One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

Took some time to watch more movies than usual recently. It was time well spent.

Hell or High Water (2016) It’s rare for me to have such high expectations for a movie and have them exceeded. It’s been three days between viewing and writing this post and my
appreciation is greater now than when I watched it, and I loved it then. Understated to mesh with the story and characters, director David Mackenzie uses the desolation of west Texas (actually eastern New Mexico) to buttress the economic conditions of the small towns in the area. Jeff Bridges adds another chapter to his legend; his scene at the end with Chris Pine does them both credit. It’s the perfect end to a damn near perfect movie, one I’m going to want to watch over and over and learn from.

Aliens (1986) One of my three favorite action movies, along with the original Die Hard and Terminator 2. (T2 also directed by James Cameron.) Well cast, well paced, few of the special effects remind you they’re special effects—even those which have to be FX—and a handful of lines that have become part of the culture, all of which are organic to the story and character. The Beloved Spouse and I chose this as the vehicle to christen our new 65-inch curved screen SUHD TV, and we chose wisely.

The Infiltrator (2016) Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo are perfect as undercover feds—
all the actors do yeoman’s work—and it’s based on a fascinating true story, but I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped. The actual fed Cranston plays was one of the producers, and a few scenes made me wonder if some stuff got papered over. The time frame is also problematic. The events that seem to have played out over a few weeks had to have taken months or years, since the crux of the story is how Cranston’s character gains the trust of key players in the Medellin cartel, which had to have taken time. Advice: Don’t watch the special features that come with the rental disk. They don’t add much and will make you wonder about a few things you just saw.

The Imitation Game (2016). Benedict Cumberbatch shines as Alan Turing, the British mathematician who was instrumental in breaking the Nazi Enigma codes during World War II, which may have won the war for the Allies; his work certainly shortened it considerably. That’s a fascinating enough story, overlaid with Turing’s support for a female math genius (Keira Knightley) and the treatment of homosexuals in post-war England, no matter how great their contributions. Well worth anyone’s time.


Unforgiven (1992) Maybe the greatest Western ever. Definitely Clint Eastwood’s best,
though I will entertain arguments for The Outlaw Josie Wales. I’ve seen Unforgiven many times. Three things stuck out this time. One was how much the ending reminds me of High Plains Drifter. The second is Little Bill’s (Gene Hackman) speech to W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) about how English Bob (Richard Harris) actually did kill Corky Corcoran, exposing the myth of the Western gunfight. Last, but definitely not least, is the quantity of great lines. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films got all the attention for their tag lines, but Unforgiven has more outstanding lines than all the Harrys put together. Even better, none of them sound as if written for print ads. They’re all organic and character driven. Too many to list, but Eastwood never spoke a more chilling line than, “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawls. Now I’ve come to kill you, Little Bill.” This summer is going to be devoted largely to Western research as I make up my mind about writing one. I wouldn’t be surprised if I watched this again.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Process

All writers have a process. It may seem chaotic—it may be chaotic—but there must be something that holds the work together or the work never gets done. Readers and fledgling writers are often interested in process as if there’s some alchemy that takes place at some point in the process. I know enough good writers to be able to safely say there’s not. Ultimately it’s just ass in seat until you’re done.

“But what happens while your ass is in the seat?” All I can speak to is what happens when my ass is in my seat, and it’s not pretty. It also changes from book to book. It’s not perfect, but when I get to the end I know I’ve given my best effort. If it’s a failure, it’s a noble failure.

This is how I’m writing the fifth Penns River book, Small Town Crime.

The Outline
I gotta have one. I know a lot of better writers than I who don’t use them, hate them, can’t figure out how the reader can be surprised if the writer isn’t. I get it. Tried to write a novel by the seat of my pants once and ended up with almost 40,000 words that didn’t go anywhere. Now I use an ever-changing combination of index cards, dry erase boards, magnets, and Excel spreadsheets to at least have a map of everything that has to happen in each chapter. Not how it has to happen; just what I have to accomplish to keep the story moving. I may make a lot of detours along the way, but I need the route to have any chance of getting there.

