Thursday, March 28, 2013

"a different breed of cat"

From Ed Gorman:

I see Ashley Judd has dropped her plans to run for Senate. She's a  good actress and appears to be an intelligent woman but I was  surprised at her decision to look into it. I've never worked in a Senate campaign but I worked in three Congressional campaigns and wrote speeches for a governor and two congressmen. These were all-out  battles, 24/7, things going wrong every day.  All campaigns are like this. I can't imagine the toll a campaign would take. People who want these jobs--no matter their party--are driven by an ambition most of us don't share or can even comprehend. To paraphrase Jefferson--when a man tells me he's planning to run for office I immediately suspect his worst motives.

Now I'm not as cynical as ole Tom--I believe there are decent hardworking people in both sides of the aisle--but I do believe that it takes a kind of different breed of cat to seek the higher offices. In addition to recommending my own Dev Conrad political novels, pick up The Man Who by Gregory MacDonald. He nails beautifully all the competing forces preying on a single presidential candidate as he tries to decide which way to vote--and how to explain the naked girl who just jumped off the roof of the hotel where he happened to be staying. It's very very funny but also gives you real insight into the process.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Giving The Devil His Due

by Libby Hellmann

Probably the most common question writers are asked is "what made you start writing crime fiction?" I've always answered that I could tell you how and when I started writing, but, aside from the fact that I've ingested a steady diet of thrillers and mysteries over the years, I was never exactly sure why I felt compelled to write.

Well, thanks to the events a few years ago when he was arrested in Vegas for trying to steal his own memorabilia (a Catch-22 in which truth really is stranger than fiction)  I now know the reason. In fact, it was one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments.

It was OJ. Or, more accurately, the OJ trial. Remember? Back in 1995 he went on trial for murdering his wife, Nicole. 

I was free-lancing then, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of the trial, which began pretty much at the beginning of the year. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict—in other words, everything you could want in a crime novel.

First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn't have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor, the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone, the racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, as well as the avuncular king of defense lawyers.

Then there were the forensics. I knew nothing about police procedure when I started watching and less than nothing about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the timing—all those issues opened up a new world for me. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled... maybe even manipulated—well, that played to all of my latent conspiracy theories, not to mention my tendency to rebel against authority.

Finally, of course, there was the denouement. How absolutely noir an ending it was! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn't have done it better.

I remember how swept up I was in the day to day events. I remember screaming at Marcia Clark to object when Barry Scheck made a salient point... I remembering calling my husband, a lawyer too, to rant and rave... I even remember the nagging feeling that the real issues were being buried and obfuscated (although I wasn't sure how or why). The only other seminal event I was involved in to that degree was the broadcast of the Watergate Hearings in 1973 (I worked for public television and was part of the crew who broadcast the hearings at night.) In retrospect, actually, I find it curious that I was more emotionally involved in the murder of a woman than in a President who tried to subvert the constitution. But that's another blogpost.

I'm sure it was the denial of justice... the fact he got away with it... that justice was NOT served... that stayed with me. It wasn't a conscious decision, of course, but the verdict came down in October of 1995, and by spring of 1996 I'd written my first mystery. It was a police procedural, btw, about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. It was never published, and it shouldn't be. Still, I kept going and eventually published the Ellie Foreman series.

In a way, I've been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? At the same time, though, I have to admit that OJ had a tremendous impact on me. I can even say he changed my life.What about you? What inspired you to write—or read—crime fiction? 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

German TV Gets Its Serial Killer

It was announced not too long ago that ProSieben, a big German network, has bought the rights to air Hannibal, the new TV series from NBC, showrunner Brian Fuller, and French studio Gaumont. The series depicts the early relationship between FBI agent Will Graham and Dr. Hannibal Lector, who we all know is a horrific serial killer.

I wasn't surprised by the news. ProSieben has long been interested in a series built around the concept. In fact, five years ago, they developed a series called Beauty and the Murderer, which was about a Clarice Starling-type homicide detective who discovers that the department's long-time psychiatric consultant is actually a prolific serial killer himself. She puts him away...but is stunned when the department continues to use the killer shrink as a consultant, even secretly bringing him out in chains to crime scenes to offer his insights.

The network ordered  six scripts, including the pilot, and a twenty minute presentation film from the production company, a prolific supplier of TV movies for them. But early on in the development process, the project ran into trouble and the network brought me to Munich from the U.S. to redevelop the pilot script, set up the writers room, and oversee the writing of the five episodes.

