Saturday, August 28, 2021

Orphan X: Not Your Typical Thriller

Scott D. Parker

(Well, I had a good post but it's stuck in my 2007-era MacBook Pro. And the Mac is dead at the moment, the victim of a power adapter that's finally called it quits. I've ordered another and it should be here today (as you read this) but it also means I have to do a rerun. Originally published 5 Feb 2020 on my blog. So, enjoy. And let's hope the new power adapter works.)

For a few years now, the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz, has been circling my radar. I'd download a sample onto my Kindle, but never get around to it. I'd see the second, third, and fourth books in the series be published, but still I didn't move off high center.

Until late last month.

In that timeless week between Christmas and New Year's Day, I was at the paperback racks at a Barnes and Noble in far west Houston and saw OUT OF THE DARK, the fourth volume in the series. My new standard for reading books is to read the book that captured my attention, no matter what number it is in the series. But when I realized it was an Orphan X novel, I was reminded that this series is one I should try.

From the beginning.

Evan Smoak - Not Your Typical Action Hero

If you read ten thrillers, how many of them open with the main character--or a side character--running? Seven? Eight? It's a perfectly acceptable trope for the genre, but I was happily surprised ORPHAN X didn't begin that way. True, Evan is bleeding from a knife wound and he's trying to get back to his apartment in Los Angeles, but there are no bad guys chasing him. Instead, we get a domestic scene with Evan trying not to show fellow tenants of his high-rise apartment he's bleeding. Not the nosy old lady nor the single mom who lives a few floors below. But her son suspects the truth. The entire tension of chapter one is whether or not Evan can make it up to his apartment without anyone noticing he's bleeding.

That is how ORPHAN X starts, and it makes all the difference.

It tells you that you're in for a different type of thriller, one I couldn't put my finger on until I saw Gregg Hurwitz at Houston's Murder by the Book on Monday.

A Normal Situation

Another thing Hurwitz does well is showing you what Evan's typical life is like. As an orphan, he was taken out of foster care and trained to be an off-the-books assassin. The kind with complete deniability. The only contact he has is his father-figure/trainer/teacher Jack Johns. For years, Jack trained Evan until--as we learn in the middle of the book--an even takes place that causes Evan to leave that life and disappear.

Now, he's the Nowhere Man, a man hiding in plain sight. Like the A-Team, if there's a person who needs help, all they have to do is call the special number: 1-855-2NOWHERE. Evan will help you. The only payment: pass his number--once--to another person who needs help.

Thus, the opening section of the book, we get an example of this "normal" life Evan has made for himself. You see him plan how he's going to help teenaged Morena, the terrible situation in which she and her younger sister find themselves, and how he goes about solving her problem. Intricate detail that reads fast and swift, never losing tension and anticipation.

It's when the next person calls--presumably Morena's pay-it-forward charge--that things really kick into a higher gear.

The Layers Unravel

Interspersed throughout the novel are flashbacks to Evan's training days and his early assignments. You get a deeper sense of what kind of man he is, what kind of person Jack Johns is, and how the two ultimately bring out nuances in each other both probably didn't expect.

I never saw the twists coming, which made for an even more entertaining read. It's no surprise--it's on the dust jacket--that some of the people after Evan are fellow Orphans, so he's not going up against run-of-the-mill thugs, but highly trained adversaries. Hurwitz, I learned on Monday night when I attended his author event, has done his research. But I already knew that. The details not only of the fighting but the weapons and accouterments are rich and descriptive.

Why is This Book So Good?

I knew going into the book the action would be good and thrilling. What surprised me, however, were the character moments. The time in the elevator I just mentioned. The times when he's having to worry about the bad guys and some busybody confronts him about not attending the HOA meeting. In addition, seeing Evan at home, in his apartment, what he did, what he drank, how he ate, all of that is there. I gravitated toward those moments just as much, if not more, than the action.


Well, on Monday night, Hurwitz commented that part of the genesis of Evan Smoak was the idea that you never saw James Bond go home.* You never saw Jason Bourne have an awkward conversation with regular folks.

That was the key to why I enjoyed ORPHAN X so much. That's why I'll keep reading the series.

