Thursday, May 31, 2007

Opinions, Please

I’m still wresting with the title for my fourth Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery. The first books in the series are WHAT ANGELS FEAR, WHEN GODS DIE, and WHY MERMAIDS SING. You see the pattern, right? What/When/Where/Why followed by noun followed by verb. I like all three of those titles and they came effortlessly when I was first plotting out the series. My problem is the title for the fourth book. It just won’t gel.

The mystery centers around the murder of eight prostitutes, one of whom was more than what she seemed—in fact, she was the daughter of an English lord. The suspects include her fiancé, her brother, her father, a brothel owner, a river thief, and a magistrate. Also involved is a certain historical event that provides the twist at the end. The core of the book is essentially the idea that this young girl was betrayed by those who should have loved her and protected her (yes, we are talking incest).

My original title—WHERE DRAGONS LIVE—won’t work because it sounds like a fantasy. My alternate—WHERE DEMONS SLEEP—sounds like a paranormal. I played with the nouns “serpents” and “devils”, but now I’m leaning towards “virgins”.

So, opinions, please. Out of the following, which do you prefer: WHERE VIRGINS KEEP, WHERE VIRGINS SLEEP, WHERE VIRGINS LIE?

Any other suggestions will be warmly welcomed!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Different Attitude Toward Life and Death

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I don’t have much time for it these days, but a chance cyber meeting with a distant relative in Germany motivated me to spend a few hours this weekend rummaging around old nineteenth-century New Orleans birth and death records. It was a sobering experience.

I’m a historian. I know the death rate in New Orleans was twice as high as that of other American cities, thanks to yellow fever and malaria and all the other nasties that used to flourish in subtropical cities. But nothing quite beats reading actual cemetery records. Consider this run from St. Joseph’s Cemetery from a random stretch in 1871:

1 Jan, Joseph Dudley, 1yr5mo, spasms; Charles Weber, 18m, cerebral inflammation; 2 Jan, male child of Annie Gerdes, 1 day, debility; 3 Jan, son of Judge Daly, still born; Joseph Hall, 6 days, tris. noscentium; Joseph Blake, 37 yrs, gunshot wound…

After reading a few years of this, anyone with any empathy is left gasping with agony for those who buried all these babies, all these children, all these young wives and young men. (The gunshot wound is actually a rarity.) One is left wondering, how did anyone survive? And then the inevitable sequel to that thought is, How did those left alive cope will all this death?

As someone who writes historical novels, it was a sobering experience. I found myself looking at the marriage record of a young woman and then her death record some 16 months later in childbirth, and thinking, How many mothers watched their daughters get married and trembled, knowing how easily they might soon lose them to death in childbirth? Or what about the anxious new mother, holding her baby and knowing how easily every little sniffle, every little tummy ache could lead to another trip to the family tomb?

Some causes of death were familiar—lockjaw, burns, consumption, meningitis, pneumonia, gastro enteritis, scarlet fever; others were strange 19th diagnoses—pthisis pulmonalis, pyasmia, marasmus, albuminaria, congestion of the brain, acute nephrotes. A thousand different ways to die. But the question is still, How did those who survived managed to go on living and laughing and making love? How did they create this city that became know as “the city that care forgot” and “the Big Easy”? The obvious answer is, That’s how they coped with all that suffering and sorrow and death. They threw themselves back into life with an abandonment that lingers in their descendents today.

I have a picture of a stern-faced old woman sitting on an old-fashioned couch. Her name is Caroline Holderith Wegmann, and she immigrated from the Bas Rhin region to New Orleans in 1870 at the age of 16. She raised seven children but buried another four. I keep her picture by my desk as a reminder. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for my self or to wine that life is sooo hard, she sits there and tells me I’m her great-granddaughter, and I’m made of sterner stuff.

Friday, May 25, 2007

How Do You Save Your Chapters?

