Monday, November 30, 2009

Perfect or good enough?

Patty here…

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name Voltaire wrote these words. Many people interpret the sentiment to mean that perfection is difficult if not impossible to achieve so at some point are forced to view our efforts as being good enough. My only question is how do we know when we’ve reached that point?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept lately and it was brought to mind again this past Saturday at a screening of the movie “That Evening Sun.” It’s the story of Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessee farmer who escapes the nursing home where he’s been living for the past three months and returns to the family farm only to discover that his son has leased the property to an old enemy without informing him.

The film was followed by a Q&A. Ed Harris interviewed the film’s star, Hal Holbrook.

At eighty-four and with over fifty years in show biz, Holbrook talked about how meaningful it was to shoot the movie in Tennessee, the setting in the book and also the home state of his wife, Dixie Carter.

Toward the end of the interview, Harris asked for questions from the audience. The last one of the evening went something like this: “Mr. Holbrook what inspires you to keep going after all these years?”

Holbrook had been charming and informative throughout the interview, but his face lit up and his passion bubbled to the surface. In a strong, clear voice, he said: “What keeps me inspired? That’s easy. All I ever wanted to be was a good actor."

This Oscar-nominated, Emmy and Tony award-winning thespian is certainly much more than a “good” actor to his legions of fans, but I noted with particular interest that he hadn’t said he wanted to be a legend, or an actor whose publicist booked him on a thirty-two city tour to promote the film, or even a rich actor.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Holbrook reiterated this point of view:

"… I have never thought of myself as being a star. I just wanted to be the best actor I could possibly be."

I was impressed that Holbrook is still working on his craft. He said thanks to Sean Penn’s direction in the film “Into the Wild,” something inside him became unplugged and he was able to use that newfound awareness for his role in “That Evening Sun.”

Even after I left the theatre, Holbrook’s words continued rumbling around in my head. Every day we all face the perfection versus good enough dilemma. A business executive wonders if she has time to tinker with a report due on her boss’s desk by ten. The artist adds brushstrokes to a painting that will never be finished. A writer massages her manuscript, sometimes to its detriment, before she is willing to send it out into the world, because she worries that “good enough” gives her premature permission to quit. If perfection is unattainable but we continue reaching for it, we end up unsatisfied. Worse yet, we never finish.

For writers, actors and others, as well, it’s easy to get caught up in the white noise surrounding our work—the reviews, the fans, the awards. It takes somebody like Hal Holbrook to talk us down, to remind us that it's really about the acting or the writing. At least it should be. Thanks, Hal. You unplugged something in me, so here goes, “All I want is to be the best writer I can possibly be.”

And by the way, you were way more than good in this film. You were perfect.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Joseph Wambaugh Hollywood Moon

James O. Born

First, happy Thanksgiving.

I like to write about completely different themes each week. I throw in a few columns on writing and books and occasionally like to mention writers I know. This week’s column shows what good taste I have. Oline Cogdill, widely considered the best critic on the scene today, agrees with my assessment of Joseph Wambaugh’s great new book Hollywood Moon.

Joe Wambaugh is one of the few people who I listen to in publishing and police work. He’s the king of all cops-turned-writers and has achieved a place in the literary world that few have attained. But enough of my hero worship.

This is what Oline Cogdill said in the Sun Sentinel about Hollywood Moon.

Veteran author Joseph Wambaugh weaves together several seemingly unrelated vignettes for a darkly comic, gritty look at street cops and identity thieves in Los Angeles.

In the last of his trilogy chronicling the goings-on in a Hollywood police station, Wambaugh balances Hollywood Moon's absurd situations with the horrible behavior of people who have little regard for others. But each scene – whether outlandish or poignant – has a sense of authenticity. Wambaugh's keen scenes of life on the streets permeate Hollywood Moon.

The cops who patrol the Hollywood streets are a mixed bag who, despite their quirks, are united in their respect for their job. Surfer cops Flotsam and Jetsam know the ocean as well as they do the streets; they can carry on a conversation in surfer-speak while collaring a suspect. Nate "Hollywood" Weiss would rather be in films but has found his greatest acting role as a cop. Wambaugh takes special care with his female cops – Dana Vaughn, Sheila Montez, Mindy Lang and Sgt. Miriam Hermann – to show how they cope with sexism among their colleagues and criminals. Each cop knows "there are real monsters out there" on the streets.

The myriad scenarios eventually come together in a plot about a credit-card scam run by a husband and wife – the domineering Eunice and her scheming husband, Dewey Gleason. Dewey uses the various teams of scam artists he employs as a chance to hone his acting skills, appearing as a different person to each set of criminals. Despite his prowess working with the low-level criminals, Dewey has not been able to find out where Eunice has stashed their money. Dewey's management skills begin to slip when two of his meth-addicted employees decide they want more money. Dewey and Eunice's enterprise takes another turn when he decides to bring in Malcolm Rojas, a teenager whose good looks help him cover up his seething anger.

Wambaugh pulls together Hollywood Moon's non-lineal plot in a believable story that also packs an emotional wallop at its finale.

In his 19th novel, Wambaugh continues to show how the job of being a cop affects each aspect of an officer's life, a track he has followed since The New Centurions in 1971.

Nicely said.

Here's a photo of me and Joe at Bouchercon in 2007.

Have you read any good books lately?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Guide

Since this is the eve of Thanksgiving, and since there are headlines (Tuesday) about Homeless programs that pass along nothing to the homeless, how about a thoughtful, well-researched group of articles by the Christian Science Monitor? Here's their ...

