought I had brought a dog onto the podium and shot it there in front of them. During the Q&A, they turned on me like rabid bats, each one saying, in different words the same thing: We don't need to hear this. We need encouragement. One guy actually stood up and said -- I will never forget this -- "If you are so bitter about writing, why do you even do it?"

Maybe things were different back in the 80s. Maybe writers could afford to be mushrooms -- keep in the dark and fed a steady diet of manure. But not anymore. Today, if you want to survive, you have to be smart, tough and tenacious. All of you who are steady Kill Zone readers know this already. But sometimes we all -- including me -- need to hear it anew.

As the great western philosopher John Wayne once said: If you wanna be a pony soldier, you gotta act tough.

I still speak at alot of writers groups and on panels and such. And now that I am more battle-tested, I try hard to be kinder. But damn, if someone asks me for advice about getting published, I just can't coddle him or her with empty platitudes and pat their hands. I believe every writer needs a Dr. Phil in their life. Someone who will tell you the truth about why your plot sucks, why your characters aren't compelling and even why you should throw away your manuscript and start over. Someone who will read your stuff, stare you straight in the eye and say, "what WERE you thinking?"

So, as we start off into this fresh new year, let me be your Dr. Phil. Let's start with The 15 Things You Should NEVER Do.

1. Don't procrastinate. You must choose to write. That might mean giving up something else, like golf or sleep. Too bad. Don't jump from idea to idea. Pick one and ride it to the end. Don't let the first wind that blows through your life distract you. Don't wait for inspiration to come. Inspiration comes only WHILE you're writing. It's so much more fun to HAVE WRITTEN a book than to actually write one. (believe me, I know...this is my worst sin.) Writing the actual book is hard. Deal with it.

2. Don't talk your story away.  I am also guilty of this but not as much as I used to be. Writers love to yak about writing instead of actually doing it. I got this great idea about a cannibal serial killer, yada yada... Pretty soon all your yadas are used up and you can't stand your book anymore. Talk is cheap...or in this case, costly. As Lawrence Block once said, don't book Carnegie Hall if all you do is sing in the shower. Shut up and write.

3. Don't try to hit a home run on your first at bat. Don't sit down to write the Great American Novel or the next Chick Lit Bestseller. First you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than landing on the NYT's list. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs. Don't get hung up on the perfect beginning. That's what rewriting is for. I am really struggling with this one right now because my WIP is a totally departure for me and I am sort of flailing in the dark and I think I am losing sight of the "fun" part of writing.

4. Don't beat yourself up as you go along. Trying to craft the perfect sentence can create paralysis. If you keep going back over the stuff you've already written YOU WILL NEVER FINISH. Write a first draft THEN go back and rewrite. And get intimate with that delete key. It is your best friend.

5. Don't lean on adjectives. Most of us know this mantra but it always bears repeating. Adjectives weaken writing, and a string of them is deadly. Don't use crap like "tall dark and handsome." Find one apt word. But the real strength in writing is found in verbs. You're not Proust.

6. Don't overcook your words. It's so easy to slip into cliches and overworked words. Don't say "white as snow." It's not yours. Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock, overcome with grief." Don't make do with time-eroded words like "beautiful, wonderful, interesting, lovely." Find your own words and voice. And for god's sake, stay away from dialects. Few writers can pull it off without looking silly, y'all.... (I committed this sin in my first book).

7. Don't over-punctuate. This is my pet peeve. Some writers use alot of exclamation marks, semi-colons and dashes. Maybe it's because they LOOK so cool -- active, even -- on paper. But they are crutches to prop up weak action, poor narrative and badly organized thoughts. Worse, they are signposts demanding reactions from readers (Okay, reader, now here I want you to feel excited!) You can write a whole book with just periods, question marks, quotes and a couple commas. Try it! Make your words do the work!!!!

8. Don't neglect your theme. Theme is WHY you are writing the book. Even genre novels -- well, the best ones -- have themes. Steinbeck said an author should be able to state his theme in one sentence. But don't get didactic. Maybe your book is about a body found in the Everglades, but your theme is about environmental destruction. But if you get preachy, readers will turn off no matter how many bodies turn up in the sawgrass.

