Monday, June 29, 2015

Who’s Brian Williams? And Why Should I Care?

I sit slack-mouthed in front of the TV as the host of this News program discusses the “scandal,” the fall-from-grace of Brian Williams, the NBC News Anchor Numero Uno. I now know the name, the face and the story. How could I not, with its being shoved in my face daily by the silly, allegedly News People? Then his Internet Fan Club President, a serious-miened middle-aged woman (from the Mid-West, I presume, because aren’t they all?) says she’s grateful to the Network for re-instating Brian as a News Anchor because she’s missed him. Am I getting a sneak-peak into an Alternate Universe? Is this unstaged, real NEWS?

I accept on the evidence before my eyes that Williams is, indeed, loved by his Network executives and his fans like Mrs.-What’s-Her-Name. Apparently, his great sin was inventing stories of derring-do starring himself while covering the Iraq War. He put himself aboard a helicopter that came under fire at the front. Fact is, never happened. He misremembered, he says, being “in a bad place” then. He’s right about Iraq being a bad place, more so for those with their boots on the ground, rifle in hand, than for Williams.

His fellow journalists brand him with a Scarlet Letter and propose to wash his mouth out with soap, professionally. His fans just want him back on the air brightening up their lives. Old news clips flash on TV of Walter Cronkite, in fatigues and flack jacket, reporting the Vietnam War. Walter Cronkite, the Paragon. I recollect him (who doesn’t?) reporting JFK’s death in Dallas. But I mostly remember him as host of the Sunday night News Program, “You Are There.” In particular, as he reported from the scene at the Sack of Troy. Walter was no-nonsense, just-the-facts-ma’m, in describing the wily stratagem of Ulysses and his band of good-ol’-Greek-boys. No way did Walter imply, even hint, that he was aboard the Trojan Horse when it rolled into history.

Frankly, I’d be the last one to throw stones at Brian Williams for gilding the lily. When I was a cop in the 83rd Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the mid-1970s, at end-of-tour we’d all end up in the B & G Bar, couple doors down from the Precinct Station House. And after we liquored up, we’d begin to rewrite freshly-made history. What happened on patrol that night; who did what to whom; how we saved the citizens of NYC from the Barbarians at the Gate—all was recalled, enhanced and fleshed-out, recast as befit good storytelling. The product became the Official Version forever after. Brian would have fit right in, felt to home at the B & G. Except our Bar is long gone, like any reliable memory of what really happened so long ago.

© 2015 Robert Knightly

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Write about Sex & Respect Yourself in the Morning

Welcome, Alice Orr

Human beings are whole beings. They are born, grow, learn to use their bodies and minds, often have sex, procreate, create symphonies and novels, slow down in time and eventually leave the home planet…

Few topics breed as much controversy as sex. Some like it cold. Some like it hot. It's as different for each person as individual appreciation of the stars and moon…

Alice Orr has a long and distinguished history with Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. Award-winning author, literary agent, editor, lecturer - she is highly regarded by many writing institutions. She has been one of the strongest guiding lights in the development of Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter, for many years. I am honored that she shares her expertise in so many areas of the publishing world with our very talented team at CWC today!

I recommend her book
NO MORE REJECTIONS - 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells - to both new and experienced writers.

Thelma J. Straw

A glib title for a serious subject. Serious because it affects the quality of your storytelling. Badly written love scenes turn the reader off when they should turn the reader on. Specifically they turn the reader off to the rest of your story no matter how well it’s told.

Badly written love scenes are often written solely to titillate the reader. They don't deepen our understanding of your characters or advance your story in any real way. They aren’t about authentic real life because they don't reflect the complexity of human sexuality.

Worst of all badly written love scenes turn off editors and agents who’ve already suffered through reading too many of them. Though they seldom read them to the end. Those authors cared too much about tweaking the libido and not enough about touching the heart and that sent them to the rejection pile.

Notice I refer to love scenes not sex scenes. When these scenes work they’re about love in its many facets not just sex in its single facet.

I'm obviously not talking about writing pornography – a perfectly legitimate genre if you choose it but not my choice here. Not because I’m going all moral on you but because I’m going all market on you.

The readers of novels are mostly female. Romance. Fantasy. Literary. Even Mystery. All read mostly by women. Fifty Shades of Grey not withstanding – most women readers aren’t captured – hooked in storytelling terms – by slam-bam sex-only lust-making devoid of love.

The sales potential of pornography also has its limits though erotica is now finding a mass market. Nonetheless mainstream fiction – both commercial and literary – has broader potential for book sales over the broad expanse of a career. Note how few pornography titles become bestsellers – Fifty Shades of Grey not withstanding.

