Tag Archives: Don Winslow

The Cartel

the cartelIt’s hard to know where to start with a book like this. The Cartel, Don Winslow’s sequel to The Power of the Dog, continues his sprawling epic story of the Mexican Drug Wars and America’s own so-called War on Drugs, began by President Nixon back in the seventies.

The good thing about The Cartel is you don’t really have to read The Power of the Dog to follow it, but I’d still recommend reading the first volume for that sense of history. Don Winslow has spent almost fifteen years researching the drug wars and brings us their stories in fictionalized form. I can remember reading The Power of the Dog and then doing my own study of the Mexican Drug Wars and realizing how many incidents from real life Mr. Winslow uses to bolster his fiction.

Both books are well worth the effort.

The Cartel opens with Adán Berrara, the fictional version of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel leader who made news a month back by making a second escape from a Mexican maximum security prison, this time allegedly through a sophisticated tunnel leading directly to the shower section of his cell. (Don Winslow believes this is a cover story put out by the Mexican government, and judging from what I know, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.) Adán is also in prison, but in the US, awaiting trial for his many crimes. While there, his daughter dies from cystic lymphangioma, a deformation of the head, face, and throat that ultimately kills its victims. Her name is Gloria, and the other main character in these novels, DEA agent Art Keller, actually used her at the end of The Power of the Dog to capture Adán.

Gloria is everything to Adán, but the authorities won’t let him attend her funeral. So he tells his lawyer, a man with the sobriquet of Minimum Ben due to his ability to get minimum sentencing for his clients, that he’ll tell all the secrets about the drug cartels if they’ll only let him go to the funeral.

All of this sets into motion an elaborate plan that lands Adán back in a Mexican prison—Pente Grande Correctional Facility—and eventually leads to his freedom and regaining control of the Sinaloa cartel.

Art Keller, meanwhile, has retired from the DEA and is a beekeeper at a monastery in New Mexico. But when Tim Taylor, his old boss, comes by to inform him that Berrerapower of the dog has a two million dollar bounty on his head, he leaves the monastery so as not to endanger the monks there. Eventually, he’s pulled back into the DEA when Adán makes his escape by simply walking out of Pente Grande and flying away in a helicopter—the way Chapo Guzmán is said to have really escaped back in 2001, rather than being wheeled out in a laundry cart by a prison guard as we were initially told.

The Cartel covers the drug wars from 2004 to 2015, chronicling the rise of violence after Adán moves to make his Sinaloa cartel the supreme organization by killing the leader of the Gulf cartel, thus kicking off the Mexican Drug Wars. Most telling about this book is the page and a half of names, in small font, of journalists either murdered or “disappeared” during the time the story takes place. These are real life journalists, not their fictional counterparts, and Mr. Winslow has a fictional character named Pablo Mora who, along with his colleagues at a Juárez paper, stand in for these real reporters who lost their lives to the drug wars.

Just as it’s hard to know where to begin with a book like this, it’s also hard to know where to stop. I could go on and on praising this book and its prequel, but that would be overkill. Instead, I would leave off saying this: Go out, get both books, and read them. They’re big, they’re epic, and they’re worthy of space on your bookshelf, real or virtual.

Because I guarantee you’ll want to read them again.


The Learning Curve

I think it was not long before his death that Louis L’Amour, speaking at a writing conference, said that he felt he was just beginning to learn his craft.

Think about that. He was a bestselling author and had been for years. Probably the bestselling Western author of his day. Now, we can argue all day long about the quality of his writing. I’m a fan, and I’ll say so without any embarrassment. I know I’m not alone. Maybe his Westerns were romanticized, but so what? He told a good story, and isn’t that what we all want to do?

And yet, he felt that, after fifty years in the business, he was just beginning to learn his craft. If you’re a fan, you get an idea what he was talking about. His last few books were departures from the material he’d been writing for years. The Haunted Mesa was as much an urban fantasy as it was a Western, and The Last of the Breed is an action novel that takes place in modern Siberia. I think he always meant to write a sequel but was unable to before he died. I haven’t read or heard anything to support this, but it ends on something of a cliffhanger.