Draft 1
One single spaced page after work every work day; two pages on days off. I can skip a day but I have to make it up. Read and make light edits on what I wrote yesterday before moving forward. Read chapters to The Beloved Spouse™ as they’re finished.

Draft 1.5
After letting the book sit for a couple of weeks or more, I read it straight down. No changes allowed. Make notes in my journal, then transfer them to the computer in context.

Draft 2
Fix what I didn’t like in the read-through and make what is a collection of scenes into a book. (Note: All edits involve some level of reading aloud. It may be sotto voce, it may be full voice, it may involve acting out. Depends on the scene, my mood, and how much trouble I’m having with it.)

Draft 3
A series of passes through the appearances, in sequence, of every character who appears more than once. One day I edit nothing but Rick Neuschwander’s actions, descriptions, and dialog. Another day it’s Stush Napierkowski. More than one character a day for some lesser lights, but they all get solo attention.

Draft 4
Same as Draft 3, but for the locations. This goes considerably faster, as locations rarely have dialog.

Draft 5
Polish. Incorporate ideas that have come to me over the past weeks and months. Pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of chapters.

Let it sit for several weeks.

Draft 6
This is where my OCD truly kicks in.
Day 1: Read Chapter 1. (Or 1 and 2. Whatever.) That’s it. Read it and go on about my life.
Day 2. Edit Chapter 1 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 2.
Day 3: Edit Chapter 1 from a hard copy. Edit Chapter 2 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 3.
Day 4: Proofread Chapter 1 aloud to The Beloved Spouse™. Edit Chapter 2 from a hard copy. Edit Chapter 3 on the computer screen. Read Chapter 4.
Repeat until the final chapter is proofread.

Type “THE END.”

When people ask if I ever use an editor before submitting to my publisher, I refer them to the single greatest bit of dialog ever written:

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘[The End]’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
“That’s all.”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”


(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Conversation with J.L. Abramo

I knew the name J.L. Abramo well before I interviewed him last year, but didn’t meet him in person until the Shamus banquet last fall in New Orleans, where he won for Circling the Runway. It’s always fun when someone with a reputation such as Joe’s turns out to be a true gentleman. He could not have been nicer about crushing my dreams, both of us nominated for the same award. Much as I wanted to hate him, I couldn’t pull it off. (It’s okay. Joe’s from Brooklyn. He understands that kind of humor.)

Joe was not only born in Brooklyn, but on Raymond Chandler’s birthday. (Must be something about July 23 and writers.) He is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thrillers Gravesend, Brooklyn Justice, and Coney Island Avenue, which is why he’s here today.
 
His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns; Mama Tried: Crime Fiction Inspired by Outlaw Country Music; Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea and Murder Under the Oaks, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology of 2015.

It’s a pleasure to get to pick his brain again, and on the day Coney Island Avenue drops, when I know he has plenty on his mind.


One Bite at a Time:  Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Joe. It was a treat to be at the Down & Out table with you when you won the Shamus Award last year in New Orleans for Circling the Runway. How did it feel to win?
J.L. Abramo:  First, let me say, it is a pleasure to be back for One Bite at a Time. Talking with you last year about Brooklyn Justice was a treat for me—I admire and appreciate an interviewer who poses smart, challenging and thought-provoking questions and displays a familiarity with the work being discussed.  Does their homework. (Editor's Note: Aw, shucks. I told you he was a gentleman.)

Earning the Shamus Award for Circling the Runway was very special to me for many reasons. Circling the Runway was the fourth in the Jake Diamond series which began with Catching Water in a Net in 2001. (Although Chasing Charlie Chan, published in 2013, is related—the events in that novel taking place some years before the beginning of Catching Water in a Net—Jake Diamond plays only a minor role.)

