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Patrick

Why Heist Novels?

By | books | One Comment

Patrick asks, “So Patrick, why Heist Novels?”

A fine question Patrick, and I am glad that you have asked myself this question on the internet where it is not at all awkward to refer to one’s self using the Third Person (Imperfect).

The first part of the answer is I obviously like writing non-heroic or actively anti-heroic characters. It’s a bit difficult to make that sympathetic with a serial killer, but a thief/criminal mastermind is easier to pull off. Deep down, I guess I’ve always loved those kind of stories. And, until you start making them, you don’t realize how ubiquitous they are.

Conan the Barbarian. Sure, it’s painfully adjective-ladened, Sword and Sorcery, but remember Conan is a thief. He’s strong and fast and deadly and all that — but he succeeds because he’s smart.

The American Revolution. Classic heist story, and maybe the best of all time. Thirteen colonies band together to steal a country from the most powerful empire on Earth. And, in the sequels, they force Spain into giving them Florida, press their advantage to get a great deal on the Louisiana Purchase and steal the rest of it from the Indians and the Mexicans.

How to Succeed in Evil Although I didn’t fully realize this when writing them, these books a proto-heist stories. Impossible situations in which Edwin twists it around until he ends up with all the money.

Grand Theft Auto

In addition to being great gameplay, these are some of the best written videogames ever. Better written than most movies. And plenty of heists there.

And, of course, the tropes of heist stories are used in countless other stories, TV shows.

But Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) and Parker Novels have a lot to do with it. Even if you don’t care for the characters, setting and themes these books are a masterclass in craftsmanship. Especially plotting.

Thrilling without the Pain-in-the-Ass, end-of-the-world part.

I think the thriller is the genre of our time. The form is uniquely suited to creating the kind of catharsis a person afflicted by the modern world needs to rebalance their psyche. From an excellent post on this by Shawn Coyne :

The thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism. Isn’t this a description of what we often feel we are up against every day of our lives? We love thrillers because they reassure us that there is an order to the world and one person can make a difference, have an impact. When we leave a great movie thriller or finish a great thriller novel, we have a catharsis. The experience purges our gloom and gives us reinforcement to stay the course.

The problem, for me, is that a lot of these stories (especially in film and television) hinge on end-of-the-world apocalyptic scenarios. And they don’t work for me anymore. Too cartoonish. Oops it was almost the end of the world, but the brave heroes prevailed. But then, guess what, it’s gonna be the end of the world again.

Crime stories in general and heist stories in particular gives you good ways to raise the stakes so that it’s the end of the character’s world, without having to be the end of the actual world.

Closer to the bone, like a Flemish Painter?

Brueghel_Brawl

Brueghel (either one) painted scenes from life that had never been captured on canvas before. Here’s a fight breaking out over a game of cards. The subject matter was controversial for the day (not because of the violence, painting just wasn’t supposed to do that) but you can’t say it doesn’t have craft and artistry.

This kind of choice of subject matter, refreshes art — gets it back to real experience. Because, accurately completely and effectively describing something just as it is, is poetry.

We are all spun off in worlds upon worlds of superheroes — from Batman to Jason Bourne — that stories have, for me, lost a vitality and connection to things as they really are. Here’s George Orwell from “Why I Write.”

“So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”

A good heist story is hard.

Seriously, what are you going to steal? How are you going to steal it? How are you going to get away with it? These questions, even when asked from the comfort of your reading chair, will tax every bit of knowledge and cunning you can bring to bear on them. And the answers to them are always found in solid objects and scraps of seemingly useless information.

The story itself may be the purest fiction, but in it’s workings it is very real.

Think up a plot for a heist story that hasn’t been done before? Right now, go.

Now email it to me.

But seriously, for the Soak, I came up with a way to rob an armored car that would work and has never been done before. It took all I had. For the prequel novella, The Lucky Dime, I came up with a half-twist on the Ticking Clock.

I’ve got two more books outlined with Hobbs and crew and with each one, the hardest problem is coming up with the crime that gets the imagination going. Something that has never been done before, but could be done. And could be pulled off in our hyper-surveilled, electronic cash world.

