Category Archives: Gar Anthony Haywood

YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP *

* (And expect anyone to believe it)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

A true story:

This past Valentine’s Day, the wife and I were on our way to a restaurant to have a nice, romantic lunch together when her Honda CR-V broke down.  (Yeah, you read that right — it’s a Honda!)  No sooner had I pulled off the freeway than the damn thing died, dash panel aglow with seemingly every warning light in the manual.

I managed to re-start the car and pull it around a corner just to get it out of traffic, but that was it.  The beast was dead.  Time to call the tow truck.

Later that day, the service tech at our local Honda dealer called me with a question: What unlicensed hack had worked on the wife’s car before this?  Because whoever it was, they’d left the radiator so misaligned with its mounting bracket that the associated fan had, over time, sliced through a hose, draining the radiator of all its coolent.

Nobody, I said.  The only service that had ever been done on the car had been of the minor, regularly scheduled variety, and that had been done at the very same dealership from which the tech was calling.

Silence.

Well, the tech said somewhat uncomfortably, that was rather hard to believe, considering the mangled mess of an automotive undercarriage he was looking at.  Did I want to come down to the dealership to see for myself?

And then I remembered . . .

Around six months earlier, the family and I had just piled into the CR-V on our way to a birthday party.  I was tooling up the hill on Glendale Boulevard when a flash of white ran directly across my path: a bulldog the size of a baby grand piano.  He’d run across the street to go after some poor guy getting into his parked car and chosen to sprint back just in time to acquaint himself with my moving vehicle.  I never even had a chance to hit the brakes.

We ran over the dog.

WHUMP THUMP BLAM KABAMM BOOM!

Oh, Jesus.

I pulled the car over to the curb and killed the engine.  My hands were frozen to the wheel.  My two kids were crying hysterically and the wife was white as a sheet.  “Oh, my God,” Tessa kept saying.  “Oh, my God . . .”

I got out of the car and started back toward the point of impact, wondering what the hell I was going to say to the animal’s owner when I presented him or her with the poor thing’s pulverized remains.  Remains that were, when I reached the spot in the middle of the street where they should have been waiting for me, nowhere to be found.

WTF?

I looked over at the guy the dog had been chasing, who was safely inside his car now and was about to drive off as if nothing unusual had happened.  “Where’d he go?” I asked, openly bewildered.

He rolled his window down and pointed to a corner house across the street.  “He ran home,” he said, matter-of-factly.

“He ran home?”  How the hell did he run home?!

“He ran home,” the guy said again.

After he explained his non-existent relationship to the bulldog in question, I left him to go find the animal and apologize profusely to its heartbroken owner for having reduced a beloved pet to the wretched, broken creature I was certain it had to be.

Nope.

When I peered through the gate surrounding the house to which the man in the car had directed me, I saw the dog sitting straight up on the porch, tongue out and wagging this way and that, a young Hispanic man in a wifebeater T-shirt stroking his ears affectionately.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Is he all right?” I called through the gate, incredulous.

The owner just stared at me, the way you might stare at me were I to punch your favorite grandmother in the face and then post video of the assault on YouTube.

I asked my question again and received the same response.  Deciding to quit while I was ahead, I went back to the CR-V and gave my still-hysterical family the good news: The dog was alive and well.  Daddy wasn’t a puppy-killer after all.

The CR-V?  Well, it looked okay, as near as I could tell.  Aside from a huge dent in the plastic belly shield beneath and behind the front bumper, the car had suffered no apparent damage.  We went on to our birthday party that day and have been driving all over creation in the wife’s Honda, without incident, ever since.

Or until six months — six months! — brought us to last Valentine’s Day, when the bulldog got his revenge.

But that’s not the kicker to this story.

The Honda dealership eventually decided a body shop was better suited to make the repairs to our car, so off to the body shop it went.  We got ourselves a nice little rental car and proceeded with our lives.  Two days later, I was driving the kids to school in the rental when the unbelievable happened.

I hit a dog.

A big, hairy lab mix had just crossed a busy intersection, happy and slow as you please, as I was passing through it.  And wouldn’t you know, the big hirsute galoot was being chased by a little dachshund-terrier hybrid running at full tilt — much like that bulldog had chased a stranger getting into his car six months earlier.

This time I had enough warning to brake, but it didn’t help.

WHAM BAM CRUNCH!

Jesus!  Again?!

Two very small consolations immediately occurred to me: 1) I hadn’t completely run over the animal this time; and 2) the two kids in the car’s back seat weren’t mine.  They were members of our carpool for whom I was responsible that day, and unlike my own children, this pair didn’t view such accidents as cause for a catatonic seizure.  They were stunned, but not horrified.

I gingerly backed the car up to get it out of traffic and braced myself for the terrible sight I knew awaited us.

Sure enough, there the little dachshund-terrier mashup lay, on its side, its back turned to us.  A pedestrian who’d been crossing the street when the collision occurred crouched down to, I could only assume, deliver the Last Rites . . .

. . . and the little dog got up and ran away.  No limp, no whimper of pain, nothing.

Can you say, “Déjà vu?”

So let’s review, shall we?  I run over a dog in my car.  It gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed.  Six months later, the damage caused by the collision kills my car.  I get a rental while the car’s in the shop.  I’m driving that rental when I hit another dog, which like the first, gets up and runs away, seemingly unharmed.

What’s wrong with this picture?  As fact, absolutely nothing.  But as fiction, NO READER IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD BUY IT FOR A SECOND!

Did it all happen exactly as I’ve described it?  Sure did.  Is this not a sterling example of how wildly improbable life can sometimes be?  Sure is.  But here, finally, is the writing-related point of this blog post today:

Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it will make a great story, because a great story has to be more than just fascinating.

It has to be somewhat credible, too.

Questions for the Class: Do you have any true-to-life stories that no one would believe if you tried to pass them off as fiction?

