Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades

Rust Never Sleeps

I am supposed to be a writer, and unless I do a little writing everyday it’s hard to tell that’s what I am.

-Otis Twelve

I turned my latest work in to my agent a couple of weeks ago. And then I did…nothing.

Oh, I still did the newspaper column and the Murderati posts as they came due. Those tend to take about an evening to write and edit. 

But the thing is, I’m what I optimistically call “between publishers” right now. I don’t have editor’s notes to pore over,  or copy edits, or promo stuff to do. I’m waiting to see what happens next. While I wait, I haven’t been doing any fiction writing. I’ve been reading, hanging out,  playing with the new puppy, picking up the guitar again…that’s the good stuff. But I’m also watching a lot more TV and drinking a bit more than is really  good for me.


After a week or so, I began  feeling restless, like there was a tickle in the back of my brain. I know that feeling well…that’s  stories and ideas in the back of my head, scratching to get out.

And I’ve written…nothing.

Because I’m waiting to see what happens next. Or so I tell myself. Sometimes I tell myself I’m just “recharging the batteries”, which I suppose is at least partially true.  However I rationalize it,  I haven’t been working on a fiction project for the first time in five or six years. Even  during the times I was goofing off and feeling guilty about not working on a project,  I was goofing off FROM something, if that makes sense.



It’s ironic, because during this short hiatus,  I’d done a couple of appearances and classes in which I solemnly told aspiring authors  that in order to consider yourself a real writer, you have to write every day. And I meant it, too. Every time I said it, though. those  little mocking voices in the back of my head went “so what does that say about you, you fraud?”


Finally, the other day, I sat down and started to try to write a scene in a book I’d been sort of desultorily outlining while I was finishing up the last one. It’s quite different from what I have out on submission, which in its turn was quite different from anything I’d done before. But I could see it, I could hear it, I could feel it. And if I could do  those things, I could get it written down.

Except I couldn’t. Nothing came. I wrote a bit. I deleted it. I wrote a bit more. I checked my e-mail.  I checked Twitter and Facebook. I went back to what I’d written. It sucked. I deleted it.

I was rusty. After two friggin’ weeks, I was rusty. I’d lost the rhythm  of working every day. It reminded me of picking up the guitar again after a long layoff. When you do that, all the calluses on your fretting hand  get soft and the  fingers don’t leap  right to the notes with the assurance you only get when the memories are engraved into the nerves and muscles through practice. What I was putting down on the page was the literary equivalent of buzzing notes and blown chords.

I’m not worried. Not much. I’m keeping at it, because this new book can be really good.   I know, just like the guitar, I’ll get it back. It’ll start flowing again. But I’m here to warn you:

Rust never sleeps.



So…what’s your longest layoff from writing, and what was the effect? How long did it take you to get your groove back? Readers, have you ever picked a skill up after a long layoff? How did it go?

Scary Stories

A man was driving late one night when he saw a young woman walking by the side of the road. Thinking that it wasn’t safe for her to be out and alone so late on a lonely country road, he stopped and asked her if she needed a ride. She gratefully accepted. She told him she was trying to get home and gve him directions to her house. The driver tried to engage the girl in conversation, but she was strangely uncommunicative, telling him only that she wanted to go home.


When they arrived at the darkened house, the driver got out and walked around to the passenger side to open the door, thinking to walk her to her front door. 

She was gone. 

The puzzled driver walked up and knocked on the door, wondering if the girl had somehow managed to get out without him noticing. An old woman answered. When she saw the man standing there, she smiled sadly.  “I know who you’re looking for,” she said. “And she’s not here. She was my daughter. She was killed in a car wreck ten years ago on her way back from the prom. And every night on this date since, some man has come here, telling me that he picked her  up by the side of the road. But she never makes it home.”


Maco, North Carolina, lies along the line of the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. On a foggy, rainy night in 1867, a brakeman  named Joe Baldwin was working the night train headed for Wilmington. By some mischance the caboose became uncoupled from the train and stranded on the tracks. Joe knew another train would be along soon and his duty was to try to stop it before it collided with the stranded caboose. He ran down the tracks, swinging his lantern.



When he saw the lights of the train behind, he waved even more frantically. Unfortunately, the oncoming locomotive failed to see him in the fog. It struck poor Joe, killing him instantly.

