Alice in Chains, Man in the Box
These are songs and music videos I listened to and watched almost every night while writing THE LOVE KILLINGS. Jerry Cantrell's guitar solo in Man in the Box is one of my favorites from the early '90s. I love the way Cantrell splits the piece into two distinct halves, then breaks through the solo with a wonderful and extremely moving riff...
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The only rule that I'm aware of as a writer is that stories need to build. How a writer creates that build, whether he or she succeeds or fails, is up to them. But the more dramatic, the more thrilling, the more insane the escalation of your hero's revelations and plight -- the better the story. Without increasing tension a story spins off the rails and...
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Stone Temple Pilots, Plush
While many of you know that in a former life I played an electric guitar in several garage bands (making noise you're lucky you never heard!), managed the kitchen at a nightclub in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania called the Main Point where I had the opportunity to hang out with music legends like Muddy Waters and Chick Corea, the truth is that THE LOVE KILLINGS might be the most intense novel I've ever...
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It's only a guess, but I think a safe one, that all artists work differently. That the methods an artist uses to make something out of nothing are as varied and unique as one person is from the next.
My novels come together in many different ways. It could be an idea for a character and his or her plight. An opening or closing that seems particularly exciting and vivid. A story in the news that had an impact on me.
In the case of THE LOVE KILLINGS it was all about the protagonist, the hero in the story, LAPD Detective Matt Jones. As you may have heard by now, THE LOVE KILLINGS isn't really a second novel in the Detective Matt Jones series. Instead, THE LOVE KILLINGS is an actual continuation of the first novel, CITY OF ECHOES. These two novels make a single story and were conceived all at once and...
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We've all seen the TV ad a hundred times. The smart looking woman who owns a special effects house in Hollywood.
"I built my business with passion," she says. "But I keep it growing by making every dollar count."
Wow! She's smart. She's creative. She gets things done. What's her cell phone number?
This is an ad campaign that saturated the market a long time ago, produced for a bank that has a history of broadcasting some of the worst TV ads on television. Someone was bound to notice that this ad came off fishy. Silly me for beginning the investigation by opening my search engine and entering the name of the company that's depicted in the background of the very first shot.
"Shutter Visual Effects." . . .
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By September, 15, 2015 more than 100,000 readers had downloaded City of Echoes, my first thriller featuring LAPD Detective Matt Jones. Both readers and critics agreed, and City of Echoes received great reviews from the trades, more than 650 Five Star reviews from readers, and the honor of becoming a Best Book of September on Amazon.com.
Watching all this happen has been . . .
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CITY OF ECHOES is the best novel I have ever written. It's also the most personal novel I have ever written. I feel so lucky to have met these characters and to have witnessed their thoughts and actions and the things they said. With a Starred Review from Booklist we were off to a great start. In August, Amazon announced that CITY OF ECHOES had been selected into the Kindle First Program. CITY OF ECHOES was one of six books, and the only mystery. This is a huge honor. Now, finally, the most important day of all, is finally here. I can't wait for you to read this twisted story! I can't tell you how jazzed ...
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As most of my readers already know, I used to have a very close relationship with music. I played rhythm guitar in a number of garage bands, and while in college, was lucky enough to manage the kitchen at a nightclub called The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. It was while working at The Main Point that I got to hang out with rock, blues and jazz legends like Muddy Waters, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Al Di Meola. I love to put what I'm listening to in my novels, and have chosen pieces that sync up with the emotions of the moment. If my books were films, you might find the song mentioned in the story on the soundtrack of the movie as well. I also very much enjoy discovering new works, at least to me, like Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters doing BOBBY'S BOP in the second Lena Gamble novel, THE LOST WITNESS. BOBBY'S BOP, from the album HOPE RADIO, was the perfect song for the moment...
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CITY OF ECHOES was one of six books picked by Amazon to be promoted in their Kindle First program. The offer runs for the entire month of August. On September 1, 2015 the novel will be available to everyone. Kindle First is a terrific program for authors and readers alike. I'm honored to be selected, and can't wait for publication day!
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Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"Know what a Chelsea Grin is? Readers who stay with Ellis’ powerhouse of a novel are going to find out, and their response to this incredible bit of cruelty is sure to be mixed. Most will side with Matt Jones, Ellis’ hard-bitten L.A. homicide detective, who thought he’d seen everything. Even he is 'unable to comprehend how anyone, no matter what their psychological issues . . . could do this to any living thing.' Jones is a bystander to the crime that ignites the plot: a teacher’s affair with his student that ends horribly. Why do the arresting officers start dying? Why do murders continue after the presumed killer is caught? Characters multiply and the plot grows ever more complex, but Ellis keeps everything in focus while building a staggering forward momentum ...
(To read the entire review, follow the link above.)
About a month ago we were tossing around posts in a tribute to Jackie Gleason and Vincent Gardenia for their extraordinary range as actors.
Over this past week I wound up seeing two of my very favorite films, two very different films: ENEMY OF THE STATE, a thriller directed by Tony Scott and starring Will Smith, Jon Voight, and Gene Hackman, and THE BIRDCAGE, a comedy classic directed by Mike Nichols and starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Gene Hackman.
Is it me or is Gene Hackman getting the biggest ride, the best roles and having the most fun, of any actor in recent memory?
Gene Hackman's filmography reads like ...
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CITY OF ECHOES, COMING SEPTEMBER 1, 2015
Meet detective Matt Jones... It's his first night working Homicide in LA, and he’s been called to investigate a particularly violent murder case: a man has been gunned down hard in a parking lot off Hollywood Boulevard, his bullet-riddled body immediately pegged as the work of a serial robber who has been haunting the Strip for months.
Driven by the grisliness of the crime, the identity of the victim and the outrage, Jones and his hot-tempered partner, Denny Cabrera, jump headfirst into ...
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Last week a friend posted a tribute to the memory of Jackie Gleason. Gleason, of course, was an entertainment powerhouse who also played Ralph Kramden in THE HONEYMOONERS and Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER. His obvious range as an actor and a comedian, his grace and talent, was so vast it defied ...
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The innocent man ... my compassion for characters on the run and falsely accused of unspeakable crimes ... my distrust for all those in authority ... the fear of being chased and grabbed from behind ... the terror in trying to outrun the monster that's gaining ground right behind me ... that moment in a bad dream that has gone so overwhelmingly bad I wake up with my heart pounding ... I check the time and ...
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I wasn't feeling too hot this week so I started digging around the medicine cabinet. That trusted bottle of 666 Cold Preparation looked a tad old, but I didn't really feel like getting in the car. It took about five minutes to dust off the bottle and free the cap. Then I closed my eyes and took a long swig! ....
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Happy to say that all things are good! City of Echoes has been proofed and sent to the typesetter. I love my editors, I loved working with them. I've always been lucky, or maybe blessed, to have editors who care as much as I do about the finished novel. This time around ...
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I can remember coming home from college one year and finding my father all amped up about a thriller he was reading. Actually, he was more than amped up, he was bouncing off the walls. He kept saying, "It's the wheelchair scene, Bobby. The wheelchair scene. You've gotta read this book!" My dad had been a journalism major in school and was editor-in-chief ...