9. Don't get personal. This is a big mistake beginners make. Save your self-expression for your journal or blog. What's wrong with self-expression? It is general, boring, trite, sentimental. NO ONE CARES about your years operating a bar in Queens. But they might care about a Queens man who loses his bar in a poker game and then kills to get it back. NO ONE CARES about your war experience. But they might care about an army unit sent to rescue the last member of the Ryan family. The trick of good fiction is taking your personal experience and making it universal.

10. Don't be dishonest. Great fiction is always honest. Which is not the same as personal. You don't have to "write what you know." But you have to be able to tap into your powers of empathy to "know" the characters and world you create. To write honestly is also to take emotional risks. We've all read books where the characters don't move us. Usually it is because the writer was holding back, unwilling to spill some blood on the keyboard.

11. Don't get seduced by research. First, it is a time-killer (See no. 1). Do your homework but don't let it get in the way. It is easy to get blogged down in research and then you feel obligated to use it in the book. The result: James Michener book bloat.  Now sometimes, research can open new doors in your plot but be careful you don't use stuff just because you worked so hard to find it.

12. Don't obsess about trivial stuff. 
Will a publisher steal my idea if I submit it?
Should I get Windows 9?
Do I need an agent?
What if they want me to change it?
Can I use White-Out on the manuscript?
Should I wait until I have better conditions at home to write?

You get the idea...
Answers:
No, if your book is good, they will buy it.
Work with what you already have.
Just write the damn book first.
They will...don't sweat it.
You're actually worried about this?
No. Poe was penniless and died in a sewer. He didn't wait til he had the right desk lamp.

13. Don't listen to your wife/husband/hairdresser/mother. Someday, when you are accepting the Edgar, you can thank all the folks who love you. But while you are trying to write, keep them at arms length. Sometimes, they can get inside your head in two disparate ways. First, they can criticize you and say you will never get published. Second, they can tell you everything you write is brilliant. Both are bad for you. Find feedback from someone who will be honest with you. (And yes, sometimes, that cold eye person IS someone who loves you!) But avoid writers group if all they do is sit around and bitch and moan about how its all a big conspiracy to keep them out.

14. Don't be afraid to rewrite. The temptation is huge, after you type THE END, to ship that puppy out. Don't. Let it bake in the thumb drive for at least a week, then go back and read it cold. The crap will jump out at you -- huge gobs of smelly stuff. You must rewrite. As many times as it takes. The first draft is made with the heart. The second, fifth and tenth, are made with the head.

15. Don't give up. Never up, never in. Not at the plate, no chance to hit. One of the main differences between the published and unpublished writer (besides talent -- duh!) is that the latter packed it in. This is a cruel, difficult, god-awful business. There is no secret formula for what editors want. There is no big conspiracy to keep you out of the club. There are, however, overworked, badly paid people sitting behind desks in New York who are overwhelmed with manuscripts but are still willing to pay money for a well-told story. There are readers out there waiting to find a new author who has a great story to tell. The trick is to find them -- through a combination of talent, craftsmanship, perseverance and luck. Especially luck.

This is Dr. Phil, signing off. Now get back to that computer before I come over there and cut off your fingers....

Dec 022013
 
I've been reading Lawrence Block's Burglar books almost as long as I've been reading his Matt Scudder books, and that's quite a while. The latest novel featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS, will be out later this month—Christmas Day, in fact, but you can pre-order it now—and it's a fine addition to the series.

As this one begins, Bernie is hired to steal the original holographic manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", with its original title "A Life Lived Backward", from the museum where it's being kept in storage. Bernie's client isn't a Fitzgerald collector, however. He collects buttons, and anything connected to buttons, which later in the book leads to him hiring Bernie again, this time to steal a spoon bearing the likeness of Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

While this is going on, Bernie is also hanging around with his friend Carolyn, running his bookstore (which never does much business), ruminating about books and authors and Amazon, and helping one of his other friends (and sometimes nemesis), police detective Ray Kirschmann, with a case where an elderly woman appears to have died of natural causes, but under odd circumstances.

