Happy Birthday, Jeffrey Dahmer, Happy Birthday to You…

3 Sep

CAIN’S BLOOD and PROJECT CAIN are a year old today.

Cake and balloons for all as paperback editions now hit the shelves for round #2.

A good milestone for some kind of reflection. Maybe blog about all the things I learned this year, but it proved mostly validations of what I already knew/suspected. The CAIN books weren’t my first rodeo; they just gave me much-larger bulls/arenas to experience.

But I should still list some takeaways (even those I’m still trying to sort out myself). Because a lot happens in a year. To consider:

1] Revolving Doors – Both of my original editors departed for greener pastures. One quit publishing all together, one moved on to another company. My main publisher and earliest supporter was asked to seek greener pastures. So it goes. My three biggest supporters all gone, replaced by people who love other projects/writers. Heard similar stories all year from other authors with the bigger publishers. As traditional publishing tries to weather the current storm of changes (and they will), there’s gonna be some movement. Expect it. Don’t get too attached. Work hard enough to impress someone else…

2] Follow the Money – This time last year, Barnes and Noble and Simon & Schuster had just made up. Unless your name was King or Higgins Clark, B&N had stopped carrying S&S authors for most of last year as part of a contract dispute/negotiation. Eventually it settled, and I snuck in at the last hour to get some books into B&N. So it goes. Better than those many authors earlier who got no orders from B&N. Now, Amazon and Hachette are it. Next year will be someone else. Authors get screwed, readers get screwed. Someone makes more money. [Note: during the B&N outage, S&S sold fewer books but made more profit.] Never forget that it’s a business. No bad guys here. Just the casualties of dollars and cents.

3] R.I.P. – Speaking of, half the bookstores in my town closed this year. A Barnes & Noble and a Books a Million. One year. Gone. Giant empty spaces where lots of books use to be. Traditional publishing is doomed! 99 cent deals on Amazon is how fiction will be sold ongoing. But, wait… Meanwhile, a smaller bookstore opened up downtown. As the giants fade, will smaller boutique shops take their place? As it was in the 1970s, before the behemoths took over and drove most all of the smaller beloved independent shops away. Time will tell.

4] Busy Bees – I honestly don’t know how they do it. Those who work in publishing, that is. Editors, marketing, etc. The number of books, the hundreds of details and deadlines. And it never stops. Ever. The second they’re done with your book, there are a twenty more just as good coming right behind. Expect special attention for a short while. After that, “Don’t go crying to your momma, cause…” etc. Most authors I’ve met this year often feel they’re the forgotten/unloved child. But there’re lots of children to keep happy. Kudos to those in the trenches trying every day…

5] Nicer Reviews? Amazon bought GoodReads this year and quickly changed the rules so the community would be a little “nicer” – making it harder for authors (and reviewers) to be criticized/attacked so personally and aggressively. Naturally, Amazon was quickly criticized/attacked for stomping on freedom of speech, etc. Half the internet’s “charm” remains being able to freely/safely discuss (rip on) movies, celebs, sports, politics, and, sometimes even books! And while Amazon’s reader platform may become a little “nicer,” there are still ten thousand other places to do this. Let ‘em have their fun! People ripping on your book (or you) is like rejection letters. Upsetting the first time, tenth… and then by the fiftieth, you realize: Oh, cool! Proof I’m doing/creating something. If you’re gonna come out of the stands and get on the field, you gotta expect to hear cheers and boos from the crowd. It’s just part of the game.

6] – De gustibus non est disputandum – Speaking of, and paraphrasing a year’s worth of reviews:

Fast paced and thrilling. Couldn’t put it down.
200+ pages in a motel room? Couldn’t put it down fast enough.

Informative and filled with great history, facts and figures.
The worst info dump since the phonebook.

This guy clearly did his research.
This guy never left Wikipedia.

This author loves bashing America and our military.
This author is clearly in love with the military.

I learned so much about serial killers, cloning and military experiments.
I learned absolutely nothing about anything.

This is my new favorite book. (* People really said this.)
Making prisoners read this book would be against the Constitution. (* See above.)

