Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dude, yer gettin' a Dell -- to write your book

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I was returning to the keyboard after a hiatus of too many months napping, reading, working out, doing crosswords, playing solitaire, drinking wine, mowing the lawn, surfing the Internet, cursing the cats, brooding through Wichita's monsoon season -- any and all of the hundreds of things writers do to avoid actually writing. As a bit of reinforcement before the fact, I bought a new laptop computer, reasoning that it might be easier to write if I didn't always have to be in the same room when I was doing it.

So far, it's working. While I'm not going to give the new machine all the credit, it's probably true that the deep shame of buying unnecessary hardware has fostered at least a temporary surge in productivity. My goal is a minimum of 500 words a day; so far I've been closer to 1,000.

For this book project, I'm trying a couple of other new tricks -- new to me, at any rate. I only reread the last few paragraphs of what I've done the day before. In the past, I've wasted days endlessly tinkering with single scenes, or even single paragraphs, without making any real progress on the story at hand. I'm finding now that forswearing all but the most fundamental editing helps keeps things moving forward. I figure there will be plenty of time to run it all through the shredder when I've got a complete rough draft.

Also, I'm trying really hard to ignore that persistent voice in my head, the one that keeps saying, "By the way, you know this is crap, don't you?" OK, it might actually be crap, but at this point I think I'll wait to judge it as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. Job one is writing the damned manuscript; I'll consider the futility of selling it at a later date. It's like an amateur runner in a marathon, I guess: You know you're not going to win it, but it's very important to finish.

In the meantime, my real advice for aspiring writers: Get yourself a new computer. It can't hurt.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Sentences mightier than the sword. Sort of.

This year's winning entry in the 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is a sobering reminder on the perils of handling dashes and subordinate clauses without parental supervision. It's also quite funny:

"Gerald began -- but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash -- to pee." -- Jim Gleeson, Madison, Wis.

Personally, I thought the runner-up entry worked even better:

"The Barents sea heaved and churned like a tortured animal in pain, the howling wind tearing packets of icy green water from the shuddering crests of the waves, atomizing it into mist that was again laid flat by the growing fury of the storm as Kevin Tucker switched off the bedside light in his Tuba City, Arizona, single-wide trailer and by the time the phone woke him at 7:38, had pretty much blown itself out with no damage." -- Scott Palmer, Klamath Falls, Ore.

In the detective category, this winning entry shows that those Swedes are almost as good at crime fiction parody as they are at crime fiction:

"I'd been tailing this guy for over an hour while he tried every trick in the book to lose me: going down side streets, doubling back, suddenly veering into shop doorways, jumping out again, crossing the street, looking for somewhere to make the drop, and I was going to be there when he did it because his disguise as a postman didn't have me fooled for a minute." -- Bob Millar, Hässelby, Sweden

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The holy grail, or something like it

Looking over the New York Times fiction bestseller list this morning, I notice that only four of the top 16 titles can't be classified as mysteries or thrillers. Those include "A Thousand Splendid Suns," Khaled Hosseini's book about the enduring friendship between two Afghan women; and "Bungalow 2," Danielle Steel's book about, well, what most Danielle Steel books are about.

I suppose that's good news for writers of mysteries and thrillers, particularly if you happen to be named Janet Evanovich or James Patterson. Surely it must mean there is a vast demand for the genre we've chosen. The rest of us can brood over the list, nursing our lukewarm coffee and lukewarm talent, and vaguely imagine the sequels for the breakout novels we have not yet written.

But really, while the bestseller list is every writer's fantasy, it probably shouldn't be any writer's goal. That path leads to imitation and formula, and practically guarantees even deeper obscurity. If not, it leads to books like "The Quickie," the No. 1 bestseller soon to be available at yard sales all over town -- 50 cents in hardcover, barely read once.

Or so I tell myself. In writing, I believe, success lies in telling the story you were born to tell. Or, failing that, in telling the poignant story of your adorable but misbehaving little dog. Anything else, and the pinnacle of success will be forever receding on the horizon. Unknown writers can only say what they have to say and hope for the best. Sometimes, the mountain must come to Mohammed.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Speaking of memorable writing ...

While we must wait until Monday to get the results of the 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, it behooves us all to reflect soberly on last year's winners, and ask ourselves if we can't do better.

In case you did not print this out and frame it when it was first announced, here's last year's winning entry:

"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean."

How they judge these I can't say, since most of them seem equally funny. Here's another, the winner of the detective fiction division:

"It was a dreary Monday in September when Constable Lightspeed came across the rotting corpse that resembled one of those zombies from Michael Jackson's "Thriller," except that it was lying down and not performing the electric slide."

