Friday, January 26, 2007

Character Addiction

Most would say that I have an addictive personality. Whether it's because I swim two miles a day, down Trader Joe's almond clusters by the handful, or get cranky and bitter if I have less than two cups of coffee in the morning, my life consists of many addictions. But the latest one, one that I think many people experience, is television. HBO series in particular. Over the years, Sopranos and OZ have been my drugs of choice. I eagerly await by my mailbox for those Blockbuster Online envelopes and get anxious waiting for the next season to be released on DVD.

But why are they so addictive? For me, it's the characters. I watch them grow and change over the seasons and I can't wait to see what's going to happen to them next. I get sucked into this world and it feels more like a never-ending movie rather than a 60-minute television show.

I cannot help but see the link between these shows and series novels. Characters like Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch have become like old friends that live in my bookshelf. And just as I await for the next HBO series to be released on DVD, I await for new novels to appear on bookstore shelves. Just like a television episode, each novel is a piece of the bigger series in the story of these characters. It's no wonder that Dennis Lehane got tons of mail regarding his digression from the Kenzie and Gennaro series, pleading for him to write another book featuring the characters that readers had grown to love. Just imagine the devastation if Lee Child announced that he will no longer write about Jack Reacher...

I can see why series detective novels are so marketable: you build an audience and string them along book after book. Readers get addicted to the characters, the stories, just as much as 24 or The Wire. But just as most shows eventually come to an end, announcing the both devastating and exciting series finale, authors, like Lehane, often get burnt out on writing the same characters over and over. Even Harry Potter is taking his final bow, upsetting millions of loyal fans. But is it like a television series? Is the mourning process brief because there are so many other drugs to get addicted to? With new series, new characters, and new authors coming out each month, is it easy for fans just to move on to the next series?

While I count down the discs of the final Sopranos season, each episode bittersweet as it moves toward the ultimate finish, I'd love to hear your thoughts. For me, personally, although I love series characters I wouldn't stop reading an author just because he or she tried something new. But I know plenty of readers who fall in love with the characters more than the stories and are crushed, heart-broken even, when their favorite P.I. no longer graces the shelves.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Read my latest article on Out On The Net:

Also, my short story Everyone Loves a Leo will be included in The Queer Collection, an anthology of short stories written by queer authors. Not sure the exact release date, but I'll keep everyone posted.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Recently Read

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards is hands down, one of the most beautifully written novels I have read this year...maybe ever. It begins in 1964 when Dr. David Henry delivers his own twins. His son comes out perfectly healthy, but his daughter has down syndrome. Thinking he's doing the right thing, he asks his nurse, Caroline, to take the girl away to an institution and tells his wife that the baby was a still-born. But instead, Caroline takes the girl to another city and raises her as her own. The parallel structure is beautifully crafted and each sentence is like a line of poetry. A definite must-read.

Forests of the Night by David Stuart Davies reminded me much if Sherlock Holmes, except with a little more blood and guts. I won't go into too much detail since the review will be appearing in Crimespree, but Davies had me hooked by page one. Private eye Johnny Hawke is a great protagonist and I look forward to reading the next in the series.

Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs is laugh out loud, can't put it down funny. After reading about murder and mayhem, it's nice sometimes to just sit down and laugh with a book. Magical Thinking is a collection of short stories, less linear than his other works but gripping just the same. I believe that anyone dating a writer should read this and see that their significant other isn't actually that neurotic.

I'm currently in the middle of Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai but so far, I'm really enjoying it. It tells the story of Arjie who is considered "funny" because of his desire to dress up in women's clothing and his disdain for playing sports. A beautifully written coming of age story of a boy growing up gay in Columbo, Sri Lanka.
Check out the next issue of Crimespree for reviews of Don't Be Afraid and Tranquility Denied.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Writing Rules

I had lunch with a couple of friends yesterday, proving once again that if you get three writers together they will talk about one thing and one thing only: writing. Yes, we briefly touched on work, significant others, the Bears kicking that beautiful field goal, but all roads led back to our favorite topic.

However, one interesting point that crossed our lunch table was the rules of writing. One guy who I had a class with said that he was turned off by genre fiction because he felt it was too formulaic and constraining. I think many people feel the same way, and yes, there is a certain formula to creating a mystery, romance or science fiction novel. Crime committed, find out who did it and why. Girl meets boy. They fall in love. Must overcome obstacles to be together. Kind of open ended formulas, don't you think?

But I have to admit, I do believe in certain rules when it comes to any writing. There are certain things you cannot do (although I'm sure someone will remind me of a novel that did it very well).

1) A Good Protagonist. Yes, Chili Palmer is a loan shark, John Rain is an assassin, and Strike is a drug dealer, but what do they all have in common? Redeeming qualities. Rain won't kill women, children or non-principles. Strike deals drugs but doesn't do them and he has ulcers from the everyday stresses of the job. Palmer, well, Palmer is one charming loan shark and it seems he's always looking out for the greater good. Ya gotta love him. If the main character is all bad or has too many bad qualities, I'm not going to like them and therefore will not like the story.

2) A Good Villain. Even if it's not crime fiction, every novel or story has some antagonist or antagonistic force at work. Without it, how is there any conflict? But the most intriguing villains are those that aren't all bad. Look at Hannibal Lecter. He is one charming cannibal, which makes him all the more creepy.

3) A Good Conflict. No conflict? No story. Period. I had a teacher at Columbia who would always coach us to write "the day when the wheels fall off." You cannot write a story without something out of the ordinary happening, without something changing. Not only does there have to be conflict, but the conflict has to be important enough for readers to care. Say in the opening chapter, a housewife finds a dead body in her living room. Okay, I would say that's not an everyday occurrence. But what if the dead person was wearing a locket with the housewife's picture in it? I would think that the housewife would be a little more invested in finding out who this person is and what his corpse is doing in her living room. It's not enough to cause problems for your characters, the problems have to be personal.