“Insulting” – someone at Kirkus
“Best YA of the Year nominee” – the Stoker awards

Etc. Etc. You get the idea… A point I tried to make a year ago (not as successfully as I’d hoped) was that a writer cannot get worried about, or directed by, reader reactions. The myriad responses to the CAIN books were/are all over the friggin’ map this year. The readers’ past reading history, life experiences, schooling, interests, age, current disposition, TBR pile, etc. The factors are almost endless. And the result? Good, bad, indifferent, and the million shades between. My song remains the same: You just gotta write your book. The best book you can for whatever imaginary ideal reader you have in mind. In the process, you’ll lose some readers, but you’ll win a whole bunch too.

7] – Go Indie, Young Man - Self-pubbing and smaller “Indie pubbing” exploded this year. More titles, more pro authors, bigger sales, more best-sellers and splashes. That number is only going to go up. I leave it to other posts and authors to address better. I will say that this time last year, I was personally opposed to self pub for me. This year, however, I have plans coming to boil…

8] What’s Next? - After your book comes out, you get two questions from everyone: (1) How’s the book doing? (2) Are you writing anything new? You’ll hear one of these every single day for the entire year. There’re all sorts of snarky responses for Q1, but I don’t ever take that one too harshly. I assume it’s just people being polite and not knowing how else to bring up your book, not as nosey as some suspect. (Maybe I’m naïve. ) Q2 is YES. It should always be yes, but when you can say ‘yes’ and mean it, and be excited about it, then it’s the right YES.

And so… Happy Birthday to my horrific beautiful twins. Daddy’s gotta go now. Busy making you a baby sister…

Writers of the Future: My Week with Jay Lake

1 Jun

I usually avoid online eulogies. Ever suspicious, I find too many of them insincere, just something simple to tweet about. [“R.I.P. Margaret Thatcher. My heart and prayers go out to her whole family.” Yeah, okay...]  So, to avoid some other pessimistic jerk ever thinking I’m doing that: I usually just say nothing. Also, death sucks.

Jay Lake died today.

If you do not know who that is, you should. He was a good writer. Probably a great writer. Short stories and novellas and novels. Speculative stuff. He won lots of big awards. He got nice contracts. He was deservedly (both in craft and soul) one of the industry stars. He took the profession and his place in it seriously. He was a writers’ writer. And so:

Authors more famous/successful than me will do this better.
Authors more willing/able to share their true heart/gut will also do this better.
And, authors who knew Jay much much better than I did will do this better too.

Their tributes and memories will be easy to find and will continue for, I hope, a long long time.

For what it’s worth — because not a month goes by that I don’t quote Jay directly and not a week goes by that I don’t think of him directly — here’s mine:

I met Jay a decade ago in Hollywood. We’d both won a spot on the Writers of the Future program, an annual international contest meant to seek out and foster the best as-yet-published speculative writers in all the land. The big payoff was publication in the recognized Writers of the Future annual anthology and a week in Hollywood studying with professional speculative authors. So off to Hollywood it was…

Other aspiring authors that week included: Ken Liu, Steve Savile, Myke Cole, Luc Reid, Robert Defendi, Steve Bien, and Carl Frederick. And me. And Jay. Not too shabby, huh? THIS is the group who’d never published before and was sitting around the pool at night figuring out how to write Tim Powers a story in a day, and/or how to become hard-working pros like Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, just dipping our toes in the water of the possibility that…

Okay, some were up to their knees by then.

My introduction to Jay (other than the realization that, in a true rarity, I did not have the best hair in the room) was when we were all coming back from lunch the first day. As we walked, I eavesdropped as Myke Cole (then an assistant editor with Weird Tales) talked to Jay about some edits that needed to be made to Jay’s story before it appeared in an upcoming Weird Tales. I was like: “huh?” When they were done, I saddled up to Myke and said: “Really, this guy’s got a story coming out in Weird Tales?” (Remember, we were all supposed to be nobodies at this point.) Myke replied: “Are you fuckin’ kidding? It’s Jay Lake. His name is gonna sell this issue” I probably said something like “Oh.”