I’m doing something new with the two books I’m currently writing. I’m only actively working on the fourth Sebastian mystery at the moment, but I have the second thriller at proposal stage (about 80 pages, which is long for my proposals), so technically I’m writing two books. Anyway, I’m taking a new approach to the way I save my chapters. Why? Well, I wasn’t happy with my old method.

Yonkers ago, when I first started writing historical romances, I saved each chapter as a separate document. It did not work well. I was always dividing old chapters that grew too long into two or three shorter chapters, inserting new chapters, moving chapters, renumbering chapters… In other words, it was a royal pain and often a confused mess. Then I sold my first book and my publisher wanted my book on disk, saved in ten chapter chunks. I complied and began saving my chapters that way when I wrote.

It worked slightly better, but only slightly. What was originally saved as “Chapters 21-30” frequently became in reality something like Chapters 23-34. Still a confused—and confusing—mess.

My newest publisher wants my thrillers on a CD saved as only one document. Slamming it all together was, predictably, a pain, and probably helped motivate me to rethink what I was doing. I’m not about to save my work in progress as one single document—I find 400 pages simply too unwieldy. But I’ve come up with a scheme that holds out promise of being much more manageable.

I’m dividing my new books into chunks that I’ve called, for lack of a better term, Acts. Not the structured acts of Aristotle or even Syd Fields, but my own Acts. Basically I’m dividing the book into story blocks that are distinct in some way. Each Act ends at a turning point in the story. Because these turning points are fairly set by the plot, I don’t anticipate I’ll be doing much shifting of chapters between Acts. And because these sections are simply labeled Act One, Act Two, etc, it won’t matter if I add, divide, or delete chapters within them.

So far, it seems to be working well. I don’t know why I clung to my old method for so long. I’m beginning to think that after one has been writing for a certain length of time, it’s a good idea to change some habits, shake things up, come at this métier from a slightly different angle.

So how about you? How do you save your chapters?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Are You Impressed Yet?

According to the March 2007 Library and Information Update, one third of readers surveyed said they read “challenging literature” in order to be perceived as being well read, even though they couldn’t follow what the book was about. One half said reading classics makes people look more intelligent, while forty percent lied about having read certain books. Another survey found that half of their respondents admitted to having bought a book simply to leave it lying around the house looking impressive.

Topping the list of books people admitted they bluffed about having read: Lord of the Rings, War and Peace, Withering Heights, 1984, Harry Potter, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, The Da Vinci Code, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

If you think that’s scary, think about this: these are the honest liars. How many people buy books to impress their friends or claim to read books they haven’t, yet don’t admit it?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Judging a Book by its Cover

As a writer, few things cause me as much angst as my books’ covers. Why? Because a book’s cover is constantly cited as one of the most important factors influencing a reader’s decision to pick it up. Yet ironically it’s the one aspect of a book in which writers have the least input.

Titles are also important, and in some genres a writer has almost no influence there either. I wrote seven romance novels and NOT ONE went to press with my original title or even one of my first half dozen alternate suggestions. I seem to have better luck with my mystery and thriller titles. So far all my Sebastian St. Cyr books have gone to press with their original titles intact. My thriller title stuck as well.

But it’s now cover conference time for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, which means I’m starting to fret. The decisions being made in that anonymous room up in New York could very well make a difference between this book’s success and oblivion. Sometimes art departments turn in stunning results—WHY MERMAIDS SING, for instance. And then there are the dogs. The cover of WHEN GODS DIE was a severe disappointment. But since ARCHANGEL is my first thriller, I don’t know what to expect.

We actually started down this road a few months ago, then Harper Collins bailed because they hadn’t decided yet whether they wanted to bring ARCHANGEL out in hardcover or as a paperback original (and that makes a difference, it seems, in the cover). Steve and I did “thriller cover research” and were amused to realize that thriller covers are as stereotypic as romance covers. A thriller or suspense novel typically has either a woman in a dress and heels or a man in a suit running down a shadowy street. Sometimes the man is walking, but if so, then he must be in a trench coat. If the book doesn’t take place in a city, then we have a stark, scary scene of rural menace.