Giving Guide

... which is worth a look and bears consideration. The CSMonitor is an example of an award-winning newspaper learning to survive in the brutal world of journalism (a topic off-discussed here at Naked Authors). The Monitor, as I understand it, suspended the daily paper, but not daily reporting. It maintains the daily reporting at its website, and publishes a (nicely formated and meaty) weekly for subscribers. I don't know the paper's finances, but I respect its heritage of fine reporting and hope the new system allows it to stay in business. If a worthy business model, maybe other city papers and local papers could adopt something similar.

One thing is for sure (after spending two weeks in a car with Dave Barry, I learned a lot about this) unbiased journalism is in deep trouble. We are moving toward a society that gets its news from either "yellow" sources, or editorial-slanted reporting, ie Fox or MSNBC. Neutral, free-minded reporting is moving toward a non-profit business model -- NPR, PBS -- as corporations use their newpapers to push economic and political agendas. And that brings us back to the top of this blog: if you run your finger down the column on "% of donation reaches need," you'll see NPR is one of the highest in this category. "Let freedom ring," may come down to keeping non-profits like NPR alive and thriving.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Signposts: Looking Back at the Newspaper Business

I had a short, undistinguished career as a reporter at The Miami Herald and still have a warm spot in my heart for newspapers. You remember newspapers, right? One of my fellow journalism students at Penn State was today's guest blogger, Bill Epstein. Bill has worked in journalism, public relations, government affairs, and higher education. Currently, he is Director of Communications for the 23,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 in Pennsylvania. -- Paul Levine

By Bill Epstein...

Signposts. You can see them and know what they mean. Or you don’t know what they mean. Sometimes you don’t see them at all.

Just out of school in 1969, I started as a reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin. The first signpost I saw but didn’t understand was when I sat down to a typewriter that was three times as old as I was.

I remember thinking, wow, we had electric typewriters at the Penn State Daily Collegian. What’s wrong with this place?

My enlightenment came within a couple of weeks. I noticed a memo on the newsroom bulletin board that compared the monthly circulation figures of the Bulletin to those of its local rival, the Inquirer. Both newspapers had lost many thousands in circulation. But since the Inquirer had lost more, the Bulletin’s managers had titled the memo “We Won!”
Some victory.

Next month, new memo from the managers. Again, both newspapers lost circulation, but the Bulletin lost less. “Good News,” read the conclusion. “We won.” And so on for a third month.
By now I’m thinking that I’ve nailed this signpost. This is no strategy for long-term business success.

Within a short time I found myself with an opportunity for a different way to earn a paycheck. Having little in the way of financial responsibilities and it being the right time in life to take a risk, I put my journalism career on hold in favor of joining a political campaign. I remember my green-eyeshaded city editor saying to me as he puffed on his cigarette, “You shouldn’t do this, kid. You have a future here at the paper.”

His words came back to me 10 years later when the Bulletin folded and put 2,000 people out of work. I was glad and lucky that I wasn’t one of them. His words came back to me again, just weeks ago, when my son, Matthew, got married. At the wedding I was talking to one of his 30-something friends and former colleagues who works for a western Pennsylvania newspaper. Yes, eight years ago my son did the same thing I did. He came out of school and went into the newspaper business. Go figure. Four years ago he again did the same thing, leaving the business in favor of law school.

So Matt’s friend tells me that conditions at his newspaper are no different than at just about every other newspaper, magazine or radio and television station in the country. Advertising down. Staff being laid off. People being asked to do more with less. Lots of new, uncomfortable realities, and no certainty of survival.

Here’s a guy in an industry that’s not likely to offer jobs at the Harrisburg Patriot News or Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for people at smaller newspapers anytime soon. Big difference from the day 40 years ago when I finished a paid summer internship at the Bulletin and that same city editor told me that I had job as soon as I graduated in 10 months.

I felt badly that I couldn’t offer my son’s friend some good advice. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to understand the signposts, and, sadly, they’re a lot easier to read now.
Any signposts you’ve missed, or, better yet, saw and understood?

--Bill Epstein

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ever have one of those days?

Patty here…

I should have known that spontaneity sometimes ends in disaster. Last Wednesday was a crazy day. I had a physical therapy appointment at 10:00 a.m. After that, I raced to my volunteer job at the local police station where I worked for an hour or so before rushing to Marina del Rey to have lunch with a friend who was passing through the area. Later, back at the station, one of the officers asked me if, due to a shortage of contestants, I could participate in a chili cook off the following day.

I vaguely remembered making chili once before. It wasn’t brain surgery, just meat and beans, so what could go wrong? I had to be at a meeting in the Fairfax district that night from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., but surely I had enough time to do the chili fandango before ten the next morning.

However, later when I looked through my cookbooks, the chili recipes seemed more complicated than I remembered. Nevertheless, if I was going to be up all night cooking, so be it. After all, my word is my bond.

First, I zipped to the grocery store to buy the ingredients, a page and a half of exotic stuff like pasilla chilies, which I’d never heard of before. The recipe called for Eureka beer with an asterisk that said if Eureka wasn’t available, any dark beer would do.

Not surprising, Joe Albertson didn’t have Eureka beer, so I scanned the refrigerated cases for an alternative. I’m not that familiar with dark beers so I grabbed a six-pack of Guinness and flew to the checkout counter.

At home, I began to chop and dice in a race against the clock. So much food was flying, I’m still finding remnants of Serrano chilies ground into the grout of my kitchen tiles. The dried beans were supposed to soak overnight, but who had time for that? I threw them in a pan with water and willed them to soften because, rain or shine, those babies were going on the stove when I got home from my meeting at nine.