If you follow any writer and read his books in the order they were published, you’ll see a growth curve in practically every one of them. If you like Mac Bolan novels, well, maybe not. I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never read any of the series. But, like Harlequin romances, the men’s adventure books—The Executioner, The Destroyer and others like them—are formula books. I’m sure that writer gets better at what he’s doing, but I’m not sure if you can see it, since he has to basically write the same story repeatedly.

Writing has a learning curve, just like anything else. Any writer can tell you that if they go back and look at some of their early stuff—the stuff they probably wouldn’t let see the light of day—it’s almost embarrassing to think you ever wrote like that. It’s usually overly dramatic, while being short on something or other that’s actually important to writing. Maybe the description is lacking, or the dialogue sounds like a hack wrote it, something like Rambo saying, “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.” Stuff that sounds like a computer wrote it.

I’ve never been good at description of surroundings. Sometimes, I see the scene fully realized, but mostly, I have to agonize over what the setting is. I think it’s because of how I read. When I’m reading a book, I tend to kind of skim over the descriptions of the surroundings, unless it’s important like a murder scene. Why do I care? Sure, it’s supposed to ground me to the place, but I guess I assume that I’m already there and don’t really need to know what it looks like. It’s a place. Who cares what it looks like?

Obviously, I’m an exception to the rule. But, because I’m that way, I have trouble coming up with any kind of specific details about surroundings. Which is why the current trend toward painting the scene in broad brush strokes works for me. Let the reader fill in the details. Doesn’t bother me a bit. Frees me up to concentrate on what’s happening, which is the important part to me. I can paint the picture in broad strokes because that’s how I usually see it, unless setting is intrinsic to the scene, another character, as it were.

Following an author can impart some of his writing tricks to you, too. A good writer is like a sponge: he/she absorbs lessons learned from successful writers. It’s one of the reasons you’re encouraged to read as much as possible. It’s good as long as you don’t take it too far, as a friend of mine seems to have done (in my opinion, anyway). I once remarked to him that he didn’t seem to enjoy anything that he read, and he replied that he didn’t read for entertainment. He read for education.

That’s great if you’re reading nonfiction and/or doing research. But he was talking about fiction. Reading fiction to learn writing techniques is well and good, but he’s totally left out the idea of reading for fun.

Anyway, a case in point for me is Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him before, but his case is a very good example of what I’m talking about. Mr. Winslow’s early books are good, but the writing style is extremely different from what’s he’s writing now. Down on the High Lonesome is the only early one I’ve been able to read, but if it’s any example—and I’m sure it is—of his initial books, it’s like a different man wrote them. Long paragraphs written in a fairly formal tone. Very writerly, to use a word I read once. It’s good writing, and the story was good, but it’s nothing like what he’s doing now.

Starting with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Mr. Winslow took on a very informal tone, and a lot of the books are in present tense. They’re full of slang, incomplete sentences, and lots of everyday type humor. His novels have lots of white space in them, and not a lot of exposition. They move forward and never stop, even when “nothing” is happening. He even shows us backstory rather than lecturing us about it, to the point we don’t really realize he’s doing backstory and character development at all.

I have no idea what spurred him to change his writing style like that. Maybe he felt some need—as I did after I read one of his books—to break out of that stodgy mold he’d set up for himself. He can even do a hybrid of it, as he did in The Power of the Dog. If you haven’t read that book, you’re missing out. I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Mr. Winslow’s work was an epiphany of sorts to me. He showed me that I don’t have to have what I think of as “that voice.” You know the one I’m talking about, because it’s in so many books. It brought home to me a technique Elmore Leonard uses. He said that he writes his book, then goes back through and takes out everything that sounds like a writer.