That’s I’ve got two of those I take a sign from the muses I should keep going.

Professionalism as a theme

Crime stories are great vehicles to explore professionalism. So are cowboy stories. Rio Bravo is a story about a lawman who does his job because it’s his job. And doing your job is a morally praiseworthy act. There are problems with this idea. What if your job is turning the gas knob at a concentration camp?

How much do we let our profession define us in the modern world. Especially when a lot of people have jobs that they think is utter bullshit.

Stark’s Parker novels were, for me, all meditations on professionalism. The diligent and skilled were rewarded and the lazy and sloppy ruin things for everybody else and are ultimately punished.

For me, the heist stories give you great ways to explore questions of professionalism. Even on the most basic level — doing a good job stealing something means you are inherently doing a bad thing. But if at thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Isn’t it?

The Human Heart in Conflict With Itself

Faulkner said that all great stories are about the same thing, “The human heart in conflict with itself.” Crime novels (and especially heist stories) have this baked in. At the most basic level, stealing or not stealing something is a conflict between fear and greed. And even if you get away with it, the conflict can easily become a person at war with their own conscience.

With Hobbs, my main character, the conflict is a bit different and more complicated. He’s a guy that should retire, but he can’t because he only has a professional identity. So the internal story is of a man (a bad man) rediscovering and reconnecting with the world and those around him.

Check it out

It’s different than my earlier work, sure, but you can get the novella, The Lucky Dime in audiobook and ebook (mobi+epub) formats. It’s a prequel and real homage to the hard-boiled crime fiction of the 60’s and 70’s. The Soak has a similar feel, but it’s a guy from that time trying to struggle and succeed in ours.

The  new edition of the Soak will be available everywhere you can buy an ebook in May.

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The Schwa

By | Secret Life of Letters | No Comments

There is a letter of which the other letters never speak. It has been left out of the children’s songs. It is not welcome on Sesame Street. It goes where it must. It works behind the language. Performing dangerous acts of pronunciation deep within the darkest dictionaries. There is no way to pronounce the true sound of this letter, but some call it Schwa. It’s a covert ops kind of vowel.


The motto translates, “From books, freedom”
Original art by Brandon Scharr

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By | Secret Life of Letters | No Comments

She’s is a type unto herself. She doesn’t like the way she looks in red. In fact, she doesn’t really like the way she looks. She’s a hard-working career woman who sometimes wonders if repressing her femininity to get ahead was a mistake. She thinks she’ll have plenty of time to think about that sort of thing when she retires, but she is mistaken. She’s never going to retire. If she did, she would have too much time to think.

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Do You Deserve More Success?

By | reinvention, writing | No Comments

Let me preface what comes next by saying that, by any objective measure, I am a successful author. I have an audience. I sell books. I sell a lot more books than the average author sells.

It’s not enough to make a living, but there are names for the kinds of people who just write books for the money. And none of them are nice. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “is it’s not possible to make a living writing, it’s only possible to make a killing.” Publisher’s Weekly reported that the average non-fiction book sold 250 copies a year. Fiction has to be less. I moved 3,000 of the Merchant Adventurer in a day. (Bookbub!) And while we all lust for more success, I am immensely grateful for what I have and where I am.

There is a quote from a play by Joseph Addison that has stuck with me. I picked it up from the book 1776 by David McCullough. It was a line that people like Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Franklin quoted to each other a lot in letters.

‘Tis not in mortals to command success, But we’ll do more, Sempronius,—We’ll deserve it.

It’s a lovely, stoic sentiment. And one well-suited to the lunacy of attempting to steal a country from the most powerful nation the Earth had ever known. And it begs the question, do I deserve more any success than I have?

To be totally honest, I think not. I can see stupid mistakes. I can see laziness (who can look back and say the could not have done more?) and distraction., I can also see someone who has not become an asshole Dad and husband in pursuit of his goals. But more than that, I can see ways that I have worked too hard in the wrong direction.

No shit, I think I have written too many books and too few outlines.