By 5:15, I had poached, pureed, and pounded according to directions. I threw the first phase ingredients, including three bottles of the Guinness beer, in the pot to simmer for a couple of hours. I hate to leave anything cooking on the stove when I’m not at home but duty called. I had to make that meeting.

It took me forty-five minutes to creep through rush hour traffic to the Farmer’s Market. I arrived five minutes early, just in time to jog into World Market to buy some soap I didn’t need in order to get a break on the parking fee. I plopped the soap in my purse—no time for a bag—and bolted for the meeting room, arriving just as the clock struck six.

No one was there.

I waited ten minutes before searching the lower level to see if the group had moved the meeting downstairs. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Where were they? Finally I thought, Screw it. Chili waits for no man or meeting. If I darted through traffic, I could get home in time to start the next phase of the recipe and maybe get some sleep before the roosters crowed. (The next day I learned they had changed the meeting date without telling me.)

Decision made, I ran back to my car. In another forty-five minutes, I was home and ready to begin part two of the recipe. There were some questionable instructions, such as add a “bunch” of cilantro. A cup I understand, but how much is a bunch? The “bunch” I’d purchased at the market was a lot of cilantro, but was it too much? Yes. I opted for a “hand full” instead of a “bunch.” I put the beans on the stove to cook for two hours, poured myself a Guinness, and sat down for a little R&R while watching “Glee.” Glee was great. The Guinness was—how can I say this without betraying my Irish roots?—a little bitter.

Just before midnight, I combined the two halves of the chili and tasted it. It was awful!!! Not inedible, but unpleasantly bitter. So much for Guinness as a beer substitute. Now what? I considered throwing the whole mess away but the ingredients cost $55.00. Besides, it was a lot of chili to dispose of. What if my garbage disposal overheated and caused an electrical grid failure. I’d be responsible for a blackout population explosion. I couldn’t flush the stuff down the toilet. All those jalapeño peppers surging through the underground sewer system producing heat and friction might cause nuclear winter. My brain was exploding. I decided to sleep on the decision.

Nevertheless, I didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and considered my options:
  • Starting all over, cooking through the night if necessary
  • Admitting failure and bowing out of the cook off
  • Buying chili from a restaurant and passing if off as mine
  • Putting a mea culpa apology next to the crock pot
  • Adding salt
SALT! Salt masks myriad cooking fiascos. I got up and threw some saline into the brew. The chili was better but still not good. Deflated and depressed, I went back to bed, hoping the concoction would mellow overnight.

The following morning after more hand wringing, I decided to suck it up and enter my chili in the contest. I dropped the crock pot off at the station, surrounding it with bowls of sour cream, chopped onions, and jack cheese hoping accoutrements would disguise the bitter taste. When I returned later that day, I tiptoed upstairs anticipating bodies writhing on the floor in gastrointestinal distress, moaning, “Number eight did it.” My breathing was shallow as I entered the cook-off room. It was empty. No bodies. No yellow crime scene tape. No arrest warrant with my name on it. There was lots of leftover chili in other pots but my chili was gone, which meant only one thing: Somebody must have thrown it away. I sniffed the trashcans for the co-mingled odors of Guinness and jalapeños but found no evidence to support my theory. I blew out a huge Whew! Somebody—actually lots of somebodies—ate my chili and didn’t die. There was much to be thankful for.

I didn’t win the cook-off but I have a year to find a chili recipe that works because next year I’m going to win that freakin contest. It’s the least I can do to make amends. All edible chili recipes welcomed.

So, you ever have one of those days?

Chili Monday!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Writing At The Cellular Level

from Jacqueline

As you probably all know by now, I spend a lot of time with my two horses, Oliver and Sara. They’re like chalk and cheese – Oliver is young, sturdy, happy to watch the world go by, whereas Sara is a workaholic, and having been laid off due to injury, is now dancing on her toes to get back to work. In my dressage training – kind of like ballet for horses – I look for parallels in my work as a writer. It’s not such a big leap, actually, because dressage demands a deep level of attention and communication that is mirrored in that “zone” I can go into when I am writing. So since last week, when I took that communication to another level with my horses, I have been wondering what that might mean to the creative process of writing.

It’s very easy to get into a bit of a rut with riding, especially when you get on a horse or two every day, and you’ve only so much time to spend at the barn. I’ve always made a point of spending time with my horses, just running my hands over their backs, stroking them and talking to them, so they know I’m not there to just saddle up, ride ’em and then lead them back to their stalls, or to the paddock. But sometimes I feel like a bad mother, at those times when I do have to just get in, get the job done and zoom back to the computer. I sometimes feel like that with my writing when a deadline is looming, forgetting my father’s advice that “you never push the boat out without that final coat of paint.” With all that in mind, last week I attended a five day course in “equine touch” taught by the amazing Linda Tellington-Jones. You may have heard of her – she pioneered the “Tellington Touch” a form of massage (though that’s not a completely accurate description) that can impact behavior in animals. She’s been on TV many times, and the outcome of her methods, when practiced with care, can be mind-boggling.