Since that night, people walking along the tracks near Maco Station have reported a strange light appearing alng the tracks, moving from side to side. They say it’s the ghost of  Joe Baldwin, searching for his severed head.



In the early  19th century, in the town of Bath in Northeastern North Carolina, there lived a dissolute young man by the name of Jesse Elliot. Jesse loved to drink, gamble, and race Fury, his champion  stallion. He’d never been beaten on that horse, and he swore he never would.

One Sunday, a stranger, all dressed in black, arrived in town on a huge black horse. He challenged Jesse to a race, and Jesse, already half drunk, agreed. Some of the other citizens of the town scolded him fotr drinking and racing on Sunday, but he laughed them off and had another drink. 

The race began, the horses thundering down a nearby country lane. The stranger’s horse kept up with Jesse’s, then began to overtake him.


As they rounded the big oak tree that was the halfway point of the race, a spectator called out that it looked like Jesse was going to lose this one. “I’ll ride this horse to victory or I’ll ride him to Hell!” Jesse shouted back. At that moment, Fury pulled up suddenly, throwing Jesse against a nearby tree and killing him. The stranger pulled up beside Jesse’s limp body, and for years, onlookers would shiver as they described his chilling laugh. Then he spurred his horse and rode away, never to be seen again in those parts.

To this day, you can still see a set of mysterious depressions in the ground near where Jesse died.


Nothing grows in them, and obects placed in them are gone the next day. In the 1940’s, a newsreel cameraman named Earl Harrell came to Bath and performed an experiment. He filled the holes with dirt and leaves, then made a webwork of back thread over them. The next day, the thread was undisturbed, but  the holes were empty. The locals debate whether the mysterious depressions are the hoofprints of Fury or of the great black stallion whose rider tempted Jesse to his death.

I hope you have a happy Hallowe’en this weekend! And please share your favorite ghost stories, from wherever you live.



Music and Lyrics and Permissions, Oh My!

by J.D. Rhoades

It should come as no surprise to readers of my books or of this blog that music has a huge influence on me. The titles of the first three books, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, GOOD DAY IN HELL, and SAFE AND SOUND, come from songs by Steve Earle, The Eagles, and Sheryl Crow, respectively. Favorite tunes are often a springboard for plot points or for whole books, even if the books themselves end up bearing no relation to what actually happens in the song.

Sometimes,  I like to use music directly  in a scene to emphasize or comment on what’s going on.  It’s a cinematic-type effect and a by-product of my own creative process, which often involves seeing the story as a movie playing in my head. Some of my favorite movies use music playing over a scene, or playing or being played by the characters.  Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, for example, would be a lesser movie if it didn’t have that awesome soundtrack serving as a sort of Greek chorus to the action on the screen.

As an author, though, you have to be careful when using music on the page. It can get a little too cutesy if you overuse it, for one thing. But there’s a more practical concern, namely that getting the permission to use a song  lyric can be a major pain in the ass.

One of the many things that surprised me when I got into the business is that it’s the author, not the publisher, who’s responsible for obtaining (and if necessary paying for) the proper permissions. The first question is, when do you need permission do use bits of a song (or quotes from someone else’s poetry or prose)?  While the US Copyright Office insists that “there is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission,” I’d always heard that two lines was pretty safe. More than that, however, and your  publisher may start to get nervous. There’s a concept called “Fair Use” that might save you, but it’s murky and convoluted even by the standards of copyright law, so just assume you’re going to need permission.

So how do you go about getting the permission you need?  First you have to find the song’s publisher. Note that this is  not the record company, at least not much these days. A savvy songwriter will set up his or her own publishing company, which is the actual owner of the rights to the song, and thus the entity entitled to the money from performances and other uses.

There are a couple of ways to find out who the publisher is. One is to look on the album itself. There’s usually  some fine print, somewhere around where you find the list of tracks on the album. It’ll say something like “All songs copyright Insert Name Here Music.” The other, easier way is to do a search on the websites of the two big music licensing services, ASCAP or BMI.  Let’s try to find who owns, say, John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith In Me.” 

We go to the ASCAP site, navigate to the ACE title search page, and plug in the title.

Your title search for “”HAVE A LITTLE FAITH IN ME”” returned 0 results.

Damn. Okay, let’s try BMI.

Whoa. 9 hits.


