Tag Archives: crime fiction

The Hard-Boiled Fix for TV Producers: An Open Letter

tvDear High-Level, Mucky-Muck TV Production Exec, Esquire:

You know who you are. Reading this on your quad-quad-quad pentium lap-tab built into your leather couch. Or scrolling through it on your custom BMW ported dashboard. Or leaving it to your assistant’s assistant’s assistant. Wherever you are, however you are, have I got a show for you. Sure.

For your consideration: “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” You can roll your suntanned peepers all you like, but you’ve never seen the likes of this. It’s no rehash of what’s been rehashed for the last ten years, and it’s nothing like last season’s near misses with a makeover. I promise you, this concept has so much going against it that it simply cannot miss. Unreality TV at its best. So old-school, so throwback, it’s fresher than wet paint.

Source Material
I’ve been grinding out three stories a month since February 2013. You want yarns? I’ve got yarns. Sixty-three and counting. Short stories perfect for cramming into a 30-minute slot—you won’t just leave ’em wanting more, you’ll leave ’em gasping for breath. But a half-hour drama? you ask. It’s inconceivable. It’s just not done. Sure. And All In the Family didn’t break barriers. And The Flintstones and The Simpsons never existed. I’m telling you, in a world of The Great Race and NCIS: Rotterdam, any thing is possible. If thirty minutes was enough for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Dragnet, you’ll take it and like it.

Gray as the Late Edition
It’s got to be in black and white, too. That’s only natural for a period piece. Yeah, you’ll need to cover a wide-open timeline from 1929–1959. Cars, furniture, clothes, the works. And all the political incorrectness that goes with it. If cigarettes were good enough for The Twilight Zone…

Any Lead You Like
I’ve saved the best for last. Real boffo stuff. If those previous selling points didn’t put you over, this’ll floor you. It’s the living end. See, the hero’s got no name. Get it? In the stories, he’s never called by name. So play it up. Make it big. Make it splash. And I’ll tell you how—you get a different actor to play the lead in every episode. Ain’t that wild? Imagine the intrigue, the anticipation, the pins and needles out there in TV land. Every week you’ve got this audience salivating to know who’s going to play the PI. Maybe Johnny Depp. Maybe Patrick Dempsey. Maybe Bill Mahr. Okay, maybe not Mahr. But you savvy.

You want to break ground? Ready to give convention a rabbit punch with a bazooka? Ready to ignore every piece of conventional Hollywood wisdom? Probably not. But if it was good enough for The Twilight Zone…Sure.

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Your Title Here

By this time next month, give or take a couple days, I’ll have my first book. I don’t mean some tome by Sendak or Seuss, no A.A. Milne. I mean my very own. That stack of my papyrus marked through by my personal keyboard scratchings. That either-riding cowboy full of sure’s and swells and uh-huh’s. That pile of piles with that curious tag on the front and spine, “By Ben Solomon.”

thbd1-1I know. You’re all tingly. Like seeing you name in lights, isn’t it? But that’s where they all started. Every last one of them had their very first. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Groucho. Sure, once upon a time each on of them a literary virgin. Carefully protecting it. Trying not to give it away. Makes you wonder if their moms and dads ever gave them the talk on the facts of publishing.

Of course that was long before independent publishing. Not that such a thing ever stopped Homer or Tommy Paine. But those were different eras, different cultures, different markets. Nowadays, any monkey can independently publish any damn thing he likes. That’s any monkey with a credit card. Even a rhesus like yours truly.

So I’m joining the fray, diving in, holding my nose. I’ve got my 73,000 words running 212 pages. I’ve got my cover, I’ve got my spine. I’ve even got some awful nice blurbs from some very gracious folk.

Of course there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. There’s no avoiding it, no getting around it or making up for it by doing more stomach crunches or downing more coffee or buying Grecian Formula: if a book is listed on the internet, and there’s no one there to buy it, how do we know it’s any good?

That’s where I am today, and that’s where I’ll be a month from now. I’ve got to wonder where I’ll be in another two months, or three…or fifteen. Sure.

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Writing by Accident and a Pop Device

It happened by accident. Just a trifle. A commercial ploy. A pop hook. I suppose I could have resisted, but I decided to give in.

It came up as I dashed out the first story of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Mind you, it wasn’t a series yet. Just an idea for a short story. A romp. A gas. I was having a blast ripping off a tale of false identities, blackmail and murder. All in a throwback, corkscrew style as a valentine to Chandler, Hammett, Cagney, Bogart.

I’m cranking out dialogue for an interview scene between our nameless, P.I. hero and a new, hardheaded client. The detective’s already long on attitude, fueled further by a customer who’s got something to hide. It all seemed like a natural bit of writing. Organic. Nothing contrived about it.