I don't mean you should write lukewarm love scenes. You should write hot love scenes. Love scenes are hot when they’re passionate. Passion isn’t only a physical turn-on. Passion resonates throughout your characters’ lives far beyond the bedroom.

It's okay to be honest about the turn-on. In fact it’s essential. Well-written love scenes turn readers on sexually. They also turn you on when you write them. If they don't you should probably rewrite because you’ve probably failed to create true passion between your characters.

If you fail to communicate passion to yourself how can you communicate it to your readers? And if you fail to communicate with your readers how can you respect yourself in the morning?

My current novel is A YEAR OF SUMMER SHADOWS – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #2 – available at This is my 13th novel and if you don’t like passionate love scenes you should avoid Chapter 26.

Alice Orr

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nostalgia IV

Youth music is always going to be about being young and in love and in lust. This can lead to some great music, but some pretty banal stuff too. After all, being in love is one of the most self-absorbed and inner looking states there is. And teenagers are already pretty self-absorbed to begin with. So you can get some pretty treacle-y and annoying stuff, like all those old fifties songs about your earth angel who met some early and tragic fate and for whom you will pine away forever. In my day, we had a sense of humor about some of this. Weird Al Yankovic sang about losing his girl and “being stranded all alone in the gas station of love, where I have to use the self service pumps.” He also opined about a lost love that he would “rather dive into a swimming pool filled with double-edged razor blades than spend another minute with you.”

And then there is lust. Meatloaf captured it with humor and pinpoint accuracy in “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” and Aerosmith talked with tongue firmly in cheek about it in “Big Ten Inch Record.” By comparison, two of the more popular songs about young love and lust today, by Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, are entitled “Shake it Off” and “Grenade.” Swift apparently had a bad boyfriend, and she tells us she is going to “shake it off” approximately 47 times (I lost count). She uses another five or six words that rhyme with off to round out the lyrics and call it a song. Bruno Mars, in “Grenade,” tells his girl, thrillingly and with such poetry, that he would “catch a grenade for you, step in front of a train for you”, and then finds a number of words that rhyme with grenade and also calls it a day. Beyonce, another huge star, tells us she is crazy in love in one song (“Crazy in Love,” of course), and then switches things up for another in which she announces she is drunk in love (you guessed it, “Drunk in Love”): “I’ve been drinking, I’ve been thinking, I get filthy when that liquor get into me.” Kind of what you would have if the Beatles weren’t kidding when they sang “why don’t we do it in the road.”

Compare these with songs like The Eagles’ “Desperado.” Or Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” which were real love songs written with genuine thought and feeling, so real to me as a teen that for a time they became a kind of standard I compared the adolescent girls around me to. And finally, my all time favorite love song, Bruce Springsteen’s “For You”—

Princess cards she sends me
with her regards
barroom eyes shine vacancy
to see her you gotta look hard
wounded deep in battle
I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted
to her Cheshire smile, I’ll stand on file
she’s all I ever wanted

This is both a ballad and an epic. I am not really sure what it all means, but we’ve all been wounded deep in the battle of love, and imagined there was someone for whom we would give up everything, someone who truly is all we ever wanted. Springsteen does not allow himself to be restrained by simple rhythms and rhymes, with simple sentiments that cloy. Here is a little more of the same song (and then I will stop):

Crawl into my ambulance
your pulse is getting weak
Reveal yourself all now to me, girl
while you've got the strength to speak
'Cause they're waiting for you at Bellevue
with their oxygen masks
But I could give it all to you now
if only you could ask.

Here is the urgency, the tragedy, of young love. Not the silly, not the trite, and not the merely horny—The Boss manages to do the same kind of thing Shakespeare does with young love in “Romeo and Juliet.” He treats young love with a kind of seriousness that is missing in the glib and cynical stuff that is foisted on us today.

And there are no epics songs today, no anthems, none that express the angst and alienation of being a youth (or even an adult) in a society you feel is full of shit. Where is Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues?” Or Don McLean’s “American Pie?” Springsteen, again, in “Jungleland”, tells us that in his desperate Jersey neighborhood,

The street’s on fire in a real death waltz
between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy
and the poets out here don’t write nothing at all
they just stand back and let it all be….

Now tell me that is not great stuff, or that there is anything equivalent to that in today’s music. And where do you have anything like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” where they boldly announce “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control.” It is as if their music really did come from a counter culture, really spoke for it, and even if it was just some music mogul selling it to us, even if it was “the man” that was selling it to us, he wasn’t selling us crap. I would like to think we would have refused to buy the crap that they put out today.

