Pen-L Press to Publish My Paranormal Detective Novel, Silent Partner

Sometime in 2014, Pen-L Press will publish my latest novel, Silent Partner. It’s definitely an adult-themed novel. The story concerns the efforts of Detective Francis “Frankie” Ryan to solve a double homicide. While Frankie is as driven as Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch and probably is fighting as many internal demons, she also has a certain vulnerability. She’s has just gone back on duty after a suspension resulting from shooting a man assaulting his wife. Vilified by the press for being a female vigilante, she finds reporters examining every one of her actions under a microscope.

Frankie finds herself relying more and more on Josh Harrell, a tabloid reporter who discovers he has a psychic gift. Harrell relies more and more on a sexy apparition that he finds very attractive.

Silent Partner draws Ryan and Harrell into the seamy world of underground S&M clubs. One of this novel’s major themes is the complexity of sexual identify and the pain that transgender people suffer. Despite this very sensitive subject, the book is PG-13 with no real violent or graphic sex scenes. It’s a mystery that Ryan solves through all-fashioned detective work with Harrell using his psychic abilities for his own independent investigation.

I’m very excited about this novel and hope you share some of that excitement with me. If you do enjoy it, I’m already half-way through a sequel that once again features Ryan and Harrell.

Sleepless in Las Vegas

 

This past weekend my wife and I attended a benefit for neurofibromatosis held in Las Vegas. If you’ve never heard of NF, it’s a horrible disease that inflicts itself on 1 out of every 2500 people. While NF is an “orphan” disease that doesn’t get much publicity or research funds, it affects a lot of people if you take into account that people with NF have spouses, children, parents, and grandchildren as well as friends who feel the disease’s impact. If you’d like more information on NF, visit the website of a wonderful group that is trying to raise funds as well as awareness:

http://www.nfnetwork.org

While we were in Las Vegas, it struck me just how strange a city it really is. There’s something truly bizarre about watching people shop at midnight in Caesar’s Forum shops. Since clocks don’t exist in any casino, it just as well might be twilight since the artificial light   never turns to night. Cabdrivers haven’t changed. They still always complain that the convention attendees are lousy tippers and business is terrible. You’re supposed to get the hint that you should be a better tipper.

Las Vegas is a service economy. Everyone seems to be waiting for a tip, but it makes sense when you realize how little salary many of them make. Not everything has changed for the better in a city that morphed from a sleepy desert town to a fun place to see the Rat Pack to a family fun destination to its current role as a place where “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” I did notice that the strip really is a contrast of opposites. I’ve never seen so many attractive people (the entertainers) nor so many washed out people who appear to be seeking one last fling before going into a coma (some of the tourists).

Las Vegas is a place where you see people talking to virtual blackjack dealers who respond. It’s very strange to watch that scene. I used to love to visit the city because of the very reasonable buffets. Now the food is no longer subsidized and meals are very expensive.

Despite the occasional staccato of bells and other noises coming from the slot machines, they are strangely silent. No longer do people use coins to play slots. Now the machines take paper money or credit cards. I miss the sound of all those silver dollars hitting a tray when someone lands a jackpot.

I didn’t see any books or bookstores. My wife and I probably were the only tourists who brought books to read during downtime. The city leaders might be puzzled by the idea of downtime in a city that never sleeps.

Driving in Las Vegas is a nightmare that would scare Kafka. Since so many people are tourists, people are constantly changing lanes at the last minute without signaling. Once you’re out of the city, it’s like driving on the moon. My drive from Las Vegas to Barstow consisted of sand and desert and more sand and desert. My monotony was broken frequently by cars flying at me at speeds close to 100 mph. I felt like I’d been thrown into the middle of the Indianapolis 500 without a helmet or roll bar.

At several times driving through the desert I felt like I’d joined the witness protection program. My Garmin would register that it had lost its satellite signal. It’s really saying something when I tell you that we welcomed Barstow as our first glimpse of civilization.

My wife and I had a wonderful time seeing family and attending an incredible NF benefit program that featured stars such as the Jersey Boys. I do understand that natives of Las Vegas rarely visit the strip. After our weekend there, I can understand. Being sleepless in Las Vegas on the strip doesn’t generate the same warm feelings as being sleepless in Seattle. I bet buffets are cheaper in Seattle and the coffee is probably better as well.