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Just about ready to fire up Netflix and get started on House of Cards, Season 3. But what I'm hoping for, what I've really been waiting for since the end of last season, is payback. Lots and lots of payback. I need it bad...
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I received the following email yesterday, and realized that this is as good a way as any to talk about what I write and the way I do it.
I'm one of your biggest fans and wish like hell you would write faster! I was on your website yesterday and saw that your next thriller CITY OF ECHOES introduces us to a new main character...
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Just finished the copyedit. My creative editor calls CITY OF ECHOES "a tour de force" so it sounds like we're off to a pretty great start!
For all my fans who love the Lena Gamble novels, I offer you this challenge...
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The winter of 2015 will go down for me as one of the most brutal winters I've ever experienced on Long Island Sound, or anywhere else for that matter. From start to finish, it's been ...
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In the past I've written about some of the experiences I've had that may have contributed to the writer I'm still learning to become, particularly a writer working in crime fiction. One of the kicks to writing THE DEAD ROOM is the novel's setting in Philadelphia and the suburbs about fifteen miles out from Center City. This was where I grew up. In the novel, a young civil attorney, Teddy Mack, is forced by his boss to represent a man who may have committed multiple murders. Because Teddy is essentially broke, he still lives with his mother. In one chapter, Teddy stands at the end of the driveway gazing at the falling snow and the garish development of oversized houses across the street. It's the dead of night and he can remember a time, just as I can remember a time, when open fields and country roads snaked through the rolling hills all the way to the horizon.
One day when I was a young boy a rumor began circulating among my friends. Apparently, a girl's body had been found in a shallow grave beneath a small grove of pine trees. The gravesite was on a lonely road a mile or so from my house. The man who found the girl's body had been collecting pine cones with his dog. The dog caught a scent in the earth, became excited and started digging. I have no facts on this murder. I was way too young, eleven or twelve. But in my mind I can still see the girl's hair strewn through the soil. For whatever reason, I see long reddish brown hair. I can see it as if I was there.
Later that night I spoke with my parents and learned that the rumors were in fact true. A girl had been murdered and buried under the trees. A teenage girl, I believe. The news had an incredibly heavy impact on me, and I remember becoming terrified. The road where the dead girl had been found ran between two grass fields with no signs of barns or other homes for a good half mile. Worse, I traveled on that road every day. I rode my bicycle everywhere, and the only way to get to my friend's house was to ride past that grove of pine trees. My mother drove on that road everyday as well because that was the only way to get to the post office.
I can't tell you what it was like to ride past the crime scene and look beneath those trees with big, wide open eyes. The things that I made up in my head, seeing it all happen from a boy's imagination, the fear and panic that the world wasn't the safe place I had always thought it to be. Worse, there was a sexual component to the crime, or at least to my memory of the crime. My guess is now that she had been raped. At the time, the sexual implications were too deep for a boy my age to fully comprehend. All they seemed to do was make the crime more mysterious and more horrific.
It took me almost a year before I finally hit the brakes on my bicycle, lifted the tree branches, and went in for a look. I can remember being alone, my hands shaking, my heart beating. I can remember the shock I took when I noticed that the form of the shallow grave was still there. Still undisturbed. Images of the girl's hair radiating through the soil hit me again. I couldn't see her face, or the face of the killer. But I could feel the killer's madness, his sickness, just as I could feel the girl's last moments, the fear and terror she must have gone through. I could feel it in the air and all around me. The darkness lingering beneath the pine trees on this lonely road.
It was late afternoon and the sun was going down. My bike ride home was on the fast side. I didn't feel much like eating dinner that night, and went up to my room. I was too old to believe in ghosts, and yet, when the lights went out, there they were, hovering over my bed and keeping me from my sleep. I couldn't wait for dawn.
I can remember sitting in a movie theater in Universal City waiting for what seemed like twenty minutes worth of film trailers to end so that the film I'd come to see might finally begin. The barrage of ads appeared endless. And then a trailer for a new movie called DIE HARD hit the screen. Everyone in the audience started laughing and booing and throwing popcorn. The movie starred Bruce Willis, an actor who was known for playing a smooth Beverly Hills PI alongside Cybill Shepherd in a popular TV series called MOONLIGHTING. People had forgotten that Willis made his debut on TV as Tony Amato, a ruthless drug dealer on MIAMI VICE. It seemed pretty clear that the light and cozy, too cute for comfort MOONLIGHTING, had poisoned the well.
But then, much like the detonation of a nuclear weapon, DIE HARD was released nationwide. Before you could probably say, "I saw the moo- ," everything in the world of film and storytelling changed forever. First and foremost, the screenplay was absolutely perfect. Based on Roderick Thorp's novel NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, and scripted by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, we're talking about a written work so exciting that others would try to mimic and rip it off for the next twenty years. (It should be noted that no one ever succeeded.) Just as crucial, the film, directed by John McTiernan and produced by Joel Silver, was perfectly cast. Every single role in the entire film was exactly as it needed to be. Within the first half hour of the film, any memory of Bruce Willis on MOONLIGHTING had burned up in the nuclear fireball. Bruce Willis as NYPD Officer John McClane would be a guy who could take the toughest challenges, the hardest blows, and still carry the full set of human emotions that have made Willis, the actor, so watchable for so many years. Curiously, his opponent in the film is just as tough and just as human. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber was so much more than just a bad guy. Somehow he made evil delicious, even elegant, yet I couldn't wait to see him die! (The harder, the better.)
And that's the reason why I'm writing this post. So many writers today, no matter what the format, prefer to draw their characters in black and white. So many writers today work with caricatures, exaggerating their personalities and skills, their emotions and minds to the point where both the story and the character lose their meaning and become irrelevant.
Perhaps this is the reason why so many viewers have switched from network television and films on the big screen to series produced and broadcast on cable TV and now as streams over the Internet.
I met with a book club recently at the home of a friend who lives in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. This was the second time Marge has hosted an event dedicated to my novels, and like the first meeting, the entire evening was terrific.
I love meeting with book clubs whether I'm able to actually attend the event, or as it often happens, attend via Skype on my computer. What's so satisfying about these meetings is that I can speak freely about a story without the worry of spoiling anything. Everyone has read the novel, and in most cases, has a better feel for story details than I do!
But even more important is the dialogue between the members themselves. Usually the conversation takes off in a direction of its own, and as the writer, I learn things. What works and what doesn't, what they thought would happen and what actually did. I've always enjoyed putting at least one horrific murder in my novels, set in real time. Knowing how far I can take things, testing the waters with a reading group, brings a lot of laughs and is a real kick.
But perhaps the very best part of meeting with a book club has nothing to do with talking about my work at all. It's hearing each member discuss what they're reading. It's listening to them talk about who they like or don't like, and why. This is where the learning process really begins. In this dialogue. In this discovery. Why readers think a story worked or didn't work. Why they couldn't get past a hundred pages, then picked up the next book by the same author, and read it straight through with the doors locked.
Like I said, my evening with the Black Rock Book Club was terrific. Many thanks.