The course was taught on a ranch close to the small town of Bodega (The Birds was filmed there), amid the rolling hills of Sonoma County. Each day I drove out there and felt as if I were back in England, the landscape is reminiscent of Wiltshire or Dorset. Thomas Hardy would have been at home. Then the work began – and we were in at the deep end immediately, with Linda and her assistant trainers not only demonstrating, but following us as we went to work ourselves. Each horse presented us with challenges, demanding we get to know them and understand how THEY felt about what was going on, and what we were asking them to do. The learning was as deep as the touch – yet the range of “touches” were, for the most part, light, executed with grace and intention. In a short time the stubborn horse became willing, the scared became brave and that young hell-raiser became a gentleman – all as a result of intention, attention, and touch. I expected the learning curve to be significant, but what I didn’t expect was the spiritual impact of the work upon all gathered, and the way the horses seemed to move around us – and that surprises me, because I have always been aware of the “otherness” of horses, even when I am working up a sweat trying to get Oliver to canter with ease!

Each day I drove home wondering about my writing process, and what I might apply. And I think it’s this – that in some ways it is easy to skim over the surface, see the deadline approaching and go for it, words on the page, as fast as you can. Or you can get stuck, and forget to keep the fingers moving, light on the keyboard as the story unfolds. We let unwanted thoughts hamper our progress, and sometimes that great demon, self-criticism. With horses there has to be an honesty in communication, and I think that goes for writing too.

I wondered how, if what I learned while working with the horses was about effecting change at the cellular level, deepening the relationship from that point (oh, and thrown in that big word “trust” from there), then how do I do that with my writing? I don’t have the answers to my own questions, but here’s where I’ve arrived at, thus far, in my deliberations. That each day it’s important for me to do some reflection before I set to work. As a professional writer, it’s my job to get to work, hit the page and get going on the next installment of the story – but I can linger a bit before I start, set my intention for the day’s work. I can reflect on what I know, what I have written, about the characters, and I can ask myself a range of questions about the authenticity of communication – how do I make all this more real for the reader? What can I bring to the page that both deepens the story, my engagement in that story, and keeps it moving (keep the fingers moving)? But I think the lesson really comes into its own in the rewriting process, when the clay is on the wheel and it’s time to get in there and lick it into shape. One little technique I started to use a couple of years ago, was to put certain words, sentences and paragraphs into boxes, outlined so that they were separated from the herd, so to speak. Then I would consider what was in the box, and how I could improve the image that my word, sentence or paragraph was communicating. I didn’t do it very often, which is surprising as it really worked well and gave me a sense of slipping under the skin of the story.

Elizabeth George says that, “Character is Plot, Plot is Character.” So how do we render our characters even more authentic? How do we get to know them a little bit better, and how do we draw in our reader with that knowledge? That’s another “cellular level” question. I think there are many more.

As you can see, I’m rolling this one around in my mind, asking how I engage with the process of writing, of crafting a story, at a deeper level? I only have a hoof-ful of answers, but I am sure that some of you have your own responses to that question. I’d love to hear them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Murder and Mayhem - Jordan Style

James O. Born

I spent this last weekend and lovely Muskego, Wisconsin, at a library event called Murder and Mayhem in Muskego. Penny Halle organizes the event for the library system and does a great job. I had been invited almost a year ago and looked forward to the event even though I knew my flight home on Sunday would conflict with the Dolphins -- Buccaneers game. God bless my DVR.

Anyway, I got a chance to visit a place I'd never been before – Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, it was about what I expected. It seemed smaller and quieter than Chicago, but still had an interesting very un-Florida vibe. The weather was quite mild, dropping to a low in the 50s, which is not what a redneck from Florida wants to see. I wanted snow. Lots and lots of snow. But I got a good taste for the area and the people.

The real reason for this blog is to talk about a couple people I know who are so important to the mystery writing community that words can't accurately express how I feel. I was met at the airport by Judy Bobalik. Judy was one of the first people I ever met in the world of crime fiction at a Sleuthfest in 2004. She lives a couple hours away from Milwaukee and managed to tote me and C.J. Box around with great skill and a few laughs. Mostly at my expense.

The couple who organize this event for the writers are legends. Jon and Ruth Jordan rock. I'm not sure really need to say anything else. Maybe I'll add their house rocks too. Floor to ceiling books, all signed to them and DVDs of virtually every interesting TV show ever to play on television. I now understand how Crimespree magazine gets published.

Ruth has a unique way of making you feel like you're the most important person in the world when you're with her. I did not want to leave their house, where they held an impromptu group breakfast on Sunday morning, despite the lure of a prerecorded Miami Dolphins football game.

Jon is a pop culture dictionary with everything from one-hit wonder rock stars from the 80s to directors of action TV shows from the 90s stored in his noggin for easy access. Jon is a smart, upbeat, fun guy who people just gravitate toward.

Put these kind of people together with a few crime writers and it is one kick ass weekend. I think the photos pretty much speak for themselves. Except for the one where I'm wearing C.J. Box’s cowboy hat on the back of my head. It is not a fashion statement. Mr. Box’s head is the approximate diameter of the Girl Scout’s head.

As a reader or writer what sort of events do you get to like to attend?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Flip Out

Flip Video:

You will never have more fun shooting video than with a Flip camera. Dave and I were loaned a pair of vid cams by Disney for our road trip, and found them to be a blast.

If you haven't tried one... get down to Best Buy.

Log Jam:

In thinking about the demands put on Internet. Not only is video and audio clogging up the bandwidth, but something much less noticeable and therefore more insidious: your e-mail. When you hit REPLY and return an e-mail, unless the content is critical, DELETE the prior email threads. Hundreds of millions of us spend zillions of bytes sending long threads of e-mails back and forth, 90% of which was yesterday's message. Delete it first! This is where TXTing is so efficient -- it's only the current message that gets sent.