Fortunately, the first one gives us:

Songwriter/Composer Current Affiliation CAE/IPI #

Clicking through the publisher’s name gives us:

CAE/IPI #: 539732230
Phone: (310) 235-4700
Fax: (310) 235-4907
LOS ANGELES, CA 90064-1712

So then you can call, write, or e-mail, tell them you’d like to use a lyric from one of their artists in a book, and ask to be directed to the proper person. They’ll take it from there.

Steve Earle‘s people were great to work with, and let me use a few lines from “The Devil’s Right Hand” for a pittance.  My experience with “Good Day In Hell” was a little different. It was my screw up, actually: I’d put off tracking down the publishers until the book was already being typeset. I found that, since the song was co-written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles, there were actually two publishers that had the rights: Cass County Music and Red Cloud Music. An e-mail to one, however, got me in touch with a very nice lady who let me know she could handle both. However, she said “The guys almost never give anyone permission to do this.” I began quietly freaking out at this point. After a couple of days, she got back with me and said they wanted to see the passage where the lyric would be used. Heart in throat, I sent her an excerpt, along with a note that contained some of my best groveling.  Within a day she’d e-mailed and said “I caught up with them in two separate airports. They say okay, and all they want you to do is make a small donation to each of their favorite charities.” Which I promptly and gratefully did. Mr. Henley, Mr Frey: thank you from the bottom of my heart. In a profession full of jerks and prima donnas, you guys showed real class.

You may decide after reading this that using someone else’s lyrics is just too much damn trouble. Certainly, after the “Good Day In Hell” scare,  I went back and rewrote the scene in SAFE AND SOUND that contained the Sheryl Crow lyrics, because no way was I going through that kind of fear again if I didn’t have to. But if you think the story just won’t be the same without it, start early.

 And, as always, be nice.


Icons of Cool

As so often happens, I actually had another topic planned for this post. But yesterday I found something out that absolutely redlined my bullshit meter. Acording to Lee Goldberg’s excellent blog A Writer’s Life, there’s a movie version in the works of John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee book, THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE.


McGee is to be played by…brace yourselves:

Leonardo DiCaprio.

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Okay, after seeing BLOOD DIAMOND and THE DEPAHTED, I’ll grant that DiCaprio can play a tough guy. He’s turned in some great performances.  But damn it, he’s just wrong for McGee. He’s too short. He’s too blond. He’s too goddamn pretty.

I know I shouldn’t get this upset. It’s just a movie. And McGee’s just a fictional character in some old paperbacks.

Except to me, Travis McGee is a lot more than that. As I’ve mentioned here  before, I discovered the Travis McGee books at a formative time in my life. In my mid teens, I was a lonely kid with a tendency to wax philosophical. I could, and occasionally did, get all tragic and self-pitying, what the kids today  call “emo.” But then John D, MacDonald’s series about a loner with a philosophical bent who lived on a boat, righted wrongs, AND got a lot of hot women, hooked me and hooked me hard.  My parents had a couple of the books on their shelves, and after devouring those,  I went out and hunted down every other  one I could find. I’ve probably read all of them at least twice, and some I’ve read so many times the old paperbacks are coming apart.

McGee had a lifestyle most people would envy. In addition to the aforementioned boat and hot women, he had a fantastic , if entirely unconventional car: a Rolls Royce some maniac had painted electric blue and chopped up to make a pickup truck. He called it Miss Agnes after an old teacher who’d had hair the exact same shade of blue. He had an awesome best friend: a genius economist named Meyer who lived on a nearby boat and provided  him with a foil for his musings (and a mouthpiece for  some of John D. MacDonald’s observations as well). Most importantly, though, McGee had life figured out. He had life flat knocked. McGee had decided that life was too short to wait for the good times, so he’d take his retirement in installments and only work when he needed money. To make this happen,   McGee crafted for himself the ingenious profession of “salvage expert,”   a  euphemism for what he really did: Recover things for people who’d had those things stolen from them. Often, the thievery was legal; McGee’s methods of recovery,  not so much. His fee was half of whatever he recovered. On the surface, this sounds pretty mercenary, but McGee had a romantic streak that often caused him to take on apparently lost causes. He once expressed his philosophy of life in a way that almost makes him sound like a hippie:

Up with life. Stamp out all small and large indignities. Leave everyone alone to make it without pressure. Down with hurting. Lower the standard of living. Do without plastics. Smash the servo-mechanisms. Stop grabbing. Snuff the breeze and hug the kids. Love all love. Hate all hate.

