Sunday, April 30, 2006

L.A. Times Festival of Books

There will definitely be better and more comprehensive reports on this past weekend’s L.A. Times Festival of Books at UCLA. I know Naomi Hirahara over on Murderati will probably have a great wrap up later in the week. So I’ll just give a few impressions.

Any writer, either publisher or with the dream of being published (or even if you don’t have that dream), should go to this festival at least once in their life. To see so many readers in the same place at the same time…amazing.

I arrived early on Saturday, around 10:30. As I was by Royce Hall toward the exhibition booths, there was a long line wrapped around the building. This, I found out soon after, was the line for people with tickets to see Frank McCourt speak. As I neared the booths, I came upon a second line, and overheard people saying that it was the stand-by line for the same event. This stand-by line was already over two hundred people long and growing. Royce Hall holds, I believe around 1500 or so. Everyone was so excited to hear an author speak. That was my first impression.

Hundred of booths: booksellers, publishers both large and small, media outlets, author associations, ancillary items (like the portable bed desk). Everything book you could think of. That was impression number two.

As noon approached, the crowds grew larger. It felt almost like going to Disneyland on a busy day – not quite the size of Disneyland but the bodies per square foot were similar. Number three.

And finally – authors, authors everywhere. In panels, at booths and just walking around. Many of the book stores such as L.A.’s own Mystery Bookstore, had multiple authors signing in shifts throughout the day. Number four.

The Mystery Bookstore had anywhere from six to eight authors at all times. I ran into my friend Nathan Walpow there. I met Alexandra Sokoloff there, she and I will be on the same panel at ThrillerFest this summer. I had a great conversation with Jeff Shelby author of Killer Swell and one of the bloggers at First Offenders. Recognized him from his picture and talked to him before he started signing. At other booths I talked to two of the seven members of Murderati: Pari Noskin Taichert at the Sisters in Crime booth and Naomi Hirahara at the Kinokunya Books booth. And I saw so many others.

The one person I was hoping to run into but did not was Sean Doolittle. Sean and I are both former Ugly Town authors now at Bantam Dell. We’ve met before, but I was not able to make it to his signing time at Mystery Bookstore.

The sun was out, the crowd was buoyant and setting was wonderful. It was a celebration of books. What could be better than that?

Friday, April 28, 2006

It's Here

Today's the day. The L.A. Times Festival of Books begins at 10 a.m. My backpack has the water and the snacks and a bit of room for...I don't know...BOOKS! I'll be arriving around noon and spending most of the afternoon there. Can not wait!

Full report in the near future.


Okay, riffing a little off of yesterday’s post, let’s focus in on the R of ROWE (or I guess I could have called it WORE or even OREW…but OREW doesn’t make sense. Focus, Brett, focus.)

I wrote yesterday about how important reading is to the education of a writer, and how it begins with the first time we picked up a book.

So what I wanted to discuss today is early writing influences. I’ll list a few of mine, but I’d love to hear yours, too.

Here are mine in no particular order:

1. The Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator books. I did a whole post about this a month or two ago, so I won’t go into any further here. Except to say I loved these books when I was a kid.

2. Anything by Alistar MacLean. I must have read a dozen books he wrote when I was still young…Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, and The Golden Rendevous just to name some. These were truly the foundation of my love for thrillers.

3. The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins. Wow.

4. Black Sunday by Thomas Harris – so much better than the film.

A break here for a moment. Obviously, my parents instilled in me a love of reading. But it was my Dad’s choice of genre that influenced me the most back then. He was and still is a huge science fiction fan. Being a physicist (now retired), I guess this stands to reason. So the following influences have a decidedly Sci-Fi base:

5. Robert Heinlein. He is first and foremost. I read everything I could of his. Stranger in a Strange Land, Farhams Freehold, Citizen of the Galaxy…the list is long.

6. Arthur C. Clarke. Of course.

7. Isaac Asimov. The Foundation books I read many times.

8. James White. A lot of people probably haven’t heard of him. He wrote a series of space medical dramas call, I think, Sector General. But those weren’t the books of his I read. It was his stand alones like All Judgment Fled (which I’ve read at least fifteen times), The Watch Below and The Dream Millennium that I love.

There are definitely more authors I could name. As I got older, Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, Stephen King… And of course the list continues to grow.

If you’d like to share, tell me some of your early influences. I promise not to use the information against you…unless I really, really have to.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


No, this is not some sort of politic rant. I’m simply talking about ROWE. It’s something every writer must adhere to if they expect to create good work. What is ROWE, you ask?