Good stuff. Probably too late to enter now, but I'm going to craft a few entries for next year.

Friday, July 27, 2007

First lines: The art of setting the hook

When I'm browsing books, I always give special weight to the opening line. The very best of them set up the essential conflict right off the bat. They reassure you that, yes, there's a story here, and you're not going to have to wait until Chapter 8 to get interested in it. I'm a great fan of opening lines, from the famous to the obscure. Often they're the reason I take a closer look at a book I might otherwise pass by.
So it's interesting to examine this list, compiled by American Book Review, of what they deem the 100 best first lines of all time. Some I agree with; others ... meh.

For example, the No. 1 choice: "Call me Ishmael." I don't know. While eloquent, as a single sentence it doesn't really grab you by the throat, or suggest the epic struggle to come in Moby Dick.

Then there's that other famous beginning: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy's oft-quoted opening to Anna Karenina ranks No. 6. This, I think, does a better job of what a first sentence should do: tell you that this is not going to be a story about happy (and therefore boring) people.

Personally, I am most fond of lines like this: "It was the day my grandmother exploded." I haven't read this book, The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks, but with an opening like that it's just a matter of time.

Of course, I wouldn't bring this up if I didn't have an opening line of my own to offer, from my upcoming story "Strange Days" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's not literature, but I think it helped sell the story: "Loin cloth, black loafers and a foot-long Bowie knife: It wasn't a great look for an out-of-shape man in his 60s, especially one whose torso had not seen the sun since the Carter administration."

Any great first lines stick in your mind?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blinded by the light. But it's only temporary

When you fancy yourself a writer, it complicates the pastime of reading for pleasure. Like it or not, you end up judging every book with the eye of a technician. I inevitably have one of two reactions: "Hell, I could do better than this" (to which the inner voice replies, "then why didn't you?"); or "I could not write this well in a million years" (to which the inner voice replies, "You're finally starting to get it").

I'm having the second reaction to "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," which I mention below. While I'm thoroughly enjoying this book, it's also kind of depressing to be reminded so forcefully that there is such a thing as innate talent, and that some people have a lot more of it than others. Michael Chabon puts more pathos, humor and insight into a single paragraph than I've been able to do in a thousand of them. He's a fine writer to read, but a daunting one to compare oneself against.

I guess it's more helpful to reflect on the thousands of lesser writers who are filling up Barnes and Nobles all over the country, and who are making nice livings despite their lesser talents. We can't all be excellent, but we can aim for it. And now, back to the book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

North to Alaska with Michael Chabon

You've got to hand it to Michael Chabon -- he's one of the most inventive writers working today. I've just started on his latest, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," which publisher Harper-Collins calls "At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption."

Hey, if I could handle just one of those, I'd be dancing in the streets. I'll see how he pulls it off, but the early signs look good. I've enjoyed Chabon's writing before, in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," and most recently in the serialized adventure "Gentlemen of the Road," which appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Chabon has a fecund, literary style, but he also has a sly and pervasive sense of humor -- I always appreciate it when serious fiction is rendered not quite so serious.

Which is why I bought this book. And because of the whodunit element, of course. I'll post my impressions when I'm finished.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tarts in trouble: Won't you please help?

I don't have anything to add about human train wreck Lindsay Lohan, but apparently Google has recently forced legislation through Congress requiring every Web site and blog to mention her name at least once a day and run helicopter footage if available. This is my quota. Look, I don't make the laws; I just follow them.

It seems Lohan ingested a liter and a half of apricot brandy, two grams of cocaine and a 64-ounce Mountain Dew before climbing behind the wheel of a luxury SUV and pursuing the mother of her personal assistant, who had recently left Lohan's employ to "pursue other interests." There were reports that Lohan wasn't wearing panties and chanted slogans concerning the forgiveness of Third World debt, but it is the policy of this blog not to repeat such rumors until photographs become available.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Lohan's attorney, Blair Berk, noted that "addiction is a terrible and vicious disease." Other sources say it's also considered awful, horrific and unpleasant. And not that cool anymore. The upside for Lohan is that she's only 21. At 22, she will meet the legal definition of party skank, which has adversely impacted endorsement contracts for other celebrities. At this point, only Icehouse Beer and Depend undergarments have expressed interest in renewing their contracts with the mercurial Lohan.

If you'd like to help Lindsay, send me whatever money you can spare. No amount is too small. Except maybe $2 -- that wouldn't be quite enough.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Who might stand the test of time?

