Saturday, December 21, 2013

The name crazies

Multiple Identity Disorder?
I'll admit right up front that I have more name issues than the average human. I started life with four names--three given plus the surname, a surname that became a compound when I got married and added a hyphen and the surname of my spouse. After the wedding, all I had to do was flash a marriage certificate (cost: 25 cents for official stamp) and changes went into effect on all IDs, accounts, permits and passes.

One divorce later, I discovered that reverting to the maiden name was not a simple matter of dropping the hyphen and second surname that no longer fit. No siree. I needed an affidavit. I paid for that piece of paper (cost: $50) and went along my deluded way thinking all was well in Namesville.

Four years ago when I went to renew IDs and passport, I discovered that all was not well; I needed a deed poll (cost: $2000) because the first name I'd carried all my life was actually the third on my birth certificate. I paid up and figured my naming ordeals were over.

Fast forward to 2013 when a certain government agency advised me that my married surname (the hyphenated compound one) was still my legal name even though I have a passport, two IDs and an affidavit that say otherwise. An affidavit is not a legal instrument, they claimed, and as such their hands were tied in certain matters until I got a second deed poll (cost: another $2000) to officially revert to my own goddamned maiden name. I think I lost consciousness at that point. When I came to, I shut up and put up.

So that was the end of that, right? Alas, no. Name issues continue to haunt me. I write in several genres and I've got one name for the romance fiction persona, another for the spec fic, and yet another version that I reserve for lit fic and the long-neglected memoir. Now there's a mystery novel in the making and I'm considering a new handle for that too, but I've had it up to here with my multiple identities, not to mention the feeding and watering of various social media places that keep them all separate and tidy.

What say you? Should I just keep the ones I already have? Abandon all but my 'real' name? Let one of the existing names do double duty for the mystery? Or should I put on my big girl shorts and add yet another identity to the mix? This thing is driving me bananas and I'm tempted to wipe the slate and just go by The Writer Formerly Known As...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lazy Sociopaths

I have to admit that I have a fascination with the lazy sociopath. I think anyone who has read The Sociopath Next Door also is. These are people who have figured out that what they really want out of life is to get by doing as little as humanly possible, and they will tell any lie, commit any crime as long as it get them to that goal. When they have accomplished that goal, they will hurt you just to hurt you.

So many writers understand this kind of evil so well. When these characters are done well, they give us a clear insight into the kind of selfish thought process that produces petty evil. For grand evil, you have to read fantasy -- I mean Stalin and Hitler levels of brutality.

I don’t like evil characters who know they’re evil and keep going anyway because they’re turned on by it. That might be realistic, and it might not be, but that character is too easy to hate and adds no complexity to the story. And so many great writers have captured that self-serving impulse that allows them to ignore the fact that they’re doing bad things.

Here’s a list of some of the best.

Lawrence Block’s Keller from the Hitman series has such a low-key charm that we forget that what he’s doing -- killing people for money -- is a really terrible thing to do. But Keller doesn’t see it that way. He has techniques that allow him to stop thinking about his crimes, and as he does, we do too. And anyway, the people he’s killing all seem bad. And just as we’re settling in comfortably with the logic of his crimes, just as we are all right with his bad because he’s not so bad, Keller kills a nice couple just living their lives so their heir can get the insurance, or he kills a completely innocent woman because he’s been hired by her husband. And we realize that Keller’s just in it for a little bit of money, and that we too have been bamboozled by his logic. A brilliant character.

I think I am the only person in the world who believes that Jack Ryan from Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce is Leonard’s best. What I like about it is the way Jack is portrayed. He sees himself as a kind of lovable loser who is just stealing from rich, evil people anyway. Once again, we kind of agree, but he’s conning people, he’s hurting people, and he’s stealing from people just for the “bounce,” the thrill of it. It’s a great way to explore the pettiness that goes into petty theft.

James Cain understood the petty evil of selfishness about as well as anyone. The Postman Always Rings Twice is possibly the best look at this face of evil that anyone has ever done. All the characters are focused on themselves. They are all sociopathic. It is a revelation about how poisonous that kind of self-centeredness can be. It is interesting too that Cain never makes evil fun or alluring, at least not to me. He paints it with all the pointless pain and humiliation as these kinds of people bring to themselves and those around them.
What is memorable about Sue Grafton’s novels isn’t the petty evil surrounding her, but the beauty of Kinsey Milhone’s life. Her small circle of friends is wonderful, and we all want to return to that place again and again. Her friends are her refuge, but that refuge is such a relief because Kinsey is surrounded outside of it by people who will commit unspeakable acts for a little bit of gain. They hurt others for a little money or just because hurting people is fun. Grafton captures this idea so very well. My favorite? I’m not sure. To me these are all equally strong, and I’ve read most many times.