Catching Water in a Net received the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Award for Best First Private Eye Novel of 2000—and was published by SMP the following year.

St. Martin’s Minotaur gave me two more shots (Clutching at Straws, 2003 and Counting to Infinity, 2004) before deciding the Jake Diamond series, though well received by critics and readers alike, was not what they considered a money maker. I continued to write, of course, what other choice did I have—but the work seemed destined to remain out of the public realm.  And then, the net held water once again when Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books reached out to me and gave Jake Diamond and J. L. Abramo a second shot.  D&O quickly re-issued the three Diamond private eye mysteries.

Old and new fans kept asking if Jake would ever return. I wondered if after more than a decade away I would still know Jake and his regular band of cohorts. I found writing the novel was much like a reunion with old friends. (Re-reading the earlier books helped—reminding me how funny Jake could be.) 

Circling the Runway was the first new Jake Diamond novel published in nearly a dozen years (Gravesend and Chasing Charlie Chan preceding it) and earning the Shamus was an affirmation that the series was still viable after a long hiatus—and a validation by fellow private eye novelists that the work was worthy.  Earning an award decided upon by your peers is most rewarding.

OBAAT: You’re well-known for your Jake Diamond series. What made you switch to a police procedural when you wrote Gravesend?
JLA:  Actually, the seeds of Gravesend were sown before Jake Diamond.  It was a work which developed for many years and in its final incarnation was given a chance to see the light of day thanks again to Down & Out Books.

Gravesend is about people who happen to be police detectives or criminals or in the neighborhood.  I was writing about how lives intersect—often accidentally and sometimes unknowingly.  I was treating Brooklyn as a small town—which for all its size it had always felt to me when I was growing up in Gravesend.  Writing Gravesend was a return to the place of my origin—more a change of setting from Jake Diamond’s San Francisco to my hometown, Brooklyn, than a change from one sub-genre to another.  It was a chance to rediscover for—as T.S. Eliot put it—We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

And although Gravesend is crime novel on the surface—the book evolved into its present incarnation when I finally understood what I was humbly attempting to explore—namely how the manner in which human beings handle adversity will ultimately define them as persons—good or evil—weak or strong—fair or unjust—loved or despised—admired or feared.

OBAAT: Coney Island Avenue is the sequel to Gravesend. Tell us a little about it.
JLA:  I never really planned to write a follow-up to Gravesend.  Gravesend was a very ambitious and personal novel—it had been developing for a long time—and I was proud of the work.  I feared it might be too hard an act to follow.  But I received lots of encouragement from readers who wanted to hear more about the characters and where they might venture—and I found myself wondering also—so I picked up where Gravesend left off and wrote a sequel which is a crime novel and also very much about parents and children.

OBAAT: It’s always interesting to talk with an author who switches between sub-genres as you do, probably because I do it myself. Do you take a different approach when working on a PI novel as compared to your procedurals?  I’ve thought for years that PI stories and procedurals are each uniquely suited to telling different kinds of stories. Police have to take whatever cases come to them—and they have to close them. PIs sometimes have a chance to look for closure.  Do you see fundamental differences in the genres?
JLA:  I think I approach all of my writing in the same way.  I begin with a scene, a situation, which stimulates my imagination and which I hope will draw the reader in—and what follows is the journey.

I see genre as the vehicle for that journey—the vehicle in which the writer is most comfortable—be it crime, mystery, science fiction, etc.

That being said, I agree that some situations are better served by different types of protagonists—some more suited to the private investigator, often working alone, and others more suited to a team of police investigators.

The Diamond novels tend to be lighter, less intense, more humorous due to his personality—although Murphy does provide comic relief in the precinct novels.) 

As a private investigator, Diamond may require or depend on assistance from friends and colleagues and Jake is often at odds with the SFPD—whereas the detectives of the Six-One count on and expect back-up from each other.

