Waste Not, Want Not

by Brad Parks, award-winning mystery writer

– Note from Jodie: I sold my house (Yay!) and am busy planning my cross-country move, editing a great new thriller for our own Joe Moore and his co-author, Lynn Sholes, and preparing a webinar to present at a cyber conference, so it was perfect timing when Brad Parks contacted me about guest posting on TKZ. – Take it away, Brad!

It was the great and revered mystery author P.D. James who once said, “Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”

I mention this because, one, it makes me sound well-read and erudite. And, two, because it is exactly the kind of soft-headed, touchy-feely, writer-as-artiste horse-apple I used to completely dismiss.

Of course things that happen to a writer are wasted. I mean, when I was a newspaper journalist I had to write whole stories about peoples’ reaction to the weather (“Boy, is it hot,” said Robert Smith of Manalapan. . . “I’m soooo cold!” said Sarah Jones of Weehawken). Believe me, those are dead brain cells I will not get back.

I think up until recently, I would have been ready to tell P.D. James to take her nothing-is-ever-wasted aphorism and stick it on a poster with kittens, because real writers don’t think of themselves as artists but, rather, as craftspeople. We use a well-honed set of tools – our sense of story, our intuition about human nature, a facility with language and prose, etc. – to craft thrilling tales of suspense. We don’t go in for all that navel-gazing, namby-pamby hogwa…

… And then along came this book. It’s called THE PLAYER, the fifth in my series featuring sometimes-dashing investigative reporter Carter Ross.

I was throwing a few notes together for various talks I’ll be giving at bookstores and libraries in the coming months and I remembered that, back when I started writing it, I thought of it as a book that dealt with the subject of brownfield redevelopment – that is, the cleaning of contaminated sites to make them suitable for new construction.

(Mind you, I no longer call it a book about brownfield redevelopment, because I’d actually like to sell a few of them. When you say “brownfield redevelopment,” peoples’ eyes get glassy. I now call it a book about toxic waste and the mob).

Anyhow, just for kicks, I went back and looked at some of the clips I had written about this subject back when I was a reporter. I tripped across this one story from 2007. It was about an abandoned landfill in Edison, New Jersey that was being eroded away by the Raritan River. The result was that every time the river rose – every rainstorm, every high tide – fifty-year-old trash was being swept into the current.

It was unhealthy, unsanitary, and a major eyesore. And yet because the original owner of the landfill was no longer around, there was no money to clean it up. Basically, the only hope for this dreadful little patch of earth was if a developer came along and decided to build a golf course there – or an office park, or whatever.

When done well, this is actually a great win-win. The contamination gets cleaned up. The developer gets some free land. It’s all good. But of course in the name of journalistic balance you always have to find someone to sound a note of alarm and remind readers that something that sounds too good to be true sometimes is. So I interviewed this environmentalist named Bill Wolfe. Here, I quote from what I wrote:

Wolfe said old landfills have been known to leach benzene, TPC, TPE, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium – a laundry list of killer chemicals. He calls redevelopment schemes “madness.”

“What should have been a public enterprise – cleaning up old landfills – has become a private, for-profit, economically driven enterprise,” Wolfe said. “It really is asking for a disaster.”

When I re-read that not long ago, I was agog. It was the thesis of THE PLAYER, stated in two succinct paragraphs. And I had completely forgotten that I ever wrote it. It was just fifty-six words buried near the bottom of a 1,800-word story. Since it published, I have written hundreds of other articles, to say nothing of a pile of full-length novels. We’re talking about something that was roughly a million words in my rearview mirror. I had no shot of remembering it.

But it was obviously rattling around in my head somewhere. And it managed to leak out onto the page and form a novel. Apparently P.D. James was onto something.

(Oh, incidentally, I did look up Bill Wolfe and sent him a copy of THE PLAYER. I figured it was the least I could do).

Now, maybe for some of you who are more enlightened on this subject, this connection between what you do and what you write isn’t news. For me, it’s been something of a revelation. It’s not that I’ve given up on my view that writers are craftspeople. It’s that I’m opening myself up to the idea that we’re artists, too.

I find myself living more consciously, being more aware of what I’m reading, who I’m talking to or what I’m seeing – because you never know when that article, that conversation or that experience will inform your future scribbling.

After all, nothing that happens to a writer is ever wasted.

Brad Parks is the only author in history to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. His latest book, THE PLAYER, received starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. RT Book Reviews made it a Top Pick for March, saying, “Parks has quietly entered the top echelon of the mystery field.” Visit him at www.BradParksBooks.com.

