Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

When sex goes bad

It's that time of year when thoughts start turning to book awards -- The Edgar, the Booker, the Thriller, Newberry, Nobel, Hugo et al. But I can't believe I missed my favorite -- the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award.

As a recovering romance writer, I know how tough it is to write good sex scenes. In fact, we have on-camera sex for the first time in our crime writing careers in our upcoming book A THOUSAND BONES. And folks, let me tell ya, writing this stuff isn't for the squeamish. We've all seen our share of bad sex in crime fiction.

But apparently, literary writers make a worse mess of it than your average genre midlister. This year's winner was debut novelist Iain Hollingshead, a mere whippersnapper at age 25, for his book "Twenty Something."

Said the judges: "Because Hollingshead is a first-time writer, we wished to discourage him from further attempts. Heavyweights like Thomas Pynchon and Will Self are beyond help at this point."

So, here for your amusement, are excerpts from the Literary Review finalists. WARNING: Don't read these with a full mouth of beer without first covering your keyboards.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
If Dawn Madden's breasts were a pair of Danishes, Debby Crombie's got two Space Hoppers. Each armed with a gribbly nipple. Tom Yew kissed them in turn and his saliva glistened in the April sun. I know watching was wrong but I couldn't not. Tom Yew slipped off her red panties and stroked the cressy hair there.

"If you want me to stop, Madam Crombie, you have to say now."

"Oooh, Master Yew," she croodled, "don't you dare."

Tom Yew got on her and sort of jiggled there and she gasped like he was giving her a Chinese burn and wrapped her legs round him, froggily. Now he moved up and down, Man-from Atlantisly. His silver chain jiggled on his neck.

Now her grubby soles met like they were praying.

Now his skin was glazed in roast pork sweat.

Now she made a noise like a tortured Moomintroll.

Now Tom Yew's body jerkjerked judderily jackknifed and a noise like a ripping cable tore out of him. Once more, like he'd been booted in the balls.

Her fingernails'd sunk salmony welts into his arse.

Debby Crombie's mouth made a perfect O.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
She put her hand around his penis and moved it back and forth and it no longer seemed strange, not even a part of his body, more a part of hers, the sensations flowing in one unbroken circle. And she could hear herself panting now, like a dog, but she didn't care ...

And she realised that it was going to happen and she heard herself saying, 'Yes, yes, yes,' and even hearing the sound of her own voice didn't break the spell. And it swept over her like surf sweeping over sand then falling back and sweeping up over the sand again and falling back.

Images went off in her head like little fireworks. The smell of coconut. Brass firedogs. The starched bolster in her parents' bed. A hot cone of grass-clippings. She was breaking up into a thousand tiny pieces, like snow, or bonfire sparks, tumbling high in the air, then starting to fall, so slowly it hardly seemed like falling at all ...

He waited for a couple of minutes. "And now," he said, "I think it's my turn."

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass
You're a sexy lady, know that?" Stan whispered as he unzipped her pants.

She had no answer; she kept her eyes closed and sank into the music. His naked penis, when she felt it against her bare skin, was a shock, mostly for the desire it beckoned from Saga's marrow.

"So touch me, Story Girl," he said.

Still she said nothing and kept her eyes closed. She felt Stan's pubic hair, like a prickly sea creature, move in circles on her thigh. Then, another shock, she felt his fingers ...

When he raised himself slightly away from her again, she opened her eyes only long enough to see that he was taking a condom out of a drawer in the table that held the books and the phone. She closed her eyes again and let herself sink further down, or come more fully to the surface, she wasn't sure which ...