The purpose of this blog is to explore. To examine rather than criticize. To respect the fact that as writers we know the time and effort and dedication it takes to start and finish any written work, whether we're writing for the stage, the screen, or an eBook reader. In the end, what happens to the work after it's completed means less than what happened to the work when we sat down and created something out of nothing.
All the same, one of the benefits of working in a genre is that every genre has a beginning, middle, and end. But even more important, every genre has a past, present, and future. Because of this history, it's easy to pick out the good from the bad, and the great from the good. It's also easy to see what's fresh and new because it's usually so out in the open. When I spot it, I can feel it in my gut.
We've spoken about RAY DONOVAN before, but since then I've had a chance to watch the season finale more than once. And every time I do, that feeling hits me in the gut like a shot from a .45 Glock. RAY DONOVAN is a cable series produced for Showtime. The program was created by Ann Biderman, and in the first half of the first season, Biderman took an additional credit as one of a number of executive producers. After that Biderman added a writing credit which continues, I believe, through the entire second season.
Put simply, I think that RAY DONOVAN changes everything. I think it redefines what good fiction is. I think that Ann Biderman is the cream of the cream. Biderman is the only writer in television or books who has created a true "tough guy" without turning him into a cartoon or machine or "action figure" in a real long time. Her tough guy is smart, entirely human, and equipped with a full set of emotions. Biderman's the only writer in television who can feather in background information and character detail without making it feel like melodrama. Even more, Biderman can do exposition without the audience even thinking that the story has slowed down or gone off track. RAY DONOVAN never slows and never goes off track.
While I watched the finale of Season 2, I have to admit that I thought about the ending of THE GODFATHER more than once. It was that good. So many loose ends were tied up. And with so much sadness, so many really great characters met their end. Wow. It took my breath away.
Obviously, there are a lot of very talented people creating fiction today. But there's no one writing in any format or in any genre who's any better than Ann Biderman. Waiting for Season 3 is going to be painful. Like another wonderful cable series, HOMELAND, so much went down in RAY DONOVAN that the show will have to be recreated almost from scratch. Trying to guess how Biderman's going to pull it off, anticipating the direction, the new conflicts, will be the best.
Everybody's got one in them. I truly believe that. Everybody has a story in them that's probably a story worth telling. Whether you have the ability or interest to tell that story is another question. But everyone has an idea that comes from the things they've seen, heard, and experienced in life. If you're writing novels and you're really good, it's more than possible, I'd say it's actually more than probable, that you still only had one story worth telling. From my point of view, the only thing more difficult than writing a novel would be trying to make a career as a standup comic. After that first HBO Special, very few people seem to be able to come up with something fresh and new that isn't in some way a derivative of their original act. And when we see either a novelist or a comic or any artist at all actually pull off that second effort, at least when I do, it always feels so great watching them beat the odds.
So if that first effort came out of a writer's experiences in life and everything just clicked, where's this second work going to come from if the bucket's dry? If you play music, you've been studying music since you were a child. If you make art, you've spent years studying art and seeing how it's changed and developed over time. If you design buildings, then you've studied both engineering and architecture. If you dance, you've spent years working with an instructor and studying those who came before you. If you write screenplays, you've spent years studying your art and the entire history of film. No doubt you have a good sense of exactly what comes next.
So if you're going to write the great American novel, if you're going to tell a story that works from the very beginning to the very end, if you're going to create an entire world that stands on its own, an alternate universe that feels complete and real, characters that walk and talk and remind your readers of someone they know in real life, if you're going to tackle the most difficult and complicated art form known to human kind, then you're going to what? Wing it? Is that what you're going to tell your readers when they show up at a book signing? It was magic. It came from the gods. I sat down and just did it.
Yeah, right ...
I finally found the courage to catch up on HOMELAND. I really didn't want to watch it this season. So much of the story had been resolved in the finale last year. So many wonderful characters had seen their final days. So much emotion had been spent. For the writers and producers of this brilliant cable production broadcast on SHOWTIME, it seemed like they would be forced to start over. And from where I sat, the bar seemed to be set so high.
I'll admit that I thought the first two episodes were a little rough. But, that's why you write another, and now, with week three, it feels like they have found their groove and hit air speed. There's a story thread with a young medical student that's already fascinating. I wish everyone connected with this series the very best, and can't wait to see if they're able to pull it off. Magic.
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1/3 Cup Smoked Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder
1/2 Tsp Coarse Black Pepper (or to taste)
1/2 Tsp Coarse Sea Salt (or to taste)
Set oven at 275 degrees F.
Remove the membrane on the bone side by lifting it up with a knife and pulling it away with a paper towel.
Rub the spice mixture into the ribs, then place ribs in the bottom half of your broiler pan.
Place ribs in the oven for 1 hour.
Remove ribs and cover the broiler pan with aluminum foil.
Lower temperature to 225 degrees F and return ribs to oven for 1 1/4 hours.
Remove and let rest for 15 minutes.
Serve with or without BBQ sauce.
I'm often asked why I ended THE DEAD ROOM the way I did. It's not exactly a clean ending. It's not happy or sad, really. If I were to describe it without spoiling the novel, I'd call it a surprise ending with the feel of extreme danger and an even greater darkness.
The reason I mention it is because a writer has a lot of choices in the way he or she chooses to end a story. In my mind, the most complete and definitive ending is the so-called "happy ending." Most stories, no matter what the medium, end this way. Every story question has been answered, every loose end, tied up. The hero has won, and the opponent dealt with to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Order has been restored to the world.
But maybe as an artist you don't want your story to really end. Maybe you'd like your work to linger for a while longer in the hearts and minds of your audience. If you have a theme, and most movies and novels written these days don't, if you have a theme and your story is about more than circumstance, maybe you'd like to underline your message and make everything stand out.
Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON ends with his private detective, Sam Spade, still wrestling with the big question. The woman he's fallen in love with murdered his partner out of greed. Was it worth it? Why does it seem so pointless? The story might be resolved, but it ends in shadows and darkness, even despair. It's a novel, and a movie, with an unusually strong theme. Hammett is writing the book, not just to entertain his readers for a few hours, but because he has something he wants to say.
If you haven't seen or read THE MALTESE FALCON in a while, then think CHINATOWN, which ends in an even greater darkness. The two stories share exactly the same theme as they peel away the layers of a human being's desire for power and greed. Like Hammett, CHINATOWN's Robert Towne and Roman Polanski, the writer and director, had something they wanted to say. There's no way that a happy ending would do.
One of my favorite things about putting together a new story, no matter what the medium, is doing the research. I love to get out of the office and actually walk through a story. Whether it means touring the morgue at Yale University Medical School (which scared the life out of me), or climbing to the top of the Capitol dome (which was thrilling) -- it just seems to add something to the experience of telling a story and creating characters solid enough to jump off the page.
Years ago I went to a lecture by a forensic criminalist from Orange, California. The event was sponsored by Sisters In Crime and held at the library in South Pasadena. After a brief introduction, the criminalist began playing a sequence from the popular television series CSI. As the TV detectives processed a crime scene, the criminalist would stop the program and point out the mistakes they were making. After a few minutes he switched off the video projector and turned up the lights. Unfortunately, the detectives from CSI had managed to ruin the crime scene and destroy every piece of evidence they touched. Everyone in the audience laughed. Then the criminalist went on to say that the easiest way to get off jury duty these days was to admit that you're a fan of CSI. No one on the either side of the aisle would be able to trust your judgment because so little of the TV show is real. "You may love the program," the criminalist said with a smile. "It may be the hottest franchise in town, but you've been tainted! Brainwashed!"
