Author Archives: Chuck Caruso

About Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

The Power of 15 Minutes a Day

Okay, if you read my earlier post about writing a novel this summer and decided you want to play along, you’ve probably started wondering how it’s possible that you can actually write a whole novel this summer. You want to believe, but somehow it still seems impossible that you could actually have completed a first draft of your magnum opus before Labor Day rolls around.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can do it!

I’m not going to lie to you — this little summer project of ours will be a lot of work but maybe not in the ways you’re expecting. Getting this done mostly consists of deciding to do it and making a clear plan that will help you achieve your goal.

Let’s start with deciding to do it, making the commitment to write a novel. Right now, take out a note card or a piece of paper and write on it, “I promise to write for least 15 minutes a day, every day from now until my novel is finished.”

Yes, I really want you to physically write this down. Do it now. 

This is just one of many practices of “magical thinking” that I encourage you to employ. I’ll share a few more of these later on, but for now just post that written commitment on your fridge or your bathroom mirror. You want to see it every day!

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Making a fifteen-minute a day commitment works. This works for writing but it also works for other things. In fact, this is how I learned to play the guitar. Granted, I’m not Richard Thompson or anything (insert the name of your own guitar god here). However, I can play well enough for campfires, house parties and the occasional wedding or funeral, which is pretty much what I wanted to accomplish.

The trick, of course, is that once you warm to your task, on a lot of days you won’t actually stop after fifteen minutes. When you’re on a roll, you won’t be able to stop. But to get there, you have to get into the writing habit. Habits both good and bad come from doing something every day. With even a very small time commitment, you can turn writing (or whatever) into a daily habit. It just becomes something that you do. So make that commitment now.

Once you’ve made your commitment to writing (in writing) and developed a plan of where and how to do your writing. Yes, doing your writing at the same time or times every day helps. I recommend for you to choose a time slot that allows for routine. Maybe you write during lunch break from work. Maybe you write after dinner and before you turn on the TV. Maybe you set the alarm for a half-hour earlier and write first thing in the morning while the first pot of coffee brews. Whatever time you pick, always have your tools at the ready and make sure that time remains sacred. Don’t let yourself get distracted with reading the morning news or browsing on Facebook or playing some game on your phone. I’ll admit that Wordfeud is my own addictive distraction, so I have to set my phone on silent and put it in the other room when I want to write. Whatever your own favorite distraction might be, you need to guard against it during your dedicated writing time. So, part of your commitment involves setting those other things aside while you concentrate on your writing.

Committed? Excellent. You’ve taken the first major step toward success.

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To Be, You Have to Do

There’s a well-worn story about a famous writer who was asked to teach a creative writing class. On the first day, she asked her students, “Who in here wants to be a writer?”

Not surprisingly, every hand in the room went up.

After a moment’s pause, the author asked her class, “So, who in here wants to write?”

The students glanced around at each other with nervous smiles, perhaps feeling like they had already answered this question or wondering about the fading mental capabilities of this famous author, who was aging after all.

Finally, one brave soul ventured to say, “Didn’t you just ask us that?”

But then the famous writer smiled, because here was her first lesson to the class.

She said, “No, there is a world of difference between wanting to BE something and wanting to DO something. You can’t BE unless you want to DO.”

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Certainly, this same principle applies to most professions, but it’s an especially important lesson to learn about romantic figures like authors and musicians and movie stars. You can’t BE the thing unless you DO the thing.

That means getting out of your own way and letting the words fill page after page. And doing it as much as possible. Look at Charles Dickens in the above photo. He wrote so much he didn’t even put down his pen for this photo shoot. While the photographer futzed around with all his new-fangled equipment, Dickens kept working!

One of my writing heroes, Ray Bradbury summed up his own method with the phrase, “Vomit in the morning, and clean up at noon.” By that, he meant that you can’t allow your internal editor to stop you from writing. When you’re writing a new draft, you need to compose at full tilt.  Even if you think the sentences are choppy of the wordings aren’t quite right, just go as fast as you can and get it all written down. The “cleaning up at noon” part is when you come back and do editing. You can fix any of those problems later when you come back to the piece. Initially, your goal is just to get it down on paper, or in some word processing document.

Personally, I favor Scrivener for longer projects. The learning curve can feel steep, but they offer a free 30-day trial. Developed by and for writers (as opposed to most word processing software), Scrivener remains very affordable at just forty-five bucks with free upgrades, and it does all the things I want a program to do. Mostly, it gets out of my way.

Of course, by now some of you are thinking this is all well and good but worrying about so-called “writer’s block” and wondering what you’re supposed to do about that.

Well, it turns out that most successful writers don’t believe in writer’s block; they can’t afford to. Besides, they’re too busy writing. Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire mysteries set in rural Wyoming (the books upon which the TV series is based), lives on a working cattle ranch. He’s up before dawn doing the ranch work all morning and into the afternoon. When his physical labor wraps up in the afternoon, he turns his attention to his writing and he never has writer’s block because he looks at writing like the rest of his work. He says, “Writing is work.  It’s just like digging a ditch. Have you ever heard of someone having digger’s block?  You know, I really want to dig today but I’m just not feeling the ditch.” We laugh because it’s ridiculous. You don’t have to be in the right mood to dig a ditch. You just need a shovel.