There are a few book covers that break this mold, but they are rare. Why? Because publishers think readers are stupid. The woman in heels running down a dark street tells readers This Is A THRILLER, just as a shadowy historical street scene tells readers This Is a Historical Mystery. The fear is that if publishers stick a different cover on a book, readers looking for a thriller or historical mystery won’t recognize it.

Yet the Da Vinci Code had a great, different cover and I’ve no doubt it contributed much to the book’s success (that and the largest marketing push in publishing history). A recent informal survey of mystery readers revealed that most historical mystery readers actually don’t even know that dark historical street scene covers are a clue they should be looking for. Of course, everyone in the world knows that a “clinch” cover is shorthand for romance. Romance writers complained about those covers for years, but publishers clung to them because they were convinced they’d lose readers if they tried something different. Then they tried something different and, lo and behold, books with innovative covers sold better. Who’d have thunk?

The funny thing is, even though I know better, I find I still judge a book by its cover, at least initially. An eye-catching cover and an intriguing title will lure me to pick up a book. I’ll then read the blurb and, if I think it sounds interesting, I’ll read the first few pages to get a feel for a writer’s style. If that appeals to me, I’ll buy the book. But that first step—reaching out and taking the book in my hand—is provoked by the title and the cover. And that’s a scary thought.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Death in a Small Town

I attended high school and college in a small Idaho town nestled in the foothills of the Rockies. My own daughter’s looming graduation recently stirred memories of those times. Yesterday’s news of a shooting spree around my old alma mater stirred even more memories.

Moscow’s courthouse is right across the street from the high school, while the church in question is right behind it. Our high school had an open campus policy, so at lunch and during free periods we’d go stand around in front of the church and grab a smoke. On one memorable cold, rainy day in January, I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend under that church’s portico. The thought of a gunman charging through those memories is dislocating. Moscow is a beautiful, leafy town of lovely old buildings and that air of intellectual inquiry and creative excitement that always seems to hang over a university. Everyone keeps saying, Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in Moscow. And yet…

I remember once, in my twenties, sitting around with a small group of other young women. One was from New York City, another from Philadelphia, a third from Chicago. None of them had ever personally known anyone who had been murdered. I had known four, and three of those young women had been murdered in Moscow.

A few weeks ago, my older daughter called me, upset because she’d just heard that a friend of hers from her undergraduate days had been killed in a car accident. “I never knew anyone my age who died,” she said. I commiserated with her, but I also thought, Wow. People died in car accidents all the time when I was in school. Perhaps it had something to do with the lack of seat belts and air bags, but I suspect it had more to do with icy mountain roads, which are a bad combination with inexperienced or drunk young drivers.

There have been times when I wished I was raising my girls someplace like Moscow, Idaho. Being a parent in New Orleans can be unnerving, what with Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, second lines and Southern Decadence. And then there’s the constant shootings—a cousin of mine caught a bullet in the throat just driving to work one day (she survived). And yet when you live in a country where the rate of firearms homicides is NINETEEN times higher than that of the other thirty-five high-income countries COMBINED, the idea of safety anywhere is an illusion.

I know this. And still I mourn. Things like that shouldn’t happen in a place like Moscow.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Jack Sprat and His Wife

Are you an Underwriter or an Overwriter?

I’m beginning to realize that authors usually fall into one category or the other. Overwriters tend to, well, over-write their books. They pile on unneeded description, write scenes that add nothing to the story, ramble on and on with dialogue that goes nowhere. Their revision process consists of trimming all that fat.

Pat Conroy is an Overwriter. I understand he writes massive tomes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of sparkling prose that frequently wanders all over the place. His editors trim and condense the still-thick books that go to print. Laura Joh Rowland is also an Overwriter. I’ve heard her say her first draft can be as much as a hundred pages longer than her final copy. In the course of her revisions she’ll slash not just scenes, but entire chapters she realizes are unnecessary.

Other authors are Underwriters. Their first drafts are lean, sparse things. Their revision process consists of adding scenes they realize they missed, plus going into existing scenes to lengthen dialogue and enrich description.

