Category Archives: Robert Gregory Browne


I'm completely brain dead.

I've been sitting here for a full ten minutes now and I've got nothing.  Nothing.

For the last several weeks, I have been struggling to finish my latest book.  I'm happy to say I wrote THE END last night —

— but at a cost.

I'm completely brain dead.

I'm an erratic writer.  The first half of my first book was written in about three months.  The second half took seemingly forever.  

This book was the opposite.  The first 150 pages took me months, while the last 375 were written in just a few weeks.  Frantically.

It's amazing what a deadline can do to you.

I hear about writers writing several thousand words a day, guys like Stuart Woods who only writes, reportedly, a couple hours in the morning but manages to do an entire chapter in that time — and, frankly, I'm amazed.

Nora Roberts is noted for her speed and output (to put it mildly). And from what I can tell, Carla Neggers and others who came up from the romance ranks ain’t slouches either…

But there was one writer who had us all beat. His name: Walter Gibson, aka Maxwell Grant. 

Gibson wrote the novels I loved as a kid — I was in heaven when I discovered the paperback reprints on my used bookstore shelf. He was the man behind THE SHADOW, and in 1932 alone, he produced twenty-four 60,000 word novels for The Shadow Magazine, a pulp that was published twice monthly.

120,000 words a month. Not to mention the some 680 magazine articles he wrote a year. 

And this wasn’t just some isolated year. He did this for at least a decade.

Argue all you want that his stories were substandard. I freakin’ loved the reprints I read. Still have them on my shelf in fact. The first one I bought — probably in the 70’s — was called THE LIVING SHADOW — and it thrilled the hell out of me.

Just for a moment think about your deadlines and imagine having to write 120,000 words a month.

The mind boggles.

Do you ever have those moments when you're just so mentally exhausted you've got nothing left to say?

In the last weeks of trying to reach this latest deadline, I also received the UK galleys on my next book, saw the release of my second book, WHISPER IN THE DARK (Feb. 2), gave a presentation — along with Brett Battles — at Huntington Beach library, attended Bouchercon, got food poisoning, went to Men of Mystery, did the copy edits for book three, and went to two signings, one an eleven hour roundtrip drive that had me writing in the car as my wife took the wheel.

I'm. Freaking.  Brain dead.

As this post makes abundantly clear.

Tomorrow night I'm having a launch party for WHISPER IN THE DARK.  7 pm at the Ventura, California Barnes & Noble.  A portion of all sales in the store go to the education community.  I hope those of you in the area can come.

If you can't make it then, please join me at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood at 4 pm on Saturday, February 14th.

I promise to have recovered by then.



by Rob Gregory Browne

"You're a terrific stylist," she said.  "How long do you see yourself writing this kind of stuff?"

The woman, who is an acquaintance, was referring to my latest book, WHISPER IN THE DARK (which comes out in a week — eehaa), and there was an emphasis on the word "stuff" that made it sound as if she'd just bit into something quite sour and maybe a little moldy.

I don't have a lot of practice with people praising and insulting me simultaneously — it's usually just the insults — so I stammered a bit and said, "Uh, as long as I can."

But because she'd been raised on "serious" fiction and had studied it in high school and college, this poor woman couldn't fathom why I would ever want to write what I write or why anyone else would want to read it.

If I were to suggest that what she normally reads is really no different than what I write — characters trying to get themselves out of sticky situations — she would have looked at me as if I were completely out of my mind.

To her, the subject matter I cover is clearly the stuff of tabloids and B movies and is not something to take seriously.  And because I'm such a "terrific stylist," surely I'll one day graduate to writing real books.

We've talked about literary snobbery here at Murderati, probably more than once.  But its a subject that doesn't seem to want to leave me in peace.  Not because I feel any kind of guilt about what I write, but because I can't for the life of me understand how someone could categorize thrillers as somehow less important than any other type of book.

If you don't like thrillers, fine.  You don't like them.  But to avoid reading them because they're "beneath" you, tells me a lot more about you than I probably want to know.

The truth is, I love what I write.  I wouldn't be writing it if I didn't.  Thrillers are not a stepping stone to literary greatness.  There are enough thriller writers both past and present who have already achieved that greatness and I don't see them rushing out to write something more suitable to their talents — whatever that might mean.  If I should ever manage to join their ranks, it won't be because I decided to alter my subject matter.