Which brings us to tools.  Make sure you can use your tools effectively and that you have everything you need, including a place to sit down and do your work uninterrupted.  I don’t currently have a home office that’s dedicated to my writing — the place is too small for that, so I sit at the kitchen table or work in my recliner. But, that said, I’ve also spent a lot of my writing career working in cafes. If you find the right place, you can sit there all day for the price of a cup of coffee and maybe a cookie. I’m not your nutritionist, I’m your writing coach, so you need to know what is healthiest for you, but I personally find an indulgence can at least initially prove enough of a reward to get you to sit down and I write.

The point is that you need to find what works for you, but I find that if you visit the same library or coffee shop day after day, the people who work there will come to expect you and that’s helpful because it’s an external commitment. The buddy system works well too. Pick a writing partner and keep after each other to maintain a good work ethic. We’ll do as much support as we can in this class, but we also want to get habits in place that will last beyond the end of the quarter, so think long-term.

You’ll also want to think about whether you like to work in longhand in a spiral notebook or on legal pads and if you like to use a pencil or a cheap ballpoint or a fancy fountain pen. Or maybe you’ll find that you want to work on a laptop and just pour through the words as quickly as possible. Personally, I go back and forth. If I need to write a fast draft of something, I’ll use my computer because I can type much faster than I can write by hand. I can also type comfortably for much longer because after an hour or two of writing in longhand I start to get writer’s cramp (and that’s a real thing, unlike “writer’s block”). Depending on the piece, I may choose to write by hand to deliberately slow myself down. A lot of my academic writing comes out in longhand at first. That’s because I need to really think through every word and every sentence. Sure, it’s a slower, more introspective process, but that’s the point. I find going slower makes my voice more sophisticated and my vocabulary more elevated.

When my goal is to sound smart, I write in longhand. I also like the idea of having a built-in editing process when I transfer longhand manuscripts into the computer.  But for magazine articles, conference talks, blog posts like this one, and most of my genre fiction, I tend to write drafts on a laptop. When I type, my voice comes out more rapid-fire, punchier, more off the cuff. That tone creates a more readable, more commercial style of writing. If you’re setting out to write a best seller, I’d say you probably want to type. That said, James Patterson writes by hand on legal tablets.

You’ll have to find what works best for you and stick with it.  Experiment with different tools and different places to see what makes you the most productive. But whether you’re using a MacBook Pro or a Bic ballpoint and a spiral notebook, make the commitment to start your writing habit today. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


Write a Novel This Summer

First Rule: Write Every Day

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You will write! You will write every day from now until your novel is done with no exceptions. No waiting until you feel in the mood. No day dreaming. No wishing you knew what to write about. None of that.

We don’t have time for excuses. We’re too busy writing!!

Now, we’re not actually going to start in on drafting the novel itself for two weeks. We need to spend some time outlining, planning scenes, and making some central decisions about point of view, style, target audience, etc. But while we’re doing all that preparatory work, we also need to be working out and getting ourselves into fighting shape so that we’re ready to do the hard work of writing a novel.

Let’s talk for a minute about why this commitment to writing every single day is so essential.

When iconic science fiction author Ray Bradbury decided he wanted to make his career as a writer, he committed to producing a new short story each week by writing every day. He reasoned that not all of his stories would be works of genius but that if he continued to produce 52 new stories a year, he would steadily improve his craft and increase his chances of writing and publishing great work. His method worked!

Probably the greatest and most prolific commercial writer of our era, Stephen King also writes every day. Still! He’s so successful that you’d think he could take a day off here and there, but he doesn’t. He writes on weekends. He writes on family vacations. He writes on holidays. He even writes on his birthday. Why? Because he’s a writer, and writers write. He also knows that writing is like going to the gym. Once you start giving yourself permission to take days off, it’s just a matter of time before you’re never going to the gym while finding plenty of time to eat cookies from a box while you watch daytime TV.

So, our first order of business is a firm commitment to writing every day.

To get your daily writing habit firmly into place, I’m going to ask you to commit to writing at least 1000 words a day, every day. I guarantee that once you’re used to it, this level of output isn’t really that much. In fact, you’ll get to a place where you can do this much daily writing in a just an hour or two,

That said, if you haven’t been writing much (or at all), if you’re starting from scratch, you might want to start by making yourself write just 500 words a day at first. Then you can steadily build up. However, by the end of the first two weeks, you need to be writing at least 1000 words a day. If you have the time and energy, you can even stretch beyond this minimum to produce 1500-2000 words a day, but don’t try to do this right away. Most writers exhaust themselves if they write much more than 2000-3000 words a day, and you want to set a pace you can maintain. No matter how much you write in any single day, writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint.

First off, the thing to do is make sure you’re actually writing and working pretty much as fast as you can during your designated writing time each day. To get yourself going while you’re re-reading and outlining your “model novel,” I’d recommending using “writing prompts” if you tend to waste time wondering what to write about. There are plenty of blogs and websites that offer dozens (or hundreds) of writing prompts.

Here are a few writing prompt sites that I’ve found particularly useful:

Writer’s Digest: Creative Writing Prompts (Links to an external site.)

ThinkWritten: 365 Creative Writing Prompts (Links to an external site.)

The Writer: Writing Prompts (Links to an external site.)

As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter what you choose to write about while you’re getting your writing muscles into shape. If some of these prompts feel too flat-footed, get creative with them. Even a simple reversal can help get your creativity flowing. If the prompt tells you to write about how you feel when experiencing unrequited love and you don’t feel inspired by that prompt, then write about how you feel when somebody loves you and you don’t return their unwanted affections.

