Saturday, June 25, 2016

Stumbling Into a Title

I have a bad relationship with titles.

Of the nine books I’ve written since 2013, exactly two titles came during the writing of the novel itself. THE PHANTOM AUTOMOBILES, Gordon Gardner’s first book, was one. The other is my first western novel, ALWAYS BET ON RED, which I completed this past spring. Interestingly, I already have a nearly certain title for the sequel: DEAD MEN CAN’T CHEAT. For the rest of my stories, I’m title-less.

Which can be a bit of a problem. How can I include future books in my “Also by” list if I don’t have a title? Short answer: I can’t.

Right now, I’m readying two books for publication later this year. One is the second Gordon Gardner book, a direct sequel to THE PHANTOM AUTOMOBILES. The other book is the first to feature Lillian Saxton in the lead role. She’s the character who hired private investigator Benjamin Wade in WADING INTO WAR. I liked her so much that I created a whole series for her, and this first book is my favorite that I’ve written so far.

But what the heck to call it? If you check the excerpt I have on my website, you’ll see that I refer to it as “Lillian Saxton #1.” I even got a little mock-up cover.

I have the editor’s changes back and they are mostly integrated. The book is nearing its readiness for the world. And believe me: this is the book I want everyone to read. It’s got a little of everything: old flames, action, suspense, espionage, discussions of treason, and my favorite car chase sequence. It’s wonderful.

If I only knew what to title it. Well, this week, I believe I have stumbled into the title.

One of the themes is treason and loyalty. For the longest time, “treason” was a word I kept using in my potential title list. I didn’t mind it so much, but my very first novel is titled TREASON AT HANFORD and I didn’t want two books to compete. I made a list of synonyms of treason: betrayal; treachery; deception; seduction; forsaken; exploit and more. My antonym list was much shorter: trust, faith, and valor. Right now, you can put together a title using just those words and you’d have a perfectly acceptable thriller title. But not a truly unique one.

I was getting frustrated until I started thinking of other aspects of the book. My draft book description reads thusly:

Sergeant Lillian Saxton receives a cryptic message from an old flame: meet me in Belgium and I’ll not only give you the key to the Nazi codebooks but also information about the man who murdered your brother.
Lillian conducts her missions for the Army with panache and confidence, even when bullets start to fly and enemy agents zero in to kill her. She’s more uncertain of how she’ll react when she sees the man who broke her heart or how she’ll get out of Belgium when the Nazis launch their invasion.

Lillian does not reveal to her superior officers that her old friend has knowledge about her murdered brother. She doesn’t want to be told to stay in America. So, she has an ulterior motive.

Bingo! The phrase “Ulterior Motive” sounded pretty good. But it leaned a little too much to crime and mystery whereas this novel is a World War II thriller. So I kept banging around trying to figure out a word I could substitute for ‘motive.’ It didn’t take long before I had one.

So, with a high degree of certainty, the title of the first Lillian Saxton thriller will be ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES.

What do y'all think of the title? 

How are y’all at titles? Do you have them before you start, halfway through, or after the manuscript is completed?

Friday, June 24, 2016

I Like the Way You Die.

I could watch Tim Roth die all day.

Not  because I hate him, it's just that he's so damn good at it.

We all have our talents and his is dying in interesting, engaging ways.

I've watched him die at least 125 times in Reservoir Dogs alone. It's the kind of skill you don't really think of as a skill until you see someone knock it out of the park. It's like Elmore Leonard with dialogue. I know he said he just wrote the way people talked, but no one I've ever met sounds half as cool as his characters. His immense talent was writing mind blowing dialogue so well that you just believed people talked that way, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Hemingway's great talent was saying a whole lot with very little. Stephen King's talent is saying a whole hell of a lot, but doing it well enough that you don't mind. Alissa Nutting's talent is titillating and revolting the reader in a single sentence. Chuck Palahniuk's talent is being Chuck Palahniuk - which maybe doesn't sound like much until you read a writer who's really trying very hard to be Chuck Palahniuk, and failing. 

Going back to movies for a second - Tarantino's talent is making you root for the good guys and the bag guys at the same time. You want Mr. Orange out alive, but you also want the jewel thieves to get away. Robert Rodriguez's talent is reversing the trope-y coding (example, in El Mariachi, the blonde man in the white hat is the villain, and the hero is dressed in black). 