And yet, McGee could go out and kick asses if he needed to. THis was fortunate, becuase he needed to, a lot. Further, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He referred to himself  on more than one occasion as a  “knight with rusty armor, a bent lance and a swaybacked steed.” This cynical/romantic dichotomy is pretty much a staple of private eye fiction; McGee, however, took it and made it seem even cooler than usual.

And that, more than anything else, is why Travis McGee is so special to me. There are a lot of real-life people who influenced my idea of what it was to be cool. But I can’t deny the influence of some cultural icons as well, and one of the first was Travis McGee.

Granted, he had some flaws. His attitudes towards women could be a bit paternalistic, although it’s unfair to call it Hugh Hefner-like,  as George Pelecanos once did (McGee would probably bridle at anyone referring to a woman as a “Playmate”).

All that said, though, McGee was the type of guy who a lonely kid could aspire to be. He was a tough guy with soul. An undeniable bad-ass, but with a soft spot for the wounded and downtrodden and a willingness to fight for them. A guy who lives by his own strict code, but who doesn’t take himself too seriously. A guy who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of him or the way he lives. A guy who is, in a word, an icon of cool.

And I’m sorry, Leonard DiCaprio can never be that.

So tell me, ‘Rati: what fictional character most influenced your concept of cool? Has any movie casting of one of your favorite characters pissed you off as bad as this has me?

Simplify, Simplify…Whoa, Too Much

by J.D. Rhoades

Our Louise wrote a great post yesterday about pitching your work to agents. One fine  nugget in that pile of golden advice was this: “boil it down to a conversational but tight 25-words-or-less.”

You see a lot of advice telling you that you need to be able to describe your story in one sentence. This is known as “The Elevator Pitch”, so named because it can be sprung on an unsuspecting  agent during that glorious moment when you have them trapped in a small confined space from which they can’t possibly escape.

It’s possible, however, to boil your Elevator Pitch down too far, to the point where you miss the point of the book entirely. A couple of examples (which I remember but cannot for the life of me tell you where I read them first):

  • The Bible: God creates the world, then destroys it.
  • Moby Dick: a one-legged man goes fishing.

Some of my own:

  • The Odyssey: Soldier with terrible navigational skills probably should have asked directions.
  • The Grapes of Wrath: Poor people are nice, but they get shit on a lot. 
  • Macbeth: Ugly women screw with a nobleman’s head for no discernible reason.
  • The Great Gatsby: Rich people are interesting but crazy, and sometimes they shoot each other.
  • Just about any Pat Conroy Novel: Dysfunctional Southern boy takes 700-plus pages to finally get around to telling you the Horrible Thing That Happened.
  • Most of the later Spenser Novels: Tough but sensitive ex-boxer with annoying girlfriend cooks and solves mysteries with the aid of a black guy who scares the hell out of people.
  • Rocky: Dumb guy with speech impediment gets the crap beaten out of him and still thinks he won the fight.

Some others from around the Internet:

  • Remembrance of Things Past: Frenchman eats a cookie and remembers a lot of stuff.
  • Batman: Wealthy man assaults the mentally ill.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: deranged industrialist tortures and mutiliates young children.
  • Waiting for Godot: Nothing happens. Twice.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Little man gets a ring, then tries to throw it into a volcano.
  • Dune: Rich kid and his mom get tossed into the  desert and become worm-riding jihadis.

So just for fun, take your own work or someone else’s and craft an entirely unfair one sentence summary. Here, I’ll start:

The Jack Keller novels by Yours Truly: Bounty hunter with severe mental health issues keeps blundering into bad situations.

Your turn…

All I Ever Had, Redemption Songs

by J.D. Rhoades

 James Nichols, a native of Moncure, North Carolina, was more than a little surprised when a Sheriff’s deputy came to his house and arrested him–for going to church. Nichols, unfortunately, is a convicted sex offender who was convicted of indecent liberties with a teenage girl and attempted second-degree rape. When he got done with his six year stint in prison, he started attending church, because, he said, ” It helps me keep my mind on track. It helps me be a better person, not just to myself but to someone else.” But North Carolina law provides that convicted sex offenders can’t go within 300 feet   of a school, playground, or day care. And these days, you’d be hard pressed to find a church that doesn’t have a playground or child care center. The ACLU is looking into filing a challenge to the law.

