A great night at the Edgar Awards

Edgar Nominees

Last night I had a fantastic time at the Edgar Awards in New York City. The place was packed, and lively, and everybody looked spiffy. Maybe it’s because I got to see so many friends, and to shake hands with writers I adore. Maybe it’s because I was a judge this year for Best Paperback Original, and it was fantastic to greet each of the authors who wrote the wonderful books I was privileged to read, and our judging panel was privileged to nominate. It was a special evening, and I’m delighted that I could be there to applaud and see everybody accept their awards.

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The Husband got to come along as arm candy, and I got to wear a badge with JUDGE written on it. I got to meet James Ellroy, and to hang out with Karin Slaughter, Alafair Burke, and Hank Phillipi Ryan. I saw Ian Rankin in a suit. And the fabulous Sara Paretsky, new president of Mystery Writers of America, looking stunning in an off-the-shoulder gown. I got a hug from Stephen King, and met his wife Tabitha.

The photo at the top is of Best Novel nominees Ian Rankin, Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, Stuart Neville, and Wiley Cash. (Mo Hayder, herself a previous winner, couldn’t make it.) Congratulations to my favorite author, who won the night’s biggest award for Mr. Mercedes.

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And enthusiastic congratulations to Best Paperback Original winner Chris Abani, whose novel The Secret History of Las Vegas blew me away. In his acceptance speech, he said that his first novel, written when he was a teenager in Nigeria, got him three years in jail. Last night was a far different turn of events. I’m thrilled I could be part of it.

Here’s a list of all the winners.

This week: heading to the Edgars

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The Edgar Awards will be presented Wednesday evening in New York City. I love attending these awards (see above for the biggest reason). This year I was a judge for the Best Paperback or Ebook Original. I am damn well going to be there to see the award presented.

The full list of this year’s Edgar nominees is here.

First-page critique: untitled WWII era novel

Here’s a new first-page critique from me and editor Ann Aubrey Hanson. The anonymous author’s page is below. The novel is a historical thriller. Ann’s and my comments follow. Thanks to the author for submitting.

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Chapter 1

The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on top of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignement started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour.

“How old did you say these barrels are?”

The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt.

The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war,” he said. “1918.”

The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit. Are you telling me that some of those barrels are older than I am?”

“That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.”

The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? It’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?”

The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back.

“Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.”

The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view.

The thought made him grin while he started the engine.

A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for them at the pier.

The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped it’s creaking rhythm.

He bent over a barrel and looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold.

If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings — would spill all over his feet.

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Ann’s Comments:

I like this first page. Set in a different time, it interests me enough to keep reading. The last line leads me to believe that the barrels aren’t, in fact, full of brine and herrings, and I am intrigued to see what they will find left over from World War I.

The writing is solid and focused, but perhaps a bit wordy. Let’s look at some specific suggestions:

  • The barrels towered against the warehouse wall spilling out on the yard, one on atop of the other. The stevedores tilted their heads and stared through the April morning haze. Their assignment had started at first light. The warehouse owner wanted it done with a minimum of fuss, and before the regular hours of the harbour. [Assuming UK English in use.]
  • “How old did you say these barrels are?” The youngest of the stevedores was barely 18 years old, with muscles straining against his shirt. [No need for second paragraph.]
  • The foreman spat tobacco on the ground. “The oldest are from the last year of the war. ,” he said. “
  • The kid scratched his head. “Holy shit! Are you telling me that some of those Those barrels are older than I am?”
  • “That they are.” The foreman stuffed another wad of tobacco under his upper lip, and sucked tobacco-flavoured saliva through his teeth. “We can use the crane to lift off the top layers and lower them directly on the barge. The barge will take them to the landfill.” [At some point, he has to spit.]
  • The kid wasn’t done being awed. “But isn’t it weird that the barrels have been here for so long? it’s 1940 for Gods sake. Why haven’t they removed them before?” [Careful with giving such precise dates like this. It can be easier, but weaker writing. Perhaps find another way to give an idea of the current date.]
  • The foreman snorted and pulled on a pair of thick gloves [this would be a good time for him to spit]. He was a big, burly man, with a face marked from a life on the docks. His shoulders were more powerful than the kid’s, as was his back. [This information should be important at some point, or we don’t really need to know it, unless he is a main character.] “Our job is the clean-up. Get up there, you know how to work the machinery.” [No need for separate paragraph.]
  • The kid climbed up the crane. It gave him a tremendous feeling of power to look down on the foreman. One day he would take his girlfriend up here, and really show her … the view. The thought made him grin while he started the engine.
  • A few hours later they were down to the last layer of barrels, closest to the wall. The barge had made one trip to the landfill already, and was waiting for the last load. them at the pier.
  • The foreman kept a close eye on the barrels. He waved up to the kid, and the crane stopped its creaking rhythm. He bent over a barrel and peered looked closer at the metal hoops. He could clearly see rust, and he was unsure it if would hold. If the hoops broke, the contents – litres of putrefied brine and rotten herrings – would spill all over his feet.

Simply tightening the prose helps move the story along and keep the reader’s interest. You could tighten further by leaving out some of the parenthetical prose (such as the foreman’s build, and the young man’s plan to take his girl on the crane). You want to capture the reader instantly. Too much chatter, and you risk losing the reader.

As I said, though, that last line grabs my attention. I would keep reading.

My comments:

All Ann’s suggestions are on the money. Using detail to show the era, the location, and set the mood are all great. But tightening this page will strengthen it, for several reasons:

1. Cutting the fluff (which isn’t that thick or fluffy, to be sure) will let the characters, setting, and events shine more clearly. Especially in dialogue, cutting echoes and verbal fillers will distill the conversation to its essence.

2. This scene is a set-up for the main story. Whatever spills out of those barrels is going to cause a disturbance in the world of the novel. It’s going to be the inciting incident that kicks off the plot. I’m confident that this the purpose of the scene because:

  • The author effectively creates a mood of mystery and anticipation (the barrels are so old! Their age is strange! They hail from the dying days of one massive war, and are about to be opened in the first year of another!)
  • The stevedores are minor characters who will probably only appear in this scene. Why? Because they’re “the stevedores.” They’re “the foreman,” and “the kid.” They don’t have names. That’s fine. But when minor characters appear, especially at the beginning of a novel, be careful not to give them too much personality. One identifying characteristic will be enough. If you describe them in detail, and show us their habits, and put them in lively conversation, and hint at their love lives, then readers will expect that they’re going to stick around and matter to the plot. When they don’t, readers will feel disappointed.

So: let the dock workers do their part. Don’t over-build them. Give readers one quick glimpse at the foreman (burly, tobacco-spitting) and the kid (fit, eager, young enough to be surprised) and then pry open those barrels. I want to know what comes spilling out, and see how the stevedores react.

Good job!

Blast from the past: Five things I’ve learned from writing thrillers

Every now and then I re-post something from years past, for those who might not have seen it before. From May 2013: Five things I’ve learned from writing thrillers.

This is only the start of what should be a long, long list.

1. Chase scenes need to be extremely clear and visual, and even more emotionally powerful than they are on the screen. Readers don’t have the visceral sensory impact that they get from watching these scenes on a movie screen, so the writer has to make up for it by delivering other kinds of punches. And if a chase scene is going to excite readers — not just keep them from becoming bored, but excite them — it has to avoid every cliche and “standard” twist pulled from other chase scenes you’ve seen or read.

Bullitt is iconic. Try to duplicate it, and you’ll just write a cheesy, predictable knock-off.

2. The antagonist cannot be stupid. When I first set out to write a novel, I wanted to show the ignorance, selfishness, and cruelty of certain fundamentalist cults. So I decided to make fun of them — by making them absurdly, overtly moronic. The only problem was, ignorant and moronic people aren’t scary or dangerous opponents. Rewrite.