Now more than ever, a writer has to have some special talent, some knack for something we didn't realize people had knacks for, to get attention in the big world of writing. This brings up an obvious question - what's my secret talent? Shit, I don't know. I don't have nearly enough time for an existential crisis, so I guess I'll write my way to that discovery. But it is fun and interesting to look at different writers (and actors, because seriously, no one dies as engagingly as Tim Roth) to see what they do that no one else seems to do as well. I think sometimes the greats are doing something the rest of us didn't even realize needed doing.

So go out there and do whatever you do better than anyone else. Even if it's just dying.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Post-Launch Blues

Great pre-pub buzz.

Good momentum.

Everything’s clicking.

Strong pre-orders on this one.

You hear these things sometimes. Maybe I do more than most, working as a publicist by day. As an author, these phrases are like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Especially after months or years spent toiling away at a novel. Finally! Someone read it! Someone even likes it!

It’s a validation, in a way, of the hard work you put in. If your publisher is on their game, it’s also a testament to them and their ability to get the word out and make sure the right people have copies of your book. Of course, the story comes first. If your book doesn’t work or isn’t the best it can be, these things don’t happen. But let’s assume we all know what we’re doing and you’ve written a good book. The early reviews are strong. The blurbs are in. The launch party went great. You’re riding high.

All good, right?

Well, let’s fast forward to a few months after release. The shine is off the apple. A handful of “pub days” have sped by. Your book isn’t the new kid in school. The review cycle has wound down and your emails to your people no longer sound like that of an excited kid on Christmas - “Look at this great review!” - but more akin to an ex hoping to rekindle a one-sided affair…”Hey, how’s it going…?”

It’s a question that’s plagued authors for a good long while: how do you keep interest alive after your book’s come out? I don’t claim to have any answers, aside from my own experience on the other side of the fence, promoting books myself. I will say, it’s become even harder now that we’re in a 24-hour news cycle and riddled with distractions galore. Why think about a book that came out in February when it’s June and Rooney Mara and Jake Gyllenhaal took a walk together in NYC? Everyone’s talking about that OJ documentary - who cares about your book?

There’s no definite answer, but there are a few options. The easiest one, and the one that speaks to our skill sets as writers is simple: write the next one. There’s only so much you, the author, can control in terms of the “greater conversation.” The initial promotional lap is exhausting, brain-melting and feels like a job unto itself. I don’t know about you, but I got very little writing done while promoting my second Pete Fernandez book, Down the Darkest Street. Actually, that’s not true - I did a lot of writing. But it wasn’t actual novel work. There were guest blogs, interviews, reviews, promotional tweets and Facebook get it. It’s all part of the game, right? But to my point: there will come a time where that well dries up. The train has passed you by and your only real choice is to pick up your tools and get to work on the next one. It’s frightening (“I don’t want to give up on my book!”) but also liberating - this is what we want to be doing, the writing. Even for someone well versed in the PR game like me, the publicity rounds can be a little soul-draining. It’s nice to hop back in the saddle and just tell stories.

The other thing you can do, which I’ve touched on before, is to talk about books. Specifically, not your books. Talk about the novel you’re reading. Talk about the author you’re enjoying. Spread the word. Karma is a vague, subjective thing - but it works for me. It’s nice to get out of my own headspace and just praise the book I’m enjoying or looking forward to. It’s not as direct as, say, pleading for Amazon reviews - but it sure tastes better.

This is where I press play on Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” and ask you, fellow writer, to share what you do in this situation. How do you handle the post-launch blues?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ask the Editor: How Much Polish?

by Holly West

I'm gonna be honest with you. Life has been hectic for me lately and with no signs of that letting up, I gave myself permission to skip my regular post this week.

But this morning, as my husband and I were driving up to Oregon where we'll help move my grandmother into her spiffy new house, I got to thinking about my own writing and came up with a quick and easy post--which will hopefully also be useful (it was to me). So here we go.

I contacted author and, for this post's purposes, freelance editor, Bryon Quertermous, and asked him this:

Ideally, how polished--or unpolished--should a manuscript be when you get it? Should the author turn in what they consider to be their final draft or is it better to submit an earlier draft?

This is actually a question that has kind of gnawed at me since I turned my second book, MISTRESS OF LIES, in to my editor. She didn't get a rough draft but it also wasn't as polished as I might've liked at the time. As a debut author, we're constantly told we need to make sure our manuscript is picture perfect before you submit it to anyone. For me, that eased up a bit in my second go 'round, but my third novel was pretty rough when I submitted it to my editor. It made me wonder--what is the optimum time to submit a manuscript for editing?

