Jonathan EvisonAfter finishing the first draft of my new book, I treated myself to a week-long "staycation," catching up on some books and movies. 

I finally got around to reading Jonathan Evison's West of Here. It's two books in one: a period western and a contemporary novel that evokes both Larry McMurtry and John Irving with its colorful characters, amiable losers, dark-comic undertones and strong women. The story is set in the fictional, Washington town of Port Bonita, intercutting between its pioneering, hard-scrabble inhabitants in the late 1800s and their descendants (and other assorted characters) in 2006. It's a gimmick that could be just that but both halves work surprisingly well, and could stand on their own as individual novels. Evison also manages to balance drama and comedy, social commentary and social satire, without a stumble, while also juggling a touch of magical realism at the same time.  It's a remarkable, highly entertaining, and invigoratingly original work.

No sooner was I done with that than Tachen's The James Bond Archives arrived on my doorstep…and nearly cracked the bricks underneath.

Visually, the book is stunning. It's a beautiful, handsomely produced book and the photos and other artwork are terrific. The information content, though, is a let-down. The chapters don't break any new ground or offer any revelations…they largely rehash information most Bond fans have read elsewhere and in far more detail in other books, articles and magazines. I was pleasantly surprised to see full-fledged chapters devoted to Charles Feldman's CASINO ROYALE and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN that were as lovingly crafted as the chapters devoted to the "official" canon. 

At fifteen pounds, this book isn't going to be very practical bathroom reading but you could take it to the gym…and read it as a weight lifting exercise. So although the book may disappoint from an information stand-point, I think it's still a must-have for Bond fans and a gorgeous addition to any library.

Rev124601cvrMore information rich, but less sumptuously produced, is Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmmation Generation by Scheimer and Andy Mangels. It's a complete, detailed history of the company and all of its animated and live action shows and feature films. 

It reads like the transcripts of a series of unedited inteviews with Scheimer.  

The plus side of that is that his character really comes through…you feel as if you're having coffee with the guy. He's got lots of great stories to tell, fascinating information to share, and he makes for lively company.

The downside of that is that he has a tendency to ramble,  digress and get easily distracted.  He takes some dead-end tangents and often starts some stories that he doesn't quite finish. For instance, he goes into great detail about the making of the Ghostbusters live-action show, and shares some wonderful anecdotes. He also says it was a big hit…but then doesn't explain why, if that was the case, it only lasted one season or what led to its cancellation. 

The "it reads like a transcript," first-person construction makes the book unwieldy and frustrating at times…but that's more than made up for by the sheer wealth of information,  memorable anecdotes, and tantalizing tidbits that you get. Like this one: they made a pilot for an animated, Saturday morning version of Quinn Martin's series Cannon, which starred William Conrad as a tough private eye. The animated pilot was called Young Cannon and would have been all about this fat kid solving crimes. I'd love to see that! 

One of my favorite stories Scheimer tells is about a writer that the network didn't like — so Scheimer fired the guy and hired a new writer that the network loved. In reality, Scheimer kept he same writer on and just had the guy put a pseudonym on the scripts. Scheimer also has some funny memories to share about Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who were big drinkers and started each shooting day of  Ghostbusters drunk

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable book that you don't have to be a Filmmation fan, or very familiar with all of the studio's shows, to appreciate.

The Best Time To Be a Writer

0728 TOP SUSPENSE ecover WRITING ON CRIME_SMIt’s news to no one that the publishing industry has undergone a massive paradigm shift in the last twenty-four months that has changed everything about the business for authors, booksellers, and publishers. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, the most important thing of all, and sadly too many authors aren't paying enough attention to it.

Thanks initially to the introduction of the Kindle, and Amazon opening up their storefront to authors, it’s no longer necessary to have a publisher in order to reach readers.  Authors now have options they never had before for getting their books to a national audience. Being dropped by a publisher, or having your books go out of print, are no longer the kiss of death. On the contrary, they present perhaps more profitable opportunities to exploit your material.

For new authors, it’s no longer necessary to go through the struggle of finding an agent who will then sell their work to a publisher, an odyssey than can take years…if it happens at all. Now it’s the publishers, editors and agent who are struggling ….desperately trying to reinvent themselves in a radically changing business.

Self-publishing is no longer the realm of vanity press vultures preying on aspiring, naïve and desperate authors…nor is it the complicated and outrageously expensive gamble, with pitiful chances of success, that it once was. It’s now possible to publish your book, both electronically and in print, with a mouse click, with little to no upfront investment…and to have your book  on the virtual shelf on equal footing with the likes of  James Patterson and Nora Roberts, at the Amazon and Barnes & Noble storefronts.

Writing careers are being born and, in the case of mid-list authors, reborn.

