TV Shows I’m Addicted To

Jordan Dane

I have my DVR set up with countless shows I record. My husband also knows my interest in the strange and peculiar NOVA Science shows or historical documentaries. As a writer, anything can stir your imagination and you never know what small tidbit can fuel a book or series. I once did a whole proposal after seeing a science show on venomous snakes.

Here are a couple of my fav TV shows adapted from books:

Hannibal – OMG! I am giddy for Thursday nights now because of this show. This is an adaptation of Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, but it is a prequel where FBI BAU profiler, Agent Will Graham, is brought in to consult with his old boss, Jack Crawford, and hunt serial killers. We meet the infamous Hannibal Lecter in the wild, before he gets caught. Will is good at his job, depicted as closer to Asperger’s & sociopaths, and can visualize himself as the killer. This puts him in need of therapy, as you can imagine, but his boss picks Hannibal Lecter as his psychiatrist. This is graphic stuff, but the tongue in cheek dark humor is over the top and the psychological trauma worsens in Will, as we see him falling apart and under the care of Lecter. It’s mesmerizing to watch. Hugh Dancy is yummy as Will Graham and Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal redefines the role, big shoes to fill after Anthony Hopkins.

This show is beautifully shot and the acting is amazing, but the reinvention of the Red Dragon book, in such a creative way, has me coming back every week. I went back to read the book and got even more out of the show. 

Justified – This show’s season has ended, but it gets better each year. Writer Elmore Leonard is the guy behind this show and the writing is superb. The characterizations and the dialogue are worth every minute of your time to watch this show. One of my favorite things to do is tweet my fav lines as the show is one. Many of my writer friends do this. Marshal Raylan Givens and criminal childhood friend Boyd Crowder are two characters to watch. The season that just ended was my favorite (and that’s saying something). Pure Rayland and Boyd.

Cable Shows I Have Recently Become Addicted to:

The Borgias – Jeremy Irons is damned sexy as a Pope. And his son, Cesare Borgia, has me spellbound…especially when he’s naked. Family scandal and treachery in enticing scenes.

Game of Thrones –I hadn’t watched this show until I recently caught up in a marathon of recordings, but I got totally hooked. Some of the recent storylines left me so sad though and it reminded me how emotional our stories have to be to grip readers.

What are some of your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows…and why do you like them? Do you get something from them that helps your writing? Are you addicted to any of the shows I watch?

It’s No Longer an Either/Or Publishing World and Other Notes from ThrillerFest

Last week I had the honor of being the first author to final for an International Thriller Writers Award for a self-published work, One More Lie. ITW has been forward thinking in this new era, recognizing that the future is now and a thrilling story works no matter what the delivery system.
Although I didn’t take home the top prize, it was cool to be there (along with former blogmate John Gilstrap and others) and to be confirmed in this: it’s no longer an either/or publishing world, but a both/and and why-the-heck not?

Mrs. B and I had our usual wonderful time in New York, where I used to pound the boards as an actor. We had dinner with my agent, Donald Maass, at a nice bistro in the Meatpacking District (really hopping these days). We talked about the craft, natch, and something Don said in passing I had to write down (this happens a lot when you listen to The Man): “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.”
Chew on that one for awhile.
Dear wife and I saw a hysterical Broadway show, One Man, Two Guvnors.It’s hard to describe, but suffice to say the Tony Award winning lead, James Corden, is a comedic genius.
Also saw about two hours of the amazing 24-hour film on time called The Clock.
And I got to teach at CraftFest. The room was packed! Then I realized Lee Child was teaching right after me….still, a good time was had by all.
The most interesting talk at the Fest, for me at least, came from Jamie Raab, senior vice president and publisher at Grand Central Publishing. Some notes:
Ms. Raab stated that, of course, the industry is in flux. Mass market paperbacks, for instance, are in steep decline as a category. Ms. Raab did not see any way for that format to come back to what it once was. Just what this means to the industry is not known at this time (like so many other things!)
Hardcovers, too, are heading south, simply because they have to be priced too high to cover costs of production. But, as we all know, prices are trending downward as more and more ebooks become available at consumer-friendly price points. Consumers are getting used to certain levels, and there’s no way to fight that. Consumers are co-regents with content in the marketplace.
Ms. Raab spoke about the thrillers she’s read over the years that were “game changers.” Not merely good books or great reads, but books that did something so amazingly original or compelling they actually changed the way the books after them were done.
The titles she mentioned:
Marathon Man by William Goldman
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Firm by John Grisham
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Absolute Power by David Baldacci
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Each of these titles did something “more.” Marathon Man, for example, had one utterly unforgettable scene. You all know what it is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist, that is.
Absolute Power begins with another unforgettable moment, a burglar hiding himself in a swanky house, witnesses the murder of a young woman by the President of the United States. That scene, and book, changed the course of political thrillers.
So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is “more” than what you’ve read before? What is it about the idea, the scenes, the characters, the plot itself that comes from the deepest part of you?
Here’s the nice thing, as Leonard Bishop once put it. “If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.”
Splendid isn’t a bad place to be.
Are you reaching for “more” in your writing? 