This weekend I was watching an episode of THE BLACKLIST (the one and only time I ever will) and the same thing was happening. The so-called facts were completely made up. The episode, entitled "Milton Bobbit," was from season one and originally aired on March 31, 2014. In this case the error was about touch DNA. I had researched touch DNA for my novel MURDER SEASON, so I was awed by the inaccuracies as I watched. According to the main character, Raymond "Red" Reddington (James Spader), touch DNA could be picked up from a fingerprint. As Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) was nodding like she was listening to the word of God, I laughed out loud. Touch DNA requires living skin cells, period. Only if someone grabbed something with enough force to break through the layer of dead skin cells could their DNA be left behind.
Does doing the research and getting it right make a difference? Well, if you're basing your answer on a work's popularity, if you're thinking about the success both of these series share, it would seem not. At the same time, in what other world is being inauthentic the new standard? How difficult would it be to do the research? The technology behind touch DNA may be immense, but the concept is pretty easy to understand. If you were going to talk about it, wouldn't it pay to actually know something about it? Wouldn't the reality make the story even better? Don't get me wrong, if it's a toss-up between story and reality, the story always wins in everything I write. But knowing the reality, and just how far you can bend it, being authentic, is a big part of the job, and in my mind, makes all the difference in the world.
Have you ever noticed that when you read a book straight through, when you start and finish the novel in a single day, the story becomes vague after a week or two? And what happens a week or two after that? The novel all but disappears. Maybe it's just me, but I particularly notice if I move on and begin reading something new the next day. Everything gets lost in the haze.
I have friends who do this every day. They revel in their addiction! They start at 8:00 p.m. and read a book straight through, even though it often means staying up most of the night.
A few months ago I decided to change my habit. No matter how long or short a novel might be, I promised myself that I would do a page count and stop reading; that I would sleep with half the story for one night, and let it percolate in my head.
A lot of things happened when I made the change. First and foremost, novels no longer fade or get lost in my mind. And second, if it's a really good book, it makes my day because I have something to look forward to. I'm not discovering who these characters are anymore. Instead, I'm back for another visit. I can't wait to see them again. I've been thinking about the story all day and can't wait to see how things will turn out. Then again, if it's not such a good book, if it's a real dog, I don't have to waste my time or lose any sleep over it. I just toss it aside and pick another one up from the pile!
(Note: I know that over the past two weeks we have been able to see the NFL for what it really is. A greed machine, so protective of its brand, so focused on doing whatever it takes to "get the money" that acting like a human being and doing the right thing doesn't mean much anymore. This post has nothing to do with the NFL. We'll save that for another day. Instead, this post is about something incredible that happened last Sunday during a game.)
I spend most of my time in the New York media market these days. This past Sunday I was watching a football game between the New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals. The Giants aren't very good this year. The game was long and boring and one of the worst games I've ever seen in my life. When the ordeal was finally over, FOX cut to what was left of the game between the Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints.
I was about to reach for the clicker when something remarkable happened.
There was a glitch in the transfer to the Cleveland game. The picture came over, and so did the audio from the mikes on the field and in the stands. But the audio feed from the booth never made it. The announcers were gone!
The game was a shocker, the score, 24-23 in favor of New Orleans. Cleveland made a terrific play, and the ball was spotted within field goal range with 13 seconds to go. The reason I'm writing about this is that the story was being told with just pictures and the sound of the crowd. The drama was all amped up, I think, because we weren't being told what we were seeing. Instead, we were taking it in first hand as if we were actually in the stands. The truth is, it was better than being in the stands. We had close-up shots from every angle, and the director kept cutting from shot to shot.
Cleveland kicked the field goal and won. The stadium rocked. Sixty thousand people were going crazy.
When the camera cut to Cleveland's bench -- the players and coaches -- the looks on their faces, the disbelief, the shock and awe, the pure joy -- I'd never seen anything like it. The moment lasted for more than five minutes and still no one noticed that the announcers hadn't been wired in. It was the best five minutes in sports broadcasting that I've ever seen.
I forgot that starting to write a new novel means learning how to write all over again. You'd think after six books I would have remembered the fine print.
At first glance I was thinking to myself, hoping maybe, that this time the process would somehow be easier. A breeze with a few kinks to it, but still a breeze. A walk in the park with a few clouds in the sky, but still a pleasant day. Why does writing seem to get harder each time?
I remember writing my second novel THE DEAD ROOM and being so surprised, if not disappointed, that the voice that matches up to the words inside my head was exactly the same voice I'd heard when I wrote my first novel, ACCESS TO POWER. I felt like I had missed something. I felt like I had done something wrong. After all, this was a new story, an entirely different kind of story, a legal thriller instead of a political thriller. My voice should be way different. My voice should have changed. Somehow as an artist I should have grown.
I laugh now because it's my voice that's never supposed to change.
The more I write, the more lifelike my characters become. The more I write, the more my stories seem to pick up speed and impact others. But it's my voice that comes with my being. It can't be learned and it can't be taught. A writer's voice is a writer's voice. The only way to change a writer's voice is to change the person writing the novel. And when you spot a change of voice in a book by an author you love, it's always a real bad day!
While I enjoyed college very much and graduated summa cum laude, something about high school just didn't agree with me. Yes, I was one of a handful of students who wrote and edited our high school newspaper, but at the time my family life left a lot to be desired. One night I went with friends to see the movie FIVE EASY PIECES. (Curiously, in an earlier post I had said that I didn't think a film could move me to the point of personal change, yet here's one that actually did).
After watching FIVE EASY PIECES I was never the same. I went back the next night by myself. The film was even better a second time around. It's probably a safe bet that I saw something of myself and my circumstance in Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Robert Dupea. The existential man living in a world with no purpose, no meaning or hope.
I started reading Camus. I bought a movie camera and began making my own films. But even more, I started skipping school to go to movies in downtown Philadelphia. This went on for more than a year until one afternoon I realized I'd seen every movie playing in town. For whatever reason, somehow I ended up at City Hall. At the time, the Criminal Justice Center hadn't been built, and criminal and civil cases were tried in the courtrooms here at the hall. I sat through two murder trials before catching a train back to the suburbs. The first trial would have been horrific for anyone. But for a teenager on the run, it changed everything: a man had come home from work and caught his wife in bed with his best friend. He kept a shotgun in the closet. He surprised them. He shot both of them before they could even get out of bed. He shot them dead, and from the crime scene photos the prosecutor was showing the jury, there was blood everywhere.
I took a deep breath and settled back in my chair. I could see the murderer sitting at the table with his attorney right in front of me. He must have sensed that I was staring at him. He turned and our eyes met. This was real life, and not a movie. I was a seventeen-year-old boy.