4) Change Needed. No matter what genre, characters must change in the story. If the characters don't change, then what was the point of all that conflict? If the protagonist is the same person at the end of the book that he was at the beginning, then why did I follow the story for 300 pages? I'm sure I'll get a few comments disputing this, but I'm standing by my statement. Characters must change, in some way, by the end of the story.

5) Believable. Again a touchy subject, but I'm standing by it. All stories, no matter how far fetched should be believable. Even horror and dark fantasy novels create a world in which the story is feasible. All great science fiction novels make readers believe that this make-believe future could actually happen, no matter how ridiculous and out there the futuristic society may seem. If your story is about an intergalactic plot to take over the earth and one man's struggle to protect the world from the alien invasion, then you better put a hell of a lot of details showing me how this scenario could actually happen. Would this ever happen? Probably not. But it's the writer's job to show me that it could.

I'm always skeptical when someone tells me that there are rules for any kind of art, but these are the rules as I see them. I'm sure there are exceptions just as I'm sure I've left out a couple hundred so-called rules for writing. But for me, these five are the bottom line. If the book doesn't encompass all of these aspects, chances are, I'm putting it down.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Writing Conferences and You

After shelling out a few hundred bucks for Thriller Fest and with Love is Murder around the corner, I felt a need to speak a little bit about writing conferences. I started a few years back with Dark and Stormy nights, then went to Bouchercon and well, I got hooked. I had never been in a room with so many authors, so many people who understood the writing life and publishing world. And while it is fun to kick back and get hammered, writers, published or not, attend conferences for one primary reason: to network. If you disagree, then I suggest saving your money and getting a beer at your neighborhood bar.
For the published author, you go to market your book, connect with readers, and pretty much gain exposure. For me, I come out of each conference with a list of books to read, books that I probably would never pick up if I hadn't spoken with the author. For Newbies like me, I go to build my list of contacts, to talk with the masters and hopefully gain insight on writing and publishing, and to open myself to new opportunities.
Last year at LIM, I was on the Reviewer Panel moderated by Jon Jordan. After the panel (and after a few beers) Jon gave me the chance to review for Crimespree. I had been so nervous about being on a panel that I was almost going to call and cancel, but if I had, I would never have gotten that opportunity. After a few rounds at the bar, authors continued to come up and introduce themselves, saying that they enjoyed what I had to say on the panel. I was thinking, "Why do these people want to talk to me? Who am I?" But I realized that I was a reader and a reviewer and, to my surprise, and important contact for these authors to have. The next day, I had my pitch session with Cherry Weiner. Again, a last minute decision that I hadn't planned to participate in. But a month after she received my manuscript I was signing on the dotted line.
These conferences are what you make of them. You can't expect to sit at the bar nursing a beer and have people come up to you. You have to be confident and outgoing and be open to all opportunites that may come your way. Many aspiring writers think it's only important to talk to agents and editors. They are wrong. Other authors are some of the most important connections to have. They are the ones who will blurb your book when it comes out, they are the ones you may tour with, they are the ones who may vouch for you when their agent or editor has your manuscript. And, above all, most of them know what they're doing. In this market, if you have a book on the shelves, you have to be doing something right.
I'll be on the reviewer panel again at Love is Murder, so I hope to see everyone there. Take my advice, put yourself out there, pitch, talk to people, make contacts. It will pay off in the long run.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Your Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions that every writer should have:

1) Write More. Whether you regularly write a page a day or 20,000 words a week, double it. You can do it. You need to do it. The more you write, the better you get, so, in theory, if you write twice as much, by this time next year you’ll be twice as good. Triple it, and you’ll be Stephen fucking King.

2) Read More. You know all those books on your shelf that you proudly display and discuss eloquently with your party guests? Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually had read a few of them? Substitute an hour of TV watching with an hour of reading. Law and Order is probably a rerun anyway.

3) Drink Less. Right now you’re probably hungover from last night’s festivities, so you almost certainly agree with this resolution. But as soon as five o’clock hits, you and I both know you’ll be eyeing that beer in the fridge. Resist the temptation. Everyone knows that drinking hinders the writing process (with the exception of Tennessee Williams), so try and keep it to a minimum.

4) Exercise More. As with resolutions one and two, your immediate reaction is “When can I find time to do that?” But the days spent at the computer and the nights spent drinking have left you with a flabby gut, scrawny arms, and the inability to run a block without passing out. You need to remedy that. Join a gym and you can complete resolution number two while you’re on the exercise bike. Buy a couple of free weights and do bicep curls at the computer. Whatever it takes, you need to get in shape.

5) Procrastinate Less. Everyone complains about not having enough time. But how much of the little time you do have is wasted? How many games of spider solitaire did you play yesterday? How much time did you spend surfing the blog-o-sphere? (I mean, just bookmark my page and you can find it quicker!) Eliminate those beloved time-suckers and you can be more efficient and productive. Blocked about a certain scene? Do the dishes while you think it over. Did you complete a chapter and still have an hour to kill? Work on that freelance piece that’s due the next day. (Note to self: you have a freelance piece due tomorrow.)

6) Submit More. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, short or long, you need to be submitting all the time. While you’re finishing up that great American novel, submit a chapter to a literary magazine or pitch a story idea to your local newspaper. Publishing credits mean a lot and editors aren’t going to come knocking at your door begging to give them to you.

Stick to these resolutions and you are certain to become a better person and writer. If not, I’ll buy you a beer and a donut and leave you to your spider solitaire.