Here's what Bryon had to say:

"It depends on the author. For a first time author or second time author looking at the very first printout of the manuscript, I think there's more work to be done there. Those first few rounds of working through a manuscript is where a lot of the learning comes from for a writer. Breaking down the story and moving stuff around and really seeing your stuff from the inside out is incredibly helpful. Bringing in another voice too soon can really kill that learning experience. I think once an author has worked through a manuscript on their own a few times until they're too close to it to move to the next level is a good time for a new author to bring in outside voices.

For experienced writers though, I come in at the outline stage sometimes and a lot of times come in after that first draft to help the author assess the work and what it's strengths and weaknesses are. This is usually when they're trying something new or stretching themselves on a new series installment."

Bryon's input pretty much corresponds to my own experience with editors. Ultimately, we all want to publish the best books possible, but sometimes it's hard to suss out just what that means, both in general, and for the individual book and author. That, of course, is why editors exist.

Thanks, Bryon, for sharing a bit of your perspective on the subject.


Bryon's latest novel, RIOT LOAD, is out from Polis Books, and is available on Amazon, B& and from your indie retailers. His website is

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

So Long to Gregory Rabassa: Translator Par Excellence

by Scott Adlerberg

Last week Gregory Rabassa, the great translator from Spanish and Portuguese, died at the age of ninety four.  Since so many books I love, primarily Latin American works, have been translated by him, I thought I'd forgo anything crime-related this week and just pay a little tribute to Rabassa. I know that for years whenever I was in a bookstore and would grab a novel by Julio Cortazar, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or somebody else from Latin America, the first thing I'd check to see was whether Gregory Rabassa was the translator.  I can't read Spanish or Portuguese so would it really have made a difference to me if somebody else was translating?  I don't know.  And obviously I did read (and do read) Latin American works translated by others.  But after reading Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (which Marquez famously said Rabassa improved with his English translation), I just felt that with Rabassa's name there, I'd be getting the closest approximation of the author's voice as is possible to get in a different language.  Such a variety of styles, such different types of novelists - but the constant was that translator, a man born in Yonkers in 1922 to a Cuban father and a mother from New York City.

Anyway, here's a few of the Rabassa-translated novels I've read over the years and can never forget.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar (1963)

The book with 155 short chapters you can read, let's say, in any number of ways. You can read the first 56 and just forget about the last 99 (Cortazar tells you this at the outset), or you can read all the chapters by hopscotching around the book according to instructions given.  If you're adamant about having no guidance whatsoever, you can also read the chapters in any order you want, though you may get less out of the book this way.  If this all sounds overly cute and precious, it isn't. Hopscotch takes work, but it's also a game.  There are puzzles within puzzles and there's no need to fight things. Go with the flow. Cortazar wants you to.  One clue to his thinking: the man loved Charlie Parker and bebop jazz.  This is a book that tries to make the reader improvise as he works his way through the story. 

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquz (1975)

One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite Marquez work, but this book comes in a close second. It's a portrait of a dictator of a fictional Caribbean island country, a tyrant of monumentally grotesque proportions.  The book is dreamlike and has as many marvels in it as Solitude, but what's amazing is how it's written. The sentences run for pages and pages and pages, and the imagery is remarkably dense with weirdness, and yet it all flows beautifully. Once you get used to its rhythm, it becomes a fairly easy read.  As always, Marquez's sheer storytelling power carries you on its wings.  But how the hell did Gregory Rabassa translate this? The book took Marquez several years to write and you might guess it took Rabassa that long to turn into English.  But apparently it didn't.  You wouldn't think of this as a beach or vacation read, but  those are exactly the place and time to read the book. You need a hot place and plenty of free time to sink into The Autumn of the Patriarch.  Want an alcoholic drink beside you? Not a bad idea.  But it's the book itself that will make you drunk. 

Also noteworthy for Marquez's use of a variation of a famous class-inflected line:  “...the day shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole”

Mulata by Miquel Angel Asturias (1963)

Pure psychedelia, Guatemalan style.  I read this long ago and can't remember the plot details, to be honest. But that's also because the plot blurs; Mulata is a book that I'd have to rate as hallucinatory as any I've ever read. The material is drawn from Mayan mythology and Catholic lore, and if you can imagine a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life, you'll have some idea of what this book is like.  

