Tag Archives: Robert Crais

Getting Up Again

I reached a milestone yesterday: I finished a novel.

Let me explain. Yes, if you look on the sidebar, you’ll see I have novels for sale. And yes, they are finished novels. So what’s the big deal?

A little something called a slump. Or writer’s block. Take your choice.

A few years back, as I was writing my fourth novel about Lyle Villines (part of the Rural Empires setting with a working title of Hillbilly Hunt), I was shopping the novel Startup around to agents in New York. One of the submissions was to Aaron Priest, who rejected it, but didn’t send me a form rejection. He said that he loved the writing, but didn’t feel like anything happened for about the first one hundred pages.

Knowing it was against etiquette, I wrote back, asking if he would take another look (all while pointing out I knew it was against etiquette) if I rewrote that first part. The answer came from an assistant, who said she would read the rewrite, and if she judged it good enough, she’d forward it to Mr. Priest.

Fair enough. More than fair, in fact.

Long story short, I was rejected again. And I could see no way around it.

Now, to be fair, Mr. Priest did point out, in his original rejection notice, that this was his opinion only and another agent might well pick it up.

But I had stars in my eyes. Aaron Priest is Robert Crais’s agent—and Robert Crais is one of my favorite authors. Who wouldn’t want to share an agent with one of your heros?

The second rejection did something to me, and in the ensuing years, writing has been hard to do. I know it’s mental, that I need to find a way around it. Add to that the fact the novel I finished is a mystery—my first—and that compounded everything. I’ve never written a mystery, and they require some finesse. You don’t want to give it away, but you don’t want it to be impossible for the reader to solve, either. It’s a fine line you have to walk.

I kept getting closer and closer, but I’d write a passage or two, then stop for months (or longer) before I went back to it. I had to drag the last quarter or more of the novel out kicking and screaming.

Then, last week, my mentor died. I wrote about him in my last post. I won’t revisit all that, but I will say this: when Dusty Richards died, he’d written over 160 novels.

Let that sink in for a minute. One hundred and sixty.

Dusty’s philosophy? Keep writing.

No matter what happens in your life, keep writing. You’re a writer, so write. It’s that simple. He cranked out three or four books a year that way. Yes, they were westerns and some of them were short. But not all of them. Not by any means.

His dying changed something in me, something more than what happens when you lose someone who means that much to you. I realized that all the people Dusty had ever encouraged to keep writing were his legacy. And that most definitely included me.

I had to make him proud of the time he’d invested in me and others. Yes, many of them no doubt gave up. Make no mistake, this is a tough business, and you have to grow a thick skin. You’ll see far more rejection than you will acceptance.

But, as Dusty admonished so many budding writers, keep writing. Why? Because it’s your dream. Not everyone is cut out for this. Heck, not everyone who writes should be doing it. Let’s be honest here. But many, possibly most, are. And even those who can’t write very well yet will improve if they fall in with the right people, people who give them constructive criticism and encouragement.

And above all, keep writing.

Chances are, if you keep at it, you’ll run into a situation similar to mine, where you hit a wall and have trouble putting words on paper. Maybe life interferes. Maybe you get sent to Eastern Europe to spy on the Russians (if you do, mine that shit for stories). Maybe you have your first child. Maybe someone important to you dies. Maybe the rejection notices keep piling up and you wonder if it’s worth it to keep doing this.

Whatever the cause, for some reason, you can’t write. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to enough of us that there are endless articles about it and methods to deal with it.
The simplest solution is to do as Dusty told so many of us.

Keep writing.

I don’t care if it’s recipes, or crap you delete the next day, a frown of disgust on your face. And maybe you do it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

The point is, you’re doing something creative, and eventually it’ll turn into something you read, then nod to yourself and think, I’m keeping this.

It has taken me two, maybe three years to finish Animal Sacrifice, despite knowing, in general, how it was supposed to end (if your read this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m what’s called a pantser—I don’t outline my novels). I wrote some other things in between. I have a couple other novels started, and I managed to crank out a few short stories to keep the creative juices flowing at least to an extent.

But Animal Sacrifice sat there in its file, mocking me, it seemed. I knew what needed to happen, but getting the words out was all but impossible.

And yet, I kept writing.


Well, I have four finished novels prior to this. That’s proof I can do it. And it means I can do it more than once. Plus, I believe in this story, think it’s a good one, and it needs to see the light of day. Yes, there will be rewrites to turn it into a real mystery a toddler can’t solve in the first twenty pages, but the straight-line story is there, and it’s a good one. I say that without ego.

But I also saw my mentors, Dusty and Velda Brotherton—the two who started the writing group I’m a member of—turning out books, no matter what went on in their lives. Dusty spent a month in the hospital with pneumonia last spring.

He kept writing once he was out.

Velda has lost her husband, and her health has put her in a wheelchair.

She keeps writing.

That’s inspiration, folks. That’s drive.

That’s what we need to emulate.

I finished my novel, regardless of how hard it was to write. So go out there and finish yours, and finish the one after that, and the one after that, ad infinitum.
Keep writing.


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.



Learning From the Masters

One common thread that runs through most, if not all, of the writing how-to books and articles is the admonishment to read a lot. Of course, there are several reasons

for this. I tend to gain inspiration from the really good writers, and I get ideas, too. Something that’s a toss-off concept in one of their novels might spark a scene in mine. Take it, alter it, make it my own. Maybe it’s just a line of dialogue that makes me ask what if? Maybe it’s a scene in their novel that helps me handle part of my own, even if neither scene seems to have much to do with one another.