Bad Boys & Naughty Girls – You Gotta Love ‘Em

I love the challenge of creating anti-heroes/heroines, making a borderline human being into something more. And the closer to the dark side they are, the better I like it, as a reader and an author. The guy could be dark and brooding, but give him a dog (or a baby) and readers will know instantly that he’s worth loving. Or the woman could be an assassin, but give her a younger sister that she’s protecting for a good reason and I’m on her side.

The popularity of the anti-hero (man or woman) continues to be a strong trend in literature and in pop culture. With their moral complexity, they seem more realistic because of their human frailties. They are far from perfect. They tend to question authority and they definitely make their own rules, allowing us all to step into their world and vicariously imagine how empowering that might feel.

Some classic literary anti-heroes that are personal favorites of mine are:

Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Hannibal Lecter (as Clarice’s white knight) in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and even Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

And here is a short list of noteworthy anti-heroes from the small screen:

On the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.

On the cable show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

On the new show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (My favorite character is Guerrero and I wish his character had more airtime.)

I’ve put together a list of writing tips that can add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic, but let me know if you have other tried and true methods. I’d love to hear them.

1.) Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your Anti-Hero/Heroine has a very good reason for being the way they are.

2.) Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with.

3.) Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.

4.) Show the admiration or respect others have for them.

5.) Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides.

6.) Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?

7.) Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s.

8.) Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable.

9.) Give them a weakness. Force them to battle with their deepest fears.

10.) Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.

11.) Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions.

If you have favorite anti-heroes you’d love to share, I would love to hear from you. And tell us why you like them so much. I’d also like to know if you have any other writer tips to share on creating anti-heroes. Creating them can be a challenge worth taking. Editors sure seem to love them too.

My Writer’s Costume

by John Gilstrap

This blog entry is scheduled to post on September 17, 2010 at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so as you read it, chances are that I am either asleep or on my way to (or I have already arrived in) Salt Lake City, where I have been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the League of Utah Writers. Actually, I’ll be speaking a lot. I’m the luncheon keynoter, and I’ll also be teaching two instructional sessions.

Here’s my question to Killzoners: What would you coinsider appropriate speaker’s attire for such an event?

If this were a keynote address for my Big Boy Job, the wardrobe selection would be easy: Any color dark suit combined with any color white or blue shirt and conservative tie. But as a writer–as a “creative” person, the question is more complicated. I’ll never forget the laughter I evoked from a Warner Brothers studio head when I wore a business suit to a story meeting at his office. It was so not-Hollywood chic. You can make light, but these things matter. Like anywhere else, first impressions are important.

If I were 25, I could get away with fashionably torn jeans, shirttail out and a sports coat. That’s the new creative chic wardrobe, from what I can tell. But I’ve been 25 twice now (with change to spare), and I can’t pull that off anymore. Even if I could, I’d feel stupid.

I’d also feel stupid in a business suit and republican tie. It’s a weekend, after all, and I’m a writer, not a lawyer. In this venue, I’m not even the association executive that I play during the work week. So what’s an engineer/thriller writer to do?

A former publicist told me years ago that there should never be any doubt who the celebrity writer is. She stressed that speaking gigs are work, and as such, one should never forget that work is about sales, and that sales are about image. That means, she advised, finding the right balance between mystery, professionalism and approachability. Think about it. That’s a hell of a balance.

