I write for the blog The Kill Zone. Some of my older posts are below, and you can read the more recent ones by visiting The Kill Zone

Why We Write

One thing’s for sure: We don’t do it for the money. Yes, it’s possible to make a living from writing fiction, but on average it’s one of the least lucrative professions in the whole economy. And forget about fame or adulation from the masses. Have you seen the nasty book reviews posted on Amazon? It’s open season on novelists there. Even the best authors get trashed.

So why do we write? Because of the book parties, baby. There’s nothing like a good party.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of hosting the book party for my new thriller Extinction. The venue was The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca, one of my favorite stores in NYC. The shop’s owner is renowned author, editor and publisher Otto Penzler, founder of The Mysterious Press and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. Best of all, he’s a Michigan grad. His store has wonderfully tall bookcases and movable ladders for reaching the top shelves, and none of the employees seemed to mind when my kids climbed the ladders and started doing midair acrobatics. Well, they probably did mind, but no one told the kids to cut it out.

I signed a ton of books. I love doing that. Who doesn’t want to be the center of attention every once in a while? My only regret was that the party was too short. Over the course of two hours I could manage to say only three or four sentences to each of the friends who came. These are people I’d love to spend more time with, friends from high school and college and my old jobs at Fortune and Scientific American. These are the parents I see at my son’s Little League tournaments and my daughter’s soccer games, folks who are amazed to see me wearing anything but jeans and T-shirts. (“Oh my God, you own a suit?”) If life were longer and easier, I’d see these people all the time. We’d have brunch, we’d go skiing, we’d get on a plane and fly to Barcelona for the weekend. But in the real world, time’s winged chariot is always hurrying near, and I’m way behind on my next novel. I wrote only 700 words yesterday, so I have to write 1,300 today.

The best part of the event, by far, was my wife’s speech. The spouses of writers have to absorb a lot of bitterness -- who else are you going to complain to when things go wrong? -- so it’s only fair to give them most of the credit when things go well. And she made an excellent point in her brief remarks: book parties are especially important for authors because writing is such a solitary activity. We have to spend so much time with our fictional characters, talking with them and moving them around like chess pieces and inventing quirks and flaws and back stories for them. And sometimes we even fall in love with them. But it’s also nice to hang out with real people for a change.

Posted on Saturday, February 23, 2013

Regarding Rejection

I’m familiar with rejection. Before my first novel was published I wrote four books that went nowhere. I received rejection letters from every major publisher in the industry and a hell of a lot of minor ones too. (And because this record of rejection dates back to the late Eighties, some of them were actual letters rather than e-mails. Typed on paper, for crying out loud!)

The rejections that hurt the most were of the “It’s good, but…” variety. You know what I mean: It’s well-written, but I didn’t like the characters. It starts well, but I lost interest. I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  Or the worst: I loved the book, but it’s not right for us.

I hated those letters. My reaction was: If you like it so much, why don’t you just publish it? In my disappointment, I wondered whether the compliments were sincere. Perhaps the editors actually disliked the book but were trying to soften the blow. In a perverse way, I almost hoped that the praise was false. If it was genuine, that meant I’d come close to success but fallen short, which was more frustrating than missing by a long shot.

In retrospect, I realize how wrongheaded my reasoning was. First of all, I’ve learned that book editors are outrageously busy people. The notion that they’d take the time to invent a compliment seems so ludicrous now. I’ve also realized there are many valid reasons for rejection that have nothing to do with the quality of the novel. The publisher may have too many books on its list already. Or perhaps the imprint rejects a manuscript because it just published something similar and it didn’t sell very well. Publishing is a business, after all. An editor can afford to make a few money-losing bets, but not too many.

But my worst mistake was ignoring the obvious message of those letters: You’re getting close! You should keep trying! Now I see that receiving one of those “It’s good, but…” rejections is the equivalent of hitting the green outer ring of the bull’s-eye on a dartboard. If you can consistently hit that ring, then it’s just a matter of time before you’ll land within the inner circle and win the big prize.

My third novel, Extinction, comes out on Tuesday, and as I stare at the gleaming hardcover on my desk I think of all those rejection letters. I suppose there are a few supernaturally talented writers who can hit a bull’s-eye on the very first throw. But for most of us mere mortals, success and failure march hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

Posted on Saturday, February 9, 2013

Censorship Sucks

Like many writers, I’m avidly following the turmoil at Southern Weekend and the Beijing News, the Chinese newspapers where reporters are challenging the censorship of Communist Party propaganda officials. It’s an irresistible story because the heroes are journalists -- hooray! -- and they’re fighting a repressive political system that may finally be on the brink of major change. I have a special interest in the story because my upcoming novel, Extinction, is set mostly in China, and the book’s plot involves the repression of political dissent there. (And I just learned that a Chinese translation of the book will be published, albeit in Taiwan, not mainland China.) But the controversy also reminds me of a humiliating incident that took place thirty years ago when I was starting my journalism career. I discovered firsthand that censorship occurs in America too.