3. Explicit violence doesn’t make a book more frightening. Gore doesn’t necessarily up the tension. What does increase fear and tension is a threat that remains partially veiled in mystery — because readers’ imaginations will create terrors more frightening than I can portray. The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.

4. Heroes and heroines without weaknesses are boring. Because without weaknesses, a character is God. And God can swat aside any challenge as though flicking away a fly. There’s no genuine risk, no chance that such a character can be defeated. And where’s the fun in that? (See also: Kryptonite.)

5. If you want to vanish, faking your own death is about the worst strategy possible. So don’t try to make it look like a grizzly tore up your pup tent and dragged you into the forest. You’ll only get the Forest Service, CNN, and your friends combing the woods to find you. Wall-to-wall news coverage and smooth disappearances simply don’t go together.

Just so you know.

First-page critique: Pity the Living

Here’s a new first-page critique, of the British thriller Pity the Living. The page is below; my comments, and those of editor Ann Aubrey Hanson, follow.

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Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door and hesitated.  He glanced left and right. A few cars drove by, but there were few people on the street. He was a little surprised. This was a popular residential area, and he expected commuters and children to be heading out to work and school. He turned his attention back to the door and knocked, hard. Ten seconds seemed to be a reasonable time to wait for a response, but at three he was pulling out a key, its once sharp teeth smoothed by many years of wearing holes in pocket linings—some of them his. He tried to remember the last time he’d used it. Six years ago? Seven?

Craig pushed the key into the lock, the clicking of tumblers drowned out by the noisy squawk of Brighton’s seagulls. He glanced up and smiled. Those damn birds had probably started their morning racket with the rise of the sun, two hours earlier. The wooden door, swollen from years of neglect, squawked louder as he pushed it inwards. He hadn’t taken a step when the salt-fresh sea air was replaced by the unmistakeable stench of death. His stomach spasmed. He turned and threw-up the roadside breakfast-in-a-bun he’d eaten less than fifteen minutes earlier. His first thought was borne of pure shock, and he knew he’d forever associate it with this moment. That shit didn’t actually taste any worse the second time round.

Craig wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. The smell wasn’t one he ever wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.

Craig pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped over the threshold. He used his sleeved hand to push the door closed and stood for a moment, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom of the familiar hallway. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.

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My comments:

This page offers a good mix of anxiety, determination, and mystery. I like the way we sense that this is a story weighted with history, and that the author creates this atmosphere without dumping backstory onto the page. The history is going to be revealed organically, strategically, after Craig opens the door. The page tantalizes us with hints—about Craig’s background, both personal and professional, and about the surprise that awaits him inside the house.

The writing is extremely competent. This submission has no issues with grammar, usage, or tenses. This might sound like a minor compliment, but writing competently is a tall hurdle to clear. When professional readers come across clean, proficient prose, we cheer. And the author knows to start the story in the right place: just before the main character crosses an awful threshold into a world soaked with death.

My suggestions relate to sharpening the prose, and pacing revelations. The author is interlacing description amid the action. That’s a good impulse, but in places it slows the flow of the story and results in long, convoluted sentences. Some details might not matter to the story, and can be tightened.

Opening paragraph: the author can reshape or cut most of the middle sentences. “Craig stood in front of the faded hardwood door. He raised his hand to knock, and hesitated. He glanced left and right. [Why? Checking for surveillance?] The street was surprisingly empty. This was a popular, leafy neighbourhood, but no commuters were driving to work, no children heading to school. And nobody was watching him. He rapped on the door, hard. He tried to wait ten seconds, but after three he pulled out the worn key. When had he last used it? Six years ago? Seven?”