The private eye novel can get away with focusing on one case, but I see police detectives in a large city usually working a number of cases at once.

As you mentioned, police feel pressure to close a case—from the public, the city politicians and media—which the private eye may not have to face. Unless, of course, solving the case is a matter of life and death.

OBAAT: Moving back to Coney Island Avenue and the 61st Precinct, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your opinion of Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels and whether they had any effect on you.
JLA:  Ed McBain, NYPD Blue, Blue Bloods, Serpico—these and other books, TV and films involving police officers and detectives have always appealed to me and certainly inspire me to explore and conscientiously depict the kinds of challenges faced by law-enforcers both on the job and in their personal lives.

OBAAT: New York police stories tend to focus on Manhattan. What appeals to you about Brooklyn? I don’t mean that to sound like a pejorative. I like stories that aren’t set in the same old places.
JLA:  As I mentioned earlier there is a small town character unique to Brooklyn even though by population it would be the fourth largest city in the United States—and when writing a book that is character and dialogue driven what better place to set it than the Borough of colorful characters and speech.
This piece I wrote about my little town says it as well as I could: http://jlabramo.blogspot.com/2016/03/brooklyn-ease.html

OBAAT: Your 61st Precinct books are ensemble pieces. Do you have to plan differently when you have so many moving pieces?
JLA:  I have always loved classic literature—as does Jake Diamond.  Diamond is reading a classic novel in each book—one that has parallels to the story at hand.
I particularly enjoy books with a lot of individual characters—so I tend to write that way. I remember early on a reader saying he thoroughly enjoyed Catching Water in a Net but had trouble at times keeping the many characters straight.  As a reader, I was used to books with a large number of characters—Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo—so I am good at keeping it all straight in my head as I read and write. But I tend to forget it is a lot to keep track of for some readers.  So, since Catching Water in a Net, I have included a Cast of Characters at the beginning of each book for back reference—and it seems to work.  And, also, perhaps my books are ensemble pieces because of my theatre background. 

I don’t really plan the number of characters—they just keep showing up as the stories progress.

OBAAT: Who’s your favorite character of the 61st Precinct ensemble?
JLA:  I like many of the characters—enough to have decided to bring them back—but if I had to pick one favorite it would be Detective Thomas Murphy.  Murphy is very Brooklyn.  He is funny.  He is tough and vulnerable at the same time.  He is honest and loyal.  And he has a dog named Ralph.

OBAAT: Do any of them give you trouble?
JLA: For the same reasons I like Murphy, he gives me the most trouble. He can be taken the wrong way if I am not careful. He has a Brooklyn sense of humor some might take as sarcastic and a Brooklyn cynicism some might consider defeatist.  But he is neither. 

It is Murphy who says: There are degrees of guilt, shades of innocence—and they all congregate on the same avenue—which is, to a great extent, what Coney Island Avenue is about.

Since I have spent a good deal of time in places outside of Brooklyn assuring people I wasn’t making fun of them and I really think the world is a pretty cool place, I know the dangers of being misunderstood—so I need to keep a close eye on Murphy to assure he remains a likeable and sympathetic character.

OBAAT: You’ve had quite a career as an author and obviously still going strong. Looking back, what do you find the most satisfying and what has surprised you the most?
JLA:  Most satisfying is hearing from readers that the work has affected them in some positive way—even if it is simply you made me laugh.
Most surprising is that they haven’t made any movies yet.

OBAAT: Thanks again for stopping by. It’s been a treat for me and I hope to see you in Toronto, if not before. Before we call it a day, what are you working on now?  Do you have plans beyond that, or are you strictly a one book at a time guy?
JLA:  I am working on a novel about two Sicilian families who bring their blood-feud from the old country to New York City and San Francisco in the early years of the 20th Century and slug it out over the course of nearly 100 years.  Romeo and Juliet meet the Hatfields and McCoys.