 

 

 

http://www.nfnetwork.org

http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/neurofibromatosis-1/overview.html

 

Egypt Rising Book Signing

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Me standing behind an Egypt Rising poster

Me standing behind an Egypt Rising poster

You couldn’t ask for a nicer day, even for San Diego. Fifty people attended a book signing for Egypt Rising at our home. It was a double celebration because it also served as my birthday party.  My wife deserves all the credit for making this happen.

What surprised me was the popularity of the name, Olivia. Not only did attendees have daughters or granddaughters with that name, but Yahoo recently published a map of the US with the most popular names for both boys and girls listed by state. It turns out that Olivia is popular everywhere but the South. Then again, the South doesn’t seem to agree with the rest of the country on much.

Thanks to everyone for coming and making this event a success!

How Old Do You Have to Be to Forget High School?

We’ve all heard the stories of highly successful men and women who go through torture to prepare for their high school reunions. Whether it’s starvation diets, hair dying, minor plastic surgery, or urgent visits to a psychologist, the efforts expended make it clear that high school is an experience almost impossible to forget. Take it a step further. When you actually attend a reunion, the old patterns re-establish themselves. Notice how the very same cliques reassemble themselves at tables where they save seats for each other. Notice how the most successful nerds, men and women who now are independently wealthy and captains of industry, become self-effacing in front of former high school luminaries who haven’t accomplished nearly as much with their lives.

That’s not to say there aren’t some changes. I noticed, happily I have to admit, that at one of my high school reunions the ex-jocks still clustered together although they were more than willing to pass out their cards. Now middle-aged, balding, and overweight, many sold insurance. The former high school cheerleaders had aged well, but many of them were on their second or third marriage. It’s almost as if they were dissatisfied precisely because they couldn’t recapture the magic they enjoyed during their brief exposure to fame. There is something sad about peaking so early in life.

I’ve been thinking about the emotional impact of high school as well as the recurring patterns that people take with them from that experience. Have you attended a large party recently? If so, then you might have noticed how people revert back to their earlier selves. Or, perhaps, they never really changed. The Queen Bee still commands a number of attendants to cater to her needs. The ex-jocks still focus on their athletic accomplishments, although now it’s mostly talk about a good round of golf. The people who were the student body officers in high school now look to be elected as Rotary Club Treasurer or Condo Association President.

Politicians never seem to get past high school. Student body officers never seem to get over their quest for higher office. Bill Clinton apparently started his famous rolodex in high school and never stopped building that database of possible supporters. The newly appointed head of the Fed was student body President of her high school. Remember how in high school groups (almost tribes) formed and categorized everyone as either being “us” or “them.” Many anthropologists believe that the breakdown in support for a powerful federal government is really a movement back to primitive tribal structure. Members of a tribe look alike and think alike; they ostracize those who don’t fit in.  There always has been a fear of anyone who is different, whether that difference manifests itself as race, religion, or ways of thinking. Remember video you’ve seen of tea party demonstrations? Tea Party members certainly did dress alike and think alike. As I remember, I didn’t see any brown or black faces in those crowds.

High school is an emotionally charged four years that shapes most people’s lives for decades afterward.  Not too long ago I decided not to attend yet another high school reunion. I thought about it and realized that I was once and forever over high school. I no longer felt the need to prove I’d succeeded in life. I wasn’t even curious what had happened to people I’d known decades before. If we had been close, we probably would still know each other. Nowadays there’s no reason not to stay in touch or locate someone via LinkedIn or Google. So, If I hadn’t seen someone in thirty years, there’s a good possibility we no longer had much in common except we might have been in one of those high school groups that offer its members shelter and protection from other tribes.

So, ask yourself if you still get an upset stomach when you see a thin envelope that announces yet another high school reunion. Do you find yourself running to a mirror and holding in your stomach while you give yourself a critical look? Do you think of triaging your physical imperfections? Do you mentally calculate the cost of liposuction for your stomach, shots for the wrinkles on your face, and just a touch of color to blot out the gray in your hair? If that’s the case, then don’t despair. You also might eventually climb to the Buddha-like level of emotional tranquility where you simply toss the reunion invitation into your trash without any feelings of guilt.

Are You Being Manipulated as a Reader or Viewer?