I’m an Underwriter. Sometimes I will cut bits and pieces when I'm revising, but rarely. Many writing books tell beginning writers to cut off the first three chapters of their manuscript and start the story there, since so many people begin their books too soon. Not me. I’ve frequently needed to ADD two or three scenes on to the beginning of my manuscripts because I later realize I’ve started the story too late. My romance editor was always making me write epilogues because she said my books ended too abruptly. And even after my own revision process, when I’ve added multiple scenes I realized were missing, my editors always come back asking me to write a few more scenes. I can’t remember ever being asked to delete a scene.

Neither way is right, of course. We each work in our own unique way. But I suspect it helps to know which category you belong to. So, what are you? An Underwriter or an Overwriter?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fifty Years of Goodbyes

Yesterday, my daughter’s headmaster called her into his office and handed her a bulging packet of yellowing note cards and tattered, type-written pages. “Here,” he said. “This is every valedictorian speech given at Ecole Classique for the last fifty years. They might give you some ideas.” You see, my daughter is Ecole Classique’s valedictorian this year.

At first she looked at all those speeches and went, Oh my god. But in the end they provided us with an afternoon of sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious reading. There’s the late sixties graduate who foamed at the mouth about longhaired antiwar hippies (We Googled him; he’s now a banker and a deacon at a local church. I was hoping he’d joined a Hari Krishna group or something.) One obviously depressed—and depressing—valedictorian delivered dire warnings about all the disappointments his classmates would face in life. Some girls sound so peppy and gushy you just know they were also cheerleaders. Others sound wise beyond their years. Yet all taken together they provide a fascinating look at how much life has changed—and how much it has stayed the same—with the passing of the years.

Dani spent part of last night and part of this morning working on her own speech. At one point she looked up and said, “It’s kinda weird to think that next year my speech will be in that packet and future valedictorians will be reading it.” It was a thought that gave me pause, as well.

Thirty-odd years ago, I was valedictorian of my high-school class. I was so disliked by the administration that they refused to allow me to give the traditional speech at graduation. I was a bit miffed at the time, but that was all—I mean, what seventeen-year-old wants to write a speech? But now, looking back, I realize how wrong what they did was. Not to me, but to what should have been a long, unbroken, ever changing and wildly varying progression of goodbyes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

Do you believe in evil? Notice I didn’t ask, “Do you think pure “evil” exists as an identifiable entity in this world?” The concept of “evil” is so intimately entwined with most religions that attitudes towards evil generally operate at the gut level of belief. I suspect our attitudes towards evil-or the religious Evil—strongly influence the fiction we write and, to a lesser degree, the fiction we read.

John Connelly, for instance, believes in Evil. Raised an Irish Catholic, his belief in Evil permeates his books. No one who didn’t believe in Evil could have written those books although one does not need to believe in Evil to both read and enjoy his work. And yet I suspect someone who does not believe in Evil experiences his books in a different way, or at a different level, from those who do believe. The Evil in BLACK ANGEL operates at basically the same level it does in THE LORD OF THE RINGS or in a Stephen King book. Perhaps this is part of the appeal of horror and fantasy—they explore their stories at a fairy tale level where Good and Evil are absolutes. Perhaps that’s why those genres don’t appeal to me. I believe in a world with shades of gray.

Yet I’ve noticed an increasing trend among writers—especially writers of thrillers or romantic suspense—to simply create an Evil villain—or villains—and never move beyond that cartoon-like figure. While that Morality Play approach might have a place in fantasy and horror, I see it as lazy writing in genres that purport to be taking a more realistic look at life. But then I wonder, Do I feel this way simply because I don’t believe in Evil?

Both Osama bin Laden and George Bush, for instance, are denounced by those who hate them as “Evil.” Osama may (or may not) have collaborated with nineteen young men to fly planes into buildings and kill nearly three thousand people. George Bush launched two wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people (three if one counts Somalia), bombed what was once a prosperous nation back to the Stone Age (although in this he only completed what his father began), and destroyed countless irreplaceable artifacts, historic documents, and archaeological sites from what was once the Cradle of Civilization. Yet neither man believes he is evil. On the contrary, both believe they are guided by God.