And then before her inner eye, a tide of words leaped high and free, a chaotic joy like frothing rapids: truncate, adjudicate, fornicate, frivolous, rivulet, violet, oriole, orifice, conifer, aquifer, allegiance, alacrity ... all the words this time not a crowding but a heavenly chain, an ostrich fan, a vision as much as an orgasm, a release of something deep in the core of her altered brain, words she thought she'd lost for good. It nearly deafened her (but not quite) to the other, more alarming wave - the groaning and happy cursing that came from Stan

Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh
As Skinner undressed, the old woman removed her coat and began to struggle out of a series of cardigans, pinafores and vests. Lying on the bed, she looked smaller but still monstrous, wrinkled rolls of flab spilling over the mattress. Foul aromas rose from the putrefying pools of sweat and dead skin trapped within the folds of her flesh. - Thoat ye'd be bigger, Mary pouted as Skinner removed his Calvin Klein briefs.

Fuckin cheeky auld clart ...

"Next time ah'll bring a strap on," he said bitterly.

Ignoring him, Mary lay back on the bed and pulled away at the sagging corrugations of her body until she was able to locate her sex. "Ah've nae cream tae lubricate this. Ye'll huv tae use spit. Howk it up," she commanded...

"Work it in," Mary urged, as Skinner took his thick green slime and spread it like a chef might glaze some pastry, at the same time slowly breaching and exploring. A ludicrously distended clitoris popped out from nowhere like a jack-in-the-box, the size of a small boy's penis, and disconcertingly strangulated groans coming from the bed told Skinner that he was hitting the spot. After a while she gasped, "Pit it in now ... pit it in ...

The Religion by Tim Willocks
He slid his hands on to her breasts, moisture lingering in the creases beneath them, and his memory of their magnificence was shamed by the beauty they embodied now. Love and desire became one, each as overmastering as the other, and he pulled the red surcoat over her head and sucked her nipples and stroked her swollen vulva until she trembled and clung on to him and mewled with pleasure in his ear. He turned her about, her eyes bedazed and rolling with transport, and he bent her across the cold steel face of the anvil. He unfastened his flies and unlimbered himself and she rose up on tiptoe to receive him. He bent his knees to get beneath her and entered her from behind and her feet left the floor and she called out to God and convulsed with each slow stroke, her head thrown back and her eyelids aflutter, and her cries filled the forge until she squeezed him from inside and he exploded to a prayer of his own within her body. They fell to the surcoat on the ground and Tannhauser held her in his arms and he stroked her hair while her body was racked by sobs.

The Book of Dave by Will Self
Dave licked between Phyllis's shoulder blades and drove his tongue down her grooved back. She shuddered and, grabbing his thigh, pulled it up and over her own so that he half straddled her. In the confusion of their bodies - his hairy shanks, her sweaty thighs, his bow-taut cock, her engorged basketry of cowl and lip - there was clear intent; so that when he penetrated her, they moved into and out of one another with fluid ease, revving and squealing, before arriving quite suddenly.

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
"Mouffette? She's a papillon...a sort of French ladies' lapdog."

"A - You say," gears in his mind beginning to crank, " 'lap' - French...lap-dog?"

Somehow gathering that Ruperta had trained her toy spaniel to provide intimate "French" caresses of the tongue for the pleasure of its mistress.

"Well! you two are...pretty close then, I guess?"

"I wuv my ickle woofwoof, ess I doo!"

His thoughts taking wing. The day alone with a French "lap" dog! who might be more than happy to do for Reef what she was obviously already doing for old 'Pert here! who in fact, m-maybe all this time's been just droolin' for one-them penises for a change, and will turn out to know plenty of tricks! A-and- ...

It took a while for Ruperta to get her toilette perfect and her bustle out the door. Reef found himself pacing and smoking, and whenever he took a look over at Mouffette could've sworn she was fidgeting too. The dog, it seemed to Reef, was giving him sidewise looks which if they'd come from a woman you would have had to call flirtatious. Finally after an extended farewell notable for its amount of saliva exchange, Mouffette slowly padded over to the divan where Reef was sitting and jumped up to sit next to him. Jumping on the furniture was something Ruperta seldom allowed her to do, and her gaze as Reef clearly assumed that he would not get upset. Far from it, what he actually got was an erection. Mouffette looked it over, looked away, looked back, and suddenly jumped up on his lap.