My favorite moment of dumb, stupid evil however is the pointless selfishness of Terry Lennox in the Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye. There is no sense to what Lennox does. He puts Philip Marlowe in the worst possible situation just because it’s easier for him. He’ll do anything he can to avoid a little work, and sometimes, he seems to hurt people for sport. Chandler captures people well here and in all of his work.

What these writers are telling us, as so many great writers do, is that this kind of petty evil is everywhere. The author of The Sociopath Next Door makes the claim that one out of every twenty-five people is sociopathic after all. They are telling us we are likely to run into this brand of evil over and over, and the way to push our way through it is to maintain our own sense of moral courage. They are saying rising above all of that is the way to be heroic in this world.

I guess that’s one of the big reasons I love this genre so much.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What Happens When I Sign Your Book

With holiday shopping proceeding at its usual fevered pace, I've actually been approached a few times by people asking to acquire signed copies of my books to give as gifts. While I'm happy to oblige such requests, it's not something I've been advertising, so it's a pleasant surprise when I'm contacted about such things.
So far, I've done this a couple of times, and each time I've confirmed with the requestor the name of the person receiving the book and whether I should write something in particular for said recipient. One response made me chuckle: "Just make up something funny."
Oh, now they'd done it.
The answer is one I've gotten every so often at conventions and book signings, and it gave me a chance to revisit something I like to do when I'm hit with the old, "You're the writer, just make up something" bit. Most of the time, I'm able to think on my feet when this happens. For a few of my novels, I've used a quote from the book, or I've got a catch phrase that somehow ties into it. Or, I write something based on whatever brief conversation may have taken place with the fan while they're standing at the signing table. Still, there have been times when I've been at a complete loss to come up with something witty, so to avoid such situations I've created a handy dandy tool to help me: "The Inscription Deck of Doom!"
Simply put, it's a deck of index cards I've assembled, with each card bearing some goofy thing I've written on it. Whenever I'm confronted with a variation of the "Just write something funny," challenge, I lay the deck face down on the table, spread them out, and have the person draw a card. Whichever one they pick is what gets inscribed when I sign their book.
For example:
  • Batteries not included.
  • Be nice to your kids. They'll choose your nursing home.
  • Best Wishes! Doesn’t this one suck? Go ahead. Pick another card.
  • Don't sweat the petty things. Don't pet the sweaty things.
  • I am your internet girlfriend.
  • Never fry bacon when you're naked.
  • No monkeys were harmed during the writing of this book.
  • Pee into the wind!
  • Rock out with your Spock out! (usually just for Star Trek books)
  • Some assembly required.
  • This does not validate your parking.
  • You mean you actually read this crap?
  • What exactly is a magnesia, and how the hell do you milk one?
So, now you know that if ever you approach me at a book signing, you ask me to be clever or funny at your peril. :)

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Books of Our Lives

I recently posted a meme on my Face Book page that quoted author Neil Gaimen: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose.”

(For those of you who don't know the term “meme,” it's those posters, cartoons, glib sayings that are found and re-posted, shared, liked and commented on. I have no idea where they come from but I enjoy the hell out of them.)

It got me to thinking not of my five favorite books but the books that mark passages of my life.

When I was eight and we were flying back to the states from Midway Island, I was given a copy of “The Bobbsey Twins” to keep me out of trouble. No offense to Flossie and Freddie but they were baby books. I was used to reading books four levels above my age. I snagged my sister's Hardy Boys book instead. That might have been the start of my criminally fun career in mystery writing.

Or, maybe it was Nancy Drew. These were the first books I read without pictures. Very grown-up. Not that my family could afford to buy me the entire collection, but my friends and I traded them back and forth, much as I do now with mysteries.

I remember spending one hot summer languishing on the couch, a fifteen-year-old devouring “Gone With The Wind” and playing Scarlett O'Hara in my mind, Southern accent and all. I also remember a trip across country, sprawled in the backseat reading “Grapes of Wrath” as we followed the Joad's journey to the Central Valley of California.