Turns out before and between being “plucked from obscurity” by Writers of the Future, Jay had already built a huge online following in this new world of these things called online magazines and blogs. Since winning a WOTF nomination, he’d gone on to close on several major print deals and had already nabbed an agent. He was a year or two ahead of me. Not light years ahead like our awesome teachers, but just within reach. A horizon I could almost wrap my head around. Jay was the Threshold Guardian.

For a week, I hung on Jay’s every word.

I watched how HE conducted himself during the writing workshops and have conducted myself the same ever sense. I led a workshop just last month at a writing convention and the first words out of my mouth during were echoes of what Jay taught me:  the notes he took, the comments made, the ease with which he kept quiet throughout when it was his story being work shopped, comfortable in the knowledge it’s not about him/her or what he/she may learn, it’s just material for the other writers to learn. Maybe someone else would teach me this later. But they hadn’t yet. When Tim Powers started outlining the rules of the workshop and seemed pleased with how Jay was handling it, Jay nodded and replied “I’ve done this before.” It was both bragging and awesome. He’d done it before. I watched him the rest of the day like my future writing career depended on it.

Midweek, I got up the nerve and asked specifically how the hell did HE write SO MUCH. His output was absurd. A story a day phase, he was in. Was it a week? I don’t know. I was writing a story a year. Couldn’t finish a book, and I’d submitted two stories my whole life. Jay’s simple reply: “I never start a new story until I finish the one I’m working on.” That’s it. Done. I’ve sworn by it ever since and give this advice at every single writing event I attend (usually giving Jay full credit). Because Jay Lake said that’s how he got it done… and I already trusted Jay Lake. Within six months after WOTF, I’d FINISHED and then sold my first book and half a dozen short stories.

A college English major, I had the patter down for analyzing/criticizing literature but didn’t really appreciate or understand the craft of fiction writing yet. I’d always been on the other side of the book. And as an advertising copywriter, I was pretty good with the nuts and bolts of words but sorely lacking in the particular devices and choices available to writers. Our in-class assignment, this Jay Lake guy was writing in aggressive present tense and I was thinking: who does that? You can’t do that. That’s “too showy.” (This is what I’d been taught in 1980s creative-writing classes.) Jay had other ideas. I’d been out of college for ten years now, stuck in corporate jobs I loathed, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a room of smart fucking people (writers!) talking about fiction and about writing it. And Lake was clearly the king of room. In a room of really well-read and creative guys, HE just always knew more. The heart and framework of classics, all the “In” literary guys many of us had never heard of and he knew… I realized I had a lot, still, to learn. I wanted to be able to talk to guys like Jay Lake. It was not by chance I was back in graduate school within months of returning from California.

After Hollywood, I never really reached out again. Jay ran in different circles and I still had work to do before I thought I could run in such circles and, also, I’m not very good at reaching out to people. So, I bought and read all his books. And I supported his fight with cancer in quiet ways. And I quoted him directly just three weeks ago in front of two hundred young Ohio writers at their annual award show. And, I do send out my heart and prayers to his family and true friends.

I’m sorry his writing future was not longer. Any I have will be in direct result of five days with Jay.

You can find his books online everywhere. Buy one. Or two.

And/or, if you want to make a contribution in Jay’s name, please make it to:

Clayton Memorial Medical Fund
c/o OSFCI
P.O. Box 5703
Portland, Oregon 97228

Peace, Threshold Guardian. And thanks.

wotfwwwww

Not so solitary… (Southern Kentucky Book Fest)

30 Apr

I attended the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green this past weekend; one of the state’s annual, and largest, literary events (via WKU Libraries, Warren County Library, and Barnes and Noble.)  Receptions, panels, tables for signings, etc. A couple hundred writers, a couple thousand readers. You know the deal.

  • Cost me a good $150 in gas, $200 for a room. $100 buying other authors’ books.
  • The morning of the event, I got a flat tire and shortly discovered my spare was also flat.
  • The drive home involved two major construction-related jams that  turned a 3.5 hour drive into a – no exaggeration – 7 hour odyssey home.
  • Oh, and the Subway I finally stopped at mid drive, to mend my soul, had no bread.
  • I sold maybe, possibly, a dozen books.