"Oboy, oboy." He stroked the diminutive spaniel for a while until, with no warning, she jumped off the couch and slowly went into the bedroom, looking back now and then over her shoulder. Reef followed, taking out his penis, breathing heavily through his mouth. "Here, Mouffie, nice big dog bone for you right here, lookit this, yeah, seen many of these lately? come on, smells good don't it, mmm, yum!" and so forth, Mouffette meantime angling her head, edging closer, sniffing with curiosity. "That's right, now, o-o-open up... good girl, good Mouffette now let's just put this - yaahhgghh!"

Reader, she bit him.

And the winner is...

Twentysomething by Iain Hollingshead
She's wearing a short, floaty skirt that's more suited to July than February. She leans forward to peck me on the cheek, which feels weird, as she's never kissed me on the cheek before. We'd kissed properly the first time we met. And that was over three years ago.

But the peck on the cheek turns into a quick peck on the lips. She hugs me tight. I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly, She slides one of her slender legs in between mine. Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair. She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I'm inside her, and everything is pure white as we're lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.

Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to go have a cigarette. I'll just crush the lit butt into my forehead. It would be, I am sure, less painful than this.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More on toxic ideas

Okay, confession time.

The opening featured on the previous Booky Noise workshop? It is the opening from a book Kelly and I tried to write. Actually, we wrote it, finished the damn thing. We loved it! And then our agent sent it to our publisher. AND THEY REJECTED IT!

Mind you, this was after we had already done four books for them so we had a track record. But they hated it.Our agent then sent the manuscript around to a bunch of other New York publishers, because of course we believed our publisher just didn't get it. EVERYONE passed on it!

Why am I even bringing this up? Believe me, it's not because I am not over it. I am. Truly. I bring this up as an object lesson of sorts:

1. No matter where you are on the food chain, you are never immune to rejection. So you might as well grow a thick skin. Now.

2. We had myopia. It was hard for us to accept the fact that this story and this character that we were so in love with was...flawed. We couldn't see it at the time because we were so close to this book. This story had some serious plot holes, some not-so-great characters and other weaknesses. Unpublished writers often talk about rejection letters, which tend to be maddeningly unspecific about the "why" of rejections. But you have to learn to read between the lines. All the editors who rejected our book said essentially the same thing: We had a big problem with an inconsistency in the book's TONE. It wasn't dark, it wasn't light; it wasn't hardboiled, it wasn't chick lit. The phrase that turned up in letters more than once was -- I am not kidding -- "it's neither fish nor fowl." I think that is an actual publishing term, but I could be wrong.

3. This was a toxic idea. But dammit, we loved it, and we did it anyway. We shouldn't have. To paraphrase that great philospher Sting: If you love some toxic idea, set it free.

I offered our opening up for you all in Booky Noise to illustrate one of my favorite axioms about writing fiction: Anyone can craft a killer opening.

I truly believe this. Given enough time and hard work, almost anyone can write a good hook. But can you maintain a consistent, compelling story over 250 pages? Now, there's the nub of it all.

So, sorry for misleading anyone. Hope you aren't pissed. Happy holidays and new Booky Noise stuff coming soon!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Toxic ideas

I have trouble sleeping. Usually, it is because I can't slow down the hamster wheel in my head. It is whirring around, filled with junk, to-do lists, misconjugated French verbs, woes real and imagined and regrets (I've had a few, too few to mention).

And then there are those story ideas floating around in my brain just as I'm trying to drift off. Those tantalizing fragments of fiction, those half-seen shadows of characters-to-be, those little loose pieces of plots just waiting to be sculpted into...


Here is the question I was pondering last night just before I surrendered myself into the arms of Morpheus: Is every idea worthy of a book? Does every story really need to be told? And then, in the cold light of morning, the answer came to me: NO, YOU FOOL!

You all know what I am talking about. Whether you are published yet or not, you undoubtedly have some of the following around your writing area:

1. A manila folder swollen with newspaper clippings, scribblings on cocktail napkins, pages torn from airline magazines, notebooks of dialogue overheard on the subway, stuff you've printed off obscure websites. At some point, you were convinced all these snippets had the makings of great books. (I call my own such folder BRAIN LINT.)