As a library assistant in high school, I found a copy of “Madame Bovary” hidden in the back room. “Too explicit,” explained the librarian, but I was mature enough to be allowed to check it out. I never did find the dirty parts.

While the other kids threw spitballs in study hall, I read nearly all of Thomas Hardy's works. I also dabbled with Tolstoy, Jewish literature and Tudor history. To say I was bored with the school system is an understatement. To say I was considered pretty boring is probably true.

James Michener came into my life when I was babysitting and found the novel “The Source” on the shelf. I also found a cache of Playboy magazines, but that's irrelevant to this blog. “The Source” remains one of my favorite books.

Does anyone remember “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” a small book of poetry by Rod McKuen? That was the romantic period of my life. It was the same time many of us were reading “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran and preaching peace, not war.

But, I did enlist during Vietnam. That's why “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is still one of the funniest books in my mind. Maybe you had to be in the military to really appreciate the absurdity, something we enlisted men dealt with on a daily basis.

Books have been like landmarks in my life, indicating a stage I was going through at the time. It became all about mysteries when I was in my mid-thirties: Robert Crais, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly. I was lucky to have met these terrific authors on many occasions after I started writing mysteries.

Lately, I've gone back to an old love, historical fiction. I wanted to know why Alexander was great (he actually was), why Rome fell, how England developed. With the help of Alison Weir, Edward Rutherfurd, Ken Follett, Colleen McCullough and many other authors, I have figured out the entire Plantagenet family tree and much more. I'm not sure why it's important but I feel I need to put history in perspective. I need to define my version of events in a way that satisfies my curiosity.

Ask me what my favorite book is and I'll ask you what decade of my life you're talking about. For some of us, chapters in our lives are defined and honed by the chapters we read. The books we choose reflect who we are at that moment. I'm sure you're now remembering the books of your life. Look at the book on your night stand and it will clue you in on who you are right now.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More Than Words

My daughter and I have a standing "joke" about singers. If two songs by the same artist play on the radio in a row (and it's not two-fer Tuesday) it might be the artist's birthday. If three songs are played in a row, we know that it is definitely bad news, they have probably died. So, she knew exactly what I meant when I woke her for school on Friday morning with these words.

"There were three news items about Mandela this morning."

Tears sprung to her eyes and we hugged.

We, like so many, have a special (virtual) relationship with Mandela. We spent hours at the Apartheid Museum in South Africa a few years ago, watching videos and reading about his life and his choices. We have talked often about how the decisions he made about how to act and react shaped South Africa and the world. My daughter researched his life for a project on him last year for school.

She had a picture of him that had been lying around on her bookshelf. That evening when I went to tell her goodnight, the picture was stuck up on her wall.

There were no more words to be said.

Even a writer has to know when it's time to be quiet.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Dash

Last week I had the painful heart wrenching experience of burying my brother.  As the writer in the family it fell on me to write the eulogy.  My brother was much older than me so I didn’t know a lot about his earlier life and he was too humble and modest to boast of his accomplishments or his good works.  But as I pieced together information from my mother, my older siblings and his numerous friends and colleagues, I realized all he did was too much to fit into a one page eulogy.

As I wrote the heading with his name and his birth date followed by his earthly departure separated by a dash, one of my sisters commented sadly that it all came down to the dash.  With tears welling in my eyes I realized she was right.  All we have is that dash between the time we are born and the time we die.   That dash could be 58 years like my brother, or 95 like Nelson Mandela, or 5, but we only have that dash. 

We can use our dash for our own gain accomplishing things to be used to satisfy our own selfish desires.  Or we can use our dash to better the life of others and build memories that will last beyond the grave.   My brother filled his dash to capacity with selfless deeds, acts of kindness, leadership, and community service as his friends, colleagues and past students attested in the many tributes during the funeral.  Nelson Mandela filled his dash with great works fighting for freedom, justice, equality and peace.   I hope to use my dash to inspire and better the lives of everyone I come in contact with, whether online or in person. 

We only have this dash.  What will you do with your dash?

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Who is Nikolai Gorodish?

Here I am, wrapping up the second draft of my novel, and I can’t resolve a key detail.  It all started last year as I began penning book four of my Henry Grave mystery series.  I had the plot worked out.  The arc was arced.  The characters were down, and the murder was resolved.  Only one problem remained.  I had given the cruise ship a clever name, and it was my plan to end the story by revealing who the ship was named after.  But I can’t for the life of me figure it out.  