I’m still learning how to do that, but I’m getting there. I write more formally here on my blog, but even here I sometimes let little bits of my writing style show through.

Some of that has to do with the character, though. For instance, I’m trying to write a Western short story about a Pinkerton agent. Since it’s the Old West and people wrote and probably thought more formally back then, the prose comes across as more formal than some of my other work. I think it fits the character. But it’s not as easy for me to write that way anymore. It feels stiff and unnatural.

Michael Connelly’s writing is teaching me to make my plots more intricate. His mysteries are so multilayered that you’re never sure till you turn the last page that you’ve seen all the layers. Reading one of his books is like peeling an onion—except it doesn’t make you cry. I’m watching his stuff carefully to learn how to plant subtleties in my stories that don’t pay off till further down the road a piece. It’s something new I’m learning, so I’m not at all sure how well I’m doing at it, but at least I’m trying.

Robert Crais’s writing shows me how to take my crime stories outside the box by inserting elements that go beyond the formula. His latest novels—especially from L.A. Requiem forward—examine parts of life that I haven’t seen in very many other crime novels. Friendship, loyalty, and the damage that life can invoke on these things are themes he’s examining, all under the setting of criminal doings. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are seeing more of the dark side of the criminal world, and you can’t witness all this and not have some of it rub off on you. These two men don’t see the world the same way we do, and their unique backgrounds prepared them to handle these revelations better than you and I might be able to.

I could go on and on about how I’ve learned from various authors, but I think you get the picture. So don’t neglect your reading. Find something that interests you. You can pull things from other genres—I love the idea of doing some mashups—that other authors in the field might not have used. Yeah, it’s sorta risky if you’re unpublished, but I’m convinced that voice means as much as correct technique to agents/editors. You’ve got to make yourself stand out from the crowd to get noticed, and using something in a new twist will do that, as long as you do it right.

But you’ve got to know the rules to break them effectively, and that’s where reading what’s already out there comes in.



Handling Criticism

One of the things you have to learn to deal with as a writer is criticism. I’m not talking about those who can’t do the job, so they make a career out of tearing authors down. I’m talking about the kind of criticism you get in a good writing group, or from friends you trust to give you an honest opinion about your work. In my mind, criticism from fellow writers is better than the other kind—at least you know they’re familiar with what it is to spend several months composing your Great American Novel. By the same token, however, in a way their criticism is harsher than a critic’s.

Let me explain what I mean.

Critics look for abstract things like theme and whether or not you measure up to whomever they consider the greatest author of all time—whether it be Shakespeare or Chaucer, Koontz or King. Fellow writers, on the other hand, help you correct your story. Not only do they help point out typos (you can never spot them all yourself. Give it up), they also help you develop your writing in all kinds of ways: improving dialogue, tightening sentences, getting rid of unnecessary words, the list goes on and on. I have the good luck, among other things, to have a woman who spent her career writing newspaper articles, not to mention a published Western author.

(In case you’re interested, that author, Dusty Richards, was just named Greatest Living Western Writer. Not bad.)

In other words, what other authors (hopefully) help you with is stuff they’ve learned in the trenches. They give you an objective opinion about your work and make suggestions for its improvement.

Not a bad deal.

Learning to take this criticism isn’t easy, and it seems to be an ongoing process. There are still times when I have to bite my tongue and remind myself that they’re not attacking me personally, that what they’re saying is meant to help me. It’s a human reaction, because we all want to think we put out superior product on our first try, no matter how much the evidence says otherwise. You have to develop skin that’s thick enough the criticism doesn’t hurt, but thin enough that what they’re saying actually gets through to you as it’s meant to.

I had some prior practice when I joined my group: a friend I’ve known since I was around eleven years old. We grew up swapping sf and fantasy books back and forth, and he’s very good at playing devil’s advocate with my writing. Sometimes I think he’s too good, in a way. I don’t know if there’s a book that’s ever been published that met with his wholehearted approval: they all fall short in one way or another, and usually in more than one. When he finishes a book, the overall impression he tends to give is that he’s had yet another disappointment.