When I think back on the various conferences I’ve been to, some writers truly do wear writer’s uniforms that are unique to them. Parnell Hall is always (except this last summer at ThrillerFest) in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a blue sports coat. Harlan Coben is famous for his wild ties, and Robert Crais is Mr. Hawaiian shirt. I have never seen Mary Higgins Clark or Sandra Brown when they are not dressed to the nines. Sharyn McCrumb is always . . . flowy. (That’s not a slam at all, I don’t know what else to call the look.)

Thomas Harris told me one time that the reason why he does so few interviews is because he feels that the less he is known, the more people are intrigued by his books.

The photo you see of me among my Killzone colleagues to the right is what we call my “badass” photo. It’s supposed to look like a guy who writes scary books–and I guess it does–but it’s not at all my personality. I actually like people, and lord knows I love a party; but there’s a legitimate argument to be profferred that the writer-John should more closely resemble the book-John than the real-John. Okay, fine.

I don’t buy it, and maybe that’s because I know I couldn’t pull it off. For others, though–Lord knows Thomas Harris has sold a lot more books than I have–maybe therein lies the recipe for success. Who knows? As for the League of Utah Writers, I think I’ll wear the same uniform I wore at ThrillerFest: a nice gray pinstrip suit with a black shirt. No tie, though. I’m a writer, after all.

So, what do you all think? What is your writer’s uniform? What do you expect of favorite authors when you see them in person?

Bookstore Shtick

By John Gilstrap

I consider myself to be an extrovert, yet I confess that bookstore appearances are a source of stress for me. Don’t get me wrong—I love meeting booksellers and fans (and future fans), and the signings themselves are great fun; but the rest of the show concerns me. I worry that I’m going to bore people.

Let’s be honest: not all author appearances are created equal. Nonfiction authors have the advantage of being able to lecture about their topic, but those of us who write about made-up stuff don’t really have that luxury. Somehow, we need to make ourselves interesting to people who know us more for the figments of our imagination than for ourselves. Along those lines, I had occasion to share an afternoon with Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon), a famous recluse. When I asked him why he never gives interviews and why he never does bookstore appearances, he told me that as a thriller writer, his reclusiveness made him more mysterious and helped to sell books.

Could this be true? I hope the answer is no, but who am I to judge? Maybe it’s not even relevant, because one way or another, I want to meet people. But what’s the best way to do that when you’re also trying to sell books?

The most obvious option would be to read from my book, but I rarely do. Why would people want to hear me read what they’re later going to read for themselves? I’d rather tell them the stories behind the stories. If pressed, of course, I’ll be happy to read, but rather than reading directly from the book, I’ll probably read a section of a special edited-down version of my novel, created specifically to be performed to an audience. Any and all Big-7 cuss words will be eliminated from the read-aloud version, and the scene will be one that really rocks. There won’t be a lot of dialogue because I’m not a very good actor, and I suck at characterizing the voices. Out of respect for everyone’s time, I keep the readings to a maximum of five minutes.

In addition to content, I worry about the length of the show. Since bookstores rarely put out comfortable chairs at these things, I’m concerned that the audience’s butts will go numb even more quickly than their minds. I shoot for twenty minutes total shtick, followed by maybe ten minutes of questions and then the signing. Left to my own devices, I’d go on and on and on; but out of respect for the audience, I think they should be able to hear me say my piece, say a few one-on-one words with me at the signing table and be on their way home within an hour.

What about you? What do you expect of authors at book signings? Are readings important? Is there a perfect format that I and my colleagues should be shooting for? For you writers out there, what has worked for you and what has bombed?

Beginning A Series

by John Gilstrap

On Wednesday, Joe wrote of the trauma of ending a series. He likened it to a death in the family, and that seemed apt to me. I think that’s also the way fans feel when they know that a series is coming to an end. I confess to feeling a certain melancholy when J.K. Rowling placed the final period on the Harry Potter series. There was a sadness to the conclusion of the saga, of course, but for me it was more than that. I had come to look forward to my annual or biannual journey into the story. It was a passion and a pastime that I could share not just with my son over those years, but also with people on the subway.