A LESSON FROM THE B-SIDES

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Back in the time of the dinosaurs, otherwise known as the days of my youth, recorded music came in the form of vinyl.  And single songs were purchased not as electronic downloads, but as 45 rpm records, like this one:

Each “45,” as they were called, had an A-side (on which the song you actually wanted was recorded) and a B-side (which usually featured a lesser known song by the same artist).  Most of the time, the B-side song was a dud, either an inferior cut taken from the same album as the hit on the A-side, or an orphan song that was so bad, the record company just couldn’t find a place for it anywhere else.

But there were exceptions to this rule.

On very rare occasions, the B-side song, instead of being a dud, was a great piece of music in its own right.  Sometimes you were familiar with this song, and sometimes you weren’t.  In the latter case, when you laid your turntable needle down in the grooves of that 45 B-side and discovered, much to your amazement, a terrific song you’d never heard before, it was like finding gold in your backyard.

One such B-side miracle for me was this song, which was my reward for buying the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” 45:

Though I may have heard this expression — “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you get what you need” — before, it never struck me as a mantra to live by until I heard Mick Jagger sing it.  Settling for what we already have and finding contentment in it, rather than obsessing over what we covet but don’t yet — and may never — possess . . .  Wow.  What a way to live.  Surely, that’s the key to happiness, right?

But it’s so much easier said than done, especially for those of us who write.  Because a writer is never happy with what he has.  We are driven as much by ambition as we are inspiration, and our ambition is a harsh taskmaster that keeps moving the target of “success” farther and farther out of reach.

Still, knowing all this, I try to keep things in perspective, and scale my wants and desires to fit the real world, rather than the one I inhabit in my dreams.  It’s how I remain sane.

For instance . . .

What I WANT:

What I NEED:

What I WANT: One night with this woman . . .

What I NEED: The rest of my life with this woman . . .

What I WANT:

What I NEED:

What I WANT: 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

What I NEED: 2010 Honda Accord Sedan – Used, low mileage

What I WANT:

What I NEED:

What I WANT: Harley Davidson Iron Horse 883

What I NEED: Harley Davidson Iron Horse 883

(Hey, I’m sorry, but some things can’t be compromised.  This is where I draw the goddamn line.)

Questions for the class:  So what are your WANTS versus NEEDS?  And how do you separate the two?

SORRY, OUR MISTAKE, WON’T EVER HAPPEN AGAIN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

By now, unless you only yesterday emerged from a coma that was at least 5 days in length, you’ve heard about the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood fiasco.  Last Wednesday, the Komen Foundation, the nation’s largest breast cancer non-profit, informed Planned Parenthood that it would be discontinuing its funding of the organization, and pretty much all hell broke loose.  Womens’ health advocates went nuts, accusing Komen of de-funding Planned Parenthood strictly for political reasons, and in an instant, the public outcry had Komen executives backpedaling faster than a man who’s just found himself face-to-face with a black bear.  The charity issued one conflicting rationale after another for its decision, then finally offered Planned Parenthood and its supporters an apology and a promise to consider funding the non-profit in the future.

Setting aside all the politics involved — and we’re all going to do that, people, here and in the comments, because this isn’t the place for that kind of discussion — what amazed me most about the controversy was how surprised the Komen execs seemed to be by the firestorm of criticism their decision received.  They all behaved as if no one at Komen could have possibly predicted how thousands of women would react to one womens’ health organization yanking the rug out from under another.

Breast cancer research charity pulls $600,000 in contributions from non-profit supplying women with reproductive health services; many women get upset.

Gee, you think?

This particular brand of cluelessness, however, is not a new phenomenon. 

Remember when Coke tried to pass “New Coke” off on its faithful customer base and had to pull that crap-in-a-can off the shelves and replace it with the original almost before the delivery trucks had pulled out of the dock?  Result: Humiliating mea culpa and reversal.

Or how about the Gap’s recent attempt to “upgrade” its iconic logo from this . . .

. . . to this?

Result: Humiliating mea culpa and reversal.

Mark Zuckerberg suffered a similar case of brain-lock back in 2009, when his Facebook’s privacy policy was changed to essentially ensure that there was nothing at all “private” about user data — Facebook owned it all.  “Uh, no.  Hell, no,” users — and the FTC — said.  Result: Humiliating mea culpa and reversal.

As near as I can tell, nothing along these lines has ever happened in the publishing business.  But surely it’s just a matter of time, and this being Wildcard Tuesday and all, I thought I’d look into my crystal ball and see if I can’t imagine what could lie ahead . . .

 

Online retail giant Amazon.com today announced it is scrapping plans to have a virtual employee “greet” customers on the home page of their website.  Modeled after the flesh-and-blood front door greeters at Walmart’s brick-and-mortar stores, Amazon’s computer-generated greeter would have met users with a cheerful hello and directed them to Amazon’s “World Domination Specials” of the day, but the program’s debut has now been put on hold indefinitely.  “We studied the matter carefully,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “and we decided to go in a different direction, primarily because customers told us they’d rather chew glass than have some character out of a bad Pixar movie tell them where to mouse-click to get the best deal in the known universe on ball-peen hammers.”

 

After weathering weeks of irate blowback from her faithful fans, bestselling mystery author Sue Grafton has decided her popular series character, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, will remain a woman in all future books.  Word of Grafton’s intent to change Millhone’s gender from female to male — to alleviate a bad case of “alphabet-induced boredom,” she said — went viral after a pirated copy of her outline for the next book in the series, “T is for Transsexual,” appeared all over the Internet, and reader outrage was as deafening as it was immediate.  “Sue labored long and hard to develop a heretofore secret backstory for Kinsey in which she’d always wanted to be a man,” Grafton’s agent said.  “But we both underestimated how many readers adore her specifically because she’s a woman, and how poorly they’d take to her first name being changed to ‘Klyde.'”