What follows will be strictly up to my muse.

For more about Joe and his work please visit:


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why Bouchercon?

It’s nomination season for the Anthony Awards, which got me to thinking about Bouchercon. Not that I need much prodding. It’s the primary event on my annual calendar. I got to chatting with a fan who’s also a friend of The Beloved Spouse on Facebook, and started looking at it from a different perspective.

Readers are, by and large, introverts. By definition, introverts expend energy around other people and recharge their supply when alone. That doesn’t mean introverts don’t like other people, though we may be somewhat more discerning than extroverts when it comes to who we choose to be around. It’s not that we don’t like spending time around people who share an interest, but we’d have to leave the house to meet them and that cuts into our reading time.*

Bouchercon is the perfect place for such a person. True, it’s close to two thousand people in relatively confined quarters, but it’s not just that. It’s hundreds of people who are geeked up about the same thing you are, and are often hungry for other to talk to about it. Even better, it’s not just the thousand-plus like-minded readers you’ll see: you’ll also be tripping over the people who write the books you’ll so revved up about. What could be better than that?

They’re glad to see you, too. I’ve been to seven Bouchercons in the nine years since I discovered them. I’ve made friends there, cemented acquaintances with people I came to know online, and have created enough of a footprint myself that some people actually recognize me now. I have never once been treated other than civilly, and far more often than not people have gone out of their way to be friendly.**

It can be an expense, but it’s a bargain compared to many other conferences. The conference fee itself is always reasonable and I’m constantly surprised when I see the room rate the committee gets at the host hotel. The only complaint I’ve had is the hotels rarely appreciate how much readers and writers drink and fail to put enough additional staff on the bar. Doesn’t mean I don’t socialize; I just don’t drink as much. The hotel’s loss is my liver’s gain.

So, dear readers, if you’re curious to see what over a thousand readers and several hundred crime fiction writers look like in the wild, there’s no better place to find out than Bouchercon.

* -- The Sole Heir was pre-teen when my tenure at Castle Voldemort ended and I was the classic single divorced father again. We used to have this conversation fairly often:

TSH: Do you ever go out?
Me: Not much.
TSH: Why not?
Me: If I go out I’m going to see a lot of people I don’t know.
TSH: What’s wrong with that?
Me: I hate people I don’t know.

After a year or so she came up with the next question in that conversation.

TSH: Why do you hate people you don’t know?
Me: It saves time.

** -- My favorite Bouchercon story. Baltimore, 2008. My virgin appearance. Standing on the walkway between hotels with Peter Rozovsky, one of about three people I actually knew then. He asked was I having a good time.
Me: Sort of.
PR: What’s wrong?
Me: I don’t really know anyone here. (See above statement about people I don’t know.)
PR: (Looks around) Do you know Scott Phillips?
Me: I know who he is….
PR: (Waving) Scott! Come here a second! (Scott Phillips comes over.) Scott, this is Dana King. Dana, this is Scott Phillips. He wrote The Ice Harvest.
SP: (Extends hand) Hi, Dana.
(We chat for five minutes and Scott has to go to a panel.)
PR: See? Now you know Scott Phillips.

One year later. Indianapolis. I’m on the periphery of the crowd at the bar looking for anyone I know. I see Scott with a group of people, but he’s someone I’ve met for five minutes a year ago, not someone I know. Scott notices me and waves me over.

SP: Dana, we’re going to get something to eat. You want to come?


That’s what Bouchercon is like. If in doubt, go. Look me up. Mention this post and your drink is on me. I’m not paying for it. I’m just clumsy when I get excited.

Friday, March 3, 2017

February's Best Reads

The month of February went to the dogs, reading-wise. That doesn’t mean the reading wasn’t good, only that the two books I liked best both had dogs in key roles. Sometimes even as the POV character. And they helped to solve the mysteries. No, I haven’t started reading cozies. These are badass K-9s we’re talking about.