And… I’d go again next weekend if they asked.

[A] I don’t go to these things to “make money” and [B] a couple of inconveniences along the way is still better, for me, than a weekend playing golf or whatever the hell it is people are doing with their lawns all the time.

Friday night, the event organizers held a massive yearly social gathering. There, I had a beer with (a) my beloved former creative writing teacher (b) his writer pal, who I’d recently met at another Kentucky book fair who – to punish himself, it seems — was directly responsible for getting me invited to this weekend (c) a gifted future-superstar YA author who shares the same ace agent with me and who I’ve known online for years but never met, who tracked me down to say hello (d) a pair of professional book lovers from Barnes & Noble who’d culled together several thousand books for the two-day event.  I then got to see two sharply-dressed and beaming young authors (sixth graders) receiving awards for their first books and collect deserved applause from a room of pros and NYT bestsellers welcoming them into “the club.” Got found by a YA writer pal from Cincinnati who introduced me to several of her own new YA writer pals, several of whom I only knew from cold-blooded Twitter, but ended up at dinner with shortly thereafter, and now we’re BFFs already talking about next gatherings. And, the hippest couple in the room; an event organizer and her arm-candy husband, whose love for books and authors was so tangible it’ll give me a month’s fuel for writing; or two months even, especially after promising to come to my panel the next morning to say hello.

The next day, a remarkable foot-long Bowling Green nail in my tire slowed me down some, but in an hour, a local friendly tower had my vehicle at Tire Discounters and was dropping me off at the festival front door just five minutes late to my “Thriller-writer” panel. There I got to spend an hour with fellow thriller writers: David Bell, JT Ellison, Holly Goddard Jones, Carla Norton, and Tom Wood. At 10am on a Saturday morning, the large room was packed. (And why not? Holly, the night before, had won this year’s prestigious Kentucky Literary Award. Carla’s up for the International Thriller Writers “Best First Novel.” David is a popular creative writing professor at local Western Kentucky University. Probably a third of the room was there just to see bestseller – and smart, funny, genuine — JT Ellison.) For the next hour, most of the audience questions came from other writers looking to take that next step into publishing, some who’ll no doubt be sitting on panels themselves in future years. The panel moderator, Diane Wilkins, was prepared, spirited, and later shared with me her favorite scene in CAIN’S BLOOD (which just happens to be my favorite scene, also.) And for icing, that woman who promised to attend the panel the night before is the kind of woman who keeps promises.

Then it was on to the author tables for four hours of meeting readers and signing a few books. One reader – who’d just converted her entire dining room into a library — bought both CAIN books in hardback (no small financial feat), as well as dozens of books from other authors, and told me she just wouldn’t look at the receipt/total when the day was done. [For a number of good reasons, I can’t carry this woman’s baby, but I’ve thought about it…] I also met several readers who were also writers at various stages of the getting-published journey. It was fun finding out where they were and sharing how/when I was at the same step. Most seemed pumped to go home and start writing/submitting right away. I know I was. One young fella (another rookie writer with his first e-pub on the horizon) was a great chat and even though he felt kinda bad about not buying my costly hardback, I couldn’t care less. The only reason I like to move some product is for B&N and S&S, the kind of folk who keep this publishing industry going. For me, however, it was simply great talking to another eager writer.

And there’s the thing. The travel hassles notwithstanding, the stack of Girard books still sitting unsold on some table…. I’d left Kentucky with several new buddies on Facebook and Twitter; a dozen writers at various stages in the game. A pocketful of business cards from video production folk, freelance editors, actors, other authors, etc. I had people – who’d been total strangers less than 24 hours before – now asking if I’d be at this event or that event this summer and genuinely hoping I’d say yes. I had a big bag full of new novels from other writers to start my summer. Hell, I even made a couple “single-serving friends” within the people in the traffic jam (yes, it was going that slow).

Writing is mostly solitary, and why many of us love it. But it’s also what makes it so/too isolated and lonesome at times. The internet goes a long way to helping that for a lot of writers. Face-to-face is still best, however. I spent the bulk of last weekend surrounded on all sides by creative people and/or people who truly appreciate creativity. Not so solitary after all.