I went home, my mind reeling, and wrote a short story based on the trial. And then I made a huge mistake. I turned the story into my English teacher! Today, I would have been kicked out of school, and who knows what else would have happened? My teacher, a very gentle woman, read my story and gave it an A, but said that it would require a parent teacher visit. In fact, she had already made the arrangements, and would be stopping by the house that very night.
After an hour of listening to my teacher, and then my parents, all trying to figure out if I was okay or not, they reached a final judgment. I had been pronounced sound in body and mind. In the end I had to agree to stop skipping school. In turn, my teacher agreed to give my future stories an A, but said that it was unlikely she would ever read one again. After she left, my parents seemed to shake it off. They'd read the story I'd written, and thought it was good.
Great news for fans in Europe. The German language edition of THE DEAD ROOM has been completed and is now available for pre-order. The novel is entitled DIE LEICHEN KAMMER and will be released October 14, 2014.
I'm really jazzed about this because German translations of CITY OF FIRE and THE LOST WITNESS spent the better part of a year in the Top 10 List. But THE DEAD ROOM is the mother lode. A legal thriller about a young civil attorney who's just graduated law school and is forced by his new boss to represent someone accused of murdering an eighteen-year-old girl in a particularly horrific way. One savage killing begets another until the entire city of Philadelphia becomes terror-stricken.
Set in the city and suburbs where I grew up, THE DEAD ROOM is my most personal novel. With more than 400 FIVE Star reviews on Amazon, and the crown of being a No.1 Amazon.com Bestseller in the US and the UK, I can't imagine, and can't wait, to see how my friends overseas take to this unique and frightening tale.
Sleep loose, my friends. This one's scary.
There's writing, and then there's writing. I happen to like both, for very different reasons. Some people play at it within a formula and do it really well. Others work a story without a map, and push it over the edge. RAY DONOVAN, a series on Showtime, begins at the edge. Tough guys are so rare these days, so difficult to pull off and still seem real. And Liev Schreiber, the actor who plays Ray Donovan, performs masterfully and has just the right touch.
Every time I ask someone if they're watching RAY DONOVAN, they light up and usually gasp out an OMG! The show is in its second season, and if you subscribe to Showtime, episodes from both seasons are available on-demand.
For me, I haven't seen a film or read a book that lit me up like RAY DONOVAN in a real long time. But what I've noticed most about the series are the characters. Every single character in this series is horrific in some fundamental way. Whether it's Ray's bitchy wife cheating on him, Ray cheating on his wife, his father's willingness to betray him over and over again, the idiocy of the two Beverly Hills attorneys Ray fixes things for, the idiocy, but also the dignity of his brothers, his daughter, an old girlfriend--the plot fascinates me because the mix of different characters fascinate me. Their wants and needs clash without effort.
And this is something I think about when beginning a new story. Orchestrating the novel with characters who are different enough that it feels like a real world. A complete world. Rich and poor, big and small, smart and stupid, and most important of all, that one character whom I just know will turn the world of my characters (my plot) into chaos. Cutting my characters loose, letting the insanity take hold, and then trusting them to work things out -- for me, that's the essence of storytelling.
I'm taking a break from the blog until Tuesday, September 2, but I did have a question I wanted to ask.
Have you ever noticed that when you meet someone who got off on the same book, you feel as though you know them well enough to be friends? Maybe it's just me, but I have. I can remember being a huge fan of Colin Wilson in college. Wilson was self-educated, practically lived in the British Library, and became a very prolific writer best known for THE OUTSIDER series. The two books that got to me were stand-alones that seemed to fit together like a glove, THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE and THE MIND PARASITES. Unlike THE OUTSIDER, both are works of fiction, an odd mix of sci-fi, fantasy, all backed up by Wilson's extraordinary understanding of history and philosophy. To this day, when I meet someone who read these books and got caught up in Wilson's spell, it's almost as if we've known each other our entire lives.
The same thing happened when I started reading Elmore Leonard. A guy I worked with was reading THE SWITCH at the same time I was. All we talked about was the book, and then the next one and the next one. We became friends.
The reason I mention it is that I can't remember this ever happening with a movie or a song. And I don't think this has anything to do with the quality of the work. It's more about the experience. Unlike any other form of art, novels find a way of getting inside us.
Could I be moved to personal change by watching a movie or listening to a song? I don't think so, but I could rip off a list of ten books that changed my life forever without even thinking about it.
The reason I wrote about seeing my first Hitchcock film yesterday was because of the impact the filmmaker has had on my life as a writer. Most of Hitchcock's films are about innocent people being thrown into horrific situations. With the entire world stacked against them, these characters are under extraordinary pressure to defeat their opponents in order to survive. Because these characters are innocent people, rather than cops, lawyers or even PIs, we experience their ordeal with a heightened sense of concern and compassion.
I was reading Truffaut's wonderful book about Hitchcock. Actually, the entire book is a conversation between Hitchcock and the French director. By the time they finish, Truffaut has managed to examine Hitchcock's entire career.
But what turned out to be most important for me was the point when Hitchcock started talking about his favorite author, John Buchan. Hitchcock had made the film THE 39 STEPS, which was Buchan's first novel in the Richard Hannay Series. At the time I had no idea who John Buchan was and ran out to the bookstore. I found all of them: THE 39 STEPS, GREENMANTLE, MR. STANDFAST, THE THREE HOSTAGES, and THE ISLAND OF SHEEP. But also, a remarkable standalone entitled THE POWERHOUSE. Within about fifty pages of THE 39 STEPS, John Buchan became my favorite author as well, and I read these novels over and over again.
One of the most striking realizations I made was that almost every memorable scene from Hitchcock's films can be found, at least in spirit, from Buchan's novels. In fact, Cary Grant's chase through a cornfield by the biplane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST came right out of GREENMANTLE. While Hitchcock allowed himself to be inspired by this novel, and all of Buchan's novels, he refused to make a movie out of GREENMANTLE because it was his favorite of them all.
But John Buchan didn't just influence Alfred Hitchcock. Buchan's work was so well realized that it changed the entire genre, and still has an impact today. You can see Buchan's hand in a film like THE FUGITIVE, where an innocent man has been accused of killing his wife and is on the run. After getting about three chapters in on Robert Harris's terrific novel THE GHOST, (as well as Roman Polanski's perfect film version), I knew that Buchan and played a big role in both of these artist's lives. What's so amazing is that Buchan was writing these novels around the time of World War I. The original copyright on THE 39 STEPS is 1915.
So I guess when my parents decided that they wanted to see PSYCHO at the drive-in that night, they were right. I may not have been able to sleep, but everything was cool.
The reasons I write crime fiction are many. Beyond the strong desire to make the world a better place, one of them might be that when I was six or seven-years-old, Hitchcock's PSYCHO happened to be playing at the local drive-in and my parents wanted to see the movie. Their rationale for not getting a babysitter went something like this ... They had a station wagon. If they lowered the backseat and brought the sleeping bags, my younger brother and I would fall asleep and everything would be cool. They could sit up front and watch the movie.
I can remember Detective Arbogast entering the Bates's house, making that slow climb up the staircase, the music going (Oh, I forgot. I was supposed to be sleeping!) I can remember "Bates's mother" running into the hallway with the butcher knife raised, Arbogast taking the hit, tumbling down the stairs onto his back, and then that shot of the knife in the air ... I can remember watching the entire scene with my father trying to hold my head down.
