Impala Wins Gold in Reader’s Favorite Book Awards

ReadersFavorite.com announced the winners of their 2017 awards contest yesterday. Impala won the gold medal in the General Mystery category. Here’s a screenshot from the awards page, showing Impala with its alternate cover:

Impala also won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest competition, and received honors from Amazon.com, IndieReader, and Kirkus.

The writing life can be lonely and isolating, with discouragement at every turn. So it’s nice to get some recognition now and then.

When I finished writing Impala, I sent copies out to a number of reviewers and contests. One of those contests sent me a private review of the book, giving it F’s across the board. (That’s F like on a school report card. F as in Failure.) The reviewer gave it an F for plot, F for characterization, F for originality, and F for the overall quality of the writing. (That last F, by the way, really pissed me off. I taught high school English for a while, and I know what F writing looks like.)

Then one of the book’s first Amazon readers left a scathing two-star review. Try putting a year of work into something and then getting that response.

Having a day job is much easier than writing. At your day job, people don’t walk up to you and say, “Hey, I just took a look at that project you’ve been working on, and boy does it suck! Oh my God! I had no idea how stupid you are.”

In some ways, the reader-writer relationship is like dating. When you hit it off with someone, it feels like magic. And when there’s a gross mismatch and you just can’t connect, it’s awkward and painful.

Many of the things that those first reviewers disliked about the book were singled out for praise by later reviewers. And most readers seem to like the book. I’m thankful for that.

I’m currently waiting for my latest book to come back from the editor. I’ll do some revisions on that, and then I’ll send it out into the world and hold my breath, the way you might just before you go on a blind date. You know that feeling? Anticipation and dread, all mixed together, as you think about all the ways it could go right and all the ways it could go wrong.

The new book is tentatively titled gate 76, and you can read the first chapter here.

You can find Impala on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and in the Apple bookstore.

 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, describes the results of a five year computer analysis of over 20,000 novels. The authors wanted to figure out what differentiates the 500 or so New York Times bestsellers in their corpus from the rest of the titles that didn’t make the bestseller list.

The subtitle, Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel, describes the book’s goal, which is to describe the common traits of bestsellers, revealing some hidden and unexpected characteristics along the way.  The book does not pretend to offer a formula for writing bestsellers. A similar book in the world of sports might reveal insights into what made Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James such great basketball players, but that doesn’t mean you or I could follow the formula and become the next NBA superstar. This book is a descriptive anatomy, not prescriptive how-to.

The authors use highly-customized Natural Language Processing (NLP) software to analyze thousands of data points within each book, including the frequency of different words and word types, sentence length, which topics appear and with what frequency, and where the emotional high and low points of the plot occur.

One thing you should know about NLP software is that it enables the computer to describe a text, but it does not enable the machine to understand the text. For example, in reading Harry Potter, NLP software will point out that virtually every paragraph that mentions Voldemort is full of words that express negative sentiment (words like evil, terrible, fearful, etc.). From this, the software can infer that Voldemort is the villain. However, NLP software does not understand what it reads the way a human does. It cannot answer complex questions like, “How does Mrs. de Winter’s understanding of her world change when Maxim says, I never loved her?”

Most of Archer and Jockers’ findings make perfect sense, and will be familiar to people who read a lot of novels and to those who read the advice of successful authors on the craft of writing. Readers prefer an active protagonist to a passive one. Readers prefer language that’s close to the everyday vernacular over the more formal type of writing that appears in essays. Bestselling authors do not overload their sentences with adjectives and adverbs. They convey meaning with nouns and verbs, which makes the reading experience smoother and more fluid.

Bestsellers tend to focus on a few topics within each work, rather than trying to hit on every theme the author can think of. Typically, the three major topics of a bestseller account for about 30-40 percent of the total topical matter of the work. Certain topics are more likely to make a bestseller: technology, work, family life, close interpersonal relationships. Surprisingly, sex is not one of those topics, and bestsellers in general tend to feature less sex than non-bestsellers.