Pro Tip: Either way this prompt works as a good one because it naturally forces you to write about characters and conflict. You’re going to find that those two elements are absolutely indispensable when writing publishable, commercial fiction: character and conflict. In fact, I make sure to include them in the very first sentence of any piece I write.

But developing good writing habits and increasing your output is essential.

However you choose your topic, just make sure you’re writing every single day!! No days off. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can skip Saturday and just write 2000 words on Sunday. It’s not the same thing. Writing needs to be a constant in your life.

Besides, if you skip Saturday and “make up” the lost word count on Sunday, what’s to keep you from thinking you can skip the whole weekend and write 3000 words on Monday? Next thing you know, you’re neglecting your work all week and trying to churn out 7000 words every Friday when you don’t have discipline and stamina to write even 1000 words.

So, if you’re going to do this thing — and you’ve all signed up for this class because you want to quit thinking about someday and finally write that novel already — you need to commit to writing every day.

Repeat after me: “I will write every day!”

Once you’ve made that promise to me, to your peers (it’s good to have a writing buddy or two who will hold you directly accountable), and most importantly made that promise to yourself, you’re ready to start thinking about the organizational strategies you need to employ to make sure you have a full draft by the end of summer. More about those soon.

In the meantime, start writing. Yes, every day.


Poe’s Advice for Writers

Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe did more than any other American to shape the modern short story. If you read other stories or novels from that era (even ones by famous and highly regarded authors), you very quickly start to notice a pervasive lack of narrative focus. That’s because, for the most part, people were still fumbling around with form, trying to figure out the shape of short fiction. As a consequence, stories and novels from the earlier part of the 19th century tend to wander this way and that, including lots of more or less interesting passages that ultimately seem to contribute very little to whatever might be the main point of the piece. In fact, sometimes you can’t even tell what that main point is supposed to be.

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Against this meandering compositional approach, Poe argued that fiction should always strive for “unity of effect.” He said that an author’s job was to hone their writing craft to the point where they could consistently and completely dictate the reader’s experience of the work. In order to do this, you need to pick a point and stick to it. Poe didn’t necessarily weigh in on whether authors needed to outline. In fact, outlining doesn’t seem to have been a very common practice in the era. But Poe did say that an author should imaginatively figure out the entire plot (all the way to the end of the narrative) before trying to write anything down. This clearly puts Poe into the “plotter” camp.

In a famous exchange of letters in which the two authors discussed craft, Poe and Charles Dickens agreed about the advantages offered by this strategy of figuring out the end of a story before writing the beginning. They specifically cited William Godwin’s influential novel Caleb Williams (1794) — something of an early legal thriller — as a work that benefitted from being carefully plotted. Godwin supposedly knew how he wanted his book to end and he worked backward from the denouement, inventing scenes and situations that would logically lead him (and his readers) to arrive at the desired conclusion. Poe also liked this approach because he thought it helped the author create a sense of narrative inevitability. The reader feels like everything that happened in the story makes sense and also that it couldn’t have happened any other way. The beauty of this is how it ensures you never break your reader’s suspension of disbelief. Even if your stories have supernatural happenings (as a number of Poe’s do), the world of your fiction needs to feel completely and seamlessly realistic. The mark of narrative truth, as Poe well knew, is perfect internal consistency.

For Poe, a well-written story should not only perfectly embody the author’s intention, but during “the hour of perusal” the author could control “the very soul of the reader.” Poe’s emphasis on “the hour of perusal” indicates his strong preference for short stories, which he called tales. While he read and reviewed a lot of novels during his life (and even penned one himself), Poe thought novels suffered from the fact that readers can’t typically read them in one sitting. The problem here is that all the normal distractions of everyday life prevent a reader from getting lost in the novel and staying completely under the narrative spell until it’s finished. For Poe, when the spell is broken, so is the work’s “unity of effect.” Thus, with a novel the reader can’t reliably take in the fullness of the author’s intention.

This doesn’t mean you can’t write novels.

Like I said, Poe recognized the commercial advantages of the form and tried his hand at one. But it does mean, in order to follow Poe’s writing advice, you need to make sure every element of a story or novel needs to drive toward that “unity of effect.” If something doesn’t advance the plot or serve to reveal character, then you need to edit it out. Yes, Poe’s own writing can seem ornate at times. He consciously cultivated a lush, Gothic style that would evoke the dark and mysterious settings that heightened the reader’s sense of horror. But these prose stylings work because they help Poe create his desired effect. When you look past the long, rambling sentences, and the self-consciously erudite vocabulary, you can still see how Poe stays focused on telling every story in the shortest and sharpest way possible. He believed in keeping things narratively lean.

If you want to follow Poe’s lead, then every sentence, every word, needs to be there for a reason.

Furthermore, when you get to the punchline, you’re done. Poe never lingers after his work has arrived at its narrative denouement. Get in, say what you need to say, and get out.