Now whenever authors get together, we are no longer discussing how we write, or problems with our editors, or tales of life on the road. The talk today is inevitably about reversion of rights letters, book scanning, copyediting, e-book formatting, the nuances of cover art, manipulation of metadata, e-pub vs. mobi, pricing, giveaways, marketing and publicity, social networking, blogging, tagging, liking, tweeting and pinning.

For established, professional writers, coming into self-publishing after years in the “legacy” publishing world, that isn’t such a bad thing.  They’ve learned and perfected their craft (or maybe I am just trying to excuse my own obsession with those aspects of the business). But I’ve listened to new writers at conferences or while lurking on writers’ boards and the newbie writers seem obsessed with everything except what matters most: the writing.

I believe it’s that misguided obsession that s leading to the ethical scandals we’ve been seeing lately… like John Locke who hired people to buy his books and write fake reviews (to artificially boost his rankings and acclaim) to establish himself… and Stephen Leather and RJ Ellory who both used “sock-puppets” on Amazon and social media to generate false buzz and fake reviews to boost their popularity and attack their "rivals."

What authors need to remind themselves is that all of that formatting, pricing, tweeting, social networking, etc. is meaningless if you don’t know how to tell a good story, create compelling characters, develop a strong voice, set a scene, establish a sense of place, or manage point-of-view.

I rarely hear writers anymore talking about the pluses and minuses of out-lining, the importance of an active protagonist, the different kinds of conflict, or the elements of structure. The craft of writing has taken a backseat to the business of publishing.

That’s one reason why the members of Top Suspense, have put together a book called WRITING CRIME FICTION.  We want to get the dialogue started again… to bring writers back to the one thing that will never change, even as the publishing business reinvents itself.

People want a good story.

That’s why writers write and readers buy books. Good stories. Great characters. That's what matters. Not whether you should write an erotic novel to cash in on FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY… or maybe focus on a YA novels since the HUNGER GAMES series is so hot.

Writers have been handed a great opportunity in the last twenty-four months. We now have tremendous control over our creative and financial lives as writers that we never had before. We now have choices that simply didn’t exist before.

Don’t blow it. Don’t become so focused on the business that you forget the craft. Take advantage of the freedom, and the opportunities, and the new choices by focusing on telling great stories.  Hone your craft, Find your voice…focus and less on how the story is packaged, sold and promoted. Help us shift the balance back to where it belongs…


Writing Good Sex

Hot-topic-sexThe trick to writing good sex scenes is the words you choose to do it. The words you use to describe sex…and the body parts…has to be a reflection of the characters and their attitudes…and the overall tone of the book.

To me, writing a sex scene is less about the sex itself than what the scene is supposed to accomplish as far as revealing character or furthering the plot. It shouldn’t just be there to turn the reader on…even if you’re writing erotica. The sex act, in and of itself, will be mere coupling between two creatures…and certainly won’t be compelling, entertaining or arousing if the reader isn’t emotionally invested in the characters.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, from my book WATCH ME DIE.

I guess something I learned from “Mannix” was true. Being a private eye really is an aphrodisiac to women. Carol had never attacked me like that before.

I’m afraid the surprise and excitement were too much, because I came in about three minutes. But I don’t think Carol minded; it calmed me down and allowed me to concentrate real hard on getting her off. And believe me, it took my complete attention. Pleasing a woman, especially Carol, isn’t easy and with me, at least, there’s a lot of potential for embarrassment and humiliation.

She rewarded me for all my hard work with a nice, squealing, writhing orgasm that nearly broke my nose on her pubic bone, but I didn’t mind. I even jumped in, literally, to enjoy the last few squeals of it with her.

It was so dark, and things happened so fast, she never saw my cuts and bruises, so she mistook my occasional groans of pain for pleasure.

Carol fell right to sleep afterwards.

Between the sex, the pain, and the things on my mind, I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked. But I get laid so rarely, I’m willing to sacrifice just about anything for it, especially sleep, when I usually dream about having sex anyway.

While the scene is explicit, more by implication than actual description, it’s not about the choreography or body parts. It’s about attitude and character — or, at least, I hope it is. To me, that’s how you get around the pitfalls of writing the sex scene.

I am so tired of sex scenes in thrillers where the lovers are confident and fantastic, erections last forever, the women are multi-orgasmic, and nobody leaves the scorched bed anything but extremely satisfied beyond their wildest, erotic dreams.

It was one of the sexual cliches I was trying to puncture with the sex scenes in WATCH ME DIE. My protagonist, Harvey Mapes, is anything but a perfect lover. In fact, most of the time, he comes way too soon and finds most aspects of sex, besides his own desire for lots of it, confusing and fraught with potential disappointment, humiliation and recrimination. It was so much easier, and so much more fun, to write that scene than the cliched, high-performance, sex that is the norm in the mysteries and thrillers that I read.

So the bottom line of writing great sex, in my opinion, is to give the scene an authentic, emotional or thematic foundation so that it’s about more than the sex itself — it’s telling a story by revealing character and reinforcing the novel’s core themes.