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

The Poetic Thriller

One of the many embarrassing secrets from my past is that I once considered myself a poet. Now, there’s nothing inherently embarrassing about poetry; the shame comes from writing bad poetry, and I was a pretty bad poet. I started writing the stuff when I was a senior in high school and continued through my college years and into grad school. As you might expect, the most common subjects of my bad poems were attractive girls I admired from afar. Like every adolescent I had strong romantic feelings, but instead of expressing them in the usual manner -- saying hello to the girl, asking for her phone number, etc. -- I recorded my yearnings in torrid verse.

To maximize my mortification, I feel obliged to provide an example. The following poem is titled “Katie.” It’s named after a Vassar coed I met at a college party in November 1979 and never saw again.

Dearest Katie, passing splendor,

my much too brief delight,
please say that you’ll remember me
on some cold November night.
Too quick you left my fierce embrace,
too slow was I to follow,
too many the miles of endless waste
that tear me from your special grace,
each step a cause for sorrow.

The poem is embarrassing enough on its own, but the story behind it is even worse. You might assume from the words “fierce embrace” and “much too brief delight” that Katie and I shared a night of wild, passionate sex, but that was just wishful thinking on my part. In truth, our physical contact didn’t go beyond shaking hands. At the party she was more interested in dancing with one of my friends (Duncan, if you’re reading this: that’s you) than with me. And the Tolkienesque phrase “miles of endless waste” is another overstatement; it refers to the relatively short drive between Princeton and Vassar, which I could’ve navigated easily enough if I’d had the nerve.

But I want to focus on the last line: “each step a cause for sorrow.” Even in my youthful ignorance, I realized this line was better than the rest of the poem. It had a certain romantic grandness. And it was a lucky accident that the best line came at the end. I’ve always admired poems with strong endings. One of my English professors in college used to say that the last line of a poem should give you the sense that a door is closing, a lid is being snapped shut. In other words, the best poems end with a bang. Just consider these great closers:

…And I remain despairing of the port.

…Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?

…First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

…and empty grows every bed.

This brings me to the connection between poetry and thrillers. Good suspense writing also ends with a bang. The last chapter of a thriller should have the fiercest battles, the biggest explosions, the most satisfying emotional payoffs. And in each of the book’s chapters, the concluding lines should deliver some kind of punch -- a surprise, a reversal, a revelation, a cliffhanger. It’s even true on the level of individual paragraphs and sentences. Consider the following two sentences:

He held a gun in his right hand.

In his right hand he held a gun.

The latter sentence is more effective, right? The most powerful, interesting, surprising word should come at the end.

I’m curious: Are there any other closet poets out there who made the leap to the mystery/thriller world? And are there other lessons from poetry that you’ve applied to writing suspense fiction?

Posted on Saturday, December 1, 2012

Love Your Book

Every time I write a novel I have to fool myself. I have to brainwash myself into believing a couple of obvious lies.

The first lie is that writing my novel is the most interesting thing I could possibly do. More interesting than reading anyone else’s books or watching any movies or playing any video games. This is a patent, laughable falsehood. Reading Dennis Lehane’s new book is much more interesting than writing my novel. So is watching the latest crop of movies: Lincoln, Skyfall, even Wreck-It Ralph. Playing Halo with my son is a lot more interesting than writing my novel. Or at least it would be if I could learn how to work the controls as well as he does.

I have a special problem with video games: I like them too much. Twenty-one years ago I became addicted to a game called Civilization, which I played on my 386 PC (remember those?) The game starts at the dawn of human history; you have to establish a simulated civilization by building cities and mustering armies and increasing your technological know-how. You also wage wars against competing civilizations, and over time -- each turn represents a hundred years, I think -- your weaponry grows ever more powerful. I absolutely loved that game. There was something intensely satisfying about starting out with phalanxes and chariots and then working your way up to riflemen and tanks and aircraft carriers.

One night in November 1991 I played the game until morning. I started playing when my girlfriend (now my wife) went to sleep, and I was still at it when she woke up at 7 am. She gave me an incredulous look. “What on earth are you doing?” I must’ve looked a little scary. My eyes were bloodshot, my hands were shaking, and my back muscles were full of knots from bending over the keyboard all night.  “I did it!” I yelled in triumph. “I conquered the world!”