What it all amounts to, though, is that you pick up stuff by reading other writers’ works. And, if you’re like me, a lot of times you pick up more than you realize till one day it just sorta seems to show up in your own writing.

For instance, I love foreshadowing. I like throwing things at the reader that seem unimportant or even puzzling, only to have them show up later as having importance and making sense. Maybe it’s something minor, just a meeting with a character who shows up later as a key witness (so to speak), or an event that foretells a major plot development. I’m still learning how to do these things, and up until now, I’ve generally had to work that kind of thing in on my edit.

But I’m learning how to put them in on my first draft, and it’s exciting.

I’m picking this kind of thing up from reading Michael Connelly. He’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at it. You can’t discount anything in his novels, and I mean not the least little thing. If the main character buys hot dogs from a streetside stand, you better pay attention. The vendor might turn out to be an important part of the case.

Of course, it’s a basic principle that everything in your story is supposed to contribute in some way, whether it’s sense of place items, such as watching a car drive by outside the house, or character development, such as getting in an argument with another character. Ever good writer puts these kinds of things in his story, even if he sometimes needs outside help to do it (“This is a good scene, but I have no idea where we’re at here.”)

But with Michael Connelly, sense of place and character development more often than not contribute to the plot itself.

For instance, in Angels Flight,a prominent attorney who made his rep by suing the LAPD for civil rights infractions, beginning about the time of the Rodney King riots, is murdered in downtown LA, not far from his office. Because of the

Cover of "Angels Flight (Harry Bosch)"

Cover of Angels Flight (Harry Bosch)

scandals the department has been going through lately, and because the nature of the murder shows that it was somebody intimately familiar with marksmanship with a pistol, a good part of the LAPD can be counted as suspects. The lawyer had taken a lot of cops to trial.

Eventually, a detective in Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD), the elite squad that works out of headquarters and takes on the really tough cases, is arrested for the murder, then cleared. For Harry Bosch, the main character, it smells of politics and using the other cop as a scapegoat. Harry worked with the suspect in the past and knows he’s a good cop. Thanks to the atmosphere in the city, though, Harry offers to take the other cop—I can’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jack—and let Jack stay in Harry’s house. They drop by Jack’s house so he can grab some clothes and Harry stays outside in the car. It’s night, and he notices a car pull to the curb down the street and shut off its headlights. He watches for a few minutes, but when he doesn’t see anything else, decides it was probably someone who lived down there. It’s only toward the end of the book—when you’ve already all but forgotten the incident—that it’s revealed it was the bad guy, and he was following them.

I was only starting to realize how important details can be in Mr. Connelly’s books when I read this, so I chalked it off to sense of place, but did keep it in mind. And when it wasn’t mentioned again—the scene happens early in the book—I decided it was a sense of place thing: Harry’s not just sitting there in a vacuum. He’s in a living, breathing city, and there’s gonna be traffic on the streets. And Mr. Connelly could have easily left it at that: a minor thing that rooted you in the scene.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes it integral to the plot while still getting sense-of-place mileage out of it. I can’t think of a better example of economy of writing, of making everything count.

I recently wrote a scene in my tentative rewrite—and I do mean rewrite—of the first Lyle Villines novel. He’s had his meth lab blown up and has to find materials to build a new one, so he starts out by stopping at a farmer’s co-op store to see if they have empty five-gallon buckets, the kind farmers would buy their hydraulic fluid for their tractors in. Lyle passes it off as he needs them to store odds and end in, though, to be honest, using buckets that big for nuts and bolts—he specifically names these as some of the things he wants to put in them—is a little silly. A five-gallon bucket of nuts and bolts would be heavy.

Anyway, the kid who’s working the counter goes to the back to “look” for the buckets, but really tells the manager what’s going on. To me, it makes sense that they’d be on the lookout for that kind of thing, since they’re good material for a lab. While the manager makes sure he knows what Lyle wants, the kid goes out into the store.

Lyle doesn’t pay him much attention, and what he doesn’t know, but will figure out later, is that the kid was getting his license plate number. To Lyle, it’ll look as though the kid wasn’t sure how to take care of his request and got the manager, who then helped Lyle out. Once he leaves the store, the manager will call the cops and report what happened.

All of this will play into him being pulled over later—by the same cop who originally arrested him for cooking meth in the backseat of his car. This cop will be a sheriff’s deputy who takes his job seriously. He’s a good cop, but in this case he’s causing complications for Lyle. And since Lyle is working undercover for the task force, he can’t just tell the deputy what he’s up to, and the cop will keep a lookout for him through a lot of the rest of the book, maybe even through all the books. Since I write seat-of-the-pants, I can’t say for sure. I doubt I’ll use it through all the books because it’ll get stale after a while.

Now, is this on a par with Mr. Connelly? Not really. Not in my mind, at least. But it’s getting there. The kid going out into the store looks like sense of place. It is sense of place. But it’s also part of a developing subplot.

So, while I’m not making any claims to being as good as Michael Connelly, I am learning from him and hope to get close. I can’t pull off some of the things he does, because I’m not writing mysteries, where minute clues are more important than in a straight-up crime novel.