Forget about it! I couldn't get to sleep that night.
The movie scared the living daylights out of me, but I was hooked. Once the initial shock wore off, Hitchcock would become one of my favorite directors ever. And in the end, show me the way to writing my first novel, which we'll talk about tomorrow.
I was searching for something new this past weekend and pulled out a couple of Erle Stanley Gardner novels. I can't help writing about this without smiling. I read THE CASE OF THE NEGLIGENT NYMPH, and I'm halfway through THE CASE OF THE FIERY FINGERS.
I could feel the era Gardner was writing in---the language, the changes in the way we act and view the world. But the truth is that both novels stand up to time really well. As a huge fan of the original PERRY MASON series on television, I had to get past seeing Raymond Burr as Mason, Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as Paul Drake, Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg, and William Talman as Hamilton Burger. Casts like that don't come along every day, so it wasn't easy. But after about fifty pages, the actors seemed to fade some and I was caught up in the murder case.
The reason I'm smiling is that both novels have been a delight to read. A delight to go back to. So much so that I didn't want to read them too quickly. I had forgotten the obvious pleasure Gardner took in describing his characters, and the mysterious personal life that Perry Mason seems to live. I had forgotten how much respect the core characters had for each other, even in the heat of battle.
So what's next? THE CASE OF THE MISCHIEVOUS DOLL!
Taking the day off, gone fishing ...
Have a great weekend!
(To see photos, go here ...
I have always felt that each one of my novels is better than the last. I have always felt that writing is a learning experience, and with each new set of circumstances and story problems, you get better at solving them. All the same, if I had to pick a personal favorite, I think it would be THE LOST WITNESS.
The idea for the story hit me in two big chunks. The most obvious hit continues to this day if I watch the evening news on any channel. I find the pharmaceutical ads on television to be way, way past disturbing. They run when most people are eating dinner, and if you have young kids, then you know exactly how out of line they are. How do you explain what a four hour erection is to a six-year-old child? Why should anyone have to? Why are these ads there?
Money, baby. When the corporations snap their dirty fingers, you dance or you disappear.
I smiled because the answer seemed like the kind of story I could work with. A homicide detective investigates the grisly murder of a young woman, going up against a pharmaceutical company and a psychotic hit man, only to learn ... that's the first half of the premise to THE LOST WITNESS.
The second idea chuck has more do to with the psychotic hit man than anything else. I wanted to have some fun with him. As I played with the idea for a few days I realized that I was headed back to those idiotic drug commercials on TV.
It's about money, baby. It's always about money. When Big Pharma snapped his dirty fingers this time--I had it! Why not make the hit man someone who can't watch a TV ad without thinking he NEEDS the drug? (That's what Big Pharma wants us to think, right? So let's flesh it out!) Why not make the hit man a psychological wreck with one false symptom after the next? Why not make him someone who is experiencing all the side effects we hear listed in those commercials? And why not take it past the moon, and have those side effects hit him all at once while he's trying to kill someone?
Nathan G. Cava was born. They say that a story is driven by the bad guy. Cava's behind the wheel in THE LOST WITNESS, and he likes to drive real fast. He turned out to be scary and funny and all too human at the same time. Nathan G. Cava. He turned out to be one of my favorite characters ever.
Which came first? Did you read the book, and then see the movie? Or did you see the movie, and then read the book? And which did you like best?
I can remember reading Stephen King's THE SHINING. The experience was more than intense, so I couldn't wait to see the movie. Stanley Kubrick had been a favorite director ever since DR. STRANGELOVE, Jack Nicholson was king, and someone I knew had been hired to operate one of the cameras. How could anything go wrong?
Everything went wrong. To this day I'm still unable to tell you what I think of the movie. It's almost like the experience of reading the novel rewrote my brain. The movie was and remains a huge success, but I can't watch it. I can't get there. King's book got to me first.
With John Grisham's THE FIRM, it's exactly the opposite experience. The movie was directed by Sidney Pollack, and I saw it first. Even today I consider the movie one of the best legal thrillers ever made. When it comes to the novel, a worldwide bestseller by an author I love, it doesn't seem to make any difference. Pollack's movie got to me first.
One reason why I think reading novels will never be beaten back by movies, television, or any other medium is the basic fact that reading about something remains the closest experience we're ever going to get to the real thing. The work of a writer requires a reader to bring their imagination to the table in order to complete the circle. The work of a writer lives inside our hearts and minds.
Who hasn't noticed that when we're driving to a place we've never been before, when we arrive, we know how we got there, and we know how to get home? Now let's climb into the passenger seat and make the same drive. We've got a feel for how we got there, but everyone of us would probably need the GPS to get home. And if we made the trip from the backseat, that's like riding in the trunk. Forget about it. We don't know where we are.
That's the way I think we experience stories. If we're reading a good novel, we're behind the wheel. We know what the characters' needs are, we know their goals and what they're up against. But we also know what's going on inside them. If we're watching a good movie, we're in the passenger seat. We know what's going on, but the interior world of the characters isn't necessarily locked down. A few years ago I would have said that watching television is like riding in the backseat or trunk. But now, with so many wonderful cable series, I'd say that's like watching a movie. The only good people riding in the trunk these days are those of us who, from time to time, get hooked on a reality TV show. (Like me when National Geo broadcasts LIFE BELOW ZERO!)
For the past five years an old Russian woman has cut my hair. She's talented, and she works in one of those chain salons that don't charge very much. The problem is that it's in another city two hundred and fifty miles away. My family has a small home there. It's quiet, a great place to write, and I end up spending about a week each month there. Getting a haircut while I'm in town has always been easy. But this summer has been so busy, finishing a new novel and releasing an audiobook for THE DEAD ROOM, I haven't been able to travel. Every morning I'd shave and look at myself in the mirror. I thought I could see my hair moving, I could see it growing without the need of time-lapse photography. This past Saturday I couldn't take it anymore, so I just decided to get a haircut.
I went to a salon not much different than one I normally go to. You may know the chain I'm talking about because they advertise that after every haircut you receive a moist warm towel just like sushi. The salon is in a shopping center right between a pet shop and the grocery store I like to go to because they have the best produce in town. Even better, when I walked into the salon, the place was packed. How bad could it be?
I waited less than five minutes. The young woman who picked my name smiled and seemed glad to see me. When I sat down, she asked me what I wanted in a fresh clear voice. I told her that I'd like to keep it longer in the back and sides and shorter on top. Unless my hair's really long, it gets curly when I sweat and begins to stand on end, like just maybe I put my finger in an electrical outlet because I needed a jolt. The stylist listened to what I said, gave me a nod and said, "Got it."
Hey, this is great, I was thinking to myself, unbelievable, and so convenient -- though I'd just noticed that three people had left their chairs and hadn't been given a moist warm towel as advertised ...