I was talking about a character I was creating with a friend when he asked me a very unusual question: “Where’s the character’s save the cat scene?” I hadn’t mentioned a cat and couldn’t figure out what my friend meant. It turns out that most of the successful movies for the last eight years have followed a formula Blake Snyder describes in a book titled SAVE THE CAT.

In that little but very influential book Snyder lays out the formula, step by step, for a successful screenplay. There are several “beats” or scenes that a screenwriter must include. To make a character sympathetic for viewers it is critical that this character have a  “save the cat” scene very early in the movie in which he or she does something very sympathetic to the viewer. It doesn’t literally have to be saving a cat, of course. It might be visiting a sick relative, helping a child, playing with his dog, etc. The entire point of this scene is to make the movie goer care about the character.

Of course much of this same formulaic approach to writing carries over to the writing of a novel. Larry Brooks, an expert at teaching writers how to structure a novel, wrote a book called Story Structure in which he lays out all the key scenes a novel must have, including describing the approximate page location of each scene. One enterprising novelist took Brooks’ material and even created an Excel spreadsheet. Novelists need only type in the number of pages they anticipate for their novel as well as the font they are using and the spreadsheet calculates the precise page number for a plot point.

What does this have to do with readers? If you love to read novels, then you’ve probably had the disturbing feeling that a novelist is trying to manipulate your emotions. Did the novelist have to kill off a character’s lovable dog in bring tears to your eyes? Did the novelist have to give that cute little girl that horrible incurable disease?

Because most of us are frequent movie goers as well as novel readers, the genres meld together. No doubt you sometimes think about how a book you are reading would make such a good movie. Most screenwriters calculate a minute per screenplay page and believe that the movie viewer must be hooked by the five minute mark. Similarly, many literary agents tell novelists seeking representation that they would like to see the first 10 pages of the first chapter. Why? It’s not just an agent wanting to see whether an aspiring novelist can write. It’s also a test to see if anything dramatic happens early in the first chapter to capture the reader.

Pity the traditional European screenwriters who used to be able to create a script for a French or British movie in which the first half hour consisted of setting the scene. They no longer have that kind of time. Poor Jane Austen likely would receive a rejection note from a literary agent complaining that nothing dramatic happened in the first three chapters.

My first draft of Egypt Rising included an opening chapter in which Olivia sleeps over at the home of her Islamic friend. Even though the chapter included a confrontation between Olivia and Aasuma’s militant Muslim Brotherhood-leaning brother, it wasn’t dramatic enough. In later versions of the novel I opened with a chapter that propelled Olivia and her friend into downtown Cairo where they are caught up in a demonstration and then detained by the police.  Clearly I learned my lesson.

The problem for readers or viewers today is that no one wants to feel that someone is pulling strings to manipulate their emotions. Screenwriters and novelists now are so accustomed to following formulaic patterns that they sometimes have to sacrifice character development or elaborate descriptions of settings. The effect is to flatten out the book or movie. Another impact of this formulaic approach to fiction and film is to make readers and viewers feel like whatever they are reading or watching is familiar enough to give them a sense of deja vu.

We’ve already very accustomed to formulaic approaches in certain genres. Take mysteries, particularly police procedure mysteries as an example. When I wrote Silent Partner (completed but not yet placed for publication), I found that there were a number of conventions I had to follow. The crime occurs off-screen. The detective comes to the scene of the crime and then begins gathering clues and identifying suspects. Generally the first few suspects are attractive possibilities, but they don’t pan out. The formula also calls for the novelist to place clues strategically so that readers later can look back and discover that the clues pointed to a suspect who turned out to be the killer. It’s no longer considered acceptable to follow the formula of the old Perry Mason series for TV where someone winds up confessing while on the witness stand. If something like that happens in a police procedure novel today, most readers would feel cheated of the fun of matching wits with the detective to see if they could identify the killer first.

Science fiction also follows very strict formulas. Does the novelist want to write a First Contact type novel in which humans discover an alien race? If so, there’s a formula or bringing the two races together, whether the novel is The Mote’s Eye or Footfall, two very different accounts of aliens.

Of course Romance novels also have their formulas. Some series even specify to the novelist the degree of “heat” such romances can have. One formula specifies that any sex scenes have to lead to marriage. Another specifies that there cannot be any rape scenes although “mild” S&M is acceptable.