Later that day I removed the Civilization floppy disk (remember those?) from my computer and threw it in the trash. I realized I couldn’t allow myself to play video games of any kind, because if I did I wouldn’t do anything else. This self-imposed moratorium lasted until a few years ago when I broke down and bought a Wii system for the kids (and then we got an Xbox too). It was jarring to see the new games that have been developed over the past two decades -- the graphics are so much better! But I’ve mostly resisted the compulsion to play. I’m too old to stay up all night. Besides, the kids hog the electronics now.

But getting back to my point: the world is full of entertaining distractions, and many of them would give me more pleasure than writing my novel would, at least in the short term. Yet I convince myself that this isn’t true. I put down my newspaper and tell myself, “You know what? My novel is more interesting than the CIA director’s scandalous affair. So what, the guy fooled around with a fawning younger woman, what’s so interesting about that? Come on, stop searching the Internet for lubricious details. Stop exchanging snarky e-mails with your friends. Get back to work!”

And this brings me to the second lie I tell myself. At some point in the process of writing a novel I become convinced that this book is the best thing I’ve ever written. No -- the best thing ever written by anybody. Crazy, right? The lie is so absurd I can’t seriously entertain it for very long. But it’s a useful delusion to have, especially when I’m struggling with the book and the deadline is approaching and I have to devote practically every waking moment to finishing the damn thing. Why put in all the effort if the novel isn’t fantastic?

Then I finish the first draft and stop telling myself the lies. They’ve served their purpose, so I don’t have to believe them anymore. I wait a few weeks, and then I’m ready to look at the manuscript again and confront the truth: the book is a mess. Some parts don’t make sense, other parts are boring. I don’t love the book anymore. But I don’t hate it either. Now it’s time for some tough love. An intervention. I have to whip the manuscript into shape.

And then, after all the revisions are done and the final changes sent to the copy editor and the advance reading copies distributed to the reviewers, then I’m ready to fall in love with the book again. But this time it’s not a blind, self-deluding infatuation. I’ve done my best to fix the novel’s flaws, but I know it’ll never be perfect. I love the book despite its imperfections and infelicities. I’m at this stage now with my next novel, which will be published in February. I’m still collecting blurbs and composing the jacket copy, but I can’t make any major changes to the book. This stage is the literary equivalent of zipping up your lover’s dress and clasping the pearls around her neck, getting her ready for her big night on the town.

Go out there, beautiful. Knock ’em dead.

Posted on Saturday, November 17, 2012

Be Careful What You Read!!!

Tom Wolfe has a new book out -- Back to Blood, just reviewed in last Sunday’s Times -- but I’m not going to read it right now. I enjoyed his earlier novels, especially Bonfire of the Vanities, which at the time of its publication seemed like an important cultural event, a summation of the whole Eighties-financial-boom-and-seething-inner-cities gestalt. His next book, A Man in Full, wasn’t as successful, but it had some great descriptions of prison life, which I assume are pretty realistic since Wolfe is famous for his exhaustive research. (I’m a sucker for any fiction about prison. It’s like watching a train wreck. There but for the grace of God…) And his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, had some good moments too, although much of the book was cringe-inducing.

But here’s the problem: after I read Wolfe’s last book I noticed changes in my own writing! Mostly in the use of exclamation points! Wolfe uses them a lot, and I picked up the habit! They started cropping up even in the articles I edited for Scientific American!! I added exclamation points to stories about cosmology and quantum physics! The magazine’s copy chief had to institute a new rule: no more than one exclamation point per story!!!

I’m in the middle of writing my next novel, so I’ve decided to abstain from Wolfe for now. His prose is so catchy and exuberant, it can have an especially strong influence on impressionable authors like me. I can’t stop reading fiction, of course -- as Woody Allen might say, it’s my second-favorite activity -- but I’m more careful about what I’m reading when I’m in the throes of composition. Does anyone else out there worry about this?

Posted on Saturday, November 3, 2012

My Hemingway Connection

As I mentioned in my last post, I take my family to northern Michigan every summer to visit my in-laws, who have a place on Little Traverse Bay. A few years ago my father-in-law casually asked me, “Would you be interested in meeting Ernest Hemingway’s nephew? He’s a heck of a nice guy.” Well, of course I was interested! Hemingway is a touchstone for all writers of fiction, but his influence is particularly strong for thriller writers. His short story “The Killers” is often cited as one of the first examples of “hard-boiled” fiction (although some academics argue that it was Dashiell Hammett who influenced Hemingway and not vice-versa). What’s more, after all our time in northern Michigan I felt a bit of geographical kinship with Hemingway, who spent the summers of his youth at his family’s cottage on Walloon Lake, just a few miles from Little Traverse Bay. The area became the setting for most of the Nick Adams stories as well as The Torrents of Spring, Hemingway’s early novel set in Petoskey, Michigan.