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The Funny Thing About Thrillers

By Boyd Morrison

My friend Brad Parks has graciously agreed to stop by today to discuss a topic that has been kept quiet for too long, a topic we all acknowledge exists but don’t have the guts to address. Brad, however, has taken the brave step forward and is putting his reputation on the line to take on a subject many may consider taboo. Brad, take it away.

——————

       May mother wash my mouth out with soap, but I’d like to talk about the F-word. Or, at least, what some in the crime fiction community consider the F-word:

       Funny.

       This, believe it or not, is a (rare) serious missive from a guy who appeared on the cover of Crimespree dressed in a Tom-Wolfe-meets-pimp white suit. And the question I’d like everyone to ponder – and not in the grubbing-for-comments way that some guest bloggers do, but in a genuine I’m-really-curious-for-your-thoughts way – is this:

       Is it a blessing to write funny mysteries or a curse?

       In this space a few weeks back, P.J. Parrish had a post about how hard it is to write funny. My question is more: do you even want to?

       I ask this because Boyd, my host today, and the other Kill Zone authors are, on average, much smarter than me and I know they’ll have interesting things to say; because I was just nominated for a Lefty Award, given at Left Coast Crime to “the best humorous mystery,” and therefore need to steal the your comments so I can sound clever on panels about this subject later this month; and because I have a new book to hawk (it’s titled THE GOOD COP and Booklist called it “a tautly written page-turner with charm and humor,” so please buy it or Michelle Gagnon will kick a puppy).

       Anyhow, back on topic, I’m now on my fourth book, and I’ve learned that while some people really seem to enjoy a helping of humor in their mysteries, others think the phrase “funny mystery” is the world’s biggest paradox – on the order of “jumbo shrimp” or “compassionate conservative.”

       It’s a curious thing, because in person – or even online – thriller writers tend to be a joyful, often hysterical lot. I often come home from a conference feeling all I’ve done is laugh. And yet while in most aspects of life, this kind of funny is good – human beings are wired to enjoy laughter, after all – the conventional wisdom in the publishing world says funny can taste a little strange when it’s served next to murder.

       “Humor and suspense are contradictory emotions,” said one well-known book critic when I asked him the blessing-or-curse question. “If you’re feeling one, you’re not feeling the other.”

       You’re not supposed to laugh at crime, the thinking goes. Violence and its impact on survivors, which is the substance of most mysteries, are not humorous subjects. When you look at the thrillers that fill the high reaches of the bestseller list, almost none – other than Janet Evanovich – are laughers.

       What’s more, even writers who started off with humor in their work eventually ditch the yucks in favor of more somber stuff. Harlan Coben is a great example of this. His early Myron Bolitar books are often madcap romps. But he didn’t “make it” commercially until he started writing what are essentially humorless standalones. Even now, when he writes a Myron Bolitar, it’s mostly without the comedy that mark his earlier books.

       So does that mean it’s bad to write funny? Some folks seem to think so. I actually got an e-mail from a friend saying she hoped I didn’t win the Lefty, because then no one would take me seriously.

        (“No one takes me seriously anyway,” I wanted to say. Oh, and, incidentally, I also told her she was out of her flippin’ mind. When it comes to awards, I have tried both winning and not winning, and I have found the former to be infinitely more satisfying).

       And yet, for all the critical disdain funny stuff sometimes gets, readers love it. So, up to this point, my own take on the blessing-or-curse question has been that conventional publishing wisdom has it wrong, that it grossly underestimates the intelligence of its readership. I get out quite a bit and the readers I’ve met are, on average, far smarter than the average bear. They are perfectly capable of switching between lighter and heavier moments in a book.

       And so, perhaps as a result, my fourth book in the Carter Ross series has its serious stuff. It starts with the death of a police officer and deals with the issue of illegal gun trafficking. But it also has two elderly Jewish con artists, slinging Yiddish insults at Carter; an intern who is made to perform pregnancy tests on toilet water; and a student who is majoring in “death studies” and helps Carter break into the county morgue while drunk on absinthe.

       It’s all in good fun, of course. And I’d like to think it doesn’t get in the way of the plot or the pacing.

       But it is a mistake anyway? Discuss…

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The Kill Bell

Today TKZ is delighted to welcome guest blogger Brad Parks, whose latest release THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has been described as, “darkly humorous…a Sopranos-worthy ragout of high drama and low comedy,” by Publisher’s Weekly.

