Friday, May 30, 2008

Don' Want No Steenkin' Strawberries

by Barbara D'Amato

With seven ingredients and very little time, you can amaze and delight your friends and family.

My granddaughter Emily makes cheesecake and passes the recipe on to just about everybody who tries it.


Crumb crust:

1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs [Take a package of graham crackers, put them in a plastic bag and smash them with a rolling pin. This is therapeutic.]
6 Tb melted butter, cooled somewhat
¼ cup sugar, preferably brown sugar

Press the crust mixture into a springform mold or cake pan or pretty much any pie plate. It can go up the sides a bit. Bake 10 t0 15 minutes at 350 degrees, just to set and sort of caramelize, but not brown too much. Cool


Beat 1 1/2 pounds of cream cheese.
Beat in
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs

Pour into cooled crust. Place on cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees about 45 to 55 minutes, until most of the filling is set and the middle just jiggles slightly.

This is traditional New York style cheesecake, dense and rich. But I suppose it would be appropriate for The Chicago Outfit mob as well. Emily doesn’t want strawberries or blueberries or any other icky fruit in gelled crud on top of her cheesecake, but thinks fruit on the side is fine. She’s been making this since she was six.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

GUEST BLOGGER: Julia Spencer-Fleming

Morning folks!

We have a treat today -- the fabulous Julia Spencer-Fleming is taking the reins of the blog. Most of you probably know of Julia, but if you don't, get thee to a bookstore, and I mean now. She's won every award there is for her gorgeously written Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series, the latest of which, I SHALL NOT WANT, comes out June 10th.

Jules will be hanging around for the next couple of days to answer questions and such, so feel free to bombard her, either on topic to her post or about anything else.

Without further ado, the lovely Julia...



I told Marcus I would write something vaguely salacious for The Outfit, but I just finished a wonderful read, and I guess I’ve reached the stage in life where I’d rather talk about books than sex. (Actually, I reached that stage a long time ago. There’s only so much you can say about Tab A fitting into Slot B, but a good argument about, say, Kipling’s place in the English pantheon can go on forever.)

I’m late to the party when it comes to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.

When it was published last year, I stayed away, despite the intriguing premise. (For the three of you who don’t know about it, Chabon posits an alternate history where the dispossessed Jews of Europe and a failed Israel have been allowed to settle—temporarily—in the Federal District of Sitka.) Every reviewer I read at the time patted Chabon on the head for his brilliant writing while marveling at how he managed to escape relatively unsmeared by the scummy waters of genre. A Slate reviewer famously said, “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” At the Stone Coast MFA summer session, me ‘n the skiffies titled our panel discussion GENRE FICTION ATE MY BRAINS in response.

Needless to say, at that point I wouldn’t have read the book if I had been trapped in a lifeboat with only the Life of Pi as an alternative. What changed my mind? Well, the book got nominated for a Nebula. Then an Edgar.Then the Hugo. I figured of all my shambling undead peers thought it ranked with the best books of our genres, I ought to give it a try.

I was wary. I have been burnt before by “literary” authors who dabble in mystery or horror or science fiction. They get part way in, then they seem to realize it’s bad — it’s dirty, it’s wrong! And they pull out again, leaving me screaming in frustration. Yeah, I’m talking to you, David Guterson and Jean Hegland.

But, to paraphrase the dreadful back copy on the Advance Readers Edition of my own upcoming release (subtle product placement! Did you notice?) Michael Chabon Shall Not Disappoint.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a nearly perfect read. The world-building is so detailed, so real, that I dreamed of the District of Sitka the night I started the book.

The characters are so vivid I started saying things like nu and mitzvah--and I’m a born and bred East Coast Episcopalian. I say nearly perfect: some of the mystery’s final unspooling is a little too off-stage, and there are a few places where Chabon lets his love of wordcraft get in the way of creating a clear image in the reader’s mind. When I read, “The blood from his head has scattered rhododendrons in the snow,” I wanted to say, “It’s okay, Michael. Just tell us the blood splattered.”

Here’s the best part, for me: the book is absolutely true to the mystery genre. 3/4ths of the way through the story, we get what I always think of as the tipping point, the first clue that’s going to finally start leading the detective and the reader to answers, rather than more questions. Then piece by piece, step by step, Chabon puts the puzzle together.