*In the novel MOONRAKER (1954)--which is nothing like the 1979 movie--Ian Fleming writes a lot about Bond in the office, in his house, and playing cards. Not exactly pulse-pounding excitement, but wonderful to read. But the point Hurwitz is probably making is that none of the films show Bond in a normal setting. Not coincidentally, it is these scenes in MOONRAKER I remember well and hardly any of the larger plot. But hardly anyone remembers the original novel. You see? Hurwitz was onto something.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Half Inch - Short Story

 By Jay Stringer

Taken from my collection Crime Fiction, available exclusively on Kindle right now. Available in book shops in December. 

“How would you do it?” Megan said, letting him see the smile. 

      Jimmy Finch met her eyes, “This place?”

      She bent down and sucked iced latte up through the straw, “Uh huh.” 

      Jimmy took a look around the diner, pretending like he hadn’t already done it. 

      The diner was wide, split into two sections, with the kitchen through a hatch at the back, behind the counter. The cash register was in the center of the room, on a wooden stand, like a lectern. There were eight customers, including Jimmy and Megan. Three couples, and two people on their own. 

      Nobody was reading a newspaper. That was the biggest change from when Jimmy started out. There would always be a couple people reading newspapers. Now it’s all cell phones. Everyone has a camera, and a way to call the cops.  

      “Well, there’s only two servers working. One for that side, one for this side. They keep meeting in the middle, at the register, to talk. They’ve looked over our way a bunch of times, so they think we’re on a date.”

      “Really?” Megan turned now to look at them, seeing them standing together. Her voice rose, just a little. “That’s what they think?”

      “Sure. Young attractive woman like you, flirting with an older guy like me.”

      “I’m not flirting.”

      “The problem here is, their attention is already on us. I mean, they’ve been aware of us since we came in, they’ve talked about us a bunch. If I was to try anything in here, they’d notice me sooner than anyone else, more likely to stop it. Plus, they’d remember me to the cops, describe me, you. We’d get caught too easy.”

      “Okay,” Megan’s tone was colder now, the playfulness gone. “Obviously, I don’t mean how would you do it right now, in this meeting. But if this was one of your jobs, you walk in for the first time, how would you do it?”

      Jimmy leaned back in his seat, looked Megan up and down. This Hollywood producer with an option out on his story. No, not producer. He couldn’t remember what. She’d told him her job title a bunch of times, and it had the word producer in it, but he wasn’t sure she had any actual responsibility. 

      “You’re looking for the ending to the movie.”

      Megan leaned forward, “Of course I am, we got nothing right now.”

      Jimmy put his hand on the manuscript between them, his autobiography, Pinch: The Story of the Joke bandit. Optioned before publication. “I robbed 237 places. At least one in every state. All but one of them unarmed, walking out with money without ever pointing a gun. Only served time for one of them, you can’t find a story?”

      “It’s not the story that’s the problem, it’s the ending. Every writer we get on this tanks, tells us the same thing, there’s no ending. Your book gives us you, but that’s not enough. We know your past, we know the jobs you did, we know the prison stuff, but then you get out and…what? Where do we roll credits?”

      “You want me to pull another job.”

      “It would give us an ending.”

      “But I’ve gone straight, so you’re stuck.”

      “Maybe you don’t need to actually do the job, maybe you’re just thinking about it. That could be the scene. Yeah, I can see it.” She shuffled into the middle of the booth, directly across from him, putting her hands up on either side of her face, making an imaginary camera lens. “You’re in a diner, like this one, or a different one. We make it look just typical of all the places you robbed earlier in the film.”

      “This place is pretty typical.”

      “Right, so you’re sitting here, and we’ve had the build-up of you going straight. How you’ve come out of prison a changed man, but we also show that you’re tempted, that you can’t just switch off who you are. Then someone says to you, how would you do it?”


      “In the scene? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter yet, we’ll think of somebody.”

      “So it could be in the middle of a date?”

      “We are not on a date.”

      “No, but in the movie.”

      “So this person, okay, let’s say it’s a date. Maybe, what’s the name of that woman on your last job, the one made you carry the gun?”


      “So, maybe it’s Lisa.”

      “She’s dead.”