So the next time you see me at some convention/festival/B&N… just remember, don’t worry about whether you need to buy my book or not. My only hope is that you’ll stop by and say hi.

Wolves for Pets and Lions for Night Conversants…

25 Sep

[originally appeared on http://skiffyandfanty.com 9/25/13 - ow.ly/pcDCT ]

In Cain’s Blood, the teenaged clones of infamous serial killers (Bundy, Gacy, Berokowitz, Dahmer, etc.) cause all sorts of nasty havoc. I was somewhat puzzled by early reviews that focused on how “dark and violent” the book is. I’d never really thought about that. I just wrote about what might happen next, the most-likely thing in a given situation. When Scott Smith, the author of The Ruins, called the book “very dark,” I didn’t think much of that either, until I watched The Ruins for the first time in years and thought: “THIS guy thinks I’m dark!” It was the first time I stopped to consider what I’d ultimately created. And How.

My earliest memory is a nightmare. I was four or five, and in the nightmare my parents are having after-dinner drinks or coffee with another couple and sitting on a couch and chair. A Casper-shaped ghost with a knife hovers above the couch and informs me that he’s going to kill them all. I warn the adults, who laugh and can’t see the ghost, its obvious threat, and then the ghost laughs also. When he starts cutting, and they start screaming, I wake…

I have always seen and imagined the worst in every given situation. My Super Power, to steal from Truman Capote, is: “I see every monster as they come in the room.” 1,000 Ways to Die? Ha! There are a million. More. There are a 1,000 just in this room. Whatever the setting, situation or person, my brain automatically conceives and suspects the twenty worst scenarios that could come next.

An advanced survival skill? A half-empty glass/soul? In either case, quite handy for plotting the dark fiction which has, thus far, marked my writing career. Regardless, alas, of its effect on real life…

Catching up with a college girlfriend recently, she recounted how “weird” I was about always imagining the worst. Her example (when pressed): We were walking down the street in Annapolis, holding hands, and I suggested we stop holding hands because a serial killer would now totally notice us, notice our obvious love, and, so, kidnap and torture us more to use that love against us. Perhaps, I just didn’t want to hold hands, but I’ll allow that the whole serial-killer-kidnapping thing was likely a genuine possibility in my mind. She labeled it “fear” in our later talk, which pissed me off some. It wasn’t fear, old pal, it was Muad’Dibian prescience, it was planning. (And I maybe saved your life that day…)

Where this dark and constant suspicion of the world comes from, I don’t know. Is it genetic (as the science of Cain’s Blood suggests)? My father has mocked my grandfather’s dark inklings, telling how the man believed restaurants fill you up on all that bread upfront so they can give smaller portions of the real meal later. My father finds this funny. I, however, think: Well, OF COURSE that’s why they give you all that bread. Or if not that, it’s because bread has salt and makes you order more drinks (the highest profit margin). Duh! “Everyone has an angle,” Bing Crosby says in White Christmas, and I come from a line (my mom takes after her dad) looking for (suspicious of) those angles. (Just in case…)

Is it the result of my culture? I’m Gen X. Raised in the 80s. Taught that the Russians would drop nukes on us. Taught that AIDS would kill everyone. Taught that pot would lead directly to heroin. Taught that my neighbor, Scoutmaster, mailman probably wanted to kidnap and molest me. Taught by the dozen shiny new 24-hour news channels—news channels desperate for audience, bleeds-leads channels with no real content, channels targeting a generation that still took news seriously (BREAKING NEWS! Must pay attention!) and hadn’t learned yet to simply ignore the flashing lights and lies—that I could be killed by mold, pit bulls, old refrigerators, dog food, plastic, sharks, plastic sharks, snow, pesticides, Muslims, drunk drivers, hot dogs, cat hair, toothpaste, oral sex air bubbles, Teflon, skim milk, bees, microwave popcorn, too much water, SARS, dust bunnies, tick bites, super volcanoes, bird flu, the sun, sunscreen, fluorine, aspirin, house plants, street gang initiations, sun flares, printer ink, Three Mile Island, the Shah, polar shifts, a bloody nose, bubble gum, etc. etc.