Every casual, seemingly-coincidental encounter, every digression into history and memory, everything I had filed under the heading of “literary storytelling technique” was shaken out, held up to the light, and pinned into its place. I did something I never do when reading mysteries anymore; I went back and re-checked the clues. It was all right there. Chabon played utterly fair with the reader.

“So, nu,” you ask, “He can braid all his strings into a rope to hang you with. For this you go on like the man is Conan Doyle?”

Despite the Edgar and Hugo nods (and Nebula win) I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union expecting literary fiction. You know: beautiful writing, psychologically exposed characters, plot like an empty cardboard box. Discovering the real mystery inside gave me a unique reading experience: a completely fresh view of the genre conventions I love so much.

Reading a work labeled crime fiction, I only notice if there are flaws — an insufficiently motivated murderer, say, or the too-convenient clue. Expecting nothing, I was swept up in the pleasure of the plot, each fresh reveal—so this meant that!—like popping another mouthful of caramel corn and peanuts.

What this means, I can’t say. Maybe we should tear down the signs demarcating bookstore sections. Maybe we should be boldly mixing up genres. Maybe we should figure out how to recreate the pleasure you got from that first mystery, that first romance, that first science fiction novel that tore the top of your head off and hollered hello in there! How this happens, I can’t begin to guess.

Any suggestions, zombie minions of the genre apocalypse?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Road Trip

by Michael Dymmoch

Libby and I are still friends. After a week and 1200 miles on the road, that could easily not be the case. (You really don’t know a person until you’ve spent 12 or 14 hours in a car with her.) But--speaking strictly for myself--it was a great trip.

We did a library signing in Shawnee, KS, and conducted a suspense seminar in Topeka. (Well, Libby conducted it; I was strictly backup.) We managed a couple of drive-by signings at Borders stores (at one of which I picked up a Jesus Action Figure!). And we spent two nights in Lincoln, NB with a friend, which was like staying in an art gallery. With flowers. (I was actually moved to write poetry*--for the first time since college.) We sold books at The Raven Bookstore. Then we went to Mayhem in the Midlands, where fans outnumbered the authors, for three days of hanging out with friends and groupies, talking mysteries and murder.

Held at the Embassy Suits Downtown, the conference had well-planned panels, no banquet. But the hotel is across from Omaha’s Old Market, which has more great restaurants and neat shopping spots than you could hit in a week. (And horse drawn cabs, photogenic cops, street musicians...) Thursday night, there was a reception. Friday night, Sisters in Crime hosted a buffet supper and the organizers put on an auction to benefit Omaha Public Library’s Children’s Services. Saturday night Alex Kava hosted a cocktail party—free drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Then there was a mystery dinner for those who enjoy organized eating, and the Old Market restaurants for the rest of us. I got to dine with old friends and the head of the Douglas County Crime Lab. For a mystery writer, it doesn’t get much better than that.

*Kansas Weather Report:

Rain came in the night.
Gentle as the quality of mercy,
It blessed the parched fields.
Then it moved on.
©2008 MAD

Okay, so maybe writing that was like poking Murphy with a stick. Storms in Iowa and Minnesota wiped out a couple of cities while we were driving home, but the weather gods left us alone.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Not to talk about marketing, but . . .

by Sean Chercover

Okay, we don't really talk about marketing around here. Just not really our thing, and it's very well-covered by other people like this guy.

But this is really funny (thanks to Guyot for sharing):

Not only is it funny, and perhaps a bit painful, but it also motivated me to search for the author's website. Dennis Cass. Well, his blog. His Blogger blog. He doesn't have a website. Of course.

So he's a smart guy and produced a funny video that will at least attract other writers to his blog, where they will learn about his book. His video probably won't appeal to anyone outside the publishing industry, but a lot of people work in publishing, and they are the kind of people who talk a lot, and spread - for want of a better term - buzz.

I'm think about all this because Trigger City comes out in October and now is the time to start planning the tour and other promotional efforts.

Yes, I have a MySpace. And my first book has its own MySpace. I'm not linking to them here - this is not an attempt to get you to "be my friend." I frankly suspect that MySpace is a waste of time, but I'm there and have many friends. And I'm on facebook. No, I don't want to "forward and see what happens." I know what happens. What happens is, I spam all my "friends" with a picture of a puppy dog and the message "forward and see what happens."