Hemingway’s favorite sibling was his sister Madelaine, nicknamed Sunny, who was five years younger than Ernest. She was the model for Littless, Nick Adams’s devoted younger sister in the unfinished story “The Last Good Country.” When she had a son in 1938. she named him after her famous brother. Ernest Hemingway Mainland, though, didn’t become a writer; instead he went into the insurance business in Petoskey. My father-in-law got to know him because they were both members of the Petoskey Rotary Club.

We set up a lunch to meet Ernie Mainland and his wife Judy. I’m happy to report that they’re wonderful people. Ernie has a face like his uncle’s, squarish and ruddy. The resemblance is especially striking if he’s growing a beard. He’s also a terrific storyteller. Although he hasn’t written any famous novels, he’s passionate about his family’s history, and he’s invested lots of time and energy in the restoration of Windemere, the Hemingway summer cottage, which Ernie inherited. Over lunch he told us the story of how he rebuilt the cottage’s porch, taking great care to match the way it looked during Hemingway’s boyhood. I asked Ernie what he remembered about his uncle, but he didn’t have much to say about that; he met Hemingway only once, during a visit to Cuba when Ernie was nine years old. Still, it was a great lunch, and at the end Ernie promised to invite us to Windemere the following summer.

This was a rare opportunity. Windemere isn’t open to the public. So when the next summer rolled around, my wife and I happily accepted Ernie’s invitation. The best moment, as I remember it, was taking that first step into the cottage and seeing the fireplace in the center of the room. I really felt like I’d just stepped into a Nick Adams story. Specifically, “The Three-Day Blow,” the story in which Nick and his best friend Bill get drunk on whiskey while talking about Nick’s breakup with his girlfriend Marjorie. On the cottage’s walls are all sorts of amazing things: oil paintings done by Hemingway’s mother, pencil lines showing Ernest’s height at various ages, a battered medal worn by Hemingway when he was wounded in Italy. There are also shelves holding century-old books and pamphlets, the eclectic collection of reading materials that young Ernest probably perused during rainy summer afternoons when he wasn’t hunting or fishing or carousing. As I gazed in wonder at the shelves, an idea occurred to me. I’d brought along copies of my own novels as gifts, so I asked Ernie to shelve them next to Hemingway’s. That was deeply satisfying.

Last year Ernie told me that the Hemingway Society was going to hold its 2012 conference in Petoskey to celebrate the author’s ties to northern Michigan. It was an academic conference, with most of the talks given by professors and grad students, but I really wanted to participate. As it turned out, it wasn’t that difficult to get invited; I just proposed a topic -- “Hemingway and the Modern Thriller” -- and they put me on the schedule. (They identified me as an “independent scholar,” which was very generous.) I was planning to speak extemporaneously, which is what I do when I talk about my novels, but my professor friends were aghast. “You can’t just wing it!” they said. “You have to deliver a paper!” So I wrote a ten-page paper analyzing Hemingway’s influence on Lee Child. Although I don’t know Hemingway nearly as well as the academics do, I figured I was better versed on bestselling thrillers, so I could pretend to be an expert.

The paper was a big hit. I got lots of laughs, and not all of them were at my expense. But the real highlight of the summer came a couple of months later when Ernie and Judy invited us to Windemere again. This time we brought along our kids, and Ernie entertained them by letting us fire his signal cannon. It’s the kind of cannon typically used to start a sailing race; you load it with blank shells and fire it by pulling on a string. (And don’t forget to cover your ears!) While we played with the miniature artillery piece, Ernie told us a story about how it had proved useful. Not so long ago, he said, a pontoon boat full of partying vacationers was looking for an anchorage spot along the shores of Walloon Lake. Now, it’s not so pleasant when one of those party boats is anchored near your property. The noise kind of spoils the idyllic atmosphere. So when Ernie saw the boat approach his shoreline, he brought out the signal cannon and fired it from his porch. The boat’s captain wisely chose another location.