In his bio of Raymond Chandler — one our greatest American writers — Tim Hiney tells us that when Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, most critics not only refused to review it, but those who did thought it was too "seedy" to be taken seriously.  I doubt that those critics, if they're still alive, would say the same thing today.  And if they did, I'd have to label them complete idiots.

Some of the Gold Medal paperback "potboilers" that were written in the fifties and sixties were truly great works of fiction.  And anyone chased away by the lurid covers and subject matter can be forgiven if that's simply not the type of book they want to read, but they're just plain crazy if they think those books are any less worthy than what their "serious" literary heroes were writing at the time.

Great writing is great writing because of the author's voice and point of view, not the stories he or she chooses to tell.  Even the label "genre" fiction is insulting, because it tries to set the work to one side, as if it's somehow different than any other story being told.  As if a certain set of qualifications make it a lesser work that shouldn't or can't be compared favorably to the more literary work.

One "genre" that always seems to get the worst of this kind of prejudice is the romance field, where so many are so quick to lump it all together and call it trite and inconsequential.  But the truth is, there's a lot of great work being done in that field as well and those who discount it are, in my humble opinion, fools.

But then I guess that's what all this boils down to, isn't it?  Opinion.  And I'm certainly not short on those when it comes to popular music or politics or the clothes my neighbor is wearing.

But at least I don't walk up to that neighbor and say, gee, you're a good looking woman, how long do you think you'll be dressing like a circus performer?

Tell me I'm wrong about this.  I dare you.  :)

For those of you interested, I'll be making a number of appearances here in California next month, so I invite you to go to my website and click on the events link.  Hope to see you!

Is it Me?

by Robert Gregory Browne

Is it me or has 2009 started off on the wrong foot?

I know we're bound to feel a little down after the holidays, what with all of their magic, the time with family, the spirit of generosity in the air — so it's only natural to miss that when it's gone for another year.

But in the two short weeks since 2009 began, here are some of the things that have happened that have completely bummed me out:

Donald Westlake died.  Donald freakin' Westlake.  The man who inspired me to be a writer.  Okay, technically he died in 2008 (New Year's Eve), but I didn't find out about it until '09.  And boy do I regret never getting the chance to meet him — which seemed an impossibility a few years ago, but not so much these last couple, now that I'm in "the business."  He will be missed.

My wife's uncle died.  He was coughing on New Year's Day and a few days later he was in the hospital, then we got the call that he had passed.  Quite sudden and very sad.  A man who loved to fish and always seemed to be happy.

A friend's relative was arrested for a major crime, which, of course, has had a negative and heartbreaking impact on the entire family.

Another friend's son was arrested.  One of a parent's many fears, so it certainly sent chills through me. Not that I'd ever expect my kids to be arrested, but I'm sure my friend didn't either.

And the worst of all is that my wife had a medical scare.  The kind every woman fears.

So 2009 hasn't been shaping up too well at all and I've been feeling a bit depressed.

But because I'm a guy who tries to look on the bright side (I can hear Brett laughing as I write this), I'm trying to concentrate on the good things that have happened or are about to happen:

My wife got news today that the scare was baseless, merely a glitch that reexamination cleared up.  So it truly was simply a scare.  Not the kind you'd ever want to go through, but fortunately all is well.

Brett Battles and I did an appearance last Friday at the Huntington Beach Library, and if laughter and books sales is an indication of people having a good time, then we must've kicked ass. 

I've got two — count 'em, two —  books coming out this year after a long, long wait.  WHISPER IN THE DARK drops the first week of February and KILL HER AGAIN will be released the first week of July.

I've been approached about participating in a new project that I can't talk about at the moment, but looks like it could be a lot of fun if it all works out.

And did I mention my wife's medical scare was baseless?  That alone makes 2009 a great year.

And as I look around at my small part of the world and my place in it, I have to say that I am truly blessed.  I'm healthy, there are people who love me, and despite these bad economic times, I'm not doing too bad.  So far, at least.

So, honestly, I've got nothing to complain about.  There are folks out there who would look at my life and envy me for what I have, so I should probably shut my mouth right now.

But you have to admit, 2009 has been off to a shaky start for many of those around me.  Hopefully that's changing.

How's yours shaping up so far?

Random B.S.

by Rob Gregory Browne

Be warned.  Whenever you see a blog post of mine that has the word RANDOM in it, that means I have absolutely no fucking idea what to write about.  Usually I can slog through and come up with something at least a notch above coma-inducing, but today I'm stumped.