      “Sure, but she doesn’t need to be. Not for the story. It could be the two of you talking. That’s how we frame it. That’s how we frame the whole thing, we start on this scene, the two of you meeting up after years apart, start talking, then we flash back into your life, and we show that Lisa’s always been the temptation, right? Then at the end, we cut back to this scene, and maybe she doesn’t say how would you do it, maybe it’s more like she says, so, are you ready?Then we close in on your face, like this.” She moves her hands in closer. “Let the audience see you thinking about it, just long enough, then cut to black.” 

      “That’s your idea for the ending?”

      “I think it could be pretty cool, arty like, you know? People love that.”

      “They don’t actually see me doing the job, though?”

      “Don’t need to. They know you’re going to. Or maybe some think you don’t. They can decide for themselves, like that spinning top thing in the dream movie.”

      “I hated that.”

      “Point is, we’ve given them an ending to the story.”

      “Why can’t this be the ending? Just sitting here talking, on a date.”

      “We’re not-”

      “Or the real ending. You’ve got the book. Can’t we just end where the book does?”

      “You walking out of prison? Terrible ending. What’s the structure there? What’s the punch? What are we asking the audience to take away?”

      “I’m not asking them to take anything away, that’s the truth of it, that’s where my story ends.”

      “Unless…” Megan was back into pitch mode again. “Unless we see you walking out, you’ve just had some exchange with the warden where he says, see you soon and you say no, you’re done, you’re going straight. Then we see you walk out, right, and…..we hear a car coming….and then we see Lisa pull up in front of you. She smiles, just smiles, but we know what it means, and then we see you smile, fade to black. Or better, cut to black. Instant.”

      “Feels a bit too much like a crime movie.”

      “We’re making a crime movie.”

      “They’re always fake. You’re just making the same thing over and over. If that’s all you wanted to do, why not just go do that, you didn’t need my book.”

      “No, we wanted your book, we wanted you, your story. That’s what the viewer wants, too. Real life, you know? 

      “But you want to change it.”

      “Movies have certain rules, like a language, a different language. We need to hit certain beats, because that’s what people expect.” 

      “Like this thing you’ve got for Lisa. ’She represents the temptation’.” Jimmy made air quotes. “Like I need temptation. Or the last writer you hooked me up with, said he wanted to get to the heart of my story, and I said, well, here’s the book. And he goes, no, I want to know why you did it, why you decided to rob those places.”

      Megan looked down at her notes on the table, and Jimmy guessed that was the next item on the agenda. 

      “You need to make some big scene in the movie about me being tempted, or something that makes me commit the crime, you want me to rationalise it. You want to know why I robbed places?”

      Megan’s face lit up. “Yeah.”

      “Because I’m a criminal, and good at it. Lisa didn’t tempt me into anything. It was a job. She knew I didn’t use guns, but offered me more money,  and I said yes. That’s not temptation, it’s a job offer.”

      “So money was the temptation.”

      “Is money the temptation for what you do? We need to try and figure out the deep motivation for why you’re in this job.”

      “I love working on movies.”

      “There you go. We both like what we do.”

      “What you did. Now that you’re straight. What are you planning to do? Maybe we can work that into the movie, like a redemption arc?”

      Jimmy wasn’t paying attention. He was busy watching a new customer. Small and wiry, wearing an army castoff jacket. One of those German ones with the flag still on the sleeve. He’d been seated over this side, a few booths over. Jimmy had watched as the guy scoped the place out, the same way he did. 


This guy was impossible.

      Megan Quinn wanted to call her boss, just say, “We can’t do this, let’s make a different movie.” But she couldn’t. You didn’t get to run your own movie that way. She figured, get good information from Jimmy Finch, get good story, and she could make this into her ticket. 

      But now he wasn’t even paying attention. 


      Jimmy’s eyes shifted back to her. He didn’t apologise. 

      Megan was like, really?

      So rude. So sure of himself. Just sitting there, not interested in explaining himself, not interested in telling his story. Who Does that? Who doesn’t want to talk about themselves? 