Archer and Jockers identify seven structural patterns common to the plots of all bestsellers. They present the structural patterns as line graphs, which give a clear picture of the story’s emotional highs and lows. The summary of the classic love story, for example, is “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” If you were to draw that as a line graph, there would be a high point near the beginning when the boy first meets the girl, followed by a low point in the middle when he loses her, and another high point at the end, when he gets her back.

One of the book’s surprising findings is that the emotional curves of all bestsellers follow one of these seven graphs. The plot lines hold for trashy romances, far-fetched thrillers, and revered literary prizewinners. The Bestseller Code even charts the plots of some of these seemingly disparate novels together on the same graph to show you how similar they are.

Much of the value of this book comes from its clear and well-described insights into what readers respond to, and from the authors diving into a number of texts to provide illuminating examples of the generalized patterns that the computer has revealed. Jockers has more of a traditional English-lit background, and will occasionally touch on books by Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce. Archer comes from the publishing world, and her discussions focus on more current works.

One work they dig into is the unexpected phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, which, on its surface, seems to defy all the rules. It was written by an indie author with no marketing to propel it, one of its primary topics is sex (and not mainstream vanilla sex, but BDSM) which is not part of the “bestseller DNA”, and both readers and critics mocked the quality and style of its writing. But for all that, it sold hundreds of millions of copies. Why?

This is where the computer analysis really shines, as it points out characteristic patterns of the work without the baggage of emotional or aesthetic judgement that a human reader would bring. The analysis showed that E.L James, despite what some might call a lack of style, had hit on every element of the blockbuster novel, from topical makeup to plot structure to character. The analysis also showed that, based on the number of paragraphs devoted to each topic, the book was more about close interpersonal relationships than sex in general. And “close personal relationships,” the authors remind us, is one of the top themes common to all bestsellers.

While the overall public discussion of Fifty Shades tended to focus more on the sex, the computer was able to see that readers were experiencing, perhaps on a less unconscious level, the same sorts of interpersonal relations that fascinate them in the genres of mystery, thriller, and historical drama.

Even more interesting, Archer and Jockers point out, is the plot structure of Fifty Shades, which is a subtle and unusual variation of one of the six basic structures common to all bestsellers. James’ novel, generally follows “Plotline 4,” which Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls “Rebirth.” Archer and Jockers point out that “these plots tend to see the main characters experience change, renewal, and some sort of transformation.”

The twist that James put on this basic plot is that, instead of following the plot’s typical emotional pattern of beginning-high-low-high-low-end, she created a series of highs and lows throughout the book, which occurred at such regular intervals that the graph of them looks almost like a perfect sine wave. Archer and Jockers refer to this pattern as the emotional rhythm of the plot.

Outside of the Harry Potter series, which was primarily aimed at young readers, the only “adult” book in the past twenty years whose sales numbers compare to Fifty Shades is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The authors point out that although The Da Vinci Code’s basic plot differs from Fifty Shades, the two books share an almost identical emotional rhythm. Page 106 of The Bestseller Code shows a graph of the two plot lines, with the high points, low points, and inflections points of both novels appearing almost in lockstep. Now who would have thought to compare those two books, or even mention them in the same breath?

Both were runaway bestsellers, and on an emotional level, both provided a strikingly similar reading experience despite their differences in topic, style, tone, and genre. That insight about emotional experience reminded me of a question and answer I read recently on Quora. A reader asked why the Harry Potter series was so popular despite the fact that its plots were not necessarily new and other writers had more interesting styles and were better at world building. An author named Nick Travers offered this response:

I used to think the same as you. I even thought, ‘I can write as well as that,’ so I started to write a novel to prove it.

Four novels later and I can write as well as J.K.Rowling, but the quality of my stories pale into insignificance compared to hers. What I’ve learned is that J.K. Rowling is not a particularly good writer, but she is a master story teller. When she tells a story it sparkles with magic in a way that draws people (especially youngsters) into her world. I wish I could tell stories like that.