I shrugged it off and looked in the mirror. My stylist likes to work fast, I noticed. A quick, but knowing clip. Snap, snap, snap. Over here and over there. And we're having a pleasant conversation, laughing about what we may or may not have done on Friday night. Snap, snap, snap. Boom, boom, boom. And then hairdryer came out and it was over. I checked the mirror, and ran my fingers through my hair. I'd asked to keep in longer in the back and sides, and shorter on top. What I got, was short on the sides, shaved in the back, and long on top.
What did I do? How did I react?
I laughed and gave her a big tip. As I got in the car, however, a thought surfaced. It sure would've been nice to get a moist warm towel.
I don't spend very much time reading fiction when I'm writing. It's only a guess, but I think a lot of writers feel the same way. The obvious reason is that I become afraid I might "repeat" or outright steal something without knowing that I'm doing it. (I mean, if you're going to steal something outright, you probably ought to be aware that you're doing it so you can hide your tracks!) But the more important reason, for me anyway, is that I've filled my head with a new cast of characters and a new story. There's no room left.
So getting a chance to read a novel is always special. I should add that I have a habit of reading the books I love over and over again. If I really like a book, I need to reread it every year or so. The reason I mention this is that two weeks ago I paid another visit to one of my all-time favorite authors.
Elmore Leonard changed my life. Two books in particular had an impact on me, and for several years, could be found stuffed inside the back pocket of my jeans. THE SWITCH and UNKNOWN MAN #89. What I like most about these books is the way Leonard handles his bad guys. Leonard can do a scary heavy about as well as anyone. But it's the losers in his books, the lowlifes, their ignorance, their humanity, the idea that I know people like this are really out there, cut against the idea that I'm grateful I've never met them, the sense I have that I can hear Leonard laughing out loud as he works his way through the chapter.
I had this experience when I wrote THE LOST WITNESS. There's a hit man in the book, Nathan G. Cava, who becomes addicted to prescription drugs and has a meltdown while trying to murder a woman in a Beverly Hills mansion. Every time he sees an ad from a pharmaceutical company on TV, Cava thinks he has the symptoms and starts using the drug. Nathan G. Cava is a complete loser, a real head case, and writing about him, meeting him and laughing with him and being frightened by him, will always be one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I can remember coming home from college one year and finding my father all amped up about a thriller he was reading. Actually, he was more than amped up, he was bouncing off the walls. He kept saying, "It's the wheelchair scene, Bobby. The wheelchair scene. You've gotta read this book!" My dad had been a journalism major in school and was editor-in-chief of the Temple University Press, a daily newspaper published by the university in Philadelphia. He loved history and loved reading about the Civil War and Russia. In fact, he had decided to go back to school, and after he retired, was earning a graduate degree in history from Villanova University. I mention this because seeing my father so excited about a thriller was more than unusual. When I asked him about the book, he scooped it up off the kitchen counter and showed me the cover.
RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris.
This is painful to admit, but at the time I had no idea who Thomas Harris was or what RED DRAGON might be about. My interests were a thousand miles away. But then I moved to Los Angeles and everything changed. I can remember a life without e-books, a ten year stretch when bookstores were really thriving and crime fiction was in a Renaissance. No matter where you lived in the city, you could throw a stone in any direction, and nine times out of ten, wind up hitting a bookstore. Authors came in every weekend to meet their fans and sign their latest work. I was writing spec scripts at the time, but reading a lot of novels and showing up for book signings as often as I could. One question that every author seemed to be asked was, what are your ten favorite novels? Every answer was different, except for one novel, a single title. Every author I was following included RED DRAGON on their list. As I thought it over, Harris's influence had been huge. He'd had an impact and changed the entire genre. But even more, Harris's RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had changed everything for me as well.
I wrote THE DEAD ROOM for my father as a way of saying thanks -- a legal thriller set in Philadelphia and the surrounding neighborhoods where I grew up. It's the story of Teddy Mack, a young civil attorney who has just graduated from law school. Unfortunately for Teddy, and for unknown reasons, his new boss is forcing him to represent a man arrested for the horrific murder of an eighteen-year-old girl.
I particularly enjoyed doing the research for this novel because everything about it was new. I had the opportunity to meet with the district attorney of Philadelphia. I walked through the Criminal Justice Center, Police Headquarters, and most fascinating of all, the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, where I learned that the only protein source inmates receive is turkey because of the tryptophan. Caffeine, of course, is forbidden! Writing THE DEAD ROOM changed me. And RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris, and as presented by my father, turned out to be the light that showed me the way. "It's the wheelchair scene, Bobby. The wheelchair scene. You've gotta read this book!"
My mother lost her third child a few days after she was born. Unfortunately, the sister I never had the chance to meet passed away due to a glitch at the hospital. There was no logical reason to explain her death other than the fact that every member of the medical staff dropped the ball. At the time I was old enough to know something horrible had happened, and that our family would never be the same. The reason I mention this most personal of all experiences is that a close family friend, someone who turned out to be one of my closest advisors through life, gave my mother a book in order to help her cope with the pain. That book was Anne Morrow Lindbergh's GIFT FROM THE SEA.
Years later I was going through the bookshelves in our den looking for something to read. A GIFT FROM THE SEA is extremely thought provoking, and with the modern world stuck in a digital abyss and beginning to leave its humanity behind, probably more relevant now than the year it was written. It's filled with Lindbergh's thoughts and feelings and search for inner peace. After I read the last page and thought it over I realized that she had given me an extra special gift. She had introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke's LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET. If reading or writing or any combination of the two makes your day, then LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET is a must read.
The book is comprised of ten letters Rilke wrote to a young man who wanted to make a life in the arts. I don't have to be a fortuneteller to say that this is one of the best books you will ever read in your life. And if you're a writer, your work is about to take a giant step forward.
My second novel THE DEAD ROOM had just been published, and Left Coast Crime was meeting in Pasadena, California that year. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, and one of my favorite authors, Robert Crais, had signed on to chair the event. To be honest, I'm always a bit on edge at these kinds of things. I love meeting and speaking with fans at book signings, and I get an even bigger kick out of meeting with book clubs because everybody has read the book and we can talk about the ending without spoiling the read. But at a big conference, I'm always a bit uneasy.
I was standing in the hallway after doing my first panel discussion, and T. Jefferson Parker (another favorite) had just stepped out of the second conference room. I must have looked anxious because he walked right over and shook my hand. T. Jefferson Parker is one of those kind of people who you know at first glance is just a great guy. We started talking, and one thing led to another until he said, "I like to keep things easy. It's one page at a time."
I smiled and nodded, his words triggering several thoughts and memories at the same time. The basic rules of writing a scene according to one of the best film directors who ever lived, John Ford. Keeping things simple. One idea, one thought, one scene or chapter. Never two things. Always, always, one. And if that one idea isn't essential to the plot or character, get rid of it. One chapter, one idea, pushing the story forward until they all add up. That's keeping things easy. That's one page at a time.
I've just finished writing my sixth thriller a few weeks ago, a novel that will probably remain untitled until we get closer to a publication date. While this is the first of two related novels, I still don't have a feel for how the next book will move. Everything past the first hundred pages remains so sketchy. Instead of hitting it hard, I've decided to take the day off and watch a movie. At this point I can't decide between THE MALTESE FALCON or THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I love both films, and Dashiell Hammett and Thomas Harris are two of my favorite authors.
