Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Numb and Number
April 30, 2007, 1:16 am
Filed under: Gregg Olsen, Killer Year Members

I’ve been thinking a lot about crime news and the state of the world these days. Since it is the weekend, and I should be weeding the garden or working on the new book, I’m avoiding both.

A few things that are rattling around my mind…

I’m stilling trying to wrap my brain around about Virginia Tech and the tragedy that happened there – and how I feel about it. Of course, it was a huge tragedy. But something strange happened to me this time, a few days after the news broke that 33, including the gunman were dead. I accepted it. The massacre didn’t resonate with me the way that Columbine did. Or the September 11th attacks. Or even the Amish school shooting. The pain spike I felt was swift, but abrupt. The Columbine case stunned me for weeks, maybe months.

Even now.

But Virginia Tech? Not so much. I’m being honest here. Some have said, “Well, you don’t feel connected in some personal way.”  Maybe. With Columbine, my girls were in public school, so I felt that more, I guess. But now they both are 22 and at different universities. So, you’d think I’d feel some real connection. I did call them both the morning the news broke, but simply reminded them that they had to be vigilant when taking a seat in a classroom (sit by the door, near an exit….don’t draw attention to yourself…). That was it.

I saw the shooter’s vile videos. I read all the news accounts. But if you asked me how to spell his name, I couldn’t do it without a Google search. He’s a nut. Let’s move on. Learn from it? Jeesh, what we learn is that we’re not going to be able to protect each other when a nutcase enters the equation. That’s it.

In away, I wonder if my own numbness (not indifference, because I “get” the magnitude of what happened) is an acceptance of unthinkable violence as a cost of living today?

The Alec Baldwin flap? What do I really think? Nothing. I don’t care. My parents probably called me worse names. I’ve said things to my own children that I wish I could reel back. Hasn’t everyone? Baldwin is in a toxic custody battle, like thousands of others. Why does he go on The View to apologize and the guy down the road who slaps his kid around isn’t held up to any public ridicule? Why do we give a rip about any of these people because they have a TV show?

Don Imus? Double Jeesh. I never listened to him. His joke the women’s basketball team was lame. I can’t deny that those young women didn’t deserve the remark. It was mean-spirited and cruel. But I do wonder why is it OK for fat bald white guys to be held up as a joke? (Full disclosure this blog entry is written by a fat bald white guy). Why are we so selective in our targets for justice? Why do we keep seeing the same faces over and over telling us what should be in our hearts?

I’m feeling like I’m being told how to feel, how to parent, how to do this or that, that I can’t even care anymore.

Thanks for listening. Off to do my weeding. It’s a beautiful day.


April 27, 2007, 12:06 pm
Filed under: Bill Cameron, Killer Year Members

So I’ve been reading up about the Edgar Week festivities, and it’s been really weird. I guess it’s the mystery world’s Oscars or something like that, but the Oscars are about alien beings from the Nth dimension — they’re not LIKE us. So the fact that the Oscars are extravagant and outrageous and absurd is, at its heart, irrelevant to the actual lives of actual people. It may be entertaining or amusing or shocking, or all of the above, but in terms of its real impact it’s about the same as the activities of those freaky tube worms that live around deep ocean vents.

But the Edgars are about, well. Us. Except I’m a little uncomfortable saying “us,” because us includes me and where do I get off presuming something like that. Still, I know actual people who were there. Real live actual people I’ve talked to in real life — by email, by phone, in person! This morning I was reading Sarah Weinman’s bullet list rundown and I kept thinking, “Jesus, I know that person.” Hell, I know Sarah, a little. I met her at Bouchercon and drank a beer while chatting with her and another fellow. Now, confession time here. I wish I’d talked to her more. I think she’s freaking brilliant, but she intimidates me, so presented with an opportunity or two I kinda slunk into myself. And, yet, still. Here she is chatting about Stephen King and Al Roker in the same breath that she mentions Cornelia Read, someone else who is also brilliant but who I’ve also met and talked to and hugged, for chrissakes.

And it didn’t feel real. I’m reading this stuff, Edgars, Oscars, and I’m thinking, shit, people I know are turning into tube worms right before my eyes. I was watching the first novel category especially close, because that one is the closest to where I am (naturally, the only nominated book that I haven’t read yet is the one which won,) and until the week actually happened and I actually read about it, these first timers were just like me — only much better, of course. Now they’re receding from me. They hung out, after all, in the same room as Stephen King and Dave Barry.

(I once went to a signing by Dave Barry and when my turn came up, my throat closed up and all I managed was a gleek that landed on his sleeve. He took it well.)