R –> Read
O –> Observe
W –> Write
E –> Experience

If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. I’m sure most authors do all of the above without even realizing it.

The first teachers we have as writers, the first who really begin to shape our skills, are the authors we read when we are young. We didn’t even know we were in training then. But the way sentences were crafted, the way dialogue was presented, even the subconscious realization of point of view, all were seeded in us beginning with that first book we read.

But the learning process doesn’t stop there. The best writers continue to read everything they can. Learning, soaking it in, and just enjoying. Each book is like a classroom. Even the bad ones (perhaps even more so than the good.) We learn what to do and what not to do. What sounds right and what sounds forced. We learn that sure, sometime you can get away with short cuts, but we also learn that when short cuts aren’t taken how much better a story can be.

It has happened often, but it always surprises me when I hear of a writer who doesn’t read much. Mostly, this has been people I’ve met in old writing groups. And when I read their submissions, more times than not, what’s on the page is not very good.

We stand on the foundation of those who have gone before us. To ignore that is just stupid.

Reading is probably our most important tool, but it is not the only one. Good writers are able to see what others do not see. We observe life. We watch the interactions of strangers. We sit in a coffee shop and try to guess at the lives of those around us. When we walk into a room, we not only see the person waiting there for us, but we also see the couch that’s slightly askew, the stack of comedy DVDs next to the television, the dying flowers in the vase across the room. We may smell the chicken baking in the kitchen, or the scent of rain that has followed us in from outside.

We see place. We see character. We see life in levels others don’t even care about. This is what we do. This helps to make us better story tellers.

Hand in hand with observation comes experience. You can’t always do everything your characters need to do. But you can do things that will help you understand them better. If your main character is a risk taker, then jump out of a plane or take hang gliding lessons or just drive on the freeway for an hour. If she or he loves to travel, then travel. If your character shoots a gun, go to a range and take a handgun lesson. Know what these things feels like.

Drink the wine that they drink. Watch the movies that they would watch. Go to the places they would go. Experience your own life then use that in what you write.

And that’s the final thing for every writer. We must write. Every damn day. Even if it is just a paragraph that you toss in the trash as soon as you are done. WRITE. WRITE. WRITE. There is no excuse not to.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Talk About a Fun Read

I just finished Steven Hockensmith's debut novel Holmes on the Range. Westerns are not something I usually pick up. Nor are Sherlock Holmes related stories. But I have to say, this book is fantastic. So much fun! I laughed a lot. And each evening I couldn't wait until it was time to pick up where I left off.

I'm not going to give you a summary. I suck at summaries, besides I'm constantly afraid of giving away too much. But picture this: It's the 1890s and two brothers (Old Red and Big Red) move from ranch to ranch looking for work. Old Red just happens to be a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and when a crime is committed he just can't help trying a little detectifying himself.

Usually I'm emmersed in fast paced thrillers and super serious crime stories, so this was a great change of pace. But don't get me wrong, it's not just a "palette cleanser." It's good. Really good. Steven Hockensmith really knows what he's doing. I can't wait for Old Red and Big Red's next adventure.

You'd do yourself a big favor by picking this one up.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Getting to Know You (Actually not You, but...well...just read on)

One of the most valuable writing classes I took in college wasn’t a writing class at all. It was Acting 101. The fact that I took an acting class isn’t as big of a stretch as you might think. I’d actually done a bit of acting in high school. But just to be clear, I was under no delusion that I would be pursuing acting as a career…I was a little too realistic (not to mention introverted) for that. I was merely filing out my electives with something I thought would be fun.

Okay, back to the class. I had this great teacher. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name. Don’t give me a hard time! It was…eh…a few…okay…several years ago. (Let’s just call her Ms. Brando.) She was really good at pulling out the best performances possible from everyone in the class. I enjoyed that a lot. But that’s not what made this the best writing class I had.

Each week, Ms. Brando would assign us a scene to do. Sometimes it was with someone else, sometimes it was a monologue. But part of what she had us do to get into the character was write an essay about the part we were playing.

I think most people did your basic character sketches. You know what I mean. Age. Physical characteristics. A few highlights of their life…but probably only those facts that were revealed in the play itself.

I guess because I considered myself more a writer than an actor, I really dug into the essays. I would write stories, usually in first person as the character, telling about “my” life or concentrating on a specific episode.

I do remember one specific paper I wrote. I’d been assigned to play the part of George Gibbs from Thorton Wilder’s Our Town.If any of you know the play, you’ll remember that George was the main character who goes from being a teenager in love in the first act to being a late twenty something widower when his high-school sweetheart dies in childbirth.

