Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades

Submission. It’s Not As Much Fun As It Sounds Like.

    by J.D. Rhoades

We’ve heard a lot from our fellow ‘Rati recently about Thrilling Deadline Heroics: prodigious word counts, grueling all-nighters, and, as Tess described,  overcoming the inevitable onset of ITotallySuckitis (or, since Tess is a more sensible person, ThisBookTotallySucksItis).

 

I laugh at these things. I laugh them to scorn. I, you see, am finished with MY book. And that puts me in an entirely different level of Hell. Because I’m, as I like to say, “between publishers.” My agent has cast my bread upon the roiled waters of the publishing industry, and we’re waiting to see what comes back. What that means is that I am in that very special VIP Room of Hades that’s known as

 

ON SUBMISSION.

 


    As a trial lawyer, one of the most stressful times of your life is when you have a jury out. That’s when I and my colleague in the other chair have  presented all our evidence, argued all the finer points of law, made our stirring closing arguments to the twelve folks in the box,  and listened, trying not to fidget,  while the judge droned on and on, instructing the poor jurors  in the law according to the Pattern Jury Instructions, which even James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman couldn’t read in a way that makes them comprehensible to a layperson, much less interesting. Then the jury retires to their little room tp decide your client’s fate. And the waiting begins. And along with the waiting, the second guessing. Should I have left that kindly looking little old lady on the panel or bounced her? Should I really have argued a SODDI defense or gone with diminished capacity? Because, really…just LOOK at that guy.

      So you wait. And you fret.


     Being on submission is like that , for days. Sometimes weeks. You look at the phone, checking to make sure it’s on. You resist the urge to send an e-mail to your agent to remind her of the number, just in case she’s lost it. You dread seeing your agent’s e-mail when you open up your computer, because they call if there’s good news, only rejections come by e-mail. And you fret. Should I have shortened that sex scene? Is anybody really going to believe that action sequence? Should I really have killed off that character? He might have been a great sidekick if it ever becomes a series….

 

 

   Then, of course, unless you’re really lucky, the first rejections come in. Some of the most painful ones are the ones that go, “I really love this…but I have to pass.” They love the characters, but think there’s not enough suspense. The suspense is great, but no one’s buying this sort of thing  right now. Love the characters and the suspense, but the market is glutted because everyone already put out  a book like this. And so on. Before long, after getting a few of these, all of them saying something different, and some of them contradictory, you start to wonder if anyone in this business knows what the hell they’re talking about. 

And you tell yourself, this is the last time. It’s just too painful. If this one doesn’t fly, it’s over. It’s time to give up.

 

 

Eventually one of two things will happen. I’ll either get the good phone call…

 

 

Or I won’t. And then, I’ll get to work on something else.

 

 

 

Because, my friends, I am not a well person.

 

Wish me luck.

 

Pakistani Hobbits and Blue-Eyed Jesus

by J.D. Rhoades

It’s sort of an unwritten rule here at Murderati that we don’t talk about politics, because such discussion too often descends into controversy and acrimony. We try to shy away from such alienating material. So you’ll be happy to know that today’s post is about something a lot less polarizing.

I’m going to talk about race.

Sort of.

Recently, a controversy arose when a casting agent working on Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of THE HOBBIT placed an ad in the New Zealand papers looking for extras. Only those with “light skin tones” were invited to apply. The same agent , according to an article on Entertainment  Weekly’s website:

.was also reported to have told a prospective background extra, a woman of Pakistani heritage named Naz Humphreys, that she wasn’t suitable to play a Hobbit because of her skin color. According to The Waikato Times, video footage shows the casting agent telling people at an audition, “We are looking for light-skinned people. I’m not trying to be … whatever. It’s just the brief. You’ve got to look like a Hobbit.”

Jackson’s people, after downing an extra large dose of Mylanta to deal with the heartburn they knew was coming over this, insisted that they never specified any particular skin color for Tolkien’s hairy-footed creations, and the casting agent was promptly  sacked. But once that cat was out of the bag, there was no containing the controversy. Ridiculous political correctness, some claimed. Of course Tolkien intended his characters, whose roots were in Northern European mythology, to be Caucasian. Well, that’s just the problem with Tolkien, innit? Some replied, noting the author’s predilection for casting “swarthy” and “squinty-eyed” persons as henchmen of the Dark Lord. Still others, in full geek mode, noted that one particular branch of hobbit-kind, the Harfoots, were described as “darker skinned,” and mention is made in the prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS  of the hobbits’ “quick brown fingers,” so why couldn’t you have a black or Pakistani actor play a hobbit?