One thing to change: the parallelism in the structure of these paragraphs. Each one starts with “Craig.” It’s too much. Paragraph two:

“Overhead, seagulls squawked. Craig smiled. Those damn Brighton gulls had probably been at it since sunrise. He jammed the key into the lock and pushed the door open. Swollen from years of neglect, it squawked louder than the birds. Instantly, a stench hit him. It overwhelmed the salt-fresh air. His stomach spasmed. He spun and threw up his roadside breakfast. The smell permeating the house was unmistakeable. Death.”

End the paragraph with the hardest hitting revelation!

“He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His first thought, borne of pure shock, was: That shit didn’t taste any worse the second time around. His second: I’ll never forget that a puked-up breakast-in-a-bun is what I thought about at this moment. He turned back to the doorway. He breathed in through his nose, deeply. [Clarify why? Because the olfactory nerves soon go numb?] The smell was one he never wanted to get used to, but this wasn’t the first time he’d smelled death. Those times were different, though. This time it was personal. This time he knew whose rotting corpse was waiting for him.”

In the final paragraph, do you want to show his emotional state as the first seconds of shock give way to action?

“He pulled the sleeve of his jacket over his right hand and stepped across the threshold. [If he wants to avoid leaving fingerprints, would he wipe the lock?] He shut the door with his covered hand and stood. His eyes adjusted to the gloom of the familiar hallway. His heart didn’t. It pounded. The two doors on his left were closed, as was the bathroom door at the top of the stairs ahead of him. Cheap curtains with no lining hung limply across the window to the right of the bathroom door, but did a poor job of keeping the morning light out.”

This is a solid opening page—but if the book is going to be an action-oriented thriller, then soon—very soon, within the next few words—it’s time to instigate some action. I suspect that those closed doors might hide bad guys. I hope so. Because as soon as possible, it’s important to put Craig into a scene with other people. That’s where conflict, dialogue, and story really get rolling. Don’t leave your characters alone!

Thanks to the author for submitting this first page. Good luck!

Ann’s comments:

I am immediately pulled into the story. You have used the senses to set the stage and provide something more than just the bare outlines of action.

He walked to a door, knocked, waited, let himself in, and found a body—This is so much more than that! We smell the salt air, hear the birds, hear the tumblers, see the neglected wooden door, and then smell death, not specifically but knowing that it is bad enough to cause the narrator to heave. Excellent use of the senses!

The rhythm of the sentences is also outstanding. Whether read silently or aloud, the sentences slip off of the page without staccato or pause. Such a rhythm makes it easy to read.

Though you haven’t explained who Craig is or why he is there, but you’ve given us a lot to work on: the fact that he has been there before, numerous times, and the fact that he has a right to be there (he has the key). There is mystery, and a touch of suspense, but we immediately know that he has a right to be there, of one kind or another.

I like the breakfast-in-a-bun reflection too. Cleverly written, almost an aside.

I have no line-by-line specifics to correct. You’ve done a masterful job with sentence construction and punctuation.

Unlike Meg, I like the description worked into the opening. I don’t feel that this is an action-thriller, but will be more of a detective/mystery, in which such details can and should play such a part. It’s also a difference in taste between Meg and me. I like the detail. She can’t wait to jump off the ledge.

Well written and controlled. Keep going.

Cigarette + alcohol = you just blew up that car

One of this blog’s most popular posts ever is Cigarettes + gasoline = explosion?

[F]orensic fire experts at the ATF’s research laboratory have found that it’s almost impossible to set something, or somebody, ablaze with a lit cigarette, even when they’ve been doused in gasoline. Richard Tontarski investigated one of Hollywood’s favorite cliches and – surprise – found it wanting.

“[H]e and colleagues experimented. They dropped burning cigarettes into trays of petrol. They sprayed a fine mist of petrol at a lighted cigarette. They even used a vacuum device to produce the higher temperature (900-950C) of a cigarette being sucked. In more than 2,000 attempts the petrol did not ignite.”

This is the stuff we thriller writers need to know. It not only puts me at ease about playing with gasoline, but helps me get things right when planning my next fireball.