At times the book appears to amble around sort of aimlessly, but I knew better. Everything is there for a reason, and watching Block sort it all out is one of the joys of THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS, along with his seemingly effortless prose. All the asides about various books and authors and the publishing business are great fun, too. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish this novel, which almost never happens these days.

Another thing I should point out is something that most of Block's readers probably won't ever notice. THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS contains a very important element that's virtually identical to something in Livia's latest novel, THE FATAL FUNNEL CAKE. I can't say any more without venturing far into the realm of spoilers. Now, I happen to know for a fact that it's physically impossible for either of them to have read the other's book before writing theirs. So this is one of those bizarre coincidences that happen from time to time, and as Ray Kirschmann says in the book, if coincidences didn't happen, we wouldn't have a word for them. However, I prefer to think that it's a prime example of how Great Minds Think Alike.

Those who have already done "best of the year" lists have jumped the gun, since THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS belongs on such lists. I had a great time reading it and think most of you probably would, too, so it gets a very high recommendation from me.


Nov 202013
 

There’s any number of slightly unusual things about the latest novel from Lawrence Block. Take this review, for starters, which is running well in advance of the book’s Christmas Day release. One wants to do one’s bit to beat the drum.

Then there’s the fact that Block, the prolific Mystery Writers of America grand master who nonetheless has in the past stooped to answering questions for lesser websites, is publishing the book himself, with the eBook sold exclusively through Amazon. A forward-thinking type, Block.

But the oddities continue on the book’s pages – er, screens – you know what I mean. Bernie Rhodenbarr is still a gentleman thief and connoisseur of locks (“The Poulard is the one they advertise as pickproof. Well, most of the time it probably is.”), and he remains as tight as ever with his lesbian lifemate Carolyn Kaiser. Only Bernie is now more a contented small businessman, trying to make a go of his used bookstore and only pilfering on consignment; in this case, a grab bag of historical curiosities that obsess a collector including one of the titular spoons. A murder occurs, of course, but this time Bernie is scarcely suspected by longtime nemesis Ray Kirschmann of the NYPD. Instead, Ray brings in Bernie as an unofficial consultant of sorts, seeking a burglar’s eye view of the crime. Could our man possibly be abandoning his larcenous legacy and ambling toward the straight and narrow after all these years?

The plot is Block’s typical well-oiled machine, the mechanism functioning so smoothly that it permits you to enjoy the book’s many incidental pleasures. In fact, Spoons is almost more comedy of manners than caper, with Bernie and Carolyn discoursing on assorted conundrums like how one meets prospective partners in this day and age; how one, ahem, passes the time with them once met; and the social intricacies of ordering Chinese food in Manhattan. There’s also fun to be had at the meta level, with Bernie offering sly critiques of crime fiction by Block’s contemporaries and struggling with the niceties of selling physical books in the e-reader era.

A breezy confection all in all, exactly the sort of thing you’ll want to read come the Yule in whatever format you fancy.
 Posted by at 7:11 pm
Oct 162013
 
Lawrence Block's new collection, CATCH AND RELEASE, features 17 stories, a newspaper essay, a one-act play, and the usual fascinating story notes about each item. Several of the stories have to do with sports—golf, tennis, and fishing—while many of them feature serial killers and hitmen. And not surprisingly, there's some overlap between the categories. What they all have in common is that they're some of the best written stories you'll find anywhere.

Among the highlights are the novellas "Clean Slate", which became part of Block's novel GETTING OFF, and "Speaking of Greed" and "Speaking of Lust", which were the lead stories in a couple of anthologies that used that title. I love the framing device in the latter two stories, which consists of a policeman, a soldier, a doctor, and a priest sitting around playing cards and swapping yarns, while a fifth character, an unnamed old man, sits next to the fireplace and passes gas. "Speaking of Greed" has a very funny section in it about a literary agent and a young writer, but I'm sure that any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is, as they say, entirely coincidental.