I have my old Avon Bard edition here beside me, so I may as well put down what the back cover says to describe the book: 

"One day the Fly Wizard - so called because of the way he dressed to gain attention - made a secret pact with the Corn Devil.  In return for limitless wealth all the Fly Wizard had to do was expose himself at Mass so that women would commit sin by looking at his private parts and then take Communion without confession...The Fly Wizard did it and became so rich even his bones turned to gold  And that was just the beginning..."

A lot goes on and everything keeps changing in shape and substance in this rumbling, swirling book. Stories pile upon stories, and there are people, demons, gods, and creatures of all sorts.  Sex among these myriad forms of life happens often and results in odd offspring. Again, I can only marvel at Rabassa's skill in translating this stuff from one language to another.  

My guess is that if you used to take acid and miss it, or like Bizarro lit, you'll go for Mulata

I could go on.  There are several other works Gregory Rabassa translated that I read, but these three give a good indication of the magic he could work with gnarly material.  They are also three books I remember reading when I couldn't get enough of Latin American fiction (a craving I've never lost and don't expect to lose), and I'm glad I was able to give a modest tip of the hat to the person who brought these books to the entire English reading world.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Pay Off

As of two months ago, Brian and I had never watched a Game of Thrones episode.

Since then, we've caught up and been made current. Last night was the first time we watched an episode when it actually aired. And what an episode to watch live.

Even as only recent additions to the GoT viewership, last night's episode was remarkably satisfying. I can't even imagine how gratifying it was for people who've been waiting four years to see someone get their due.

The episode used several elements that are amongst my favorites, because they're often overlooked. It used silence. Waiting. The stillness before the slaughter. When you play bass guitar you understand the significance of a pause. Sometimes a song needs a breath, as does a story. Prince said, I learned a lot about space from Miles [Davis]. Space is a sound, too.”

It also showed the folly of man. Or, specifically, the irrational actions of one particular man. Jon Snow is largely considered one of the primary heroes of the show, and yet he showed he was fallible. His heart led him into a trap, despite Sansa's warnings about Ramsay Bolton. The writers didn't feel the need to make him a saintly savior who, despite everything, thought of some ingenious way to overcome his enemy. Were it not for the actions of another the outcome of the battle would have been very different.

It showed the payoff of calculations. From Danaerys to Yara to Sansa, the fate of many lay in the hands of women who were able to foresee needs and vulnerabilities and make decisions with the desired payoff in mind. Danaerys learned to compromise from the wisdom of Tyrion. Yara learned to compromise from the wisdom of Danaerys. And Sansa had already compromised and set aside her pride to seek help from the one force left that could sway the outcome of the battle of the bastards. Ultimately, all attained success with their missions as a result.

In the end, the episode still had the ability to surprise. While you found yourself questioning what could possibly be the most fitting end for one of the most hated villains on the show for the last four years the ultimate resolution of the episode not only hit the perfect note, but it revealed how Sansa has grown from a naive girl into a determined woman who will not allow herself to be abused again.

Life lessons for Ramsay Bolton? I guess a dog will bite the hand that doesn't feed it.

From before we'd ever watched a Game of Thrones episode we'd heard of the Red Wedding. It's an episode that's stood out as a benchmark, a stunning hour that changed the course of the plot lines and decimated a family that had once been strong.

Exactly three seasons after the Red Wedding Game of Thrones delivered what may be one of the best episodes its ever done, and in large part that's due to the fact that it was the payoff for so many storylines that converged, with a few surprises in the mix to deliver as exact justice. It can always be tempting to rush the plot, but GoT shows the value in patience. Any one of the several storylines could have been significantly advanced or resolved in a separate episode, but the combined layering of these resolutions and advancements did a double duty of tying up loose ends while setting the stage for the wars to come, and all I can say is that one week from now, I, like many other fans of the show, will be anticipating the end of a long winter so that I can see season 7 when it airs next spring.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day

In honor of Father’s Day, I went back and re-read a few of stories by the “Father of Detective Fiction,” Edgar Allan Poe.
Today’s holiday is not one he would have celebrated – his father abandoned him when he was little, he never got along with his foster father, and he never had children. But he does have many, many descendants.

All of us who write tales of deduction, psychological suspense, or the evil that lurks in the human heart owe a debt to the “Father.” His genre now bursts with creativity and variety, which is a virtual guarantee that it will be around for many, many Father’s Days to come. 

If you're interested in reading what got the whole thing started, visit detective C. Auguste Dupin in Paris in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841). Finish the Dupin trilogy with "The Murder of Marie Roget" (1843), and "The Purloined Letter" (1845).