It seems that thousands and thousands of people are interested in this. I hope it’s because they want movies to be scientifically accurate and juries to know when a defendant is lying. In any case, here’s an update — and a warning: cigarettes and enclosed spaces drenched in rubbing alcohol do not mix.

Man Tries to Kill Bed Bugs, Blows Up Car Instead

[S]omeone had told Kemery that saturating bed bugs in alcohol would prove fatal to them.

It is just unfortunate that no one told him alcohol was flammable.

So Kemery soaked the bugs in alcohol.

Then he lit a cigarette.

Then the car exploded.

Video above.

First-page critique: The Neighbor

Ann Aubrey Hanson and I have decided to critique 10 first-page entries sent to us. All are unique, and each offers a different challenge for critiquing. Here’s number 3: The Neighbor. Our comments follow.

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Ten years ago she meets a neighbor. She never knew him entirely.  She walks the street hoping for more contact, which he doesn’t give.  He, only, smiles once, although she never forgets the embracing smells of cigarettes and whiskey. She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending. She considers him closer, seeing what her chances are for more. She smiles back.

Five years later he reappears, riding shotgun, arm and arm with a red Cadillac wheel and a chemical blonde in a Raggedy Ann dress. Skye still doesn’t know his name but upon seeing him and the chemical blonde, thinks, that’s what happened to him.

On a third occasion she’s cashier in a community bookstore. He walks into the bookstore. He doesn’t recognize Skye.

“We’ve met before, she said.

He thinks.

He leaves.

He comes back. He asks for her phone number, “I know you’ve given it to me before”, he says, “but can I have it again”?

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Ann’s Critique:

My first reaction is, what? This seems so disjointed. But upon second read, I find I am intrigued, and I think the author is actually in control. Now, I am curious about what comes next.

As to specifics:

I’m interested in these sentences: “Ten years ago she meets a neighbor,” and, “Five years later he reappears.” It seems to me that this “misuse” of tense is intentional. I’d have to read more to know for sure, but I suspect it will have play in the piece.

I’m not sure about the punctuation here: “He, only, smiles once, although she never…” Is he the only one to smile, or did he smile just that once? If the latter, then the sentence should be, “He smiles, once only, although she never…

“She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending.” Excellent line. This sets the reader up for a possible stalker situation, or at least, unrequited love.

““We’ve met before, she said.” Need a close quotation after before, and here you’ve switched up the tense. Again, intriguing, but if in error, be aware of that fact throughout the piece.

Finally, all punctuation should go inside the quotation marks in this piece. (Otherwise, colons and semicolons don’t go inside, but that’s another discussion.)

Overall, despite my initial reaction, I feel the writer is in control here (story-wise). I’d certainly read more.

My  critique:

My reactions parallel Ann’s. First read-through: Huh? The tenses and time shifts are all over the place. Second read-through: Huh. The author is shifting tenses in a deliberately edgy and controlled way, to pull us into the story with a contemporary, conversational voice.

This is both the story’s strength and a risk to its success. Readers who don’t give it a second read—that is, most readers—might feel confused. And if you confuse readers in the first few paragraphs, you’re likely to lose them. BUT—if this is aimed at a literary fiction market, where readers expect experimentation and word play, I think they’ll eagerly go along for the ride.

And I do suspect that this is a literary short story. At least, I hope so. Its concision, its quick half-scenes, give it a pace and momentum well-suited to short fiction. It really moves, in a series of rapid-cut snapshots. That gives us a lot to go on, and a lot to make us curious, in just 165 words.

If I’ve misread, and this is the opening to a novel, the mini-scenes will seem thin. But I don’t think this opening is meant to support another 90,000 words of story. In which case, keep it up—I want to know what happens with Skye and the neighbor.

(Ann has nailed all the punctuation and usage issues. Follow her advice.)

Thanks to the author for sending the page!