Lee Child:

For me, the debate is all but over. All of us who write suspense, we hope we deliver fast, well-written, gripping fiction. We spend our lives trying to make it the best it can be. But -- and I'm sorry for Paul and me that I have to say this -- there's one clear "best." It's Lee Child. He's simply the "it" writer right now. (He has been near the very top for me for a good while.) Maybe the best for a long time to come. "Hoist up the John D. sails." He will join those ranks someday. He's that good. If you have somehow missed the books of this #1 selling author, try this one:

Mind boggling how RIGHT he gets it. But watch out: you go through Lee's books like chocolates in a box. Hard to keep your hand out.

From Ridley

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Downside of Murder

from James Grippando

I killed a boy. And with apologies to Katy Perry, I didn't like it.

No, I'm not talking about Paul. He's just taking the day off after hoofing all over the Miami Book Fair this past weekend, and I'm filling in. I'm talking about the angst every writer feels when the time comes to knock off a character you really, really like. I'm there.

I remember how I felt as a teenager, watching "The Godfather." Of course, that was the kind of story in which anyone could buy it at any moment. Even so, I practically went into mourning over the death of Sonny (James Caan) when he pulled up to that toll booth and looked like a bloody magnet for machine-gun fire.

I'm about halfway through the first draft of my 2011 release. It's a Jack Swyteck novel (this will be #9 in the series), so there are plenty of recurring characters. I outline my plots to a point, but there are always twists and turns that come in the writing. Yesterday, it occurred to me that it was the end of the road for someone who has known Jack for over fifteen years.

Of course I'm not going to tell you who it is. We talk about the writing process here, not plot spoilers. (And if anyone writes to tell me that I spoiled the Godfather for them by saying that Sonny dies, I'm going to kill you in my next novel).

Killing off a character you like can be tough work. Is it the story that dictates? Or, as a writer, do you consider how fans will react. Or do you even put it out there for a vote, the way readers got to vote on whether Batman should have a sidekick? We all know how that worked out for poor Robin.

Years ago in Esquire magazine I read an interview of William Goldman, who wrote the amazing screenplay for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." That final scene where Butch And Sundance make a desperate run for it, guns blazing, is one of the longest sentences ever written into a screenplay.

Goldman's explanation (as I recall) was that he was killing off his heroes, damn it, and he didn't want you to lift your eyes and look away. I guess I can relate on some level. No, I'm not killing off Butch and Sundance, but when a character has been around for fifteen years (even if he isn't a major character), you feel the pain. It's the downside of murder. Now you know there is one.

Paul will be back next week!

Monday, November 16, 2009


Patty here…

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is a made up word used to describe something fabulous that surprises and delights, or as "Mary Poppins" suggested in the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, it is "something to say when you don't know what to say."

Having nothing to say was not at issue this past Friday when I went to a stage performance of “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson Theatre, staring the fabulous Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee.

I remember the hype when the Disney movie came out, but I never saw the film, so I was surprised to read in the program that the story is based on books written by Aussie author P.L. Travers.

According to a 2008 article in the U.K. Telegraph written when the musical began touring:

[P.L.Traver’s] story – which was to continue over the course of eight books – revolves around a household in the Depression, whose inhabitants are also somewhat depressed. True, Mrs Banks is not suicidal, and Mr Banks is not an alcoholic, but the family nevertheless reveals some of the same strains as the author's own childhood. There are four children – Jane, the eldest, then Michael, the twins and a baby on the way – and although there are servants ('Mrs Brill to cook for them, and Ellen to lay the tables'), chaos is always close at hand.

When Mary Poppins arrives, she is 'a shape… in the gathering darkness', picked up by the wind and blown to the front door: 'the watching children heard a terrific bang, and as she landed the whole house shook.' Once inside, she immediately reveals her magical powers – sliding up the banisters towards the nursery and pulling a vast number of accoutrements out of an apparently empty carpet bag – yet this Mary Poppins is far more troubling than Julie Andrews in the Disney film. She is vain and imperious, takes offence at the mildest questioning, doses the children with a mysterious potion and leads them into danger as often as she rescues them. But her authority is absolute: 'you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.'

[Mary Poppins] performs a miraculous healing of a troubled family. Disney had turned Mrs Banks into a suffragette – much to Travers' annoyance – and Mackintosh [the producer of the stage version] has Mr Banks being fired by the bank after a risky investment decision; in both versions Mary Poppins makes the parents realise what truly matters – their children, above all else – and domestic harmony is restored, so that the nanny can depart, leaving mother safely at home with the family and father reinstated at work.

This is where we were meant to feel warm and fuzzy, I suppose. All problems are solved and Mary Poppins ascends into the Heavens like the guardian angel she is, presumably floating in the clouds ready to help the next hopelessly dysfunctional family find truth and happiness.

Only I wasn’t ready for Mary to leave, which—to my surprise—produced some tear duct activity. After the raucous standing ovation had faded and the audience began filing out the door, I tried to analyze why I felt as if I was a baby bird that had been pushed too soon from its nest and unable to fly.

Mary’s role as a teacher/guide through difficult times made me reflect on mentors in my past. I was fortunate to have had a writing mentor who guided, pushed, and prodded me to keep working on my craft, but even after four published novels and a couple of short stories, I still wish I could show her every manuscript I write. In my defense I could say it’s because writers should never stop learning and experimenting and feedback is part of the process. Still, I wonder if insecurity is to blame. Truth is, every student/mentor relationship changes over time. We can’t be students forever. Or can we?

