Category

books

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.

Dime - 02

I just finished writing a book. Here’s what I learned.

By | books, productivity | 2 Comments

So I have just, as in just this very moment, finished my final edits on the sequel to The Soak, “Only Revenge Was Left”. I have released it to my able and talented editor Michael Waitz and I am, for the moment, done. The monkey is off my back. So here, in no particular order, are some of the things I’ve learned writing my seventh book.

1 – TAKE DEAD AIM

I got much faster and better at writing the first draft. I used 25 minutes sprints and  was averaging 1700 words an hour. This, for me, is madness. I’ve never been able to do that before. And what’s more important about this is that the work was more fun. Here’s what made the difference: taking dead aim.

It’s a concept I encountered in Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, a compendium of tips and advice he used as a golf coach. What he observed was that when golfers stopped vaguely aiming and would instead focus on the exact spot they wanted to hit with their shot, they would get a better result.

Of course this is fascinating. But in the context of writing what I mean is you have a very specific idea of what your writing is supposed to do in that session. The confidence this gave me allowed me to be much faster and a much better author.

2 – HEY MORON, STOP TRYING TO INVENT PLOTS

Shakespeare didn’t write original plays. What he did was find a story that he felt he could do something with and do it better than it had been done before. (see also The Spanish Tragedy) There are a bunch of reasons I think this is a good idea, not the least of which is readers don’t want something original, even when they say they do. I don’t, you don’t, nobody does. You know what’s pretty original? Ulysses by James Joyce. You know what’s not fun to read? Ulysses by James Joyce. It might be worth reading, but even people who have told me that it is the best book ever written have admitted, it’s not an enjoyable book.

What people want, in just about everything, is the same, but different. A fresh take on a new story. And that’s hard enough. My feeling now is, if I steal a great story to begin with, my odds are better of producing something really good.

3 – EVERYTHING IS FLAWED

So, I came across this quote while I was working on this book. To paraphrase “A work of genius is one in which the strengths overcome the flaws.”This was a big idea for me. The though that really great books, movies, plays and works of art weren’t great because they were perfect. Look critically at anything you really love and you will see this is true. And the thing is you have to make so many trade-offs when you’re telling a story – or making anything – there’s bound to be mistakes. So I stopped worrying about the mistakes so much and started worrying about making the good parts great. A huge breakthrough for me.

4 – USE IT ALL RIGHT NOW

There is a tendency, at least I have the tendency, to hold on to good ideas too tightly. Thinking that I will use an idea later to make the perfect story are the perfect thing down the road. What I learned is if you have something that you can use, you should just use it. Not only do you not know if that hypothetical other thing is going be any good, you actually don’t even know if  are going to be alive later. Play your best game right now and trust that your brain will generate more good ideas.

I’ll post both an audio and text excerpt in that chapter when I’m a little further along in the process. Right now I just want to revel in the fact that it’s good and it’s done.

5 –   ANOTHER BOOK CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING.

 Another Facebook post will change nothing. Write the book.

6 – YOU MUST FINISH WHAT YOU START

Halfway through this book I almost quit. Partially because I was frustrated with the work, but partially because I’ve got a lot of life going on. I’ve got a nice marriage, great four-year-old son who is so much fun right now, and I’ve a daughter on the way. I also work full-time. So in some ways it’s both exhausting and selfish to spend this much time and effort on writing books. But it was only after I got very stubborn and stupid about finishing this book – for no other reason than because I started it, that I learned all these things.

“Only Revenge was Left” will be available August 15. Maybe sooner, but don’t push me, people.  I’m gonna have a newborn in the house.

 

The Emotions Generated by Editing.

By | books | No Comments

Too few people share the emotional challenges of writing. Most of this week has been absolutely awful. I started editing “The Soak” Seriously, I wanted to smash my keyboard and shove the plastic shards under my fingertips.

I’ve really been getting my ass handed to me by this book. Rocky style. Slo-mo punches to the face, spit flying everywhere. Here’s what it’s been like, day-by-day:

Saturday

Okay let’s settle in with the kindle and read thi… OH MY GOD! THIS IS SO BAD I JUST THREW UP IN MY MOUTH!

Sunday

I should quit breathing

Monday

Let’s not be silly, I should just quit writing.

Tuesday

Okay, I shouldn’t quit, but this novel is unsalvagable.

Wednesday

I am never going to crack this story, let alone finish it.

Thursday

WHOOOOOOO! I GOT IT!

“You’re all clear kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home!”