Category Archives: Gar Anthony Haywood

THEY’RE JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU (WINNING AWARDS)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As you may have noticed, some of us Murderati authors of late have been having a heck of a time getting brand new posts up on schedule for your entertainment.  It’s not that we’ve been shirking our duties, it’s just that life intrudes.  So rather than fresh content, for better or worse, you’ve been treated to a lot of Oldies but Goodies over the last few days.

Well, as it happens, I’m in a bind trying to put my own post together today.  The family and I are moving into a new home this weekend and to say I’ve been swamped getting ready would be the equivalent of saying Noah worked liked the devil preparing for the flood.  I’m dead on my feet.

Still, all excuses to do so aside, I’m not in the mood to fall back on an old post of mine on this Wednesday, no matter how brilliant it would have been.  So what I’m going to do instead is lightly touch on a subject that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.

Take a look at this book cover:

I bought this Fawcett paperback back in 1986 or so.  This photo’s rather lousy, so just to be clear, the cover text reads as follows:

BEST PRIVATE EYE NOVEL OF THE YEAR

Shamus Award, Private Eye Writers of America 

An Amos Walker Mystery

LOREN D. ESTLEMAN

SUGAR-TOWN

“A gem.  I think Amos and McGee would understand each other.”
John D. MacDonald

Now, here’s my question: Can you guess what element of the overall cover ultimately convinced me to buy the book?

a)    the art

b)    the John D. MacDonald blurb

c)    the title

d)    the reference to the Shamus award

e)    the name of Estleman’s character, Amos Walker

If you guessed b, you’d be close.  I’ve never been big on cover blurbs, but a kind word from John D. MacDonald would have been nothing to sneeze at.

The art?  It’s fine, but it didn’t particular impress me.

I liked the title, I didn’t love it.

And while Amos Walker is a great name for a series character, I wouldn’t have risked $1.95 on that alone.

Which leave us with d, the reference to the Shamus award.  That’s the correct answer.  I’d never heard of the Shamus award at the time and knew nothing about the Private Eye Writers of America, but I figured if a group of Estleman’s peers had seen fit to proclaim this book “the best private eye novel of the year,” it had to be pretty damn good.

It was.

I’m a little more jaded where awards are concerned now, of course.  But not by much.  I still believe in them, and value them, and yes, goddamnit, as an author, I covet them.  How readers in general feel about them is a mixed bag.  Some find awards important and some don’t.  And publishers?

Publishers don’t give a flying f-word about awards.

You want proof?  How’s this:

I’m a judge on the Best Paperback Original committee for one of the major book awards this year and I can count on two hands the number of submissions I’ve received directly from publishers over the last five weeks.  Authors have sent their own books in, publicity professionals have sent the books of clients in — but only three submissions have come from the house that published them.  The list of major publishers yet to be heard from, regardless of who did the actual submitting, would be longer than your arm.

Conclusion?  Publishers don’t think the promotional payoff of one of their books winning a literary award (short of the Booker Prize) is greater than the cost of mailing one physical copy each out to four or five award judges.

Seriously?

I think this is pretty sad and incredibly shortsighted, but maybe publishers are right.  Maybe awards really don’t matter.

What do you think?

MURDERATI – OUR GREATEST HITS VOL.1

From time to time, the authors here at Murderati would like to reacquaint you with some of our favorite old posts, posts we think represent some of the best writing we’ve ever done here.  Each post has been hand-selected by the author him-/herself.  So kickback and enjoy these blasts from the past, and feel free, if you read them the first time, to comment here (not at the original post) all over again.

COMMAS ‘N’ SH*T

by Pari

So I’m sitting on the can reading BE COOL by Elmore Leonard and come across this quote: “You just put down what you want to say, then you get somebody to add the commas and shit, fix up the spelling if it needs it. The way this one’s going I think it’ll write itself.”

Chili Palmer and his buddy Elaine are discussing writing screenplays, but the whole enchilada gets me thinking about punctuation (after I scoff at the idea that anything writes itself. Yeah, right.).

Many posts on Murderati have to do with the art of creating crime fiction — and our blog’s readers enjoy these insights — but commas, well, they affect us all. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the Great American Novel or a thank-you to Grandma Rose, you put a comma in the wrong place and your meaning gets shot to smithereens.

Don’t get me started on misplaced periods. And colons? Forgettaboutit.  (MORE)

ROCK ON, BIG RED

by David Corbett

Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on what heroism means. That hit home with particular force this year as, last Thursday, one of the kindest, smartest, funniest, most generous, caring and beautiful women I’ve ever known passed away after a valiant battle with breast cancer.

Her name was Kathi Kamen Goldmark, and she didn’t just crank out the courage in fighting her illness. She had that particular kind of courage that too often gets overlooked: The courage to be happy. And she had a particular gift for welcoming others into that happiness.

Or as David Phillips, the pedal steel player for Kathi’s band, Los Train Wreck, put it:

“Kathi’s job was to make sure everybody sang.”

Briefly, a bio: Kathi was not just the lead singer, rhythm guitarist (with her trademark leopard-skin Stratocaster), and heart and soul of Los Train Wreck, she was also a novelist—the marvelous And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You— plus a contributor and co-writer for a number of anthologies and other books, a founder and the lead Remainderette for the all-writer rock band The Rock Bottom Reminders—which included Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Stephen King and Ridley Pearson among others—as well as the most deeply appreciated literary escort in the San Francisco Bay Area (perhaps the known world). So Kathi knew a host of writers who loved her deeply and miss her bitterly.  (MORE)

YOU KNOW WHAT’S WRONG WITH BOUCHERCON?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Look, I did my raves already.   And I’ll fight anyone to the death who even dares to hint that Ruth and Jon and Judy didn’t just put on the greatest show on earth.   But let’s get honest, now.   There’s something missing, endemically, intrinsically, about the whole Bouchercon experience.

There’s no dancing.

Yeah, yeah, I can feel the skeptics of you out there going skeptical on me already, but trust me, this is leading somewhere you might just want to go.

Because of my confused genre identity, and because romance readers love them some ghost stories, I end up at a lot of romance conferences.   And there is dancing there, oh, is there.   No hangovers ever at an Romantic Times or RWA conference, because you just dance it right out.   Great exercise, too – no one needs to bother with the gym at these things.   And it’s great bonding.     But there’s a major problem there, too.

No men.  (MORE)

…AND YOUR ENEMIES CLOSER

by Gar Anthony Haywood

At this point, there isn’t much more to write about the most recent literary sockpuppet scandal that hasn’t already been written.  R.J. Ellory has been the subject of more ink and page-views over the past two weeks than Clint Eastwood’s empty chair.  The poor bastard’s been slammed from pillar-to-post for writing fake reviews under phony names that not only glorified his own work, but trashed the work of others, and enough of his fellow writers have stepped up to condemn him — and, to some extent, even defend him — that one would think there’s no angle to this shitstorm that hasn’t already been examined a thousand times over.