And now I’m going to wade into very deep water and take a look at Hitler. He has been morphed into the ultimate EVIL. Please don’t get me wrong: I believe that what he did was horrible. But I’m wondering if we have turned him into a caricature of Evil simply to reassure ourselves that he was nothing like “us.” How much scarier to see him as a man much like ourselves who thought he had good justifications for what he did, who made very bad choices and simply gave in to the baser promptings known to all.

Monday, May 14, 2007

When a Green Thumb Isn’t a Good Thing

This is a titan arum or Amorphophallus titanum, popularly known as Devil’s Tongue. It very rarely blooms even in the wild, which is a good thing unless you’re a Botanic Garden. Then it’s a good thing only because thousands of people will line up and pay money to see this thing in flower. Why? Well, it is very pretty and yes, it is extremely rare for one in captivity to come into bloom. But for most people the real fascination comes from the way this lily smells. You see, its other common name is corpse plant. That’s right: for sixteen hours it smells like a dead body.

Why did I buy this plant? Because its leaves are lovely and it NEVER blooms, right?


Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Dangerous Book for Boys: Dangerous, All Right

It’s long been one of my soapboxes that something vital is being lost from childhood. When I was a kid in the Fifties and Sixties, our knees and elbows were constantly covered with scabs at various points of healing. Yeah, I’m a klutz, but the main culprits were skates that clamped on your tennie runners with a key (and came off when you hit a crack, sending the wearing flying), adult-sized bikes for 6-year-olds who couldn’t sit on the seat and touch the ground, monkey bars underlain with blacktop—the list went on and on. I remember pumping to get swings up as high as they would go and then jumping out, flying down the hill on my English racer with arms and legs proudly splayed out to the sides, climbing trees to dizzying heights. Today, parents are so afraid of their children being hurt or kidnapped (and schools and playgrounds are so afraid of being sued) that kids spend most of their lives playing video games and cruising the Net.

So on one level I think the wild popularity of The Dangerous Book for Boys is great (it's also great for the bottom line of one of my publishers, Harper Collins). Its target audience seems to be twenty-something dads who never had a chance to make periscopes and trip wires, fashion their own bows and arrows or slingshots, skim stones across a lake or go fishing. Basically, this is a book to help sissified men teach their boys the manly, boys-own pastimes of yore. So what’s my problem?

I have two problems: First, I’m FEMALE, but I didn’t need this book to teach my girls how to do this stuff because I did it myself as a child. So why is this a “Book for Boys”? My second problem is the way this book is being marketed. It’s as if these activities are a secret, male-only club that not only makes the guys manly but by extension makes them essentially better than the ladies. And I don’t like the message that sends to either boys or girls.

I was already annoyed before I went to and watched the book’s trailer. It begins with the father bearing the boy off for a day of manly adventures while mom (dressed in white slacks) stands over the stove making breakfast and bleating in confused accents, “But where are you going?” We see her again later, daintily weeding the garden (still in those white pants!) and getting annoyed when the “boys” splash her. Then we see her at night, annoyed that they’re not home. But then hubby comes in and presents her with a bouquet of flowers, and all is well.

All is not well. Why isn’t this “The Dangerous Book for Kids”? Why do we have to define manliness by diminishing those of us with two XX chromosomes? My mother—now 90—was a mean baseball player in her day. In all my pictures of her as a child in the Twenties (no, I'm not a senior citizen; for some reason the women in my family don't seem to breed until they're in their late thirties), her knees and elbows are covered with scabs at various points of healing. She climbed trees and ran the neighborhood with her four brothers. Please don’t tell me that my grandparents were more enlightened than the parents of today.

Watch the trailer here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Car Woes Update

We have Dani’s Bug back and it looks great. Much better, in fact, than the last time we had the front end redone (other daughter).