      Megan looked down at her notes. The list of issues given to her by the writer and studio. All the things they needed to fix to make the book into a film. A couple of the notes had come from the publisher, too. Over a coffee the day before, his editor has said, “hey, we’re having the same issues, maybe if you can get him to talk, we can change the book.” 

      340 pages, and nowhere did he explain himself, nowhere did he give any kind of justification. And that ending? What was that? The guy just walks out of prison and smells fresh air and that’s it?

      “Okay,” Megan said, swirling the straw around in her now-empty glass. “Lets’ talk about the jokes.”

      “You want to hear them?”

      “No, I’ve read the book.”

      “They’re not all in there, I got a bunch you won’t have heard.”

      “Jimmy, I don’t want to hear the jokes, I want to know why you told them.”

      Jimmy cocks his head, like he’s never heard that question before. He looks like a confused puppy for a second. This guy in his late fifties, gray hair. In good shape for his age, but nowhere near as much as his self-confidence suggested. 

      “Who doesn’t want to hear jokes?”

      This was good, this was her way in. “I would think, people being robbed don’t want to hear jokes. Cashier’s don’t want to hear them. Server’s don’t want to hear them.”

      Again with his confused look. Megan could tell now he was doing it for show. “They’re the exact people who need them. You got to put people at ease if you’re robbing them, make them relax, let them know things are okay, they don’t need to do anything rash.”

      Megan looked down at her notes, why not guns?

      “Okay, but tell me how that started? I mean, most people would just use a gun. You walk into places, up the register, and start telling a joke. Why not just point a gun, or pretend you’re pointing a gun?”

      “I don’t like guns.”

      Megan felt the frustration rise again, her voice rising. “There has to be more to it.”

      “Why? Why you need more than that, I don’t like guns, so I don’t use them. I like jokes, so I tell them. You walk in, you spot the person most amenable, and you start talking to them, engage with them. Nice and friendly. You’re telling them a joke, and while you do it, you hand them the sign that says, ‘this is a robbery, give me all the money in the drawer.’ You’re still telling them the joke, so they’re off balance, their brains going in two different ways. But everybody likes jokes, so they’re still relaxed, deep down.”

      “You said find the person most amenable, how do you know?”

      “It’s just a sense, you have it or you don’t.”

      Jimmy’s eyes drift again. He keeps looking at something over her shoulder. 

      Megan isn’t used to this kind of behaviour. In these meetings, everyone wants to focus on her, to answer her, to work with her and be important. 

      Maybe the jokes are the way? Maybe it’s in his childhood? He skips over that in the book. 

      “Okay, so let’s talk about the jokes then, you like them so much. When did that start? Was it maybe a defence mechanism at school? We could frame it that way, show you using humor to get out of trouble, as a kid, you know?”

      Jimmy rolled his eyes, looked at her again. “You want to make a crime movie, but you don’t want to make a movie about criminals.”

      “But at school…”

      “I tell jokes because I like them. Because I loved watching Johnny Carson, and I figured being him was the best thing in the world.” 

      “Why not try being a comedian?”

      “I wanted to make money.”

      Megan made a couple notes on the page. That was a good line. It wasn’t much, this angle, but maybe they could use it. Show him as a frustrated comic, build up that way. She could see it, now she was thinking it. Early scenes, watching Carson. Maybe a flashback.    

      Yeah, it could work. 

      She looked at the next question. 

      “So, this Marshal who arrested you…”

      Jimmy’s eyes opened up, “Deputy US Marshal Chloe Medina.” 

      Was that a smile? It was. 

      His focus was full on her now. 

      Megan tapped the notes, bingo. “Yeah. Tell me about her.”

      “She didn’t shoot me.” He paused, leaned back in the seat. “I mean, she could’ve shot me. She shot Lisa. But she didn’t shoot me.”

      “Why do you think that was?”

      “You should ask her.”

      We’ve tried, Megan thought. They’d tried to do a deal with Medina already, use her name, put her in the story. She refused both, they were going to have to change the name if they used the scene in the film. Someone else who didn’t want to be in a movie. What was wrong with the world?

      “Tell me what happened.”