And he’s not so…diplomatic about his criticisms as most of those in my group are, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue very well. Sometimes I’m surprised callous hasn’t built up on it. I don’t always agree with what he says, and I believe some of his convictions about first-time authors are just wrong. For instance, he seems of the opinion that, in order to get published, you need to dampen down your voice to a degree so that it’s not too individual. I am of the opinion that it’s that unique voice that gets you noticed in the first place. It’s what makes you stand out from the herd.

This week, though, I’m having to figure out how to deal with the opposite kind of criticism: the kind that can go to your head.

Don’t get me wrong: the opinions given in my group aren’t all negative. Even if very few people come out and say anything, a lack of marks on returned manuscript pages is tacit approval of what you’ve written. And, there are often other comments written there as well. Since I’ve started reading Pipeline, I’ve had the good fortune to have at least one person, and usually more, comment on how they like the voice I use in that novel. For me, it’s positive reinforcement and helps to build up my confidence in my writing. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m also wise enough to know that everybody thinks they’re good. It takes others telling us that to make us fully believe it, though. At least it does in my case.

This past week, however, there were a couple of comments that, as much as I appreciate them, I have to take with a grain of salt, so to speak. Not because I think they’re lying to me, but because if I believe them too much, I’m afraid I might let them go to my head. And that’s the last thing I want to do.

Here’s one of those comments: Dynamite voice! I’d buy this book in a heartbeat & I don’t usually read crime! The other one that got me was: Your voice is absolutely fantastic. This is an instant bestseller!

Pretty heady stuff.

I hope you realize I’m not bringing these up as a way to brag. Sure, I’m proud to have gotten comments like this, as well as a general reaction from most of the group that they look forward to Lyle’s adventures. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t feel good, ’cause it does. It validates that I’m not wasting my time with this writing stuff, that maybe it’s not just a pipe dream.

There’s a point to this: not resting on your laurels. It’s good to get comments like this, especially for me. I’m coming into this writing thing a little late in life compared to most authors: I’m closing in on 50 years old. When I compare this to my daughter, who’s been writing since she was in kindergarten, I feel like the slow kid in class. So when I get these kinds of comments, it makes me feel like I’ve got a chance anyway, despite being older. Besides, I wouldn’t be the first one to start a writing career later in life.

But when any person gets too many of these kinds of comments, they have to guard against ego. And since I know that I often come across as egotistic when I don’t mean to be, I really have to watch it.

Right now, it’s easy to keep from getting a big head. All I have to do is look at some of my past works. I do that, and my feet come right back down to earth in a hurry. I realize part of that is that I was learning my art—Louis L’Amour comment toward the end of his life that he felt he was just beginning to truly learn his craft. Writing is a never-ending process of learning and improving, or so it’s hoped. It’s my sincere desire that I can look back on Pipeline and see how I’ve improved since I wrote it.

Maybe that’s the key: keep an eye on what you’ve done and compare it to your present work. You’ve heard me mention Don Winslow in this blog, and I’m betting that, although he’s proud of his early published work, he may be even more proud of his recent stuff. I’m about to start his 2010 book Savages, which Oliver Stone is making into a movie starring, among others, Benicio Del Toro. There are some other big-name actors in it as well, but I’ve only seen the cast list once, so their names escape my mind.

The thing is, if you read Mr. Winslow’s early work and compare it with what he’s doing now, you’d think you were reading two different authors. His prose, once thick and writerly, is now sparse and tight. He’s been a major inspiration for my altering my voice, and it shows even more in my work-in-progress Spree.