Mentor Monday!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Loving Now

from Jacqueline

I do wish there was an antidote to jet-lag. I have been traveling across broad time-zones since I was twenty years old, and I have tried just about every remedy for jet-lag known to man or woman, and I still suffer. It takes me about five days to feel as if I am out of the fog

It’s a funny old thing, hindsight. I often wonder if I would have made my home here in America if I had truly considered the practicalities of my parents growing old in the country I had left behind. They were only in their mid-sixties when I left, and they were two of the most energetic and vital people I had ever met. In fact, up until a year ago, the only really big worry about their health was my mother’s minor stroke three years ago – but I was traveling back to the UK as often as I could, just to make sure. Maybe things would be easier if it wasn’t just me who had made the decision to “Go West.” My brother also lives here in California, which means my parents have both adult children living 6000 miles away. Frankly, they would not have it any other way – they were of the opinion that America was a good place to be, and if they’d had the chance when they were young, they’d have jumped at it. And we’ve been lucky, to be sure – they’ve visited at least once a year for the past eighteen or so years, which means we’ve seen a fair bit of each other. In fact, one of my mother’s friends pointed out that my parents see me more than she sees her daughter who lives only an hour away. But in the past year both parents have suffered deep emotional pain with the loss of their own siblings and friends, and they have gone through periods of illness themselves. Now each time I visit they seem to be a little more elderly, and it scares the heck out of me.

Many others have written about the problems associated with having elderly parents, so I’ll try not add too much to that particular canon here, but one of the challenges has been in getting my parents to move from their home to something a bit more manageable, and at least closer to a bus route (the over-sixties get free bus travel in the UK). I’d like them to be in one of the local villages, instead of halfway along a narrow country lane, and it would be great if they were closer to the hospital, just in case. But even as my suggestions turned into pleas over the past few years, I was always met with a wall of, “We know what we’re doing.” Then, about five weeks ago, as my dad was clearing away some old undergrowth in the garden, he stepped into a wasps’ nest, and was badly stung. Within hours his leg had become very swollen and he finally went to the emergency room (my mother drove him there – she who was so ill a couple of months ago). By the time I arrived in the UK at the end of October, he could barely walk, and definitely not without a cane. There was an improvement during my visit, so last week I took my parents out for the day, and Dad was able to hobble into a restaurant for lunch. When we arrived home, my parents went into the house while I gathered some shopping from the car. Within seconds I heard my mother shouting, so I ran into the house – to find my father on the floor where he had tripped over, hitting his head against the edge of a shelf on the way down. My mother could not help him to his feet, so she was panicking. Fortunately, I was there. It wasn’t a bad fall, in the grand scheme of things, but it could have been. After I’d tended to the small cut on my father’s forehead and applied ice to a growing bump, we sat down at the kitchen table and had a cup of tea. “So, how many more warnings do you need?” I asked. “What would you have done if ....” They looked at each other. “We would have managed,” they agreed.

So, with all that, you can imagine I was glad to have had a few days away in the middle of the trip! I usually go to visit friends at some point during these pilgrimages back to see my parents, but this time I thought I would treat myself to something a little more, well, European. One of the things I most miss about living in Europe, is the fact that you can get to just about anywhere else in Europe within an hour or two. I was thinking about that back in September, and at the same time saw an article about the love affair between British writers and Venice. Hmmm. I’m a British writer, and by some error of planning, I had never been to Venice. On a whim I hit and within an hour had booked flights and hotel. Four days, three nights – just me zoning out in Italy. Benissimo. Then, with two weeks to go, I thought I would ask my cousin Sue if she’d like to come with me. It took her just 24 hours to rearrange her schedule for those days, and last week, off we went to Venice. I should add that I hadn’t spent any significant time with Sue since we were kids, and she’s the only cousin I had ever had a knock-down - drag-out fight with when we were both about nine. As it happened, Sue really needed the break. She works in the realm of child protection – not for the faint-hearted – so it was good for her to get away. The weather wasn’t fantastic, but it was fine, and we had a blast..

It was while we were on a boat tour of the city that Sue exclaimed, “Oh, I love this. I love being here, all this beauty ... I mean, I love now.”

And I thought about that phrase. It seemed to say so much more than all those books that talk about the “present moment.” The thought of being able to “love now” kept coming back to me in those final few days with my parents before I flew back to California. At a time when the past is a more comfortable default setting for them (especially when I bring up the issue of moving), creating opportunities to love now – and occasions to remember, in time – has become all important.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A tough opinion to hold

James O. Born
I thought long and hard about this post before I wrote it. I tend to keep things light and easy to balance out the tougher days I have at work. Even my novels reflect things that I would like to be able to do as a police officer as opposed to things that really happen. Jim Grippando's post last Friday talked about a horrible event that had occurred down here in South Florida where one teenager was set on fire by a group of other teenagers. I look at crime trends across the country and realize things like this can happen virtually anywhere. It doesn't change the fact that crazy and nasty things happen in South Florida all the time.

I rarely take specific law enforcement positions on the blog because, frankly, I don't like debating people on opinions which took me years to reach based on actual contact with criminals and victims. Too often I’ve had people tell me what's wrong with police work or the criminal justice system when their only experience is reading newspapers or watching TV shows. I'm not saying police departments or the criminal justice system are perfect, clearly they are not. But contrary to what some people might think, everyone involved in that system from the cop on the beat to the underpaid public defender to the judge who could make more money in private practice, generally try to do their very best.

The reason I bring this up is that I saw a short news story on the same incident that Jim reported on last Friday. The young men who assaulted and burned the victim were going to be charged as adults. It is not uncommon for teenagers to be charged as adults in particularly heinous crimes. This occurred up here in Palm Beach County last year when a gang of youths broke into a woman's apartment, raped her and terrorized her and her young son for an entire night.