To be clear, Poe was adamantly opposed to setting any arbitrary or external limits on fiction. This got him into some trouble with his peers, who found many of Poe’s chosen subjects distasteful and much of his writing vulgar. But Poe fearlessly championed the idea of Art for Art’s Sake. An artist needs the absolute freedom to express whatever comes out of them, with no fear and no limits. This radical stance is clearly part of why Poe has remained such an influential artist around the world. We’re lucky these days that it’s perfectly acceptable to write about madness, torture, incest, violent death, or whatever you need to say. You can conjure up and express just about any nightmare scenario you imagine. But this is also a reminder that as artists we need to continue taking risks, continue challenging our readers. In this sense, I think dangerous and transgressive writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy perfectly channel Poe’s defiant spirit.

Whatever you’re writing, make sure to be as brutally honest as you can.

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Why Is TV So Bad for Writers?

Like many other writers in the public eye, Stephen King has said in a bunch of interviews that he thinks watching television is one of the worst things a writer can spend his or her time doing. As far as I’ve seen he hasn’t spent a lot of time elaborating on why he feels this to be the case, but he makes the claim often. Maybe King doesn’t say more because it’s self-evident. He certainly seems to think so. Also, I admire the courage of a writer from the baby boomer generation for so vocally rejecting one of the defining appliances of his youth. For me, though, the best thing about King’s pronouncement is that I’ve started re-examining my own TV habits.

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I don’t think of myself as having a television problem, but I probably could, and probably should, cut back. I often watch for a couple hours in the evening. Yes, it’s mostly a waste of time. Not entirely because I sometimes write about television. Though I mostly enjoy watching sit-coms and I don’t know that I’ve ever written about those. The shows I tend to write about are ones that I watch more for analysis than for simple entertainment. Not that I don’t enjoy watching things like True Detective or The Killing. I do, and I recognize that Netflix and other streaming services are ushering in a new golden age of television where shows can become more novelistic as their stories arc over full seasons and beyond. But I’ve also watched a fair number of things that I didn’t enjoy for writing projects. The Following comes to mind. The Poe connection notwithstanding, I know wouldn’t have made it more than a few episodes into that one if I hadn’t accepted an assignment to write about it.

But the question still remains, why exactly is television so terrible for writers?

At the risk of rehashing a million arguments made in the 60’s and 70’s, I think I’ve got a few cogent arguments that will have aspiring writers turning off the tube. If you need more convincing, you can track down Jerry Mander’s 1978 classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. For my part, I’m not worried about how TV affects society as a whole or the mass of watchers as individuals. I’m just thinking about how it impacts those of us who write.

First, TV sucks down time we could better spend on other activities. Every hour you spend staring into colorful, dancing pixels is at least an hour you don’t spend writing. Of course you can’t write every hour of the day. Nobody does that and nobody expects you to. But if you haven’t gotten your writing in for the day for whatever reason, then what the hell are you doing sitting in front of the TV before bed? The other thing about time, which is always at a premium, is that when you’re not actively writing you need to be reading. One of the neglected secrets to success as a writer is spending as much time as possible reading the work of other writers. You’re learning more about your craft even when you’re just relaxing with a book. You’re hearing new ways to describe things. You’re observing different ways to tell a story. And most importantly, you’re exercising the verbal aptitude of your brain.

In fact, this idea of verbal aptitude brings us to the second major problem with television for writers. As its name implies, TV is a visual medium. It’s audial too, but the primary way it works is by riveting the attention of our eyes. It shows us moving pictures. US television broadcasts at a rate of 24 frames per second. If, like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, then that’s 24,000 words per second. That’s a full-length novel’s worth of description every three to four seconds. Processing all that information should be exhausting, but it’s not. Instead it teaches our brains to become lazy, at least in terms of our verbalization of things. The part of us that works to put into words everything we see and experience just can’t keep up with 24,000 words a second. No way, no how. So instead we shut down that part of ourselves. We stop exercising our verbal aptitude so that we can just let the pretty pictures wash over us. That means, TV shuts down the inner writer dwelling in each of us. That thought alone should terrifying enough to make you keep your television in a locked cabinet.

Third, TV is an anti-literacy machine. Okay, that sounds hyperbolic, but you don’t have to believe me. Test it out on yourself. Give up television for just one week and devote those hours to reading instead. You don’t have to read anything in particular, but maybe pick two or three novels of those novels you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to. The typical American watches about five hours of TV a day. That’s 35 hours of reading during your one week experiment. So, if you honestly convert your television hours straight over to reading hours, you’ll probably read a few books over the course of the next week. You’ll certainly get through one or two even if you’re a slow reader. But this experiment isn’t even about the missing time you’ll rediscover. It’s about the shift in your thinking. Your brain will feel different after a week of reading a few books instead of watching TV. Your verbal aptitude will be heightened. When you walk around in the world, you’ll find yourself internally describing things in words. You’ll find yourself making different observations, connecting ideas in different ways, being more literate. You’ll also be inspired to buy a couple more books to replenish the ones you finished reading last week, and that promotes literate culture even beyond the limits of your own skull. As will the increased writing you do.

And that’s why television is so deadly for writers. It wastes your time. It reduces your verbal aptitude. And it alienates you from your own literacy. Thanks to public schools, most Americans can read. So we’re not actually illiterate, but when we don’t read or have no interest in reading, we become aliterate. When that happens, book culture stagnates and dies. Some people might think the endangered state of book culture doesn’t affect them. It does. Deeply. But that’s an argument for another time.

If you’re a writer or want to be one, then you already know what sort of world you want. One with books, and more of them.

So, I think I’ll give it a try. Starting now, I’m committing to one full week of reading instead of watching TV.