God, is there any more complete waste of time than forwarding pictures of puppy dogs on facebook? Time's running out, folks. You only got another (insert estimate of your remaining days here) days left before you become worm-food. This is your life. And it is not, as they say, a dress rehearsal. Jo-Jo Dancer, your life is calling! Do you really want to spend it FORWARDING PICTURES OF PUPPIES TO YOUR "FRIENDS" ON FACEBOOK!!???

Ahem. Excuse the outburst. But you must know what I mean.

So . . .

. . . anybody care to share? Which marketing efforts (either online or off-) do you swear by? And which do you swear at?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Apocalypse Now?

by Libby Hellmann

This is a grim post. So take it accordingly.

A cougar runs through Chicago
s Uptown... and is gunned down.

An earthquake rumbles up from downstate.

Gas is over four dollars a gallon… and climbing. In Chicago 36 people are shot during the first warm weekend of the year, while natural disasters in Asia kill hundreds of thousands of people.

Americans face unprecedented debt, soaring commodity and food prices and sliding home prices.

Something’s happening, and it’s not good. I’m a simple, superstitious soul at heart (I figure I was a sturdy peasant girl in a previous incarnation) and I can’t ignore the signs. Are we on the precipice of the Apocalypse? I’ve always subscribed to the “other shoe theory of life” and I keep wondering when and where it’s going to drop and how bad it will be. Are these apocryphal events a harbinger of disastrous times ahead? The fall of Rome… the coming of the barbarians… you fill in the blanks.

What’s worse, I have the sense that it’s all accelerating. Alvin Toffler warned us about this. I’m almost afraid to check the news these days – a cataclysmic event seems occur every day.

Of course, I could be just a tad paranoid. A real chicken-little. In fact, my sister-in-law asked me not to write about this. Her opinion – very Buddhist, I think – was that giving words to my fears might hasten or lend them credibility. (Now who’s the real paranoid, you ask?)

Kevin Phillips writes that even though more than 80 percent of Americans now say that we are on the wrong track, most of us still believe that the United States is unique, chosen by God.” He goes on to say that “So did all the previous world economic powers: Rome, Spain, the Netherlands (in the maritime glory days of the 17th century, when New York was New Amsterdam) and 19th-century Britain. Their early strength was also their later weakness, not unlike the United States since the 1980s.”

Is that so?

I’m willing to acknowledge that I’m overreacting. And that I’m wrong. In fact, this may be the only blog where I really do want you to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about.

So, what do you think? Talk me out of this.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Seven Dirty Words You Can't Embroider on Pillows

By Kevin Guilfoile

Last week my wife went out looking for a vase she could fit inside another vase and then one of the vases would have a candle in it and the other would be filled with a bunch of seashells. I'm not really sure, I just know that I needed to watch about fifteen minutes of Enter the Dragon to top off the masculinity lost while she was describing it to me.

She ended up at a crafts and hobby chain store called Michael's and she found the vases and they actually looked pretty cool on our dining room table. Kung Fu panic completely unnecessary.

As she was arranging them she said, almost as an afterthought, "There was this sign right at the entrance to Michael's advertising a special on Novelty Country Planters, whatever those are. Except on the sign, they misspelled country."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"They misspelled country."

"Misspelled it how?"

She rolled her eyes, and not in the sexy way.

"Holy crap!" I said. "Really? At Michael's?"

She said, "It was printed from a computer and they cut it out and arranged it with a bunch of other specials so the display looked sort of like a flower. It was all appropriately crafty."

"Did you take a picture?"


"Why not?"

"You can't use your imagination?" she said.

"I could," I said. "But I'm pretty sure at the meeting when some engineer first proposed putting a camera in a phone, a marketing guy asked what people would do with such a thing, and the engineer said, 'Someday a woman is going to encounter an unintentional obscenity in a suburban craft store and she'll want to take a picture of it to show her husband.'"

"Did the engineer mention that the husband has the maturity of a twelve-year-old boy?"

"He said something about that," I said. "Only in Japanese."