I know, I probably shouldn't admit that.  But it's the eve of a new year and maybe if I'm honest at least one day out of the 365, I won't burn in Hell.

HA.  Dream on, Rob.

Speaking of new years…

I went to sleep last night and when I woke up this morning an entire freakin' year had passed.


How exactly did that happen?

I was planning to do a "best of" for the year 2008 today, but the problem is that I can barely remember 2008.  Of course, I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night, so that tells you something about me.

But, seriously, where the hell did 2008 go? Or 2007 for that matter.

I can remember 2005 very clearly.  That's when I got my first publishing deal.  And a few weeks later, when I spoke to my editor, he told me the release date for KISS HER GOODBYE would be February of 2007.

And I gotta tell you, it took forfuckingever for that particular month and year to roll around.  I grew to be a very crotchety old man in that time.  My kids grew up and their kids grew up and their kids' kids — oh, you get the point.  I waited several lifetimes for KHG to be released.

But get this.

Because of scheduling conflicts, by the time my second book (WHISPER IN THE DARK) comes out, an entire TWO YEARS will have passed since the release of the first one.

Yet those two years seem to be a mere blip on calendar.

Again, I say, WTF?

(That is, by the way, an actual question.  So please include your answer to WTF? in your comments below.)

The Power of Validation

I have been struggling, struggling, struggling with my fourth book, which is tentatively titled DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN.

This one has truly been killing me.  Almost as much as the second one did.

Which is why it's been very nice to have validation of that second book.  After great reviews in the UK, I just got my Publisher's Weekly review for WHISPER IN THE DARK and there's a nice little red star next to it.

Now, I've gotta tell you, getting a starred review from PW has made my year.  Ask anybody.  Really.  I can't stop talking about it.  I've grown even more obnoxious than I was before, if that's possible (shut up, Brett.  You, too, Bill).

But having that little bit of validation has done a wonderful thing for me.  Suddenly the new book is going like gangbusters.  Words, paragraphs, pages, chapters are flying out from under my fingers.  And I know I shouldn't say this either, but they're pretty damn good.

PW has given me a much needed kick in the ass and for the first time I'm actually WANTING to work on the book.  It took me forever to get here, but here I am.  Eee-haaa.

And On a Totally Unrelated Note…

When you're writing a sex scene, what word, if any, do you use for penis?  What about vagina?

I could give you a twenty page list of slang terms for each, but somehow none of those terms seems appropriate.  When I come across such words in a scene, I can't help but start laughing.  They just take me right out of the story.

Sure, you can actually use the words penis and vagina, but those have to be about the two most clinical, unsexy words in the world.  So, tell me, what's a good substitute?

His burning hammer of love?

Her forbidden cove?

Seriously, how does one write this shit without pitching a giggle fit?

And on that note…

I'm outta here.  Sorry for the suckfest, random or otherwise.  There's a new year coming, so go out and celebrate it and I promise to do better in 2009……..

Uh-huh.  Sure, Rob.

Solving the Puzzle

by Rob Gregory Browne

As you might guess, when I have time to read, I generally read crime fiction. It’s a broad genre, of course. Mysteries, thrillers, noir, caper, spy — I love them all.

I also read other things. YA novels. Some literary stuff. The works of James Kirkwood, who was a brilliant novelist.

But crime novels are what I naturally lean toward.

I was recently leafing through a mystery magazine, and in one of the articles, the author made a comment that mysteries of late seem less interested in creating solvable puzzles than they once did. Which, he thought, was unfortunate.

We all know the kind of book he was yearning for.  Traditional mysteries.  The kind that feature locked rooms, clues planted everywhere, a challenge to the reader to figure out who the killer is before the hero does.

I can understand why he and many other people like these kinds of mysteries, but they don't really interest me all that much. The formal "mystery" of the story rarely does.

I could spend several minutes telling you about Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his pain and his loves and his demons and his enemies, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the plot of a single mystery he has solved.

The same goes for T. Jefferson Parker’s Merci Rayborn. I can tell you all about her life, her troubles in the police department, her failure to get the respect she deserves, but I can't for the life of me tell you what crimes she has solved. I can't lay out the clues and show you how she — or Bosch — figured out who the killer was.

These writers' plots are generally wonderful, but, for me, the underlying crimes usually don’t stick. They aren’t what I walk away from the books thinking about.