Anyone who's read this blog for any amount of time would probably not call me an extremist on either side (although I do admit to watching Chris Matthews every night) but this is an issue which my experience has taught me to be just as hard-core as possible. This is an opinion born of sorrow, fear and all the other base emotions which legislative powers have attempted to keep out of the courtroom since the country was founded.

I am in favor of charging teenagers as adults in vicious, violent crimes. That's it. I have no real flexibility in this personally. People will often try to talk me out of this position and, as I stated earlier, I'm not interested in a debate. Since this is a blog and not a debate I can state my reasons and you can accept them or ignore them as you please.

Advocates talk about charging teenagers as adults affecting their lives in a negative way. I do not deny that. But the second half of that equation is the need to protect citizens who are not prepared for the violence that some of these criminals are capable of. By letting teenagers slide for violent crime that shocks us and goes far outside the normal boundaries of society we are allowing them to return to walk among our own children who have not made the same choices they have. In my experience I have found that there is very little that can be done to turn around young people who have found it in themselves to use violence on a level that gets them charged as an adult. I would greatly prefer to protect young people who are working hard in school and trying to make a life for themselves than to release vicious criminals back into society prematurely.
Before I start getting e-mails I want to say that I am in no way infringing on a person's rights. I do not condone arresting the wrong people, though it happens, manufacturing evidence or forcing witnesses to make untrue statements. I am simply saying that charging young people as adults is more beneficial than it is detrimental to society in certain cases. Everyone knows an exception. An ambitious prosecutor who wants TV time. I’m talking about cases like the burning down here in Florida. There are a lot of instances where teenagers should be charged as adults. Society is changing and we need to stay ahead of the curve whether it’s intervention before they go off track so wildly or insuring that they don’t go it a second time..

I am not happy that I've been forced to take a position like this. I've been involved with young people in sports, our church, schools and in writing programs. I like being around young people and appreciate their views and optimism. It distresses me that depriving a young person of their freedom is ever necessary. But based on what I have experienced, it is.

Let the rancor fly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walt Disney World

The book tour (Peter and the Sword Of Mercy) continues as Dave (Barry) arrives to St. Louis for an event at the County Library tomorrow night (Thursday). We pack off to Walt Disney World for Friday and Saturday, where we do 10 hours of signings in two days. And, of course, we sometimes are asked to wear...


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jake Lassiter: Back in the Courtroom

From Paul Levine...

I'm exhausted!

Just shipped the new Jake Lassiter manuscript to my editor. First Lassiter novel since "Flesh & Bones" in 1997.

What a pleasure to speak in the voice of the linebacker-turned-lawyer. (Also back to first-person narration). The new book -- working title "Lassiter," how clever is that? -- will be published in 2010, the 20th anniversary of the first one, "To Speak for the Dead." That one was adapted into an NBC movie, which aired as a two-hour pilot in 1995. The series, alas, was not picked up, and that house in Malibu just went down the drain.

It will be the eighth novel featuring the hard-boiled lawyer who readily admits: "They don't call us sharks for our ability to swim."

Okay, here's the opening:

"It was the best of times. On the other hand, it wasn't so hot."

Nah, just joking around.

Here's the first line:


Okay, okay. Here it is for real:

I was cross-examining a cop when the tall, slender woman in a blonde wig and oversize sunglasses slunk into the courtroom and ducked into the back row of the gallery.

According to my computer, there are 9,158 other sentences, and they average 9 words each, though one sentence has 54 words. (I'd like to find that sentence, take it outside, and shoot it).

What's the book about? A missing porn star. A D.A. with a dirty secret. An aging mobster with ties to pre-Castro Cuba. Sex toys. A murder. A trial. Mayhem in Miami. And Jake Lassiter, the bull who crashes the China shop of the legal system.

More later on Lassiter...

I'm off this week to Florida for the Miami Book Fair.
A panel Saturday, a signing Sunday...and stone crabs Friday at Joe's.

Paul Levine

Monday, November 09, 2009

Knitting for Writers

Patty here…

I have a soft spot in my heart for Eugene Barstok, a character in my Tucker Sinclair series. A better friend I could not imagine. He’s loyal to a fault even when it challenges his fragile psyche. Eugene grew up with a hypercritical mother and an overbearing father so he has his issues. At the urging of his therapist, he began knitting, hoping to achieve tranquility in his life.

As for me, I started knitting in my twenties and only recently picked up the needles again, knitting this pair of socks. I'm working on a sweater at the moment.

Almost every yarn shop in Los Angeles offers Stitch and Bitch sessions where women gather to talk trash and manipulate yarn, but I prefer the click click click of wooden needles in the silence of my own space. Like Eugene, counting rows and stitches is my meditation.

Before you dismiss knitting as a girly-girl pastime, check out these famous knitters.

Joan Crawford girly-girl? There's a coat hanger somewhere that screams no.

Madame Therese Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, the 1859 novel by Charles Dickens. If you recall, she was the wife of a French wine shopkeeper who knitted as the heads of aristocrats rolled from the guillotine, stitching a new hit list with every slice of the blade. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy person.

If truth be told, men invented knitting. Who do you think made all those fishing nets?

Here are a couple of guys who knit.

President Franklin Roosevelt with wife Eleanor

Rosey Grier, former football player for Penn State and the L.A. Rams

And—NEWS FLASH! Men still knit.

For me, knitting is something creative to do when I’m not writing. And it’s fun. The holidays are almost here and I’ve been thinking about gifts I could made for my fellow Nakeds.