By Brad Parks

I hear it all the time, echoing in my head.It sounds like a ticking at first – high, soft and steady, like a baby bunny’s heartbeat. It’s there, but it’s not terribly insistent. At least not at first.

Then it starts getting louder. And more ominous. And harder to ignore. I begin feeling the reverberations in my chest.

Before long, it becomes absolutely incessant. And unrelenting. And undeniable. It’s down to my toes and in my ears and I can barely hear anything else.And then, brrrrrring! Off it goes:

The kill bell.

That malicious peeling noise that lets me know, as I’m drafting my latest book, that it’s time to drop a body.

That’s how it sounds to me, anyway. Maybe yours sounds different, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in having one. As a mystery/thriller writer, I know I have to kill, early and often. And since you’re on this blog – it is called The Kill Zone, for goodness sakes – you probably know it, too. Lord knows, no one here is writing cozies. I’m betting the Kill Zone authors alone traffic in more blood than your average Red Cross chapter.

But how much do we spill? And how do we know when the time is right?

That’s what the kill bell is for. I’ve come to value it, to know to listen for it, and even to anticipate it. It’s that little friend that tells me things have gotten a little too comfortable for the reader and I need to shake things up.

It’s not like it happens in predictable intervals – and thank goodness, since it would get a little too cookie-cutter if you whacked someone every 10,000 words. I can sometimes go 40,000 words without slashing so much as a single throat. Then I shoot someone and I think I’m okay for a while but, ding-a-ling, there’s the bell again. And, even if it’s a mere 2,000 words later, I’m puncturing someone’s temple with a nail gun.

I suspect every writer’s kill bell is set to a slightly different frequency, which is why we all write different books. The important thing is to respect it and, when you hear it ringing, to act. Even when it’s not clear how.

I’m thinking about one of the more recent times I heard my kill bell. I was in the midst of drafting my latest, the as-yet-unnamed Carter Ross No. 5 (No. 3, The Girl Next Door, is the one that hits next week). I was cruising along, roughly 70,000 words in, and I realized I hadn’t killed anyone since word 40,000. And that, suddenly, felt totally unacceptable.

So I gathered all my characters in a room – yes, I talk to my characters – and said, “Okay, which one of you am I going to kill?”

Naturally, they all started staring down at their feet, scuffing their shoes, shoving their hands in their pockets, that sort of thing. Can’t blame them. Who wants to die, even in spectacular literary fashion?

But at that point my kill bell was doing a full-on whoopwhoopwhoop. I knew someone had to go. So I started going through my characters one-by-one until I realized, wait a cotton-pickin’-frickin’ second, I couldn’t kill any of them! It was either someone integral to a later plot point; or people who were totally implausible to kill, because they weren’t a threat to anyone; or my protagonist, who I can’t kill (this is a series and my kids will need shoes next year, too); or my protagonist’s cat (the kill bell does not apply to animals – sorry, I just can’t deal with that much hate mail).

I was stuck. But the kill bell has to be heeded. So I went back and wrote a character into the plot at word 20,000 for the express purpose of killing her later. And it turned out be a good thing, because I actually went back and un-killed her – she had taken a double tap between the eyes, but no more! – and killed someone else instead (I burned him, if it matters). It ended up leading to a great plot twist at the end. And I had the kill bell to thank.

As I said, I know I’m not alone in this. So what about you? What tells you when to follow the impulse to kill? I look forward to a robust – if slightly disturbing – conversation on the topic…

Brad Parks is a winner of the Nero Award and the Shamus Award. His latest book, The Girl Next Door, releases from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books on March 13. For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter http://www.bradparksbooks.com/newsletter.php, like him on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brad-Parks-Books/137190195628, or follow @Brad_Parks on Twitter.

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Getting the Dead out of Deadline

by Brad Parks

Today TKZ is thrilled to welcome Brad Parks, reformed sportswriter and award winning author, whose second book EYES OF THE INNOCENT was just released.

I have this weird thing for dates. They stick in my head for no good reason.

Aug. 5, 1998. The day my pet rabbit, Snowflake, died.
Aug. 20, 1994. The day I first kissed the beautiful woman who is now my wife
.
Nov. 5, 2004. The day I finished my first novel-length manuscript (a book that, incidentally, will likely never be published, unless I pull a Stieg Larsen and become unexpectedly famous after my untimely passing).
Feb. 3, 2011. The day I put the entire Kill Zone audience to sleep with the boring biographica
l details of my tedious life because I didn’t move on with the point of my guest blog post…

… So, right, the point of this post is actually to talk about some of the most significant dates in a writer’s life.