Several of the stories I'd read before, including two from the Matt Scudder collection THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC. One of them, "One Last Night at Grogan's", is my second-favorite Block story. For what it's worth, "The Night and the Music" from that same Scudder collection is my favorite Block story and one of my favorite short stories, period, right up there with Irwin Shaw and John O'Hara. The thing about rereading Block is that you start to skim the story, thinking that you've already read it, and then before you know it you've slowed down and read the whole thing again. The prose just draws you in.

CATCH AND RELEASE is available in several formats, whatever your preference, and it's one of the best books I've read this year. Highly recommended.


Aug 102013
 
I've been reading some stuff on my Kindle, mainly stuff I've picked free from Amazon, new gritty and noirish crime fiction from both side of Atlantic. I've liked a lot some of the stuff I've acquired, for instance Juaréz Dance by Sam Hawken and Tony Black's bleak novella The Storm Without (of which I didn't do a blog post). I also liked Lawrence Block's short story "Keller on the Spot" quite a bit.

But I've recently dropped two novels by new noir writers I was reading on Kindle. The other one was sloppily written and edited, and the other one had ridiculous characters and the police work depicted in the book wasn't believable. I was going to post a review of the books, but then I got to thinking I wouldn't be doing much of a service to the writers and their publishers (the other one of the two writers has just a book out from a small publisher working actively in the neo-noir business). Then I got to thinking that as a critic that's just what I should be doing: pointing out what these writers and their publishers are not doing very well and keeping readers out of the bad or mediocre stuff, but then I got to thinking again and then I decided not to post.

What do you think? I'm really an outsider in these circles, since I'm essentially a foreigner to all American, British and Scottish writers mining this area, but then again, someone might benefit from my point of view.
 Posted by at 7:43 pm
Apr 192013
 
This post originally appeared in slightly different form on April 20, 2007. My apologies for all the reruns. I just haven't had much time to read lately.


This is a book I’ve had on my shelves for many years, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. It’s a tie-in novel, based on a short-lived series that ran on NBC in 1959 and 1960, starring Ray Milland as New York-based private eye Roy Markham. Now, if Ray Milland isn’t exactly your idea of a hardboiled private eye, well, I feel pretty much the same way. Maybe a lot of other people did, too, and that’s why the series didn’t last long. This novel didn’t come out until 1961, after the TV series was over. I guess Belmont had it in inventory already and decided to go ahead and throw it out there. Lawrence Block wasn’t a big name at the time, so that wasn’t the reason (as it probably was a few years ago when this novel was reissued under the title YOU COULD CALL IT MURDER, with no mention of the TV series or its original Belmont edition).

As for the book itself, it’s pretty standard PI stuff. As a favor to a friend, Markham takes on a wandering daughter job. The girl has disappeared from the fancy private university she attends in New Hampshire. Markham starts investigating and then gets roped into what seems to be a completely different case – but you know the jobs will wind up being connected, and sure enough they are. There’s a lot of small-town college scenes, some late Fifties/early Sixties hipster stuff, a suicide that might be murder, some other deaths that are definitely murder, blackmail, gangsters, and lots of drinking and smoking. Everybody in this book spends a lot of time taking out cigarettes, lighting up cigarettes, putting out cigarettes, etc. Markham gets hit on the head and knocked out. Eventually he untangles everything and exposes the killer, of course.

Not surprisingly, despite the generic plot Block’s use of language is excellent, as always. Even though this book came early in his career, he could already put sentences together in a consistently interesting and entertaining fashion. I didn’t really see anything in this book that was a precursor for, say, the Matt Scudder books. (There is a minor character named Keller, however.) It’s worth reading, although it’s not on the same level as his other early books that have been reissued by Hard Case Crime.
Mar 272013
 
It's really cool that Amazon.com gives us the chance to read short stories like these. Originally from 1977 I think this might be the first Matt Scudder short story published when it first came out.
In 1977 Scudder was still an unlicensed investigator, drinking his coffee mixed with booze and a real loner. He's hired to find out if Paula Wittlauer really jumped from her window, committing suicide or if it was murder.
We are treated to a compact little mystery that hits all the right notes. It's not a masterpiece or very original but it is very entertaining. It made me all nostalgic for this incarnation of Matt Scudder and ready for the movie adaption of A Walk Among the Tombstones.

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