Because, frankly, it doesn't much matter. Not to me, at least.

My book, WHISPER IN THE DARK, comes out in the U.S. in early February, and it's quite a bit different from my previous book. It’s still a thriller, but this time there’s a mystery involved. A dead body. A detective.

That dead body, however, is merely there to get the story rolling. While who killed the victim will be very important to the people surrounding him, and will, hopefully, have the readers guessing — the mystery itself is not all that important to me.

What matters are the characters themselves. How it all affects them. The characters become the mystery and as you read, you begin to realize that these people may not be who you thought they were. And who killed whom is less important than why.

That’s true of the Bosch books, it’s true of the Rayborn books, it’s true of most literate, well-written mysteries these days. The puzzle has taken a back seat to the characters and their motivations.

John Sandford — another favorite crime writer — doesn’t even bother with a mystery in the traditional sense. We already know who the killer is.
And it doesn’t matter. The books are still great — because we LOVE Lucas Davenport.

One of my favorite Davenport stories involves a murder, yes, but the thing I most remember is Davenport’s touching relationship with a young girl whose mother has been killed.

We all have different tastes and we all read for different reasons. I prefer character puzzles over plot puzzles any day of the week.

What about you?

The Hazards of the Profession

by Rob Gregory Browne

I have a friend who has spent much of his adult life working as a production assistant, then as a producer of television commercials.

Now, this is a guy who loved movies.  Lived for them.  He and I would spend hours and hours talking about our favorite movies and writers and directors and actors.

But after several years of working behind the scenes, he told me, "I have a hard time watching movies anymore.  All I see is the hellish work that went into them.  I see the grips, the PAs, people shoving lights around, bad tempers, asshole directors, whiny actors — I see it all.  It can be the simplest scene in the world and I know exactly what's going on behind the camera, and it kills it for me."

And I felt sorry for him.  I've been on a few movie sets in my time, but those have mostly been magical experiences and haven't had any impact on my viewing pleasure at all.  In fact, in one experience I had been struck by how hammy the acting seemed while I was on set.  But later, when I viewed the actual movie, the acting was superb.  So any negative aspects of the experience were immediately washed away.

Unfortunately, I'm starting to understand where my friend was coming from.  But not with movies.

With fiction.  Novels, in particular.

Before I started writing novels, I carried one (or two or three) wherever I went.  If I had to walk to work, I'd read along the way.  If I was waiting in the doctor's office, I was reading the latest installment of my favorite series character.  If my wife was shopping at Ross or wherever, I was in the car reading a book.

I read good books and bad books.  And even though I'd spent many years on and off as a screenwriter (which oddly enough had never had an effect on my movie viewing), I'd always looked at books as an escape and read them, for the most part, uncritically.

But now that I spend a lot of my time in the trenches, pumping out thousands of words (if I'm lucky) a week, I find that it's almost impossible for me to read fiction.

See if this sounds familiar to you:

You've settled down with a new book by one of your favorite authors, or maybe by a new author that you've been hearing good things about.  You go to chapter one and you start to read.

Then BAM.  You get past the first paragraph, you're saying to the author, "Jeez, why did you choose to open it this way?  Wouldn't it have been better if you'd started with the last line of the paragraph?  That would have given the opening more urgency and really hooked the reader."

If it doesn't happen there, it might happen later.  You notice that a character is behaving a certain way and you say to the author, "Dude, that's so out of character.  The guy wouldn't react that way.  And the fix is so easy.  You could have had him say…. "

Maybe this doesn't happen to you, but it happens to me, ALL THE TIME.  I'm constantly trying to "improve" the writer's work.  And this isn't because I think I'm the God of all writers (although I'll happily accept any nominations), but simply because I WOULD HAVE DONE IT DIFFERENTLY.

In other words, I am incapable of blocking out my profession.  Because my job is stringing words and sentences together in order to entertain, it is impossible for me to read someone else's fiction (or even my own) without seeing all of its warts and wanting to fix them.

Which effectively kills the reading experience for me.

And the only time I'm able to get past this is when the book is just so damn good, so damn involving, so expertly crafted that I forget where I am and just disappear into the author's world.

But such books are sometimes hard to come by.  For me, at least.  Nowadays.  

It seems it was much easier to find great books when I wasn't a "pro" (and I use the term VERY loosely) at this game.  When I wasn't so concerned with craft and only wanted to be whisked away.