My fatuous poll pitting Charles Dickens against three of today's big-name crime writers proved less than nothing, but it did elicit an interesting comment from Sally Crawford of Blogging for London: Which of today's writers might endure as long as Dickens?

My short answer would be "none of the above." But let's think about it. It's certainly possible that the most enduring contemporary writer may be somebody we've not yet heard of -- some Van Gogh of the literary world whose genius is widely acknowledged only after he or she is dead. But since I'm trying to maintain a vague focus on crime writing, let's limit the choices to that genre. Can you think of anybody writing crime fiction today who might still be in print 165 years from now? Dickens set the bar pretty high in that regard. Too bad he wasn't writing detective stories.

Probably it's a dumb question. The things that sell modern crime novels -- adherence to the conventions of the genre and generous dollops of ironic pop-culture references -- are the very things that work against longevity. Still, there must be somebody out there whose work might grace the classics section of a Borders in 2172 -- always assuming books of any kind survive the century. Ruth Rendell? Elmore Leonard? I'm going to bed now, but I hope some other names come to me in the night.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"The Quickie" and the dead

Right up front: I haven't read “The Quickie,” the latest book with James Patterson's name on it. The title seems apt enough, but I was wondering: Why use it now, instead of a dozen books ago? Patterson's hirelings have been turning out volumes of this description for at least a decade. Next up: “The Phoning It In.”

Of course I'm not suggesting that such a book atop New York Times bestseller list represents the death of American culture – let's not forget “The Love Machine” in 1969, or “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in 1972, or “Oliver's Story” in 1977 – but it's not something that gives me great comfort either. Shouldn't writers, even very wealthy ones, be required to actually write the books they're selling? Paying someone else to do it is like paying a pauper to do your military service in the Civil War.


Rant off. Yes, I call myself a writer and no, I can't afford to hire someone to do it for me. Pass those sour grapes over here, please.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Here's a pretty good summer read

My brother is a far more voracious reader than I am, so a good part of my paperback collection consists of titles he's passing along. That's how I came by Sean Doolittle's fourth novel, "The Cleanup." Mike gave it to me months ago, but I only recently got around to reading it.

In terms of plot and and pace, it's a big step up from "Rain Dogs," the other Doolittle title I've read. The story revolves around a somewhat underachieving Omaha patrol cop, who is assigned as a disciplinary measure to guard against robberies at a supermarket. When a girl who works at the market dispatches her abusive boyfriend, he finds himself helping her cover up the homicide. Complications, as they say, ensue.

This is a good, tightly written yarn with a few surprises. If you're looking for something to take to the beach, or to help you get through your next hellish commercial flight, I recommend "The Cleanup."

"The Wire" revisited: It does grow on you

I was underwhelmed by the first couple of episodes of "The Wire," but after renting a few more via Netflix, I'm beginning to see why this show has attracted a loyal following.

While I still think Dominic West looks a little too much like a J.C. Penney model to be fully convincing (and his divorced, hard-drinking character is somewhat cliched), the rest of the cast and the consistent writing overcome that minor quibble.

Another observation: Like "Deadwood" (which I never liked), "The Wire" can be comical in its over-the-top profanity. The writers seem almost to be mocking themselves in one five-minute scene that involves the use of nothing but the F-word and its variations. It was amusing enough, but I wonder if such a self-referential stunt really serves the larger story.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Larry King's crimes against television



We turn now from fictional mysteries to a real-life one: What was Tammy Faye Messner thinking when she appeared Sunday on Larry King? (That's Larry on the left, by the way). I know she's not long for this world and I sympathize, but somebody might have advised her that this is the time to think about checking out with a little dignity. She's had so little of that in her life.

During the horrific interview, Tammy Faye said she talks to God every day -- almost as often as she talks to Larry King.

The supernatural in crime fiction

In the James Lee Burke novel "Jolie Blon's Bounce," he introduces a character named Legion Guidry, a man who appears by the end of the book to be, if not the Devil himself, then at least pretty high up in Lucifer's chain of command. Burke has flirted with the supernatural before, with the ghosts of "In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead" and the dead partner who occasionally shows up to offer advice to Billy Bob Holland in "Bitterroot" and "In the Moon of Red Ponies."