You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to re-hash that whole argument.  You want to jump into that fray, you can find it at several places online. But it did get me thinking about the assumptions we make about some of the characters we read and write.

A few years ago, I was having one of those discussions about what actor we’d pick to play particular characters. when we got to Jack Keller, someone said “How about Denzel Washington?”

At first I laughed. Had to be a joke, right?

But then I thought, Hmmm, why not? He’s big enough. He’s a hell of an actor, one of my favorites in fact.  Anyone who’s seen MAN ON FIRE knows he can do brooding intensity and lots of ultraviolence.

 

 Keller’s described in the books as blonde, but that’s not so much a part of his character that it would be ruined by having an African American actor play the role.  

On the other hand, casting a black or asian guy as Tony Wolf, the protagonist of BREAKING COVER, might be a bit problematic. Wolf’s on the run after an undercover assignment in which he infiltrated an outlaw motorcycle gang went sideways in a very ugly way. Now, there are probably some black motorcycle gangs, but they tend to be  predominantly white. I think it  would just stretch credulity too far to  have, say, Jamie Foxx play the role.  

Likewise, I can’t see casting a white guy to play Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins or George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange. Those characters’  stories are so entwined with the history of racial issues in this country that casting, say, Harrison Ford in either role would just be bizarre, like casting a   blue eyed  Gentile to play Jesus.


Wait, they did that.  Anyway…

Jane Rizzoli’s Italian heritage is a big part of her character, so you need a dark haired white girl like the delectable Angie Harmon.

 

 

But could Gina Torres play Charlie Fox (assuming she could pull off the accent)?

 

She certainly kicked enough ass in FIREFLY.

You kind of need white actors to play Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genarro, because their characters are so rooted in the culture of white, working class Dorchester, that you couldn’t have, for example, Russell Wong play Patrick.

 

It would be like having a mostly Caucasian cast in the live action version of the anime classic THE LAST AIRBENDER.

Wait, they did that too.

 

 

So, your questions for discussion, if you dare:

1. Favorite “race bending” casting.

2. Least favorite.

3. Take your favorite character and play with their race. Make a white character Hispanic, a black one Asian. How does it work? Does it matter?

And Denzel, if you’re reading this: call me.

 

 

Homesick For A Place That Doesn’t Exist

One of the blogs I read every day (or as often as it’s updated) is called Making Light. The blog is hosted  by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, both of whom are editors, teachers of writing, and major figures in the world of SF. The subject matter is varied and fascinating, ranging from science fiction and fantasy (naturally), to the business of publishing, to politics and world events, to, well, just about anything.


It’s usually at least an interesting read, but this recent post by co-blogger Abi Sutherland (an American living and working in the Netherlands) particularly set me to thinking. The post was written as a response to one on Roger Ebert’s blog (which you can find here), on the subject of loneliness. Sutherland’s post is mostly about the sense of community one can find at various places on the Internet (something to which I think we can all relate), but it was this passage that really struck a chord for me:

 

[Ebert] wrote it from the perspective of being one of those happy people who does not get lonely, and I think he goes astray as he does. He wants to attribute it to causes, to lost loves or love never found, but I tend to think that some of us are simply prone to longing.

 

I don’t even know what we long for. Not necessarily for companionship, or love, or friendship and interesting conversation; I have all of those in abundance. I’ve been married seventeen years, and I know I am beloved. My children adore me the way that children often do adore their mother. I have friendships both in person and remote. And I return all of these sentiments wholeheartedly. I’m not achingly lonely the way I was as a teenager. But still…

 

An evangelical type might tell me I long for his version of God. Madison Avenue will happily detail all that I should long for, and how much I can save by buying it while it’s on special offer. Many Americans, particularly conservatives, will tell me that I long for liberty, here in “oppressive” Europe. Perhaps any or all of these people are right, but I doubt it. My experiences don’t match their assumptions.

 

Something in me longs for a place I feel at home; perhaps that’s it.

 

I may just be projecting here, but it seems to me that’s why a lot of us read, and why a lot of us write: a longing for someplace we feel at home.