On August 13, 2009, NFL quarterback Michael Vick signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. He played his first game shortly afterwards. Many football fans and animal rights activists were outraged that Vick was allowed to return to the NFL after serving a Federal sentence on dogfighting and racketeering charges. “As long as Michael Vick is playing football,” once fan wrote, “I will be at every game humanly possible to protest.”

Mathias Sendegeya lives in a tiny hamlet in Rwanda that’s known as  “Redemption Village.” He served 10 years for his part in the genocide of the Tutsi people in Rwanda back in 1994. He and the other “genocidaires,” as they are called, were freed “to seek peace with the orphans and widows of people they killed.”

These stories all hit my consciousness about the same time, and I think they had the effect that they did because redemption is a concept   I think a lot about. It’s a theme that runs through the book I just finished writing (although my protagonist hasn’t done anything as bad as molest children, engage in dogfighting or particpate in genocide) and the book I’m thinking about next (in which a major character has done some pretty awful things).

Literature abounds with stories of people who have committed serious wrongs, or who suffer under a crushing weight of guilt, and who yet manage to win some form of redemption. Conrad’s Lord Jim struggles for years to redeem himself after an act of cowardice, as does Amir in Khaled Hosseini’s THE KITE RUNNER. One of my favorite movie characters, William Munny in UNFORGIVEN, is described as once having been a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. Whether he redeems his former life by his actions in the movie…well, that’s another discussion.

In real life, though, it seems that people are not so eager to believe in the possibility that people who have done wrong can somehow rise to be better or to redeem themselves. Even Bible-belt North Carolina seems to have rejected the idea of the church providing a path to righteousness for people like James Nichols. Despite the fact that Michael Vick paid for his serious crimes with a chunk of his life and of his pro career, not to mention millions of dollars (some of which went to care for the animals he’d injured), there are some people who will never believe his debt to society has been paid. Even the writer of Mathias Sendegaya’s story admits he “blanched” as the former “genocidaire” reached out to invite him into the village dance.

I still believe in redemption. I belIeve people can turn aside from evil. Not only that, I think it makes for an interesting story. Maybe it’s the remnants of my Methodist upbringing. Or it may have something to do with my day job. After all, if I didn’t believe people were redeemable, I’d have to spend a lot of time standing in front of judges shrugging my shoulders and going “Ah, what the hell, lock him up and throw away the key.’ When I’m tempted to do that, though, I think of people like Danny, whose story I told in more detail here. I think about the young man I represented with the horrible record who was looking at a long prison sentence for theft, but who was diverted into a two year drug rehab program, which he’s well on the way to completing; in fact, he wants to work for the program and try to get other addicts off drugs. I think of  parents I’ve seen who lost their kids to DSS, straightened up, stumbled, straightened up again, and eventually got their kids back and became decent parents. It doesn’t happen every time. Frankly, it doesn’t even  happen a majority of the time. But it happens enough to keep me believing that even bad people can be better.  

What are your favorite stories of redemption, either on the page or in real life? If you know up front that a character has done awful things in the past, what does it take before you can forgive him? What’s the deal-breaker in that situation, the thing you could not forgive a character for having done? Finally, in real life, is wickedness, as Joyce Carol Oates asked recently, “soluble in good deeds”?

Writing Is Re-Writing, Or, There’s a Pony In Here Somewhere

by J.D. Rhoades

Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.

– Richard North Patterson

I don’t make any corrections. Everything’s down there just the way I want it. That’s the way it’s going to be. -Jack Kerouac

I’ve had the subject of rewriting, or revising, or editing, or whatever you want to call it, on my mind this week, because that’s the stage I’m in in the current work in progress. And, after four books, I’m doing it differently than I’ve ever done it before.

This is the first book I’ve written where I didn’t revise as I went. In the past, I’d obsess over every setence, every paragraph, writing each in a dozen different ways until I liked it enough to go on. Sometimes after an evening of writing, I’d have written one page. I cussed a lot on those days.

It was even hairier when something new would occur to me or I had one of those bolts from the blue that sent the story off in a new direction. I’d make the change, then I’d have to immediately go back to what I’d written before, scour it to  eradicate continuity errors,  and change things around so that the new direction would be at least plausible.

Not this time. This time, I just put my head down and pushed to the end. If I wasn’t happy with a chapter or a paragraph, I just muttered “fuck it, I’ll catch it in the rewrite,” and kept typing. If a premise changed, I gritted my teeth and let it ride until I got to the end of the first draft.