I mention this because I love this sort of thing in a mystery -- just a hint of the paranormal, an element of mystery that might persist even after the main plot is resolved. Recently I read Ruth Rendell's "13 Steps Down" and it initially seemed that she was hinting at the actual ghost of a serial killer making his presence known to a young man with an unhealthy interest in such things. In the Karin Fossum book I just finished, "He Who Fears the Wolf," there were a couple of occasions where it seemed that one bizarre character might indeed possess paranormal powers. I found the books better because of these things, and confess to a slight disappointment when all was explained in a conventional way.

What other crime fiction has incorporated supernatural elements in a subtle, sophisticated way? Is this something that draws you in, or puts you off?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Vote early and often

Because I can, I've set up a poll (above and to the right). It's a new feature offered here at blogger.com, and I might as well be among the first to try it. Sorry for the choice in authors; they were the first ones that came into my head.

UPDATE 7/25: With a whopping 16 votes in, little-known English author Chuck Dickens came out of nowhere to win it all. We'll be sending him a complimentary three-month pass to the warehouse.

Norwegian writer impresses local man

At the recommendation of my former colleague Peter (Detectives Beyond Borders), I just read Karin Fossum's "He Who Fears the Wolf." I recently decided I needed to broaden my reading list to include more female authors and more foreign ones. Fossum, with her stalwart fans and arsenal of glowing reviews, seemed like a good place to start.

I had serious doubts during the first scene: a madman in the middle of a major meltdown (possibly incurred by aggressive alliteration). It was, as one review put it, "a harrowing journey inside a warped mind" -- something I get quite enough of just being me.

Fortunately, Fossum's madman turns out not to be the demonic figure so common in the work of lesser writers. By the book's end, he is a character as fully formed as Fossum's series protagonist, Inspector Sejer, and almost as understandable. The story revolves around a bizarre crime and oddball characters, but it's the sympathy with which she crafts those characters that elevates the book beyond the plain-vanilla police procedural. What cinches it for me is that Fossum also has a subtle sense of humor. Dave-Bob says two thumbs up. It's good to have found another author whose books will beckon next time I'm browsing.

Mike's verdict: Rankin has done better

My brother Mike, whose unstated mission in life is to read every mystery and thriller ever written, has this to say on Ian Rankin's latest, "The Naming of the Dead."

"I have to admit I was just a little disappointed. It seemed somewhat disjointed. There were some great lines there, though, some real laugh-out-loud ones. It seems to be setting the stage for a battle royale between Siobhan and Mo Cafferty at some point. In fact, I would not be surprised to see something with Rebus as a secondary character, or not in it at all ... It was a good read, but the bar is so high for Rankin that anything less than superb seems a letdown."

Which seems in line with some of the other reviews I've seen. I'll still pick it up myself, of course, but as I mentioned earlier, I may just wait until the paperback -- or until the library acquires a copy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A petty crime involving fiction

I'm really not trying to make this the one true Harry Potter blog, but I have to remark on the jackass who took the trouble to (a) obtain J.K. Rowling's latest tome days before its official release date, and (b) take a digital picture of every freaking page, for the express purpose of posting it on the Internet. Remember, this book is close to 800 pages long.

The sheer idiocy of this is incredible enough, but even more astonishing is the fact that tens of thousands of people -- I'm going to guess most of them are also mouth breathers -- actually downloaded every poorly shot page, presumably to read the book on screen, thereby gaining a huge advantage in prestige and wisdom over the poor saps who elect to wait until the official release on midnight Friday. Boy, nothing like curling up with some blurry pictures of text and a cup of hot chocolate, is there? It's sure good to see people reading.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Has Harry Potter cast a curse?

Rebutting the conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter phenomenon is good for reading, writing and publishing in general, Washington Post book editor Ron Charles has written a provocative essay entitled "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading." In it, he cites a few facts to buttress his case that millions of people reading the same book does not quite portend a renaissance for the written word:

  • More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • The same data point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction.
  • In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors.
There's much more, and the essay is worth reading in its entirety. This line will get some attention: "Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy."

Also: "Like the basilisk that terrorized students at Hogwarts in Book II, 'Harry Potter' and a few other much-hyped books devour everyone's attention, leaving most readers paralyzed in praise, apparently incapable of reading much else."

I don't know. Valid points, I suppose. But if the problem is that not enough people are reading books, it seems churlish to bemoan those who still do -- whatever the quality of the volume in question, or its mass-market appeal.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Books with covers you conceal

I'm always a little skeptical when magazines or newspapers run their perennial lists of what celebrities are reading, usually under the rubric of "guilty pleasures." I mean, if they're really guilty about it, they're not going to be totally frank, are they?