The biggest problem that I saw was that the project was, basically, a beat-for-beat rip-off of Silence of the Lambs.  I knew I couldn't dismantle the concept they bought, so the key for me was to strip it of everything that smacked of that movie, and Hannibal Lector, and focus much more on the characters. So I tried to tone down the serial killer's Lector-like qualities and make the heroine as far removed from Clarice Starling as I could, especially in her relationship to him.

The project was also unremittingly dark, so the other thing I brought in was some humor, which the network embraced but the German writers had a hard time with it. They didn't see how a show could be dark, but also still have some humor.  So the network asked me to write one of the scripts as an example...which I did.  You can read my first draft here.

All in all, it was a great group of writers, we had a terrific time, and we had a very supportive production company behind us that was eager to sell the project. I remember leaving Munich after a couple of months being very pleased with the six scripts that we developed and feeling good about the show's prospects, since I knew from the network that they liked what they'd read and were very pleased with my work (so much so, that they asked me to rush back and fix another troubled show, an X-Files rip-off, but I declined).

The fate of Beauty and the Murderer all came down to the pilot presentation. And that's where it all went wrong.

In Germany at the time, they had yet to embrace the showrunner system. Directors were in still charge, and the guy that the studio brought in, someone who had never done a pilot before, didn't like the scenes or the series concept. So he re-wrote everything, taking out the humor and making every scene a horrible, laughable rip-off from Silence of the Lambs...and trashing months of hard work by seven writers.

It infuriated me. I couldn't understand how the production company, after investing all the time and money in crafting the six scripts and developing a strong franchise, could stand by and let that happen.
Why didn't they fire the guy and hire someone who would shoot the show that we developed...and that the network was expecting?

He's the director, they said. You can't tell him what to do.

Needless to say, the network took one look at that presentation and backed away from the project. They hated the demo film but, more importantly,  they lost faith in the production company's ability to ever deliver the show that was promised in those six scripts.

Now, it appears, ProSieben is finally getting the series that they wanted five years ago.

The pilot presentation is actually available on YouTube with English subtitles. Here it is:

Free Boat House, 2 Day Offer

If you prefer, you can skip the story and go straight down to the link for the free book. Otherwise...

In 1984 I travelled to Finland and took the train to Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then known. I was alone, with a backpack and not much money. I'd been living by writing for four years and it wasn't going all that well. My second novel had tanked and my third was unsold. Yet here I was, digging into what little reserves we had to gather the material for a fourth.

This was Soviet-era Russia and so travel was restricted, and had to be organised through the state-owned Intourist agency. I couldn't get into Russian Karelia so I began the research in that part of the divided region that lay within Finland; the area had been split up in 1940 after the Winter War, and the border ran right through it.

All for the backstory of a book set mostly in the Lake District.

That's how I worked, back then. I was neither worldly nor experienced, so I'd go out into the world on a calculated mission to record some experiences. My method's still the same although the backpack hasn't been out of the attic for some years, and I've lost my taste for dossing on railway station platforms.

You know what brought it back? A Disney song on the radio, heard while driving home from town a couple of hours ago. Because it made me realise that The Boat House is essentially a modern-day reimagining of The Little Mermaid.

Which led to an impulse to go online and schedule a couple of free days for the book on Kindle. So for March 13th and 14th you can download it from Amazon for absolutely nothing.

And the novel? Like the one before, I couldn't sell it. Until I sold Valley of Lights, and then The Boat House went for a shedload of money along with the previous book. Film rights too, but that's another story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Shedding Light on the Valley

Writing about Greg Hoblit's supernatural chase thriller The Fallen for her Cats on Film blog, Anne Billson got in touch to clarify a point.

Apparently some of the Amazon reviewers of my 1987 novel Valley of Lights contend that it owes something to Jack Sholder's movie The Hidden. In Valley of Lights, a Phoenix police sergeant is targeted by an ageless, amoral body-hopping entity that has been living on the fringes of society for so long that it can't even remember its own origin. It's not a great life; it's an eternity of lying low, until threatened by discovery.

I wrote the book in '85 and in July '86 it was optioned by AWGO (Anciano Wyn-Griffith Orme), a newly-formed UK company with Hollywood feature ambitions. In October '86 director Stuart Orme went over and showed the script to New Line's Robert Shaye in the hope of getting New Line to back it. Shaye didn't say no right away. In '87 the book came out in hardcover, and in July the guys were confident enough to take me over to scout locations in Arizona and take some meetings in LA. I kept a diary of that trip which is included in the 'Telos Classic' edition of the novel. We interviewed casting directors as a step toward attaching a lead: Ed Harris was top of our wishlist, I recall, and William Hurt was on it as well.