If you decide to join me and do this too, stop back by and let me know how it goes.


Slogging Through Two Seasons of The Killing

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally found out who killed Rosie Larsen and why. This past weekend I finished watching the second season of The Killing, a moody police procedural set in Seattle but produced by a Danish director and crew. Though I really disliked the eye-rollingly tidy final episode, which was at least a twist or two too far (and maybe ten or more too far), the finish wasn’t really where the show fell apart. This denouement was just the final straw that broke the back of a strong beast overburdened with practically every piece of personal baggage the writers could pile onto it. The last episode also fell directly into the old trap of using long flashbacks to show us the crime as it happened. While not the most egregious misuse of this device I’ve seen, a dubious honor that still goes to the Jody Foster rape drama The Accused (1988), the effect was still to whitewash all those careful shades of gray the show had worked so hard to establish. The idea that the past is somehow perfectly recoverable and knowable not only comes across as blithely expository and patently false, but it completely undermines the contradicting subjectivities and moral ambiguity that are really what make dark crime fiction so compelling in the first place.

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The characters and case in these first two seasons were quite interesting, but ended up having more potential than punch. Although some have complained that the story dragged on for too long, I found the opposite to be true. I think the idea of spending two full seasons on a case that most cop dramas would have solved in a single 50 minute episode is refreshing. In fact, personally I would have liked to wallow even deeper in the drudgery of police work. But while The Killing trusted its viewers enough to stay engaged with the slow character development this required, it punked out when it came to sticking with the long, tedious work of solving a crime and coming to terms with its consequences. Sadly this element that should have made the program so unique proved its ultimate undoing.

The painful thing here is that the show started out so strong. I loved the first season (or most of it), but by the second season I started to get frustrated with having so many twists and turns. They seemed to want a big new surprise at the end of every episode, so instead of feeling gritty and real, the show starts to feel forced and over-wrought. The problem arises that every stunning new reversal can’t help but tear another long snag of unintended implausibilities into the fabric of the show’s diegetic reality. At a certain point this tangled knot of deception becomes so Gordian that even slicing through it with a bright sword ends up feeling like a betrayal. I understand that some viewers might have struggled with boredom while confronting the long, painful process of not knowing what happened and not knowing how to find out; however, that real-world grind of police work and emotional marathon of seeing a case to conclusion seemed to be precisely what the show had earlier promised.

So, why not just make us squirm under this pressure? Why not stay committed to the aesthetic vision of the first half dozen episodes?

Instead, cliffhanger episodes and a new prime suspect every week maintained freshness for a while, but in the end it became its own sort of overstimulated tedium. And the show became a failed reiteration of the cop show conventions it had attempted to break with in its earlier episodes.

Yes, at times the show still made an honest attempt to wallow in the procedural grind. The slow exhaustion that overtakes Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) helps express this discomfort. So do the combined pressures of Linden’s past as an unhappy foster child and her present as a criminally negligent parent. Enos performs the role brilliantly, with her face growing more haunted and her nervous tics becoming more pronounced as the case wears her down. The pathos of Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman) also offers great insights into the grueling aspects of police work. When the show mines his troubled past as a narcotics addict and the ongoing strain that history has on his family relationships, the pathos becomes palpable. We really start to understand why these two damaged homicide detectives cling to their waterlogged and sinking case like two fatigued swimmers who know they can’t quite make it to shore. But then Linden’s exhaustion becomes an excuse for the cabal of corruption to take her badge and have her involuntarily committed, a plot turn that transmutes character gold into dull dramatic lead. Suddenly the problem is not so much that she’s pushing herself too hard, eating and sleeping too little, or suffering from over-identification with the victim and victim’s family, it’s all just a big conspiracy to keep her from solving the crime. She’s fine once they can bust her out of the psych ward.

Similarly, Holder moves fluidly from desperately needing his Narcotics Anonymous meetings, to learning that his sponsor has betrayed him and feeling desperate enough that he steals drugs from a former underworld contact and hooks up with another addict from his meetings, to being miraculously cured of his addictions and perfectly redeemed from the taint of corruption that earned him his dirty badge in the first place.

Getting out of the weeds to take a longer view of these first two seasons, I now almost want to laugh at the clown car of false leads, innocent suspects, red herrings, and wild tangents. It all feels very dramatic when you’re moving from episode to episode, but in retrospect the story arc comes off as a scattershot of mystery cliches — teenagers with secrets, corrupt politics, tribal casinos and Indian land rights, infidelities and jilted lovers, past connections to the mob that can’t ever be overcome, vigilante justice gone wrong, street snitches, teachers corrupting students, a haunted widower, a creepy dude living with his even creepier mother, millionaires partying with call girls, a mayoral campaign, cops running afoul of long-term FBI investigations, a terrorist plot, human trafficking, bodies in trunks of cars, and on and on. This is just too much to cram into a single case and have it still seem like gritty portrayal of day-to-day police work.

In the end, I still very much enjoyed these first two seasons of The Killing. Or I will have once I learn to forgive and forget that miserable finale. But for the most part, I don’t regret the time I spent getting lost in rainy woods, dirty back alleys, and shadowy offices. The tale remains legitimately heart wrenching as it explores Rosie Larsen’s awful murder and the tragic effects that her death has on those who knew and loved her. With their deep personal scars and uneasy chemistry, Detectives Linden and Holder are the sort of likably pessimistic cops that you find yourself wanting to follow through hell and high water. I do want to spend more time with them. I’m sure they will remain as compelling as whatever case they’re working.

