21 October 2009



Oh, whoops, too late. I already spoiled it in the headline.

So, for those of you who don't know already, Ray's dead. Live with it. He won't.

I'm not going to tell you how I killed him. That would be giving too much away. I will tell you that he dies halfway through SHANGHAIED; in first person - present tense even, like he did everything. It's a very neat trick if you ask me.

Then Wen Lei Yue takes over the story. She doesn't know she's doing that for a few chapters. She's got too much else to deal with. The poor dear, she's going to take over the series, too. What a responsibility. You'll get an inkling of what's in store for her by the end of the book.

Maybe you're wondering why I killed off Ray. Maybe you're upset about it. Maybe you're relieved. Maybe you could care less and you read my blog for reasons having nothing to do with my Ray Sharp series of books.

In any case, I'll tell you why I murdered Ray.

But first, here's a picture from Google Earth of the place where he died. There's no good reason for me to put this here, but I like to break up these blogs with some photos from time to time.

Here's why Ray had to die.

I don't outline my books. I just get a basic idea, an idea of where the story is headed and what I want to say with it, and I sit down and start writing. It helps keep it fresh for me, I feel like I discover the story in the way that my readers will.

So there I was, happily writing along, minding my own business. I had an idea of how the story was going to end and what Ray was going to be doing at the end. But then, Ray's in trouble, bad trouble, life threatening trouble. How's he gonna get out of that?

The problem is, one of the things I always liked best about Ray Sharp as a character was that he was a normal human being. Sure he was tenacious and loyal and smart and energetic; but he wasn't much different from you and me. He was no James Bond, no Jack Reacher. He was the kind of guy who relied on wits, luck, and a little pluck, to get himself out of jams. And sooner or later, a guy like that, his luck was just going to run out. It's unrealistic otherwise. And I always wanted Ray to be realistic, too real for some people even.

So Ray did what you or I or most of the people we know would do in a similar situation - he died.

I hadn't expected that. It totally freaked me out. I made three panicked phone calls to three good friends, along the lines of: "You won't believe what I just did. What the hell am I supposed to do now?"

I wasn't really asking for help. I wanted sympathy, understanding. I'd just gone and hoisted myself on my own literary petard and I was flailing away up there.

It was obvious that Lei Yue had to take over. I was only halfway through the book and she was the only other character who knew what was going on. I was concerned, though, that my readers didn't know her very well. I'd beefed up her character in the beginning of the book, tried to make her something more than just a sidekick or a curiosity. But I needed to quickly make the story hers, and get the reader wrapped up in her story as well, while keeping it moving along the track it had started on with Ray.

And the voice had to change. I didn't want Lei Yue to simply become a stand-in for Ray. She needed her own distinct way of narrating. I had my work cut out for me.

It was the most fun I've ever had as a writer. It was hard, challenging, and the more I plowed ahead the more convinced I became that I'd done the right thing in killing off Ray.

Maybe some of us writers aren't cut out for writing long series. (I wouldn't mind Robert Parker's royalty checks, but I can't even begin to imagine writing the 25th, or even tenth Ray Sharp book.) Or maybe Ray just wasn't the sort of character who could survive all that long anyhow. (Sooner or later an outraged girlfriend would have probably done him in.)

I don't know about Lei Yue, yet. In some ways she's tougher than Ray, meaner, more of a survivor. But I do have some pretty nasty stuff in mind for her in the two books that are presently percolating.

19 October 2009


Despite this joke that I heard:

"What's the difference between a writer and a large pizza?"

"A large pizza can feed a family of four."

It was a reasonably cheerful and upbeat event in Indianapolis.

I look forward to Bouchercon every year. It's four or five days of water cooler time with my colleagues - that I don't get sitting around at my computer in my home office. And it's a great opportunity to hang out with booksellers and readers and a few agents and editors as well. It's informative, useful, nearly always fun and reassuring in that for us solitary writers it makes it clear that we're in the same boat as a bunch of other folk.

