Tough Guys

After repeated (and increasingly severe) purges of my library, I’m down to a couple of medium-size bookcases. A few hundred books at most. To keep a spot a book has to be one I can read over and over. Mostly crime fiction with a recurring character(s). In no particular order:

  • Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly)
  • Lucas Davenport (John Sandford)
  • John Corey (Nelson DeMille)
  • Matt Scudder (Lawrence Block)
  • Travis McGee (John D. MacDonald)

That would be my starting bench but there’s some good folks on the bench:

  • “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Paillo (Ross Thomas)
  • Artie Wu and Quincy Durant (Ross Thomas)
  • Spenser & Hawk (Robert B. Parker)
  • Almost any protagonist in an Elmore Leonard novel

Footnote: I do NOT count any novel published after the author’s death (written by someone else). Don’t read them, don’t count them. Sacrilege.

Reflecting on the characters above, I’m reminded that I like a ruthless streak in my protagonists. In one of the Matthew Scudder novels, some guy jumped Scudder in an ally with the intention of killing him. While the bad guy was unconscious, Matt positioned his leg on a curb and fucked up his knee so the guy would never walk right again. Almost too painful to read.

The Cell

A little horror/sci-fi/thriller from 2000, staring Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn. For my money this was one of only two J.Lo I liked. She was really good in Out of Site but that had great characters/story thanks to the late Elmore Leonard. But, as is so often the case, the star of The Cell was the serial killer played by a young Vincent D’Onofrio. D’Onofrio gave us the bonkers Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket but I’ll always remember him as Edgar, the alien bug many from Men In Black. For a simple little movie, The Cell had some spectacular visual effects.

Books: 2009

Yes, the list is a little skimpy but this blog will not write itself. I plan to read more fiction in twenty-ten.

  • Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe
  • The Chaos Scenario, Bob Garfield
  • The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keeys to Joy and Enlightenment, Deepak Chopra
  • The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
  • Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson
  • Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, Douglas Rushkoff
  • Road Dogs, Elmore Leonard
  • The Increment, David Ignatius
  • Wicked Prey, John Sanford
  • What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, Bart D. Ehrman
  • Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, DonTapscott
  • God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment, Scott Adams

Reading List: 2005

Okay, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive about lists and writing things down. But it bothers me when I can’t remember what movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read. So this is where I write them down. I have a few more to track down, but here’s the 2005 reading list as nearly as I can reconstruct it.

The Fool’s Run – John Sandford (September)
What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer – John Markoff (September)
The Hot Kid – Elmore Leonard (August)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling (August)
The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova (July)
The System of the World – Neal Stephenson (June)
The Twelfth Card – Jeffery Deaver (May)
All the Flowers Are Dying – Lawrence Block (February)
The Broker – John Grisham (February)
State of Fear – Michael Crichton (February)

My lips move when I read

I find that’s true when I’m reading almost anything by Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block or Robert B. Parker. I just love these guys and find myselt reading their dialogue aloud (but quietly). Just finished Elmore Leonard’s When the Women Come Out to Dance and working my way through Block’s Enough Rope. While I’ve never been all that found of short stories, I loved these collections. Alex Cross fans will have to read James Patterson’s Four Blind Mice but I thought it was disappointing. Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series suffers from the same formula-rot but Parker has given us Sunny Randall and she’s a nice change but just barely.

You are what you read

That seems at least as true as “you are what you eat.” I’m not a public library person. If there’s a book I want to read, I want to read it now. I don’t have the patience to put my name on a list. So I buy the books I read. 500+ hardcover and paperback titles fill up my two little book shelves. I know because I recently made a list. If I average ten hours per book, that’s almost seven months of my life. But I can’t think of a better way to spend them. If forced to list my Ten Favorite Authors, they would probably be:

1. William Gibson
2. John D. MacDonald
3. Robert K. Tanenbaum
4. Elmore Leonard
5. Lawrence Block
6. Ross Thomas
7. Robert B. Parker
8. John Sandford
9. Sue Grafton
10. Bill Granger

For some reason I couldn’t find a very good website for John D. MacDonald or William Gibson. Leonard, Block and Grafton have excellent sites. Ross Thomas and John D. are long gone and I’m not sure about Bill Granger.

Isn’t there something about cannibals believing they become stronger by eating their enemies? If we are what we eat, I’m pretty much screwed (Sonic chili dogs, Beenie Weenies and mall Chinese). But if we are what we read, I am enriched by consuming the words of these fine story tellers.

Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing

From Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)”

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series.

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories “Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

“Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.