But, that said, I still need to take a break before I dive into season three.

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Two Keys to Writing Successful Commercial Fiction

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of author interviews with best-sellers like James Patterson and Stephen King. And the two things that keep coming up from these writers is that if you want to succeed as a writer, one who can actually quit his day job eventually, then you need to have an incredible work ethic and you need to write things that people will actually want to read.

On the face of it, doing just those two things can sound so easy, but it’s sort of like saying that if you want to stay strong and healthy you have to eat right and get regular exercise. Everybody knows that already, but it’s still a constant battle to learn the lesson and make it stick. So many people have a hard time taking care of their health because we’re constantly surrounded by all these distractions and temptations. It’s way too easy to grab lunch at a fast food joint, or add pop and a bag of chips to your lunch. And why not have a cookie for dessert while you’re at it, right? Then instead of wanting to hit the gym and work off those calories, you feel like taking a nap or heading out for happy hour with friends. Before you know it you find that another day, another week, another month has gone and you’re even heavier and more tired and more out of shape than before.

It’s all about habits, energy, and focus.

So, the first thing is you have to write every day. Yes, seven days a week and 365 days a year. It’s what Patterson does. It’s what Stephen King has been doing for forty years. So, if you don’t believe it’s as simple as that or don’t think being prolific is the key, just look at the number of books those guys have written over the past few decades. It’s insane, but it’s also totally possible if you commit to it and get your work done. That probably means getting up early so you can get your work in before you have to show up at the office or the shop or wherever you work. And when you’re working you need to stay focused on your projects. You can’t let yourself get distracted by social media or checking your email or reading the news. You need to get your writing done. As you start to work on your daily habit, it’s also very beneficial to set a word count total for each day. If you can only swing a half-hour a day to begin with, then maybe you keep things modest at 500 words. If you can do an hour or more, then you should be writing at least 1000 words a day. In fact, writing a 1000 words a day is probably the optimal place to start. On the one hand, it’s a manageable block of writing both in terms of output and fleshing out a single scene. On the other hand, it’s going to feel like a bit of a stretch when you’re first getting started with your daily writing. It will build your writing muscles and improve your creative stamina.

Once you can do 1000 words a day without too much work, then you know you can set longer term goals. For example, you can think seriously about writing a novel. The average popular novel is 60,000-80,000 words. If you’re routinely writing 1000 words a day then you can feel confident that you’ll be able to crank out a first draft in just two or three months. If you have an outline. Otherwise, you’re going to have to reverse outline the first draft and see if the overall story arc works. Save yourself the extra work. And save your beta readers the grief of fumbling for the words to explain why your novel doesn’t quite hand together. Do an outline first. Not only that, but share the outline with a few trusted fellow writers or avid readers and see what they think of the storyline. Yes, this can feel like you’re spoiling the surprise, but there’s no way around this process. Besides, with all the novels and movies that have been written, do you really think that you’re going to come up with something that’s so revolutionary that your readers haven’t seen a variation on it before? Seriously? I mean, there’s a reason that somebody was able to write a massive scholarly tome about the seven plots that comprise the entire history of world literature. Humans are storytellers and we love telling variations on the same stories over and over again.

The second thing is writing accessible prose. If you want to publish commercial fiction, if you want to break out on the best seller list and actually make better than hobby money from your writing, then you absolutely have to write things that people want to read. It’s not about pandering or aiming at the lowest common denominator. Yes, these books are maybe not “high literature.” They’re beach books or airport books or grocery store books or whatever you want to call them. But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with providing people with books they actually enjoy reading? Doesn’t every author want to capture a reader’s attention, fire her imagination, hold her in suspense, make her miss her bus stop or stay up past her bedtime so she can read just one more chapter? To do this, you have to focus first and foremost on readability. You can’t get all fancy and erudite. You can’t be worried about impressing readers with your massive intelligence or your impressive education or your giant vocabulary. Save the big fancy words for when you want to beat your family at Scrabble. You have to tell a story that people want to hear and you have to do it in language that comes alive but that is also simple enough that the reader forgets about the author and the book. The reader has to fall into the world of the novel so that the pages turn themselves. Get rid of anything that gets in the way of that magical experience of the outside world melting away while the reader is lost in your book. Those are the books that people love. They’re the books that people tell their friends about. And they’re the books that make people eager to find more by that author. In one of his interviews, Patterson says books like this, truly engaging page-turners, are rarer than most authors realize.

As someone who starts reading way more books than he actually finishes, I think Patterson is absolutely right.


Poe’s Popularity

Since attending the 4th International Edgar Allan Poe conference in New York a few weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Poe has become such a cultural icon in recent years.

Yes, Poe was always one of the more important American writers of the 19th century, despite being dismissed from consideration as “serious literature” for so many years. Instead, and somewhat strangely, Poe’s enduring popularity caused him to be classified as juvenile literature, which his work is absolutely not, but along with scaring (and scarring) generations of readers, foisting him off on the young had the somewhat perverse effect of only making Poe more widely influential. Having such a lineage and coming in an era dominated by YA fiction certainly boosts Poe’s current reputation. He offers dark magic for kids schooled with Harry Potter, and grim cultural critique for teens enthralled by the dystopian visions of Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy. So, that’s probably part of Poe’s secret, but there’s more.

