Vampires and Zombies and Murder–Oh, My!

When I teach creative writing classes, I assign fiction in different genres that I hope will inspire the students. They’re almost always books I’ve learned from myself as a writer and that I think have a lot to offer.

Recently my fiction writing students at Michigan State University ended the semester reading Charlie Houston’s Already Dead. I’ve now read it half a dozen times and I never get bored.

It’s a sizzling mix of mystery, thriller, zombie, vampire, and private detective novel in which Manhattan is secretly divided up by different vampire clans. They keep a low profile so that humans don’t hunt them down, and some of them are very powerful. In Houston’s take on vampire lore, it’s the “Vyrus” of ancient origin that makes these creatures what they are—and that disease is almost a character all its own.

As the book opens, zombies are mysteriously cropping up in Manhattan. They’re too witless and hungry for brains to stay out of the public eye, and any kind of attention to them could expose the vampire underworld.

Who ya gonna call? Joe Pitt. He’s a freelancer, not strongly connected to any of the clans, but for hire. He’s tough, foul-mouthed, and funny. His case in the first book of Houston’s series involves a young runaway and finding out where all those zombies are coming from. Who’s infecting them, who is Zombie Zero, and how is the missing girl mixed up in this hot zombie mess?

Like every good PI sleuth, his hunt brings him into conflict with unseen forces, and cynical, hardboiled Joe gets rubbed the wrong way by condescending rich people—another staple of the genre. He’s hassled by thugs, too, of course, one of whom still says with admiration, “Joe don’t take nothing from nobody, good or bad.”

Pitt is armed with amazing abilities to analyze all the scents in a room and to see in the dark, which make him dangerous and also fascinating. His infected blood also helps him recover from all the beatings you expect a PI to get and makes him incredibly strong, but one of his best weapons is his mouth: he’s got a smartass line for almost every occasion. Like when someone asks if he has a moment:

“Perhaps I have a whole shitload of moments. Perhaps I have moments squirreled away all over the place, and perhaps I plan to keep them for myself. What of it?”

The book is told in his voice and Houston’s made him one of the best story-tellers you’ll ever meet, in the dark or anywhere else….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Flashmob” is a Hot Winter Read

The opening line of Christopher Farnsworth’s clever new international thriller Flashmob sounds like something Huck or Charlie might say on Scandal: “It’s not easy to find a nice, quiet spot to torture someone in L.A.”

The narrator John Smith is actually facing torture when we meet him working “executive protection” for a Russian billionaire’s son. But he’d make a great addition to Olivia Pope’s Scandal team because of his unique talent. Ex-CIA and Special Forces, this former “psychic soldier” can read minds. Messy minds, simple minds, and everything in between.

That means he’s able to anticipate an opponent’s moves; silently interrogate anyone interrogating him; and disarm people just by hitting them with vicious memories or activating parts of their brain to use against them. That’s not all. As Smith puts it: “I’ve got my wired-in proximity alarms, the radar in my head that tells me whenever someone even thinks about doing me harm.” So it’s almost impossible to surprise him or sneak up on him.

Almost. Otherwise there’d be no thrills, right?

But all that knowledge comes with a price. It leaves him with a physical and psychic burden he can only ease by heavy doses of Scotch and Vicodin—and even Valium and OxyContin on top of the mix on a really bad day. Reading and manipulating minds is a curse as much as a gift. Other people’s thoughts, memories, and feelings stick to him like he’s some kind of emotional fly paper and he powerfully describes it at one point as something far more disgusting. Still, while he may be a freak of nature, there’s no way you won’t empathize with him because he’s not a psychopath, he’s one of the good guys.

I’ve been reviewing crime fiction since the 90s in print, on air, and on line and it’s almost a cliché for authors to make their protagonists wounded in some way. Contemporary readers want their sleuths to be touched by darkness. In this case, it’s Smith’s amazing strength that profoundly weakens him at times. That offers a very original twist in a creepy tale about stalking, social media madness, celebrity, the Dark Net, privacy in the digital age, Internet cruelty, cyber crime, and mob psychosis.

The author’s also a screenwriter and journalist, which is a bit surprising, because the book could have used less exposition and tighter flashbacks. In effect, Smith is an omniscient narrator and while it’s intriguing to see him navigate “the competing agendas” inside people’s minds, sometimes his excursions into other characters are a drag on the plot’s momentum. Conversely, his descriptions of places and people lack color.