Well, I can think of maybe one.

As Martyn demonstrated here earlier this week, the vast majority of the outrage people have expressed over Ellory’s behavior has been due to the reviews he pseudonymously posted ripping other authors, including Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride.  People wonder what could have possessed the man to do such a thing.  After all, aren’t we in the crime writing community all one big happy family?  Don’t we all share a mutual respect for one another that supersedes any jealousies or resentments we could otherwise harbor toward those more successful than we are?  Aren’t we above all the foolish and petty infighting that has marred the landscape of literary fiction for years?

Uh, no, no and no.

The truth is, crime writers are just as capable of making enemies of other crime writers as Gore Vidal was of making one of Norman Mailer.  We may all be in this writing game together, but some of us are sinking like a stone while others are tanning themselves on the deck of the Good Ship Lollypop, and the disparity between the two states of being sometimes goes to a crazed person’s head.  Most of the time, this crazed person is the writer holding the short end of the stick, but not always; sometimes, the fear and paranoia behind all the venom are actually a byproduct of being the one on top looking down.

I know a thing or two about this enemy-making business because I’ve made more than a few myself.  I know this leaves you incredulous — “An old softy like Gar Haywood making enemies?” — but it’s true.  I’ve done it in various ways:

  • Daring to criticize other authors by name.  Just as the first rule of Fight Club is “You do not talk about Fight Club!” (followed by the second rule: “You DO NOT talk about Fight Club!”), some crime writers believe a similar, even more sacred rule exists for Authors’ Club: “You DO NOT talk about other authors!”  Which is an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but a rather unrealistic and immature one, as well.  I mean, “If you can’t say something nice . . .” might work fine as an operating principle out on the playground at PS 44, but no adult who enjoys thoughtful discussions of matters literary as much as I do should be expected to adhere to it.

    Needless to say, there’s a line between honest criticism and personal attack that should never be crossed, and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever crossed it.  But this is a distinction lost on some of the writers I’ve publicly taken to task for one perceived technical failing or another.  To them, any negative word spoken by one writer about another in the public square is tantamount to slander, and whoa be to him who breaks the Brotherhood’s code of silence in this manner.

  • Taking myself too seriously.  Humble as I am, I am not without ego, and some of my peers have confused a healthy dose of self-confidence with insufferable hubris.  This is perfectly ridiculous.  How could anybody with my Bookscan numbers be afflicted with insufferable hubris?
  • Not taking myself seriously enough.  Believe it or not, not everyone finds my brand of self-deprecating humor, as illustrated above, hilarious.  In fact, they think it cheapens my profession, which happens to also be their profession, so a joke at my expense is a joke at their expense.  And how will they ever convince the Pulitzer fiction committee to give their work a serious look with clowns like me constantly mucking up the genre with a sense of humor?

As near as I can tell, the general assumption has been that R.J. Ellory posted those malicious reviews of Mark Billingham’s and Stuart MacBride’s books simply to scuttle their careers and advance his own.  And maybe his motives were precisely that impersonal.

But I doubt it.  My guess is — and it’s only a guess — somewhere down the line, Mr. Billingham and Mr. MacBride, individually or as a pair, did or said something that Ellory found personally painful, and deserving of some kind of payback.  So he gave it to them.

If I’ve learned anything about myself and my fellow crime writers over the years, it’s that, by and large, we are all rather delicate creatures.  Which is to say, we bruise easily.  We don’t like criticism and we don’t trust the judgment of anyone who would presume to offer it, especially another writer.

Let me give you an example:

There is a Big Name Author I used to appear on panels with quite frequently.  Let’s call him Leonard.  I have always liked and admired Leonard, and have a great deal of respect for his work, as many readers of genre and non-genre fiction alike do to this day.  But back then, Leonard, like everyone else who’s ever shared an open microphone with me, was often at the heart of the one-liners I like to sprinkle throughout a panel appearance, and unbeknownst to me, he didn’t like it.  Stephen or David will tell you, having seen it firsthand, that no co-panelist of mine is safe from my rapier-like wit, I’m an equal-opportunity quipster — but Leonard had the idea I was always singling him out for special ridicule.

So the phone rings on my desk one day, not long after we’d done a panel together and a month or so before we were scheduled to do another.  And Leonard — who’d never called me on the phone before — says, “I can’t do our panel.”

I’m thinking he’s fallen ill.  “Oh, man, I’m sorry.  Are you okay?”

“No, no, I’m fine, it’s not like that.  I mean, I can’t do another panel with you.  I just can’t.”

“What?”

The rest of the conversation is a blur after all these years, but through my shock and awe I heard Leonard tell me that he couldn’t take my making fun of him anymore, and he wasn’t going to.  We’d appeared on our last panel together, he was about to call the organizers of our next one to cancel and he just wanted me to know why he was doing it, first.

I was blown away.  He thought I didn’t like him.  Eventually, after I’d explained that nothing could be further from the truth, and offered to pull out of our panel appearance in his stead since he was the real draw of the event, not me, cooler heads prevailed and he agreed to do the thing, after all.

But as you might imagine, nothing has been the same between us since.

I hesitate to suspect Leonard “hates” me now, because that sounds incredibly pompous considering our difference in professional stations.  You’d think he had more important people to hate on.  Still, if I cared to, I could probably build a case for him continuing to strongly dislike me based on some rather damning evidence, some of it eerily similar to that which earned R.J. Ellory such recent infamy.

I bring all this up now to pose a single question: Is writer-on-writer crime a damn shame?

Answer: Absolutely.

But nobody should be surprised by it anymore.

THAT’S INCREDIBLE! (AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM.)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As the father of four children (two sets — one now in their twenties and the other in their pre-teens), I’ve seen a lot of so-called “family-friendly” movies.  Some of them good and some of them bad.  A few have been terrific and quite a number have been just dreadful.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “kids'” movie as jaw-droppingly awful as THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN.

Now usually, when an adult says something this harsh about a kids’ movie, it’s because the critic in question is just a curmudgeon.  A grown-up who’s lost touch with his inner-child and can no longer be moved emotionally by films filled with pathos and/or whimsy.   I know people like this myself and I’ve always felt sorry for them.  What does it say about one’s adult existence if you lack the capacity to feel something — really feel something — when E.T. boards that spaceship and leaves poor Elliott behind?

But in this case, I promise you, my unequivocal statement that THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN is one of the worst kids’ movies ever made, is not coming from a heartless grinch with no appreciation for flights of fancy.  In fact, it is coming from someone who had hoped it would be a fine entertainment.  My family and I saw the film three weeks ago at the behest of my son Jackson, whose birthday we were celebrating, so I truly wanted to enjoy it.

But I just couldn’t.

By now, you have to be wondering just what THE ODD LIFE could have possibly done so poorly as to earn such enmity from a big, old softie like me — someone who cries like a baby every time the credits roll at the end of BIG FISH?