The news on my Golf, however, is not so good. They decided they needed to replace the engine. Problem is, I had very low mileage (after all, I’m a writer who works at home). They can’t find a comparable engine. So my insurance company has decided to total the car.

Sigh. I liked my car. I really liked my car. But as long as I live in New Orleans, I’m not buying another car with the air intake on the bottom. So now I need to find a new car, which would be nice if I could buy a fun car. But fun isn’t a priority. The priority is finding a vehicle that 1) can help evacuate six cats in the face of another hurricane and 2) does not have its air intake on the bottom. In other words, no sporty little convertible for Candy.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Young Book Lovers

I did something fun today. Sacred Heart Academy is an old (and very $$$) local girls school. As part of a recent assignment, everyone in their freshman class picked a local writer to research, read one of their books, and wrote a paper. A girl named Katie picked me, and then she invited me to come speak to her class. Since I’m a big believer in encouraging young peoples’ interest in books, I said yes.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such an enthusiastic, interested, and just plain fun audience. The experience left me with a pleasant buzz that has lasted all day. The girls were articulate, knowledgeable, mature, and amazingly lucky to go to such a wonderful school and have such an intelligent, enthusiastic teacher. I’m not normally a fan of all girls schools (my own two girls went to Seymour College in Adelaide, a very $$$ elite girls boarding school in the eastern suburbs, and were miserable). But what I saw working in that class today was education at its best, inquisitive minds coming together with an adult who respects them and guides them toward knowledge and a love of learning.

If only that wasn’t so rare.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Swords of Talera

Nothing quite beats the thrill of seeing your story in print. When the story in question is one you first wrote over two decades ago, the thrill must be even sweeter.

A friend of mine, Charles Gramlich, just published SWORDS OF TALERA, a swashbuckling tale in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. This is a story he first wrote in his early twenties. Since that time he’s gone on to earn a PhD in psychology, become a professor at Xavier University, and write—and publish—dozens of short stories and one horror novel, COLD IN THE LIGHT. At one time, he revised Swords of Talera and started on a more serious search for a publisher. But by then the sword and planet genre was fading. The story came out as a serial in a SF magazine, where it received the magazine’s Readers’ Choice award. Now, the recent revival of the fantasy genre means the trilogy (he has written two sequels) is finally seeing publication in book form.

Charles is a member of my Monday night writers group, so over the years I’ve read and enjoyed bits and pieces of the two sequels—WINGS OVER TALERA and WITCH OF TALERA. Anyone who reads Charles’s blog knows his glorious gifts for atmosphere and description, while a lifetime of watching people added to his professional mastery of psychology gives a rare resonance to his characters.

Congratulations, Charles!

And here’s the Amazon link.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Just When You Think Things Can’t Get Any Worse…

We’ve been having a hideous storm here in New Orleans all day. Buckets of rain, endless lightening and thunder, howling winds. You need to understand that even without a hurricane it can rain so hard in New Orleans that the streets turn into vast sheets of water deep enough to swallow unwary motorists. Which is how my daughter managed to drive my car (of course it’s my car; hers is still in the shop) into a lake deep enough to make it stall out.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she says over and over again when she calls.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’ll call Steve to come get you.”

Ten minutes later, she calls back. “Where’s Steve?”

“He’s coming. Why?”

“Well I was just sitting here in the car and I heard this huge crack and this giant tree came crashing down toward me!”

Deep breath. “Are you all right?”


Deep breath. “Did it hit the car?”

“No. But it brought down some power lines and—”

“Don’t get out of the car!”

“Right, Mama,” she says in that tone that only a teenager can manage. “I’m sitting in a car surrounded by water with live power lines bouncing around and you think I’m going to get out of the car?”

Ah, if only this were fiction…

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Getting it Wrong

After writing only a handful of pages last week (I misspoke; when I counted them, there were actually eight pages), I sat down Sunday night to reread what I had produced. Two scenes, and both were unadulterated sh*t.