This Saturday, a full week later, she came home from running errands and she said, "Oh, I took a picture of that sign."

"What sign?" I asked.

"At Michael's. Country Planters."

Now I'm not sure what disturbs me most about this, the ignorance or the apathy. I'd like to assume it was just a typo, that any Michael's employee with computer and scissors privileges would know how to spell the word country. Then I remember the night 15 years ago when my buddy Jim and I went to a Blackhawks playoff game at old Chicago Stadium. Our seats were way up in the balcony and when we got up there I handed my ticket to the usher so she could direct us to our seats. She glanced at it and said, "Walk down the concourse to ay-zuhl E and go up the steps."

As we walked away, I turned to Jim and said, "Could you be a bigger failure as a stadium usher than to make it all the way to the end of the season and still not know how to pronounce the word aisle?"

Aside from the mistake, bad as it is, how could this sign remain up for a whole week? Have we just become so hopelessly distracted by the rising price of gas and the falling values of our homes and a war that won't end that we don't even notice an in-store advertisement containing one of the last words that can still get a rise out of us?

Of course we noticed it and could have taken the manager politely aside and quietly pointed out the error so he could correct it.

That sounds like the responsibility of someone who doesn't have a blog.


Just to bring this back on topic, yesterday's Trib had an interesting piece about Dave Kaczynski, who famously turned his brother Ted into authorities and also developed a friendship with one of the Unabomber victims. The Kaczynski brothers grew up on the south side of Chicago.

Related, here are a series of excerpts from an interesting and long piece that appeared in the now hard-to-find third issue of McSweeney's, detailing the correspondence between Ted Kaczynski and psychologist Gary Greenberg, as well as Greenberg's failed attempts to write about the experience. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

And now, in a bookstore near you

For forty years, Andy Austin has been Channel 7's courtroom artist. Right now she's madly drawing pictures from the trial of your friend and Rod's, Tony Rezko, but she has covered every important trial in Chicago starting with the infamous Chicago 7 and Judge Julius Hoffman. Now she's written all this up in a book called "Rule 53," so-called because rule 53 is the federal statute that outlaws cameras in the courtroom. How many of us remember Bobby Seale being shackled to his chair? That and other details from the great trials of the last forty years make this a must-have reference for anyone wanting to write about crime in Chicago. We always knew Andy could draw, but she's also a skilled writer who brings out the key dramas in the stories she's telling.

Most of us Outfitters are far from shy about urging our latest tomes on you. One exception to that--our highly literate member, Michael Dymmoch, who supports everyone's work but never brags about her own. So listen up out there: Michael has a new book out, M.I.A. It's tender, it's suspenseful, and it's in a store near you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

And the Winner Is --

By Barbara D'Amato

There are a lot of awards given in the diverse world of mystery and crime writing, and getting to be more all the time. The most recent that I’m aware of is given by the Thrillerwriters, a relatively new organization, which is just now trying to come up with a name for their awards.

Crime writing awards fall into two main categories -- the peer-judged and the voted-on award.

The Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar award and the Shamus are two of the judged. For the Edgar, five writers judge the entries in a category, except the Best Novel category, which now uses eight judges, and for good reason. I served on the committee for best novel of 2006, and we received about 550 books. [Yes, five hundred and fifty!] Every entry was read by two judges, cutting down the number we each had to read initially to about a hundred and forty. If any judge recommended a book, it then was read by everybody. It’s a huge job. Also, where do you put more than five hundred books in an apartment? For the Shamus, three judges read in each category. I’ve read for the Shamus a couple of times, and for the Edgar the best first, best play, best short story, best paperback, best screenplay, best true crime, a couple of times each. In fact, the only ones I haven’t done are children’s and young adult. While this may show that I am a patsy, I do like to read, especially when I should be working. And there is something great about getting a one-year slice of what’s being written in a specific field.

How does it really work? Some judges use a five-page rule. If a book hasn’t engaged their attention by then, they sideline it. I tend to go for a fifty-page cutoff, but even so I usually finish the book. Somebody spent a year or more of his life on this. I can at least read it.

But have I learned anything about judging? We all wonder how fair, how accurate, how right the judging is. Is the winner really the best book of the year? Well, yes and no.