I guess such are the hazards of reading for those in the business.  Or am I alone here?

Tell me what you think.


by Rob Gregory Browne

Okay.  If you’re like me and you’ve gotten to a certain age, then you know what’s it’s like to get up from your desk, walk toward the kitchen intending to grab, say, an orange, only to get to the kitchen doorway and realize that you’ve forgotten why the hell you went there.

You know you’re there for a reason, but you can’t for the life of you remember what it was.  So, you mumble to yourself, "Friggin’ idiot," and walk back toward your office.

Only halfway there, you suddenly remember what it was you wanted, so you do a quick one-eighty, head back to the kitchen —

— only to forget again.

This happens to me more often than I’d like to admit.  And, yes, it’s true, I smoked a lot of pot when I was younger.

I don’t think it’s the pot, however.  Just age.  And I know people a decade younger than me (who never smoked a joint in their life) who have the same problem.

It’s scary, to say the least.  I start thinking Alzheimer’s.  A friend of mine calls it Sometimers.

But then Dr. Dean once described Alzheimer’s as not forgetting where you parked your car, but forgetting where you parked your car when you don’t have one.

When I was trying to come up with ideas for a blog post tonight, I decided to go the random route.  Come up with two or three topics to discuss briefly.  My wife was listening to me spitball these topics and I came up with a couple that I thought might be interesting.

Okay, not necessarily interesting.  But I’m on a crazy close deadline for the new book and my mind is in a different place.  So the topics were passable.  Something to throw out to the group and let you guys have at it.

Anyway, five minutes and half a conversation later, I couldn’t remember one of the topics I’d decided on.  Strained the brain trying to remember, but just couldn’t do it.

And guess what?  Neither could my wife

What the hell?

Fortunately, she did remember a few moments later and told me what it was. 

I often worry, however, that such things are carrying over into my work.  There will be times that I’m driving and I’m mulling over the new book and all of these wonderful ideas are bouncing around inside my head and I’m thinking, damn, I wish I had my digital recorder because I’d really like to get some of this down.

And of course, by the time I get back to my office, I’ve forgotten half of what it was that had gotten me so excited.

But then maybe that’s as it should be.  A lot of stuff I think about as I’m driving is really useless garbage that just needs to be tossed out of the brain.  A cleansing, of sorts.  And whatever remains behind is the stuff I’ll actually use.

Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, once said that he never writes an idea down when it first comes to him, because he figures that if it doesn’t stick, it isn’t worth remembering.

I can pretty much guarantee that I’ve forgotten more ideas than I’ve remembered.  Some of them I even wrote down, only to discover them, years later, on some wrinkled piece of paper.  And guess what? They truly, truly sucked.

What’s disconcerting, however, is when I find the beginning of a story I wrote a few years back and I cannot for the life of me remember writing it.  It seems to have been written by someone else entirely, and while I recognize the handwriting or the typical way I arrange my sentences and paragraphs, I do not recognize it as my work.

As William Allman said, "The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess."

And I certainly agree with… uh…

What was I about to say?

I suddenly have the sinking feeling that I’ve written about this very same subject in an earlier Murderati post.

Oh, well.

Now on to those two not so spectacular topics:

1.  In response to Allison’s recent post, I never look at the numbers.  I don’t think about bestseller lists.  I don’t WANT to know the numbers.  In fact, the only numbers I DO want to know are the numbers on the checks my publishers send me.  And as long as they keep sending them, I’ll be a happy man.

The reason I don’t want to know the numbers?  Because they’ll color my work.  If the numbers are bad, I’ll freak out and try to tailor my work for "the marketplace."  I’ll start writing vampire stories because vampire stories are hot and surely that’s gotta bring those numbers up.

If the numbers are really good, I’ll get a false sense of confidence and either lose all perspective about the work, or I’ll keep writing the same crap over and over again because I know it’s what works.  That might make my publisher happy, but it certainly won’t make me happy.

Instead, I ignore the numbers and write what I want to read — and hope that others will want to read it as well.  This, obviously, is my own little quirk and does not apply to others.

2.  Speaking of writing.  What the hell am I doing wrong?

I’m in the middle of reading the latest book by one of my favorite authors and I have to say that I’m truly enjoying it.  But I’m three-quarters of the way through and, frankly, NOTHING HAS REALLY HAPPENED.