 

Search giant Google’s controversial effort to single-handedly retire the word “book” and replace it with a word of the company’s own invention has come to an abrupt end.  Public outcry and widespread ridicule — no Jay Leno Tonight Show monologue has been complete lately without at least one reference to the gaffe — ultimately did the ill-conceived scheme in.  As a press release issued by the company today explained, in part:

“While we are still of the opinion that electronic publishing has rendered the word people have always used for a piece of long-form reading material — ‘book’ — outdated and useless, Google must concede that our timing in suggesting the word is dead and needs replacement was, at the very least, poor.  Therefore, effective immediately, Google will be returning to the practice of using the word ‘book’ in all its on-site content, and will no longer be using the word ‘zot‘ — the copyright to which the company fully intends to maintain — instead.”

 

It sounded like a bad idea when the company first announced it two weeks ago, and now New York publisher Random House has been forced to agree: Asking book buyers to pay extra to find out how a book ends is no way to grow revenue.  Withering under an avalanche of criticism from retailers and readers alike, company executives took to the stage at a press conference today to officially end the publisher’s plans to sell all its titles minus their last five pages, which readers would have had to pay an additional $5 to receive.  Suggesting most readers don’t read to the end of every book they buy anyway, Random House had tried to sell the program — called “Five for Five” — as a value added service, but readers weren’t buying, hence the company’s hasty retreat.  Questions posed to Random House spokesperson Dervin Elbert regarding a rumored plan to try charging extra for punctuation next went unanswered.

 

Novartis thought it had the perfect pitch man to star in its Excedrin Superbowl commercial scheduled to run this February: hip-hop superstar Kanye West.  But literacy advocates forced the company to shelf the spot sight-unseen when its script became public and its tagline became the butt of jokes everywhere.  In the commercial, West — who created a stir back in 2009 by issuing a number of searing anti-literacy proclamations, including, “I am a proud non-reader of books.  I would never want a book’s autograph” — sits in a drawing room beside a roaring fire, peering intently at an open copy of Dr. Seuss’s classic book for pre-schoolers, FOX IN SOCKS, before looking directly into the camera and exclaiming, “Reading makes my damn head hurt!”  He then reaches for a nearby bottle of Excedrin and downs two tablets.

In its public apology, issued today by the company’s attorneys on the steps of the New York Public Library, Novartis said, “We realize in retrospect that the commercial would have sent an entirely inappropriate message regarding the importance of books and reading to people of all ages, and hope our lapse in judgment hasn’t caused anyone too much pain.  Get it?  Pain?

 

Author and self-publishing guru J.A. Konrath said today he will not attempt to serve as his own anesthesiologist during the gall bladder surgery he is scheduled to undergo next Thursday.  Claiming licensed anesthesiologists are unnecessary middle-men between surgeons and their patients, Konrath had declared last month that he would not be paying one to assist in his surgery and would instead anesthetize himself in accordance to his surgeon’s directions.  The author changed his mind, however, after an attempt to self-administer Novocain during a recent root canal procedure went terribly awry.

“As much as it burns my ass to pay someone to do something I could easily do myself, given the proper time and training, I owe it to my fans not to take such unnecessary risks with my health,” Konrath told Publisher’s Weekly, speaking only out of the left side of his mouth, as his experiment at the dentist still has him waiting for any feeling to return to the right.

 

Only six days in, book retailer Barnes & Noble is ending its heralded e-book exchange program for the Nook.  The program, which would have allowed customers to upload four old e-book titles from their Nook e-readers back to B & N in exchange for one new one, quickly proved a disaster, as readers by the score took it as an opportunity to rid themselves of books they completely regretted buying in the first place.  “From Barnes and Noble’s perspective, good books were going out with only bad books coming in,” industry observer Angie Linchbach wrote in a column for Inkwatch.com Monday.  “They were getting twenty James Pattersons for every James Lee Burke they downloaded.”

It was reported that three Barnes & Noble data center servers crashed under the stress of uploaded Stephanie Meyer titles alone.  B & N says it hopes to have the machines back online in time for Christmas.

BUILDING THE (TOO-) PERFECT PROTAGONIST

by Gar Anthony Haywood

One of the questions we writers get all the time is:

“Is your protagonist you?

I’ve heard a lot of different answers to this question, some long and some short, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone just come out and say what we all know to be true:

Of course he is!”

Because really, is there ever any doubt?  Why create a heroic character — especially one who triumphs in the end — if you can’t live vicariously through him?  And how can you live vicariously through a character who’s totally removed from yourself?

Has any card-carrying ‘Rati ever read a Charlie Fox thriller and not seen Zoë Sharp herself doing all that ass-kicking?

I didn’t think so.

Sure, we take pains to disguise ourselves, giving our protagonists attributes we don’t actually share, but we’re in there, all right.  Fiction is a game of pretend, and part of the fun of writing it comes from putting yourself at the center of the action, in the guise of a bigger and better you, facing enemies and dangers larger than you could reliably handle in the real world.  With ourselves as the underlying framework, we build a protagonist built for heroism, endowing him with strengths and powers we either lack altogether, or do not possess in sufficient quantity to tackle the task at hand.

But there’s a limit to this process.  Unless you’re writing pulp, or some kind of retro-crime fiction that harkens back to the days when “realism” was a dirty word, you never want to follow such fantasies to their extreme.  You know what your perfect protagonist looks like, but he’s not anybody you could actually use in a story supposedly grounded in a non-fictional universe.

God bless Ian Fleming.  He got to have his cake and eat it, too, creating the ultimate male protagonist in James Bond, agent 007, at a time when scores of readers were still willing to forgive such laughable affronts to realism, common sense, and the sensibilities of women.  Try writing a series about such an ingenious, indefatigable, sexually flawless protagonist as Bond now and see how many rejection letters you collect.