Poe also wrote the very first recognizable detective stories. His trio of Parisian mysteries featuring C. Auguste Dupin and his nameless sidekick who narrates the tales, starts with the locked-room case of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” first published Graham’s Magazine in 1841, these stories introduced the idea of mysteries where the detective (and along with him the reader) encounters a series of clues which he must them assemble into a solution told in the form of a narrative that accounts for each piece of the puzzle.

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It’s worth noting that Poe referred to these detective stories as his tales of ratiocination. He always preferred the word “tale” to indicate a short story. Meaning “logical reasoning” and pronounced with a hard T so the first syllable sounds like rat, the word “ratiocination” was cumbersome and unfamiliar even in Poe’s time, so it’s no wonder we’ve shifted over to calling them detective stories or mystery stories; however, these newer descriptions subtly place the focus on the central figure of the detective in the first place or on the puzzle itself in the latter. Poe’s awkward word “ratiocination” still has the advantage of emphasizing the mental thought processes that interpret the story’s clues in order to produce the mystery’s solution, and that’s exactly where Poe wanted to place focus. For Poe, detective stories are always primarily about how we analyze the word around us, reading information in order to deduce hidden truths.

Writing fifty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle followed Poe’s model with his enormously popular and influential Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Conan Doyle was quite open about his debts to Poe, but he cleverly renamed the detective’s process “deduction” which was already familiar from philosophy and has proven a much more manageable term for most people. In the 20th century, writers like Agatha Christie and Rex Stout turned the production of detective novels into a fine cottage industry with a ravenous readership. Interestingly, after the 1930’s most American crime writers veered down the path of detective as action-adventure hero, following Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler down a path that perhaps has as much in common with the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, etc.) as it does with Poe’s more intellectual tales. In any case, with his three Dupin stories, Poe essentially invented a genre that has become dominant in our times. Every country in the world writes and reads detective stories and novels these days.

The significance of this contribution by Poe cannot be overstated. No one invents a genre! And mystery stories have become one of the main staples of popular entertainment ever since. No wonder the Mystery Writers Association named the award they give out to the best crime fiction every year the Edgars. Imagine a world without Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, without Perry Mason and Columbo, without Law & Order or CSI. It’s nearly impossible to fathom how Poe changed our way of thinking about crime and police work. He not   only introduced the figure of the detective to the popular imagination, but by focusing on the details of how detectives think he revealed how virtually every profession had become altered by the rise of the scientific method. Now, now matter what job you do, you probably imagine yourself as something of a detective, at least sometimes.

Only perhaps Mary Shelley can make a similar claim for science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein, and that novel owes as much to its roots in Gothic horror as it does to the rise of modern science.

So, these are both huge reasons for us to admire and respect Poe’s literary achievements, but I’m still not sure they adequately explain why Poe’s face appears among that pantheon of cultural icons featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, much less why the Baltimore Ravens would name their team after the title figure from Poe’s 1845 poem “The Raven.” Of course the poem is a masterpiece that was hugely popular when it was first published and it has remained an American favorite every since, but it still seems so culturally improbable that we would have a football team named for it. I mean, what other 19th century American writer gets name checked by the NFL? Or any other writer by any other sport for that matter?

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But the current mania for Poe doesn’t end there.

A number of historical crime novels include Poe as a character and countless more mysteries center on the discovery, theft or forgery of rare Poe books and manuscripts. A few years ago, John Cusack played a crime-solving Poe in The Raven. Recent television show The Following focuses on the exploits of a college professor turned serial killer who controls an enthusiastic cult of students obsessed with Poe. One of Lou Reed’s final albums even pays homage to Poe’s work.

Of course there are tee shirts and coffee cups, but everybody who’s anybody has those. Poe has gone even further. Now you can even buy no end of Poe memorabilia from Poe action figures and Poe bobble heads to Poe-ka dotted iPhone covers and book bags. I personally own a few of these items thanks to my lovely wife Petra and to my kind friend Jean, with whom I worked for years at Murder by the Book. Becoming the object of such cultural fixation is usually reserved for movie stars and rock musicians, but Poe’s current popularity is undeniable.

Yet unraveling all the precise reasons for this 21st-century infatuation remains a task worthy of Poe’s own Parisian detective. Fear not! I’m on the case and will reveal more next time.

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Why Are There Police in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

I recently revisited one of my favorite comedy films with my friend and colleague, Dr. Meg Roland. Meg is presenting a short talk at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) this week in advance of their screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Meg is probably one of the top medievalists on the west coast, so it’s no surprise that she would be asked to give her professional opinion of the English troupe’s take on the legend of King Arthur.

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Meg’s a good friend and I was happy to play along, but I didn’t expect watching the film to touch on my own scholarly interests as heavily as it did. I hadn’t actually watched Holy Grail for probably twenty years, but I’d seen it so many times in high school that my friends could quote long passages from it verbatim in outrageous British accents.

Okay, yes, I might as well admit it. I was one of those socially awkward nerdy kids who felt more at home with the tabletop adventures I had playing Dungeons & Dragons than I did venturing across the darkened auditorium at a high school dance to brave asking one of the girls to dance.

This was way before being a nerd was cool. Believe me, it was painful at the time.

