Thursday, January 27, 2005

Crazed Sock Monkey on the Loose

I just read a book I would generally not read. And I loved it. This is a great exercise, to pick up something outside the (in my case, frighteningly wide) boundaries of what one would normally encounter. I usually steer clear of novels written by celebrities, biographies of queens, and science fiction fantasy. Now keep in mind, this doesn’t mean I’ll never read a book from these genres—I’ve enjoyed my share of Asimov and Bradbury, for instance—but it means that when contending with the overwhelming number of books on my to-read shelf and to-buy list, that these categories are generally my few guiltless exceptions.

But then you get the strenuous recommendation from someone whose opinion you trust and you know you have to make room in your crowded head. In this case, the culprit was Clair Lamb of Mystery Bookstore and Answer Girl fame, who told me that SOCK was her “favorite book of the past year.” Now that ain’t no “I think you might dig this” rec, that’s a more strenuous exhortation. So I bought it.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that SOCK was written by Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame. Had I known that at the store, I might not have bought the book. Now while I recognize that Penn is a brilliant magician, I’m not inclined to believe that a great magician makes for a great novelist, thought mine is a fatuous argument. I mean, every novelist’s gotta have a day job at some point and why would being a famous magician make him any less inclined to pen (ha ha) a brilliant novel than if he were, say, a journalist, doctor, or cop, professions which have churned out their fair share of great novels. I suppose I thought, “Well, he’s a famous guy and someone in publicity thought they could market the hell out of his name so they bought his crappy manuscript.” Simple, simple me. It took no more than a few pages for me to realize what a colossally judgmental ass I was (am?).

This book is the real deal. It’s a “mystery” (not really) about a somewhat incompetent cop who sets out to solve a murder with a gay hairdresser friend and his sock monkey.

Oh, and it’s told from the perspective of the sock monkey.

It’s a brilliant, inspired, wholly unique, bizarre, philosophical piece. It plays with language as if it’s clay—you can TASTE how much Jillette loves words—surprises you with character, and hammers at your (mis)perceptions with a series of well-placed postmodern salvos that undercut the narrative while oddly reinforcing it.

If you’re a language junkie or a book junkie or just a plain old junkie, you should cast aside your doubts (oh wait, that was just me?) and dig in. I can say without hesitation it is one of the most original books I’ve read all year.

I love that sock monkey. What a clever, devious little mofo.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I'm Not A Huge Check-Out-This-Web-Site Guy, But...

If there are two things I love, it's good TV and dictators. Okay, so maybe not really. But this game is interesting, as it bizarrely sets up a series of questions to guess which famous dictator or TV character you're pretending to be.

So why the hell am I posting about it on a writer's website? Well, I found interesting the types of questions the computer program generates in closing in on character. It's sort of an odd glimpse at the mechanics behind (bad?) character building - nothing I'd recommend to anyone writing their own characters, but compelling in a rubberneck sort of way nonetheless.

Another fun game is to answer the questions as yourself and see who it guesses you to be. I was Stalin. No bad for a Jewish kid from the Bay Area.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Why I'd Rather Get Paper Cuts On My Tongue Than Proof Galleys

Apologies for the few-weeks delay on blog entries. And if you didn’t notice, well, never mind.

But I do have a good excuse.

Loathe as I am ever to complain about this, the best job around, I must say that I just emerged from what I find the most trying time of year. Galleys time.

The galleys arrived to my address on December 24th, with a brief apology from my editor. Timing is everything, they say, and there’s nothing like a holiday with a tedious job hanging over your head. Proofing the galleys, you see, isn’t fun like other editing. Second-pass on a manuscript, or even line edits, can be very stimulating because you’re ratcheting up the manuscript just that much more, making the cogs and slots align, finding that perfect turn of phrase. With galley editing, you’re mostly catching typesetting errors, looking for word repeats, or getting ambushed by errors that you’ve overlooked that will now be a huge pain in the ass to fix. And here’s the catch: no one can actually proofread your galleys except you. No matter how tempting it may sound, you can't leave it to the pub house proofreader. Because only you know if a key word got dropped in the typesetting process, or if that change that your copyeditor recommended but you rejected got sent through anyway. To do a thorough read on the manuscript takes me (depending on my mood and the particulars of the manuscript) about thirty to forty hours.