Still, whether you can use him or her in your fiction or not, it’s always fun to imagine what kind of protagonist you could build were the sky the limit.  Unencumbered by any restrictions suspension-of-disbelief might demand, what would he look like?  What would his powers be?

Or should I say, what would your powers be?  Because your protagonist is really you, remember?

When I created Aaron Gunner, the Los Angeles private investigator I’ve now put at the center of six novels, I drew the line at giving him only one thing my “perfect” protagonist would possess that I, sadly, do not: a red Ford Shelby Cobra, my favorite sports car of all time.

But I could have been much more generous to Gunner than that.

If I were building him according to my own personal wants and needs today, independent of what I thought readers would be willing to buy, this would be his basic profile:

  1. Height/Weight: 6′-2″/220 lbs.

    Just big enough to give someone thinking about throwing down on him reason to think twice.

  2. Physical attractiveness: 7.5

    This is on a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being Homer Simpson and 10 being Denzel Washington.

  3. Sexual prowess: 8

    Again, this is on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 basically means any song featuring the words “all night long” in its lyrics could have been written about him on a typical Tuesday in March.

    (Sorry, ladies, I know you think this stuff is silly, but we guys really do fantasize like this, especially those of us with serious performance anxieties.  You dream about chocolate and warm baths, we dream about making Gisele Bündchen forget she ever even met Tom Brady.  What can I tell you?)

  4. Annual income: $95,000

    Enough to live comfortably without losing sight of his humble origins.

  5. Place of residence: 3 bedroom home in Ladera Heights (Los Angeles, CA)

    Because every man should have an expansive view of his city, and a spare bedroom to put all his toys in.

  6. Could be a Jeopardy champion in the category of: World history
  7. Aptitude in the kitchen: 7

    Where Bobby Flay would be a 10.  Not good enough to win any cooking contests, but capable of making any first date memorable for the food and drink alone.

  8. Languages spoken fluently: 3

    English, Spanish and Japanese

  9. Musical instruments played: 2

    Piano and guitar.  Self-taught.  No pro by a longshot, but he could join the band at any concert and not embarrass himself.  And every once in a blue moon, can rip off a jam like this:

  10. Hidden talent: Expert magician.

    And I don’t mean card tricks.  I mean “How the hell did he do that??” stuff.

And so on and so forth.  You get the idea.  A ridiculous character, to be sure, but someone it might be fun to be for a day or so, just to see how it would feel.

So what about you, my fellow ‘Ratis?  Using the 10 categories above as a jumping off point, what would the profile of your “perfect protagonist” look like, if suspension-of-disbelief was not a consideration?

THIS CAN’T POSSIBLY END WELL . . . (OR CAN IT?)

by Gar Anthony Haywood

The other night, the wife and I caught the last forty minutes or so of the classic film THELMA & LOUISE on television.  The story of two BFFs on the run from the law after a weekend getaway from the troublesome men in their lives turns deadly, it’s a movie I greatly enjoyed when it was first released in 1991.  The late Callie Khouri’s script is fantastic and the two leads, Geena Davis as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, are simply brilliant (not to mention gorgeous).

Iron-willed feminist that she is, I expected my wife Tessa would be a fan, but just before fade-out, she surprised me by demanding we turn the movie off.

Turns out she can’t stand how it ends.

If you’ve seen the film yourself (or have just watched the clip above), you know that its big payoff is a flashy suicide: With the law fast closing in, and facing an almost certain future behind bars, the girls decide to show all the men who’ve ever wronged them one final, giant-sized “Fuck you!” by taking a flying leap (actually, it’s a driving leap) into the Grand Canyon.  Better to die in a blaze of glory than go on living as a second-class citizen under the oppressive, sexist thumb of the Man.

Those who have found this ending to be extremely satisfying — and there are many — would probably describe it as a happy one.  After all, aren’t Thelma and Louise breathlessly fist-pumping as the curtain falls, having left Harvey Keitel and a small army of lawmen holding nothing but dust in their wake?  Haven’t they escaped the injustice of going to prison for a crime they committed only in self-defense?  In driving off that cliff, rather than surrender and submit for the ten-thousandth time in their lives, aren’t they realizing the ultimate dream of oppressed people everywhere: self-determination?

Well, yes . . .

Except that they fucking die!

That’s your happy ending?  Victory in death?  Really?

Oh, hell, no.  There’s nothing “happy” about that ending at all.  Suicide under any circumstances is an act of desperation; it’s a capitulation to forces making life too unbearable to hold on to.  And yet, this is not to say the ending to THELMA & LOUISE is not a perfectly fitting one.  In fact, one might argue it’s the only ending to the film Callie Khouri could have written that would have been true to all that came before it.

But was it?

Were there other, equally authentic but far less tragic ways to bring the saga of Thelma and Louise to a close Khouri could have devised instead, had she been motivated to try?  Or was this a story that simply demanded the downer ending it was given?

I don’t know.

For all the love I have for Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (actually, I prefer to think of it as Robert Towne’s CHINATOWN), the ending to that film has always left me asking the same question: Was that really the best Towne could do?  Was there really no other way to bring Jake Gitte’s conflict with Noah Cross to a satisfactory conclusion other than to have Cross — as evil and twisted a villain as has ever darkened the silver screen — win?


Again, I don’t know.  The only thing I do know is that, had Towne not chosen to take the path he did, he might never have written one of the greatest last lines in movie history: “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”  And that would have been a tragedy.

Personally, I think both Robert Towne and Callie Khouri nailed the endings to their respective films, whether viable, more upbeat alternatives were available to them or not.  But I don’t believe the same can be said for every screenwriter (or novelist) whose film (novel) ends on a similar, fatalistic note.  Sometimes, a writer runs his ladies off a cliff, or has his private eye taste the bitter taste of defeat, simply because finding another way out of the jam he’s placed them in is too terrible a thought to contemplate.