But Time magazine's July 23 issue has a nice twist on this: What writers are reading at the beach. Judging by some of the titles, they're being pretty honest. The biggest surprise: Joyce Carol Oates 'fesses up to being a huge fan of Mad magazine, concluding with this remark: "...the fatuously grinning Alfred E. Neuman with his perennial query ("What, me worry?") prefigured the improbable presidential cartoon character George W. Bush many years later." Ah, poor George. Talk about a legacy.

On the same list, I notice Nathan Englander recommending the mystery "Literary Murder" by Batya Gur. Sounds interesting -- anybody else read this?

I'm not sure I read anything I'd categorize as a guilty pleasure, since since most of it would probably be sneered at in literary circles anyway. I suppose anything by Stephen King -- although the man is a much better writer, and probably a lot more enduring, than he's gotten credit for. Speaking of King, his groundbreaking book "Carrie" is the guilty pleasure of author Martha Southgate.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Setting in fiction: It helps if you live there

The fine blog Detectives Beyond Borders recently had a discussion about the significance of setting in crime fiction. Peter was commenting on an assertion by Clive James that many of today's international crime novels are so crammed with geographic detail that they are essentially guidebooks.

I've had the same reaction, most recently to "A Small Death in Lisbon," where the protagonist's steps through the city are described in such detail that it begins to sound like a guy following Mapquest directions.

But then it occurred to me that such detail is a lot easier to appreciate if you're actually familiar with the place being described. Then it's not a distraction at all; it's evocative. At least that's been my reaction to the three novels James Lee Burke has set in my hometown of Missoula, Mont.: "Black Cherry Blues," "Bitterroot," and "In the Moon of Red Ponies." I know very well every road, river, building and landmark mentioned in those books. For me, that recognition enhances the illusion of reality on which all novels depend. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Burke lives in Missoula part of the time, and is among the very best writers in the business.

My question is: Have you read many books set in the city where you live? Do you find them more or less enjoyable as a result? I'm now in Wichita, Kansas (it's a long story), and the only book I've read that's been set here is Scott Phillips' "The Ice Harvest," which was made into the flawed movie of the same name. In that book, and in the movie, it was the lack of setting that annoyed me -- the story could have unfolded anywhere. But maybe the lack of distinguishing characteristics is one of things people perceive about Kansas. (It's not quite true, by the way).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Hot air and cold fiction

There must be some cathartic force at work, to compel those of us who blog to arrange our most fleeting, insignificant thoughts as electrons on a screen. Maybe it's a desire for connection, like casting a bottle into the sea in the hope that some sympathetic soul will retrieve it. Or not. Maybe we all just have too much time on our hands.

In any case, here's the message in today's bottle from the warehouse: Roald Dahl rules.

I've been in a nostalgic mood all week, making a mental list of all the writers whose work I most admired as a young man. I'm not thinking so much of stuff like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," which was pretty good; mostly, I loved his razor-sharp and frequently ice-cold short stories, which were written in that golden era before most successful fiction was about vague epiphanies concerning the shortcomings of one's parents. Remember his superb collection "Kiss Kiss?" It's one of those books I always wish I'd bought in hardback, since it's gotten a little dog-eared over the last few decades. It's a volume I take out every time I run across it on the shelf.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The seven stages of blogging:

This is a rough description of my thinking over the last couple of weeks. Having reached stage seven already, it may be time to regroup. Not sure what I was thinking, devoting a blog to crime fiction when there are so many excellent ones already out there. Perhaps I'll change the focus to late-50s quiz shows...

1. I'll just see how it works. You figure everybody else is blogging, so why not give it a try? There's always a chance it could be more fun than watching "Deal or No Deal."

2. Look, I'm writing! You read and reread your published posts and experience a thrill akin to seeing your name on a best-selling novel. This is easier than you thought. And just think: every day your erudite ruminations are out there for all the world to see.

3. Here's the link. You realize that your thoughts are not only as valid as anyone else's, they're probably quite a bit more so, given your expertise and innate understanding of the topic. So you start spreading the word. It's a public service. The more lives you can touch, the better.

4. You like me! You know you're good, but the only way to quantify how good is to keep track of how many times people view your blog. At any given moment, you can tell how many hits since the preceding given moment. You constantly tinker with the layout, and check for comments every seven minutes.

5. No wait, I've already done that. Now aware that people occasionally look at your blog, you also become aware that you have only so many thoughts on the subject, and those thoughts confine themselves to the shallow end of the pool. At a loss for topics, you begin to stare blankly at the screen. Just like at work.