And Stephen King, yeah, he’s a genius or something. Definitely. But for me, he’s a tube worm. I dunno, he’s obviously a great writer though to me his writing about writing is better than his actual writing, if you take my meaning. I suppose this is a brazen comment by a who-tha-fuck-do-I-think-you-are-anyway, Cameron, but I’ve always thought King needs a editor with a machine gun that shoot red pencils. And yet, for writers, his On Writing is the closest thing to scripture in existence.

And Donald Westlake? Gasp. Don’t even get me started.

I’m not sure what to make of this. I guess I’m star-struck. I could afford to lighten up. And, probably, not pay so much attention. It’s creating a disconnect for me, seems to be shining a spotlight on my own feelings of inadequacy. Of course, I’m a writer, so what else do I have to shine a spotlight on? (Note to self: get out more.)

I guess the good news, for me at least, is it’s over. For this year. Thank. Freaking. God.

(For what it’s worth, Sarah, should I ever go to the Edgars — and at this point I don’t even know if I’ll ever write another book so that’s a way off prospect — I guarantee you my tux will be rented.)

Bill Cameron
lost dog

Hunting Down Darlings
April 23, 2007, 12:38 pm
Filed under: Marc Lecard

I’m at the revision stage with the second book where the ms has a beginning, middle and end, is basically complete, but needs detail work–transitions, word choices, getting rid of repetition, etc.

Oh, and getting rid of all the well-written parts.

(To all of you muttering, “that shouldn’t take you very long,” I just want you to know: I heard that, and I know where you park.)

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I got that tough little piece of gristle from Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing.” Sure, his “rules” can and probably should be broken from time to time, and expressly don’t apply to every kind of writing. But for writing where the story is paramount (and that’s the kind of writing I try to do), Leonard’s ideal of writerly invisibility seems like a good one. Get over yourself. Get yourself out of the way of the story.

Kill your darlings. (Advice from William Faulkner. Or maybe Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

But what does it mean, anyway, “Kill your darlings”?

What is a “darling”? Stretches of writing–phrase, sentence, paragraph–that display themselves; they show off their expression, their turns of phrase.

It’s a hard one. I’d love to think it doesn’t apply to me. Why kill your darlings, after all? Aren’t they the best parts? Don’t they show that, hey, you really can write? Aren’t they just too cute, sitting there on the page, looking like, well, like poetry?

But that’s just the problem.

Calling attention to the medium is a poetic technique, the basic poetic technique, really.

What these little darlings do is call attention to the way they’re made.

That distracts from the story.

And that’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Isn’t it?

So if it sticks out, lop it off.

Getting rid of these chunks of self-conscious display makes my story clearer and stronger. (I think. I hope.)

(And after all, if it’s really that good, I can save it and use it in my blog . . .)

April 21, 2007, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Robert Gregory Browne

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is coming up next weekend. I’ll be attending this event for the very first time and, according to my good friend and Killer Year classmate, Brett Battles, it is not to be missed.

Well, not only will I not be missing it, I’ll be signing at three different booths on Saturday, April 28th, and I’m feeling a little anxious about the day. Since the festival is massive– taking place on the University of California at Los Angeles campus — will I be able to get where I need to go quickly and without getting lost?

I think I’ll manage. For those of you who are like me and have never attended before, another friend, Naomi Hirahara, has posts over at Murderati telling newbies what they’re in for. And I have to say it sounds fantastic.

I mean, imagine being surrounded by thousands of people who share a love of books. I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m also looking forward to the pre-festival signing party at the The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, California on Friday night. Linda Brown and Bobby McCue, the proprietors, were kind enough to invite me to celebrate with them, and I’ll be attending along with a bunch of great writers. Sounds like it’ll be a blast.

I’ve long said that one of the best benefits of becoming a published author is being able to hang out with other authors and readers — all those people who love what you love. Writing is basically a lonely pursuit and writers, by and large, are loners.

But not this coming weekend, folks. Not this coming weekend…

The BUSINESS of Writing
April 18, 2007, 4:07 pm
Filed under: Patry Francis

Don’t laugh, but before my novel sold, I thought the “job” of a published author entailed two major duties:

1) Lying on the grass in the shade, and staring up at the sky with my hands behind my head while I dreamed up stories. (Then when it got hot, or the Major Serious Author grew fatigued from her hours of labor, she might call the adoring spouse, who would gladly come running with a cold Becks dark. With lime please, honey?)

And 2) Leisurely heading up to the garret and shaping those dreams into something that might illuminate or entertain others. If the resulting stories could somehow manage to do both, the writer might even be said to have created “literature.” Then the whole world would be eager to deliver to deliver cold beers and praise to the author under her tree! But like Greta Garbo, the preoccupied author would shoo them all away, saying, “Please,” she’d say haughtily. “I vant to be alone.”