Readers call authors to task all the time for slapping happy endings on books that don’t logically point to one, and with good reason.  But affixing sad endings to stories that don’t necessarily require them is just as egregious in my opinion.

Like the old saying goes: “Tragedy is easy.  It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Questions for the Class: Can you think of a book or film that ended badly more out of obvious convenience than necessity?

PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

In the years immediately following high school, there was nothing I wanted to do more than write comic books.  My best friend Larry Houston was a terrific artist and, along with Don Manuel, another artist friend of ours, we were absolutely certain it was our destiny to become rich and famous comic book publishers, ala Stan Lee at Marvel.

We managed to publish and sell two issues of our own fanzine, THE ENFORCERS, under the Graphics2000 banner, before both our money and youthful  innocence ran out.  Here’s what the second issue of our mag looked like:

Anyone who’s ever tried to mix friendship with business could have probably predicted how things would work out for Graphics2000.  Larry and I found 2000 things to bicker about, mostly dealing with creative control, and one night over coffee I just pulled the plug, telling him I preferred remaining friends to our becoming spiteful enemies.  I don’t remember a lot about that parting-of-the-ways conversation, but I do remember this:

We were sitting in Larry’s parked car outside my apartment building, reviewing our reasons for wanting to write and draw comic books in the first place.  All along, I’d thought his reasons were the same as mine — because he and I were artists placed on this earth to create.  But it seemed I was mistaken.  Larry didn’t give a rat’s ass for “art,” he was in this thing for the money.  His ability to draw was an asset, not a gift, and only a fool would waste a viable asset doing something strictly for art’s sake.

Wow.  You could have blown me down with a feather.

I was precisely the kind of fool Larry was talking about, and I pretty much remain that same fool today.  I suppose it’s no coincidence that Larry has gone on to build a successful and lucrative career in animation, leveraging his artistic talents to great economic effect, while I have. . . well, written a dozen critically-acclaimed crime novels that have barely managed to keep my kitchen cupboards stocked with corn flakes. 

Needless to say, I never thought my high-minded choice of art over commerce would prove so absolute.  I always thought I’d find a way to become both rich and creatively unfettered.  Such a parlay is not entirely unprecedented.  But writing only what I’ve wanted to write, with an indifference to what publishers will buy that almost borders on contempt, has not served me well by any fiscal form of measurement, and I wouldn’t recommend it to any newbie author as a game plan for success.

Still, I’ve tried my hand at writing with one eye on the marketplace and the other on the page a number of times, and nothing good has ever come of it.  I don’t often hate the process of writing, but I’m always at my unhappiest when I’m writing something intended to fill a niche, rather than satisfy an itch.  The responsible adults among you with bills to pay and children to feed are right now thinking, “So fucking what if he’s unhappy?  Better unhappy than homeless!”  But that’s only a reasonable response if you assume I’m capable of doing my most saleable work regardless of my enthusiasm — or lack of same — for the material.

Ever hear the old expression “If it hurts, you must be doing it wrong”?  Well, that’s how I feel about writing.  Writing’s difficult and, yes, even painful on occasion — but it’s not supposed to be misery.  The message I heard most clearly in Stephen’s most recent post here regarding the mixed emotions he’s had while writing his latest book is, “I DON’T WANT TO BE WRITING THIS BOOK.  I’M NOT ENJOYING THE PROCESS.”  And that, I think, is what we all feel when we put the cart of commerce too far before the horse of our own personal aesthetic.  (Which, by the way, I’m not suggesting Stephen has.  It may be that what he’s been experiencing is merely the stress that comes with writing the best damn thing one’s ever written.  I wouldn’t put it past him.)

I’ll state for the record again that I’m not advocating writing with zero attention paid to profit.  That’s no way to keep baby in new shoes, nor your agent answering the phone.  I’m simply arguing that you can’t write as well as you’re capable if what you’re writing has too much to do with external demands and not enough with internal ones.  That way lies madness, my friends, and I’ve heard enough “successful” authors, having made that devil’s bargain, wail about their conflicted souls to know it.

One final end note: Larry Houston and I are still great friends, more than thirty years after I broke up our Graphics2000 partnership.

Guess we artistes can’t be wrong about everything.

Questions for the Class: Writers, how do you deal with the constant yin-yang pull of commerce versus art?  Readers, can you tell when an author is writing more for profit than for love?  What are the signs?

THE PREDICTABILITY FACTOR

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Quick:  What kind of book comes to mind when you think of this author?

Or this one?

Chances are, your answer to my first question was something along the lines of “a fast-paced standalone thriller featuring an ex-military policeman named Reacher.”

And your answer to my second question was, in so many words, “an eloquently written mystery featuring a diverse cast of African-American characters in an urban setting.”

How can I be so sure of this?  Because these authors have built a brand for themselves.  Their body of work demonstrates a consistency of subject matter and perspective that readers have learned over the years to recognize as their purview.  Granted, Mosley has ventured outside of his Easy Rawlins/Leonid McGill box on a number of occasions, with mixed results, but for the most part he is defined by those series and the specific type of material they represent.

Is this a good thing?  To have readers believe they know precisely what kind of fiction you write, and will continue to write in the future?

I believe it is.

Readers don’t like to guess what an author’s next book will be like, they want to have a reasonable expectation about it, and if you give them what they enjoy reading consistently, they’ll keep coming back for more.  Seeing you go off on a tangent contrary to their expectations can often disappoint, and not every disappointed reader re-ups as a member of the fan club once you’ve let them down.

The down side to establishing a static brand for readers to latch onto, of course, is that “box” I just placed Walter Mosley in.  No author really wants to think they’re confined to one.  The freedom to take your work in whatever direction your interests might demand, to write what you want to write, when you want to write it, is every author’s dream, as is a reputation for versatility.  Successful or otherwise, nobody wants to be looked upon as a one-trick pony.  That kind of pigeon-holing limits not only your creativity, but the scope of material publishers are willing to pay you to write.