The catch is that galleys generally arrive, if you’re a book-a-year guy or gal, when you already have up a full head of steam on the next book. I have a tough time setting down a rough draft for a week or two and picking it back up. If I leave my creative mark for a significant period of time, it usually takes me a week or two to find my bearings once I dive back in. I used to drive myself nuts when I toured. Right when I’d get settled into a good rhythm, I’d pop out for a signing to Cleveland or Boston and completely lose my momentum, since I only used to be able to write at my desk. James Patterson offered me great advice on this front when I saw him at an event we did together (he the keynote, me the mere panelist). The exchange was simple:

JP: Do you write on the road?
GH: No, I can’t.
JP (with great gravity): Learn.

And so I have. Now when I’m working on a rough draft, I won’t let anything short of an emergency interrupt it. I write on planes, in hotel rooms, in the car (no, not when I’m driving). So if a script gig or an event comes up, I fit in my screenwriting and/or prep time at night and on weekends so as not to break my 9 to 6 commitment on the new book. And I’m happy to do it, because screenwriting and events are pretty goddamned fun. With galleys it’s the same way—except piling work after work when the additional work, well, kind of sucks, doesn’t make for a happy novelist. So after proofing galleys at night, when I return to my beloved rough draft the next morning, more characters die horrible deaths. I have to get out my aggravation somewhere.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

What Makes a Thriller?

High-stakes…a ticking clock…violence on the page…the audience’s being aware of the villain’s plotting—odds are you’re already familiar with the elements that define a thriller if you’ve found your way to this website. You’ve also likely stumbled over the classic blurb and jacket-copy catch-phrases that these fundamentals, when well executed, give rise to: “breakneck pacing,” “white-knuckle action,” “roller-coaster ride,” “better than Cats.” Okay, so maybe not the last one. The bottom line is, thrillers are often badder, meaner, and bigger than other forms of crime fiction. Think Thomas Harris over Agatha Christie, or, in other mediums, 24 over Murder, She Wrote, or In the Line of Fire over Sleuth. In a thriller, you’re more likely to find Dr. Lecter in the kitchen with liver and fava beans than Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the candlestick. So it goes. Concerned parent groups lobby here.

Having the reader in the pretentiously titled “superior” position—meaning they’re riding shotgun with the good guys AND the bad guys through various scenes—of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t surprises (or, in blurbspeak “more twists and turns than a….”). I tend to structure my books so that the reader follows both sides of an impending collision, but the scenes with the antagonists I write a bit more hazy on specifics, so it’s never entirely clear what they’re up to or when the plot is going to reverse itself. Toward the end of a book, I’ll often have my antagonist fall out of the plot for several chapters, so his or her reappearance is startling—surprising due to machinations set in motion while the author (poor sod) took his eye off the ball.

As a rule, research seems to play a significant role in thrillers. Of course, authors of other genres can be brilliant researchers (here I envision Tom Wolfe bludgeoning me with an ivory-headed cane for my crass generalization) but thriller writers in particular seem to enjoy rolling up their sleeves and getting dirt under their fingernails. Maybe this is because thrillers are rife with bomb-making and forensic trails—try writing about THOSE convincingly without doing some field work. I use my books almost as an excuse for continuing education. I’ve sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs to blow up cars, conducted an interview with a hospital tech as he carved up a cadaver to deliver its parts to dissection lab, and most recently for The Program, I went undercover into mind-control cults in Los Angeles so I could create my own cult (for the novel, that is—or I suppose in real life too if I ever get bored). Interacting with cult members, witnessing the effusive testimonials, participating in group exercises, and submitting to “testing” gave me the background I needed to add the telling detail to give the Program its verisimilitude. I suppose that’s what I love the most about thrillers—it’s as much goddamned fun to write them as to read them.