As for the messy business of actually selling the product of those dreams was taken care of by agents and publicists. Meanwhile, the happy writer would sip absinthe in a cafe (preferably in Paris) or drift back to his or her spot under the tree, waiting for the next masterpiece to fall from the sky and hit them in the head.

Needless to say, that was not the world I entered as a debut novelist in 2007. I soon learned that if an author isn’t willing–or has no clue how to–get out there and promote her own book, it will most likely die a silent, ignominious death, whisked off the shelf like day old bread when the expiration date comes (sooner than you think).

As someone who couldn’t sell Avon products to her own mother (yes, I tried), I considered myself hopeless at marketing. Me–go out there and push my book forward like a vaccuum cleaner salesman at the door, or a shy girl looking for a date to the prom? The thought was enough to bring on late night panic attacks.

The savvy authors who comprise Killer Year went a long way to assuage my panic, to provide daily encouragement and examples of what a debut author could do for him or herself, and by association, lift the group. And to my amazement, I found I actually liked the promotion side of the business.

Everywhere I’ve had the opportunity to read, I’ve talked about the group; and made it a point to buy a book by one of our members. (None have disappointed.) Since I now have nearly the entire collection, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the newest crop.

I soon learned that telling people about something you believe in, whether it’s a book or a cause, a group of writers or just yourself is not the same as shilling soap powder or make-up. When you come right down to it, effective marketing is exactly the same thing we do every day when we sit down at our computers: telling a story. Whether we’re writing or marketing, we’re trying to convey with the greatest clarity, and in the most entertaining way possible, the truth about our book and ourselves, about the characters we’ve created, and the insights we’ve learned through knowing them.

Ironically, promoting is most effective when the emphasis is not on selling, but on giving something away. Yes, all authors want to earn a living through their writing. (I, for one, live in fear of having to dig out my old waitressing shoes.) But when you ask us what we want most, most writers don’t usually list the seven figure advance first. For most of us, the primary goal is simply to be read, to share our stories–in other words, to give.

Egregious Gunplay . . .
April 16, 2007, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Sean Chercover

As writers of crime fiction, we write a lot about guns. So you’d think we’d know a lot about ’em. I’m sorry to say that as a profession, we often indulge in egregious gunplay that defies all laws of physics and, for that matter, good common sense. And when we do this, we jerk many readers (those who know anything about guns) out of the fictional universe we’ve worked so hard to create, and we rudely deny them the ability to continue suspending their disbelief.

So, in an effort to make the world a better place, I’m offering a few tips about how to deal with guns in your writing.

Let’s be clear – If you’ve chosen an aesthetic style that allows for all sorts of fantasy and unreal action (a la, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON or KILL BILL) then all bets are off, and you can do anything you like.  If you want people to explode into a vapor when shot, go right ahead (actually, that would be really cool).  But . . . if you’re trying to achieve some degree of realism, trying to reflect the universe in which we live, read on.

Although I used to carry a gun for work, I am not a ‘gun nut’, nor would I call myself a gun expert. And I’m not suggesting that you need to become an expert, either. But there are some things that you need to know.

1. If you’re not willing to learn at least a little bit about guns, then follow Chandler’s advice, and just call every gun “a gun,” and offer NO other details.

2. If you must go into detail, do the damned research. A semi-auto is not an automatic. A magazine is not a clip. A bullet is not a round . . . etc. I mean, this ain’t rocket surgery . . . brain science . . . whatever.

3. People do not fly backward through the air when they are shot. They just don’t. So knock it off with the people flying through the air. It’s stupid, no matter how many times you saw it in a Steven Segal movie. Not only do they not fly backward through the air, most times they don’t even fall down for a while. Truth is, most people who are shot don’t even know they’re shot, right away. They’re in shock, and it takes some time before they realize they’ve been hit (this amazing story from the Chicago Sun-Times just the other day, illustrates the point). Movie nonsense aside, if a bullet were able to send someone flying backward, then the shooter would also be sent flying by the recoil. Action-reaction. Laws of physics. Get it? Good.

4. Don’t “check your load.” You know the drill: The cop (or PI, or thief, or whomever) is about to go into a dangerous situation. So he flips his revolver open and “checks his load.” What the hell is this? Could it be that the rounds he fed into the gun when he loaded it that morning have since magically evaporated? I mean, really. Why the hell would he “check his load”? Stop it. It’s ridiculous, unless you intend the reader to think that your protagonist is mentally challenged.

5. Stop “jacking a round into the chamber.” This is the pistol equivalent of “checking your load.” What made you think this was a cool thing for tough guys to do? Oh, yeah, those Steven Segal movies. Right. If your character is a professional (PI, cop, or professional bad guy) then s/he will most likely carry in Condition One. Which means, a round in the chamber, safety on. There’s no reason to jack the slide, since there’s already a round in the chamber. Yes, there are pistols that you don’t carry in this manner, but even then, stop “jacking a round into the chamber” for dramatic effect. You’re driving us crazy with that crap, and it’s a cheap substitute for real tension.