The Bestseller Code maps out some of the characteristics and common traits of great story-telling in illuminating ways, and the authors’ commentary on a diverse body of well-known works makes it a fun and interesting read. If you’re interested in understanding what drives readers to buy books, this one is worth a read.

The Deep Blue Good-By

Two things struck me while reading John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. The first was the quality of his writing, which can be witty and insightful, and is never cliché. The second was how, especially in the case of this book, the hard-boiled detective genre can pander to male fantasy in the same way romance panders to women.

In this book, every young woman between puberty and thirty practically throws herself at the protagonist, Travis McGee, who who lives on a boat and seems interesting and likable in some regards, but just doesn’t seem to have that much going for him. It’s easy to mock those cheesy romance novels that sell for 99 cents on Amazon, where every guy seems to have tattoos, six-pack abs, a rebel bad-boy streak, and a ready erection. But in MacDonald’s book, which has been widely praised as a work of art, every woman is just a hole waiting to be filled. Every woman is well-built, willing, tipsy, and half nude, when she’s not completely nude.

I get that this was written in the early sixties, when the birth control pill first appeared, and women were exploring the newfound freedom of sex-without-consequences. This was about the same time as Mad Men, and with regard to male-female relations, The Deep Blue Good-By has a skewed perspective similar to the one portrayed in Don Draper’s world.

I get the whole living-on-a-boat thing. I’ve seen enough of that lifestyle in South Florida and in the Caribbean to have a first-hand knowledge of the dissolute ways of the sun-drunk layabouts. They drink a lot, and they have more sex than mom and dad who come home tired from the office at 6PM. But seriously, no matter how bored a woman gets, it takes more than just a complete stranger showing up at her door with a bottle of liquor to get her interested. You might run across one woman, once in a great while, who’s willing to jump in bed with whoever happens by on a lazy afternoon, but the next thousand won’t be like that.

In MacDonald’s book, they’re ALL like that. Even the ones who just got raped. And that’s just wrong. That just doesn’t happen.

Travis McGee is living the ideal guy’s life. He has no job, but enough money to get by. He has no responsibilities, no commitments, no emotional ties, and whenever he wants a little action, he just strolls on over to one of the neighboring houseboats, where there’s always a party, and picks out a woman to bring home. And he actually complains that they’re not fulfilling. Just flip the genders of the protagonist and harem here, and you have a romance novel. Except that a romance novel ends with the traditional woman’s fantasy, where the main character gets to keep her one-and-only forever on after. This one ends with the traditional man’s fantasy, where the guy ends up unattached with nothing to get in the way of his continued booty hunt.

Other books in the classic pulp/crime genres include a good bit of sex as well, but it’s not quite so over-the-top as here. Jim Thompson’s protagonists usually have a steady, adoring girlfriend, and a second woman on the side. But in Thompson’s case, the protagonist is usually somewhat insane, and his “other woman” is insane in some catastrophically complementary way, like nitro and glycerine. Many of the better books in the genre, like Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel and Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, follow a formula in which one particular man plus one particular woman equals disaster.

The overall plot of The Deep Blue Good-By is nothing ground-breaking. It’s genre fiction, after all, and a hard-boiled detective novel ends with the wise and cynical detective outsmarting the wily and dangerous bad guy. Plots aren’t that big a deal in genre fiction. They have to have twists, but we all know how they’re going to play out. Romance novels end with the woman getting her man, just as surely as thrillers end with the good guys sticking it to the bad guys. It’s how it all plays out that keeps our interest.

And McGee, for all his flaws, is consistently interesting. When you dive into this novel, you dive into his world, and you get to live there for a while. Although McGee can be quite insightful, you know his view of the world is skewed and unreal, just like you know the world in a Carl Hiaasen novel is skewed and unreal. You’re there for the ride, and McGee makes the ride worth the effort.