The story reminded me of Hemingway. Ernie had inherited his uncle’s cheerful pugnacity. It was a delight to see.

Posted on Saturday, October 20, 2012

1984, the Thriller

During our summer vacations in northern Michigan we spend a fair amount of time in the car, so my wife likes to read to the kids while we’re driving. This past summer she chose George Orwell’s Animal Farm for our automotive reading, and the kids loved it. They especially liked pointing out the hypocrisy of Animal Farm’s porcine leaders: “Hey, the pigs are breaking the rules again! They’re not supposed to sleep in beds!” And I loved it, too. From behind the steering wheel I kept interrupting my wife to shout comments such as “That pig is Stalin!” and “The battle against the farmers is really World War II!” until everyone yelled at me to shut up.

When school started last month I decided to continue the George Orwell theme by reading 1984 to my 13-year-old son. My feelings about this book were more ambivalent; I didn’t enjoy it very much when I read it for high-school English, and thirty years later I could remember only two things from the novel: the scene where Winston Smith is arrested and the infamous rats in Room 101. I recalled almost nothing about Smith as a character. In contrast to the memorable beasts of Animal Farm (especially Boxer the horse: “I will work harder!”), the hero of 1984 didn’t stick in my mind. I thought it would be interesting to read the book again and see if I liked it any better now. Is 1984 -- the great-granddaddy of The Hunger Games and other dystopian novels -- an entertaining book? Can it be considered a thriller?

Well, the book definitely doesn’t start like a thriller. No murder or mayhem in the first ten pages. The novel’s opening reads more like science fiction, because the author spends so much time sketching the outlines of the horrible future he’s imagined. But the extreme creepiness draws you in. While Smith hides in a corner of his apartment, writing “Down with Big Brother!” in his black-market notebook, I’m definitely there with him, anxiously wondering if the Thought Police are also watching the scene. And the plot gains some momentum after Winston starts conspiring with Julia, the Junior Anti-Sex League crusader who turns out to be a hottie.

Smith, though, isn’t much of a hero. He’s unattractive, both physically and spiritually. He has a disgusting sore on his ankle. (Orwell never explains how it got there, but it fits in with the general squalor of totalitarian London.) Winston is also irritable, peevish, self-absorbed. When he was a child, he stole food from his dying sister. His rebellion against Big Brother isn’t triggered by sympathy for his fellow sufferers. He seems most outraged by the Party’s constant revision of history. And his rebellion is thoroughly passive; everything falls into his lap. Julia is the one who initiates their affair by slipping the “I love you” note into his hand, and O’Brien lures him into “the Brotherhood” in such an obvious way that if Winston had any sense at all he would’ve immediately realized it was a trap.

For a thriller writer, these are cardinal sins. We all know that our heroes must be heroic. They must be active, clever, resourceful. But Orwell deliberately made Winston Smith a pathetic figure. He wanted to emphasize the powerlessness of the individual against the state. “If you want a picture of the future,” Orwell wrote, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever.”

The other sin Orwell commits (from a thriller writer’s point of view) is clogging the narrative with the thirty-page tract supposedly written by Big Brother’s nemesis, Emmanuel Goldstein. When I read this section to my son, he asked, “Can we just skip this part?” and I said, “Sure.” And later on, Orwell takes some of the suspense out of the torture scenes by padding them with too many lectures from O’Brien. This criticism, I admit, is a little unfair; Orwell never meant the book to be a thriller. He was trying to make a point as well as tell a story, and sometimes those two aims don’t mesh.

Still, there are some powerful action scenes in 1984. I’m thinking in particular of the scene in the crowded jail cell shortly after Smith is arrested, when the anxiety and terror of the political prisoners is interrupted by the entrance of a man whom the Party is starving to death. One of the other prisoners -- another pathetic figure, chinless and chipmunk-faced, with the ridiculous name of Bumstead -- offers the starving man a grimy piece of bread, and the guards punish him for this crime of compassion by bashing his face in. “His body was flung across the cell and fetched up against the base of the lavatory seat...Amid a stream of blood and saliva, the two halves of a dental plate fell out of his mouth…His gray eyes still flitted from face to face, more guiltily than ever, as though he were trying to discover how much the others despised him for his humiliation.”

Thriller or not, this is great writing. And best of all, my son liked it, too.

Posted on Saturday, October 6, 2012

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