Committees I’ve served on have done one of two things. Frequently several of the judges strongly prefer different books. In these cases, it’s often everybody’s second or third choice that wins. The other case involves a book that blows away four of the five judges and is loathed by the fifth judge. It doesn’t even make his top twenty. I think that very unusual books tend to polarize people and quite often that results in one committee member just despising it. That book will win, with one very grumpy committee member left dissatisfied.

But I’ve never seen an incompetently written book win.

And what about the other kind of award? Bouchercon and Malice Domestic are two of several organizations that give out awards based on the votes of attendees at their convention. The typical method is to send a request to all people registered for the convention, asking them to nominate their favorites in several categories--best first, best novel, best short story, best critical/biographical, best children’s, and so on. The five [it’s usually five, but not always] that receive the most mentions go on a list that is sent to attendees well before they arrive for the convention. The hope is that they will have a chance to read most or all of the books. At the convention they are given ballots, they vote, the ballots are collected there, the votes are counted, and the winners announced, usually at a Saturday night banquet.

These are often somewhat disparagingly called popularity contests. But what is wrong with that? The voters are readers, readers who care enough to pay serious money to go to a writing convention.

The talk in the halls about why they voted as they did can leave you wondering, though. What have I heard? Well--

“Okay, this isn’t his best book, but his last one should have won the Edgar, so I’m voting for this one.”

“This isn’t her best book, but I’m voting for her whole body of work.”

“I like the title.”

“He won last year, so I’m not voting for him.”

One of the real drawbacks of the convention ballot is that very few people have read all the books in contention. I rarely vote in certain categories, like children’s and young adult, because I don’t read enough in those fields. For these convention ballots, generally, I’ve decided it’s okay to vote in a category if I’ve read three out of the five nominees. Otherwise I don’t vote.

Could we, meaning the mystery community, improve on these methods of generating awards?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hot and Bothered

by Marcus Sakey

I recently got turned on by Philip Roth.

I don't mean "turned on to"; I've been a fan of his for fifteen years, though in a sort of laissez-faire, read a novel every other year sort of way. I mean "turned on by."

And as is often the case, the scene that got me wasn't really that overtly erotic. It's from THE HUMAN STAIN, and it's a scene in which a woman dances naked for her much older lover. There are moments in the book that are more blatantly sexual, but there was something about this that just killed me. They're talking while she's dancing, and she's telling him that there is nothing beyond this moment, that it's a mistake to bring other things to it, the weight of love and expectation, the questions of what you should and shouldn't be and want, anything beyond the sheer joy of the moment and the animal recognition of one another:

"You want to know why am I in this world? What is it about? It's about this. It's about, You're here, and I'll do it for you. It's about not thinking you're someone else somewhere else. You're a woman and you're in bed with your husband, and you're not fucking for fucking, you're not fucking to come, you're fucking because you're in bed with your husband and it's the right thing to do. You're a man and you're with your wife and you're fucking her, but you're thinking you want to be fucking the post office janitor. Okay--you know what? You're with the janitor."

He says softly, with a laugh, "And that proves the existence of God."

"If that doesn't, nothing does."

"Keep dancing," he says.

There's more, lots more, and it builds in a steady rhythm that just slayed me. In a novel that's about the judgment of others, especially when it comes to racial identity and sexual mores, a private scene between two people creating their own reality becomes startling erotic.

But I find that's often the case. The passages that turn me on are rarely a play-by-play of what's happening, a description of nipples or sweat or flinging hair. It's usually something unexpected, something that suggests the whole larger arena of sexuality, that brings the personal stake into it.

That said, I'm also a sucker for a straight-out sex scene where the language pays homage to the rhythm of passion. My friend John Hart does that beautifully in this passage from THE KING OF LIES:

"I heard distant sound and recognized my name; it burned in my ear. Then I felt her tongue cool it. Her lips moved over me--my eyes, my neck, my face. Her hands found the back of my head and they pulled my lips back to hers. I tasted plums, kissed her harder, and she weakened against me. I picked her up, felt her legs around me. Then more motion and we were inside, up the stairs and onto the bed that knew so well the force of our passion. Clothes evaporated, as if burned away by flesh too hot to bear them. My mouth found her breasts, the hard, ready nipples, and the sort plane of her stomach. I tasted all of her. The dew of her sweat, the deep cleft of her, her legs like velvet bands across my ears. Her fingers clawed at my hair, tangled, and she pulled me up, said words I couldn't possibly understand. She took me in her roughened palm and led me into her. My head rocked back. She was heat, fire; she cried my name again, but I was beyond response, lost and desperate never to be found."