It is not so good for my liver or lipid panels. (Bouchercon in Anchorage was the cholesterol exception - I ate a lot of salmon and halibut.) The culinary highlight of this time in Indianapolis was the St. Elmo Steakhouse. A classic place that's been there since 1902. The second night I was there I couldn't bring myself to eat anymore MEAT. So I had the "World's Best Shrimp Cocktail." It was loaded with very strong horseradish and did an excellent job of clearing my sinuses while tasting good. Three of the people I was dining with shared one Kansas City Strip steak and were well and truly stuffed by it. (Shapiro's Deli, however, which had been highly recommended, was a disappointment. The pastrami was dry and bland, the rye bread limp and dull.)

I was on a couple of panels, both of which were extremely well attended and a lot of fun. I don't know how many books it sold, but probably a few.

On Friday I was on a panel about "Setting As Character." It's one of those topics that can go either way. It can be deathly dull, or fun and thought-provoking. Thanks to our moderater, William Kent Krueger, it was the latter. Deborah Atkinson, Tom Corcoran, Jonathan King and myself, made a very good, wide ranging mix of panelists. And by my rough estimate, there seemed to be more than 200 people in the audience - which is a lot.

On the last day I was on what is known as "The Liars Panel" with Charlaine Harris, Dana Cameron, Ed Lin and moderated by SJ Rozan. Questions were asked. Three of us would tell the truth and one lie and the audience would vote on who they thought was lying. I won the award for the most times that the audience thought I was lying when I was actually telling the truth. (Yes, I really did work a drill press in an airplane toilet factory and if I wasn't a writer, I really would want to be an economic anthropologist.) I didn't know whether I should be concerned about that or not. Do I look untrustworthy? I am preferring to think that there are elements of my past and my opinions, notions, desires and attitudes that are, shall we politely say, somewhat odd.

I was happy to meet Charlaine Harris. She seems like a southern belle, and then you start talking to her and hearing her talk and well, she's just plain funny, smart, full of entertaining and interesting quirks and someone I'd very much like to hang out with. She reminded me of how one of the things I tend to like about my fellow authors - and that Bouchercon is always a good reminder of - is that with a few notable exceptions, they are seldom full of themselves. Even the most successful rock star writers are more often than not supportive of their fellow writers and wannabe writers, helpful and encouraging and willing to give of themselves to the scribbling community.

Next year Bouchercon is in San Franciso, the year after that St. Louis, and I'm looking forward to both of them.

Lastly, a little bit of hate mail for American Airlines. You suck!

[] I do not appreciate being sardined more and more into my seat every time I fly. (Ashley Ream, who sat next to me on the flight from Chicago to L.A. and who is not by any stretch of anyone's imagination - perhaps a mouse's imagination if it had one - large, said it was the most cramped and claustrophic she'd ever been on an airplane.) I felt like I was going to be in need of amputating my legs and ass by the end of the flight.

[] I do not appreciate being nickel and dimed to death for every minor convenience or comfort - while at the same time the quality of said available conveniences and comforts is laughably - if it doesn't make you want to cry - bad.

[] What the policy of charging for check-in bags has done is to make entering and exiting the planes even more of a nightmare than in the past. Overhead compartments rapidly fill with suitcases that by all rights belong in the cargo hold. The meager leg room under the seats in front of passengers has disappeared as it has filled with what won't fit overhead. Passengers are duking it out to get to and from their carryon bags that have found their way to points more and more distant from where they're sitting.

In recent years I have flown on Virgin America, Jet Blue, Southwest, American, Delta and Northwest. American, Delta and Northwest are pretty much tied for worst. Unless I have absolutely no choice in the matter, I won't fly on any of them ever again - unless I hear that their treatment of their customers has greatly improved.