2. A folder icon in your computer called FUTURE PLOTS or some variation thereof. These are the will-o-wisps that came to you in the wee small hours of the morning, whispering "tell my story and I will make you a star!" So you, poor sot, jumped out of bed, fired up the Dell and tried to capture these tiny teases. Or maybe you're one of those bedeviled souls who keeps a notepad by the bed -- just in case. (Mine is right under my New York Times Crossword Puzzle Book and paperback of "The Lincoln Lawyer.")

3. Manuscripts moldering in your hard-drive. Ah yes...the stunted stories, the pinched-out plots, the atrophied attempts, the truncated tries. (sorry, when alliterative urge strikes, you have to go with it). These are the books you had so much hope for and they let you down. These are the books you went 30 chapters with but couldn't wrestle to the mat for the final pin. These are the books you grimly finished even as they finished you. Maybe you even sent these out to either agent or editor and they were rejected. At last count, I have six of these still breathing in my hard-drive. And at least four others finally died when my former Sony did, lost to mankind forever.

So what do you do with all these ideas? You expose them to sunlight and watch them burn to little cinders and then you move on. Because -- hold onto your fedora, Freddy -- not every idea is a good one. Not every idea makes for a publishable book. And sometimes, you just gotta let go.

I read a good blog entry recently about Shelf Books. (I am kicking myself for not writing down who coined this great term; I'm thinking John Connolly? Someone please help me if you know). But the idea that you sometimes have to finish a book just so you can get it out of your system and move on makes total sense to me.

Some of these Shelf Books are meant to be only training exercises. They teach you valuable lessons that you must learn in order to be a professional writer. (definition: someone who writes for an audience rather than just themselves) Tess Gerritsen recently blogged about how she wrote three books before she got her first break with Harlequin, and how dumbfounded she is that some writers expect to get published on their first attempt.

But I think I understand that peculiar mindset. I have seen some unpublished writers lock their jaws onto one idea like a rabid Jack Russell and chew it to death. These writers become paralyzed, unable to give up on their unworkable stories, unable to open their imaginations to anything else. I think it is because they fear this one bone of an idea is the only one they will ever have.

Two things happen when writers reach this point:
They self-publish.
Or they get smart, take to heart whatever lessons that first manuscript taught them, put that book on the shelf, and move on to a new idea.

Here is my favorite quote about writing. I have it over my computer:

The way to have a good idea is to have many ideas. -- Jonas Salk

You have to know when to let go. And you have to trust that yes, you will have another idea. Maybe a good one. Maybe even a great one.

Booky Noise Workshop VI

Here is the latest candidate in the barrel. Let's push her over Niagra and see if the opening to her book floats:

It’s not easy starting your life over when people think you murdered your husband and got away with it.

Especially in a place like Morning Sun, Iowa. The folks in Morning Sun -- there’s only about four hundred of them -- don’t have much tolerance for weird people, especially a rattlebrained housewife who tries to bail out of her marriage after a couple of little marital “tiffs.” But I was born and bred in Morning Sun, and on that Fourth of July when my husband Brad came at me with the Ginsu knife we had just bought off a late-night infomercial, I didn’t figure I had a lot of options.

The police believed I killed him on purpose. My neighbors believed the police. My relatives believed the neighbors. But fortunately for me, the jury didn’t believe any of them. So I walked.

Actually, I ran. Three thousand miles to be exact, all the way to Las Vegas. I had to get out of Morning Sun and I figured Las Vegas was a good place to reinvent myself. It’s the kind of town where everyone takes big chances. It’s the kind of town where dwelling on the past is about the only thing that’s really a sin.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Booky Noise V: The Little Black Dress

Help me out here for a moment. What the heck happens to some women when they have to get dressed up to go somewhere fancy? Why do some women -- who by day look stylish and normal -- after six suddenly morph into this:

Is it the prom syndrome? You remember yours don't you? How you ended up with a hideous dress and a Star Trek alien-woman hairdo? (To refresh your prom nightmare memories, check out one of my favorite websites: Ugly Dresses.)