“You want the old man shadowed,” I nodded. “What for, Mrs. Leblanc?”
As coyly as she could manage it, she said, “I want you to catch him with her.”
“That is delicate,” I said. “You don’t strike me as the demure type, Mrs. Leblanc.”
With abrupt confidence she replied, “You strike me as the impertinent type.”
“Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“Does it?”
“I’ve been working it into a big ad campaign I’m planning: ‘Private & Personal Investigations. Discreet & Impertinent.’ Catchy, don’t you think?”

I thought nothing of it at the time. I liked the exchange between the characters, gave the screen a nice fat smile, and kept writing.

After wrapping up the yarn, I decided to craft another. The first go-round proved such a trip to write that the juices flowed, all right. I had barely an outline in mind for the second story. Merely the loosest notion of plot points. What sprung to mind immediately was an allusion to Hammet’s “The Maltese Falcon”—it’s hard to punch out hard-boiled prose and not see the words of the genre’s big boys before your eyes. So I penned the opening lines:

It’s bad business to plug your client. It’s bad business, bad for P.I.’s everywhere, just plain bad all around.

As a short, first paragraph, I liked its grab. But it needed a quick wrap, a final punch, a knockout line. That’s when that dialogue came back to me. I could see where I was going, but it seemed as perfect a fit as Edward G. Robinson in a bowler. Or Harlow in a teddy. I typed in a closing line to the paragraph:

Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

Now I’d done it. I’d given my hard-nosed gumshoe a tagline all his own. Hadn’t planned to. Hadn’t meant to. But writing’s a funny practice. I don’t pretend to understand the creative process. Once in a great while a literary gem seems to appear right before your eyes. On other occasions, the most shallow devices cry out for use. You bat away and hack and slash and keep at it.

There’s not a whole lot of planning that goes into my craft. I’m winging it as best I can. Sometimes it’s gold. Sometimes it crap. All I can do is give it my best shot. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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May 2014: A Good Month

Always another shot. Another chance. As long as you’re still breathing.

May’s been a good one. More opportunities, more successes, more dream food. My arms are up and swinging, and I’ve landed a few jabs. I haven’t pulled off any knockout punches, but I haven’t hit the mat, either. Sure.

TakeoutI’ve got several things about to pop. The District of Wonders podcast network has slated two of my works for airing. One of my yarns will soon be running on “Tales to Terrify” and another on “Crime City Central.” The latter’s also considering the idea of featuring “The Hard-Boiled Detective” on a monthly basis. The idea of hearing my stories narrated sounds like a gas. Yeah, that’s a pun. I’d like to find out what kind of following they get, but it’s exciting stuff for me to be in that kind of company. Keeps the juices flowing.

I’ve also got a story about to hit the “Near to the Knuckle” website. That’s an important step to me. It’s an established site that’s well regarded for its niche and its following. Land a story there and you say to yourself, “Maybe I’ve arrived. Kind of. After a fashion.”

There’s Onyx Neon, too. This ebook publisher has just launched a new singles series. I’ve seen the cover design for the first “Hard-Boiled Detective” selection, and it’s a beaut. I’m awful curious to see how this one pans out, but they’ve impressed me a lot.

I shouldn’t leave out the anthologies. “The Hard-Boiled Detective” will soon strut its stuff in “The Shamus Sampler 2” and “Drag Noir.” I’m humbled to be included in the first collection, and surprised I was even considered for the second.

And then there’s the book. The first published collection from “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series. Polishing and editing is ongoing, and better than half-way done. The writing’s the thing, but I’m not so concerned with that. Sounds screwy, doesn’t it? I’m worried about the cover, first, and then pulling together the promotion plan and tracking all those dizzying elements.

In the mean time, the beat goes on, and so does “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’m currently wrapping up this month’s trio of tales, somewhat staggered the way all the work adds up. This’ll make 51 short stories to date in the series. You look in the rearview mirror and what you see is familiar, all right. But you don’t exactly recall it, either. Was I just there? Maybe better to  watch the road. Concentrate on traffic. Make up the roadmap on the fly.

Got a dream? Doing anything about it? You better get going.

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The Hard-Boiled Voice

It’s bad business to plug your client. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

 

Pardon the ego, but I thunk that one up all on my own. Ain’t it a pip? That line’s hard-boiled all over. Goes all the way back to the second yarn in my series. A whole eighteen months old as I write this. Almost. Fifty-one adventures later, it remains one of my favorites. And not so easy to come by.

I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.

That’s a funny one, the hard-boiled voice. Sometimes it threatens to run right over the voice of the author. Always real, frank. Real frank until it approaches brutal. So much so, on occasion, it’s downright humorous. But never sentimental. It’s got to be plain, straight talking prose with the kind of punch that doesn’t take any prisoners.