I’m on page three-hundred-whatever, and the hero has engaged and amused me — and the writing is superb — but I can’t help thinking that by the time I’ve reached this point in one of my own books, A WHOLE HELLUVA LOT OF STUFF HAS HAPPENED.

Is that a problem?  Should I start cutting back on the plot twists?  Should I slow the pace down?

After all, this guy seems to know what he’s doing.  And AGAIN, I’m really enjoying this book.  So what gives?

Okay, that’s all I’ve got.  I’m done with you.  Spent.

Now it’s back to the new manuscript to once again try to remember how I was planning to end that new chapter.

The Morning After

by Robert Gregory Browne

Of course, it would fall upon me to write this piece today of all days. The morning after. So I’m going to try to keep it brief.

I’m actually writing this on Monday, so I have no idea how the election will turn out.

But whatever the outcome, some of us here will be elated this morning, while others will be extremely bummed — unless of course we’re all dealing with lawyers and vote counts and an election that drags on longer than the primaries did (please, Lord, let’s not see that happen). In that case, we’ll all be upset.

So, for those of you feeling a little depressed, I have some unsolicited advice for you.

When I was a kid, there were two things I could count on when I was down in the doldrums. When a girl rejected me (I know, I know, hard to believe) or my world just seemed to be falling apart in general, I could always turn to these two things to help me escape — if only for a few moments:

1. My music.

2. My books.

There is nothing more calming to me, than picking up the guitar and working out my troubles with a new chord progression or melody. Playing guitar is generally a very private thing for me now, but it always manages to help me escape whatever is weighing on my mind at the moment. Somewhere in the middle of a song, I’ll find myself lost in the music and the relief is sweet.

Reading a great book does not offer me quite the same relief, but it certainly does help me forget for awhile. It’s well known that during bad times, people often seek solace in entertainment, and only a book can take you into that world of shared imagination — yours and the author’s. Books offer a prolonged escape that, in my opinion, has yet to be matched by any other form of entertainment.

So, that’s my advice. If only for a short time, turn off your TV, quit watching the pundits wax poetic or moan or complain, then pick up your guitar or whatever instrument you play. If you don’t play one, listen to your favorite album from start to finish. Or find that book you’ve always been wanting to read and lose yourself in its pages.

There’s nothing wrong with getting away for awhile. Let all the b.s. go and get that needed relief, then come back to the world feeling refreshed and ready to tackle whatever troubles are facing you.

And take your time. Healing isn’t easy.

A Post with Absolutely No Point

by Robert Gregory Browne

I pretty much live and work inside my computer.

It’s true.  If someone could put a computer chip in my brain that would allow me to see the screen on my retinas, I’d be a happy man.

I was on a panel at the Santa Barbara Festival of Books recently, talking about process, and one of my co-panelists, Gayle Lynds, was shocked when I said I never print out my drafts.

When I write books, the first time I see a draft on paper is when the copy editor sends it to me.  I never make corrections with a pen until I’m writing STET all over those copy-edited pages.  The book is written on a computer, revised on a computer and the only thing my editor ever gets from me is an electronic copy.

Even those STETTED (is that a word?) pages get scanned and sent electronically.  Saves me a trip to the post office, and a lot of money.  The one time I DID send the paper version of my UK copy edits, the delivery charge was 70 bucks.


All that said, I DO prefer to read paper based books.  No Kindles or Sony Readers for me, thank you.  Well, sure, I wouldn’t mind having one.  In fact, I’d love to have one.  But as handy as they might be, I’ll always prefer paperbacks.  Lose a paperback on a plane, and you’re only out seven bucks.

But the writing process, for me, is almost all electronic.  In fact, if they could find a way to send me the copy edits electronically, I’d jump for joy.  Because, let’s face it, the copy edit phase is the most joyless part of the authoring business. 

I’ve been a gadget fiend for as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid, I had more tape recorders than I knew what to do with.  Eight track recorders, reel-to-reel, cassette recorders, multi-track recorders.  I’ve always been something of an early adopter and tend to buy gadgets long before the prices come down.

Back in the early 1980’s, I bought a Yamaha hardware sequencer (and if you don’t know, it’s kind of like the modern equivalent of a player piano for musical composition) for three thousand dollars.  That was a crap load of money back then.  Hell, it still is.  And six months later, Yamaha came out with a smaller, better version for three hundred bucks.

I bought it, too.