This was also long before I found that my endless fascination with detectives and with crime and horror fiction could translate itself into a rich academic life. (N.B.: I mean “rich” here in the sense of fulfilling, not remunerative; the scholar’s life these days seems to include a vow of poverty.)

In the old days, when I would watch Holy Grail with my friends and quote the lines along with the actors, we tended to ignore the strange intrusions of the stuffy historian killed by the knight and the subsequent interruptions by the uniformed police trying to arrest the professor’s killer. But imagine my surprise in discovering upon re-watching the film now that these oddly modern intrusions by the cops, the weird interludes that formerly seemed to disturb the magic and humor of Arthur’s quest, can actually be seen as advancing a relatively insightful argument very closely related to my own scholarly interests.

A lot of the laughs in the film derive from the conflict between pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment modes of thought. The witch trial scene, for example, gives us poignant parody of scientific thought where pre-Enlightenment thinkers struggle to understand cause and effect. The rabble, of course, doesn’t care about mastering logic. They just want an officially sanctioned excuse to burn the poor woman they’ve dressed up as a witch. King Arthur and Sir Bedevere are earnestly trying to gain a deeper understanding of natural laws, even as their bumbling attempts spark our laughter.

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But this push toward post-Enlightenment thought is telling because the rise of science and rationality ultimately spells the end of the myth and magic of King Arthur and his knights as well as the pageantry and glory of monarchy and church.

At the core of the cultural shift during the Enlightenment is a radically new way of understanding truth. No longer would Truth come from on high, handed down by God through his chosen representatives on earth. The new truth becomes understood as a narrative construction told from interwoven and sometimes contradictory points of view.

After the Enlightenment, instead of Truth with a capital “T,” we are left with a contingent and fragile truth, now forever with a lower-case “t.”

Consider how the scientific method works. We come up with a hypothesis and then we test it against evidence. If the original hypothesis doesn’t account for all the available evidence, we must revise it.

Our courts of law start to work in the same way. Rival lawyers develop competing narratives. Juries decide which story seems to best explain every existing piece of evidence. Once the jury votes, the judge declares that version to be the verdict in the case and pronounces a sentence.

The post-Enlightenment gives rise not only to new forms of government, like American democracy, but also to police forces charged with maintaining law and order on behalf of the citizenry. Initially the police are only charged with preventing unrest and stopping crimes in progress, but fairly quickly it becomes clear that the police and courts need a way to deal with crimes that have already been committed but for which there is no clear culprit. They need specialists who can apply the scientific method to solving mysterious crimes and serve as consultants to the police. They need the detective.

Not coincidentally, the detective figure becomes the hero of our new post-Enlightenment literature. The Enlightenment had already destroyed the magic of Arthurian romance, so we needed a new heroic to populate a new sort of “realist romance,” a figure who could embody the ideals of the new era.

We need somebody who can arrest our long-standing enthusiasm for these ridiculous stories of knights and sorcerers and holy grails.

That’s precisely the exchange enacted by the close of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. After all the fun and laughter and silliness, we need to be serious grown-ups who establish law and order. The film’s tweed-clad historian is slaughtered by a knight after he breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience about Arthurian stories as if they were fiction.

The irony, of course, is that the historian and his ilk are the ones actually killing off the old tales (at least metaphorically), even if the knights are better armed. Culturally speaking, Arthur and his knights are living on borrowed time. Eventually, the police arrive at the end of the film to dispel illusion entirely as they stop the action, throw Arthur into the back of a police van, and then break the film’s fantasy entirely by shoving the cameramen away, and placing a hand over the lens, and saying it’s all over. There’s nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

But of course we can’t give up on these tales. We love our heroes. We need somebody who can replace the old quests with a hero’s quest of this own, which is precisely what detective stories do and why they follow almost exactly the same pattern as the older quest stories.

We swap the holy grail for the Maltese Falcon and we’re back in business.

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The Park for Dead People

My mother tells me that as I child I referred to the cemetery as “the park for dead people.” From the mouths of babes, the truth rushes forth.

Boise Pioneer Cemetery

While attending an academic conference in Boise, I took a break from things to hike into the foothills and to visit the old pioneer cemetery. It was a quiet and haunting place, this small collection of graves inside a wrought iron fence. The October afternoon was warm and the flag on its pole flapped in a gentle breeze.

Boise Graves

I walked down the rows of graves, reading the headstones and imagining the lives of the people buried there. I imagined too the lives of those who have known them and left them here to rest from the cares of the world in this park for dead people.

It still seems an apt description to me — the park for dead people. We might argue that libraries serve much the same function. Like the stretch of library bookshelf, a hard-won plot of textual territory, the cemetery is a modest patch of land dedicated to the idea of honoring our forebears and remembering the past.

Rowland Grave Marker

There are cultures that believe you don’t pass into the next stage of death until there is know one left alive who remembers you. So, I was especially touched to see that someone visiting earlier had placed a small stone atop each grave marker that said “Unknown,” a token to remember the humanity of those who were forgotten even when they were alive.

Unknown Grave

Inadequate perhaps, but at least it’s some sort of acknowledgment of what came before. We can be a fickle and forgetful people. The pressures of daily life occupy us so completely that we often lose the long view, that life is brief and fragile. But cemeteries remind us that previous generations were once as we are now, up and moving around, rushing through their own brief span of time, moving across the country, building houses, laughing, loving, living.

Boise Cemetery Bush & Fence