It was the summer of 1983. I was in graduate school at Columbia University, studying creative writing, but I knew I couldn’t stay in school forever and I’d have to find a job soon. So I got an unpaid internship at the Scranton Times in Pennsylvania (the newspaper is now called the Scranton Times-Tribune). I was a journalism neophyte -- I hadn’t even written for my high-school paper -- but now I had a golden opportunity to learn the trade. For my first assignment I called a bunch of local travel agencies to find out where Scrantonians spend their vacations (actual headline: “Cancun, Disney World Are Favorite Vacation Destinations”). Most of the stories I wrote that summer were fluffy feature articles that could be safely assigned to an inexperienced reporter (another headline: “Elderly Have Happy Time At West Side Senior Center”). But as every journalist knows, real news sometimes pops up unexpectedly.

On July 25th the newspaper sent me to a meeting of the Scranton Plan, a group of community leaders who were encouraging businesses to set up shop in the Scranton area. In truth, it was a pretty dull assignment, which perhaps explained why no one but the summer intern was willing to go. The Scranton Times was intimately connected to the Scranton Plan; the newspaper’s co-publisher at the time, George V. Lynett, Sr. -- whose family owned the Scranton Times and continues to run it to this day -- also served as a co-chairman of the community group. Lynett opened the meeting with a review of the group’s strategies and a summary of the business advantages of Lackawanna County (cheap power, large labor pool, etc.) In the middle of this phenomenally boring discussion, someone else at the meeting -- sorry, I don’t remember who, and I lost my notes a long time ago -- wondered aloud if the group was neglecting to mention one of the prime advantages of the area. He said they might want to consider publicizing the fact that Scranton had a much smaller minority population than New York and other big cities.

Suddenly, I was all ears. I expected Lynett to scold the local bigot. I thought the publisher would firmly rebut the troglodytic view that large minority populations were somehow “bad for business.” But instead, to my astonishment, Lynett said the Scranton Plan didn’t need to publicize the area’s dearth of minorities because the fact was already implied in the group’s promotional pamphlets, which had pictures of only white people.

Even though I was a neophyte, I recognized that this was news. How could a newspaper publisher in the 1980s say such a thing? What’s more, Lynett knew I was there to cover the meeting. Did he expect me to simply ignore what he said?

When I returned to the newsroom to write the story, I included the controversial comments. The copy editor passed the text to the managing editor, who dutifully passed it on to Lynett, and soon afterward I was called to the publisher’s office. To his credit, Lynett was polite and apologetic. He told me that if we were in a journalism class, most of the students would agree that he should run my story as I wrote it. But this was the real world, he said, not a class. He said the story would make Scranton look bad and possibly hurt the local economy, which had been struggling for decades. He deleted all the comments about minorities from the article, turning it into a dry, boosterish account that wouldn’t embarrass the newspaper or its publisher. (The censored story is pictured above.) I was disappointed and dismayed, but there was nothing I could do.

I’d just seen the truth of journalist A.J. Liebling’s famous maxim: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” And I would see it again: four years later, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, the newspaper’s publisher tried to water down a series of stories in which I described the unyielding racial segregation in that city. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this kind of interference with the strict press controls that the Chinese government imposes. But any kind of censorship is insidious. If writers truly want to be heroes, we have to be constantly on guard against it.

Posted on Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thriller Epiphanies

A few years ago I traveled with my family on a cruise ship that passed through the Panama Canal. It was fascinating to watch the canal employees board the boat and guide it into the locks. My favorite moment came at dinnertime, when we saw the canal officers deliver meals to the employees on our boat by dangling the Styrofoam containers from the tow ropes. Ingenious!

Because the locks for the Pacific-bound boats are parallel to those for the Caribbean-bound shipping, we got an up-close view of a Panamax freighter traveling in the opposite direction. They’re called Panamax ships because they’re built to the maximum size that the canal can handle. The width of the boat is just a few feet less than the width of the lock. The canal employees tie the freighter to “mule” locomotives that run on both sides of the lock and very carefully pull the ship into the giant “bathtub.” The hull passes so close to the bathtub’s concrete walls, you can almost hear it scraping.