Another influence, Robert Crais, said that if you were new to his work, he’d prefer you read his new novels and not worry about reading his Elvis Cole series in order. Yes, there’s an ongoing life there, and if you deprive yourself of L.A. Requiem when you’re reading his work, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Mr. Crais says he’d prefer you read his newer books because they’re more representative of him and what he’s doing now. He has a good point. As well-written as the early Cole novels are, his latest ones, including the new Joe Pike series (Pike is Elvis’s partner in their detective agency), are solidly rooted in crime but also show great flexibility in straying outside the conventions of the genre. They’re satisfying books, and while Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are some tough hombres, they have an inner life that makes you wish you could go have a drink with them.

I hope I can keep improving that way. I tried to put some of those elements in Pipeline by making Lyle the kind of character most people can identify with, even if he’s introduced to you when he’s busted for cooking meth. Most of us wouldn’t do that, but we can understand why he’s doing it, maybe even see ourselves in his shoes if circumstances were bad enough.

But more, I hope I always realize deep in my heart that I can stand to improve. I think that’ll be one of the best defenses against comments like those quoted above.

I also hope I stay good enough to keep getting those kinds of comments.



What Are Going On?

I’m not exactly an English (or, as I prefer to call it, American) purist. Heck, I’m from Arkansas, where pretty much all our gerunds end with –in’ instead of –ing. For me to be a purist would be like Forrest Gump telling a nuclear physicist how to do his job. But I am a writer, as well, and I’m familiar with most of the rules of our language. I have to be. It’s part of my job. I’m not at all perfect. Don’t ask me to start naming all the parts of a sentence. I can’t even list them, much less identify them. Doesn’t stop me from knowing what order things should go in, though.

By the same token, as a fiction writer, I know we’re not authoring technical manuals. Creative writing has taken a turn to the informal that I like a lot. I refer you to any of Don Winslow’s later novels as perfect examples. His prose is full of slang, fragments, and all those other things that give English teachers hives. Given a choice between someone butchering the language this way and reading something that sounds like it was written by a computer, I’ll take the butcher any day. At least that kind of writing has life to it. (Just as an unabashed plug, though she doesn’t go to the extreme Don Winslow does, my daughter has a nice, informal writing voice.)

I bring this guy up a lot in my blog, mostly because he has been a major influence and inspiration on me, but I think Stephen King was the first author I read who used a more informal mode of writing. He addresses the reader sometimes (don’t try that at home, folks. He’s a professional and can get away with it. Unpublished writers can’t). But I’d have to say it was Don Winslow who showed me just how far that can go. It was his writing that made me reconsider my own voice the most.

Okay. Long wind up. Now here’s the pitch.

Taking all this informal business into consideration, I’m still seeing things lately that are disconcerting, to say the least. I’d have to say the first thing that irks me is this: there is no such word as alright. I don’t care how many times you see it in print, it’s not yet a word, unless something has changed in the last couple years. Folks, the proper way to write it is all right. Two words. Yes, already is one word that used to be two. It’s been one word for years and years, even though I can remember one of my middle school English teachers talking about it being changed. I think you can still go back and read old writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and, as long as they haven’t edited for modernity, you’ll find anachronisms like all ready and to-morrow.

While I’ve seen purists who will argue with pretty much anything, I maintain that, in dialogue, anything goes. For instance, there was a discussion in writing group recently about beginning sentences with a number. To be honest, that’s one rule I wasn’t aware of, and I’d begun a sentence with a number. The “discussion” came about because someone said that a sentence in dialogue wasn’t right because it began with a number. I argue that all rules are off when a character is talking simply because, unless you’re totally anal, most folks ignore the vast majority of English rules in everyday speech. That’s just how we are. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say “We was…” when we all know it should be “We were….” And there are variations on all right: aw right or awright along with a’ight. Any of these is fine in dialogue, as far as I’m concerned, including starting sentences improperly. People do it all the time. So unless you want all your characters sounding like lecturing professors, use ’em, I say.