But I’m going to do my best to take his methods and adapt them, because I want my books to be more than just garden variety crime novels. I want you to care for the characters, for them to have real issues outside of the plotline, things that will get you involved in their lives for more than just the stuff they pull off through the course of the story. That I picked up from reading Robert Crais. Working minute details is something I’m soaking up from Michael Connelly.

So, even though in a way it seems like a guilty pleasure, don’t neglect your reading, because you never know what you’ll get out of it. And be able to put into your own stories.



Good Rejection

Okay, just for clarity, let’s start with the text in question. That way, I can ramble in the rest of the blog and you’ll understand what I’m rambling about.

Dear Gil Miller:

I have reviewed your manuscript PIPELINE: STARTUP. After careful consideration, I am sorry to say that I do not feel my interest is sufficient to pursue it any further with you. In case the following few thoughts might be useful to you, I would like to add:  Your writing itself, line by line, is skillful. Your main character Lyle Villines is interesting, likable, and even compelling. However, a crime novel must have a strong sense of forward motion in its pacing, and this is what your manuscript lacked, in my view. Your query’s synopsis told me of a plot that sounded enticing, yet by page 75, almost nothing had happened. My best advice to you, as you write, is to put at the forefront of your consciousness the concept of storytelling that sustains a tireless forward motion.

Publishing is an extremely subjective business, and other readers may react differently. I do wish you the best of luck in finding an agent or editor appropriately suited to your work.


Aaron M. Priest

So there you have it, in black and white.

What’s so special about this that I want to write a post on it? Well, as any writer who’s submitted his/her work will tell you, rejections like this are about as common as hen’s teeth. Agents are busy folks. They get who knows how many submissions every week. Just having one read your ms is a major achievement—one that any writer will tell you is exhilarating and nail-biting at the same time.

Because they’re so busy, agents rarely send more than a form rejection that basically says I can’t get behind your writing and don’t have time to tell you why. This is a subjective business. Best of luck in the future. Heck, they don’t all say that last, but most do. Or maybe they don’t qualify their opinion as being subjective. Okay, fair enough. I understand that, and I’m sure most, if not all, writers do, too. At least, it’s hoped they do.

So, to get a personalized rejection like this is great, because now I know why it’s being rejected. And that’s worth far more than its weight in gold.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Didn’t you just tell me that this is a subjective business? Can Mr. Priest’s opinion really mean that much?”

To me, yes. Why? Well, first of all, he’s the agent—as I’ve probably gone on ad nauseam about—to Robert Crais, my biggest inspiration and influence for writing crime fiction. But that’s a subjective reason, and I know that.

The better reason, in this case, is that he’s right.

I was—as I’m sure you expect—a bit disappointed when I first got this rejection. It’s a boost to your self-confidence when an agent for famous, bestselling authors shows an interest in your work. But that means heightened expectations, no matter how hard you try not to let them build up, and when you’re rejected, the fall is farther. At least, that’s how it’s worked for me so far.

And it’s even worse when you’re not sure why they’re rejecting your work.

Well, now I know because, in a nutshell, he’s right. For me, it was the elephant in the room, the nose on my face. As a member of my writing group said when I asked their advice, I’d let myself get far too comfortable with Lyle. I’ve sympathized with him too much. It made for great writing—that’s not just my own ego speaking there, its backed up by reactions from my writing group—but not the kind of thing that needs to be in a crime novel.

As Mr. Priest pointed out.

The more I thought about it—after getting past the initial disappointment, that is—the more it made sense. Especially after reading the letter to group and getting their feedback, which amounted to what I just said. Dusty Richards said it best: there needs to be dead bodies.

Lyle needs to be in danger. Part of what happened when I was writing was that I looked at that fact that you can’t just decide to get into dealing drugs and expect everyone to go, “Oh, okay, sure. C’mon in, dude. We got a place at the table for you.”

Drug dealing—at every level—is as cutthroat as any other business. Its illegality is just spice to the mix for the folks that do it. That and the fact they don’t pay taxes. Many of them are in it for the thrill of getting away with something society as a whole frowns on.

So, my main thought as I wrote the first part of my novel was to ease Lyle into the business because he’s not gonna just waltz in and snuggle up next to a major dealer/distributor. That ain’t happenin.

The other thing I was concentrating on was breaking Lyle’s naïveté. I wanted him to be largely ignorant of the true ravages of meth, and my first major turning point in the novel was for him to view a meth cook’s house and have it rock him to his foundations. I’ve written about reaction to that part of the book elsewhere, and I won’t rehash it here.

Between these two goals, the first part of the novel falls on its face, action-wise. It’s a great character study. By the time you get to that proverbial page 75, you should know Lyle very well. But he’s not been in any danger up till now. He’s had his worldview altered when it comes to what meth does to people, and he’s met the Higgins family, which is potentially dangerous, but he’s pretty much unscathed other than that.

And those two things don’t really count.

See, meeting the Higginses was necessary. He befriends them, and they’re his way into the world of major drug dealing.

And seeing the ravages of meth addiction is critical to character development. One of the things I really like about Robert Crais’s characters—and I’m referring to his major characters of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike here—is that he gets us inside their heads. Even as the world is going to shit around them and they’re dealing with some truly dangerous people—they’ve gone up against Russian Mafia and LA gangstas—things are going on inside them that make us root for them not only on the plot points, but on a personal level as well.

That’s what I want from my novels. Mr. Crais has stretched the boundaries of the crime novel, and I want to follow him into that unexplored territory.