Hang in there, I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

There's something about dressing up that just confounds some women. They start out okay with a little black dress.But then they want to pile on every button and bow, every geegaw and doodad, every bijou and piece of bling they own. I've seen this phenomenon at ballets, at weddings, even the Edgar banquet. I know I'm picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don't know when to leave well enough alone.

So it is with some writers when it comes to description. (See? I told you I'd get to the point eventually.) Description is one of the most potent tools in the writer's narrative toolbox. It can set a mood, signpost a sense of place, and render characters into flesh and blood. Description has the indispensible function of letting the reader sense -- see, hear, smell, feel and taste -- what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can made a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. (Think of what Stephen King does with "Salem's Lot." By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.)

Unless you're Elmore Leonard, you are going to have to learn to write effective description. Speaking of Stephen King, I'll let him tell you why (in his book "On Writing"):

"Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We've all heard someone say, 'Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)...I just can't describe it!' If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can't, you're going to collect a lot of rejection slips."
Why do so many beginning writers have problems with description? I think it's because they don't know how much description to use. Some don't use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.

Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn't junk up her Givenchy with jewelry. Just a great hat, gloves and sunglasses, my dears:

When you describe something, you have to resist the urge to gild the lily. Find one great image and set it off by itself. Description must be spare, clean and edited for its greatest impact. If you overdo it, you end up with something like this:

And here's a couple for the guys out there: This is the look you're going for -- basic black with two well-chosen accessories (Ray-Bans and big guns):

This, on the other hand, is a bit overwrought:

So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you've gone too far or haven't gone far enough? There are no easy answers. Description is hard to write! But here are a couple tips I've gathered over the years:

Don't generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it's Monopoly. Instead of a "bad smell" use the specific "like sour milk." But again, don't reach too hard or you look silly.

Don't forget to compare and contrast: The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you're describing something green, it's your job to come up with something fresher than "grass." Here's one of my faves from Steinbeck: "The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns." But again, don't strain it or you just sound pretentious.

Don't lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don't strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn...not a "verdant sward."

Don't use cliches: It's easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can't use "white as snow." It's not yours! Neither is "thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock" or even "overcome with grief." Time has eroded all those. It's your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.

Yeah, it's tough to dress your writing for success. But don't despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them! But then my sister told me one day that I was -- ahem -- dressing to impress. I had made every writer's biggest mistake: I had fallen in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be "writerly."

Finding your style -- be it writing or fashion -- is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out, so that now, when someone reads my stuff they aren't dazzled by my bling; they are experiencing my story.

Here is Stephen King again: "Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. "

Hey, if she can go from this:

To this:

So can you.

And now, let's move on to our new Book Noise Workshop submission. This one comes in from "J" who would like your input on the opening to her book:
The day is warm with the smells of cut grass from Bertram Beal’s riding mower. On the shell road leading to the house, a baby water moccasin sprawls like a torn fanbelt. A horse bangs his water pail in the stable. And in Mrs. St. Clair’s abandoned hothouse, its windows ironed opaque by the Gulf sun, the horticultural inmates left behind press their searching hands against the windows, trying to get out. The thought could keep you up all night.

Billy Junior’s widow sits in her aunt’s Taurus on the road outside. The air conditioner is broken and blows only hot air. Jenny St. Clair peers through the passenger-side window at the tangle of trees and the octagonal house beyond; from here, the house looks like a yellow and white wedding cake. Jenny touches the rosary beads hanging from the rearview as the drone of the lawn mower comes in through the open window. She wonders if the rosary beads ever work.

The hot air in the car finally propels her out of the Taurus and onto the verge, where she stands still and pale, her arms crossing and uncrossing as she strains for glimpses of the life she once had.

It has taken her weeks to get to this point.