The answer’s quite simple: There is not a single credible moment in the film.  Not one.  No character ever — ever — behaves the way a real person would.

I swear to you, this is no exaggeration.

“But, wait a minute, Gar,” I can hear you saying.  “This is a movie about a little boy who sprouts from a garden in answer to a childless couple’s prayers.  It’s a fantasy, and fantasies aren’t supposed to be credible!”

To which I reply, “Nonsense.”

The best fantasies are those that are well grounded in reality.  The magic in them works because, in the world in which they operate, characters abide by the very same rules of logic we do.  Fantastic things may happen to them, things that are realistically impossible, but their reactions to these things ring true.  Credibility is the lifeline a filmgoer — or reader — can cling to when everything else in a story is threatening to throw them overboard.  (Or worse, insisting that they jump.)

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN literally defies you at every turn to believe what its characters are doing.  When all common sense suggests they turn right, they turn left instead.

You want examples?  I could give you several dozen.  But dismantling, piece by piece, a film like this — one that so clearly has its heart in the right place — would be a very mean spirited thing to do.  So I’ll just let one key example suffice for all the rest.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

The film’s story is told in flashback by Cindy and Jim Green, two wild and crazy kids madly in love but unable to conceive, as they are interviewed by a pair of sober and skeptical adoption agency officials.  To illustrate how fit and well-prepared they are to become adoptive parents, the Greens tell the officials the incredible tale of their “son” Timothy: a ten year old boy they raised as their own after he unexpectedly sprang from their front garden one night like an overgrown, ambulatory carrot.

Only hours before, Cindy and Jim had buried their extensive wish list for the child they can never have in a box out in the garden, and they understood immediately that Timothy — sweet and innocent and brimming with heartwarming bromides — was meant to be that wish list personified.  With living green leaves sprouting from his shins to authenticate his agricultural origins, Timothy had to be a gift from . . . Somebody.  Right?  So they kept him, and passed him off to everyone in Stanleyville as their own (adopted?  inherited?  borrowed?) child.

(The folks of Stanleyville are a simple and uncurious lot, apparently.)

Anyway, from there, the Greens’ story gets much more preposterous — and far more sappy.  In the end, after having changed the lives of everyone he’s come in contact with for the better, Timothy loses his leaves and eventually returns to the garden, never to be seen again.  The interview comes to a close and the adoption agency officials bid the Greens farewell, having just heard them relate a story only slightly more fantastic than that of James and the Giant Peach as if they’d been under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God.

Naturally, Cindy and Jim’s application for adoption is approved and a beautiful little girl is promptly delivered at their doorstep, just in time for Fade Out.

That THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN had to end on this cheerful note, or one remarkably similar to it, is inarguable.  This is a Disney movie, after all, and happy endings go with the territory.  I love happy endings.  But a happy ending slapped onto the backside of a film with zero effort made to support it with so much as a wisp of realism is an insult to one’s intelligence.  In this case, THE ODD LIFE ends the way it does for one reason, and one reason only: because that ending suited the man who wrote and directed it.

That’s what’s wrong with the movie throughout: Everything that happens in it only seems to happen because the movie’s screenwriter/director Peter Hedges wanted it that way.  Logic, realism, common sense — none of these things plays any part in the choices the film’s characters make.  Not in the things they say, not in the things they do.

(I suspect I’ll be encouraged to offer further examples of this in the comments that follow, should you be interested in hearing them.  But I won’t go into them here.)

I don’t know whether THE ODD LIFE is as horrible as it is because Hedges is lazy (“I don’t feel like explaining how this could happen.”) or just plain clueless (“I can’t explain how this could happen.”).  But I do know his film comes off as the work of a man who cares far more about the emotional responses he wants to elicit from people than how those reponses can be earned honestly.  When a writer, simply to achieve a desired result, puts his own best interests before those of his characters, he is doomed to fail.  In successful fiction, the Cardinal Rule is not “For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction” — it’s “For every action, there must be a viable and perceptible reason for the reader (or viewer) to believe it.”

Defenders of THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN — and there are many, like these two little guys . . .

. . . would probably say the problems I cite are all in my head, that I just didn’t approach the film with the proper commitment to suspending my disbelief.  But demanding that your audience suspend its disbelief indefinitely, simply because the story you are telling is a fairy tale, is not a substitute for telling it in such a way that it requires as little suspension of disbelief as possible.  I saw no evidence that the makers of THE ODD LIFE gave a rat’s ass how credible its people and situations were, and that’s a shame.

Because I like a good, child-friendly fantasy as much as the next heartless bastard.

Questions for the Class: How important is credibility in fiction to you?  What was the last critically-acclaimed film or book that failed to meet your standards in that department, and why?

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS

by Gar Anthony Haywood

My writer Facebook friend Jeff Cohen recently posted a lament regarding a great pet peeve, one to which all but the most successful published authors among us can relate.  He’d recently gone to a party and had some thoughtless dumb-ass ask him The Question.  You know the one I’m talking about, because you’ve almost certainly heard it yourself:

“So, are you still writing?”

Naturally, Jeff was somewhat irked, as we all are when our choice of career is similarly treated with such disrespect and disdain.  But if we were to give the party guest who’d accosted Jeff the benefit of the doubt, and tried to understand why he (or she) would ask such an asinine question, we might be less ready to condemn.  Because this, in my opinion, is what The Question really breaks down to whenever it’s asked, in terms of what the person asking it is actually trying to find out:

“Since your writing hasn’t yet made you rich or famous, and you pour so much of your heart and soul and time into doing it, why are you still bothering?”

Granted, that’s still a rather insensitive inquiry, but I can see how people might wonder.  Why do we authors keep writing when the ultimate rewards we seek — fame and, if not fortune, a decent living independent of a day job, continue to evade us?  What in the hell keeps us going in the face of all the discouragement and rejection we regularly endure?

The little things, that’s what.

Those small, golden moments in which we are made to feel, however fleetingly, like a winner.  Unexpected notes of recognition from surprising corners of the universe that serve to prove we are not, in fact, writing in a vacuum.

Example: Not two weeks after my first novel, FEAR OF THE DARK, was published by St. Martin’s Press way back in 1988, the family and I went to pick up some photos we’d dropped off at the local Fotomat.  (Remember them?  Those little drive-thru booths in strip malls just big enough for a cashier and about 100 rolls of film to fit in?  How about film?  Do you remember film?  Nevermind.)  Anyway, I’d paid the old guy behind the window for our developed photos and was about to walk off (yeah, we’d walked up, rather than driven through) when he said, “You aren’t Gar Anthony Haywood the novelist, are you?”

Huh?

Turns out he’d found my book in the library, read it, and liked it.  A lot.

I floated on air the rest of the day.

That’s a “Little Thing.”  And we all experience them, sooner or later.  And this being Wildcard Tuesday, I thought I’d ask some of my other writer friends to share their favorite Little Things with you.

Enjoy.