6. So has everybody else. By obsessively pushing the "next blog" button and following the dozens of links that accumulate each day, you realize that the blogosphere is a lot like the realityosphere -- most of it pretty darned mundane. And that would include your blog, which is beginning to sound like an echo chamber for a hundred other better blogs on the same subject.

7. To hell with it. It's time to spend more time on the things that really matter. Doesn't a new season of "American Idol" start pretty soon?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

From pulp fiction, one good habit

In a far corner of the warehouse, back in the dust and shadows, there are some books I haven't seen or read in more than four decades. I no longer remember the plots or characters or dialogue, but I do remember the pleasure of reading them. Sometimes I wonder: Did those books start my interest in detective stories, or was I drawn to them because I already had a fascination with dark secrets and the way those secrets might be revealed?

I don't know; that's one mystery the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew don't seem up to solving. Maybe a bit of both. Between the ages of 8 and about 12, I devoured as many of those books as I could find at the Carnegie Library in Kalispell, Mont. -- dozens of each, I'm sure. It wasn't until I was a young adult that I discovered, to my annoyance, that there was no such author as Franklin W. Dixon or Carolyn Keene. But by then I had gone on to darker fare: Raymond Chandler, John MacDonald -- even a bit of Mickey Spillane.

I know: a middle-aged man's recollections of his halcyon youth can get tiresome real fast. And I know without having to reread them that most of those early teen-detective series were, and remain, mostly crap. But I believe that for better or worse, they helped form one habit I can't help but appreciate: reading a book in bed each night before going to sleep. They're not always crime novels and some have been masterpieces -- I was unable to sleep for a couple of nights after finishing "In Cold Blood" when I was 16. It remains one of the most chilling things I've read. I wept on my pillow after "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- although, come to think of it, that could almost be crime fiction too: a secret revealed after a alleged rape, two homicides and a harrowing assault on a child.

My adult children are all avid readers, and I like to think it's because I encouraged them to be at a very early age. If they ever get around to thanking me for it, I'll just tell them to thank Frank and Joe Hardy instead.

Back to the keyboard -- but it's a new one

After a writing hiatus of quite a few months longer than I intended, I'm back to work on what I will refer to as "the book." I knocked out another 500 words yesterday, and expect to make that the standard day's output. But since I've had these productive impulses before, and since they tend to expire after about a week, I'm employing a few other strategies.

First: A new computer! Yep, I have decided that there are too many games on my desktop machine, it's too noisy, and it confines me to one room of the house. So I ordered a new notebook computer from Dell. It's their new 1420 model. Should be here in a couple more weeks -- although you never know with Dell -- and then the only files I'll transfer from my old computer to the new one are my in-progress writing projects.

I know what you're thinking: Basically, I'm offering myself a cheap bribe to a commit to a project that will probably take a year -- long after the shiny new computer ceases to become a toy and starts looking more like an albatross. Yeah, I guess I am. I certainly don't need a new computer. But you know what? I'm going to consider this as good an excuse as any.

One other thing: Since this new machine comes with no word-processing program on it, I'm going to finally give Open Office.org a try. I've been using it some at work, and as far as I can tell it does everything Word does. And it's free. Bill Gates doesn't need any more of my cash, right?

So, a new computer and a new word processor. This book will practically be writing itself!

Monday, July 9, 2007

The matter of the hardbound book

I suppose it is not a sign of my good taste or reverence for books that so many I own are paperbacks. I have fairly strict criteria for buying hardbound volumes: If the book is a gift, if it is a work I expect to frequently reread, if it is a reference book, or if it is something I just can't wait to get my hands on. (Also, if it is offered at steep discount from Sam's Club or Costco, but I can be flexible on that point.)

Thus, I recently sent my brother, for his birthday, a hardbound copy of Ian Rankin's new title, "The Naming of the Dead" even though I'd have been content to wait for the paperback myself. That's not an entirely selfless act: While I have loved nearly all the Rebus novels, I've found the most recent entries to have taken on kind of a meandering quality. I'll see what my brother Mike has to say before picking up a copy for myself.

A number of books in my eclectic collection of hardbounds I'm not particularly proud to display -- there are quite a few Stephen King titles, for example, bought years ago when I really wanted a page-turner for a long trip or something. In my defense, all were steeply discounted.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The book vs. the movie

For Father's Day this year, my daughter Cassie presented me with the first volume of the Harry Potter series and two CD audio sets: Stephen King's "Blood and Smoke" and Gregory Maguire's "Wicked." (While she shares my fondness for reading, she leans more toward fantasy and horror than crime fiction, a genre she dismisses as shopworn and tedious.)