      Jimmy shrugged. “Not much too it. We’ve gone in the bank. I hated doing banks, but Lisa had this idea. And she’s got me packing, and I hated packing. But it’s all working, this trick she had, knew the exact time the manager was opening this small safe they had behind the desk, like a drop box they put money before taking it all out the back? Lisa knew the exact time of day they opened it, and we’d got bags full of cash. We come out, and there’s this Marshal standing there on the steps, just watching us.”

      “You knew what she was?”

      “Well, you could tell she was something. Some kind of law.”

      “And she pulls a gun?”

      “She’s got her hand on the gun. On her hip. Which, by the way? Hottest thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, I don’t like guns, but she made it work. And she identifies herself, says Deputy US Marshal Chloe Medina, don’t do anything stupid. But then Lisa does something stupid.”

      “She tries to shoot her.”

      “Well, I guess. Her hand twitched. Lisa’s gun was down at her side, we’d both lowered them as we came out the bank, thinking we didn’t need them. Lisa’s hand twitched. Not even an inch, really, and Chloe shot her. She drew so fast.”


      Megan was right. Jimmy had a thing for this Marshal.

      “Then she looks at me, just looks at me, cocks an eyebrow, and I drop the gun. So yeah, she could’ve shot me, and she didn’t.” 

      “The one time you got caught.”

      “The one time.”

      “Love story between a criminal and a Marshal,” Megan said, circling Medina’s name in the notes. “There’s a story there.”

      Jimmy didn’t answer. He was gone again, focusing on something behind her. 

      She turned to look. A small guy in an army surplus jacket was standing at the register, pointing a gun at the two servers. He looked twitchy, nervous.

      The gunman called out, “Nobody move.” 

      Jimmy leaned forward. “That’s not how I would do it.”


The kid in the jacket looked scared. His gun pointing one way, then another. 

      “All the money,” he was saying. “All of it.”

      The oldest of the two servers, the middle aged woman with red hair, said, “Where you want us to put it?”

      He didn’t have a bag. Hadn’t thought that far ahead.  

      Jimmy figured the kid hadn’t even intended to rob the place. Just came in, maybe for a coffee, maybe to get off the street. But the gun in his pocket had made a stupid decision, and there was no way this ended well. 

      Jimmy slid out of the booth. He saw Mega turn to him, panicked, mouthing for him to stop. The kid spun halfway round, towards him. Jimmy looked at all the other customers, none of them sure what to do next, nobody having any idea what to do when a gun shows up. 

      “Freeze,” the kid’s voice going up a level. “Stop effing moving.”

      Effing? Jimmy put his hands out, palms up, and smiled. “I got you, I’m staying right here.”

      “Get back,” the kid took a few steps towards him. 

      Jimmy watched the thoughts pass across the servers faces, was this their chance to do something? 

      “What I’m thinking,” Jimmy said. “Is that everybody should keep still.”

      “I already said that,” the kid was whiny now. “But somebody didn’t listen.”

      “I just want to help, give you some on the job training.”

      The kid pointed the gun square at Jimmy’s face.

      “I’m Jimmy Finch. You don’t know me? Jimmy the Pinch? Nothing?”

      “Uh…” A shrug. “No.”

      Jimmy took a small step forward. “237 robberies, only caught one time. My date over there,” he twitched his head, indicating Megan behind him. “Is a Hollywood producer, going to make a movie based on me. So I’m basically an expert at what you’re doing.”


      “How do you think you’re doing right now?”

      “Uh…” The kid looked at the two servers. They both shrugged. He turned back. “Okay?”

      “I gotta be honest. This is not going well.” 

      A flush of anger welled up in the kids face, but Jimmy read it for what it was, embarrassment. “No, man, I’m doing okay.”

      “You’re scared, that’s okay. You didn’t plan on this, did you? Came in for some pancakes, maybe a coffee, a burger. You’ve had a bad day, right?”

      The kid nodded.

      Jimmy continued. “You know, when I was a kid, I liked two things. Johnny Carson and westerns. I decided, when I grew up, I was going to rob a bank in every state, get famous.” Jimmy gambled on another step forward. “You know how many banks I’ve robbed?”

      “Like, two hundred, something, you said.”

      The kid turned for approval from the servers, not confident in his answer.