One of the things I’ve always loved about the German language (Mark Twain’s’ hilarious distaste for it notwithstanding) is the amazing variety of precise words it contains for very specific and complex emotions and states of mind. One of those is Weltschmerz. The word is usually translated as “world-pain” or “world-weariness”, but I’ve always preferred the definition given by Meyer in one of the Travis McGee books: “homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist.”


How many times have we heard readers tell us that they read to escape? Often, that statement is followed by a story of some wrenching event in their lives, or some horrible time they’ve gone through, and how such and such a book helped them get away from it for a while. It we’re really lucky, the book’s one of ours. But I’ve found that even people, like myself, who are well provided with “companionship, or love, or friendship and interesting conversation” still have that sense of longing to be, at least for a short time, in another place. Some of us feel the need so acutely that we’re driven to build those places in our heads, then invite other people to visit there too. This occasionally annoys our companions, loved ones and friends, because it does at times seem more than a little ungrateful. But it really has nothing to do with them. We’re just, as Ms. Sutherland says, prone to longing.

 

So, am I off base here? Does loneliness (or longing, if you prefer) drive YOUR writing or reading?



FUN IS GOOD, PART III: WIT

In this, our third installment of what gives a book the elusive element of fun, I’m going to talk about something that may seem obvious, but which is hard to quantify: wit.

In these times where far too many people  treat ignorance as something of which to be proud, the word “wit” seems at times to have fallen into disrepute. It carries with it a vague aroma of snootiness, of elitism, of cruel jibes delivered over dry martinis by callous sophisticates.

But wit–which I define as intelligent, incisive language that also manages to be amusing–is one of the things that can make a book fun to read. As just one example, take the works of Laura Lippman. Laura writes two kinds of books: her standalones, like her most recent book I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, are engrossing, heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and gorgeously written; her Tess Monaghan series, about a female PI in Baltimore, are all of those things, and they’re also huge fun to read. The difference is wit. When Laura writes of a character, as she did in her book IN A STRANGE CITY:

Tess Monaghan couldn’t help thinking of her prospective client as the Porcine One. He had a round belly and that over-all pink look, heightened by a rash-like red on his cheeks, a souvenir of the cold day. His legs were so short that Tess felt ungracious for not owning a footstool, which would have kept them from swinging, childlike, above the floor. The legs ended in tiny feet encased in what must be the world’s smallest–and shiniest–black wingtips. These had clicked across her wooden floor like little hooves.

you can’t help but see him, and you can’t help but smile at the image, if you don’t actually laugh out loud. The wit comes from the delicious, wicked sharpness of the picture. 

Sometimes wit comes out of a deadpan description of the mundane that ignores the big, dark, sometimes even scary thing that’s really going on. The humor comes from  the dichotomy created by the characters’ apparent obliviousness or nonchalance about the rabid elephant in the room. Examples are the opening conversation in RESERVOIR DOGS, or this exchange from Donald E. Westlake’s BANK SHOT:

Kelp drove one-handed for a minute while he got out his pack of Trues, shook one out, and put it between his lips. He extended the pack sideways, saying, “Cigarette?”
“True? What the hell kind of brand is that?”
“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tars. Try it.”
“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket. “True,” Dortmunder grumbled. “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”
Kelp was stung. He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel? True means something. What the hell does Camel mean?”
“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said. “For years and years it means cigarettes. I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”
“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp could deal with anything at that point except being agreed with; not knowing where to go from there, he let the conversation lapse.

 Often, wit takes the form of an impossibly perfect and well-composed comeback, the sort of riposte that you realize no human being could ever come up with on the spur of the moment, but which you wish you could. Like this exchange from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP:

 

      I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”

  “I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”

 It’s sort of like one of those Eric Clapton guitar solos where he tears off on a phrase so long and harmonically  complex  that you can’t imagine a human mind creating it, much less doing so on the fly.


 Other times, wit isn’t so elaborate, but instead lightning quick, like the jab that you don’t see till your opponent’s pulling it back and you’re wondering where that ringing sound is coming from.  Ken Bruen is a master at this sort of thing,  as in this quick yet perfect  description of a cop at a traffic stop:

He wasn’t wearing shades, but he wanted to…and badly.

Note that you’re unilikely to find the works I’ve quoted above are to be found in your bookstore’s humor section. some of them, like Our Ken’s work, are downright dark. All of them have humor, however. Smart, witty humor, and that’s one of the things that makes them fun.

Tell us, O ‘Rati: Who are your favorite witty, fun writers?