While observing this process, I glimpsed an indentation in one of the concrete walls. It was a vertical notch, maybe three feet wide and a couple of feet deep, with a steel ladder running up the length of it. I supposed it was there for safety reasons; if someone fell into the bathtub, he could swim to the ladder and climb out. Then I imagined what would happen if someone was clinging to that ladder while a Panamax freighter slid into the lock, its barnacle-crusted hull passing just inches from his nose. That would be a cool scene, I thought. Somehow or other, I have to put it into one of my books.

It took a while but I finally managed to do it. The scene appears in my next thriller, Extinction, which comes out in a few weeks. I’m betting that all thriller writers have epiphanies like these, when you imagine a terrible peril and instead of saying to yourself, “Oh stop, you’re being morbid,” you resolve to write about it. Am I right or wrong?

Posted on Saturday, January 12, 2013

Seeing Your Scenes

I started having eye problems a few months ago. My eyes got dry and irritated while I slept, and my vision was blurry when I awoke. My ophthalmologist said this was a common, age-related problem. He recommended eye drops and a humidifier. It’s not a big deal, just annoying. I hate the fact that my body doesn’t work as well as it used to.

And it made me think about the importance of eyesight to a writer. Most writers are also voracious readers, so we ruin our eyes on novels and newspapers, not to mention all the hours spent rereading our own manuscripts. What’s more, so much of our memory and imagination is visual, at least for writers with normal eyesight. For better or worse, I rely on my eyes more than my other senses, blithely ignoring entire universes of sound, smell and touch. When I think of my childhood, I see mental snapshots of my family’s old apartment in Queens, along with a half-remembered collage of classrooms, playgrounds and birthday parties. And when I use my imagination to construct fictional scenes, the building blocks are mostly visual: what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, how their expressions change, and so on.

In my latest novel, which will come out in a couple of months, I take this idea to its logical extreme: you are what you see. One of the characters in the book, a brilliant bioengineer, figures out how to build brain implants that can copy and download a person’s visual memories. The technology has great commercial potential; millions of people would surely pay for the implants so they could archive their lives or share their favorite memories on Facebook. But the bioengineer has an ulterior motive. He’s dying of cancer, and he believes he can resurrect himself by downloading all his visual memories to a powerful computer that can mimic the functions of the human brain. The computer would be programmed to generate new thoughts and emotions based on his memories, and because memories are the building blocks of personality and identity, the intelligence inside the computer would be identical to the bioengineer’s intelligence (in theory at least).

This idea, I hasten to add, isn’t my own invention. It’s the Holy Grail of the Singularity movement, which has been inspired by the writings of futurist Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) and others. My twist on the notion is to focus on visual memories. Scientists understand the visual cortex better than other brain regions, because it’s relatively easy to do experiments that involve visual stimuli. Researchers have constructed elaborate, spaghetti-like maps showing how visual information moves from one part of the brain to another, traveling to the regions that store memories (so you can recognize the objects you’re looking at) as well as the regions that control muscle movements (so you can catch the baseball that’s speeding toward you). Because we already know a lot about the visual cortex, the prospect of building a computer that mimics this brain region seemed somewhat believable to me -- more like a thriller, and less like science fiction.

In my novel, the bioengineer’s technology goes awry, of course. (I won’t say any more, because I want you to read the book!) But while I was writing the novel I became convinced that the underlying premise -- you are what you see -- may have some truth to it. I don’t believe there’s any need to assume the existence of some intangible, unobservable entity (soul, spirit, whatever) to explain the mysteries of consciousness and personality. The brain can assemble an identity out of the memories of early childhood, because the interconnected whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Strictly speaking, some of the parts aren’t really memories -- they’re instincts genetically hard-wired into the brain, which govern an infant’s life until learned behaviors can take over. And memories of sound, smell, taste and touch also have powerful influences, particularly on the development of language and emotions. But for someone like me, who relies so much on eyesight, life is like a long, meandering movie, a film that’s being constantly re-edited as I watch it.

And this brings me back to fiction. When I’m working on a novel, I see the scenes in my mind’s eye before I put them down on paper. I can’t start writing until I can see, at least blurrily, where the characters are and what they look like. As I write the scene, the setting and characters usually come into better focus, and when I’m finished I can go back to the blurry parts at the beginning and sharpen them by adding more detail. I also add sounds and smells if they’re relevant and compelling; it’s a good idea to describe taste sensations when the characters are eating, and tactile sensations are vital to any description of sex or violence. But for me, the process starts with images. I have to see it to believe it.

I’m not alone on this one, am I? Do most authors visualize their scenes before writing them? And does anyone else have this nighttime dry-eye problem? I’d appreciate any advice, because it’s driving me crazy.

Posted on Saturday, December 15, 2012

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