One must be driven to write a first book. And if had known how hard it would be to write the first one, I never would have written a second. But having made it through the first one — and damn if that didn’t take long enough. I started noodling ideas for stories in 1995. How to Succeed in Evil went live on Kindle in 2012. I am a tough opponent. — the next was easier.

With everything that I have written so far, there has been a mania. A fury. A feeling that demons were chasing me and I needed to write very fast. That I was already so far behind that — anyway, you get the idea. So rather than figuring out the story, I jumped right in and got lost. Or stuck. Or blocked.

This is not a pantser v. plotter discussion. Both ways obviously work. But if you rush or your are too nervous, nothing works very well. When you come to problem in a story you have to stop and think. And, upon reflection, I could have done that better and faster.

So the prescription for this, for me, is to write more waaaaay more outlines. Not quick, dashed out things, but really good plans for books. Make sure the conflict and the resolution is right. I can flesh out characters. I can craft witty lines. I can change the whole thing on the fly. But, right now, it feels that cranking out story architecture will help me get better and write faster in my increasingly limited time.

In one sense deserving more success is either writing better books, or writing more of them. I think I can get a little bit faster and a whole lot better. Better is what drives me anyway. But, in another sense, I think Guillermo del Toro was right when he said,

“Success is fucking up on your own terms.”

I certainly get to enjoy the luxury of doing that.

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Don’t Hire an Army When You Should Learn How to Fight

By | case study, reinvention | No Comments

This principle applies to more than far branding, but the way to say it in that domain is — A big company might not need a big agency. I’m they’ve already got a crapload of people. What they need is a better and more completely implemented brand.

I have long harbored this rather dangerous line of thinking. Dangerous, at the very least, for the advermarketing industrial complex in which I have worked for most of my career. It started for me with a broken Volkswagen window.

I owned a Volkswagen Jetta when Volkswagen’s ad campaign was particularly great. It was focused on an escape from a stylized blue-green hued world of corporate bullshit. Yeah, escape from the man! Buy a Volkswagen! Everything will be cool and better.

Except for the fact that Volkswagen had a design problem with the door windows. They would just randomly break and fall into the door. Like in the middle of a rainstorm. This flaw was well-documented but there was no recall. Even worse, the replacement window lift WAS EXACTLY the same. So you the window could break, you could pay $600 to get it fixed, drive off the lot and the window would immediately break again. (Especially if it was raining)

And even worse for the brand, the only place you could get the replacement part was a Volkswagen dealership. Thus connecting the wrong of all of this firmly with the VW. I have never seen a more acrimonious place, than the service department of the VW dealership I went to get my window fixed.

So sales and marketing literally climbed mountain to get someone to buy the car and the actual delivery of the product all but guarantees that a customer has been lost for life. Maddening. Heartbreaking. Terrible. Sales go down, agency gets fired, marketing director gets fired, sales guys get fired and it’s none of their fault.

And how much more so now?

It used to be that the only way to get a message out was advertising and PR. But now, everybody is their own media outlet and, even if they are a complete idiot, they are a trusted advisor to at least the fools they are friends with on Facebook. Which means, an effective brand must be a brand all the way to the core. You can’t hire someone else to be you.

My favorite, and more general application of this principle is from the turning point of the Peloponnesian War (420 B.C.) Athens decides they want to use their ships to seize the island of Sicily and make it a colony, including the city of Syracuse. Needless to say the Syracuseans aren’t happy about this. Unless they get help, they think, they are gonna get crushed. So they appeal to the Spartans. “Athens is your enemy,” they say, “Send and army to save us!”

The Spartans agree to help. But, instead of an army, they send one guy. A general named Gylippus. He organizes and trains the Syracuseans. They fight and hand the Athenians a crushing defeat, the turning point of the war, making the Syracusean campaign the very model for Vietnam War. The upshot, the Spartans explain, is that if they saved them, they would either be a Spartan colony, or forever need their aid. But by helping to make Syracuse a city that could stand on its own, they had not only saved a friend, they had created a worthy ally that they might call upon in times of need.

In my work, I try to be more Gylippus than Ogilvy. And making the companies that I work with better at working with their own brand has really paid off for me and them.