 

Tess Gerritsen, author of LAST TO DIE

The incident that stands out for me was while flying aboard a British Airways flight from Boston to London. A short time into the flight, the male flight attendant quietly approached and said the crew were all wondering if I was the famous author. I never had such attentive service!

 

Bruce DeSilva, author of CLIFF WALK

Howard Frank Mosher (“Waiting for Teddy Williams”) is my favorite living novelist, the closest thing we have today to Mark Twain. So I was stunned to receive an unsolicited email from him shortly after my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” was published. He raved about it, calling the book “a highly serious work of fiction combining a fascinating evocation of a twenty-first American city with a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business.” When my second novel, “Cliff Walk,” was published in June, he got in touch again, saying my protagonist, Liam Mulligan, is “the most human, unpredictable, and anti-authoritarian fictional character I’ve met since Ranger Gus McCrae of “Lonesome Dove.” But that’s not even the best part. My hero and I are email buddies now.

 

P.D. Martin, author of HELL’S FURY

I remember when my first novel got published and my ‘publicist’ rang me to introduce herself and chat. The whole idea of a publicist sounded pretty special and made me feel very much like a celebrity! And then I went to my first event with her, and she was like: “Can I get you a drink? Coffee, wine?” Might be the closest I come to having ‘people’!

 

Aaron Philip Clark, author of A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN

I don’t have too many stories about folks recognizing me or any of those cool happenings. However, I did receive an email from a reader who thanked me for “writing a character with a soul” and said she typically didn’t read mysteries unless it was something Mosley had written. It put a smile on my face.

 

J.T. Ellison, author of A DEEPER DARKNESS

So many wonderful experiences: Winning the thriller award in New York last summer. It was an insane night – I was dreadfully ill, had laryngitis, a wicked case of nerves, and two of my literary heroes were in the room: John Sandford and Diana Gabaldon. To win a prestigious award in the presence of two of the writers who shaped me was incredible and gratifying. The very first Thrillerfest in Phoenix, 112 degrees and all the people I’ve only ever heard of there in the flesh; meeting Lee Child and having him react with, “Oh yes, I’ve heard your name.” I was floored. What? How? OMG!!! Allison Brennan talking to me like I was a real writer. The moment my agent called to tell me I had my very first deal – and not just for one book, but three. The day my agent called to tell me he wanted to be my agent. The first time I finished a book – Christmas Day, 2003, at my parents’ house in Florida, and the exhausted realization I’d finally done something special. But the very best was the very first sentence I ever wrote with intention to follow it with another, and another. I finished that paragraph and began to cry. There’s true magic in intention.

 

David Corbett, author of KILLING YOURSELF TO SURVIVE

Do They Know I’m Running? produced some of the most generous and heartfelt communications from readers I ever received in my career. I was deeply touched by many of the comments people shared, this one in particular:

“My father-in-law was finishing your book when I got home tonight. When I mentioned I met you, he right away asked, ‘Is he a cholo with a white boy’s name?’

I said nope, a white boy.

He got quiet for a second, then said, ‘He is a poet of my people.'”

 

Pari Noskin Taichert, author of THE BELEN HITCH

I was at a party the other night. It had nothing to do with my writing or writing at all, just a social gathering mostly of people I didn’t know. I introduced myself.  A woman in the group recognized my name, squealed loudly and said, “I can’t believe this! I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for you to get me another book! When are you going to write one?” Then she gushed about my books to me and to the group.  It was a small moment and an utter surprise. And it made my evening.

 

Brad Parks, author of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

I was at a doctor’s office, doing some routine intake stuff with my wife, who has a different last name than me (and who, of course, carries our insurance, because her husband is a ne’er-do-well writer). Anyhow, the doctor got through asking my wife all the questions she needed to ask, then turned to me. “And what’s your name?” she asked. “Brad Parks,” I said. The doctor gasped and blurted, “The author?!?” She then launched on a 90-second rave about the great pleasure of reading my books and the tremendous admiration she had for me as a writer. I loved it and try to visit that doctor whenever possible. Strangely, my wife doesn’t use her anymore.

 

Zoë Sharp, author of FIFTH VICTIM

I’m constantly both humbled and honoured when I hear from readers who have enjoyed the Charlie Fox books. I try not to read reviews, so when people make a point of getting in touch directly it really means something special. It’s hard to pick out individual occasions, but three relatively recent ones spring to mind.

I have a fan in New Zealand, Karen, who is a huge champion of Charlie on Goodreads. She is always making sure the book covers and the details are correct, and she is an absolute wonder.

The second is reviewer and blogger Judith Baxter, who has done some wonderful posts about the books, and even about her surprise that I would get in touch to thank her for her kind words.

And thirdly is US singer/songwriter Beth Rudetsky, who wrote an amazing song for FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine called ‘The Victim Won’t Be Me’. I am just so moved by this.

 

Alexandra Sokoloff, author of HUNTRESS MOON

I was thrilled that Shelfari’s mystery and suspense group picked Huntress Moon as their August read, and the incredible discussion questions they’re coming up with are making all the work worthwhile.

 

Brett Battles, author of THE DESTROYED

When my first book (THE CLEANER) came out, I was still working at E! Entertainment Television. Every summer we would have this big party with a top named musical artist…can’t remember for sure, but think LL Cool J might have been that year. I had given a copy of my book to Ted Harbert, President of the network and he read and loved it. I had heard that he might say something when he was up on stage talking to everyone. He did…unfortunately I was in the bathroom at the time and never heard it. But I did have several folks later come up and congratulate me.

 

Robert Gregory Browne, author of TRIAL JUNKIES

I remember a young aspiring writer approached me at a conference and was so nervous he could barely stop shaking. I assured him that there was nothing to be nervous about—I mean, for godsakes, I’m NOBODY—but to think that someone was as nervous around me as I would be around, say, Stephen King or Donald Westlake, certainly got me to reflect for a moment on how I see myself. I rarely take time to realize that I’m doing what others only dream of and I’m a very lucky man, indeed.

 

Bill Crider, author of MURDER OF A BEAUTY SHOP QUEEN

In 1980 I attended Bouchercon for the first time.  It was a very small convention in those days, and I hadn’t published a novel yet.  (My first one, a book in the Nick Carter series, came out in January 1981.)  I was, however, writing reviews and articles for a number of fanzines like Paperback Quarterly, The Mystery FANcier, The Poisoned Pen, and The Armchair Detective.  I was looking at paperbacks at a dealer’s table and found one I wanted: The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints by Kendall Foster Crossen.  I can’t remember the price, but it was more than I wanted to pay.  I asked the dealer if he’d take less, and he looked at my name tag.  “Bill Crider,” he said.  “Are you THE Bill Crider?”  I told him I was the only one at the convention as far as I knew, and he told me how much he’d enjoyed reading my articles in Paperback Quarterly.  Then he said, “I’ve enjoyed them so much, I want to give you the book.”  This was particularly gratifying because the publishers PQ were standing there beside me, amazed.  I thought that as soon as my Nick Carter novel was published, things like that would happen all the time, but of course nothing like that’s ever happened to me again.