Fun Is Good, Part II: The Audacity Factor (or Oh, No, He Did NOT Just Do That!)

 by J.D. Rhoades

L’audace, l’audace, encore l’audace, et toujours l’audace!

-George S. Patton, supposedly quoting Frederick the Great

This is the second in my series of posts on what gives books that  all-important yet elusive element of fun. As we remember from my last post on  the Bad-ass Factor, any  moment that makes you want to leap up, pump your fist in the air and holler ‘Hell YEAH!” increases the fun factor exponentially. But  so can moments that make you say to yourself  “Oh, no. She’s not really going to do that”,  or moments in which the reader goes,  “No WAY is he going to pull this off.”  Sometimes the Audacity Factor–the sheer outrageousness of the topic or of the way it’s carried out–can add fun to a book.

Take for example, one I’m reading right now, EMPIRE OF IVORY by Naomi Novik. It’s one of her Temeraire series of fantasy novels. They’re basically Patrick O’Brian-esque Napoleonic Era naval adventures–but with flying, talking dragons taking on the French hordes instead of sailing ships. If that made you involuntarily laugh out loud in disbelief at the imaginativeness  of the concept, you’re not the only one.  

Another example is Victor Gischler’s GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. Hell, the title alone makes you think “we are in for one wild ride.”  And you’re right. How can you not love a book in which a post-apocalyptic American civilization rises from the ashes, based around a chain of strip clubs owned by a guy named Joey Armageddon? After all, once  the inevitable destruction of society and the following Dark Age is over, a fellow could really use a cold beer and a lap dance.

On a more literary note, Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION sets us down in an alternate world where the post-Holocaust Jewish state was established,  not in the Middle East, but in the Sitka peninsula of Alaska. Say what?

In Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH, not only is the hero/protagonist named Hiro Protagonist, he starts the book as a pizza delivery guy–for the Mafia:

If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself–the Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator’s nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated–who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer’s yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy–all he has to do is sign a bunch of releases that make him a public figure and spokesperson for CosaNostra Pizza and basically end his private life as he knows it. He will come away from the whole thing feeling that, somehow, he owes the Mafia a favor.

The Deliverator does not know for sure what happens to the driver in such cases, but he has heard some rumors.

After that, things start to get weird.

There’s a lot of overlap, you’ll note, between this factor and the idea of High Concept that Our Alex talks about here.  Outrageous High Concept can often equal serious fun.

All of the above books are gripping, page-turning, and thought provoking. They’re also a hell of a lot of fun to read. Why?

One thing that makes audacious concepts  fun is the same thing that makes watching an acrobat or a high wire artist fun: you wonder if they’re going to pull it off or if they’re going to crash to the floor before your very eyes.

So how do you pull it off? Well, there are a few things you need to do: 

First, be matter-of-fact. Your readers may find the world you build outrageous or strange, but to your characters,  it’s their everyday life (unless you’re doing a Wizard of Oz type tale, where your protagonist is dropped into another world). They’re not going to spend a lot of time examining or thinking about their surroundings, so neither should you by lapsing into long passages of description or having them think about “how wonderful it is that we have flying dragons.”

Which leads to our second point: move fast. Get right into the story, and don’t give the reader a lot of time tho think “Flying Dragons? How the hell does THAT work?”

This leads to something akin to the high wire act mentioned above: you’ve got to be able to put in enough backstory to let the reader know what’s going on, without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks with the dreaded “As you know…” Chabon, for example,  doesn’t have a character say, “As you know, Meyer, the State of Israel was founded in 1948, but was destroyed after only three months, so we ended up here…” He gets to the story, and you have to figure out what’s going on. In some unimportant respects, you never do; in THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, casual mentions of things like “the Cuban War” and “The Third Russian Republic” are never explained; they’e part of the background noise every real society has.

But most importantly, you have to have a story to tell. YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION is more than just an audacious concept, it’s an engrossing neo-noir  murder mystery. GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE is more than just laugh-out-loud outrageous, it’s a cracking good adventure tale. In order for a story to be outrageous and fun, it has to first be a story. If you don’t have that, you have something like John Boorman’s movie ZARDOZ, which has outragous concept to spare, as well as Sean Connery running around in a red leather jockstrap and a ponytail talking to a flying stone head, but it ends up being nearly incomprehensible, unless you’re really really stoned.

 

Don’t let this happen to you….