Part of the trick’s keeping it simple without letting it go limp. Simple’s one thing, plain’s another. Plain’s weak, dull. Plain’s not the stuff that dreams are made of. Pairing down the length of clauses ain’t necessarily the easiest task. Let alone pairing down the length of long sentences. Or making shorter sentences even shorter.

Did Paul Cain take the form too far? The guy dropped subjects and added more harsh clauses than Agatha Christie had red herrings. And he did it back in the 1930s. Maybe Cain’s too thick for some tastes, but you can’t disagree that his narrative had impact. If you can pull that off, slicing and dicing and otherwise mangling sentence structure, you can drive your prose off the page like drilling through a banana. All it takes is the wit to write dialogue like this: “You want a glass or a funnel?”

 

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
—Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

 

One of the best. And one of the best known from Chandler. The king of simile. And doesn’t it play a tad better than That blonde was a real looker? You want simple? You want brutal? All in the same bite? How’s about I felt like an amputated leg. That from Chandler’s “Trouble is My Business.”

Something to spin on, all right. Achieving the hard-boiled voice. Doing it well is a challenge and a half. Doing it well and putting your own stamp on it—that sounds like an other post altogether. Sure.

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Word Counts and Books: It Figures

I’ve got enough stories to fill three and a half books. That’s a lot of jack, content-wise. I’ll hit the four-book level this summer. So what do you figure? Would you figure it’s hight time to publish a book? Sure. It figures, all right.

The author at work.

The author at work.

I do the numbers all the time. Numbers of words. I can’t help it. A constant, hard deadline will do that. I bat out three short stories every month for my subscription series. Each yarn averages 5,000 words per. I started it up in February 2013 and I’ve kept it up. Every first of the month, three more yarns. Another month, another trio. Three adventures in thirty days. Week one, write a story. Week two, write another. Week three, the third. Week four, edit and polish and upload. Week five, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

The shortest tale runs 2,200 words. A few stories approach 9,000 words. That’s one heck of a span, but I get away with it. I relish it, too. What a luxury to tell a story in whatever length it takes. Within the confines of a throwback, hard-boiled series, there’s no cuffs on me. The subjects, people and places are wide open. The sky’s the limit. Sometimes I’ve got a clever twist in mind. Or a colorful character. Or a honey of an opening. Then it’s off to the races. My schedule doesn’t afford much time for lingering, malingering or singing the blues.

That’s a whole lot of work. Just on its own. Without the rest of life breathing down your neck. I’m not bragging, just stating the facts. Funny thing, I’m pretty damn used to it by now. Not that I’d ever call crafting words into some creative semblance as routine, but it’s become a way of life. I’ve got that down, after a fashion.

So it’s time to do a book. It figures.

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April 2014

April turned out a pip of a month. It began with a reprint in a regional mag out California way, picked up from there with a second anthology, and of course wrapped up with the next three yarns of “The Hard-Boiled Detective.” I’ve even impressed myself a touch. Sure.

There’s a load of “mystery” writers out there who’ve appeared in the e-pages of Kings River Life Magazine. They opted to reprint one of my series favorites, “The Hard-Boiled Detective Statement No. 18: Pandereos Ajax.” Yeah, I’m big on long titles, or long on big titles. Take your pick. The point is, I’m humbled and proud to join the ranks of so many established authors. I’ve got the same cap, just with a new feather in it. You can catch that story here: http://kingsriverlife.com/04/12/the-hard-boiled-detective/

 

Earlier this year, the third adventure from my series got selected for the “Shamus Sampler 2” anthology coming up from author/editor Jochem Vandersteen. I’m not sure how I snuck my way amongst some of these lauded folks, but I ain’t kicking. That’s for sure.

Then I get the notice that a drag noir anthology—you read that right—plans to run another of my “Hard-Boiled” turns. It’s like catching one of those FM promotions where they go commercial-free for a limited time. So you keep listening, and you keep waiting, and they play another cut. And another cut. You expect some dippy announcer to break in with the latest and greatest in mouth-anti-freeze-gum, but instead they play another cut. The hits keep right on coming and you get downright giddy. If you’re so inclined, dig the announcement at this link: http://www.foxspirit.co.uk/drag-noir-creamy-contents-filling/

Then  you come down to earth when you realize the beat goes on. The work goes on. And that means another trio of tales due by the first of the month. But even that spikes the blood pressure when I realize I’ve knocked out 48 stories in the last 16 months. That’s more than enough content to fill up three books. Nearly four books.

Naturally enough, I’ve got a book in the works. I expect to publish the first collection of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” short stories by this fall. Maybe I can sell a copy or two. Or nine, even. But first, I’ve got to get through May…

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Letting It Rip

boxers3Mostly I let it rip. At least when it comes to my subscription series. Coming up with three, old-school detective stories every month doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.

These yarns don’t write themselves, so I let it rip. And I mean rip. Month in, month out. I’ve been getting away with that in short form writing. To date, I’ve gotten away with it to the tune of 45 yarns. That’s more than 235,000 words, for those of you keeping count.