Still, as I’ve mentioned here before, an author has to know his natural limitations, and not allow his creative wanderlust (or his ego) to take him places he is ill-equipped to go.  What we write at the start of our careers tends to be where our true passions lie, and I believe the time to stretch out and move beyond that material is only after we’ve both demonstrated a mastery of it and developed a sizable following for it.   Expanding one’s repertoire sooner than that could be premature, and throw readers and publishers alike a curve just when they are beginning to think they know — and can appreciate — what you do.

Ironically, all this is coming from someone who has failed to take the very advice I’m offering.  Since my first published novel in 1988, I’ve written and sold eleven more, and all twelve cover no less than four mystery/crime fiction sub-genres: hardboiled mystery (my Aaron Gunner series); comic cozy (the Joe and Dottie Loudermilk series); serio-comic, standalone crime (my Ray Shannon novels); and standalone thriller (CEMETERY ROAD and my latest, ASSUME NOTHING).  With the exception of my six Gunners and CEMETERY ROAD, which all feature an African-American protagonist seeking to solve one murder or another in present-day Central Los Angeles, there is little to connect one sub-set of my canon with another.  In fact, anyone reading a Joe and Dottie Loudermilk mystery, for instance, would be hard pressed to recognize me as the same author of either of my Ray Shannons.  The voice I use in each sub-genre is that different.

So why have I taken such a scattershot approach to my writing?  Because it’s been fun.  Changing gears on a whim, or as an anecdote to boredom, has been incredibly entertaining.  And on rare occasions, profitable.  But profit and entertainment are only part of the story, I’m afraid.  There’s also another reason for all the genre-hopping to which, quite frankly, I’m a little ashamed to admit: I’ve been greedy.  No mere cross-section of the crime fiction audience was enough for me; I’ve always wanted the entire pie, the whole enchilada.

Can you say “pompous ass”?

And not a very smart pompous ass, either, because I don’t think I did myself any favors by jumping the Aaron Gunner ship for the Loudermilks’ Airstream trailer when I did.  In my defense, St. Martin’s, who was publishing me at the time, gave up on the series after three books, so a re-evaluation of my fourth book and beyond certainly seemed to be in order.  But I made the decision to change my game without really exploring the possibility of selling the Gunners elsewhere, and it may be that in doing so, I disrupted the momentum of the series unnecessarily.

Even more to the point of this blog post, I may have also left the readership I’d grown to that point to wonder who the real Gar Anthony Haywood was: a hardboiled crime novelist in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, or a funny, family-friendly writer of G-rated cozies?

It’s a question, I fear, many readers are still trying to answer.

Might I be a household name now had I published five or six Gunners in a row rather than take a three year hiatus after Gunner #3 to write my two Loudermilk novels?  Probably not.  But maybe I would be.  Who knows?  Maybe sticking with the Gunners for a more extended period of time would have better established my brand, and drawn more readers to it.

Nobody wants to be predictable, especially where romance is concerned.  But for an author, it’s not such a bad thing.

Questions for the Class: Authors, have you firmly established your brand by writing books that fit within the same basic framework every time out, or have you branched out to do other things?  Readers, what’s your reaction to favorite authors who split their time between writing what you love and writing what you don’t?

WRITER-ON-WRITER CRIME

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Few things in life fascinate me more than plagiarism.  Or, as I like to call it, “writer-on-writer crime.”  The idea of one author consciously stealing material from another — sometimes in massive chunks — in the belief he’ll get away with it, even in this age of instant, multi-platform communication, just blows my mind.  Talk about sociopathic behavior!

Last month at the spectacular Murder and Mayhem festival in Muskegee, Wisconsin, Duane Swierczynski hipped me to the strange and fantastic case of first-time novelist Quentin Rowan, aka Q.R. Markham, who’d just recently been exposed as maybe the most prolific and self-destructive plagiarist of all time.  I won’t go into all the details here of the mess Rowan created — such details are all over the internet in places like this and this, if you’re interested — but in a nutshell, the would-be literary superstar humiliated his publisher, Mulholland Books, and the host of authors who enthusiastically blurbed him (including Duane), by selling them all an espionage novel — ASSASSIN OF SECRETS — that turned out to be little more than a mashup of the works of at least five other authors.   Detailed analysis of the manuscript has revealed, in fact, that lines, let alone paragraphs, of Rowan’s own invention are few and far between.

Yet nobody recognized Rowan’s book as a hodge-podge of disparate material stolen from multiple sources — not his editor, not reviewers (both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly gave ASSASSIN OF SECRETS a starred review), not the authors who blurbed him — until users of a James Bond message board began to comment on the similarities they were finding between Rowan’s work and that of Ian Fleming and several other name spy novelists.

At first, I found this last amazing.  How could no one have noticed earlier?  But then I read whole passages of Rowan’s “novel” and understood that serial plagiarism of this kind, when done well (if not brilliantly), may not be as easy to spot as one would think.  God bless Quentin Rowan’s black little heart, but hell if he didn’t stitch all that unrelated prose together in a way that actually made for a compelling and, more importantly, seamless read.

Which brings me to this, my first contribution to the fun and games of Wildcard Tuesdays here at Murderati.  Just for kicks, I thought I’d try my hand at playing Q.R. Markham for a day.  The following is a mashup of my own writing and that of five of my Murderati brethren.  Can you tell which is which?

I’ll give away a copy of my new thriller, ASSUME NOTHING, to whoever does the best job of separating plagiarism from original writing.  I’ve numbered every line, so all you have to do is tell me which ones are my work and which ones are not.  There’s no need to specify who I’ve borrowed from in each case.  I’ll give you that info at the end of the day.

Obviously, I’m counting on all of you to play fair — no Googling, Amazon surfing, or skimming through the pages of BOULEVARD, KISS OF DEATH, or FOURTH DAY allowed.

Good luck!