Now, I had started on Harry Potter a couple of years ago to see what the fuss was about, but put it aside because it seemed, well, just too childish. Cassie was horrified when I said this, and insisted I give the series another chance. And so, because I believe that using a gift is a token of affection to the person who gave it to you, and because my daughter would never stop asking about it, I am now reading "The Sorcerer's Stone" all the way through.

Two reactions: The writing still seems a little childish, but that's the demographic and J.K. Rowling is an excellent storyteller. Secondly, I really wish I hadn't seen the movie before reading the book. Instead of conjuring the faces and places in my own imagination, as I grew up doing with Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, I could not shake the images of Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson and all the various CGI effects that have come to dominate the film versions of these books. For me, the suspension of disbelief that is so necessary to all fiction was completely lost.

It was too late for me, but thank God that for most Harry Potter readers, the book came first. Thank God the books always come first, and kids still stand in line to read them. Think if J.K. Rowling were selling her vision straight to the studio. We'd be left with a generation of kids with no imaginations at all.

But it got me thinking about the timeworn debate about books versus movies. Relating to crime fiction, one of the best movies made from an excellent book was "Gorky Park," with William Hurt and the great Lee Marvin. One of the worst? Maybe "The Black Dahlia," based on James Ellroy's excellent noir of the same name. (I don't know who cast Josh Hartnett in that film, but it couldn't have been the hard-nosed Ellroy.) I'm sure I can think of other examples. Can you? Let's hear about them.

Friday, July 6, 2007

This jury's still out on "The Wire"

We don't watch a lot of TV here at the ancestral manse, and now that "The Sopranos" is history, we watch even less. My current viewing schedule is about the same as it was a decade ago: Reruns of "Seinfeld," mostly, and the odd episode of "American Justice."

But whenever the wife and I rave about "The Sopranos," certain friends and relatives keep insisting that the HBO series "The Wire" is not only just as good, but better. Recently we went off to Blockbuster to test the truth of that assertion.

The verdict, after viewing the first two episodes: It ain't bad, but it ain't "The Sopranos." What made Tony and the crew so appealing was the constant tension between Tony's role as a modern suburban family man and his role as boss in the volatile and amoral mob. That tension allowed a lot of incisive, surprising and frequently humorous commentary on American life. "The Wire" does deliver some sharp writing, but (on the evidence of two episodes) at its heart is still a fairly conventional cop show. Right down to the apoplectic chief hectoring his idealistic rogue detective.

I'm told it gets better, and I'll keep an open mind. For now, I'm still convinced that TV writing doesn't get any better than on "The Sopranos."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

This just in: The woman can write

I've discovered this great new writer: Ruth Rendell. I predict that one day she will sell a lot of books.

Seriously, I'm embarrassed to admit that even though I call myself a fan of crime fiction, I had completely ignored the works of Ruth Rendell until about a year ago. I'm even more embarrassed to say that I had deliberately browsed right past her books, mostly because she's so prolific I was sure it must all be crap. Even worse: I had this baseless suspicion that female writers could not really do justice to the genre, Agatha Christie and P.D. James notwithstanding.

Yes, that is a terribly sexist and ignorant attitude, and I apologize. I have read the top-selling female writers like Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell. As successful as they all are, their work has never really connected with me. I'm sure that's my problem, not theirs.

What I like about Ruth Rendell is her brilliant way of exploring the psychic landscape of her characters, teasing out the mundane motivation that eventually widens into obsession and dark deeds. I'm particularly impressed that she doesn't need the length of a novel to do it. Her short fiction is the best I've seen. Any student of short stories should check out collections like "The Copper Peacock" and "The Fever Tree." While these stories certainly qualify as crime fiction, the best of them qualify also as literature.

Anyway, guess what I've been reading lately. While I regret it took me this long to discover her genius, the upside is that I have a large portion of the Rendell canon left to explore. That's a good feeling.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

In fiction, short is not always so sweet

One of these days I suppose I should admit that my preferred creative form, short crime fiction, is all but dead. When's the last time you enjoyed a good detective yarn that was under, say, 8,000 words? I thought so. Me too -- even though I like writing short stories, I sure don't read many of them these days.

So why am I stuck on short stories? It's not for the money -- Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I've sold most of my work, still pays about the same as it did 40 years ago -- which is to say, very little. Mention those paltry checks to the IRS, and you pay self-employment tax in addition to the tax on the income. It's not for the fame, either -- as far as I can tell, EQMM and its sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, are two of the least-read periodicals in the nation, coming in just behind Goat Riders Quarterly.