Here’s a sneak preview - the first two paragraphs of Aleutian Grave:

I met Brice Laird about twenty years ago, shortly after he killed his first wife, not after he killed his second wife as he remembers it.  So when I heard about the murdered girl on the cruise ship, and I saw Brice’s name on the passenger list, I put two and two together and figured I had already solved the case.   As it turns out, I was wrong.
A twenty-four year-old cabaret dancer by the name of Rose LaFontaine was stabbed to death onboard the arctic cruise ship Nikolai Gorodish.  292 passengers midway through their Bering Sea voyage had all been notified.  Security was tightened, counseling provided, free liquor poured, and one top-notch investigator brought in – me.

So who can help me out here?  I need a snappy spine-tingling, toe-curling, humorous, poignant, clever, or otherwise interesting answer to this question: who is Nikolai Gorodish?

Any and all help will be appreciated.  I’m hoping to wrap the book over the winter break.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Reviews - please base the number of stars on the actual review!

Recently, someone wrote a review of one of my books, and from the words they used in the review, one would have thought it deserved five-stars. But instead they gave it less. I often wonder how some reviewers decide how many stars to give a book. If the book sucked, don't give it five-stars, and if you loved the book, don't give it one. It only seems fair. But it's not. And believe me, I appreciate all reviews, one-star (and I have had some) to five-stars. My skin is pretty thick by now. All I ask is that descriptions match the number of stars assigned. That's all.
And so, I have written five reviews as examples of how the meaning of the words used, should match the number of stars assigned. IJS - here we go:
This book sucked on so many levels. Nothing here would make me pickup another book written by this author. These characters were wack. There was no connecting storyline between the characters and not enough interesting dialogue. I would not recommend this book to anyone.

This story was lukewarm. It started out okay but I couldn't finish it because it didn't hold my attention. I will say that I liked this one character, but he had no backbone. The author did more showing than telling. Good premise, terrible execution.

I heard good things about this book, but I was disappointed. It did have its moments, like a couple of LOL scenes and some jaw dropping chapter endings, so for that, I give it three stars. But it flopped toward the end and left me hanging.

I really enjoyed this book, couldn't stop reading it. These folks were a trip. I felt sorry for this one chick who was being controlled, but at times I wanted to reach inside the pages and choke her. This writer does have skills, but he didn't fully develop the characters. I hope he does better with the sequel.

Now this story here, this story here . . . was everything! I dreamed about these fools, and snuck to read it at work. I reread some sentences again and again because they were like poetry. And the twists and turns were shocking! This was one helluva story. I just bought two more books by this gifted author. Bravo!
Have you ever received a review that you thought didn't match the stars assigned? Par for the course, I know. Just wondering!
Write on! Review on!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kneeling before Shakespeare

I took a group of students from the college where I teach to England a few years ago for a study-abroad program. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon for the theater there and to see the sights.

Shakespeare is buried in the local church. He’s never been moved to Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner because he left a curse on his grave forbidding people to move him. The gravestone is at the front of the church just beyond the altar rail, and at a funny angle, so to see it clearly and well, you have to kneel at the altar rail, kneel to the great poet and playwright.

There’s something sacrilegious here, not that it stopped me from looking at the famous grave and then buying a rubbing of it. But kneeling before a man because he had talent seemed wrong, and that’s not all that was wrong with it either. For me, it symbolized the way that some people come to reading, it’s the way that a lot of my colleagues teach reading. Everything was very quiet, very somber, very boring, and we must kneel before these unquestioned gods of literature.

That’s not who Shakespeare was though, and it’s not the way that writing should be approached. I spend so much of my time as a college creative writing professor trying to convince students that they can and should be a part of the greater literary world. I spend so much time showing them that it’s not a distant thing for people who have some kind of mystical genius. That’s one of the effects of making them read long dead poets who don’t use the same kind of language as they do. They’re left intimidated and confused.

And then I and they knelt before Shakespeare.

How to undo that kind of lesson? It’s not easy, but it takes trips to poetry readings with people who are reading modern poetry. Not inaccessible black-turtled-necked poets smoking their cigarettes and speaking vaguely of Baudelaire, but people reading about love and loss and all kinds of things.

And then it took a trip to the Globe Theater, where the students were groundlings. Where real actors interacted with them and knocked into them and performed their parts.

That’s when my students started to love Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare and poetry and books in general aren’t meant to be read in the silence of a church. They’re meant to be a vital part of life that makes all the rest of your life meaningful and even tolerable.