And what of books in the new millennium, in the second decade of that new millennium? (God, I am getting old). Books are dominated by pap, by sticky feel good syrupy concoctions (“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”) or the same old teenage vampire, werewolf, the sky is falling, the apocalypse is coming, or is already here, type stuff. Last year, Veronica Roth had “Divergent,” “Allegiant”, and “Insurgent” all in the top ten for books sold. Give me a break. They find one thing that works and flog it to death while we all wish that they would come up with something a little more creative and genuine, not so mass-manufactured and trite. And of course the irony is that we are fascinated by the apocalypse in books, but are ignoring it as it actually approaches, as the climate goes haywire and food and water become more scarce and the world more dangerously populated.

In my youth, we had authors that actually had something to say about what it was like to be human, to be an American, to be a man or woman, and who did it with style. Kurt Vonnegut was in the top ten in 73 and 76, and you had others like John Irving, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, and John Updike in the top ten at various times in the 70s. These were serious authors, and even a genre writer like Stephen King wrote interesting and fairly three-dimensional characters. Now we have teen dystopia (and when was the world of teens ever anything but dystopic?) and Dan Brown, whose admittedly great plots are populated by characters that might be given numbers or letters, so cardboard, generic and unmemorable are they. They are there solely to be moved around a game board by an all-powerful plot, and plotter. If a great author creates characters that become so real they threaten to challenge their author and do what they damn well please, then Brown’s are a submissive and servile bunch of wimps.

OK, so there you have it. The current music manages to be about nothing but desire, and desire in and of itself offers no vision, inspires no poetry. There is no object for that desire, no romance, no vision of a better world, and so it comes off as little more than a kind of techno-musical masturbation. There is no rebellion in it, nothing of the pain of being young, of being in a world you never chose and knowing it is the only one that is ever going to be on offer. The industry panders to a willing audience that doesn’t bother to ask for anything more.

The book industry churns out retreaded and thoughtless crap, or comic books, to teens, who don’t get tired of the same old, same old apocalyptic, supernatural and pulp visions. There is little or nothing for the intelligent adult here, I don’t think, or the teen who wants to be one, nothing that comments intelligently on the human condition. Certainly no “Catcher in the Rye,” no “A Separate Peace,” and no “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Next week, I end my rant by summing up what else bothers me about present day American Culture, and why I think we did it all better when I was young.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thrillers and How to Write Them

Last weekend I took an online webinar, as they call them, on thriller writing, sponsored by Writers' Digest. It was quite entertaining, and may even have been helpful. Time alone will tell whether my two hundred dollars was worth spending to resuscitate my perishing writing career. I know I can thrill people if I put my mind to it, but it's possible that I need professional help. Thrilling people, I mean. Professional writing help.

The webinar consisted of six presentations lasting about an hour and a half, one of which blew up fifteen minutes in, and two of which I had to miss, since they took place while I was at work at the Marshall House. But I can see them later today, when the webinar people send me the links. For those of you who don't know what a webinar is, and I didn't, before I undertook this, here's how it went:

First thing I did was to log on to the link they sent me. That presented me with instructions to download the software to put the webinar on my computer. The webinar appeared in two panels, one to show the video portion, one to play the audio while displaying the name of the person talking. You could type questions into a box. You could not speak to the presenter through the computer microphone, not for this webinar, though it may be possible for others.

Then came the presentations.

Hallie Ephron gave her usual bracing talk on how to give your story forward momentum. I have my notes right here, in case you've never heard her. My notes say, open with an unanswered question, use a hook-and-grab scene structure with rising stakes and a ticking clock, put your major plot twists at the end of Act 1, the middle of Act 2, and the end of Act 2, and go to the Conklins' for meatloaf at six-thirty. (Wait, that was when the Conklins called in the middle of the presentation.) And a bunch of other notes. I took more notes during her talk than anyone else's, because she had so much useful stuff to say. I'm not going to tell you all of it because it's her presentation, and also because I don't have the space.

The next presenter, William Martin, talked about historical fiction, which is what I write these days. Instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation he spoke into the camera in his computer, positioned so as to give us a nice view of his handsome and orderly office. He mentioned that the office, and the house it was attached to, were paid for with the proceeds of his writing, but he was such a nice guy that I couldn't quite bring myself to hate him for that. Particularly not after he went on to tell us many useful things, not only about building a good story but about research. People want to be educated as well as entertained, he said, which is why you want to get the details right. Never stop doing research, he said. Read the contemporary newspapers. Walk the ground. I felt inspired.

Larry Brooks, the next speaker, began to tell us about putting the maximum thrills in your thriller, whereupon his cell phone failed; with no audio, all we could do was watch his cursor flailing ineffectually across the screen, where his PowerPoint presentation was still being displayed. But not to worry. I can catch up on everything today, when the folks from Writers' Digest will email me a link to his completed presentation.