Remember Jack Ryan? In the early ’90s, you couldn’t board an airplane without noticing that 80% of the male travelers had their noses buried in one of the Tom Clancy novels. Personally, I lost interest in Jack Ryan’s saga toward the end, but during the time he was important to me, he was very important to me.

Steve Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger, Bob Crais’s Elvis Cole and John Miller’s Winter Massey are more literary friends with whom I love to spend time. Oh, and Jeff Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme, too. Sneaky Pie Brown not so much, but then I’m not much of a cat person in real life. Once they start talking, my powers to suspend disbelief fail me. That said, I’d walk a mile to hear her friend Rita Mae give a speech. I heard her once at Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, and she was a hoot. More recently, I’ve bonded seriously with Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas.

In June, I launch a series of my own, and I confess that I’m worried. I’ve always written stand-alones in the past, and I find the prospect of this long-term relationship with Jonathan Grave and his friends to be a bit daunting. In the early draft–all 750 pages of it!–I found myself developing so much fodder for future books that the main story for Grave Secrets (the first installment of the series) became hopelessly bogged down. I fixed it, and now the story is really tight, and I’m thrilled with it; but now I have to write another one. Same characters, different story.

And more pressure. It’s one thing when fans buy your books because they like your writing–that’s the main (only?) dynamic in stand-alones–but now some percentage of fans are going to buy the next book because they like the characters to whom they were introduced in the first. That’s a good thing, of course, but it adds a whole new dimension to crafting the story. The last thing I want to do is disappoint readers, and it seems to me that by creating a new series, I’m increasing the likelihood of doing that. Remember when Clarice Starling fell in love with Hannibal Lecter at the end of Hannibal?

Okay, I could never disappoint readers that badly, but I still worry.

I Like Complex, Competent Villains

By John Gilstrap

There comes a point in most stories where the villain and the hero face off and have a Dramatic Moment with each other. As many times as not, I find that beat of the story to be the nadir of the dramatic arc. In that moment resides definitive evidence of the writer’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read some version of this: “Well, Detective Huffnagle, since I’m going to kill you anyway, there’s no reason for me not to explain all of the things that the author who created me couldn’t figure out a way to clarify more elegantly. . .”

I spent fifteen years of my life as a firefighter and EMT, cleaning up after the handiwork of killers. Figure a couple, three murders a year, and they add up over time. Never once did I process a witness report of a dramatic speech preceding the fatal blow, shot or stab wound. Real bad guys pretty much just step out of the shadows and do what they’re out to do in as lop-sided a manner as they can. They point the gun, pull the trigger, and the rest plays out at 9,000 feet per second.

In my own writing, I find that the most vexing challenge can be to find the motivation for my bad guy not to pop the good guy on sight and get it over with. Motivating him to take the shot is easy; explaining his last-minute collapse in marksmanship skill is tough. Remember that scene in Behind Enemy Lines when Lt. Burnett is sitting on the rock taking a break? Our enemy sniper has for freaking ever to zero in on his shot . . . and then he misses! WTF?! How am I supposed to respect a bad guy who’s so ridiculously incompetent?

Not to run counter to the opinions of my colleagues here on The Kill Zone, but in the creepy worlds created by Thomas Harris (one of the two greatest thriller writers of all time, in my opinion), Hannibal Lecter is a lightweight compared to Francis Dolarhyde (Red Dragon) or Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs). Those guys are ninth-degree nut jobs who don’t even realize that they’re being evil. Man, that’s scary.

The other best thriller writer of all time on my list is Frederick Forsythe, whose book, The Day of the Jackal, is The Perfect Thriller. In it, the whole villain thing becomes a bit murky–just the way I like it. On the one hand we’ve got an assassin out to murder the French president, while on the other we have state security forces who torture citizens to death in their zeal to prevent the murder from occurring. I defy you to point with one finger at the bad guy in that story.

As I write this, I think I’m deciding that maybe bad guys are over-rated, and serial killers are overdone. In the wrong hands, it becomes too easy to create a character who’s bad simply because he’s crazy. There’s no moral complexity. All else being equal, I’ll take a Dennis Lehane character any day over a serial killer: a morally-centered cop, for example, who shoots a child molester simply because he has the opportunity.

Maybe morality matters less when it feels so good.