 

Gary Phillips, author of VIOLENT SPRING

One of my biggest thrills early on was being on a panel with Ross Thomas at the downtown main library.  We both talked about having worked for the same national union — AFSCME- and among his books he signed for me was the Seersucker Whipsaw, his novel about, among other things, union shenanigans.

 

Timothy Hallinan, author of THE FEAR ARTIST

Aside from the thrill of getting on a plane a few times and seeing someone reading one of my books (rocked my world) my biggest thrills come from fan mail.  My hero, Poke Rafferty, and his Thai wife, Rose, have adopted a little street child, Miaow, as their daughter.  Once or twice a year I get email from people who have become cross-cultural adoptive parents who want to say how accurately my books describe the joys and pitfalls of bringing someone into your family who has different beliefs, experiences, and expectations.  The emails practically paralyze me with pleasure–not only because the books mean something to these people but also because I blithely wrote the relationships in Poke’s little family without giving a thought to the possibility that I’d get it all wrong.  The best of these letters arrive with photos of the children.  The VERY best of them came from a 15-year-old Korean-American adoptee whose father wrote me in 2006 and now, six years later, she was old enough to read the book (A Nail Through the Heart) that had prompted his letter.  She wrote to say that I’d told aspects of her story so accurately that parts of the book had almost seemed to be about her.

 

Stephen Jay Schwartz, author of BEAT

The very best “shout-out” I got was when I stood in the back of a Michael Connelly signing at Mysterious Galaxy – a room packed with almost 200 people – and a woman in front of me asked Michael what authors he liked to read.  He answered that he didn’t always read in the genre in which he writes, but occasionally someone will send him the work of a new author.  “Like the author behind you,” he said, “Stephen Jay Schwartz’s work is exceptional.”  At that point every one of his fans turned around to look at me and my face went completely white.  I nodded to him, thanking him for his kindness.  That was an amazing thing for him to do, at his own signing.  I really love him for that.

 

Questions for the Class: Writers: What Little Things motivate you to keep writing?  And readers, have you ever done a Little Thing that may have inspired a favorite author to keep on writing?

NO PAIN, NO GAIN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

I rode my bike yesterday.  It’s a thirty-plus-year-old Peugeot 12-speed roadie like this one . . .

. . . that, by modern standards, is heavy and insufficiently geared, but it gets the job done for a twice-a-week, amateur cyclist like me.  I usually ride down to the Arroyo Seco and, sometimes, around the Rose Bowl beyond once or twice, but today I really pushed myself for no good reason I can think of.  I rode round-trip from the home the family and I are renting in Alhambra up to La Canada Flintridge, a total of roughly 20 miles, and I did it in the 90-degree heat much of L.A. has been baking in for the last two weeks or so.

Crazy, right?  Especially for an old goat like me?

But I made it, and it was fun.  It was a challenge that required me to push beyond the point of exhaustion — or the point at which the will to go on was seriously on the wane — a number of times.

I do this sort of thing regularly at the gym.  I predetermine what weight training exercises I’m going to do, how many sets of how many reps each, and then I do it, come hell or high water.  I force myself to work harder than it’s often comfortable to work.  I don’t quit, I don’t whine.  (And I don’t grunt like a dwarf trying to heave a submarine out of dry dock, either, as some muscleheads are wont to do.)  All I do is get it done.

Usually, what I’m thinking about as I shove, pull or push that weight stack this way or that, is writing.  Specifically, what I’m thinking is that this same dynamic, working hard as hell to achieve a given goal even when the going is damn tough — when everything inside you is screaming, “Stop, please, no more!  We don’t need this crap!” — should work for me, the writer, as well as it does for me, the physical fitness freak.

But it generally doesn’t.

Bust your ass in the gym and invariably, you see results.  Muscle growth, fat loss, an increase in strength and stamina.  It’s simple math: Do this, get that.  But bust your ass with that same level of commitment and determination behind your desk and, well . . .  Maybe something good will happen, and maybe it won’t.

It doesn’t seem fair.

The natural reaction to this inequity is to work harder still at your craft.  Write more, write better, write smarter.  Put even more effort into marketing your work.  Sleep six hours a night instead of eight.  That should do the trick, right?

Not necessarily.

Just as genetics ultimately limits what gains all your blood, sweat and tears in the weight room can earn you physically, so do things like talent, and timing, and luck have a similar effect on what you are able to accomplish as a professional author.  Working harder than all your peers guarantees you nothing.

This all makes for a great argument to do something else with one’s life.  Something less fickle and more likely to pay off.  Something your poor parents, or husband or wife, would be relieved to see you finally do.

Except that we don’t find something else to do.  We just keep on pushing, fighting, scratching to get the words out.  To write something people in great numbers will want to read.  Because the sports analogy that really fits the writer’s life is not one about weight training, but — to bring this post full circle — cycling.  Cycling is primarily a test of endurance, not strength.  How far can you go without giving up?  How many back-breaking hills can you climb before hitting the brakes and turning back for home?

And your reward for the ride?  Forward progress.  Each mile gets you one step closer to the next.  You ride for the certain knowledge, the unassailable fact that — despite any evidence there may be to the contrary — you’re not as far away from your destination in this minute as you were the minute before.  You’re not standing still or, worse, regressing.  You’re on the move, headed toward that place you want to be.

Will you ever actually get there?  The answer to that question may lie just over the next big, imposing, twenty-percent grade on the horizon.

And you’ll never top that grade if you quit pedaling.

Questions for the class: How do you use physical exercise to motivate you in a chosen endeavor?

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL (AS IF)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As I write this blog post, I’m wondering how in the hell I’m going to find a way to post it in time for Wednesday.  Because, you see, I’m on vacation this week, and nothing ever comes easy for me when I go on vacation.

Vacations are supposed to be fun.  An opportunity to put work behind you and do nothing but relax and enjoy yourself for a while.  Travel, eat well, and take afternoon naps by the pool.  Catch up on your reading, maybe even try a few absurdly dangerous things you’d never try otherwise (hang-gliding, cliff diving, etc.).  Laugh and play, and love with renewed vigor, and forget what it was about your chosen profession that had you longing for a vacation in the first place.

The idea is to find your professional “off” switch and activate it, then fill the void only with things that make you smile.  For most people, shutting down their work lives can be as simple as turning off their cell phone and leaving it off.  Disconnect him from his Macbook and smart phone and an accountant becomes just another joe, his head no longer swimming with numbers to crunch.  Drop an attending ER physician on a beach in Maui for a week and see how much time he spends worrying about gunshot wounds and head trauma.  Because the work these people do is only as portable as they choose to make it, they can get on a plane and leave it behind them, whenever the need arises.

Not so the professional writer.