      “One,” Jimmy said. “Just one. See, when I looked at it, I figured, there’s no real money in robbing a bank. It’s too difficult. If you carry a gun, you got more chance of being shot. And there’s not as much cash in banks as people think, they got sick of being robbed. What I did, I started hitting places like this. Fast businesses, where people paid in cash, and there was no real security. But you know the problem with that?”

      There was real doubt in the kids eyes now, but his finger was still on the trigger, he could pull at any second. 

      “The problem is, everyone is security now. Walk in a place like this, everyone’s got a cell phone, everyone’s walking around with surveillance devices. You’ve just pulled an armed robbery, with no mask, and I’m guessing no getaway plan.”

      The kid looked round at the other customers now, at the phones they had on the tables in front of them. 

      Jimmy said, “What you have here, is a mistake you made. And you can’t un-make it. The cops are gonna come, and you’re going to do time. But what you can do, is not make an even bigger mistake.” Jimmy looked directly at the gun now. “You can put that down.” 

      The gun hand wavered. The eyes behind it, young, confused, really wanted permission to lower the weapon. Jimmy could see it. The anger. The pride. The kid needed to relax.

      “What’s your name?”


      “What’s your full name? Come on, we’re all friends here.”

      “Foley. Ed Foley.”

      “Ed, you ever hear the one about the three dwarves?”

       Ed turned to the servers as if to ask, is he for real?  

      They both shrugged, don’t ask us.

      “See, there are these three dwarves outside the head office for the Guinness Book of Records. Never met each other before, just turned up at the same time. They’re asking each other why they’re there. I mean, might be the same thing, right? That would be awkward. So the first dwarf says, ‘I’m here to get tested. I think I have the smallest hands in the world’. And the other two are like, well…okay. Good luck. It’s an achievement, I guess? So he goes in. Thirty minutes later, he comes out. All happy. He’s in. Number one. Smallest hands in the world. Brilliant. Then the second one says, ‘I’m getting tested too. I think I have the smallest feet in the world.’ Okay, they say. Well….good luck. He goes in. Thirty minutes later, he comes out. Jumping around, happy. He’s in. Smallest feet in the world. Fantastic. So then they ask the third guy. He pauses, he’s nervous. He says, ‘I’m here to get tested. I think I have the smallest….uh….you know.” Jimmy made a show of looking down at his crotch. “’I think I have the smallest….thing.’ And the others, I mean, they want to be supportive, so they go, great, well good luck. So he goes in. Comes out five minutes later. He’s all angry, like really shaking. And he looks at them, and he says ‘Who the fuck is Ed Foley?’”

      There was a pause. Just long enough for Jimmy to doubt his play. Then Ed started to laugh. One of those that rumbles up, starting like indigestion sounds in the gut, before fighting up the throat. He shook his head and smiled, then laughed again.

      He held the gun out, and Jimmy took it.

      Sirens were approaching, still a little way off. 

      Jimmy turned to look over at Megan. “There’s your ending.” 

He wakes in the morning and he steps outside


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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Once More With Feeling

Writers out there know the feeling of finishing the first draft. A sense of exhilaration. You did a thing! A pretty remarkable thing at that. From flash to thousand page epics, finishing a piece is an achievement.

Until it isn't.

You know what's next. Revision. Revision. Revision. All the work that turns a jagged piece of metal into a blade.

But what happens if the blade still isn't quite right?

What happens when the revision's shitty big brother shows up? The dreaded rewrite.

I've found myself in that pit a handful of times since being published and each time has been equally difficult and exhilarating. Here's a few things that have not only kept my sanity, but made the process just a little easier.

1) Darlings? What darlings? 

It's all fair game, my friend. ALL OF IT. I don't care if you're in love with Supporting Character C or with your A plot. It can all go and you need to make peace with that. You're building a new story from the ground up using ELEMENTS of what came before. Now, can those elements be entire chapters or passages? Sure. You still need to remember that a rewrite means this should be a whole new book. Changing POV, tense, themes, etc are all in play. The good news is the book you're tearing apart is effectively the best working outline you've ever written. Lean into that and you'll write an entirely new book in just a little over a month (fueled entirely by alcohol, self-loathing, crippling imposter syndrome, an a chip on your back the size of Tallahassee, but I digress...)