Unfortunately, I forgot the essential: he still writes a damn good crime novel. The other stuff is subplot, not main plot. I let character take center stage. Fine of you’re writing literary fiction, but I’m not. Spree definitely does not qualify for that, not by any stretch. And I don’t want to enter that snobby world anyway.

It’s ironic that this should happen to me—and I’m referring to my previous post entitled “Keep It Moving, Just Not Too Much”—since I’ve complained about just this kind of thing. I can’t objectively say whether or not my novel moves, but I can say that, in my opinion, Lyle definitely moves through that part, he just doesn’t do it in a compelling way. It’s more like he went into an art gallery and he’s wandering around looking at paintings, deciding what he likes and what he doesn’t on a whim. He’s not there as a critic, not seeing the overall theme that art showings are supposed to have (I can’t attest to this as I’m a lowbrow who doesn’t go to art showings).

Lyle just kinda ambles through things until he accidentally hits on a turn in the plot.

That could be excused in the first draft. For that part of the story, he’s exploring because I was exploring. I was getting to know him as I wrote, and I was trying to figure out how to aim him in the direction he needed to go. The need to just write the damn story overwhelmed other things. A telling point there is that here we had a novel that I intended to have come in around 90,000 words end up being two novels long.

One of the hazards of writing seat-of-the-pants.

But, on edit, I should have seen this lack of action for what it was and corrected it. I didn’t. I do now, of course, but we all know what hindsight’s like. You smack yourself on the forehead—I’ve only done that figuratively so far—and wonder how in hell you coulda missed that. Especially when you bitched about it on a blog post, right out there where all and sundry can read it.

Hmm. Never realized what crow tasted like. Not to this extent, anyway. It’s one thing to eat it in front of one friend, but in front of my (admittedly limited) readership? Gah.

This one’s getting long, but I’d like to take a moment to thank the members of my writing group for their suggestions, all of which I’m taking into consideration. Some won’t work because of story structure, while others…well, I just have to figure out how to incorporate them into the story.

The good news? It’s not a major rewrite. Mr. Priest has a point, but things do start picking up after that. I’ll still look at it more closely, see if there’s a way to improve on what’s there. No, let me re-phrase that: see how best to improve on what’s there.

One last thing: There’s a feeling that runs through all of Mr. Crais’s novels that I haven’t—until now—been able to quite name. It’s there no matter what his characters are doing, and it’s something that goes beyond the fully realized world or the situations his characters find themselves in. It’s what makes me admire his work, and I’d love to incorporate it in my work, because it’s what makes his so compelling.

Now I know what it is: menace. I originally considered that it was danger, but that’s too blatant, too obvious, and it didn’t feel right. It’s menace, man. They brush up against the dark side of society each and every day, and they get on with the good things in life anyway.

That’s what my books need: menace. Lyle’s fallen into the world of crime, whether he wanted to or not, and he’s gotta deal with that for the rest of his life. Time for me to make him deal with it.

Good rejection. There is such a thing.



Robert Crais

I don’t know how regular I’ll be about this, but it was an idea for this week, at least. I haven’t been that good at the book reviews, but then I feel like I don’t do a real good job of those. I spot what I like about a given book but forget to mention some of the things I don’t. Maybe I’ll still do that some, if only because there are lots of weeks I don’t know what to write about. I don’t like to get on the soapbox because this is not supposed to be a political blog, though I occasionally do when something’s been bothering me a lot. As a rule, though, I’d prefer to avoid that.

So, I’m gonna start this week with what I hope will be an occasional series talking about authors that inspire and/or influence me. We’ll see how it works out.

You’d think I might start with Stephen King, but I talk about him enough as it is. I’ve stated before that he’s the one who showed me you didn’t have to sound like an English Major with a thesaurus handy in order to write good prose. (We used to have a preacher who wrote to the Madison County Record who sounded like he really did keep one on hand. He used words I’d never heard of and, of course, he just came off sounding pretentious. Or should I say he sounded full of hot air?)

Another influential author is Robert Crais. Yeah, I’ve mentioned him before as well, but I’d like to go into a little more detail about him.

I don’t plan to profile authors so much as their work, because that’s what truly motivates me. There are certain authors that, when I read them, I want to run to the keyboard and pound out some words of my own. They inspire me not so much to write like them—I’m past that point where you copy your influences—as write up to their standard if I can. I don’t want to sound like Robert Crais or Stephen King, but both authors make me want to craft words of my own, to strive to make my work approach theirs.

Robert Crais writes mostly of LA private detective Elvis Cole. And even some of his non-Elvis novels connect, with the exceptions of The Two Minute Rule and Hostage.

Mr. Crais is from Louisiana originally, but he moved to LA, where he worked as a screenwriter. In that job, he wrote for such shows as Miami Vice, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues. As I understand it, he turned to novels to escape the strictures of screenwriting.

The first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987 and doesn’t even come close to what the later ones, such as L.A. Requiem are. But that’s to be expected. You hope a good author gets better as he goes along.

I’m actually of two minds about recommending you read the entire series. There are some elements that carry from one to the other, though not for the first few novels. On the other hand, you get to see how the characters evolve, especially Joe Pike, Elvis’s partner in the agency.

Joe is a former Marine with two combat tours and was in Force Recon. He’s done time as a mercenary, but only when he sees a cause he can get behind. He’s not your typical soldier-of-fortune. He owns a gun shop in Culver City, drives a red Jeep Cherokee, and has red arrows tattooed on both his deltoids. The idea is that he never looks back, but always moves forward. He’s quiet, taciturn, always wears mirror-lens sunglasses, even at night.