Don’t even get me started on mp3 players.  I’ll just say that I was buying them before even Apple knew what they were.  When the iPod exploded onto the scene, my reaction was, "What’s the big deal?" — because I’d been using something better for a couple of years.  And iPods still blow.

For writers, the computer is the greatest invention ever.  Years ago, I used to bang out screenplays on an IBM Selectric typewriter, for godsakes.  I worked in the CBS script department typing scripts on mimeograph stencils and every time I made a mistake, I’d have to pull out the little bottle of blue fluid, smear some on the stencil, wait for it to dry, then type over it.

When we heard about these new word processor things, we begged the bosses to get us some for the office.  "Not cost effective," we were told.

A couple years later, I began my love affair with the computer.

Now I’m working on my fourth or fifth laptop (I bought my first around 1995) and I’m able to take my office with me.  I keep my lastest manuscript on a thumb drive that hangs at my neck, and carry it with me wherever I go.  I have a portable video player that not only stores all of my manuscripts, but also plays mp3s, and holds about 30 full-length movies and tv shows that I’ve stored for easy viewing during long plane rides.

I bought a high-quality portable stereo recorder for traveling notes and interviewing writer friends.  That’s the idea, anyway.  Next conference I may well follow through on the threat.

And just this weekend, I was wandering around Target and wound up buying one of these:

I suppose I should point out that it’s the size of a hardback book, weighs about the same, and costs a mere $300.  This, my friends (who says that?), is a writer’s dream.  No more lugging around that heavy notebook computer.  No, not me.  Now I have what they call a netbook.  And it’s a thing of beauty. Compact.  Convenient.  Cute.  But best of all, functional.

Let’s face it. I can’t help myself.  I’m hopelessly addicted to gadgets.  Which is why my wife refers to me, affectionately of course, as The Gadget Man.

Now will somebody find me a gadget that can tell me the point of this friggin’ post?

Lowering the Bar

by Rob Gregory Browne

WARNING:  I’m about to mention politics here, but I do so only to illustrate a point, and am not endorsing or denouncing any particular political philosophy, candidate or party.  I will also be mentioning a couple of movies that people around the world love, so hopefully you won’t get upset in that regard, either.

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately.  For several years now, in fact.

But the build-up to last Thursday’s Vice Presidential debate really brought something home for me.  I noticed in news story after news story that the party representing one of the candidates seemed to be going out of its way to lower our expectations about the candidate’s upcoming performance.  Thanks to a spate of less than stellar media events, it seemed that if she could prove that she could walk and chew gum at the same time, she would succeed in proving that she was somehow worthy of office.

It seems to me that this expectations game is not very healthy.  It is indicative, I think, of how far we’ve come in lowering the bar — not just for political candidates, but for nearly every aspect of our lives in this country.  We have become a society that celebrates mediocrity.  The more you skew toward the middle-to-lower end of the spectrum, the better your chances at success in the marketplace.  The decline has been steady but sure, and I think the quality of our lives has deteriorated because of it.

There are several exceptions to this, of course.  There always will be, thank God.   But lately, those exceptions, I think, are fewer and farther between, and dim in comparison to the exceptions of the past.

I grew up during the seventies.  Spent my teen years going to the movies and seeing masterpieces of the era like The Godfather II, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and Five Easy Pieces, to name just a few.  It seemed that during those years, there were many, many examples of fine filmmaking from some of our greatest writers and directors.

Then, along came Star Wars

When I saw the trailer for the movie, I was, like everyone else, very excited.  The special effects were so amazing that I thought, wow, this is going to be one helluva movie.  On opening day, I waited in line for close to an hour.  And when the movie started, I was thrilled.  Saw things I’d never seen before.  Just the sight of that Death Star alone was mesmerizing.

But something was wrong.  The story itself was really nothing special.  The acting, for the most part, was decent but not spectacular.  The direction was pedestrian.  And some of the dialog was downright laughable.

It was a fun movie, no question about it, but nothing special.  And I walked out of the theater somewhat disappointed, thinking it would never recoup its cost.

Yet, to my surprise, within weeks, Star Wars had turned into a phenomenon and is now revered as something of a masterpiece.  Many people who grew up without seeing the true masterpieces of the cinema, seem to think that Star Wars is some kind of benchmark that filmmakers — of popcorn fiction, at least — should strive for.