MacDonald’s rich style brings characters and places vividly to life. However, it’s a bit too elaborate for some of the action scenes. Sometimes you get to the end of a thirty-word sentence, and you wonder, “Wait, did he hit the guy or not?”

If you want a little flavor of his writing, and of McGee’s perspective and insight, the long paragraph below is a shining example. McGee has just been flirting with a waitress in order to get some information out of her. She’s very young. Nineteen or so. And of course, she comes out of the encounter desiring him (of course!), but he’s not interested.

The references to rabbits and bunnies are double-edged. McGee has already talked about people breeding like rabbits, and the vast space America still has to absorb its booming population. He’s also referred to some of the young women he’s picked up from the houseboat parties as rabbits, because each one is just a quick, impersonal lay.

Here’s what’s going through McGee’s mind when he walks away from that 19-year-old waitress he was just flirting with:

Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, percale sheets, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector, and eternal whimsical romance–with crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and brutal and hateful and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architected. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.

That paragraph shows many of McGee’s most fundamental characteristics. He feels both empathy and contempt for the troubled people around him. He laments the unfulfilled promise of their lives, but he doesn’t mind taking advantage of them when it suits him. Even in the end, when he restores a tiny measure of justice to a badly wronged woman, he’s just gotta get a piece of booty for his trouble, because, hell–it’s what she wants.

I look forward to reading more of MacDonald’s work. I just hope that in subsequent novels, McGee’s blood starts flowing a little more toward his heart and mind, a little less toward that other place.

 

Thirty Years a Detective

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Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.

Impala Is Here!

In addition to Amazon.com adding Impala to its list of best of the month list for September, they also added it to this week’s Kindle Select 25 list.

I got word yesterday that Bibliolabs and Library Journal added Impala to their Self-E Select list as one of the notable indie titles of the month. They’ll help make it available through local libraries around the country. Since Kirkus also featured it in their September issue, I’m interested to see if libraries pick up the paperback.

In other news, I wrote a guest post for Elizabeth A. White’s blog the other day about Impala and the tradition of classic American crime novels. And today, The Feathered Quill posted an interview with me along with a nice review of Impala.

IndieReader and Reader’s Favorite both gave the book five stars. Now I’m waiting to hear from actual readers.

If you read it, please leave a review on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Goodreads, or wherever you like to post your opinions. Reader reviews are usually the best testimony, and I’d like to hear from you.

You can buy Impala at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

indieapproved 5star-shiny-web self-e

Authenticity, by Dierdre Madden

I just finished reading Dierdre Madden’s Authenticity, which explores some topics that have been very much on my mind lately. The book looks at the lives of four artists in Dublin, around the year 2000. Roderic Kennedy is a successful painter in his late forties. “Successful” here means he’s able to practice his art full-time, keep a studio, and not starve. He has a little reputation and some respect among the local critics and patrons.

His brother, Dennis, has an artistic soul, which is to say, he’s sensitive and unusually attuned to and appreciative of beauty. He learned early on that he didn’t quite have the talent to fulfill his dream as a concert pianist, so he chose a career in a bank that would offer him a stable life.

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Julia Fitzpatrick, Roderic’s young lover, is just starting on her artistic career. She’s in her early twenties, and like Roderic (and many of us in our early twenties), she can get by with very little money, as long as she gets the time to practice her art.

The last character, William Armstrong, has the artist’s sensitivity, the appreciation of beauty, and the creative drive. But he drifted into a law career, and now, in late middle age, he begins to feel the anguish of what it means to have chosen the wrong life, and the despair of knowing he’ll never become who he was born to be.

This is not a plot-driven book. It’s an idea-driven book, a detailed study in character, and a lengthy examination of lives lived and unlived within a culture that evolved to support more practical, less sensitive characters. It moves slowly, and you have to slow down to read it. The reward comes from the quality of the writing, and the depth and accuracy of the author’s insights.