Lawrence Block, one of my heroes,  is not a fan of this approach. In fact, in his excellent book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, he takes a distinctly ambivalent attitude towards rewriting at all, going so far as to title the chapter on the subject “Washing Garbage.” When I write “The End”,” he insists, “I mean it…all a sloppy first draft teaches you is to be sloppy in your writing.”

Now, some of Block’s feelings on the matter could have arisen out of the fact that he was writing his treatise in the era of the typewriter. Back then doing another draft didn’t mean going through, deleting, cutting, and pasting blocks of text. It meant sitting down at the typewriter and doing the whole damn thing over again. But even now, with computers, I know of at least one very well-known thriller writer who nonchalantly claims that when he gets to “The End”, he just closes the document and e-mails it off. Or so I’ve heard.

Stephen King, on the other hand, in HIS excellent book ON WRITING, suggests putting the book in a drawer for, oh, six weeks or so, then pulling it out, reading it all the way through (in one sitting, if possible), letting your trusted “First Readers” look it over, and begining revisions.

So, having done it both ways, what have I learned about which is preferable? Well, the way where I  revise as I go has its points. When I wrote THE END, the books were done. Mostly. I didn’t quite have the balls to just e-mail it off that same night, but except for checking spelling, punctuation, changing some word choices, and chopping long, run-on  sentences into a manageable size, the things were finished.  I was so sick of them I  never wanted to see them again, but they were done.

With this one, it’s true that I wasn’t totally sick of it when I got the first draft done. There was one other problem, though: the book was a giant pile of horseshit. It was freaking incoherent. There were things in it that made no sense. Characters suffered abrupt personality changes for no discernible reason. Sometimes, their very names, heights, and hair colors changed. But, like the optimistic kid in the old joke who received a giant pile of dung for Christmas, I grabbed my shovel and got to work. Because I knew there was a pony in there somewhere.

I’ve been hacking away at it, adding, subtracting, moving, and yes, chopping those sentences into bite-sized pieces for a week or so. And I’m getting happier with it. I know there’s a pony in here. I can hear it whinny.

So writers, how do you prefer to re-write? As you go, or after the god-awful first draft is done? Rreaders, do you know any other writers who claim they never revise or revise as they go?

Hooptedoodle and The Barbossa Principle

by J.D. Rhoades

When you’re a beginning writer (and for a long long time thereafter) it’s enlightening, and often comforting, to read books and articles on the craft, especially by writers you already admire. And when those nuggets of advice are distilled into nice tidy lists of numbered or bullet-pointed rules, you begin to get a sense that maybe you can actually get a handle on this thing. I for one, still pull out and read Elmore Leonard’s   New York Times essay entitled  “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle” at least once a year. After all, who the hell am I to argue with Elmore Leonard, especially when he’s offering advice like “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”?

  I’m also quite fond of Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Rules for Writing Fiction“, which contains gems such as “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for,” and “Start as close to the end as possible.”

Most recently, I’ve gotten a kick from Joe Konrath’s cranky and hilarious list “How Not to Write a Story,” a cri de coeur which sprang from  Joe’s experiences wading through the dross of a short story contest he was judging.

But here’s the thing. Once you internalize these rules, you begin to notice more and more writers–good writers, mind you–who break them and get away clean. For instance, both Leonard and Konrath say you should “Never open a story with weather.”  And yet, Orwell’s 1984 opens with just that: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Chandler’s short story Red Wind begins with a description of said wind:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Leonard and Konrath warn against starting stories with prologues. Prologues would also seem to violate Vonnegut’s dictum “start as near to the end as possible.” However, two books I’ve read recently which I absolutely loved (Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE and John Connolly’s THE UNQUIET) both have brilliant prologues. So do Lehane’s A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR and Michael Connelly’s ECHO PARK, to name just a couple randomly plucked from my nearby bookshelf.

Vonnegut tells us “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” But Tom Wolfe’s THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is full of characters I found myself wishing heartily would all die in a fire. Even so, I couldn’t put it down.

Konrath warns against the narrator directly addressing the reader, and both Konrath and Leonard warn against lengthy character descriptions, especially at the beginning. But  Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN begins and ends with Huck addressing the reader directly:  You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. THE MALTESE FALCON begins with a memorable description of Samuel Spade (who can forget the image of Spade as a “blonde Satan”?) and Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN begins with the narrator addressing the reader with a lengthy description of the title character, particularly her  legs.