1.  Farrell never knew his mother or father.  2.  He’d grown up alone in the world, fending for himself as best he could against all the hardship life could throw at him.

3.  Which, as it turned out, was plenty. 4.  Monsters on the street saw a kid on his own, no adult around to watch his back, they were swimming in circles around him before he could blink.

5.  Still, Farrell sometimes wondered if being parentless wasn’t a blessing in disguise.  6.  It gave him a kind of freedom from the usual attachments that seemed to hold others back.

7.  Life would be more fluid for him because love and desire and ambition would be a question of choice, not obligation

8.  At least, he liked to think choice was how he ended up this way, teetering on the brink of thirty with his heart firmly tethered to a wife and two teenage daughters.  9.  This wasn’t just something that had happened to him, it was the product of design.

10.  “That’s your study partner?  You’re getting in a car with him?

11.  “Yes, Daddy.  His name is Steven.”  Cassie snatched her keys off the hallway table on her way out.  “Bye, gotta go.”

12.  Farrell took another look out the front window, not caring if “Steven” saw him or not.  13.  What he saw made him blanch.  14.  The young man was big and pink, with firm layers of fat billowing out from under a bright red polo shirt.  15.  He was shaped like one of those hard rubber Kongs, the type Doberman pinschers used to sharpen their teeth.

16.  And most terrifying of all, his car was a Volvo, bolted to steel wheels better suited to a trailer park Oldsmobile.

17.  “I don’t like it,” Farrell said.

18.  Cassie grinned and flipped a hand, dismissing the warning. 19.   Then she yanked open the screen door, breaking into a run as soon as she hit the porch.

20.  Such was his daily existence now, going from one blown-off note of worry to another.  21.  His wife Natalee didn’t need his protection but Cassie and May, Cassie’s younger sister, both courted death like a rich suitor.  22.  They took chances that would give a circus daredevil pause, leaving Farrell nothing to do but fear for their lives every waking moment.  23.  He could see their end in every accident or natural disaster.

24.  A fire, for instance.  25.  Standing on his bedroom balcony just after lunch, he smelled the smoke first, then sighted it spiraling upward, over the dingy rooftops to the east.  26.  Soon there were fire trucks in the distance, their Doppler-effect wails punctuated with staccato chatter-and-yelp as they barreled through each intersection.

27.  May, he thought irrationally.  May’s caught in the fire.

28.  He dialed her cell phone before common sense could get the better of him and she picked up on only the fourth ring.  29.  He was offering her one of his standard apologies when the line went suddenly silent, as if the phone had been abruptly snatched from the girl’s hand.  30.  Then there was just noise, the ragged sounds of what a paranoid fool like Farrell could only assume was a struggle:

31.  Deep, fight-for-air panting.  32.  Heavy thuds of elbows or boots against a car’s solid metal door.  33.  A long exhaled breath.  34.  Then more silence, before a kicked pebble ricocheted off a beer can as someone moved away.

35.  Farrell couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt the need to scream.  36.  Maybe eight years ago, when Natalee had punctuated one of their more violent arguments by closing a taxi door on his left hand?  37.  But he needed to scream now.

No Questions for the Class today, but I would love to hear any great stories of plagiarism you might have to tell.  I just can’t get enough of ’em.

LETTERS FROM THE EDITOR

by Gar Anthony Haywood

A little over a month ago, I finished a book I’d been working on for almost a year.  It’s my first crack at a chapter book for young readers, in this case middle-schoolers grade 6 through 8.  I don’t want to say too much about it here because the manuscript’s still out making the rounds and I don’t want to jinx anything.  But for the purposes of this discussion, what you need to know is that it was inspired by the wonderful, zany, hilarious (IMO) work of Daniel Pinkwater, a prolific giant in the kid-lit universe, and as such, it’s not going to be for everybody.  Off-center comedy never is.

As you might expect, my wife Tessa and our two children, Maya and Jackson, were my first-readers, and the three of them loved the book.  LOVED it.  Which was one hell of a relief, let me tell you, because they’d been bugging me to try a children’s book, and finish this one, for ages, and if I’d rewarded all their patience with a dud, well…  Let’s just say I might at this very moment be taking that plunge off the Bedford Falls bridge Jimmy Stewart only contemplates taking around this time every year.

Still, what an author’s first-readers — spouses, children, aunts and uncles, etc. — think about a book doesn’t always foreshadow how agents and editors will react to it.  Quite often, in fact, the two schools of thought are diametrically opposed.  So while I found great encouragement in my family’s rave review, I didn’t put too much stock in it.  The professionals had yet to speak, and they’re the ones, after all, who write the checks.

My agent greatly enjoyed the book and promptly sent it out.  Two rejections are already in, and here’s what the first one sounded like:

“I realize this is a farce but I don’t find it very funny and I think it is problematic that this manuscript doesn’t use real responses to censorship as a springboard to the action, but instead creates a fake situation just for the sake of the story. Good luck finding the right editor for this.”

My First Reaction: Fear.  Uh-oh.  This does not bode well.

My Second Reaction: Indignation.  Wait, this humorless putz edits children’s books?  And he/she wants to complain about a lack of “real responses” in my novel after conceding that it’s a farce?  What’s wrong with this picture?

My Final Reaction: Fear again.  Uh-oh.  What if the putz is right?

Because sometimes the putz is right, and in fact is not even a putz at all, and you and all your first-readers are wrong.  Your book is either dead on arrival or seriously flawed, and the sooner you face up to the fact and get down to the business of fixing it (or trashing it), the sooner you’re likely to make your next sale.  Denial just costs you time you can’t afford to waste.

On the other hand, giving up on a viable manuscript just because an editor or two (or three) doesn’t care for it can be just as unproductive, if not more so.  Editors have agendas, and biases, and bad days just like all the rest of us, so their judgment can’t always be trusted as certifiable.  And the scope of what they can buy these days — non-potential blockbusters need not apply — severely dampens their enthusiasm for books that don’t fit the bill.