But in the end, none of that detracts from the deft story-telling and the explosive finale which made me think of master thriller writer Joseph Finder. Flashmob is truly disturbing. It’s one thing to worry about computer programs that can perform highly intrusive surveillance on you, it’s another to think of people who can insidiously do the exact same thing mentally while drinking a cappuccino just a few tables away from you at Starbucks.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries explore the terrors of academia. He’s reviewed books for the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Huffington Post and three public radio stations.

Writers: Don’t Diss Your Own Work

It’s pretty common to hear writers talk about their first drafts as “shit” or “shitty.”  Sadly, even some of my student writers do it.

They have a model in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  If she puts it that way, she must be right, and she says all good writers write them.  Seriously?  How does she know this for a fact?

huh“Shitty” is an adjective I’ve never used to describe my first drafts.  It’s also a word I’ve never used in any creative writing class or workshop I’ve taught  And I discourage my student writers from using it because I think it can be damaging. It can undermine how you feel about your work.

You get writers used to applying a word like that to a first draft and it’s too easy for them to survey their work in dark times and think, “This is total shit.”   Writers have to deal with enough doubts about their abilities as it is.

None of the first drafts of my hundreds of stories, essays, reviews, or blogs were “shitty.”  Some were even pretty good. Surprisingly good. But I always knew they were just a starting point and that they would always need much more work.  That’s a given, it’s part of the process.

writer-ionescoFor me, any first draft is just opening a door.  I feel a sense of adventure and expectation because I never know where the piece will end up.  Sometimes it goes right into the waste paper basket if I’ve printed it off–or I just delete the file.  So what?

But slamming it as “shitty,” even if I’m frustrated or disappointed, is setting a road block in my own way.  The drafts may be a mess, sure. Sloppy, unfocused, rough, undisciplined, chaotic, jumbled, scattered, unpolished, inferior–any words like that will do.

The world is full of nasty critics–don’t be one of them when it comes to your own writing.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to The Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

 

Why I Love Writing Mysteries

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers in more than one language.  My mother read Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie as well as Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell. Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it. If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home, curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home reading them. Each one seemed to open to a world that was larger, more fascinating, and more liberating than my cramped classroom. Nowadays, I would probably be diagnosed as needing of Ritalin, but what I wanted was escape.

Thinking man silhouette and red sunset on a ferryBut not just from class. My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed. Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history. Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored. It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published 25 books in many genres and almost a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read even one mystery of mine.  But writing and publishing each of them, I’ve thought of her. I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke half a dozen languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy. Remembering all that makes me happy.

Lev Raphael’s Nick Hoffman mysteries are available from Amazon.

Why I Stopped Going To Bouchercon

As soon as I started publishing mysteries in the mid-nineties, publicists and my editors urged me to go to all the mystery conferences I could manage, especially Bouchercon.  That’s the biggest one of them all and attracts writers and fans from around the world.

I went, year after year, to half a dozen different conferences around the country–and even one at Oxford University.  What I discovered, among other things, was that many were a waste of time and Bouchercon was in some ways highly over-rated.

bouchercon

I enjoyed meeting fans there and running into authors I admired.  But I had more time with Walter Mosley, for example, when our paths crossed in Texas on separate book tours than was possible at Bouchercon.  I had dinner with him and a group, heard him do a killer reading, and then we got together for drinks later and talked for a few hours about the logistics of developing a series.  It felt like a mini-workshop/retreat.

walter-mosleyHe’s been gracious and charming wherever I’ve met him, but at Bouchercon, I got the sense with other famous authors that the motor was running and they were waiting for someone more important than me to come along while we chatted.  And there was always that sense of clamor wherever you went.

For fans, Bouchercon can be a dream, a feast: so many authors, so little time!  But for midlist authors who’ll admit it off the record (and many of them have to me), the conference is pretty much the same thing over and over.  I’ve listened to some authors tell the identical anecdotes on more than one panel and the panels themselves, well….  It’s great if you haven’t heard it all before, but not so great if you’re a veteran.

Glee-cory-monteith-finn-hudson-yawn-bored-gif

Authors supposedly get terrific exposure at Bouchercon.  I don’t believe that’s always true.  The famous writers are the ones who get exposure.  The rest of us can get eclipsed, exhausted, and wonder why we bothered.  I once chaired a standing room only star-studded panel with over 450 people there, and the recording was the best seller of the entire conference.  Did it budge my books sales at the conference book room or afterwards or even that following year?  Barely.