New Line finally said no. The guys were talking to other backers as well, but when New Line released The Hidden in October '87 our movie was dead. We didn't know it right away, but it was.

Did The Hidden rip us off? It's hardly likely. But does Valley owe anything to The Hidden? Not a thing. It was out first.

Anne's blog post is here. I like The Hidden. It's a fun movie. I've never seen Fallen.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

With A Little Help From My Friend...

by Libby Hellmann

One of the most common questions crime fiction authors are asked is whether we outline our stories or write “without a net”, i.e. not knowing what’s going to happen next.

My answer is “Yes.”

I’ve done it both ways, but I lean toward the “without a net” camp. That’s not to say I haven’t outlined. The first two novels I wrote were carefully outlined, down to each chapter. The problem was they read that way. I ended up writing the outline instead of the story. The outline was in charge of what, where, when, and how my characters behaved, rather than the characters themselves. There was no room for them to change their minds or try something different; consequently, in the end some of their actions didn’t make sense. Those books were never published, btw, and they should never be.

Then a very wise editor encouraged me to write without a net. We had a long conversation about how I needed to trust my characters, that if they were truly fleshed out, they wouldn’t let me down. My first reaction was: “Are you nuts? I created them. They do what I tell them to.”

“Actually, they don’t,” she replied in a serious voice. “Try it.”

Imagine my surprise when I discovered she was right. It took me a while to get over my panic and actually sit down without a plan for what was going to happen, but eventually it started to percolate. Characters did things I never planned. Say things I didn’t expect.  Some even said they weren’t involved in the crime, and why was I trying to implicate them. At times, the process was so baffling that I felt like Shirley MacLaine, channeling spirits from the other side. I was even more puzzled when I’d introduce a character or write a scene without knowing why I was doing it or why it was important.  Part of my brain would ask myself what in the world this had to do with my story? The other part of my brain said not to worry. Sure enough, about 150 pages later, the answer would come. My subconscious had been working on it all that time. It was almost spooky.

Eventually I adopted what I call a “modified netless style.” I would start out knowing the crime and the victim. I also thought I had an idea who the perpetrator was, and I would have in mind two or three “tent-pole” scenes, where important information is revealed, that I’d write toward.

The risk of this style of writing is that you start to like the perpetrator, or you find so many redeeming qualities that you decide he or she couldn’t have done it. Then what? How do you resolve the story?

That’s what happened in A BITTER VEIL. Although it’s written on the large canvas of Revolutionary Iran, in some ways VEIL is really a locked room mystery. There are only 4 or 5 characters who could have committed the crime, and in the process of writing the book, I toggled between each one. At first I thought the villain was Character A, but then I started to like A. So I turned to character B. Then B did a noble thing. So I switched to C, but they couldn’t have done it because...

You get the picture. This went on through the entire first draft. In fact, when I  got to the place where I had to reveal the culprit… I didn’t have one! I’d written myself into a corner.

I panicked. I’d written an entire book without a villain. At that point the only ting I could think to do was call my friend and fellow author Cara Black, who, for the one or two people in the world that don’t know, writes the award-winning Amy Leduc Investigation mysteries set in Paris. (And has just come out with a new one which you can find right here. And which I think it is one of her best.)

“Cara!” I cried when I got her on the phone. “I’m at the end and I don’t know who did it!”

“First of all,” she said, “Calm down. Take a xanax.”

“But – but…”

 “We’ll figure it out.”


Here’s how: We spent ninety minutes on the phone, going over each major character: their behavior, their possible motivations, their conflicts. How they related to the victim, each other, and the revolution. Slowly, the villain began to emerge. Yes, I did have to go back and rewrite a few things, but not as much as I thought. The most surprising part was what I call the “inevitability factor.” In making revisions, I realized that, of course the killer was this character. It couldn’t have been anyone else.

So, will I continue writing without a net? Absolutely. I loved that the villain was as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will be for readers. I’m not sure about Cara, though. The conversation was more valuable than therapy (at least for me) and she had to be as exhausted as I was afterwards. She’ll probably charge me a fee next time. 