Steve said, “They can’t be that bad. Let me see them.” He read them, handed them back, and manfully said, “Well, they are a little weak.”

“Weak? They’re unadulterated sh*t!”

Some writers, I know, have the ability to charge onward without reworking or even rereading what they’ve written. Not me. I feel as if I’m building a house on shaky foundations. I couldn’t continue writing until I fixed what was wrong with those two scenes.

For one full day I was paralyzed. You must remember, this is a book I haven’t touched since I submitted the proposal last November 1. All the standard fears raised their heads. Oh, God; what if I just can’t DO this? I retreated into an old Georgette Heyer book (I haven’t read GH in ten or fifteen years) and spent the day chuckling. On Tuesday, I took a deep breath and started rewriting.

So what was wrong with my two scenes? They were boring. Why were they boring? Well, the first scene introduces a character named Jules Calhoun, Sebastian’s valet. Those who read the series know that Sebastian has valet problems, due largely to his habit of sometimes dressing like a beggar and at other times having his expensive coats and waistcoats ruined by would-be assassins. Calhoun arrives at the end of WHY MERMAIDS SING. He’s a colorful character (his mother runs the most notorious flash house in London), and just what Sebastian needs. So what is he doing when we’re introduced to him in this book? Sewing a button on a shirt.

I know, I know. Where was my head? Not only is the scene hopelessly static, but it gives us no sense of Calhoun’s character at all. I also realized that, despite the fact that this is the first time (in this book) we see Sebastian’s house and meet his household, I provided no description of his house or his household or why he lives the way he does. All that is now integrated into the new scene, which includes the major-domo’s hostility to Calhoun (for conflict), and introduces Calhoun in the midst of concocting his secret boot polish in the kitchen and carrying on a light flirtation with Sebastian’s French cook. The scene is so much better. Last week’s scene was written by an incompetent idiot. This week’s scene isn’t the best I’ve ever produced, but it more than holds its own weight.

In the next scene, Sebastian visits a brothel. How can a visit to a brothel be boring? It was a tough feat, but I pulled it off. How? I left out virtually all description. There was no description of the neighborhood or even an awareness of the time of day. The girls were described but not their clothes. The house itself was described, but badly. It was like a cake without frosting. Now it’s iced and decorated, and it is much, much better. I was able then to move smoothly into writing the next scene, where Sebastian tangles with the brothel’s bouncer. I now have 14 pages (counting the reworked scenes, not counting the 38 pages written last fall for the proposal). Not a great total, but I’m back in the story, and it’s flowing.

It’s funny that after all these years I can still get it so horribly, horribly wrong. I guess what the years have taught me is how to recognize when it’s going wrong, how to understand why it’s going wrong, and how to fix it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Meet Fabio’s Darker Cousin, aka All-Infidels-Must-Die!

I had a revelation of sorts this week. After reading three wonderful books in a row by three very talented authors (Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton, Charles McCarry), I resisted the urge to read another of their books and instead picked up the newest release by a very successful thriller writer. Sometimes, market research can be very illuminating.

The book’s premise sounds promising. The problem is, within a page or so of being introduced to our writer’s first villain (an Arab, of course) I started laughing. Here is his first bit of dialogue: “Infidels! The Jews are the enemies of Islam. Jews are the source of all conflicts! They are liars. MURDERERS. If I am defending my home, no one can call me a terrorist. All infidels must die!”

Now, I’ve met many Arabs in my life. Some were Moslems, some were Christians of various denominations, a few were Druze, some were secularists. Many are refugees, having lost homes, businesses, and/or farms to the Israelis both in 48 and 67. A few of them could be labeled “terrorists.” Some were members of the PLO at a time before Hamas when we thought the PLO was really scary. Some spent several years in Israeli prisons, some have been tortured. One even hijacked a few airplanes and blew them up (minus the passengers) in the deserts of Jordan. Now, because I’m always interested in getting to understand people, we talk politics. We talk history. We talk philosophy. We talk religion. Yet never once have I heard anyone spew any of the above venom. The only people who talk like this come out of the minds of American writers. They are clichés. Actually, they’re worse than clichés, they’re cartoons. And cartoons are (usually) funny. Funny is not something you want your villain to be unless you’re writing a comedy.