The writer’s lot is reminiscent of that old saying: “Wherever I go, there I am.”  Your work — and all the things about it that make you crazy — is in your head, twenty-four-seven, and you can no more leave it at home with the family dog when you go on vacation than your left foot (assuming you have a left foot).  The writer has no “off” switch, other than sleep, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.  So a writer’s vacation is, at best, a series of momentary diversions from the stresses that are always with him.  There is no complete escape.  You can run, but you can’t hide.

This summer, the family and I are doing a week in Aspen, Colorado, and as you can see, a person looking for heaven on earth could do worse.  This place is gorgeous.  The weather’s lovely, the air fresh and clean (if a little thin) and the scenery is right out of a nature lover’s dream.

So why am I having to work so hard to be happy?

The answer’s complicated, but it all boils down to money.  Paradise is paradise no matter how you slice it, but when you’re doing it on the cheap, it’s a little less so.  The wife and I aren’t here with the kids counting pennies, exactly, but we are keeping an eye on where every precious dollar goes, so corners are definitely being cut.  Most of the time, this is a painless process, since this is the story of our lives back home, after all.  We’re used to making compromises.  But when you’re on vacation, surrounded by people who would appear to have vast fortunes to spend fulfilling their every desire (and that of their children), it’s hard doing without.

Especially when you hold yourself personally responsible.

That writer’s brain you can’t turn off during vacation is constantly thinking about all kinds of things, but one of its most maddening preoccupations is career assessment.  The dreams we hold for ourselves professionally do not feature us questioning our every purchasing decision during the two weeks out of every year we set aside to forget our troubles and live a little.  Rather, these dreams have us playing on vacation with reckless abandon, unfettered by the budgetary constraints we are ordinarily bound by.

A compact for the rental car?  To hell with that, give me the SUV!

The Westin or the Holiday Inn?  The Westin!

Sirloin steak or tacos?  Puh-lease, we’ll have the steak!

Still, limited discretionary funds or no, I’m having a wonderful, blessed time here in Colorado with a woman and two children I love very deeply.  I can’t give them the vacation they deserve, but I can give them a husband and father who will never stop trying to do so.  To writers without a six-figure book deal or Hollywood option money rolling in by the truckload, the cup can always appear to be half-empty, especially when they’re trying to take a break from the grind of writing to relax for a while.

But my cup is most definitely better than half-full, and I know it.

(Oh, by the way: I managed to find a connection to the Internet in time to post this Wednesday morning, so things are definitely looking up!)

Questions for the Class: How well do you fare on vacation?  Are you able to shut everything out and enjoy yourself, or . . . ?

THIS I DO BELIEVE

by Gar Anthony Haywood

One of my favorite films of all time is Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer:

I think this movie is a small masterpiece and nothing less than a miracle, the latter because it’s virtually without flaw.  Zaillian’s direction of his own screenplay, the cast, James Horner’s beautiful score — you just can’t make a family-oriented “sports” film of this kind any better, IMO — and when you consider all the things that could have gone wrong during the movie’s development that somehow didn’t, well, it’s nothing short of amazing.

A few years back, the Arclight theater in Hollywood did a screening of the film that included a Q & A with Zaillian afterwards, and naturally, I jumped at the chance to attend.  Zaillian’s an incredible screenwriter (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball [w/ Aaron Sorkin]), and I was anxious to hear him describe both his process in adapting the non-fiction book by Fred Waitzkin upon which his script was based, and his experiences in getting the movie made.

I learned a lot that night, but one thing Zaillian said in particular has always stayed with me.  He said the script didn’t really take off for him until he realized that the story within the source material he really wanted to tell was that of a father and son.  At its heart, that’s what Searching for Bobby Fischer is all about: a son’s need to win his father’s approval.  Everything else — the chess tournament milieu, the Good Coach With a Past, the evil rival — is just window dressing.

That Zaillian had something to say about the father/son dynamic is evident in the final product.  His film is as moving as it is — at least, for me — because it seems so genuinely felt.  This one clearly came from the heart, and I think that’s the reason Zaillian’s screenplay is such a gem.

Writing “from the heart” is what every author should be trying to do each time he puts pen to paper, regardless of what he’s writing, because that’s where the good stuff is, the stuff that makes a writer’s work uniquely his own.  Your one-of-a-kind perspective on the world in which we live — and the passions that color that perspective — are the one-two punch that no other writer on earth can offer a reader.  Your voice is an important calling card, but your soul is an even greater one.

Whenever I sit down to think about my next long-form work, I inevitably come to this question: In what ways can my personal belief systems enrich this material?  What do I have to say about it that speaks to who I am as an individual, and how I view life?

If I can’t answer that question — if I just can’t seem to find an emotional entry point to the story at hand — then I move on to something else.

For me, then, the ideal premise for a novel is one that not only excites me on a storytelling level, but also offers me the opportunity to explore a theme that, for one reason or another, stirs me emotionally.  The object is not catharsis, necessarily, but combustion; just another log to throw on the creative fire.

Over the years, I’ve figured out what most of my “hot button” themes are.  The following is just a partial list:

Fatherhood

As a father of four children, I’ve learned how strong and fierce the paternal instinct can be.  It’s no surprise, then, that stories involving a father going to war to protect/defend/avenge his brood have always moved me.  On the face of it, my most recent novel Assume Nothing may appear to be a crime thriller, but what it really is is my idea of a romance novel.  What else would you call the story of a man willing to do anything — anything — to ensure the safety of his wife and child?

True Love

“Happily ever after” I’m not so sure about, but I’m a firm believer in true love.  It’s rare and it can be fleeting, but it’s definitely real, and in my fiction, anyway, it’s always worth fighting for.

Justice

This one goes without saying, right?  It chaps my ass whenever Evil triumphs over Good, as it so often does in the real world, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to get some payback in my fiction.

Religious Faith

As you probably know by now (especially if you read this earlier post of mine), I’m a determined if incredibly nonconformist Catholic, someone who believes in the Higher Power most commonly referred to as “God,” and who finds both peace and spiritual rejuvenation in the occasional twelve o’clock Mass.  While I have no interest whatsoever in ever proselytizing, discretely or otherwise (primarily because the things I believe in may very well turn out to be poppycock), the underlying optimism of my faith pretty much colors my view of everything, and that view in turn informs my writing.  As to the question of how much, I’ll just answer this way: No one will ever mistake me for C.S. Lewis, but neither will my fiction ever encourage non-believers to keep on keeping on.

Loyalty & Honor

The people I admire most in the world are those who live by an honor code and demonstrate an unshakable loyalty to family and country.  No, I’m not just talking about the U.S. Marines.  I think people from all walks of life exhibit these traits — by standing by their spouses when infidelity beckons, or having a friend’s back when the cost could be their livelihood — and I love writing about them.  Being loyal and honorable takes incredible courage, especially when the chips are down, and characters who meet this challenge, despite the personal sacrifices involved, are always at the center of my best fiction.