Instead of writing my essay in first person, I decided to treat this one as a newspaper interview. I (Brett) was a reporter and I met up with George in a local coffee shop several years after the timeline of the play was over. I asked him questions, and he answered as best he could, dodging some answers and struggling with others. I didn’t put words into his mouth. I wrote them down exactly as he said them to me in my mind.

Ms. Brando loved the paper. I think she was probably just happy not to get another “George had a hard life…” type submission. In the end it doesn’t really matter what she thought. (But if you’re wondering, I did get an A.) What does matter is all the papers I wrote for that class (and specifically the one about George Gibbs) were a revelation to me. They did exactly what Ms. Brando had intended. They helped me to get to know a character. Of course she was thinking in the acting sense. To me it was all about how it related to writing.

I knew the method would help me get to know characters I created in my stories. And what that interview showed me was that I could actually talk directly to my characters. I could ask them questions I didn’t know the answers to, and you know what? They’d answer me.

Some of you might have read my post from Friday night – it follows this one, so just keep scrolling down if you haven’t. It’s kind of an example of what I’m talking about. Not 100%, but you’ll get the idea. In this case, that particular post was not something I wrote long ago to help me with my novel. I wrote it Friday night because I wanted to find some way to introduce people to the protagonist of my novel, and it felt like a good way to do it.

I guess all I’m saying is that if you’re a writer, don’t be afraid to talk to your characters. They like to talk, though you might have to work a bit to get them to fully open up.

But you’re a writer. This kind of work’s okay.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Conversations with Jonathan Quinn

“I make things disappear,” Jonathan Quinn said.

I think we’d known each other about six months at that point. We’d met in Germany when I was working there on a project for a visitor center presentation that would live at a new Volkswagen plant in Dresden. The job itself wasn’t in Dresden, though. It was in Berlin, a town Quinn knows well.

I thought at the time he was just another one of the wanderers I tend to collect, this one a fellow American working overseas. I think I first met him on the U-bahn (the Berlin train system) heading across town from the Mitte toward Ku’damm. I’m not 100% on that, though. The genesis of a character is often a drawn out process, and my memory of Quinn’s birth is murky.

By the time this particular conversation happened, we were both back in Los Angeles, where, it turns out, we both lived – Quinn much more comfortably than I. We were having dinner at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. At the time it was my favorite place to eat. In the past year and a half, they've changed the decor to some sort of 90s disco theme and I haven't gone back.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

As he took a sip of his Singha beer, I thought maybe he was just going to leave it at that. After all, this was the most I’d ever got out of him about what he did for a living. But then he said, “Sometimes things don’t go as planned. When that happens I’m the one who makes it all look pretty again.”

“Tell me about Berlin,” I said. I had sensed from the beginning that something had happened there, something I wanted to know about.

“Nothing to tell.” He didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was lying.

That’s about as far as I got that night. What exactly the ‘things’ were that didn’t go as planned, I wasn’t completely sure, but I did have my ideas.

I could have just let him die right then. He was forcing me to work pretty hard to get to know him. I’d dismissed more talkative characters sooner than this. But there was something about him, something that made me want to know more. He was interesting and mysterious. And I’d be damned if there wasn’t something that had happened in Berlin I wanted to hear about.

A week later as we rode in my car, I said, “You’re not killing people, but you do deal with the dead, right?”

“You’re talking in black and whites. You, as much as anyone, know the world is made up of grays.”

This answer stung me a little bit. He was right. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who only think in black and white, yet here I was trying to put him in a neat little black and white box.

“Let’s just say I don’t kill if I don’t have to,” he went on. “But you’re right about dealing with the dead. It’s a big part of what I do.”

“You dispose of them?”

“Exactly.” He smiled as if I was a student and he was a proud teacher. “Disposal is one of the services I provide.”

“How does that work?”

“That I’m not going to tell you.”

“But you will eventually.”


“These other things you do, what are they?”

He looked out the window into the L.A. night. “I think that was your exit,” he said.

He was right.

I moved over to the right lane, so I could get off at the next ramp and double back.

“Just getting rid of a body isn’t enough. You’ve got to make it look like whatever went wrong never happened. Blood, fingerprints, spent shells, things out of place. These are all problems I have to deal with.”

“I can’t imagine you went to school for this. How did you get in and learn about the business?”

“I was recruited.”

“Out of college?”

He shook his head. “I was a cop.”

For some reason, that surprised me. “Who recruited you?”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s dead now.”

“Did he teach you a lot?”


As I eased my car off the freeway, I decided to press my luck. “And Berlin?”

