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.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pulp diction

Now pay attention, kittens and bo's, there's a quiz at the end of this one.

I was an art major in college. This was before I figured out I couldn't make a living at this. Unless I planned to teach, but I was scared of kids. (Not a good character trait in teachers).

I was always pretty good at art. I can draw and paint and was cruising through my art classes with a B average. Then I hit a class called Three Dimensional Design. I was terrible. Evidence of my ineptitude was my "final exam" sculpture, which I called Nude With A Paper Cup Head. So titled because I couldn't get my figure's face right so I finally just filled a Dixie cup with wet plaster and stuck it on top. I got a D.

I just didn't get it. Ask me to paint on canvas, I was Rembrandt. Ask me to sculpt, I might as well have been Rambo. I couldn't think outside the two-dimensional box. Finally, my instructor told me I had to stop seeing the world in POSITIVES and start seeing it in NEGATIVES. In other words, I was so hung up on adding things, I was missing the beauty of subtracting. "Learn how to leave things out," he told me.

Lightning bolt! Paradigm shift! Well, doh!

I ended up abandoning art for writing. But I think that little piece of advice must have lodged deep in my brain cells because it is something subconsciously I have always tried to apply to my fiction writing.

Subconsciously I say because until recently, I hadn't even thought about that quote. Maybe I am thinking about it now because of the book I am reading. No, not Elmore Leonard, though he's the one who coined the famous writers axoim "Leave out the parts that no one wants to read."

My bedside reading is The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, which I got for Christmas.

Handsome book...a compiliation of the best crime stories from the "golden age" of pulp crime fiction -- the 20s through the 40s. It's about the size of the Fort Lauderdale phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like "Black Mask" and "Dime Detective." Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today -- lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? Doubtful...

To be sure, not all the stories have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. That is the biggest thing I am getting out of these stories, an appreciation for that streamlined locomotive style that propells these stories along their tracks. I read these stories now -- discovering most of these writers for the first time -- with a smile on my face and a highligher in my fist. There are lessons to be learned for us all, and you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: "I'm not going to dazzle you with my writing. I'm going to tell you a helluva story."

These guys sure knew what to leave out.

Let me give you one little passage from Paul Cain's "One Two Three":

I said: "Sure -- we'll both go.

Gard didn't go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy's made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk.

Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile?

I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And speaking of art, check out some of the best pulp cover artists of the day at Rex Parker's terrific vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation. (I lifted that great Henry Kane cover at the top of this blog entry from his site.)

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don't chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn't been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits...

1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn't been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A gift for you, dear weary writer

See that silly picture at left? That is my dog Bailey. The antlers are photoshopped on but believe me when I say my dog is very phlegmatic about letting me dress her up, letting me make a fool of her, letting me...have fun.

Bailey has a lesson for all us writers in this holiday season. We need to lighten up. We need to be good to ourselves.

We beat ourselves up so much. We toss and turn in our sheets (See Tess Gerritsen's blog). We fret over the Writers Strike and our own personal writers strikes (See Lee Goldberg's blog). We pledge to work ever harder at our craft even though we've aleady driven ourselves to hell and back (see Joe Konrath's blog). We agonize over deadlines (see Alexandra Sokoloff over at Murderati)

Whew. I'm seeing that creepy Albino monk in the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code" (yeah, I watched it the other night on cable to cure my insomnia.) This guy was screwing barbed-wire anklets to his legs and beating himself bloody with cat o nine tails. It's a religious zealot thing, I know, but as I watched it I kept thinking of the pain we writers inflict on ourselves. Self-doubt, exhausting promotion tours, crippling envy, three-books-a-year contracts, flop-sweat fear. Hell, we don't need Kirkus. We're killing ourselves.

So here is my Christmas gift to you all. I hope you'll all take a deep breath (me included) and give yourself a break. My gifts to you are the exact things you probably won't give to yourself. But you need them.

This year, dear writer, give yourself:

1. Permission to write badly. This is the one I try to give myself every year because I am one of those "perfectionist" nuts who gets paralyzed trying to make every word sing. It has taken me a decade to understand that to get to the good stuff, you have to well, poop out a lot of crap.