But what, you’re probably saying, does this have to do with Fabio? I’m getting to that.

As bad as the “All infidels must die!” line is, the book quickly gets worse. That memorable bit of dialogue is delivered in the Prologue, which is set in 1985. Picture the scene: the bridge between East and West Berlin. Of course it’s dark, cold and snowing (isn’t it always?). The Russians are releasing someone they really don’t want to release in exchange for our infidel-hating cliché. Why? Because his parents offered them 1 ½ million dollars. Right. But wait. It gets better. We’re told that after he’s released, our cliché—described as a “Muslim militant”—is going back to Damascus. At this point I’m screaming, “No, no, no, no!” Evidently no one told our thriller writer that any Muslim militant with any sense steered well clear of Damascus in 1985 unless he wanted to end up in prison being tortured (basically by the same guys the CIA now uses in their “renditions” program). But Damascus is scary—it’s part of the axis of evil, after all. So who cares if the scenario makes sense?

But wait. It gets better. After they make the exchange, the evil Commies—perfidious like all villains—have a sniper shoot and kill the man they’ve just released. I almost hurled the book across the room. Right. I’m to believe the Soviets would risk having everyone on their side of the bridge immediately machine-gunned, plus destroy forever this very professional and mutually beneficial exchange system, simply to kill a 70-year-old doctor they agreed to release just to get their money-grubbing hands on 1 ½ million? Pul-eeze.

Why did our writer do this? (This is where we get to the Fabio Revelation part.) Ignorance doubtless played a part, but I suspect she wrote this stuff because All-Infidels-Must-Die Arab terrorists, Damascus, and perfidious Commies are shorthand for Bad Guys. Why create real characters and situations when you can evoke emotional reactions by leaning on clichés?

In the interests of market research, I’m still wading through this book. We’ve met two more villains, one American, one described as cosmopolitan, both as hopelessly clichéd as All Infidels Must Die. The more I read, the more I find I’m reminded of the collection of Mills and Boons romances I once plowed through in an effort to help a couple of Aussie friends aiming at that market understand why their books kept being rejected. I’m sure our thriller writer would faint if she knew I was comparing her to romance writers, of all things. Actually, it’s the romance writers I’m insulting here. (And to them I apologize. There are some wonderful, talented writers working in the romance genre.)

Why the comparison? Because our thriller writer has fallen into the romance-like shortcut of using symbols, images, and allusions to provoke emotional responses. Consider this passage of literary criticism: “The author…and her audience enter into a pact with one another. The reader trusts the writer to create and recreate for her a vision of a fictional world that is free of moral ambiguity, a larger-than-life domain in which such ideals as courage, justice, honor, loyalty…are challenged and upheld. It is an active, dynamic realm of conflict and resolution, evil and goodness, darkness and light…and it is a familiar world in which the roads are well traveled and the rules are clear. The…writer gives form and substance to this vision by locking it in language, and the…reader yields to this alternative world in the act of reading, allowing the narrative to engage her mind and emotions and provide her with a certain intensity of experience. She knows that certain expectations will be met and that certain conventions will not be violated.”

That’s Jayne Ann Krentz, explaining why romance writers use clichéd plot elements and language—a language that “most effectively carries and reinforces the essential messages that [the writers] are endeavoring to convey….Stock phrases and literary figures are regularly used to evoke emotion.” But Krentz could just as easily be describing all too many of today’s thriller writers. Krentz was writing a defense for some of the worst excesses of the romance genre. I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it when it’s applied to thrillers, either. This is lazy writing. Unfortunately, it’s also very, very successful. Since most thrillers are written by men rather than women, I doubt they’ll receive the kind of scorn that is so-often heaped on romances. But that doesn’t alter the fact that another genre is being hijacked. Move over Fabio.