This kind of thing sound familiar? It will if you think about the decade Mr. Crais started writing about these guys. He makes Elvis—not only the main character but the narrator—more approachable. Elvis is a gourmet cook, drives a yellow 1966 Corvette Stingray, and practices yoga for exercise. How many 80s tough guys would be caught dead doing yoga?

Joe, on the other hand, is the typical tough guy, and you can see Crais’s influence from Robert B. Parker and his Spenser character. Spenser is also a gourmet cook who smarts off to everyone, though he’s something of a clothes horse where Elvis prefers shorts and Hawaiian-style shirts. In Joe Pike we have the tough guy sidekick that resembles Hawk from the Spenser books.

I haven’t been able to read all of Mr. Parker’s books, though I did read about three of the early ones. I’ll probably work my way through them, but from what I can see, Mr. Crais departed from his initial influence and charted his own course.

Again, what you’d expect from a good author.

If you read the series, you’ll see that there are reasons Joe is the way he is. He’s not that way just to be a tough guy. He’s a tough guy because he had to be. His father was an alcoholic, abusive father/husband. When Joe got big enough to beat his father up, the man never touched Joe or his mother again. But Joe left and never went back.

Elvis, on the other hand, was raised more by his grandparents because his father was absent and his mother would run off at times, saying she was going to bring his father back. Elvis had another name when he was born, but when he was about three, Elvis Presley hit the scene, and Cole’s mother was a huge fan, so she renamed him. If I remember correctly, eventually his mother was committed and he joined the Army.

Elvis and Joe are both Vietnam vets.

The way Elvis smarts off, both in the text and in dialogue with other characters, is what inspired me to make Lyle Villines the same way, though with a more Arkansas sense of humor. Another thing Elvis does is describe LA lovingly, but it’s true love, not the romantic kind. He sees its shortcomings, too, all its ugliness and its attractions. I try to do the same with the Ozarks.

The series takes a major turn for the better with L.A. Requiem. In that novel, Elvis and Joe’s friendship is put to the test when one of Joe’s old friends, Frank Garcia, calls on him to find out who killed his daughter, a former lover of Joe. Frank is rich, but he came up in the barrio as a member of the White Fence gang. Now, you can buy his convenience store Mexican food in pretty much every store in LA. He will spare no expense in solving the murder of his daughter.

Joe ends up becoming a suspect in the murder because the woman is actually one in a long line of girls killed by a serial killer—who looks just like Joe. Even drives a red Jeep. So Joe has to drop off the radar, doesn’t even contact Elvis. But Elvis never gives up believing in his friend, and the climax of the novel is both satisfying from the mystery point of view as well as emotionally.

You can see the series building up to this departure when Elvis takes a case that requires him to travel to Louisiana, where he meets an attorney named Lucy Chenier. Lucy eventually moves to LA, but their relationship doesn’t last. I know I’m giving a lot away, but I’m trying to make it just enough to pique your curiosity. There’s a lot of ground I’m not covering here.

Mr. Crais explores these kinds of subjects more and more, even giving Joe his own spinoff series starting with The Watchman. We get to find out more about how Joe thinks and what motivates him. Elvis makes cameos, of course, but he’s not the main character and we get to see what Joe does when he’s not with Elvis.

Mr. Crais says he doesn’t recommend you read these novels in order because he’d prefer you read what he’s writing now as opposed to seeing where he came from. I can understand his opinion, but as a writer I’d also say you might consider, at some point, reading in order as I did, if only to get the whole story and see how Mr. Crais evolved as a writer and his characters evolved as people.

There’s an emotional undercurrent in all the books since L.A. Requiem. The Forgotten Man is somewhat poignant when a man who claims to be Elvis’s father is discovered shot in an alley, pulling Elvis back to his childhood (this is where we find out a lot of his back story), while in the previous novel, The Last Detective, we learn of an incident from Elvis’s Vietnam service that’s having an effect on his life today. And, along the way, the books go from being typical mystery novels to something more. Sometimes we know who the culprit(s) is, sometimes we just think we do. In others, such as L.A. Requiem, we get tantalizing glimpses of the antagonist, but they only deepen the mystery.

I don’t know if I can ever achieve Mr. Crais’s level of writing or success, but he will continue to inspire me. And, if things work out, his agent, Aaron Priest, is looking at my first novel as I write this (though he may have rejected me by the time I post it), and wouldn’t it be awesome to share agents with one of your inspirations?

I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you want to see where crime novels can go without getting off-base, read Robert Crais. He might end up being the only crime writer you read.



Influence And Inspirations

Those of you who read this blog with any regularity know that I talk about Stephen King a lot. He’s been a major influence and inspiration for me. I got hooked on King longer ago than I care to admit: back when they aired ’Salem’s Lot as a two-part miniseries on, I believe, CBS. Yeah, it was that long ago. I was a young teenager.

Those of you who’ve seen are probably wondering how in the world that could possibly hook me on King. Well, see, what happened was, I saw the last half of it. And I liked it well enough that I wanted to know what happened in the first half. This was before the days of video tapes or DVDs, long before, so waiting till it came out on video wasn’t an option. Not where I lived, at least. So, when I found out the series was based on a book, I started looking for the book.