So tell us, readers and writers…what are some of your favorite fun, audacious concepts? Which ones does the author manage to pull off, and if you dare, which ones veer into ZARDOZ territory?

 

 

Fun Is Good, Part I: The Badass Factor

by J.D. Rhoades

Did you ever fly a kite in bed?
Did you ever walk with ten cats on your head?

If you never did, you should.
These things are fun, and fun is good.

           -Dr. Seuss

There are a lot of things that go into making a great book: plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, etc. Today, I’d like to talk about another, often-overlooked factor: fun.

Not a lot of people talk about what makes a book fun to read. That’s probably because it’s such a hard thing to quantify. But if a book is fun to read, people will keep coming back to it, and they’ll anxiously await the next one.

For purposes of these posts, I’m not just talking about books being funny. Certainly a book that makes you laugh is fun. But there are some “serious” works that are just a sheer hoot to read and/or watch. In my next few posts, I’ll be talking about some of the things that make a book or movie fun (to me at least).

First,  we’ll talk about one of my favorites:  the badass factor.

From Beowulf to Jack Reacher, we do love our badasses, those unstoppable, unkillable guys and gals who take a licking and keep on kicking,  right up till the end when l they either triumph, or in the case of badass villains, go down with their guns (and sometimes themselves) blazing.

One of the things,  for example, that makes Jonathan Maberry’s zombie-driven thriller  PATIENT ZERO so much fun is that its main character, Joe Ledger,  is a serious badass, and he knows it. It’s right there in the book’s dynamite first line: “When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world. And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.”

That passage illustrates one of the things that makes a bad-ass a bad-ass (and thus adds to the fun):  an  extraordinary self-assurance, born of an uber-competence in the fields of  crushing enemies, seeing them driven before them, and hearing the lamentation of their women. Robert Crais’ Joe Pike, for example, adds a huge fun factor to the Elvis Cole books by simply being the absolute best at disposing of bad guys without hardly breaking a sweat or even taking off his shades. And the books featuring Pike (there’s a new one out-YAY!) are, yes, serious fun.

The writer should be warned, though. There’s a very fine line between the type of confidence that tickles the reader’s fun center and the kind that stimulates the eye-rolling nerve.

Another form  of bad-assery is the Sheer Stubborn Endurance kind, exemplfied by Bruce Willis’ John McClain in the frst DIE HARD movie. Blown up, burned, feet cut to ribbons, he just keeps coming after the bad guys. Another example: Inigo Montoya in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, who, though badly wounded, gets up, raises his sword,  and delivers his signature  line, over and over, until he finally does in the man who killed his father, after this classic exchange:

Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.

Count Rugen: Anything you want…

Inigo Montoya (runs Rugen through): I want my father back, you son of a bitch.

Which brings us to the  Badass Moments, in which a character’s true awesomeness is exhibited, often through a single line or gesture. Example: the moment in the first episode of the TV series FIREFLY when Captain Mal Reynolds comes striding up the ship’s cargo ramp into the middle of a tense standoff,  sees one of his people being held hostage, draws,  shoots the hostage taker dead without breaking stride, and moves on to getting the ship flying.

Another type of Badass Moment comes when  someone who’d previously been the hunted  turns into the lion and starts whomping the  snot out of bad guys  right and left. Example: the moment in ALIENS when the hangar door opens to reveal Ripley, driving that giant exoskeleton and snarling “GET away from her, you BITCH!”

Rule of thumb: Any  moment that makes you want to leap up, pump your fist in the air and holler ‘Hell YEAH!” increases the fun factor exponentially.

LORD OF THE RINGS, (the book version) is  fun, in large part, because it’s  chock full o’badasses and badass moments, like:  Aragorn standing on the walls of the surrounded Helm’s Deep and telling the million or so nasties teeming about below him that no one’s ever taken that fortress and  that the ridiculously outnumbered defenders will let them live if they run away now; Theodens’ pre-charge speech and the  Ride of the Rohirrim, and my favorite, when Eowyn, after being warned by the Nazgul that no man can kill him, whips off her helmet and gives her “No man am I” speech (a Badass Moment if there ever was one). And let’s face it, when it comes to  Sheer Stubborn Endurance badassery, the name’s Gamgee. Sam Gamgee.

So tell me: who are your favorite badasses? And for future posts: what makes a book not just good, but FUN?

Next time: The Audacity Factor, or Oh, No, He Did NOT Just Do That!