I don’t mind. It was worth it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How NOT To Solicit a Blurb II

I get a lot of strangers asking me to read and blurb their books. What astonishes me is how little effort they put into personalizing their message or making their books sound even the least bit interesting. Here are some examples:
I'm a big fan of your work and preparing to publish my debut novel.  XYZ is 88k words in the mystery/suspense genre and in PDF form now.  A blurb from you would mean the world to me.  If you're amenable, I'll forward the MS to you. 
Oh, well, since it's 88,000 words, I must read it! I love books that are 88,000 words, especially if they are in PDF format.
I have written a new book XYZ that I am doing indie and need recommendations from famous authors and you are well known. You don't even have to read the book and you will benefit from my sales because readers of my book will then search out yours, so its a win-win. 
So I should blurb a book I haven't read to reap the benefits of the exposure I'll get from being associated with a self-published novel by someone no one has ever heard of.  That's a damn persuasive argument. How could I resist?
I am writing to invite you to review my book, XYZ, which I have just published on Amazon. I got your address from your “Top Reviewer” profile. Please let me know if you are interested.
I actually get a ton of emails like that one from aspiring authors...there must be a form somewhere on Amazon that they can fill out. I wonder how often it works in getting blurbs for them...


by Paul Levine

1.I have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (Not true).

2.  My books have been translated into Bulgarian.  (True, but I would trade that for number one).

3. Under cover of darkness, I moved from the City of Angles back to Miami, a place I like because it’s so darn close to the United States of America.

4. I like to walk on Ocean Drive (South Beach) during a storm.

5.  Over the past weekend, my first novel, TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD was the number one bestseller on Amazon Kindle.  (Not True).

6.  TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD was, however, the number one FREE DOWNLOAD with 53,000 given away.  It now costs $3.99, though it is worth every farthing.  (That’s “farthing,” Lee Goldberg.  Not “farting.")

 7.  I am trying to sell a three-story house built into a hillside in Studio City, CA, should you be interested.  Full disclosure: The neighborhood is overrun with coyotes, and I don't mean Hollywood agents.

8.  I am now living with a wonderful woman who is a criminal defense lawyer, which I point out because this blog’s demographics run the gamut from counterfeiters to con artists.  

9.  Since we last spoke, Borders has gone out of business and Barnes & Noble is on the ropes.  Gun sales, however, are booming.

10.  My legal laugher/thriller SOLOMON vs. LORD has been optioned for television.  But then, so have several hundred other books, scripts, and pitches.  I’ll let you know if anything good happens.

Paul Levine

Friday, March 1, 2013


Like many people who'd embraced Sherlock I was prepared to dislike CBS's Elementary just on principle, but I don't. The Brooligan household watched the pilot and we decided, after some discussion, not to bother with the series; based on that viewing it felt less than fresh, and the mystery element was weak. Subsequent episodes lurked around on the PVR until I came home late one night with a yen for something entertaining but not too challenging, to unwind with before sleeping. Elementary and I had found each other's level.

Here's the thing about American TV shows. Where British series can start out strongly and lose oomph as their overloaded creators run out of steam - witness the quality arc of Jonathan Creek, a Sherlock of the '90s - US series tend to find their feet as the team comes together. Much like the British Sherlock, the show's strength arises from a lead role played as a character part with all the stops out; though unlike the British version, Lucy Liu's Watson seems to be fading into the background with very little to do.

Comparisons are inevitable and deny it though the makers might, it's pretty obvious that Elementary's driven, dysfunctional take on a modern Sherlock owes more than a little to its British antecedent. Only a career-best turn from Jonny Lee Miller makes you rise above the thought that it's Benedict Cumberbatch's character with the serial numbers filed off. In fact you could pretty much swap the leads of the two versions, as Miller and Cumberbatch did nightly in the National Theatre's Frankenstein.

But the point was well made by a fan of both shows. With Sherlock, it's three a year. Fewer, if you average it out. Despite shedding a couple of million viewers after the pilot, Elementary quickly got its 'back nine' pickup, extending the series order from thirteen episodes to a full season of twenty-two. CBS has since ordered a further two episodes to extend the season to twenty-four. It's a mass product for a mass market, and a successful one of its kind. It'll do until Sherlock comes around again.

I'd have to agree. If we disdain something just because we think it's derivative, where will that leave us? Smug and pure, but with no popular culture and nothing to watch, that's where. You can have a preference, but it's still OK to see both. Life may be short, but it's not that short.

When I looked up Elementary's numbers, I was surprised to see how they compared to Eleventh Hour's in the same Thursday 10pm CBS slot. We got cancellation with a season's average of 12.15 million; Elementary's weekly average at the time of writing is 11.12 and they get a champagne party.

Here's the difference; Eleventh Hour was made for CBS by the Warner Bros studio. Elementary is made for CBS by CBS Studios. When the network pays its own studio for the show, the money stays in the family.

It's always about the numbers, but not necessarily about the numbers you think.