Phew. Guess I shoulda put up a parental warning. Kids, stop reading this two paragraphs ago.

Anyway. How do you like your sex? Do you like to be right in the moment, reading the details, or would you rather step back, and see the larger picture? Somewhere in the middle? Who does it just right for you?

What turns you on?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

by Michael Dymmoch

My Ma was a compulsive reader—not her fault. It’s hereditary. My grandmother was a reader. Her mother got in trouble for reading when she was supposed to be working. Maybe that’s why Ma was such a great school librarian. She’d ask a kid about his interests, then find him a book on the subject. And when he returned the book, she’d ask him to tell her how he liked it. She filled her library with plants and bright posters. I still have one she made herself—a fat green dragon announcing “I need a book.”

I grew up with bookshelves full of books. Kids’ books. Adult books. Science and picture books. And we had The Reader’s Digest in the bathroom. Ma never limited my reading. I guess she figured if I was old enough to decipher the words, I’d figure out what to do with them. I must have been in college before I understood the concept of censorship. (I still don’t think I “get” it.)

Ma made me look things up. She must have understood that you have to spell the word to find it in the dictionary, ‘cause she’d often tell me how to spell words. But she wouldn’t give me definitions. She bought an old encyclopedia at a rummage sale and made me use that, too.

Ma had infinite patience with her embryonic novelist. It may have driven her crazy to listen to dialogs I’d memorized from favorite TV shows, but she never let on. She was inordinately proud when I finally published something.

Ma let me and my sibling have pets but she didn’t let us mistreat them. I grew up with questions like, “How would you feel if someone pulled your ears? (or tail? or hair?)” Even ants got respect. (“How would you feel if a giant stomped on your house and killed your family.”) In spite of her fear of such animals, Ma let me keep a donkey (who taught me to be patient with stubborn individuals). When the donkey died, Ma made peanut butter sandwiches (his favorite) for his funeral.

Ma taught me to cook and sew and be helpful, and to understand irony. And she left me with the observation—framed and on my wall now--“People need love most when they deserve it least.”

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Copyediting, The Final Frontier . . .

by Sean Chercover

I used to hate revising. Silly (and hard to believe now), but years ago I actually saw re-writing as some kind of failure. I was suffering under a debilitating and unhealthy idea that voiced itself in my head thusly:

“If you were a better writer, you’d have gotten it right the first time.”

As I said, a debilitating and unhealthy idea. Kerouac’s famous scroll didn’t help any (this NPR story is definitely worth a read/listen) and it was a relief to learn how much of the scroll story was a deliberately created myth.

Anyway, I hated revising and consequently wrote a lot of garbage that was in desperate need of revision.

Now I love rewriting. One of the things I’ve learned from writers with five, ten, even fifteen or more books under their belts is: The tyranny of the blank page never goes away. The blank page (or blank 350 pages) will always strike fear in the heart.

But once you’ve filled those blank pages with words, life is beautiful. You’ve got something with which to work. It has form and substance and you can see it and feel it and examine it from different angles . . .

. . . and then you can make it better. Just as there’s nothing so frightening as facing a blank page, there is nothing so energizing as facing a finished draft and diving in to make it better.

And then agent and editor look at the thing with fresh eyes and offer their comments and suggestions, and you get to play some more.

And then comes the copy-edited manuscript, which I just finished working on.

The copy-edited manuscript teaches you a lot about the little idiosyncratic quirks you have as a writer.

For example, I seem to have a compulsion to hyphenate the entire world. It would seem that, to me, any group of words looks better connected by hyphens.

It was an open-and-shut case. This house is worth two-point-four million. They were floral-print sheets. We walked side-by-side. All incorrectly hyphenated by yours truly.

And for some reason I will never understand, I missed the opportunity to hyphenate “over-the-counter” and “matter-of-factly” – both of which do (apparently) require hyphens.