The Nomad

by J.D. Rhoades

(Note: this is the “workspace” post that was displaced last week because of our mourning for our friend David Thompson.)

I’ve really enjoyed having a look at the workspaces of other writers. And I have to confess, I’m a little jealous of some of them, particularly Tess’ attic office. I always wanted to write in a garret.

 As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have an office to myself. I’ve always had to do my writing wherever I can find a quiet space. And with two kids  in the house, quiet spaces have been kind of hard to come by for the last few years.

I do some writing on an old computer that’s tucked into a nook near the front door. It’s a nice nook, with a good computer desk, bookshelves,  and a big bay window. It’s where I wrote my first three books.

 

Only problem is, it can get a tad noisy. The house has a very open floor plan, which is one of the reasons we bought it. But it also means that the kitchen is a few feet away from the space you see here. The family room is just past that. If anyone’s watching TV and commenting on it (and they usually are) it’s like they’re in the room with you. So I  move to the bedroom. Sometimes to the bed:

 

Or,  more recently,  to a little desk we set up by the window:

 

Only problem is,  my wife  goes to bed early, and she likes to spend some time alone with a book beforehand, usually starting right after dinner, which is when I start writing.  And, day or night, if laundry needs to be put away, she’s in and out of the room a lot (and trust me, in this house, the laundry piles up fast). So I move to the front porch: 

 

Or the back deck:

 

(I find that the torches add a nice barbaric ambiance to the whole enterprise).

Only problem  is,  when it rains,  or it’s really hot, or really buggy (and in North Carolina in the summer it’s liable to be at least two of those things) it’s hell to try to write outdoors.

But now that The Boy’s left for college, he’s graciously given me permission to use the desk in his room (and to close his door). Lynn spent two days cleaning it up and we had to haul a huge box of trash out of there, but it is a right cozy little spot, and quiet, and I finished the first draft of the WIP there.

Only problem is, it reminds me of how much I miss him.

As for process:  I didn’t outline the first book at all. As I’ve gone along,  I have started outlining more and more. Only problem is, by the time I start getting the words down on paper…well, you know the old military adage that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”? Well, no plan of mine  survives first contact with the actual characters. They take one look at the plot I’ve so carefully laid out for them, laugh derisively, and go “as if.” Then we’re off to the races. It’s hard for me to plan more than a few chapters ahead after that. Even with that minimal level of planning,  the  little boogers  still insist on doing pretty much as they damn well please and refusing to even get their obstinate selves onto the page if I try to force them. Bastards.

 

We Interrupt This Program…

by J.D. Rhoades

It’s very hard to write this post, and I wish you were reading my planned entry on my workspace. But the usual drollery seems inappropriate at the moment, because we’ve lost a dear friend.

David Thompson, manager of Murder by the Book in Houston and one of the founders of the excellent small publisher Busted Flush Press,  passed away suddenly on Monday afternoon at the age of 38. It came as a cold steel shock to all of us in the mystery community, not just because David was so young, but because it seems impossible that someone so full of energy and enthusiasm could ever be gone from among us.

David loved books, loved writers, and even loved this crazy business. Most of all, though, he loved his beautiful wife McKenna, who became owner of the store.

It seems only fitting that this photo, taken by Our Zoe at David and McKenna’s  wedding, should show the two of them happy and smiling, because that’s the way I, and everyone who knows them, best remember them.

(Our Alafair also remembers them like this, crashing on her NYC couch after being stranded by bad weather on the way home from the wedding):

 

I first met David shortly after my first book THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, came out. A mutual friend put David in touch with me, and he invited me down to do a panel with Duane Swierczynski, Jason Starr, Allan Guthrie, and Ken Bruen (can you imagine?) I have many fond memories of that night, but one of the fondest was of David and McKenna’s hospitality. We ate well, we drank well,  we laughed hard, and we ended up back at McKenna’s apartment, reading aloud from each other’s work into the wee hours. We’ve all been friends since that night. It was my first experience in this wonderful community of writers,  and for that alone, I owe David Thompson a debt of gratitude I can never repay.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. All of us can testify as to the amount of time David spent hand-selling our books and promoting our careers, and of the sheer joy he took in doing so.

If you knew David, you were lucky. If you have memories to share of him, please do so in the comments.

RIP, David Thompson. May your story be told forever.