Scent of Murder, James O. Born. Born didn’t futz around. He went whole hog, using an entire outfit of dogs and their handlers, though Tim Hallett and Rocky are primary. The story revolves around a serial molester of girls who takes his game up a notch, kills one, and decides he likes it. Born does a nice job feeding the reader clues and letting suspicions build before the big reveal. Not much suspension of disbelief is required to keep the reader hooked and the payoff is well worth it. I just went off about the value of execution, and it applies here, as well, with a unique twist on police work and lots of good dog stuff. Born is hooked up with James Patterson’s Bookshots and Lou Dobbs, but let’s hope he hasn’t given up on Tim and Rocky.


The Promise, Robert Crais. I didn’t think I’d like this one when I started it. I love Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, but Crais has gotten into a pattern of writing Cole stories in various POV, with Cole’s chapters in first person, everyone else third. There are few ways more certain of getting me out of a story by reminding me of the writing. By Cole’s second appearance I was over it; Crais is that good. True, there are a few bestseller elements in his current work that weren’t there before, but such is life. He’s the goods, and the various POV help not only to round out the edges of the story, but show he’s not finished finding new ways to keep this series original. I knew by 11:30 I’d be up as long as it took to finish this one.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Execution is Everything

I’ve written about the value of execution before and I expect I’ll do it again. It’s that kind of topic. Every so often I read or see something that reminds me of how critical it is, more important than any other facet of creativity, and I’ll end up in a cul-de-sac of thought until I work out the new angles. What happens to the rest of you here is collateral damage.

People alleged to know spend a lot of time discussing the value of catching the zeitgeist, or, even better, starting the Next Big Thing yourself. Hopefully by now the “Girl” wave has run its course. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Shook the Hornet’s Nest, The Girl with One Brown Eye and One Blue Eye, Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girl Who’s Gone on the Train, The Dragon-Tattooed Train with the Girl On it, etc.) Even so, something else will replace it—it’s how we’re geared—and it will spawn its own incestuous family of imitators artists uniquely inspired by it.

It’s still execution that matters if you want a long run.

Today’s example is a cop show from the 90s and early Aughts, NYPD Blue. Yes, it premiered 24 years ago. Regular readers know the Beloved Spouse and I are not people who like to rush into our entertainment choices. Two-and-a-half decades of universal acclaim is enough. We started Season 2 this week and I’m happy to say the show holds up.

Is it dated? Not in ways that matter. Sure, the cops still use pagers and have to find pay phones. The few cell phones on display are the size of shoes. They use manual typewriters hammer out paperwork on actual paper and documents have to be hand carried. Those are all peripherals. The key elements are still solid: relationships, dialog, and the effects of the job.

What strikes me most about the show is how little of it is ground-breaking. I know that opinion runs counter to the show’s reputation; bear with me. The sex and nudity and what was at the time foul language were the big deals at the time. A third of ABC’s affiliates refused to show the premiere. Those of you who have seen the show can attest to this: once creators Stephen Bochco and David Milch had made their point and grabbed your attention, the sex and nudity dropped way off. The language settled in. The show has little onscreen violence.

What else was ground-breaking? Hill Street Blues had been a procedural that spread its attention around to patrol officers, detectives, and the bosses. NYPD Blue is basically detectives, based on one key partnership. First it was Kelly and Sipowicz, then Sipowicz and Simone. TV detectives have worked with partners since before Dragnet. Big deal.

The show is basically episodic, with some carryover storylines. Ho-hum.

So why does anyone give a shit about it 24 years later? Because it was a great show. The writing was exceptional, and often brilliant. The casting was spot on, and the actors uniformly rose to their tasks. The sense of place is always there. The stories still resonate today because their underpinnings and greater significance were more timeless than topical.