2. The ability to know when you are brilliant. And you are. Even if it is just for one page, one paragraph, one sentence. You know when you've hit that sweet spot. You can feel it. Cherish it. You're not going to do it every time, but you don't need to. Brilliance, like diamonds, shines best when you think quality not quantity.

2. A good night's sleep. No obsessing about the wayward plot. No agonizing over recalcitrant characters. No worrying that they are going to find out you're really a no-talent fake. Because you aren't. Sleep. Take an Ambien if you have to.

3. A friend to celebrate the good news. Even if it's as small as you finished chapter two. Even if it's as big as a five-figure book deal and Clint Eastwood on your speed dial. Success is nothing without someone to share it.

4. An honest critic. Ah yes, that sacred cold eye, that invaluable reader, that one true editor who can tell you when you have lost your way. Your mother loves you too much to tell you the truth about your book. Treasure the one who can look you in the eye and say, "this sucks, you can do better."

5. The courage to question your agent or editor. Blind loyalty is dangerous. In politics, love...and publishing. A great agent or editor can be your biggest ally. But it is YOUR responsibility to steer your career.

6. A week off. Leave the laptop. Abandon the Blackberry. The cell can go to hell. Find someplace to which you can truly retreat, where the world cannot intrude. St. Barts is great if you can afford it. But your backyard deck will do. Drink good wine. Read trash. Eat too much. Make love. Dance in the snow. Breathe in pink...breathe out blue.

7. The courage to talk to a writer "bigger" than you and know you have something to offer them. The first time I found myself standing next to Lee Child I turned into the third verse of Janis Ian's song "At Seventeen." Years later, I still cringe. But now whenever I see Lee, I just picture him naked....

8. A few extra bucks to attend a conference so you know you're not alone. You need to get periodic infusions and if you approach cons right, you come away replenished and eager to work.
9. A long drive to nowhere or a walk in the woods to clear your head. You've got to quiet those shouting voices of doubt in your brain. This happens only in quietude. Or maybe driving down I-75 with "Bohemian Rapsody" blaring.

10. The clarity to recognize the seed of inspiration in the smallest things. You're stuck. You've painted yourself into a corner with the plot. Take a step back and look for small things. Open your brain and all your senses. You never know where the answer will come from.

11. Time to appreciate your family for appreciating how hard you work. Your people are important. Tell them. Often.

12. Kindness to reach down to someone who admires you. No matter where you believe you are on the writer food chain, no matter how low you think you are, someone is looking up to you.
Karma, baby, karma...

13. Permission to spend some of that advance money or royalty check on yourself. Buy a great bottle of Meursault. Rent a red convertible. Get botox. Splurge on Celtic tickets. My friend Rhonda Pollero just got a new agent, signed a fabulous six-book contract with a new publisher -- this after years of bad luck. She bought herself a diamond ring.

14. Courage to venture out of your comfort zone. This is a tough one because sometimes you can get slapped on the wrist or wacked alongside the head for your trouble. But there is no growth without chances taken. You just have to believe you are right. Even when everyone else -- and maybe even the sales -- are telling you otherwise.

15. And lastly, we give you the gift of Faith. Faith that....someone will love your book enough to buy it. That you have another good story still inside you. That no matter how tangled your book might feel, you will find the way home. That you are....brilliant.

Peace, dear friends.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

My spine is all atingle

Sometimes the writer is the last person to know. But in this case, I don't mind. I just found out our latest book A THOUSAND BONES is a nominee for the first annual Spinetingler Award. The awards will be given out by the online magazine Spinetingler.

If you don't know about ST, you should. It is devoted to spotlighting writers you won't find in the usual mainstream venues. Or as editor Sandra Ruttan puts it: "We want to entertain our audience while we promote and enhance the profile of talented emerging writers using the forum of electronic publishing. We know there are a lot of great stories out there that should have a place where they can be told, so we are providing that venue for them."

The nominees were selected by the magazine's editors but readers are the ones who will now determine the winners. Anyone can email their vote in by the deadline Dec. 30. (The rules are at the end of this post or you can go to Spinetingler.)