 

In Which I Get You Guys to Do All the Work

Monday night I typed those glorious words “The End” on the first draft of my WIP. Now, I’ll admit,  this is a true first draft, meaning that, as it stands now, my new opus blows like a tranny hooker  during Fleet Week. But I can already see ways to make  it better. I can even see ways that it might even achieve awesomeness, if I can pull it off.

For the moment, however, I’m taking Our Alex’s advice to put it aside for at least a week, after which  I’m going to print out heblog post on re-writing, tape it up above my desk, and get back to work. 

In the meantime I see that  it’s my Wednesday to blog here at Murderati. Only problem is, my brain is burned. All the bearings on the magnificent machine that is my mind are  smoking and squealing like the  brakes on an 18 wheeler headed down out of the Rockies. I’ve also been so buried in this book, not to mention life and the  day job, that once I surfaced, I felt like I’d been asleep for the last month or so. I’m having  a hard time even figuring out  what’s been happening, much less commenting on it. So  I’m asking our loyal readership to fill me in on what’s going on, discuss it, and, not to put too fine a point on it,  write this post for me.

Ready? Let’s begin:  

  • Why are people mad at Jonathan Franzen this time? 
  • Apparently, the Wylie Agency and Random House have  “struck a truce”.  I didn’t even know they were at war. Can someone fill me in on this? Who should I have been  pulling for? 
  • So, this new Kindle. Why is it only 139 bucks? Is it because you can only download stuff if you’re in a WiFi hotspot? This wouldn’t really be a problem for me, even living in the sticks like I do, but is there some other feature that you give up for that price that I need to know about? In your opinion, is 139 dollars the tipping point that will make the Kindle 3 as ubiquitous as the Mp3 player? 
  • A six year old got a multi-book contract? WTF? 

Lay some wisdom on me, cats n’ kittens.

Bonus question: Was the movie version of WINTER’S BONE freakin’ awesome, or what? I mean, if Jennifer Stewart and John Hawke don’t get Oscar nominations, there is something seriously wrong with the process, am I right?

 

Getting Out of Your Own Way

by J.D. Rhoades

I’m getting to the end of the current WIP, or as I call it, “the part where stuff blows up.” The creative part of my  head doesn’t really have room for much else other than trying to keep track of where each player in a medium–to-large cast of characters is and where they’re going, while a mini-Gotterdammerung is raining death and destruction all around. In short, I am having more fun that a human being is allowed to have in most states, and I’d really like to get back to it. So today’s entry will of necessity be rather short.

 One of my daily must-reads is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog over at the Atlantic website. Whatever your political persuasion, I definitely recommend it for thoughtful and fair minded discussion on a wide variety of topics. Recently Coates, in the course of talking about a writing retreat he was apparently making,  made one of those observations that stuck with me:

There’s a great jazz pianist up here with whom I have shared meals and talked often. The first day we met he informed me that the essence of our work was learning to get out of our own fucking way. I am learning that out here–how to get out of my own fucking way–and really listen to what I care about, what I truly ache to say.

That’s such a perfect (if profane) expression of what it takes to get the right words down on paper: getting out of your own way. Forgetting about marketability, forgetting about  expectations, forgetting about “what will my agent/editor/spouse/mom think if she reads this” , and just letting the story come out the way it plays in your head. Trusting your own vision and talent. Listening “to what you care about, what you truly ache to say.”

It sounds so  simple, but it’s so hard to do sometimes. Real life intrudes with interruptions, demands, and pressures. Doubt slithers in. Those Black Birds come and perch on your shoulders, second guessing and criticizing every paragraph, every sentence, sometimes every word. It’s so easy to make things hard.

I grew up near a golf course, and way back in my early years, I played the game a little.  I haven’t picked up a club since I turned sixteen, got my driver’s license, and discovered a lot of other fun things to do. But  I still remember how good it felt when the swing went just right and the club head connected with the ball exactly  at that magical place they call the “sweet spot.” I understand why people get obsessed with the game, because that feeling is so powerful, and it comes so seldom–seemingly at random.

It isn’t random, of course. Making that happen consistently comes from constant practice and repetition and learning not to over-think your swing and tighten up at the wrong moment.  It takes a lot of work to learn how to get out of your own way. It was more work than I was willing to do to get really good at golf, and it’s a lot more than a lot of people are willing to do to learn how to write well. But that’s what it takes.

Even if you’ve put in the time, it’s still easy to over-think, to balk, to trip over your own expectations and insecurities. So share with us, if you would, what tricks and tips you have for getting out of your own way.