I was greeted with only silence. When I looked over at the passenger seat, Quinn was gone.

As time passed, bits of his story started coming to me. Not from anything Quinn said, but somehow I was sensing it, I guess. Even when he wasn’t around, I’d pick up on things. I would be at work or getting into bed or even watching TV and a name or a place or a situation would pop into my mind. Immediately I’d know it was part of Quinn’s story. Still, the problem was I had a lot of parts, but I didn’t have the whole.

The only way I was going to get that was to have Quinn tell it to me himself.

“Tell me about Orlando,” I said one morning.

“Leave her out of it.”

“Then let’s talk about Berlin.”

“Let’s not.”

The next day: “Is she a friend?”

“You don’t listen very well, do you?”


“She’s a friend.” I could tell he was holding something back.

“Was she with you in Berlin?”

If she was, he didn’t hang around to tell me.

Each day I kept pressing, harder and harder, using the bit of information that had seeped into my mind.

“What did you learn about the fire in Colorado?” I would ask. “How long did you work for Peter?” “Why do you hate the cold?”

And finally, “Tell me what happened in Berlin.”

Finally one afternoon, he looked at me for a good long time before answering. “Okay,” he said. “If you think you’re ready.”

“I’m ready.”

“You’d better write this down.”

So I did.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Something a Little Different

One of my favorite authors has started blogging. But unlike the rest of us, Barry Eisler’s The Heart of the Matter deals with “politics and language, particularly language as it influences politics, with the occasional post on some miscellaneous subject that catches my attention.”

A lawyer and former CIA operative among other things, Barry has the background to back it up. His blog should provide an interesting counterpoint to the other author blogs out there.

Love the title reference to one of my favorite books of all time, too. THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene.

Friday, April 07, 2006


A great new blog started this week. Murderati is a collaborative effort between a group of writers including Naomi Hirahara, Simon Wood, JT Ellison, Elaine Flinn, Jeffrey Cohen, Pari Noskin Taichert, and Beatrice Brooks (aka Denise Dietz.) Definitely worth checking out. From the sound of things, it looks like they'll be having a lot of very helpful information.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

No Writer is an Island

That big shout of satisfaction you heard coming from the west coast last night was me. Sorry about that. Hope I didn't wake you. See, I got the latest draft of Hung Out to Die off to Bantam last night. It wasn't a particularly difficult rewrite, just took a few weeks.

There are few things as satisfying as seeing the notes my editor sent me get ticked off one-by-one until there was none left. As before, the notes were good ones. Really good. The story is that much better now...(when I say "that much," imagine me holding my hands far apart.)

It's a whole new world for me working with an editor. I’m fascinated by their profession. It’s not one I think I could ever do, at least not full time. But how cool is it that day in and day out these people help writers craft better stories. Sounds like a dream. At first, anyway. People come to you with interesting and exciting stories, and you help them make the tales better.

Well, there is a dark side. I'm sure there are those...hmmm...difficult writer's out there. You know what I’m talking about. The authors who don’t want to make any changes. Who think editors every suggestion is not worth his or her time.

Personally, I take the path of: "Thank you for offering to publish my book. What would you like me to do now?"

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Quit yelling at me! I don't mean you just blindly do whatever your editor says. (Kindly extinguish the torches and let's save that hangman's knot for later...good craftsmanship on that, though.) But your editor is a story expert. Not to listen to them is stupid. You should talk to them. Ask them questions. Understand where they are coming from with their suggestions. 9.795 times out of 10, you’ll end up agreeing with them in the end.

Hung Out to Die is a good book. (I can say that now. None of you have read it yet.) Hell, it was a good book when Bantam bought it or they would have never given me the time of day based on my situation (read the early posts here about might have to scroll down a bit.) Because of the suggestions my editor(s) have made, the story is better.

So much better (again with the hands held wide apart.)

“Sure, Brett. That’s all fine. But what if you aren’t published? What if you don’t have an editor?”

Simple. Find one. I did. I had a teacher who became my sounding board. He’d look at my work, give me ideas, help to fix problems. He even went so far as to often do a line edit. (Boy was that painful at first, but it sure helped prepare me for later.) So if you're unpublished and don't have an editor, I say find one. Not necessarily a professional, but someone. There are plenty of people out there, smart people, story people, people who can help you. Maybe it's a teacher, or a fellow writer. As long as it is someone you trust and whose opinions you respect, then you’re fine. Use them. Let them help you. Listen to them, and don't take criticism personally.

While writing might be an "individual" art, no book is ever written alone.

At least none that will ever be published.