No, the real reason I write short stories is that I'm too daunted by the concept of finishing something that may run 400 pages as opposed to 40. Perhaps I'm too keenly aware of my work history: I've finished a dozen short stories, but out of three or four attempts at novels, I've abandoned all -- at about 40 pages in.

But clearly, I must finish a book at some point. It's been a lifelong goal, and I'm not getting any younger. I have shelves full of books on writing, but one of the titles I always find inspiring is "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit," by crime-fiction master Lawrence Block. I took it down today. Here's what he has to say about writing novels as opposed to short stories:

"... the short story is infinitely more difficult to sell than the novel. The market for short fiction was minuscule when I was starting out 20 years ago. Since then it has consistently shrunk to the point of invisibility."

"Novels aren't harder. What they are is longer. ... What's required, I think, is a change in attitude. To write a novel you have to resign yourself to the fact that you simply can't prime yourself and knock it all out in a single session ... The process of writing the book is going to occupy you for weeks or months -- perhaps years. But each day's stint at the typewriter is simply that -- one day's work. That's true whether you're writing short stories or an epic trilogy. If you're writing three or six or 10 pages a day, you'll get a certain amount of work accomplished in a certain span of time -- whatever it is you're working on."


Hey, Larry; you've talked me into it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Dirty work, but somebody has to do it

I'm one of those writers who does a lot of it my head, often late at night while I'm trying to go to sleep. As I toss and turn, I craft ingenious plots and dazzling metaphors -- really great stuff.

The only problem is that my head is not a leak-proof vessel. Most of the time, I stumble out of bed the next morning to find that my great ideas have largely disappeared. What was effervescent champagne the night before is now sticky residue at the bottom of a smeared glass.

Which usually drives home the point that if I want to have written, I have to -- well, write. It's not enough just to think about it. This is a serious downside to being a writer. It's so much easier to soar away on the wings of imagination if one isn't tethered to a keyboard. And it's very easy to put off the unpleasantness of coughing words out one by one if you've managed to convince yourself that your great ideas will one day write themselves if only given enough time to bloom.

You'd think a computer would make the process easier, but I've found the opposite is true -- particular in the age of broadband. Yes, the Internet is a godsend by enabling instant expertise on any subject (I use it a lot for gun lore, for example), but it's also a scantily-clad siren tempting would-be mariners far off course. What begins as a sincere quest to learn the magazine capacity of a .44 caliber Desert Eagle pistol too easily ends up as a wasted hour viewing L.L. Bean's fall line or YouTube videos of pet tricks.

I mention all this to acknowledge that however easy it is to nitpick the work of other writers, they all deserve praise for the difficult and frequently heroic act of getting the words out of their heads and onto the page.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The worst book I've read this year ...

... is "A Small Death in Lisbon" by Robert Wilson. Actually, it's not the worst -- that distinction goes to Harlen Coben's dreadful "Promise Me" -- I just liked the best-worst symmetry of this and the preceding post.

Still, I didn't much like this book. While I admire the author's ambition and research, this is one of those yarns where meticulous geographic detail actually undermines the story.

The book is two intersecting tales about a modern-day sex murder and SS operations in Portugal during World War II, and it was deemed worthy of the Golden Dagger award. Which goes to show that I am not the best judge of these things. Two things put me off: the relentless recitation of Portuguese landmarks and street names, and the lack of a compelling protagonist in the Nazi-era portion of the tale. Since that part accounts for at least half the book, it's a serious shortcoming.

To paraphrase the old saying: I don't know much about writing, but I know what I like. What I don't like is a good yarn buried under an avalanche of minutiae.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The best book I've read this year ...

... is Martin Cruz Smith's "Stalin's Ghost." The morose and laconic Arkady Renko returns for the sixth time since his debut in the brilliant "Gorky Park" of 1982.

This time he's back in Moscow, which has changed a great deal in 25 years. It's a city where the excesses of capitalism and corruption have engendered an odd nostalgia for the days of Stalinist Russia -- even as mass graves yield reminders of what those days were really like.

The plot is labrynthine, involving bureacratic treachery and atrocities committed during both World War II and the Chechen war, but the real strength of "Stalin's Ghost" is in the finely drawn characters, starting with Renko himself. The detective's stoic sense of irony and humor in the face of brutality keeps you turning the pages to see how he's going to survive. Along the way, you'll learn quite a bit about the soul of contemporary Russian. For my money, this is the best of the series.