I’m reminded of a key scene in Earnest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Lieutenant Henry concludes that they” “throw you into the game, don’t tell you the rules, and then kill you when you break one.” Nowadays novelists and readers both must understand the rules of the “game.” Someone purchasing a “cozy” mystery does not want to read the gory details of a murder. Someone buying a Young Adult novel doesn’t want to read about 12-year old characters while someone buying a “New Adult” labeled book does not want to read about 16-year old characters.

A writer who tries to defy these formulas runs into real problems finding a publisher. Recently I received a nice note from a fine publisher who really loved my Silent Partner, but did not want to publish a police procedure mystery that contained a paranormal element, even though the spirit doesn’t actually solve the case.

So, the next time you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, ask yourself whether you’re the master of your fate or whether someone else in the background is cleverly pulling the  strings. Bite your lip and refrain from crying when a character saves the cat.

Why Some Books are Worth Reading Twice

I recently ran into a writer of romances who was very proud that she had written and published three books (an entire trilogy) in a single year. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s famous quote when someone pointed to the best seller status of Valley of the Dolls. Now there’s no question but that Capote was a literary snob who really knew how to say something snide. Still, his comment that Jackie Suzanne was not writing but only “typing” is pretty memorable.

It’s possible to write a book pretty quickly, particularly if it’s been simmering around in your head for an extended period of time. But remember, that’s a first draft. I think the real challenge in writing is tweaking the book once it’s written to make it even better and maybe even memorable. I’m not sure you could do that and still write and publish three books in a single year. It is possible certainly to write three books that read reasonably well and have interesting plots, but would that alone make you want to read the books again?

So, what makes a book memorable enough to make you want to read it a second time or even a third time? Why are there some books that I routinely look forward to re-reading year after year? Here are some things I look for in a book that make me want to re-read it to the point that I can almost quote entire sections?

PLOT: Clearly the plot has to be interesting enough to keep me reading. Ideally, there are interesting subplots that beautifully meld together so that the sum total is greater than the parts. I also enjoy enjoy discovering subtle foreshadowing elements in a plot that I can appreciate upon re-reading the book. As a novelist, I can appreciate how cleverly the writer plants these unobtrusive signposts that later ring all kinds of bells for any reader who remembers them. Stephen King is a master of plotting. I’ve re-read his 11/23/63 several times and see something new each time.

CHARACTERS: There are certain characters I think of as real people not only because I’ve read about them so many times, but also because they are fleshed out real people with flaws that make them even more likable. Sometimes it’s their distinctive voice and sense of humor. I really like the John Corey character Nelson DeMille created. I once worked in a police department and Corey reminds me of some people I met there. His sense of humor still makes me laugh even though I’ve read the same jokes each time I re-read the books in which Corey appears.

SETTINGS: It’s always fun to be thrust into a setting completely different from your real world setting. Whether that’s the imaginary world of Harry Potter or Dune or even the real but exotic Ethiopia that Nelson DeMille describes in his new book, The Quest, doesn’t matter. I tried to describe modern Cairo in Egypt Rising. That required me to rely on my memory of my trip there but also on several guidebooks I used to fill in gaps in my memory. It also required me to study maps of the city.

USE OF LANGUAGE: Some books scream “literary novel.” Nowadays some of those books seem overwritten. Still, there are some popular modern writers who offer books filled with rich language without making their novels seem stuffy or unreadable. Ann Patchett does a wonderful job describing the rainforest in State of Wonder. Each time I re-read that book, I catch something I missed the first time.

Finally, there’s something comforting in picking up a favorite book, one that you’ve read many times before. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the anticipation of what will happen. The thriller you read the first time worrying that a character you like might be killed is different now that you can enjoy the story because you KNOW that your favorite character will survive. When I re-read some of Michael Connelly’s mysteries, I can enjoy Harry Bosch without worrying something will happen to him. I can enjoy the way Connelly plants red herrings, possible suspects, while planting enough clues so you feel satisfied when he reveals the real killer. I re-read Faye Kellerman’s books often, and I find I appreciate them even more the second or third or fourth times. Since she has a couple who reappear in several of her books, I can enjoy retracing the development of the relationship between Rina and Peter.

As a reader, I look for books that I hope I’ll enjoy enough to want to re-read them. I write novels with the hope that they’ll become a reader’s good friend, someone the reader will want to visit again and again.