For Our J, a teacup cozy.

Or blankets for Sara and Oliver.

For Paulie, a wine bottle cover for that special dinner party. Rumor is he’s a great cook.

For Ridley, a case for his new iPhone so he can avoid scratching it as he dictates his next novel while on the road for his latest one.

For James G, a cushion for his writing chair. He works outside in his backyard and that chair of his doesn’t look all that comfortable.

For James O, a knitted cover for his gun.

And for our Naked readers, book covers for all!!!

Knitting. Are you man enough to try it?

k1, p1 Monday!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

South its Worst

from James Grippando

I had my light-hearted-TGIF-subbing-for-Jackie piece all ready to post when I saw the latest headline in the Miami Herald. It gave me a sick feeling inside.

According to a report issued by the sheriff's office, a pair of charred dolls were found floating in the pool of a Deerfield Beach home. When it comes to criminal activity, the south Florida community isn't easily shocked. This despicable act, however, was the grim exclamation point to a bigger story that has shocked even the most jaded cops (not to mention crime fiction writers).

The aforementioned Deerfield home belongs to the Brewer family. On October 12, the Brewer's fifteen-year-old son was cornered by a group of bullies from his middle school. He owed one of the boys some money for a video game. He couldn't pay. So five boys tackled him, held him on the ground, and doused him with rubbing alcohol. One of the older boys lit the match. Afterward, he told the police: "I wanted to see what would happen."

Michael suffered burns on over 65% of his body. He saved himself by jumping in a pool at an apartment complex. A woman came to his aid and called 911. The Miami Herald posted the 911 emergency call on its website. In the background, you can hear Michael screaming. It's one of the most disturbing things I have ever listened to.

It's expected to take months for Michael to recover from his wounds. I guess throwing charred dolls into the family's swimming pool while he suffers in a hospital bed is someone's idea of a side-splitting joke. Or maybe it's some kind of warning or statement by a gang. I don't which it is, but how much can this family endure?

Crime writers from south Florida often say--sometimes with a smile--that there is never a shortage of material down here. Today, I'm not smiling.

Jackie will be back from London next week. Hopefully with some good news.

P.S. If you'd like to help Michael Brewer, online donations are accepted at or Checks can be made out to Neighbors 4 Neighbors Family Fund with Michael Brewer's name in the memo line, and mailed to 8900 NW 18th Terrace, Miami, FL 33172.

Guys I like and don't like

James O. Born
Guys I like:

Guys I don't Like:

What about you?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Party On, Dave and Ridley

From the desk of Paul Levine...

NOW THIS IS A BOOK PARTY! Tons of fun Sunday night at former L.A. Mayor Dick Riordan's home. The Mayor is a GREAT reader. How great? His sprawling, Spanish-style Brentwood hacienda has a 40,000 volume library. (The food and libations were first rate, too). Riordan is an old friend of our pal Dave Barry, so he played host to Dave and fellow naked scribbler Ridley Pearson. The boys are on the road with their latest Peter Pan prequel: "Peter and the Sword of Mercy."
You can catch Dave tonight on Craig Ferguson's "Late, Late, Show" along with Valerie Bertinelli, whose major talent seems to be remaining cheerful and bubbly while losing weight.

"Peter..." is going gangbusters. Here's my review, and you can quote me:

"Peter and the Sword of Mercy" is the BEST BOOK EVER to open in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany in the year 811, and then jump to England's Isle of Wight in 1901.

I'll be hanging out at Miami Book Fair International next week. Doing a panel Saturday the 14th with Richard Belzer ("I Am Not a Psychic!") and Jeff Lindsay ("Darkly Dreaming Dexter").

PARENTING 101: Kate Gosselin says her 2/3 of a dozen brood is suffering because of the marital split. I'm guessing it doesn't help a lot to go on the TODAY show as much as possible to whine about it.

DEAR SARAH PALIN: Her editor scribbles notes on the former Gov's memoir: "'Mexican' is not a language." Har! Okay, so it's Carl Hiaasen, not her editor. His column can be found in what's left of The Miami Herald.

Paul Levine

Monday, November 02, 2009

And so the story ends

Patty here…

On Sunday morning, I finished reading a novel, the latest in a series written by Author X. I don’t usually read during the day, especially in the morning because I don’t have time. However, the night before, X brought me to the precipice of the climatic ending with an appropriately compelling last sentence hook. Other readers might have finished post haste but I was tired and decided to save the fun for the next day.

As I mentioned, I cracked open the book on Sunday and began reading. Much to my dismay, the climax to which I’d sacrificed my morning wasn’t there. Instead, the author was already leading me through the wrap-up phase of the book, leaving only a scant few lines about what should have been a whole scene of delicious mayhem. Needless to say, I felt just a teeny tiny bit cheated.

I've always been told that the first rule of writing (I know. I know. There are no rules) is that an author should always play out conflict not describe it in exposition. That got me wondering why this author chose to shelter us readers from experiencing the excitement. Could the publisher not afford the extra paper? Was X’s manuscript past deadline and they said, “Just give us what you have and we’ll run with it.” Or maybe X told them, “Screw it. I’m so done with this book.”

Ending a novel is difficult, and some authors pull it off better than others do. Endings don’t need to follow a formula, but they should be satisfying to the reader. Here are a few types of endings I've noticed lately:

The abrupt ending

The noirish fade to black ending

The explosion ending

And now, the missing ending

Have you ever been disappointed by a book’s ending? How could the author have done it better?

Curious Monday!