Deadline dates.

Now, that word, “deadline,” can inspire a lot of fear in writers. Its origin – and I swear, I’m not making this up – is actually penal in nature. Once upon a time, a deadline referred to a line in a prison that inmates couldn’t cross, or else they’d be shot dead.

But I’m here to say deadline is actually a wonderful thing for writers, something we should embrace rather than loathe. And I have come to discover there is power and freedom in a deadline, in knowing that you don’t have the luxury to get too picky, in understanding that what you’re aiming for is not “good” but “good enough.”

I first learned this as a journalist. I spent twelve years working for daily newspapers, much of it in the sports department, where the deadlines are unforgiving. I can remember covering Yankees playoff games in 1999, when my editor explained to me they were holding the entire paper for my story – and that each minute the story was late would cost $15,000 as presses and trucks sat idle, racking up gas and overtime.
I didn’t know if he was inventing the number, but I did know I was making about $60,000 a year, so my entire annual salary could slip away in four minutes. And I was guessing it would probably be easier to find another $60,000-a-year sportswriter than paying for the ten minutes it took for me to find that perfect word or phrase for my lede. It tended to have a marvelous, focusing effect on my work, one I carried throughout my journalism career.

But I have also learned to love deadlines as a novelist, and it was because of my latest book, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, which just hit the shelves.

Now, the aforementioned unpublished manuscript took me three years, writing during the off-season of whatever sport I was covering. The next one? I probably turned that around in a year and a half, writing in dribs and drabs when news was slow.

I knew from the start EYES OF THE INNOCENT needed to be a different animal, thanks to deadline. And here, I return to my thing with dates, and some of the ones my brain attached to this book, starting with:

July 8, 2008. The day I learned I would have to write it. I know because that was the wonderful afternoon my agent called to say my manuscript, the book that would later become FACES OF THE GONE, had sold to St. Martin’s Press. She also told me it was a two-book deal, so FACES better have a sequel.
That leads to:

Jan. 27, 2009. The day, according to my contract, that second book would be due.

Now, six months is not an unreasonable length of time in which to write a novel. Heck, there are romance writers out there who can turn one around in six weeks. Except, of course, there were complicating factors.

The first was that we were in the midst of moving three states away, from New Jersey to Virginia. When I got that call from my agent, we were less than two weeks away from the moving vans arriving (July 21, 2008).

The second was that I still had a full-time job as a daily newspaper reporter.

But those were far less important complications than the real deadline then looming in our house around that time:

Dec. 18, 2008. The day my wife was due with our second child.

I knew, from the experience of the first child, that absolutely no meaningful writing would get done for at least six months after the blessed arrival. I also knew, again from Baby No. 1, that my wife would probably go early.

So I had to get to work. I spent a few weeks going over FACES OF THE GONE (it had been roughly two years since I finished it and I needed to re-familiarize myself). Then came:

Aug. 13, 2008. The day I first opened up the file that would become EYES OF THE INNOCENT. Unlike those first two manuscripts, where there were so many stops and starts, I really had to hammer on this one. Deadline and the impending arrival of a baby had given me no choice. And I discovered, much like the days when dilly-dallying cost $15,000 a minute, the pressure had a way of making me concentrate on getting to The End without worrying quite so much about the little stuff along the way. So it was, three months and twenty days later, I got to:

Dec. 3, 2008. The day I turned in a draft to my agent. (And, it turned out, I was just in time – my wife was, once again, about two weeks early).

Is the book any different for having been turned around so quickly? Yeah, it is: It’s better. The pacing, the plotting, it’s all so much tidier. Everyone has their own speed. But I’ve since discovered three months per book is the right one for me. And I have that one tight deadline to thank for the revelation.
What about you guys? Any good deadline stories out there?

Brad Parks’s debut, FACES OF THE GONE, became the first book ever to win the Nero Award and Shamus Award, two of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His second book, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, just released from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books. Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it “as good if not better (than) his acclaimed debut.” For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Twitter, or became a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook.