While we’re at it, let’s put that in perspective. A short mystery novel these days runs from 60,000 to 70,000 words. I’ve cranked out three books’ worth in fourteen months. I’m not saying that makes them good or bad—I’m just saying.

I guess that achievement will impress some people. But that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything it itself. It proves squat. That claim’s neither here nor there when it comes to quality. It doesn’t mean I’ve got anything worth reading, let alone publishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I keep grinding. The very best I can. One story at a time. You’ve got about four weeks in a month. That gives me one week per story, and one week to final edit and polish. Such as it is. That leaves no time for looking over the shoulder or rearview mirrors. That barely allows time for making coffee, for chrissake. No time for sightseeing. No daydreaming. No dilettante, diva dance steps.

Give me a hook and I’m off to the races. A colorful character, a pointed situation, a splashy opening line. That kicks it off and I wing it from there.

Have you ever planned a murder?
Johnny Shin was gassed.
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin.

Evocative stuff. Catchy. Three different openings to three different stories. I had no clue where each was going. I typed the words and took it from there.

How crazy is that? Does that make me nuts? I fancy I’m creating in the grand tradition of golden age pulp writers. It takes a strong work ethic, sure. No waiting around for muses. No tap dancing until inspiration strikes. You give it your best shot. And another. And still another.

I’m picturing a boxing ring. Writing as the fight game. You train, you work out, you shadowbox until you’re so bleary you don’t recognize your own shadow. Then the bell sounds. You come out swinging. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again. Put up your dukes and don’t let them drop. Not until that first tale’s in the bag. Then the second. Then the third. Fight fair, fight clean, and never throw in the towel. Sure.

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Writing Indefinitely

Truman Capote, 1959

Truman Capote, 1959

Ever come across it? A passage in a story that makes some vague remark? It could be a description of a character or a scene. It could be the take on a given situation. It ain’t necessarily the bunk, but it’s the kind of thing that can sometimes drive me nuts.

You’ve read it before: “She was a good looker. Not too pretty, not too plain. Maybe 25. No more than 30. ”

That roundabout description’s okay with me. Sometimes. That’s the subjective eye coming into play. That’s expressed by a character or a narrator from their limited point of view. Fair enough. But when something indefinite is laid down by a character who otherwise knows their beans, or especially when it’s put across by an objective narrator in the third person, hazy text won’t fly.

Have you come across it? You’ve got a neutral narrator who knows every last thing about the story he or she is relating. Every plot point is ticked off thoroughly. Time, relationships, locations—all as set and obvious as a three-way intersection. And then the author gets all murky on a room or a character. Why the sudden ignorance?

The best authors fall into this trap. Even the ones I humbly aspire to. I won’t name names, I’ll just let them roll about in their graves. But a sudden lapse on the part of the author weakens the whole shebang. The telltale words leap out and muddy the proceedings: almost, kind of, sort of, nearly, close, maybe. And there’s plenty of etcetera from there.

The writer’s telling us maybe? Hell, if they don’t know, who does? And that leaves us with a namby-pamby sense of the action and people. The point’s not about getting cutthroat over minutiae. You want your prose to ring, to sing, to maintain its power and strength.

So watch your sense of things. It’s like maintaing present tense versus past tense. If you’re telling your readers everything for sure, keep it up. If you’re sure about one thing, be sure about another. Get me? Sure.

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Vacuum—the Final Frontier

I love nature as much as the next sap, but I gotta a say I love a vacuum more. I can’t picture a more perfect workplace than an empty, quiet room. And the odds of attaining that? Fat chance.

Kids, phones, family, neighbors. Seems there’s always more interruptions than you can shake a keyboard at. I don’t abhor me any vacuum. I relish a vacuum. The vacuum ideal. A vacuum is my fantasy, my pin-up girl, my unrealized idyll. I dream of vacuums.

Working in a vacuum emulates the blank page, the empty screen, the bare canvas. In a sense, you create out of nothing. You start with zip, and then there are words, sentences, thoughts, meanings.

The struggle is to juggle the wailings of the broad downstairs disciplining her three-year-old. Keeping the aural tones of the microwave from getting in your head. Maintaining the mood, rhythm and momentum while trying to break a ten for the daughter-in-law. Sure.

Feeding the mood can be as dicey as protecting a souffle. Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no dilettante or prima donna. I don’t believe in waiting for the mood to strike or for inspiration to strike. “Writers write,” as the saying goes, and you’ve got to do it no matter the day, the time, the obstacles you’re presented with or those you create for yourself. But it can prove a touch disconcerting to attack a hard-boiled narrative with strains of rap music filling the air.

I suppose murder’s an option. That can tidy things up in a jiffy. A jail cell sounds like a swell vacuum.

 

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