I had spent $750 for a full page program ad, plus another $1000 on the hotel, meals,  and air fare. For that money, I could have had a lovely weekend vacation with my spouse somewhere totally stress-free.  Or gone to more than one smaller mystery conference.

Jonah’s-Bynya-Road-Whale-Beach-SydneyThat doesn’t mean writers should avoid Bouchercon.  But if you’re a mystery author, and especially if you’re a newbie, think carefully about your goals, the reality of attaining them, and what your budget is.  Bouchercon can be enjoyable if you can do it inexpensively (like if it’s nearby)–and if you’re not averse to massive crowds. But it’s wise to consider smaller conferences like Magna cum Murder or Left Coast Crime where you might do better, spend less, and have more fun. The smaller conferences are more affordable, less crowded and overwhelming, your fans have more access to you, you can  network more readily with other authors including the stars–and the entire event is less frantic and stressful, especially if you’re a writer who’s introverted.  And so many of us are…..

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror.

 

Should Writers Follow Elmore Leonard’s “Rules”?

Every now and the I see people post and re-post Leonard’s well-known rules for writers. Some of them are common sense, like “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”  Taken together, though, they seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Like Leonard himself.

elmore_leonardOne of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  He references Steinbeck and Hemingway, but does Leonard follow his own advice? Below are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth.

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

labravaI see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have an evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

Lean?  Not really.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  One question is, does it matter?  Another, the more important one is this: why should what works for Leonard–or what he implied worked for him–work for you?

I think in the end you can learn a lot more about writing from reading Leonard’s books than reading and slavishly following his Rules.  It’s also more fun.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” As an Adult

When the first Hobbit movie was coming out, I re-read the novel I loved as a kid to reacquaint myself with the story and was more enthralled than I expected to be.

The wry voice was something I missed as a twelve-year-old in love with the adventure and fantasy, and I reconnected immediately with what moved me most the first time: the ways Bilbo’s fooled Gollum and the dragon. In each case, the small, clever Hobbit outwits a fierce enemy.  That was a real treat for me as a bookish, picked-on kid with a tough older brother.


Harper Lee’s Scout also defeated monsters when she helped defuse the mob in front of the jail. It’s one of the best scenes in To Kill A Mockingbird–if not entirely believable.  But Scout herself doesn’t hold up for me today because I just don’t believe her voice. She often sounds too mature for an eight-year-old, like when she thought near the end of the book (according to her adult self) “there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.”

190px-MockingbirdfirstAnd I’m mixed about the book itself: it feels like an uneven blend of southern novel of manners with the “race novel” Lee originally intended, folded into a  courtroom drama which seems clichéd–through no fault of hers. We’ve all read so much John Grisham and Scott Turow, or maybe I have as a long-time crime fiction reviewer.  The story of the rape accusation takes way too long to get going.  And in terms of suspense, the final appearance of Boo Radley is a letdown after all the mystery and tension.  He’s just not that interesting.

Some of Atticus’s sentiments also grated on my nerves, like his belief that “a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human.” That feels hopelessly naive and sentimental–especially when you consider that Lee wrote the book after The Holocaust.  But closer to home, there was the brutality she saw in the south directed at Civil Rights protestors.

Flannery O’Connor damned the novel with pretty faint praise when it came out: “I think for a child’s book it does all right.” That seems unduly harsh (and unfair to YA literature). What works best for me as an adult reader is the local color, the barbed social comedy, and the graceful prose.

Of course the book’s dramatic core couldn’t be timelier: today’s America is still grappling with racial injustice just as Harper Lee’s fictional town was in Depression-era Alabama.  That’s sadly a story which seems to make the news every week–if not more often.

Lev Raphael’s 25 book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a suspense novel about militarized police.  It was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

“Am I In Your Book?”

I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off.  Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.

On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling.  Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books.  So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance.  Sort of.  Or a contribution?

The thing is, nobody gets shoved into my books from real life.  Ever.  And each one of my characters is a composite of fact and fiction.  Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of another.

Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series.  She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate.  By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered.  How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference.  But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.”  I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.

Tina-TurnerCuriously, I did once run into a woman who looked and dressed just as I envisioned Juno did, when I was staying in a German hotel on a book tour–and she was Italian.

The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl.  So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.

Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to.  For me, people are just models and sometimes inspiration.  Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.