But no matter how much you may love the movie, let’s face it:  Star Wars is a decent entertainment but not a great one.  It borrows too heavily from better work — particularly Japanese films — and shows little innovation other than the spectacular (at the time) special effects.

In my opinion, Star Wars almost single-handedly lowered the bar for movies. After its surprise success (along with the much better Jaws), we saw Hollywood fall victim to a blockbuster mentality that produced a bunch of big budget "high concept" epics that were all fluff and no substance.  A mentality that continues to plague Hollywood even now.

This year, The Dark Knight is being hailed as a dark masterpiece.  But in comparison to what?  The Fantastic Four?   As much fun and as well-executed as The Dark Knight is — and believe me, I enjoyed it — it is not an exercise in cinematic subtlety and is nowhere near the artistic revelation that people say it is.

But then, in comparison to everything else around it, maybe it is.  Again, that lowering of the bar, our lowered expectations about what’s coming out of Hollywood these days, makes The Dark Knight’s intelligent — if obvious –storytelling a rarity.

If we look at music, who are the big acts of today?  I’m not even sure anymore, because I lost interest in the mainstream music scene several years ago with the advent of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.  The corporate music industry has become all gloss and no substance.  Even stuff we considered fluff back in my day is true artistry in comparison.

When Mylie Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers and American Idol contestants are the best we have to offer the world, I think we’re in serious trouble.   I don’t see any Mick Jaggers anymore.  Or Lennon/McCartneys.  I don’t see any innovation of any kind.  All I see are a bunch of posers who somehow have managed to strike a chord, perhaps only because we’re so hungry for something slightly better than average that we welcome these posers with open arms.

Again, there are exceptions — even among American Idol contestants — but for the most part, the mainstream music industry, like the movies, is mired in mediocrity.

The book industry seems to have fared better in this regard, although I’m sure we can all point to novelists we consider less than stellar who are hugely successful.  I personally have opened several books that did not compel me to read past the first paragraph or so and some that were, by any measuring stick, just plain bad.  And while I’d love to put my own work in the above-average category, I make no such claims and will leave that to others to judge.

But I have to wonder if the successful books of today are as good as the successful books of a decade ago.  Or several decades ago.

I suppose you could argue that this all comes down to a matter of taste, that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but what if this gradual lowering of the bar has affected that taste?  If we are bombarded day in and day out by below average fare, it seems we have no choice but to find something in the mess that we can actually tolerate and, as a result, we celebrate it as if it’s the second coming.

In keeping with my statement that I think this has affected several aspects of our lives, why don’t we talk about food?  The McDonaldization of the world has certainly made me wonder about what we put in our stomachs.  I mean, anyone who has eaten a homemade burger with all the trimmings knows full well that the fast food version is, at best, a piss-poor substitute.  Yet we flock to these food chains like lemmings.

Despite all the advancements in medicine, the quality of our health care experience has declined.  There was a time when you could spend a few minutes talking to your friendly general practitioner and he or she actually knew who you were.   Might even call you by your first name. 

Now it seems that we’re nothing more than cattle being herded in and out of the doctor’s office (if you can get an appointment), given a quick diagnosis that often requires another visit or a second opinion because the doctor didn’t give us enough quality time to actually get it right the first time around.

And then, of course, there’s the news.  The days of the thoughtful and balanced news anchoring of, say, Walter Cronkite and the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein has been replaced by howling partisan hacks who spew nothing but talking points, purveyors of propaganda rather than substance.  These people don’t just wallow in shallow mediocrity, they celebrate it.  And the now defunct Fairness Doctrine is nothing more than a quaint term they once heard in high school.

If I sound frustrated, I am.  All the things I’ve talked about here used to be magic to me.  But the magic is long gone.

I’m sure to some of you, I sound like an elitist, or the grumpy old fart who is caught up in the past, when everything was "better."  And maybe that’s true.

But while I love the advancements in technology that make our lives easier and, in many ways, more interesting, I’ve found that despite the fact that we have many more choices when it comes to entertainment, food and political discourse, the quality of those choices is merely a shadow of what it was in the past, and we’re now forced to settle for less.

Call me old.  Call me a cynical curmudgeon.  But that’s just the way I see it.


By the way, I’m on a plane headed to Baltimore right now and hope to see you at Bouchercon.  I’ll be on a panel about Criminal Masterminds on Thursday afternoon.  Hope you’ll stop by to hear me complain…. 🙂