I’ve never done an exact count, but I would estimate that my agent and I received over thirty rejections over a period of 18 months for my last novel CEMETERY ROAD.  Some were incredibly kind, others blunt to the point of cruelty, but all, in the end, were expressions of indifference to a novel I firmly believed was the best I’d ever written.  After all those rejections, had I put the book down (to use an equestrian term), who could have blamed me?

And yet. . .

When the book was eventually published by Severn House, it earned me some of the best reviews of my career.  Positive fan mail continues to flow in, like this email I received just this week:

“Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed CEMETERY ROAD.   A friend loaned me her copy.  I liked it so much that when I went to Amazon to send it as a gift to my elderly Aunt Connie (who will love it), I passed up the used copies so you’d get your pittance in the royalties.

“You really did a terrific job weaving plausible, interesting characters engaged in a complicated, suspenseful, believable plot.  Keep up the good work.  I’m looking forward to reading the books you have already written and reading the ones you will write in the years to come.”

Do letters and reviews like this invalidate all the rejections the book received earlier?  Emotionally, yes.  But not every rejection CEMETERY ROAD received from editors to whom it was submitted, regardless of how well appreciated the book has been since its publication, was misguided, or the work of a clueless dunderhead.  Many were honest and heartfelt and exactly the right call for the editor’s house at that moment in time.

Which brings me to the conundrum I face yet again today, as I wait for more editorial responses to my Daniel Pinkwater homage for young readers to dribble in:

How to know when to take a rejection letter to heart and when to line your birdcage with it?

Questions for the Class: When do you take rejection seriously enough to rethink a manuscript’s viability?  Are editors the best judges of a great read, or do readers tend to do a better job of recognizing greatness?

THE THINGS WE DON’T PUT IN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post here describing how reluctant I’ve always been to write about my own real life experiences.  The reasons I gave were, a) I don’t think those experiences are all that fascinating; and b) I don’t think they’re anybody’s business but my own.  That’s a rather selfish attitude, I admit, but then, I’ve never been a subscriber to the idea that nothing great ever comes of art that doesn’t require one to open up a vein.

This isn’t to say I don’t believe a writer’s best work has to involve some measure of self-reflection.  I do.  I just don’t think a reader needs to know the intimate details of a writer’s life in order to fully connect with his work.  If a writer’s done his job right, a reader should get the benefit of his life experiences without the writer having to spell those experiences out.  Whether I choose to write about specific events in my life or not, the world view those events have left me with can be found in everything I write, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Narcissistic exhibitionism is the point of all this writing-for-publication business, after all.

And yet, for all our desire to share our unique world perspective with perfect strangers, to reveal our true selves by way of literary expression, there is a limit to what most of us will lay bare.  We set these limits for all kinds of reasons, both personal and commercial:

This is humiliating.

This won’t sell in Middle America.

My agent will want me to cut this.

My (brother/father/cousin Bill) will know this is about him and will never forgive me for writing about it.

Whatever our reasons for the omission, we all withhold something from the reader, and sometimes this is to the benefit of our writing and sometimes it’s to the detriment of it.  I think what determines which of the two it is is how central what we choose to omit is to the person we really are.  Trying to write around ideas and principles we hold dear is like trying to paint around the proverbial elephant in the room; it can create an artificiality the reader can’t help but sense.

I don’t know if I’ve been guilty of such artificiality myself, but I have come to realize over the last several weeks that there’s a part of me I’ve never allowed to color my writing in any substantial way, and not simply because the opportunity to do so hasn’t presented itself.  No, this is something I’ve deliberately shied away from, something I’ve convinced myself has no proper place in the kinds of stories I write.  In my personal life, I make no bones about it, but in my professional one, I’ve treated it like a small physical defect best turned away from the light.

Here it is:  I’m an unrepentant Catholic.

Whoa.  Where’d everybody go?

Well, anyway, for the benefit of those still here, the word “unrepentant” in the confession above can best be defined as follows: “Content to remain a card-carrying member while reserving the right to be guided by conscience and not the Vatican.”

Whether that makes me a good Catholic or no Catholic at all is a discussion for another day — and another blog.  My personal belief system is only germane to this post as an example of something that defines me as an individual, yet has never been given much of a voice in my writing.  Religion is such a divisive subject, I’ve made it a non-issue in my work so as to avoid turning anybody off.

But what kind of bullshit is that?  I’ve gone on record many times decrying self-censorship where profanity is concerned; I think writers who try to pass “friggin'” off as a perfectly acceptable synonym for “motherfucker,” just to keep all those book-buying cozy readers from fleeing the room screaming, are calculating, disingenuous weenies.  And yet, here I’ve been, dodging matters of faith with equal intent, and with the same commercial considerations in mind.

Well, not anymore.

Writers are always trying to find their “truth,” the specific story or stories they alone were put on this earth to tell.  And it’s finally occurred to me that, if I ever intend to find my truth, I’m going to have to empty the larder and throw everything I’ve got into the pot.  Writing with restraint is no longer going to cut it.

Anybody expecting me to suddenly become the Tim Tebow of noir is going to be sorely disappointed, however.  I have no interest in writing Sunday sermons disguised as crime fiction, nor in saving anybody’s soul.  I don’t like to read religious screeds, no matter how subliminal, and I sure as hell don’t want to write them.  But neither do I intend to go on treating my core beliefs like a dirty secret, while writing to be loved by everyone and despised by no one.  The time has come for me to find out what kind of work I can produce when I’m no longer worrying about revealing too much of the man behind the curtain.

They say the truth will set you free.

We’ll see.

Questions for the Class: Does your writing reflect everything and every one you are?  Or are there things about yourself you choose to keep separate from your work?  Readers, what writers, if any, have you read who handle matters of faith with the right balance of heft and subtlety?



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