All that said, the “rules” are there for a reason. While some people are prone to chafe at the idea of rules for writing in general,  the fact remains that many works of fiction that flout them do, in fact, suck. They suck with great vigour. Lest we forget, “It was a dark and stormy night” (opening with weather) has become an archetype of the lame opening.

So what are we to do?   Are there no signposts to guide us on our way? Are there rules or aren’t  there?

Over the years, I’ve developed an attitude towards “The Rules” much like that of Captain Barbossa in the movie  PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. You may remember the scene where the plucky Elizabeth Swann tries to talk her way off the pirate ship and back to shore by rule-lawyering the Pirate Code, which she apparently knows only from books. Barbossa just smirks and tells her, “The Code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl.”

Most of the time, though. the pirates DO follow the Code. Because it makes sense. Except when it doesn’t, and then they don’t. 

So look at it this way. Go ahead and learn the rules as set down by more experienced writers. But when you come across a situation in which you want to break a rule, think once. Then think twice. Then think again. If after three thinks, you still believe  it’s a good idea, then go ahead. It’s your story, after all.

You should still leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, though.

So here’s today’s exercise: tell us a rule you’ve read, either at the linked lists or elsewhere.  Tell us about a work you’ve enjoyed that breaks that rule succesfully and tell us why the story still works. Writers, tell us about a rule you’ve consciously broken and why.

And for more discussion on this subject, check out the quite spirited debate at Steve Mosby’s The Left Room, which was the inspiration for this post.

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.

We’ve had a bit of a medical crisis at my house in the last 24 hours. Don’t worry, everyone’s going to be all right, but dealing with it has pretty much eaten up all the time and brain power I had in reserve, and everything I’d meant to say about my chosen topic is scattered in untidy heaps inside my head.

In short, no new original post from moi this week. Please accept my apologies, and I’ll do better next time, I promise.

As a diversion in the meantime, how about another game of iPod Roulette?

You don’t necessarily need an Apple iPod to play it…any Mp3 player or computer music player will do, so long as it has a “Shuffle” feature that allows you to play random songs from your library. It goes like this: (1) Hit Shuffle. (2) In the comments, post the first twenty songs that come up. (You can forward through if you don’t want to listen to all of them before posting). (3) Be honest.

The choices of my Creative Zen Touch:

  1. Simple Minds-Don’t You Forget About Me
  2. The Who-The Real Me
  3. Coldplay-Fix You
  4. Liz Phair-Girls! Girls! Girls!
  5. Bruce Springsteen-Workin’ On the Highway
  6. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers-Here Comes My Girl
  7. Paul Simon-Homeless
  8. U2-I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
  9. Tom Lehrer-Poisoning Pigeons In The Park
  10. The Replacements-I Will Dare
  11. Buzzin’ Cousins-Sweet Suzanne
  12. Lucinda Williams-Out of Touch
  13. Stones-Gimme Shelter
  14. White Zombie-I, Zombie
  15. Sex Pistols-Anarchy in the U.K.
  16. Little Feat-Rocket in My Pocket
  17. English Beat-Best Friend
  18. Guy Clark-South Coast of Texas
  19. Neil Young- My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue)
  20. Tangerine Dream-Prophet in Chains

And if that’s not sufficent diversion, here is a bunny with a pancake on its head:

Gotta go, see you next time…


Nothing New Under the Sun?

And if I put my fingers here, and if I say
“I love you, dear”
And if I play the same three chords,
Will you just yawn and say…

It’s all been done
It’s all been done
It’s all been done before   

-Barenaked Ladies

Tropes are storytelling devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.

By J.D. Rhoades

After the recent discussions here and here about genre and the reader’s expectations, I started thinking about…well, about the genres within genres within genres. I’m talking about going  beyond the hardboiled/cozy/thriller/procedural/etc divides and considering recurring patterns of character and story (sometimes known as “tropes”) that you see in crime fiction.