I missed the first two presentations on Saturday. They looked good, but I had to go to work, as I mentioned. I'll get them later. The third and last was all about voice. It was presented by D. P. Lyle, who read from a number of famous and well-written books, illustrating and commenting on the voice of each author. I see here that I wrote almost nothing down about this one, being mesmerized by his speaking voice, beautiful, with a touch (or more than a touch) of the South. I did write it down when he said that knowledge, experience, and confidence will form your writing voice, and you must read a lot and write a lot to develop these things. Respect the reader, he said. I can do that.

So I'm off to write my thriller, in a special thriller voice that I will work on for the occasion, perhaps stealing it from renowned Dan Brown. Or not.

This morning a book came in the mail that gave me a genuine thrill. I can't remember when I was so excited about anything. It was this: the 1915 yearbook of the New York Yacht Club. Von Rintalen lived there, you see, while he was spying for the Germans in New York City. I had to know: Was he listed in the membership? Not as von Rintalen, as it turns out, but rather as plain Franz Rintalen. He had been a member since 1906. Which means that when he came to New York in 1915 to blow up all the ammunition destined for the British, he had been there before, and indeed had already established himself as a person of high social position.

A bonus in the little book are the many pages of colored private signal flags, the flags of schooners, single masted vessels, yawls, steamers, power boats, and launches belonging to various members of the club, as well as flags for members who were non-yacht owners. What names. A roster of Waspdom. Tarrant Putnam. Percy R. Pyne. G. W. Quintard, 3d. (Franz Rintalen had no private signal flag. Tells you something.)

To possess an artifact like this from the period you're working on is the next best thing to walking the ground. I'm terribly excited. Thrilled, in fact.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lessons from the (Badminton) Net

Reading: All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
(Bethany McLean & Joe Nocera)
Watching on TV: Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Re-watching: Clean & Sober (1988; Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker)

Last month, David and I rediscovered badminton (which I always want to spell “badmitten” and which is probably not a good thing to admit since in my other career, I’m an editor).

David wanted to get off the treadmill up in his office and go outside for exercise after our brutal winter and nippy spring. I wanted something to raise my heart rate that wasn’t called Liam Neeson.

As children, David and I both loved to play badminton —minton. It was one of the few sports I was naturally pretty good at. In fact, when I look back, I had some talent for high-net sports. But volleyball could only be played at school in gym class, and then you had to deal with the girls who didn't want to go after balls if it might make them sweat in front of the boys. The closest I ever came to brawling in school.

David found a portable set in a catalog, and early in the morning, before it gets too hot, we will set it up in the backyard and play for about an hour (40 minutes of play + 20 minutes of gasping and sit-down-with-water breaks).

At this stage, David refers to our game as Worseminton.

Badminton’s history is a bit vague, including why it was named after Badminton House, the home of a guy called the Duke of Beaufort. The game was probably blended from games played in India and the Far East, and it might have been brought back to the UK by Brits who, as was their wont back then, were continually marching armies off to foreign shores looking for some sunshine.

But back to the present day. Let's get out our rackets.

The first lesson I learned was that playing at age 12 is a lot different than playing with bifocals. The birdie enters my peripheral vision and then the Bermuda Triangle.

The second lesson is The Ugly Truth: For exercise to work, it has to test you. It doesn’t have to render you drained and nauseous — that’s what your commute is for — but it has to make you work. In one month, I’ve lost 3 pounds by doing nothing different except playing badminton 2 to 3 times a week. In a year of a regular routine of walking, I got sore knees.

Probably because I was light-headed from lack of oxygen, one morning I began to see parallels between badminton — minton — and writing.

Lesson: As in writing, forces beyond your control can make you doubt yourself.

Think your game’s improving? Here, have a little wind. Have some humidity. Have a day when your legs are totally unfamiliar with the concept of acceleration. Have a day when after you’ve told someone at a cocktail party what you write, they feel compelled to tell you how much they hate amateur sleuth novels because they are so contrived.

Lesson: When a problem comes right at your head, you don't rationally consider your options.

You do what you can to protect yourself and remain rooted to the spot. Ask any writer who’s been told by their publisher that the next book in their series isn’t being picked up.

Anybody who tells you they didn’t react that way for a while… Well, think twice before you loan them money.

Lesson: There are times you shouldn’t keep score.

When a writer friend gets a rave review in a publication that has trashed you, it’s best to celebrate her success. The alternative is not going to do anything positive for your career or your character.

David and I have decided instead to see how long we can keep the rally going. We're at 35 years and counting.

And this winter, I’m playing in my badmittens.

© 2015 Sheila York