Of course, one of the nice things about the copyedit is that you can tell the grammar police that you appreciate the suggestion, but you like your bad grammar and plan to keep it that way. I decided to keep my beloved hyphens for “knock-on-wood” and “creeped-out” (and a few others) even if they aren’t technically correct.

And don’t get me started on the commas. I write with WAY too many commas. I’m like a bad director trying to give line readings to my actors. I’m trying to sit on the reader’s shoulder and say “PAUSE HERE, DAMNIT”. But the problem with all these commas is, that, they, really, slow, the, pace. So on second draft, I fly through the manuscript killing commas with glee. I rip them out willy-nilly (properly hyphenated? I have no idea!) and then the thing reads much faster without them.

Well. With this book, I was perhaps a little enthusiastic with the killing of the commas, and now I’ve got the copyeditor throwing little red pencil commas all over the damn place. And I know she’s right, but I also know that we really don’t need many of these commas and they slow the read (I didn’t really need the comma before “but” in this sentence, for example, even though it is correct). For me, rhythm and pacing and readability trumps technical precision (especially in dialogue).

So the copyediting stage can be a lot of fun, but you can agonize a long time over a comma or a beloved hyphenation. And you learn about your quirks.

I am a compulsive hyphenator. Even if hyphenator isn't a word.
I love leaving off the final comma in a sentence of serial commas.

How ‘bout you? Any particular quirks you’d like to share?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Fake News

I used to be a lot more certain about things when I was younger. Take the article I read in McPaper the other day. Apparently the Pentagon has set up a foreign language network of “news” websites. The latest one is for Iraqis, but there are also sites for people from the Balkan states
as well as North Africans. The Pentagon says these websites are a way to combat insurgent messages and get the “truth” out about U.S. interests.

Some journalists decry these sites as deceptive propaganda designed to manage and control information. They are particularly bothered by the fact that these websites appear to be objective and it’s only by clicking on “About this Site” that you find out they are sponsored by the Pentagon. “There’s a heavy responsibility to let people know where you’re coming from,” says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As a former broadcast journalist, I agree. In fact, when I was working in the media I believed that ONLY the fourth estate had the right to disseminate news and information. Any one or any thing else was clearly tainted by the interests of the writer or the organization behind it.

Well, things have changed.

My idealistic balloon was first punctured about twenty years ago when I quit journalism for PR. I was shocked to find out that TV stations actually ran stories produced by corporations. Back then, they were called “video news clips”, and, yes, as a former TV producer, I wrote and produced some. I rationalized it by saying – and believing – that there are usually two sides of a story, and that each side had the right to get their story out. I probably also rationalized it with the belief that the content of the VNRs I worked on were relatively benign: a medical procedure that uses new technology… or a new drug that fights rheumatoid arthritis. Still, I had the nagging suspicion that I was unwittingly contributing to something a bit nefarious, because back then, VNRs were indistinguishable from “real news.” There were no markers or other IDs that labeled the stories as paid programming.

Fast forward 20 years.

We have learned that conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams was paid by the Administration to talk up “No Child Left Behind.” Liberal MSNBC broadcasters Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann don't even pretend to be objective. Neither does conservative Bill O’Reilly, despite his new-found love for Hillary. Or NY Times columnist Frank Rich. Everyone dishes information filtered by their own agendas. At the same time so many VNRs fill the airwaves (in an effort to stem declining profitability of TV news operations) that there have been calls to standardize the practice.

Sad, isn’t it? News has been adulterated. Commercialized. Politicized. And I’ve been a party to it.

For a while, I thought the internet would resolve the problem. Because anyone can say anything at any time, I assumed the result would be a purer grass roots form of communication. The First Amendment would flourish. But how many of you really read all the comments on Politco? Or CNN? Do they really add to the national conversation?

Even more worrisome is the specter of commercial control, as the biggies in the communications industry try to persuade Congress to let them control the pipeline that brings us our information, such as it is.

Ultimately, given that Islamic fundamentalists, racists of all stripes, and just plain nutcases can launch their own websites, is the Pentagon’s attempt to put out their own version of the truth any less worthy? After all, propaganda is nothing new -- the Voice of America has been around for decades. Isn’t this simply a print version of the same thing?