2) This is still a first draft. Act like it.

An extension of the themes from above. You're not beholden to anything, not even yourself. If you have wild, new ideas, go for it. Entirely new characters? Now is the time. Discover a theme you never saw before? Sprint head first into it. Don't treat this as another revision. You're doing something new and it can be used to draw that enthusiasm out of you that the revision would normally crush into a fine powder.

3) Learn how to take editing notes and turn them into collaborative opportunities.

I LOVE notes. Seriously, whether it's from a friend, my agent, or an editor, notes are not knocks. Every single one is an opportunity for me to talk about my story and my perspective with others willing to provide me with their precious time and perspective. In my mind, a note means there's something that needs to be addressed in the story. Even if it's simply a clarifying sentence, it's important to remember notes aren't negative. Get past your ego and talk things through. I've taken notes, bypassed them, and come up with entirely new ideas with the note giver in minutes simply because I've recognized the value of collaboration and taking criticism in stride.

4) Know your limits.

The bad news: sometimes the rewrite doesn't work either. The good news: you did not waste your time. Take the lessons you can into your next project or next rewrite. You've learned so much from the work whether you realize it or not. Use those lessons to key into opportunities for improvement. Did the project suffer because of multiple shifts in perspective? Were the story beats not quite working right? Try to see where you faltered and work the weaker muscles in other ways. Write a short story to help improve word economy. Write monologues to help with dialogue rhythm. A rewrite is a massive chance to really improve your craft, even if it only leaves you with a clearer perception of your weaknesses.

So, as I move into revising this entire novel rewrite I started back in April, I keep these things in mind. We're never quite done, but it doesn't mean we have to let the hard parts beat us up. 

Get back to writing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Favorite California Writers

I’m writing this on my phone from Monterey, California, where I’m in the midst of a road trip with my son, so this will be brief. It’s a trip primarily down the Pacific Coast of California between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and as always before a trip, I spent some time wondering what books to bring with me for the time spent in a particular place. I brought three books with me for the two week vacation and decided to go with three having to do with California: Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which somehow of Didion’s books I’ve never read, Ross MacDonald’s Black Money, one of the few Lew Archer novels I hadn’t read, and, non-fiction, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, about the making of the film, Chinatown. Funny, all three books are set in California of the sixties and early seventies, an era in the state’s history I admit I find fascinating, perhaps because I was a child and teenager then and the stuff on the news and in films and TV shows about California created a certain very distinct image of the state to me. I like to revisit that feeling, that whole era, when I read. So far, on the trip, I’ve read the Didion book, which of course captures its time as only Joan Didion can capture a time, and I’m about a third of the way through Black Money, which is shaping up to be topnotch MacDonald. It was, I’ve read, his personal favorite of his books.

So those three books and this trip itself and my earlier thinking of what books to bring on this trip got me thinking about who my favorite California writers are. And by California writer, I’m going to use the term broadly. For my purposes here, a California writer is any writer whose work I strongly associate with the state, whether they were born in California or, like so many, moved to California from someplace else and went on to set a certain number of their books in the state. 

Without having given this too much thought, here’s a list of eleven of my favorite California writers, in no particular order. I list eleven writers because I found it too difficult to limit myself to ten. 

  1. Joan Didion
  2. Ross MacDonald
  3. Raymond Chandler
  4. Dashiell Hammett
  5. Don Carpenter (For his excellent Hollywood novel Turnaround and his collection The Murder of the Frogs and Other Stories)
  6. Charles Bukowski
  7. Dennis Etchison (For nearly everything this horror master wrote. He’s absolutely one of the greatest horror short story writers there’s been, but I also love his novels Shadowman and California Gothic. No one does sunlit horror better than he does).
  8. Gavin Lambert (British expat, for his Hollywood set books that I’ve read, the novel Inside Daisy Clover and the beautifully written collections, The Slide Area and The Goodbye People).
  9. Horace McCoy (for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and I Should Have Stayed Home)
  10. Paul Beatty (for his racial satire set in LA, The Sellout)
  11. Thomas Pynchon (for The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, two approachable Pynchons that happen to be mysteries like nobody else could write. And I still have to read his California-set Vineland!)
Needless to say, an incredibly rich state to write about, and these are eleven writers whose writing about the state I have loved.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Load Poems Like Guns

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and many Afghans still live in fear of the group’s violent reign. To hide their crimes and curb critical reporting, The Taliban would threaten, intimidate and physically harm members of the media or their families in areas where they had influence. They were known to detain and harass journalists, in particular female journalists and those who opposed the group. These tactics made for little transparency in their governing. Shiite Muslims are also fearful that a return of the Taliban will mean a return to the brutal persecution they suffered in previous decades.