6. Guns are loud. If you fire a gun without ear protection on (especially indoors), your ears will ring and everything will sound muffled and you will probably talk too loud for a few days. Fire a gun in a car with the windows closed, and you will suffer permanent hearing loss.

7. When shot, people do not usually die. In fact, over 80% of gunshot victims survive.

8. And when they do die, they don’t die instantly, in the vast majority of cases. So, stop making your victims drop instantly dead, as soon as they are shot. Unless it is a perfect head- or heart-shot with a large-caliber bullet, they’re gonna stagger around for a bit.

9. And when they are shot in the shoulder, they suffer for a long time and need major surgery and may not regain the use of that arm. All the nerves that feed the arm go through the shoulder joint, and there’s a pretty big artery going through that joint, as well. I know many of us grew up in the ’70s, when Starsky (or Hutch, or Mannix, or whomever) would take a bullet to the shoulder and be fine next week. Not like that in real life. So if you need your hero to take a relatively inconsequential bullet, have him take it in the buttocks.

These are but a few examples of Egregious Gunplay that drive me nuts. But I’ve ranted enough, and it is now your turn to vent.

Wait . . . I just got off the phone with my friend Michael Black (who is not only a cop, but also an author you should read) and he gave me a few of his pet peeves:
1. When a semi-auto is out of bullets, the slide locks open. So don’t have a character repeatedly pulling the trigger on a pistol that has run out of ammo.

2. Glocks are misrepresented in many ways. Here are a few things to know about Glocks: They are not invisible to metal detectors. The striker is inside; there is no external hammer to cock. They do not have manual safeties that you can engage or disengage.

3. Revolvers do not have manual safeties, either.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What details drive you nuts? Not necessarily about guns, but about anything? What details do writers fake or ignore or generally get wrong, that kill your suspension of disbelief?

A Rose By Any Other Name…
April 13, 2007, 11:23 am
Filed under: Marcus Sakey

…might not sell as well.

Despite the lesson we’re taught in childhood, people do judge books by their covers–and their titles. And why not? First impressions matter. And where a cover design assumes the reader is holding the book, and can flip it over for blurbs and a summary, a title has to stand on its own. It has to be memorable and suggestive, with the right balance of poetry and punch (Barry Eisler wrote a great article on the need for resonance in titles, if you’re interested). And given that the title is a crucial factor in the decision-making process of bookstore buyers, the right one can mean a sales difference in the tens of thousands.

So what, you ask? Well, my second book is complete. My editor and publisher are excited about it. Folks say they like it better than the first one, which pleases me no end. But the one thing everyone agrees they don’t like?

You guessed it.

I trust their instinct. These people are pros, and this is an important decision. So I’m hoping you’ll help me make it.

Briefly, the book is a thriller about a guy named Jason Palmer, a discharged soldier who returns from Iraq to find a similar war raging in his South Side neighborhood. Jason is in a downward spiral, thrown out of the only place he ever found a home, and wants to spend the summer drinking too much and chasing girls. But when his brother is murdered and his bar burned, presumably by the gangbangers he spoke out against, Jason is forced to dig into increasingly dangerous secrets, all while protecting his eight-year-old nephew from the men hunting him.

The central issues are corruption, brotherhood, responsibility and redemption. It’s got gang warfare and arson and a love story and a car chase and Roman history. And Tom Waits quotes. Oh, and a scene where an arms dealer sings “Angel of the Morning” while shooting up a gang house.

Originally it was titled ACCELERANT. Then ONLY THE DEAD. Then THE END OF WAR. Then STREETS OF FIRE.

Now, we don’t know what it’s called. So I’m running a contest. It’s a two-part gig:

1) Any ideas? Don’t let the fact that you haven’t read the book slow you down. After over 100 suggestions, I’m getting burned out. So please, throw anything–anything–my way.

2) There are three titles that seem to be in favor right now, and I want your vote. They are: THE VIOLENCE OF FIRE, CITY OF ASHES, and AT THE CITY’S EDGE

Obviously, Part 1 is the meat of the contest. My favorite suggestion will receive a signed copy of THE BLADE ITSELF. In fact, just for fun, it will be a signed U.K. edition, unavailable on U.S. shores.

Better still, if we actually go with your title (or a variation of it), I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments. Plus, I’ll name a character in my third book after you. Not bad for a few minutes of brainstorming.

By the way, if you don’t have any title ideas, I’d still love to get your vote on Part 2.

So let’s hear it, folks. What the heck should this rose be named?