It wasn’t easy to find good books in my area. I grew up in a largely rural county—something that would fit easily into one of King’s books, in fact—and the best source for books was the local Rexall drug store. They had one of those spinning racks that you used to see (these days they carry cheap-ass toys at convenience stores, if you see them at all), and that meant the selections were usually limited to bestsellers.

It’s been a long time, and I don’t remember how I eventually came across the copy. And I thought he was some new, unknown author, so you can imagine my surprise when I happened on a convenience store clerk reading a copy of The Shining. That led to me finding out he’d written other books, and before long, I was hooked.

In those days, I read science fiction and fantasy exclusively, so delving into King’s works opened up new worlds for me. Here was a guy who was putting everyday people, many of them resembling folks I knew, into extraordinary situations. And they usually didn’t come out unscathed. Considering this was also about the time I discovered Sapir and Murphy’s The Destroyer series, that was a good counterbalance. Remo Williams seemed to never get hurt seriously. Besides, Remo was this über-skilled martial artist who practiced a mythical, almost magical art known as Sinanju. He got sick when he ate hamburgers—one of my favorite food groups to this day—and could do incredible things. Even if he could never truly please his master and mentor, Chiun, a smartass Korean who was the master of Sinanju and prejudiced against all non-Koreans. It was harder to relate to these characters than it was the local yokels that populate King’s novels.

For me, King broke the mold. He showed that you didn’t have to sound “writerly” to be a good, successful writer. I’m sure there are tons of critics who hate him to this day for that, and I bet he cries all the way to the bank about it. He’s drawing from a long, honored tradition, too, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway and on down to Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald. Dean Koontz deserves mention, as well.

We don’t all have to sound like Nathaniel Hawthorne or William Shakespeare (though it can be argued he wrote in the idiom of his day, as well) to be good writers.

For me, King’s role is both inspiration and influence. When I read his work, especially going back to what I consider his two best works, The Stand and It, I want to sit down at the keyboard and emulate his quality. Not his voice—though I did go through a phase of that years and years ago—but his quality. It’s thanks to him that I want to populate my novels with the everyday people I see around me instead of Superman or some of Ayn Rand’s perfectomundo, shiny-perfect capitalists.

And, for a long, long time, if someone asked who was my inspiration, I’d point to King and King alone. I liked other authors, but I couldn’t say many of them inspired me. Tolkien did to the same extent he did other hopeful fantasy authors: we wanted to create a world as enduring to readers as Middle-earth, even when we knew we probably couldn’t.

I started branching out in my reading tastes in my mid-teens. I discovered Louis L’Amour, then dipped into intrigue with Robert Ludlum. I devoured every one of his books I could find. I read his Jason Bourne series long before Matt Damon splashed them across the silver screen (are they still silver these days?). But L’Amour had far too much first-hand knowledge of the West—a standard I couldn’t match—and Ludlum packed far too many twists and turns in his plots. No way could I match either of these guys, even as I enjoyed their writing.

 For years, things stayed just about there. I read mostly sf and fantasy, with some Tom Clancy and a few one-offs thrown in for variety. Then, in 2007, my daughter got in contact with me. Thanks to a minor misunderstanding (that had major consequences) between her mother and me, I’d had no contact for about fifteen years. Wouldn’t have known the girl if I bumped into her on the street. Now, her mother and I are fighting against some geographical/financial problems in an effort to get back together, and I find out my daughter is also a writer.

I visited them twice that year in Santa Monica, and my daughter and I have grown increasingly closer to one another since then. No Hollywood, instant hugs and tears reunion, but a more sedate, solid growing together that I’m enjoying immensely. And writing gave us common ground.

Because I missed them so much, I started looking for stories that took place in the LA area. That led me, eventually to Jonathan Kellerman, then Robert Crais and now people like Don Winslow. I haven’t read all of Kellerman’s novels, though I do have most of them on my to-be-read list. I have read the majority of Crais’s novels, and I’ve read all of his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels. I think the only standalones I have yet to read are Hostage and The Two Minute Rule.

LA is a good place to set a novel, that’s for sure, and I wish I had more knowledge of the place so I could set one there. The one I’m working on right now starts there, but doesn’t stay for long. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed discovering the whole LA Noir thing, and I have some Chandler novels I intend to read at some point to get the feel for old LA.

The big breakthrough novelist who changed my voice considerably was Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him here before, and you’ll probably hear mention of him again. His writing style is so free and informal—more so in some ways than I want my own to be—but seeing that someone could write that way and find an audience really freed me up to get away from my more formal voice. In fact, what you see here on my blog is my more formal voice, though I do try to throw in jokes and such to loosen it up some. I guess I still have that voice in me and it needs some expression. This is a good place to do it. After all, it’s nonfiction and what one writer friend of mine calls non-billable word count, so if I want to sound like a professor moonlighting, I’ll do it. It’s my blog and I’ll write it how I want to (hey, that almost fits the meter of the original song, doesn’t it?).

All these, and more, are what you’d call my literary inspirations. They’re standards I strive to meet, or they inspire me to be more creative in my writing, to break some boundaries, if I can. But there’s a more important inspiration, and I want to acknowledge it here: my family.

By that, I mean my daughter, her mother, and my daughter’s brothers. I know the way I’ve worded that sounds a little weird, but keep in mind that, though my daughter’s brothers aren’t mine biologically, I still love them to death. I want all of them to be proud of me, and my daughter and I form our own little writer’s support group. For me, her support is better than and exclusive of the other writers I know. She makes me want to be a better dad and a better writer, and she’s not a slouch writer herself. I’ve just finished my first read-through/critique of her new YA novel, and I have to say it’s excellent. Her writing, already very good, has improved so much lately that it’s almost scary.