The women of Afghanistan also wait and worry as the Taliban enforce the Islamic law Shari'a, their strict interpretation of the Koran. It is well known, if the rules are not followed there are often severe punishments. In previous years, the Taliban barred women from working outside the home or attending school, they were required to wear the burqa and when outside they had to be accompanied by a male relative. The freedoms of women were of little consideration.

When the Taliban’s rule ended there were small revolutions in the lives of women regarding education, work, and social freedoms, though outside of cities women continued to endure restrictions and violence. Now with the exit of American forces and the quick demise of the Afghan government, the civilians that remain fear a return of the old days.

While we listen to the news and watch images of chaos, women in Afghanistan are hiding, afraid to leave their homes. It is important for us to understand their words and feel what is in their heart. In some way we need to lift their voices and never allow their sentiments to be forgotten.

Load Poems Like Guns translated by Farzana Marie

This collection of contemporary poetry by Afghan women is a rarity and so important at this time. These poets help give a better understanding of Afghanistan history, specifically Herat, an ancient and important city in Afghan literature and art. Additionally, the translations are accompanied by the original Persian Dari text and notes regarding the process.

Frazana Marie is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern literature at the University of Arizona and has  translated the poems of these eight women with great care. She served as an active duty officer for over six years including two years of deployed service in Afghanistan. She is president of Civil Vision International, a nonprofit focusing on influencing international relationships.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

People I Wish I'd Known


By Claire Booth

Today we have another installment in my occasional series, People I Wish I’d Known. I read the newspaper obituaries regularly,* and every once in a while, a person leaps out at me. This edition is especially good, because I’ve got several fascinating lives to share with you.

My attention was first caught by Elmer “Curly” Bunfill. How could it not have been, with a wondrous name like that? Mr. Bunfill passed away earlier this month at the age of 108. (That is not a typo.) His family points out that he was a survivor of two pandemics, the current one and the 1918 Spanish Flu. Can you imagine? He supported, including 10 siblings, during the Great Depression and then served in Pacific Theater in World War II, surviving nine major battles, which his family proudly details. Read the full obituary here.

The next entry takes us to another aspect of World War II, one that I see too horribly often in obituaries of people in this age range of Japanese descent. Ralph Hiroshi Nishimi passed away just short of his 92nd birthday. Eighty years before, at age 12, he was interned by the U.S. government at Tule Lake in Northern California during World War II. Once he was released, he finished high school and then graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a business degree. After that, he served in the Army. Again, this is where someone’s life details make me stop and think. What did Mr. Nishimi think about serving the same government that imprisoned him without cause for many of his teenage years? I would love to know.

He had a lifelong love of baseball, playing in the Army and coaching Little League later on, and golf, which he particularly enjoyed playing with his sons. He spent almost six decades in the financial services industry and was married to Ruby Mizuno Nishimi for 65 years. That’s quiet a life. Read the full obituary here.

Our final person today is Delores Johnson, who was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1953, and moved to Sacramento, California, in 1965. She spent most of her career in education, working as secretary in elementary schools and then as administrative secretary and other administrative positions at the school district level. She caught my eye because I’ve spent some time in school offices, and let me tell you: there is no crazier place. Upset parents, sick kids, misbehaving students, lost lunches, stressed-out teachers. I’ll bet she saw it all, and I wish I’d known her to hear her stories. She is survived by a son and daughter, seven grandchildren, and eight siblings. Read the full obituary here

* I’ll talk in another post about how useful obits are for a writer's creativity and characterization. For now, I'll just leave it at this--they're a wonderful celebration of the specialness inherent in every life.