07 October 2009

Who Needs Homeruns? I Love Baseball

Sure, when my team, the Dodgers, hits them I won't turn them down. But where's the real excitement, the tension, the suspense? A strong guy with a fast bat and a reasonably good eye manages to hit a ball just right and out it goes. It's an impressive feat of strength and timing, you bet, but where's the finesse? Where's the skill, the thought, the calculation?

Now Casey Blake's walk in the ninth inning of the second playoff game between the Dodgers and Cardinals, that's different. That's what I love about baseball. That's what makes it different, and to my mind better, than all other sports. Bear with me. If you read the following paragraphs and can follow them, you might begin to get an inkling - if you aren't already a fan - of what I and so many other people love about baseball.

To set the scene: It's the last half of the ninth inning, the Dodgers are losing two to one in an extremely important game. There are two outs. One more out and the Dodgers lose the game. James Loney comes up and hits a fly ball that should have been caught by the left fielder to end the game. But the left fielder muffs it and Loney ends up on second. He's taken out for a pinch runner, Juan Pierre, who's a lot faster.

Casey Blake comes up to bat. The first pitch is a strike. The second pitch is a ball. The third pitch is close enough that Blake begins to swing at it, but then thinks better of it and tries to stop his swing. If he swings too far it's a strike. If he manages to stop in time, it's a ball. The umpire calls it a strike and Blake is furious because he thought he held up in time. So now the Dodgers are down to their last strike before they lose the game.

If Blake can get a hit, great. But that's not easy to do. Hitting a pitched ball for a hit, is generally considered one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. Consider that a player who consistently gets a hit three times out of every ten is a great, not merely good but great, player.

The pitcher wanted to strike out Blake, or make him hit a pitch into fair territory that was either a fly ball that could be caught - by pitching him high enough that he'd swing under the ball and hit it into the air; or make him hit a pitch on the ground to one of the infielders who could throw him out at first base for the final out - pitch him low so that he hits the ball on the top.

If a ball is close to the strike zone, with two strikes on him already, Blake has to swing at it or risk striking out and the Dodgers lose the game. But if it's a bad pitch to hit - too low, too high, too inside or too outside - and he swings at it and hits it wrong, he'll probably make an out anyhow.

Meanwhile, Juan Pierre, the speedster on second base, is always a threat to steal a base. So the Cardinals' pitcher, catcher, second baseman, shortstop and third baseman had to worry about, and keep their eyes on him, too. (If he stole third base, it would be much easier for him to score and tie the game if Blake got a hit.) There was tension and suspense and potential action that involved six players and several possible scenarios.

The outfielders had to be ready as well. If Blake hit a ball into the outfield that they couldn't catch, they had to try and position themselves to throw the ball to homeplate in the hope they could get Juan Pierre out as he was trying to score.

What happened was that Blake, using all his skill, speed, eyesight, knowledge of the pitcher and plain old smarts, made his at bat last six more pitches. Three of those pitches were close enough to the strike zone that he had to swing at them. But they weren't good enough to really try and hit. So to the best of his ability, he deliberately hit them foul - out of play. Every single pitch could have resulted in the Dodgers losing the game, an important game. Every single pitch was a moment of enormous suspense, tension, excitement and potential.

This all assumes, of course, that you gave a shit. I do. Not in the way I care about world hunger or global warming or my book sales, but in exactly the same way that any great movie, music, art gallery or book can affect someone.

The last of the nine pitches of his at bat was the fourth ball and Casey Blake trotted to first base, having very artfully earned himself a walk.

A simple, meager, not anywhere near as impressive as a towering homerun, walk. But it was damn good baseball, exciting, nerve-wracking, suspenseful, dramatic baseball. And the great thing about baseball is that if you really appreciate it and know what to look for, almost every game has moments of that sort of drama.

The Dodgers went on to, almost miraculously, win the game. They wouldn't have without Casey's walk. But even if they hadn't, that one at bat of Casey Blake's, coming on the heels of nine previous innings of moments of small and large drama and tension, was more than enough to make me very happy.