But there’s a dialogue style I hear lately that drives me bananas, and that’s the use of the word so. I haven’t seen it much in books yet, but it’s gotta be on its way. I’ve used it for a minor character in Spree because it fit (along with the irritating tendency people have these days of making everything sound like a question. But that’s a whole ’nother discussion entirely). I hear people doing it who should know better. You know, you’re listening to the news and they’re interviewing the head of some group. This person has enough degrees to wallpaper a room, but you get this when they’re asked something:

“As head of PETA, what are you doing to protest people petting animals?”

“So we went out on the street with signs made from paper that was processed from dead trees and…” This so-called statement will likely be phrased as a question, as in “So we went out on the street with signs made from paper that was processed from dead trees and held a protest in front of the Capitol against people petting animals?”


Lop the word so off the beginning of your statement and make a definitive statement instead of turning everything into a question. Put your foot down. If you believe that animals shouldn’t even be pets (and PETA does. They think it puts the animal in a subservient position, which tells me they’ve never been a human feline attendant, er, cat owner), the say so! That’s a proper use of the word so, and it’s not a friggin’ question.

Yes, I’m contradicting myself. Except that you have to remember I write about everyday people who use words like ain’t and phrases like we was. I’m probably turning into some kind of crusty old curmudgeon who can’t see outside his own prejudices. Well, that’s life. When I heard some twenty-year-old expressing regret that she felt relief as Osama bin Laden’s death and asking for a moment of silence, I gave up. We won’t have space travel because people are becoming too timid and too engrossed in the Internet and tweeting to bother with doing something so barbaric as exploring space. The meek will inherit the Earth and the rest of us will be stuck with them because we won’t be allowed to leave the planet. It might offend somebody, after all.

Yeah, you should use the word so the way a lot of folks use it in everyday speech now, even if offends you like it does me. I know I have plenty of shortcomings in my own speech, and I’m darn proud of a lot of them. I just had trouble coming up with something to blog about this week and decided to rant about something.

So there’s your rant (that’s another proper way to use it, by the way. I looked it up in my unabridged dictionary). It probably does no one any good, not even me. People will keep doing things the way they want to because, after all, the important thing is to conform and sound like everyone else.

I’ll shut up now.



Catching Up

Well, it turned out my “vacation” from writing on Pipeline lasted about ten days. I guess I got a little ahead of my subconscious or something. It even affected writing here, since I didn’t feel up to posting last week. I have to admit that it’s hard sometimes to spare the energy for this blog when I’m pouring so much into my novel.

As far as the novel goes, I’m still not sure how long it’ll end up being. Right now I’m still thinking somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words, depending on how the story goes. But, like I said before, I wasn’t expecting my guy to get involved in a shoot-out south of the border. The more I think about that, the more ramifications I can come up with. I suppose, in a way, that’s good, because it gives me options for continuing the story.

In the inspiration department, I’ve discovered (with the help of a local librarian) an author named Don Winslow (if you look him up on Fantastic Fiction, be aware there are two authors by that name and I’m not referring to the one who writes erotic novels, as you’ll see). I’ve read The Death and Life of Bobby Z, which is one of his older novels, and I’m working on The Power of the Dog. This last one is an epic novel of the drug war around the border. Characters vary from cartel leaders to a Catholic priest, a DEA agent and a high-priced call girl. They are all interesting characters and, like any good epic, how their stories tie together is captivating. Along the way you learn a lot about the drug wars and some of it you could probably do without.

It’s good for me to read this kind of stuff, though, because it helps broaden my own knowledge base about this whole drug war business. And, considering that figures at least peripherally into my novel, that’s all to the good.

So, anyway, I’ve managed to get back to writing, and the story seems to be taking some interesting turns. They’re still trying to anticipate what will come from this shoot-out (and so am I). I’ll try to keep you updated on what happens. Unless, of course, you’d rather not be updated and would prefer waiting for the novel to get published (cross your fingers!).

Well, I guess that’s about it for this week. Thanks for hanging in there with me.