Just take a look at the list of nominees and you'll see why we feel honored to be included. At first, I was a little gobsmacked that we are considered "an emerging talent" -- but only because we just turned in book No. 9 and I always thought that puts us square in the midlist purgatory.

Which brings up the issue of perspective. It's hard to keep a good one in this business. You keep churning out books, doing your best to make each one better than the last. You have some success, you get some breaks, but you still feel sometimes that you're just frantically treading water hoping you won't get sweep away in the next downsizing wave.

It's all about perspective...

I heard Mike Connelly speaking at Killer Nashville a couple months back. He said that it took him a good ten years to make it to the bestseller lists. My jaw dropped because I had always assumed Mike's trajectory had been comet-like. But then he went on to say he completed three manuscripts before his agent shopped one around. He said he realized all three of those manuscripts weren't good enough to go out into the world. His agent sent out manuscript No. 4 -- The Black Echo. Which of course won the Edgar for Best First Novel.


I've heard similar stories from people like Robert Crais, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman and many others. Folks we all assume have had an easy accension but in reality, worked a good decade before they got their big break and starting appearing on lists.

So yeah, I am pretty stoked to be called a "rising star" by Spinetingler magazine. And the next time I feel like I'm just sitting here on a plateau, I am going to try very hard to shift around and get a different perspective.

Here are the Spinetingler nominees. And if you're so inclined, we would be eternally grateful for your vote.

Best Novel – Legend
Ken Bruen, Cross
Ken Bruen, Priest
James Lee Burke, Tin Roof Blowdown
Laura Lippman, What The Dead Know
Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead
James Reasoner, Dust Devils

Best Novel – Rising Star
Sean Doolittle, The Cleanup
Charlie Huston, The Shotgun Rule
Larry Karp, The Ragtime Kid
Rick Mofina, A Perfect Grave
PJ Parrish, A Thousand Bones
Steven Torres, Concrete Maze

Best Novel – New Voice
Megan Abbott, Queenpin
Declan Burke, The Big O
Allan Guthrie, Hard Man
Steve Mosby, The 50/50 Killer
JD Rhoades, Safe and Sound
Duane Swierczynski, The Blonde

Best Publisher
Bitter Lemon Press
Europa Editions
Hard Case Crime
Poisoned Pen Press

Best Cover
Robert Terrall - Kill Now, Pay Later Cover painted by Robert McGinnis
Gil Brewer - The Vengeful Virgin Cover painted by Greg Manchess
George Axelrod - Blackmailer Cover painted by Glen Orbik
Allan Guthrie - Hard Man Design: Vaughn Andrews. Photo: (c) Corbis.
Nick Stone - Mr. Clarinet Designed by Emily Cavett Taff

Best Editor
Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime
Stacia Decker, Harcourt
Alison Janssen, Bleak House
Barbara Peters, Poisoned Pen Press
Dave Thompson, Busted Flush

Special Services to the Industry
Daniel Hatadi - Crimespace
Ali Karim – Shots, The Rap Sheet
Graham Powell - Crimespot
J. Kingston Pierce – The Rap Sheet
Maddy Van Hertburger – 4MA
Sarah Weinman – Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

Best Short Story On The Web
The Leap by Charles Ardai - Hardluck Stories
Breaking in the New Guy by Stephen Blackmoore - Demolition
Amphetamine Logic by Nathan Cain - Thuglit
The Switch by Lyman Feero -Thuglit
Seven Days of Rain by Chris F. Holm - Demolition
Shared Losses by Gerri Leen - Shred of Evidence
The Living Dead by Amra Pajalic - Spinetingler
Convivum by Kelli Stanley - Hardluck Stories

Here's how to vote:
ONE E-MAIL PER PERSON ONLY. You cannot send another vote in, even for a different category – multiple votes from the same sender will not be counted. Take the time to consider your votes carefully. E-mails must be received by December 30, 2007.

You may vote for one winner in each category as long as all votes are submitted in one e-mail. Simply state the category and your chosen winner for each of the eight categories. Any votes that contain more than one selection per category may be removed from consideration completely. No ties.

Send your e-mail to with AWARD NOMINATIONS in the subject line.