A few examples:

The Wunza Story: As in “One’s a [blank] and One’s a [blank],” The Wunza story puts two often dissimilar people together and lets that tension play out against the bigger story. It’s a central pattern in romantic suspense: “Wunza beautiful, dedicated detective with the Nashville PD, Wunza handsome, brilliant FBI agent.” Crank up the differences a few notches and you get more humor in the mix: “Wunza a small town Southern girl who’s always getting into wacky scrapes, Wunza a dark and mysterious bad-ass who may or may not be a bad guy.” Make both characters the same sex and you have a Buddy Story: “Wunza ex-military doctor recovering from wounds suffered in Afghanistan, Wunza a brilliant cocaine addict who plays the violin.”

(For a hilarious “Wunza” generator, go to

Advantages: the above-described romantic tension, opportunities for fun dialogue.

Disadvantages: for romantic Wunzas, what do you do once they’ve done it? Or in the alternative, how long can you realistically keep them from doing it before the reader gets impatient? In the Buddy Wunza: how long before people start snickering that they’re gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

The Merry Band: A whole bunch of wunzas fighting crime (police procedural) or committing it (the caper story). Think CSI, NCIS, or the Dortmunder stories.

Advantages: lots of room for intra-team conflict and/or romance; even more opportunities for snappy dialogue; enjoyable to watch as it all comes together.

Disadvantages: easy to lose track of where everybody is and who’s doing what with whom.

The Shane Story: Mysterious stranger rides into town, finds bad things going on, sets them right using his fists and/or his gun, then rides away. He probably, but not inevitably, beds the beautiful damsel in distress along the way. Think:  Jack Reacher, Travis McGee.

Advantages: mythic, archetypal, or at least way larger than life character; great opportunity for cool badass action scenes.

Disadvantages: easy to make the character too invincible; suspension of belief can get more and more difficult; you’ve got to disentangle the loner hero from the love interest at the end, so he can bed the next damsel down the road. That can get a little contrived (“everyone who sleeps with the Captain dies!”), not to mention off-putting to some readers.

The Brooding Knight: A tough loner like in the Shane story, but often more tormented and reflective than a Shane. Said torment possibly comes from a traumatic experience in the past, or possibly by an ideal of justice that they cling to despite being repeatedly and grievously disappointed. May drink a lot. Think Harry Bosch, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Keller.

Many of the same advantages as the Shane story in regards to the kicking of asses; writer can (carefully) slip a little of his or her own worldview into the narrative; soulful characters can be attractive, especially to the female reader.

Disadvantages: Jesus, dude, get over yourself already.

The Smartest Guy/Girl in the Room: Also similar to the Shane story, in that the protagonist, usually an outsider, has to set things right where they’ve gone wrong, but by using his or her far-superior wits rather than physical force. Think:  Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot.

Advantages: some people really love puzzles and love pitting their wits against the SGITR.

Disadvantages: The SGITR can be kind of a dick; danger of making the clever solution so clever as to be absurd; misdirection of the reader is required to keep them interested. In short, the SGITR story is one of the hardest to pull off, because the writer has to be as smart as the SGITR.

Many stories combine tropes. For instance, A SGITR story is often paired with a Wunza story. The other half of the Wunza can be an exposition dump, that is, a person to whom the SGITR has to explain things to, thus informing the reader (Dr. Watson). In the alternative, they can be a foil to soften the SGITR’s obnoxious know-it-all-ism (Archie Goodwin). In contrast, Inspector Rebus is a Brooding Knight with his own Merry Band.

Now, as for the overarching advantages and disadvantages of  tropes:

Advantage: It’s easy to describe, pitch, and market stories based around familiar tropes.

Disadvantage: It’s easy for trope to become cliche.

While researching this post, I looked up a site my son had often quoted to me: And I have to tell you, friends, it got plumb discouraging. The site’s huge, and clicking though all the links, especially the ones involving crime fiction,  makes you wonder if  pretty much every “original” idea you ever thought you had  has already been done by someone else. You may begin to wonder if the DragonBig Bad or Magnificent Bastard  in your WIP isn’t a Wall Banger because you have a scene in which they kick the dog.

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. After all, tropes can be tools. It’s all in how they’re used. If they’re used in a lazy or uncreative way, if you’re just phoning it in, then sure, you’ve got the possibility of the dreaded Dethroning Moment of Suck. Done right, (as in the examples above from our own ‘Rati) you may be looking at a Crowning Moment of Awesome.

Which, at long last, leads us to our discussion question, our teaching moment,  of the day:

Readers: What are some of your favorite tropes? Your least favorite? Who uses them in ways that work? Writers: how do you get out of the trap that turns trope into cliche?