Forgive me if this all sounds pretty sappy.  But these are the themes that play out again and again in my writing, sometimes because I want them there, but mostly because they insist on butting in.  When I’m writing well, I’m emotionally connected to my material, and it is the things I believe in — the things that most draw my ire or fill me with joy — that provide that connection.

Author, know thyself.  And write accordingly.

Questions for the Class: Writers, what are your hot topic themes?  And readers, what themes do you most like to see explored in the fiction you read?

BLOGGED ON THE FOURTH OF JULY

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As today is American Independence Day (and because, quite frankly, having just blogged here yesterday, I don’t have a clue what else to do), I thought I’d model today’s post after those gigantic assortment packs of fireworks your neighbors like to buy in order to celebrate the holiday like the Allies attacking the beach on D-Day.  You know, assortment packs like this one:

None of the following subjects of conversation, in my estimation, are weighty enough to build an entire post around, but in combination they just might make for a decent read.  (Hope springs eternal.)  So without further ado, I hereby offer this hodgepodge of ruminations, some only tenuously related to the writing life, each representing an individual item commonly found in said fireworks assortment . . .

(Oh, and BTW – If these amateur munitions are illegal to set off within Los Angeles city limits, why does my South Pasadena neighborhood already sound like a Battle at Gettysburg reenactment every night after 6 PM?  Can somebody please tell me?)

FirecrackersLong-Overdue Responses to Recent Murderati Posts

Maybe some of you have noticed that I’ve been conspicuously quiet lately regarding the posts of my fellow Murderati authors.  It’s not that they haven’t moved me to think, I promise you.  It’s just that I’ve been busy as hell and haven’t been able to find the time to offer my reactions.  Alex’s recent post about how much output is too little for an author trying to make a living in today’s e-book dominated marketplace, and David’s ensuing response to it, have been particularly deserving of my attention.

So I’ll offer my thoughts on the subject now.

David wrote:  “. . . with each book, I’ve tried to write, if not a masterpiece, a book that at least tries to measure up to the greatest books about crime that I’ve read: The Long Goodbye, Cutter & Bone, Bellman & True, Nightmare Alley, Dog Soldiers, God’s Pocket, Clockers, The Long Firm, to name a scant few.”

I can so relate to this.  I think I do the same thing — but not all the time.  Sometimes, I know damn good and well that my WIP at the moment is something well short of a masterpiece, and that’s perfectly fine, because all I’m really aiming for is a small gem.  Small gems are masterpieces in their own right, relative to their most applicable genre or sub-genre.

I don’t think every author should be expected to set the bar at “masterpiece,” each and every time out.   But he should settle for nothing less than his best work, within the parameters of the kind of book he’s attempting to write.  That is what I’m always committed to doing, and like David, I obsess endlessly over every word in the pursuit of that goal.

Could I write faster than I do at present?  Oh, yes.  Faster and better?  Uh, no.

If I thought I could afford to publish (or contract to have published) anything that didn’t represent the absolute best writing I’m capable of producing, I might be willing to speed things up a little and take my chances with the resulting work.  But that’s a risk I’m just not prepared to take.  You only get one chance to impress with most readers; blow that chance by giving them something to read that was rushed into print simply to meet a determined annual rate of output and you’re screwed.  One book a year or five, mediocrity is not going to buy you the loyal readership you seek.

Roman CandlesA Personal Summer Reading List, Pretense-Free Edition

The following are five books I hope to read this summer, simply because I think I might enjoy them, and not because any are likely to make me a better person, or give me a greater appreciation for the use of florid language in stories altogether lacking a plot.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS – Patrick DeWitt
This just sounds like too much fun not to read.

THE END OF EVERYTHING – Megan Abbott
I’d read this one for the title and cover art alone.

DIAMOND RUBY – Joseph Wallace
Baseball and a smart, headstrong young woman who knows how to play it, both in a YA novel suitable for adults.  What’s not to love?

CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE CITY OF THE DEAD – Sara Gran
Sara Gran will be reading from this at the NOIR AT THE BAR party in Los Angeles later this month.  I hope to have the book read in time for her to sign my copy.

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS – Erik Larson
I read Larson’s THUNDERSTRUCK and couldn’t put it down.  This book sounds even better.

Missiles Books I Know I Should Read, But Will Probably Never Get Around To Cracking

I’d be a smarter, wiser, more culturally informed person if I read these “must reads,” I’m sure.  But I fear time’s running out.

1984 – George Orwell

To answer your question, yes.  I am ashamed.

ON THE ROAD – Jack Kerouak

Please don’t hate me, Stephen.  But poetry has always given me the hives.

KINDRED – Octavia Butler

The late author was a good if distant friend before her passing, but I never read her, acclaimed as her speculative fiction was.

HARRY POTTER AND THE (Fill in the Blank) – J.K. Rowling

Yes, this is absurd.  My wife and children live and breathe these books, I can’t take three steps in our house without tripping over a hardcopy of one of them, and yet I’ve never gotten more than a third of the way into the first installment.  Am I nuts?

THE GREAT GATSBY – F. Scott Fitzgerald

If I could get the image of Mia Farrow (whom I’ve never cared for) as Daisy Buchanan out of my head, I might find the will to give this classic a try.  But I can’t.  I just can’t.

Sparklers Reading Just for Fun – What a Concept!

It’s been a long time since I’ve tried any form of fantasy fiction, but the HBO series GAME OF THRONES got me to thinking about reading at least one of the books by George R. R. Martin on which the show is based.

So I bought myself a copy of the first, aptly titled A GAME OF THRONES, and I haven’t put the damn thing down since.  Epic tomes of this dimension usually intimidate me all to hell, but I’m racing through this book like my life depends on it.  Martin can flat out write: you name it — memorable characters, crisp prose, smart and funny dialogue that rings true — it’s all here.  Reading for pleasure has never been so . . . well, pleasurable!

Questions for the Class: What would your own literary Fourth of July “fireworks assortment” look like?

GET ME REWRITE!

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Actually, it’s way too late for a rewrite.  Prometheus is in the can and already raking in millions at theaters across the globe (though nowhere near as many millions as its producers had no doubt hoped, for some of the reasons I’m about to go into below).

I know, I know: We don’t normally do movie reviews here at Murderati.  And technically, I’m not about to post one now.  But this is Wildcard Tuesday, damnit — the day we ‘Ratis on the masthead get to do pretty much anything we damn well please — so what I am going to do is offer a broad-strokes, spoiler-free outline of all the missteps I think screenwriter Damon Lindelof — with the ostensible blessings of director Ridley Scott — made on his way to producing the final draft of the film’s script.