But, thanks to these four people, my life has changed in so many ways. I’ve grown up quite a bit, for one. I’ve never had the chance to be a hands-on dad until now (Jesi was six months old when her mom and I split up, and I wasn’t very hands-on back then), and I find I’m loving it. And missing a lot because we can’t be together. But we talk regularly, and I feel special since I’m the first one who got to see Jesi’s new novel. I hope she can find a publisher for it, because it deserves a larger audience than just family and friends. It’s a good story, with characters you can get behind. So keep your eyes on this blog and on hers (jesimarie.blogspot.com) for news of it being published and, when it is, run, don’t walk, out and buy it.

None of this makes me special. Read the acknowledgments page of any novel, and you’ll find spouse and/or family thanked. We can’t write these books alone, even if we’re the only ones putting the words down. Without loving support, it’s hard. It took that loving support to get me serious about my writing, and I know someone who may well be giving up on his writing because he lost his support system.

 I’m thankful everyday for each and every person who inspires me, but most especially for my family. You guys are the best.



It’s a Wrap

Well, it’s done. I finished it Sunday, and the first draft clocks in at 213,860 words, 666 pages. Not exactly a short story, by any means. I’m still a little shocked at its length and the fact I wrote it in about five months calendar time—89 days actual time. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a daily goal of 2,000 words, and I’ve reached a point where I can manage that in a couple of hours on a good day. Now, I just worked that out. Averaging two hours per day—and I think I’m probably being very conservative there—it works out to a little over 7 days actual writing time. If I double it to four hours—probably more realistic, for an average—it’s just under 15 days.

Mathematicians say numbers never lie. That’s true as far as it goes, but in this case, they don’t tell the full story, as any writer can tell you. The figures I just quoted are largely meaningless. All they tell you, or me, is how long I spent setting at the keyboard typing. They don’t tell how much time I spent thinking about the story, or how many hours of sleep I lost looking at ideas from every angle I could think of. They don’t count the time spent reading aloud in my writer’s group and getting critiques (or how many are left. I’m just getting started on that front), or the times I’ve bounced ideas off my daughter and a friend of mine, among other people. Many of whom probably got tired of me asking them for their thoughts on something they had little investment in.

And I haven’t even put in the time to interview experts whose input I hope to get, such as someone from our Fourth Judicial Drug Task Force. And it doesn’t count the rewrite hours I’ll spend once I have some distance from the story.

If you read author acknowledgement pages like I do, you’ve probably seen the countless times an author has thanked everybody including his dog (yes, I’ve seen that). It’s a little like suffering through one of those Oscar acceptance speeches. But they have a point: the writing is done alone, but crafting the novel is anything but a solo endeavor. I’ve bounced ideas off my daughter, my best friend, fellow authors in my group, I’ll be getting help from law enforcement (I hope), and one of my daughter’s friends is going to help me with my Spanish.

And that doesn’t count the inspiration I’ve gained along the way from so many sources. Reading books by people like Robert Crais and T. Jefferson Parker, Don Winslow and Robert Ellis and who knows how many other authors along the way.

Then there’s the moral support. Folks who give occasional opinions along the way and loads of encouragement, chief among them—yes, it’s true—my ex-wife. I would have to say that it’s been her belief in me as well as that of my daughter that’s helped the most. My ex likes my stories and has been waiting for me to finish this so she could read it.

I’ve heard several times that, if housewives were paid what they were worth, they’d probably be some of the best-paid people out there. I have no argument with that. However, I would say that authors are a close second. We put in a lot of hours that are never seen by readers, and only a few of us make to the Stephen King level. Then, if you take into consideration all the time we put into trying to get published—querying agents and/or publishers, putting in as much effort on query letters as we do on novels—essentially working on spec with the expectation of low pay for all that time, and I’d say we’re very underpaid. It’s not something anyone can expect to get rich doing. Yes, it happens, but for every Dean Koontz or John Grisham, there are probably a hundred or more for whom writing is simply extra income, rather than a full-time job. In other words, you gotta love it to do it.

For me, the feeling of satisfaction has been a big payoff. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’ve talked in the past about how, every time it seemed like I was closing in on an ending, Lyle would up and do something new I had to pull him out of. I was starting to wonder if I was writing the unending novel, if I had the ability to tie it all up in a neat knot. I’ll leave it to the critiques to tell me if I did that, but at least I ended it and can move onto something else. It’s good when character takes on a life of his own like Lyle did. When he does, it’s more like dictation than writing: you’re just recording the events as they happen. Years ago, back in the Dark Ages when writers still used those things called typewriters, Stephen King called it “falling through the page.” It’s a feeling I can relate to, though these days it’s falling through the monitor.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I hope to get published for more than monetary reasons. I don’t know how many authors have said that, if you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t fully realize what that meant until I wrote this novel. I’d love to see my book on the shelf in a store, love to cash (or deposit) that first check. But what can I expect to get out of it? Realistically? I haven’t checked the crime genre, but I know that, last year, one agent posted on her blog (I believe the address is pubrants.blogspot.com) that the average advance for sf/f ranged from $5,000 to $25,000. Pretty decent pay, but first novels probably tend to the low end of that range and rarely earn back the advance. Give that some thought and you’ll see why doing it purely for the money is silly.