Roderic, the successful painter, has chosen the only life he could choose, and he’s lived it at great cost, including a nervous breakdown, and the loss of his family and years of his life to drink. His life is rich in both reward and regret. Julia is still young, but seems headed down a similar path. William, the lawyer who denied his artistic side, has regrets too deep to overcome, and the rewards he did reap aren’t meaningful enough to keep him going.

The last character, Dennis, strikes an interesting balance. He is his brother’s patron, and in his brother Roderic, he sees first-hand almost every day the reality of the life he chose not to live. He knows he doesn’t have the constitution to endure what his brother endures, painting in a cold studio, too absorbed in his work to notice that he’s freezing; not knowing whether he can pay the bills at the end of the month; getting picked on by critics and not knowing who he might be sleeping with from one night to the next. Dennis doesn’t suffer for his choice the way William does, because he actually took the time to weigh the options, and he gets to compare each day the reality of the life he chose to the one he didn’t.

Early in the book, while discussing patrons and the arrogance of the rich, Roderic remarks to Julia that “They need us as much as we need them. Only they don’t know it.”

Dennis is one of the few who does seem to know this. His one near-breakdown occurs when Roderic marries, and Dennis loses a part of his identity. He doesn’t create art, but by supporting his brother, he enables it, and it’s important to him to be able to participate at that level.

There’s a section late in the book where Julia talks to William about the few paintings he’s actually made in his life.

“Do you know where it comes from,” she asked, “this compulsion to paint?”

“It was always there,” he replied, “ever since I was a small child. I used to think it was a neutral thing, but now I’m not so sure. This compulsion, as you call it. This instinct. That’s how it strikes me, as an extra instinct. Not everyone has it, but if you do, you ignore it at your peril. It’s like the need for sex. That can also seem to be a neutral thing, but it isn’t. It has a dark, blind, dangerous side.”

Poor William was born into a family in which devoting one’s life to art simply wasn’t an option. To discover that path would have taken more vision than his narrow social world provided. Unlike Roderic, with his generous brother, he had no patron. No one looking out for him. He couldn’t see the authentic path, so he took the acceptable path his family pressured him into.

His story reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend many years ago, who was just then coming out and letting everyone know he was gay. He said that in elementary school, the nuns used to rap his knuckles with a ruler every day because he wrote with his left hand, which was wrong. They were determined to save him, and make him right.

“But they can’t make me someone I’m not,” he said, still upset about it many years after the fact. “I was born this way, and this is who I am.” His resentment over that treatment bred a lifelong disrespect for authorities who wouldn’t listen to the truth. So in a way, the nuns actually did save him by building in him at an early age, when the stakes were lower, a defiance and a resolve that would serve him later, when he needed it.

In the book, William elaborates on the parallel between the sexual instinct and the artist’s creative instinct with a story about a fellow lawyer who wouldn’t or couldn’t find a satisfactory sex life at home and frequented prostitutes to the point of destroying his family, his career, and his reputation.

William is right about that creative instinct. If you don’t get to exercise it, whatever else you may be doing in your life doesn’t quite make up for the loss. And creative repression, like sexual repression, seeps out in nasty, self-destructive ways, as when the burdens of family life impose so far into Roderic’s creative space that he turns to drink.

Not everyone has it, but if you do, you ignore it at your peril. Like being gay, or left-handed, people who have the powerful, persistent, un-ignorable urge to create are just born that way, and it doesn’t go away. Authenticity is about the need to recognize that creative instinct, and to engineer a life in which that instinct can express itself. It’s also about the cost of choosing that life, which is substantial.

Unlike the respected professions of law and medicine, there is no straightforward institutionally-sponsored path to a career in creativity. There are almost no commercial institutions putting out want ads for painters, harpists, poets or sculptors. You just have to go out and do it. And if anyone besides yourself winds up caring about what you’ve done, then lucky you.

As Julia says, “The secret to art is that there is no secret. You just put in the time and do it.”

Authenticity isn’t a page-turner, a diversion, or an entertainment. It asks for a substantial investment of time and attention. If you’re willing to give it, you’ll be rewarded.