The bottom line is that I’ve come to accept that any news I get has been filtered or paid for by someone else. Everyone has an ax to grind, and more are sharpening theirs as I write this. Hell, even writing crime fiction says something about the way we look at the world.

So, I‘m not nearly as certain about my principles as I used to be. I'm not sure where to draw the line.

What about you? What do you think?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Revolution Will Be Televised (But It Won't Be On Location)

By Kevin Guilfoile

On a sweltering, Texas-in-August afternoon, a justifiably angry, liberal mob wanted to drag me from my car and tear me to pieces.

That story in a minute. First I want to say that if you have time to read just one Outfit post today, go back and read Sara's essay again. That's important and this isn't.

But Sara's bizarre and shocking story about the outrage of Protest Pits reminded me that I was a bystander at what I think might have been the genesis of that idea.

In the summer of 1992 I was working for the Houston Astros when the Republican National Convention rolled into town. We Astrodome employees were exiled to remote parking lots and our subterranean offices were searched by Secret Service agents and teams of dogs, all reasonable precautions, I thought.

At some point it was announced that there would be a "designated protest area," and to my knowledge it was the first time that tactic was employed at such a major event. The media certainly treated it as a novelty. But the brilliant thing about it was this: It was Houston, Texas. In August. Ninety-five degrees and 100% humidity. In the protest area there was a tent and electricity and coolers filled with bottled water. More importantly, because there was a tent and electricity and coolers filled with bottled water, all the television crews were also in the protest area.

So the choice was to protest a half-mile away, at the actual entrance to the Astrodome where the delegates and nominee would actually pass, and where it was unbearably hot and lonely and where no one would record your activism, or you could protest in the designated area where no one actually attending the convention would see you, but where it was both more comfortable and you had a chance to be on the evening news.

As Sara points out, the distant, designated protest area has become a routine part of any event with the slightest stink of controversy and at the time I remember thinking that it was kind of momentous and peculiar and fiendishly clever. And after work I specifically drove around the Astrodome complex so I could get a look at the protesters up close. There was lots of traffic and I cut a few people off getting over to the right-hand lane for a better view.

The protesters were pressed up against the chain fence along the side of the road like prisoners in a riot, hundreds of them with signs demanding the U.S. government stop atrocities in Bosnia and provide more money for Head Start and dozens of other unrelated interests. They were all desperately trying to draw attention to their cause from passing motorists, mostly just folks like me on their way home from work. Somewhere up ahead I was vaguely aware of flashing lights from a police squad car. A traffic stop, I figured. But as I crawled along in traffic, I realized the protesters seemed especially agitated. Even the Head Start woman was screaming, fangs bared, face flush. I craned my neck to see if I could tell who they were yelling at. Traffic stopped altogether and I was stuck, just twenty or so feet from the caged mob.

And that's when I realized they were yelling at me.

These people hated me.

And I couldn't figure out why.

The van in front of me pulled over to the shoulder and made a right hand turn up ahead. I inched up behind an old school bus, painted grey. It had bars on the windows. And across the rear emergency exit was a hand-painted sign that said:


And behind the bars of the bus I saw white sheets and hoods.

I had never seen actual Klansmen outside of the Geraldo show so I forgot about the people yelling at me for a minute and stared in horrible fascination. Then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a pickup behind me. In accordance with some lunatic group insurance safe-driving policy, the driver wore a sheet but no hood. His passenger was in a suit and tie.

Just like me, except I had an baseball lapel pin and he had a swastika arm band.

Behind them was another pickup and two more guys in sheets and behind them were more guys in sheets and behind them was a police escort and finally it dawned on me that I've driven myself into a Klan parade.

I put on my turn signal and tried to change lanes, but the guy to my left had blocked me in and started screaming at me and swearing. I rolled down my window and desperately tried to explain--I'm not in the Klan, I just work for the Astros!--but he couldn't hear me and was too busy anyhow hurling an Arby's shake at me out his passenger window.

After a few awful minutes with the doors locked the guy ran out of throwable food and headed home. I maneuvered out of the Klan lane and made my way around the bus. A long banner down the side of it said, STOP ABORTING WHITE BABIES and then had a phone number you could call to buy a t-shirt with that catchy slogan.

The convention delegates, alas, saw none of it.