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Here be Sharks…

Please join me in Welcoming guest blogger, BRAD PARKS, to the Killzone…though be warned, treacherous waters lie ahead…

Editor’s note: In this guest blog post, the author has indicated he will be employing an extended metaphor to explain how he writes. Metaphors are highly complex literary devices and should only be attempted with great care. Ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough to use metaphors. Do not use metaphors if you take nitrates for chest pain. If your metaphor lasts more than four hours, consult an editor immediately, as this could be a sign of rare but serious case of over-writing.

There are a lot of different writing methods out there, and – like a lot of you, I’m sure – I experimented with a number of them through the years. I tried outlining, but found it stifled my spontaneity. I tried starting with the end in mind, but found it made the end too predictable. I tried sketching out key scenes before I began, but found myself too impatient trying to get from once scene to the next. Finally, I found the method that works best for me. I call it, “Writing like an open-water distance swimmer.”

Editor’s note: Wait a tick, isn’t that actually a simile? You used “like” or “as.” That makes it a simile. You must be one of those kids who daydreamed through the section of eighth grade English where you were supposed to learn the difference.

I got into swimming a few years back when my surgically repaired knee kept making it difficult to continue jogging as much as I wanted. I enjoyed swimming, except for one thing: Pools are boring. You swim to the wall. You do a flip turn. You swim back. It’s the equivalent of writing by formula – it’s exercise, sure, but there’s not enough to keep it interesting.Then my wife and I moved to the tidewater part of Virginia, to a small cottage on a wide section of the Rappahannock River, not far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The climate is fairly mild here, so I’m able to start swimming in April each year and, with the help of a wetsuit, can keep it up until the end of October.

Editor’s note: Yeah, yeah. You’re a freakin’ iron man. Get on with it, will you?

And here’s where, for me, writing is like open water distance swimming: Each day, I know where I’m starting (on the beach just down from our house). And I know I need to get back to dry land eventually. But I don’t know exactly what I’m going to encounter on the way. All I can do is plunge into the water and start stroking. Certainly, there are dangers involved in open water distance swimming. You can get swept away by strong currents. You can suffer a cramp. You can get attacked by a great white shark.

Editor’s Note: Hold on. A great white shark? C’mon. You already said you swim in a tributary of the Chesapeake Freakin’ Bay. Everyone knows great white sharks are ocean-going creatures. More importantly, Wikipedia knows it. Shape up, buster.

You can get stung by a jellyfish.
Editor’s Note: Better.

Yet that sense of danger is what keeps it fun and interesting. Between the tide, the wind and the waves, the river is never quite the same place from one swim to the next. I’ve found writing this way keeps things fresh – every day is a new adventure.

Plus, as a writer, you get the chance to edit what you’ve done and correct your mistakes. It’s the equivalent of going back over your swimming route in a row boat, being able to say, “Oh, that’s where the current got a little strong for me, I should have swum over here instead. That’s where I got attacked by that great white shark…”

Editor’s Note: You’re just testing me now.

“… that’s where I got stung by that jellyfish.”

Editor’s Note: Better. Hey, did you hear about the giant jellyfish that sunk a 10-ton Japanese fishing boat (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/6483758/Japanese-fishing-trawler-sunk-by-giant-jellyfish.html)? Honestly, how embarrassed were those guys when they went back to the dock and had to tell their fishing buddies, “Yeah, the Mary Jane gave it her all, but the jelly was just too much for her!”

And then you go back and fix it. But – and here’s perhaps the most important part of the metaphor – there’s really only one way to get from one side of the river to the other. You have to keep swimming.Unlike jogging, or working out on an elliptical machine or lifting weights, you can’t just stop when you get tired. Once you’ve thrown yourself out there in the river, in water over your head, you’ll drown if you let yourself stop. And maybe there are times when the shore looks like it’s an impossible distance away or you think you won’t be able to make it. The only way to get through it is to keep going, one stroke at a time. And you know from your previous swims – or your previous writing sessions – that if you just keep doing that, you’ll eventually get back to shore, with soft sand under your feet.Do you have a good metaphor for your writing? I’d love to hear it.

Editor’s Note: Just, please, no sharks.

BRAD PARKS is an escaped journalist, having done time at The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as a sportswriter and news feature writer. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he is a washed-up jock, a veteran of community theater and a terrible golfer. He lives in Virginia with an understanding wife and two adorable young children. To learn more about Brad or FACES OF THE GONE, visit http://www.bradparksbooks.com/. You can also sign up for his newsletter (http://www.bradparksbooks.com/fan-club.php), become a fan of Brad Parks Books on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brad-Parks-Books/137190195628#) or follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/Brad_Parks).
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