But, like Louis L’Amour, I see myself as a storyteller. I want to entertain. Five thousand years ago, I would have been the guy sitting around the fire telling the tribe about the gods, or ancient heroes, or who knows what. These days, I shoot lower: I want to tell stories from the criminal side of crime stories. It’s a unique challenge, because I have to make the reader care about a criminal. It’s probably a lot easier to make you care about the cop chasing the criminal. I figure that’s why most crime novels are told from the cop’s POV. Or the private investigator’s. Someone on the correct side of law and order. Nothing wrong with that, either. It’s the staple for the genre and likely stems from crime being a subgenre of the mystery—which is always (as far as I know) told from the cop’s POV because the idea is to solve the crime along with the protagonist.

But, as I’ve stated elsewhere, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do the things they do? Why do they insist on breaking the rules the rest of us have agreed on? Back in the days of the Saturday serials, it was easy enough to have the bad guy be someone like Ming the Merciless who spouted melodramatic lines about advancing the cause of evil. Audiences accepted this one-dimensional approach, because all they really wanted was the good vs. bad framework.

Who cared about characterization? What difference did some past trauma make to the bad guy’s motivation? He’s evil and that’s all we need to know.

That won’t work these days, and I’m glad. As I think I’ve pointed out elsewhere, even Hitler, as extreme as he was, thought he was doing good. He saw the Jewish race as less than human and a threat. It didn’t matter if his viewpoint was reasonable. As humans, we rarely have reasonable viewpoints (if you don’t believe me, witness the current dog and pony show Congress is putting on. Watch the monkeys prance and caper!). But those viewpoints are always reasonable to us. If I think that all blacks are less than human, for instance, as White Supremacists do, I can find “reasons” to back up my opinion. I mean, if you can stand to listen to it for long (or read it), look at how much they believe blacks taint the rest of us and all that rot. I went to the oldest White Supremacist Website (I wish I could remember the address) and had to just shake my head at what I was seeing.

The point being, these people aren’t criminals just for the sake of being criminal. They aren’t “advancing the cause of evil” or anything so ridiculous. And I don’t know that I’ll keep telling stories from the criminal’s POV. I’m even keeping the open the possibility of writing more sf/f. But for now, I’m happy with crime and criminals.

And very happy to have finished Pipeline. Now the real work will start.



Nose to the Grindstone

Well, as the title suggests, I’ve been putting my nose to the grindstone the past couple days. I think I posted on here that I wrote 2,189 words Monday. Well, yesterday was, in its way, even more productive. I wrote 2,169 (yes, only 20 words less) yesterday, bringing my two-day total to 4,358 words. I even set up an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of both daily and running counts for PersoNo.

In other news, although I wrote twenty words less, I also wrote a query letter and sent it off to the Donald Maass Agency. I picked them first because Mr. Maass is Brent Weeks’s agent and that impressed me (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, see my post called “The Way of Shadows”). Their agency requires a query letter, synopsis and five pages of ms, and they promise to reply in four weeks. Since that’ll be outside my window for when my Internet service will die, it might be a little tough to tell you when I know something, but I’ll do my best. In all honesty and pragmatism, I expect rejection. That way I’m not disappointed. It is a practical consideration though, given the math. The average acceptance rate is somewhere between one and three percent, depending on the agency, so in order to keep from being depressed, I am expecting the be rejected. It just boils down to hitting the right agent at the right time.

Off the top of my head, I only know of two people who read this blog who are doing NaNo, but I invite you to post how you’ve done so far on here if you wish. I have no problem with that. If I can help you get noticed by people I know that you don’t, we all win. Add links if you like (and if this blog allows that in comments). It’s tough to get noticed in publishing and if I can help in any way I’m proud to do so. I know it’s not like I have thousands of readers, so maybe posting on here doesn’t mean much, but just remember the old six degrees of separation concept, which says something like only six people separate you from the person you need to know to achieve your goals (if I’ve worded it wrong, forgive me. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the concept stated).

I wish every NaNo writer lots of luck. It can be tiring churning out that word count every day.

Most of my word count has gone toward my crime novel Pipeline. Despite the research I still need to do for the novel (regarding details like how meth deals actually go down), I’ve decided to go ahead and bull my way through. After all, my own personal writing goal is at least 2,000 words per day, and if I can do that for 30 days, that’s 60,000 words. And it just might get me in the groove of doing that every day of the year, which will churn out a 100,000 word novel in less than two months. So I think I’ll just use my imagination on the first draft and give myself time to do the research on rewrite. I’ve even thought that it might be better that way, rather than be accurate on the details of drug dealing and put it out there for people to read (assuming it gets published, of course). I’ve seen several authors change details to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. Robert Crais does it in his novel Demolition Angel with details about explosives. I can go with that. I don’t particularly want an explosives manual running around out there, especially when it’s a best-selling author like Mr. Crais. What do you think? Should I be accurate, or should I leave details out or change them altogether?

Well, I’m going to keep this one short. I feel like I was pushing it yesterday. When I finished my query letter I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write or not. It was my first ever query letter, the first time I’ve actually thrown my work out there for complete strangers to see. I don’t even count my writing group there, because I went to probably three or four meetings at least before I brought my own material. It’s a daunting thing to do, I can tell you, and it left me unsure if I could get it together to write. But, I made myself sit down and do it and things went far better than I expected. Nothing wrong with that.