What I admire about both of them is their remarkable grasp of storytelling. In both cases, the films are an exact mirror copy of the novels. John Huston directed THE MALTESE FALCON. But it's his credit as screenwriter that makes up one of my favorite stories in the history of filmmaking. Hammett's novel was so tight, so perfect, that Huston handed the book over to his assistant, asked her to transcribe it into screenplay form, and went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. If you ever get your hands on a copy of that screenplay, you'll see what I mean. It's Hammett's novel, word for word!
One of my favorite ways to prepare for writing a new novel is to breakdown stories and figure out how they were made and why they either work or don't work. I can remember walking into my first film class in college, Film Structure 101, taught by Joseph L. Anderson. Joe had worked on THRONE OF BLOOD with Akira Kurosawa, was the leading scholar on Japanese film in the country, and created the Japanese director series for PBS. He chose the directors, the films, and was responsible for all of the subtitles and translations. The first thing he said on the first day of class was that if you had any intention of becoming an artist or critic, you needed to understand the difference between good and great. When you're only eighteen-years-old a statement like that has a certain reach about it and can go in a lot of different places. But the reason I'm mentioning it now is quite straightforward: breaking down a story that doesn't work is often times as enlightening as breaking down a story that blows me away. And if I examine both kinds of stories, after a while I'll know more than what makes a great story great--I'll know why.
When I'm doing a story breakdown, I don't include novels. I realize that this may sound strange. But the truth is that there are way too many reasons why I like to read a work of fiction. It could be the characters, the plot, or maybe it's the author's voice. It could be the time the novel was written in, the idiosyncrasies of the language from that time or the setting. It could be the pleasure I get in knowing what a character is thinking or feeling. In a novel the story is often times hidden or masked by the complexity of the experience. In a novel the story can be hard to see. But even more, because the experience is multifaceted, reading a great novel doesn't necessarily mean that I'm reading a great story.
In a film the situation is entirely different. The story is out in the open. Notice that if the story doesn't work in a film, no amount of effort by the cast, the director or cinematographer can change the outcome. If the story doesn't work in a film, it's just a bad film. And that's why I breakdown films and not novels when I'm developing a new idea.
I went to the parking garage with the same shooter who had photographed the Great Lakes. We arrived around 2:15 p.m., and the black Lincoln was parked exactly where I had been told it would be. We drove up to the third floor, built the camera and framed the shot. And then we hid behind the wall and waited. After that we waited some more. It was a nervous wait, an edgy wait. Lots of time thinking about the rumors we'd heard that the man was a mobster. But then it happened just the way shadowy political op said it would. At three sharp, the front door to the building opened and out walked the sheriff.
He got about twenty feet away from the building before he sensed that something was wrong. He looked straight up at us and froze. The camera was rolling, the lens zoomed in. We could tell from the fear showing on his face that he thought the camera had been a rifle, and he was about to be killed. Once his life passed before his eyes, once he regrouped and saw that it wasn't a rifle pointed his way but a camera, he stood there with his wheels turning. Should he run back into the building? Or should he sprint to his car?
He chose the Lincoln and sped off into the ruined cityscape. We threw the camera and tripod into the van and raced off--shaking, I remember.
That's how ACCESS TO POWER was born. First as a screenplay entitled HIDDEN AGENDA, which was optioned and read by nearly every production house in Los Angeles. In the first year of the TV series 24, Jack Bauer's sleazy CIA political contact was named Robert Ellis. It was no surprise to me because I knew how much the heads of production at both Fox and Imagine loved the screenplay. We had spent hours together talking about the project, but also about that day in New Jersey.
Obviously ACCESS TO POWER is a political thriller, not a mob story. But in its heart is the question that arose that same day: what if you made a negative TV ad, struck a nerve, and your opponent decided to hit back with a gun?
Writing this thriller changed my life. Once I realized the difference between a screenplay and a novel, once I realized that I could portray a character's thoughts and feelings and get into their hearts and minds, I never looked back. As my readers already know, I very much enjoy doing the research for my novels. In the case of ACCESS TO POWER everything about it is real except for the murders themselves. Every side story actually happened. I even walked through the entire climax; the tunnels underneath the Capitol, the secret rooms and staircases. If you take a close look at the dome, you'll see the ladder built into the side. I made the climb to the top from inside the building just to make sure that the ending was possible.
What an ending. What a beginning. What a trip.
I was living in Los Angeles writing spec scripts and producing a lot of TV ads. I had worked with a friend of mine for the better part of a year producing a film for National Geographic on the Great Lakes that won gold at the New York Film Festival. I had also been the last ghostwriter to work on NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 before it went into production three weeks later. And that's when I got a seemingly innocent call from another friend of mine who ran a political consulting firm. He had a problem, a small race for county sheriff in New Jersey. Because the two candidates were virtually unknown, he needed someone to shoot surveillance footage of the acting sheriff for a negative ad. The problem was that there were rumors the sheriff had mob connections, and the city was essentially a ghetto, the poorest, most rundown city in New Jersey.
I agreed to help and spoke with a shadowy political operative who seemed to know everything about the sheriff's schedule. He told me that the man owned a black Lincoln, parked it on the side of the building, and walked out the front door everyday at exactly 3:00 p.m. Even better, there was a parking garage directly across the lot where we could hide with a camera.
The man winked and snickered. Warning shots were beginning to go off in my mind. Everything about everything seemed dangerous and wrong ...
I'm happy to be able to kick this blog off with good news. In October 2013, a Spanish translation of CITY OF FIRE came out in print entitled CIUDAD DE FUEGO. The novel was published by Pamies and received lots of attention and good reviews. On July 28, 2014, a Kindle edition of CIUDAD DE FUEGO was released on Amazon. I had been hoping this would happen, and it finally did. Translations of CITY OF FIRE are now truly worldwide, from Germany to Japan, the Netherlands to the Republic of Slovenia, and today, Spain and South America. I'm totally jazzed by this good news.
As for this blog, my hope is that it will evolve into an extension of my writing. I've published five crime novels, five thrillers, the sixth finished and on its way. And for each one, I've kept a writer's journal. There's an overused saying in screenwriting, something we've all heard before. &quot;This ain't brain surgery.&quot; Unfortunately, nothing could be less true. Creating a thriller with twists and turns that readers didn't see coming is way more complicated, way more difficult than brain surgery. From the emails I've received, my readers are addicted to reading, have seen everything ten times over, and are very smart people. Giving them a good ride, (beating them with one surprise after the next), is not easy. And that's why I've kept a journal for each novel. This is where I go to work things out in writing. This is where I go to test ideas, think through them, then either reject them, modify them, or use them straight out.
What I'd like to do is use this blog as something of a laboratory. A place to talk about writing, but even more important, a place to talk about a writer's ultimate goal: becoming a storyteller. I hope you'll join me.
For anyone who loves films, check out Joe Meyers' piece on what could have been if Alexandro Jodorowsky had made DUNE. I was a huge fan of EL TOPO, and still have the book Jodorowsky wrote about the film. I can remember waiting for years to see DUNE, and then the disappointment I felt when I heard the project had been given to another director.