Understand that this is all coming from a huge fan of the first two films in 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise (1979’s Alien and its 1986 sequel, Aliens).  In fact, I think James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the greatest action films ever made, and its precursor, Scott’s Alien, is a horror movie masterpiece that, when I first saw it, had me seriously considering fleeing the theater only halfway through its full running time, or to be precise about it, right after this now classic scene:

The Alien sequels that followed Cameron’s were all shoddy disappointments that just seemed to get worse and worse, and the ensuing Fox films that paired the eponymous Alien creature with the extraterrestrial bounty hunter first seen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller Predator (Alien vs. Predator [2004], Alien vs. Predator: Requiem [2007]) were a travesty made strictly to suck the last drop of box-office from both franchises.  So reasons for me to be encouraged earlier this year by the news that Prometheus was yet another film based on the Alien legend were few and far between.

Still, Prometheus was reportedly a prequel to Alien, and the director behind it was the man who’d gotten the franchise off to such a fantastic start: Ridley Scott.  So how bad could Prometheus possibly be?

Well, let me just put it this way: There’s no such thing as a rule book for screenwriters and directors to go by in making sci-fi blockbuster sequels/prequels like Prometheus, but if there were, the following are all the rules in it Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott would have blatantly broken:

1. Don’t commit to doing a sequel if you don’t really want to do a sequel.

It’s been reported that Scott didn’t sign up to do Prometheus with the idea of making just another entry in the Alien film franchise, and if this is true, boy, does that reluctance ever show in the final product.  Everything in Prometheus that’s reminiscent of Scott’s Alien seems completely out of place, and that’s because Scott (and screenwriter Lindelof) clearly intended for Prometheus to be a much loftier, more thought-provoking film.  Which is unfortunate, because the only thought Alien provoked in most viewers was “That’s it — I’m closing my eyes until the lights come back up!”  Alien was a horror film, as I mentioned earlier, and there’s nothing organic to Prometheus‘s basic storyline to suggest that Scott had any interest this time around in scaring anybody.  My opinion?

What Scott and Lindelof were hoping to make instead of a horror film, under the guise of an Alien “prequel,” was their own answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In other words, a deep, complex science fiction classic that would force viewers to ask serious questions about life, death, and mankind’s place in the universe.

Does that sound like an ideal foundation for an Alien prequel to you?

2. Pay attention to the science in science fiction.

My friend Doselle Young, who writes science fiction and horror with equal aplomb, is something of a science geek, and the list of factual absurdities he found in Prometheus is longer than the guest list to a Kardashian wedding.  Most of the things he mentioned when he and I compared notes on the film were just beyond the intellectual grasp of this former C+ high school science student, but many were basic enough that, once they were pointed out to me, even I understood how ridiculous they were.  For example, consider this question: Over a span of millions of years, would you expect a life form — any life form — to physically evolve in some noticeable way, or remain completely unchanged?

Apparently, Lindelof and Scott think it’s the latter.

Also, timing is a critical element in any piece of fiction — making things happen in a way that is compatible with both logic and what is possible — and Prometheus fails this test over and over again.  Hint to Lindelof: The next time you take on a project of this kind, study up on the exact distance of a light year, and how long it would probably take a man-made spacecraft, no matter how technologically advanced, to cover one.

3. Give all your characters an actual reason to be in your script.

I won’t say much about this one except: Idris Elba, whom I greatly admire, is a member of the Prometheus cast, but I’ll be damned if I know why, other than so that his character — and I use the word “character” here loosely — can occasionally strike a dynamic pose at the ship’s helm.  Who was this person and what was the point of his existence?  The role he played in terms of the plot’s development was . . . what, exactly?

I don’t have a clue, and I doubt Lindelof does, either.

4. Give your characters a reason to do the things they do.

As opposed to just having them do things because, well, wouldn’t it be cool if they did?  Who cares why?

In the film’s most egregious example of random-shit-happening-for-no-good-reason, Lindelof has one character deliberately screw over another simply because he and Scott needed the resultant horrific death to occur, come hell or high water.  Nevermind that the offending character had no discernible motive for the act.

Why did Lindelof and Scott “need” this pointless death to be in the script so desperately, you ask?  Please see Rule #5 below.

5. Don’t populate your sequel with scenes you’ve literally cut-and-pasted from the original.

Remember that, according to my theory, Scott and Lindelof were secretly trying to make a film altogether different from the one Fox was paying them to make.  Doing Alien 5 was not in their plans.  Unfortunately, it was in their contracts, so the dynamic duo behind Prometheus took care to sprinkle their script with just enough blatantly obvious connections to Alien to keep the Fox execs dumb and happy.

Malevolent android possibly working for the Company?

Check.  Snarling Alien embryo emerging from a live human’s bloody abdominal cavity?

Check.  Overly-curious crew member gets a space-helmet facial from an Alien in a chamber full of creepy egg pods?

Check.  And so it goes.  Watching Prometheus, you can actually see where these scenes were artificially grafted on, square pegs jammed into round holes that bring the film to a screeching halt every time they crop up, so incongruent are they to what happens before and after.  This is screenwriting-by-checklist, and I’m sorry, but it blows.

6. Don’t give your character a brain in one scene only to have him behave like a blithering idiot in another.

When a character exhibits the common sense of most mature adults by fleeing from a dangerous situation, that’s good.

When that same character turns around fifteen minutes later and rushes headlong toward the identical dangerous situation — not because they’ve found the courage to do so, but simply because they’ve apparently lost their fucking minds — that’s bad.

In fiction, when a character behaves with such dumb disregard for his/her own safety that readers are forced to conclude they deserve to die, we call them TSTL: Too Stupid To Live.  With Prometheus, Lindelof and Scott have created a brand new, and far more maddening malady for fictional characters to suffer from: SOOTSTLS.

Sudden Onset Of TSTL Syndrome.

SOOTSTLS can strike any character at any time, no matter how rational and intelligent they may have appeared to be previously.  This is especially true when a screenwriter needs something to happen that shouldn’t really be in the script he’s writing at all (see Rule #5 above).

7. Avoid assigning the task of explaining something to your audience to a character who has no reason to understand things any better than your audience does.

When I said earlier that I had no idea what role Idris Elba’s character was supposed to play in Prometheus (Rule #3 above), that wasn’t exactly true.  Because near the end of the film, this character answers a Key Question the female lead — and every member of the audience — has been wondering about for almost two hours.  Or, I should say, he tries to answer it.  What he says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s not the substance of his answer that’s the problem, however.  The problem is that it’s coming from a character who a) should be as ignorant of the subject in conversation as everyone else; and b) has demonstrated, prior to this moment, absolutely no curiosity whatsoever regarding the deep, philosophical mysteries our female protag has been struggling with since Fade In.  This is the guy who understands it all?  The one who’s done little more than exude soul brother cool, scene after scene, while everyone else around him has been ripping their hair out, trying to comprehend what the hell is going on here?

Gimme a break.

Well, I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  You get the idea.  Prometheus sucked, and it didn’t have to.  Given a script equal to its mouthwatering CGI, it could have been terrific.  But its script, instead, was a slapdash affair full of holes and jaw-dropping miscues.  For fans of Alien and Aliens like me, Prometheus represents a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.

That and, on a more personal level, fifteen dollars down the drain.

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