If I had to pick one thing in which NYPD Blue was ahead of the curve it is how Bochco and Milch handled violence. There’s not much of it on screen. What they excelled—and a lot of creative people would do well to learn from them—is in showing the aftereffects of violence. Shootings. Domestic abuse. Muggings. It’s been a long time but I don’t remember any of Blue’s contemporaries or predecessors dwelling much on that. (Hill Street is the one exception that comes to mind. Big surprise.)


NYPD Blue is worth watching today because the things that made it a good show are timeless. It’ll be a good show in 20 years. All because it focused more on being good than on being different.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Did That on Purpose

Ed McBain used to tell of readers who’d point out inconsistencies in Isola geography between books written years apart. One even sent McBain what amounted to an atlas of every location he’d ever mentioned in all the 87th Precinct novels. (If memory serves, this included hand-drawn maps.) McBain couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or concerned. I mean, the guy clearly loved the books and bought them as soon as they were available. On the other hand, what kind of holes was he filing in his life that he took that kind of time living in Isola’s alternate universe?

All writers are subject to this, though not to the same extent. Readers love to point out errors. Sometimes it’s out of affection and a desire to see a favorite author get something right. Sometimes it’s a way to show their knowledge of a certain field is superior to the author’s. (Or at least that they think it is. Readers who point out perceived errors are not always correct themselves.) And some are just pricks playing “Gotcha” in the hope of proving (to themselves, likely) that while this big shot author may be making money off his writing, he’s no smarter than I am.

Authors respond in different ways. Some ignore any such comments. Some engage, either to agree with the reader and apologize for the error, or to point out the reader’s error. The latter can be fraught with peril. Among my favorite panels at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conferences is when the guests of honor get together to talk about their mail and detail some of the exchanges they’ve had over accuracy, or, more precisely, the lack thereof. The stories range from hilarious to chilling.

Some authors argue, which even I, argumentative as anyone, see no profit in. Even worse are those who argue publicly when a reviewer points out an error in a forum such as Amazon or Goodreads. There’s no upside to that. It deteriorates into a pissing contest no one can win and the author can’t help but come off as the bad guy, punching down in weight class.

The best response to readers who point out errors, the one I’m adopting right now and from this point forward, the one I’m pissed I hadn’t thought of, and the one I consider PFG (Pure Fucking Genius), comes courtesy of Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series. (Which I cannot recommend highly enough.) It’s from an old blog post I stumbled onto while reading a recent entry.

In short, when a reader points out an inconsistency with fact in one of the Duffy books—say, a road not yet built when the story takes place—Adrian explains that Duffy’s fictional world exists in an alternate universe where the road had been built. He freely cops to inconsistencies such as a character’s eyes changing color during the book: Sorry, mate, you caught me out there. I’ll see can it be changed for the paperback. Facts are more fluid and may need adjustment to get to the greater truth. (To a point. The Duffy books take place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I believe the chances that Queen Elizabeth will come to an untimely demise are roughly equivalent to Lord Mountbatten surviving his attack.)

The Duffy books are historical, but the principle applies to non-period works. I actually made a conscious decision to do exactly this in Penns River without realizing it. Penns River stands in for three small, adjacent cities in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve even gone so far as to make a Google map of “Penns River” that encompasses the three cities (and one township) that make up Neshannock County. I use actual street names and locations so I never have to worry about McBain’s conundrum of forgetting where I put things.

This also allows me to create places as needed. Just because I used Leechburg Road and Drey Street and the coffee shop on Tarentum Bridge Road doesn’t mean any of this is real; there is no such place as Penns River or Neshannock County in Pennsylvania. This frees me up to create whatever else I want, such as a casino in an abandoned shopping mall, or to decide Ben Dougherty lives in the last townhouse in the row near the top of Garver’s Ferry Hill. They exist in that fictional version of the Tri-Cities. Reader response to Worst Enemies and Grind Joint implies the technique is effective.


Let’s hope that remains true in Resurrection Mall.