While none of this has gotten me yet (and I intellectually understand the news channels’ goals), that doesn’t mean that I didn’t file them away as possibilities; In case the other shoe does drop someday, in case that “yet” is the key word here.

Cain’s Blood is about the worst that could happen: The worst our government and military might do. The worst a violent teen might do. The worst that Man might do. Is there hope within, yes. I have sought and found comfort in fiction for forty years as a reader finding the best of us all. Those characters are here too. They will together face and fight an Evil that’s older than knife-wielding ghosts, even older than Cain. Whether or not they hold hands, I leave to them…

Why are fictional Serial Killers so popular?

9 Aug

– Originally appeard on The Qwillery: http://qwillery.blogspot.com/2013/08/interview-with-geoffrey-girard-author.html

The popularity of serial killers in fiction is at an all-time high. From a dozen different television programs to the latest movie or best-seller list, you’re gonna find a prototypical serial killer: middle-aged white guy who’s knowledgeable, clever, eccentric, and just doesn’t give a damn whether you live or die.
I have two books with serial killers coming out this Fall: CAIN’S BLOOD (a techno thriller) and PROJECT CAIN (an accompanying spinoff novel for teens). In both, I spend time with some of the most infamous serial killers in American history (Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, etc.) and their teenaged counterparts (clones). While researching and writing the books, I was mostly focused on the lives of these men and the possible science/causes behind their crimes. I never really stopped to think Why folk (including me) were so interested in these tales. Now that I’ve started promoting the books, however, I’ve gotten the “Why do we seem to like serial killers so much” question enough that I had to think about that Why some and jot down some thoughts here.

1] The early/quick answer is morbid curiosity: the same reason we check out traffic accidents, gape at Holocaust footage, and spend our dollars on slasher films and novels. Our macabre and innate fascination with someone else’s demise. We all know we’re gonna die eventually, so watching some other poor guy go down crowns the King of all Schadenfreude. And fiction makes this dark pursuit even more enjoyable because it’s, well, fiction. No one really got hurt. Right?

2] Serial killers are the monsters among us. High estimates suggest that as many as 4% of Americans are sociopaths; those who just don’t care about the feelings, needs or lives of others. That’s twelve million people. Are they all serial killers, of course not. Most, 98%, are just self-centered jerks, leaving only 2% of those twelve million as violent murder-ready souls. But that’s, um, 240,000 Americans. Maybe we’ll go with the lowest estimates, and it’d be only 40,000 Americans capable of murdering without a second thought. Better? And the really interesting/horrifying part is that they look exactly like everyone else. No long dripping fangs or hockey masks or green scales. Most are men, and that’s half the people you know. Neighbor, coworker, husband, classmate. The sun or a bucket of water won’t make these guys melt away. They’re real, and here, and you just might have passed one today. And it’s that possibility that makes them very interesting, indeed.

3] Serial killers may be our vampire. In 1897, Stoker’s Dracula was largely a response to fifty years of Victorian behavior control. At the peak of this sexually suppressed/repressed culture, came a romanticized being who screwed for fun and flung and spilled hot fluids better than a Nickelodeon game show. The last twenty years in the United States have produced similar cultural changes. From the workplace to the classroom, we don’t seem to have rules anymore – we just have referees. Our language and personal exchanges are largely controlled now by human resource memos, lawsuit-leery administrators, and the PC mob whose good intentions sometimes trample common sense. In reply, the serial killer: A romanticized being who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the right things to say or do. Living beyond Good or Evil in world nervous about what to say to someone during Christmas. A tragic hero, of sorts, for our existential age. In traditional Tragedy, the hero is the one at odds with society because he/she doesn’t fit the system and is fighting to secure their rightful station in the world. Yes, these men are bad. But they’re bad in a way we just maybe admire. Or, at least, “understand.”

Add it all up, and you get a lethal invisible fantasy imbued with smarts and style far beyond the real-life version. Fiction’s good at that. So these specific monsters likely aren’t going anywhere for a long, long while…

You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue…

29 Jul

Research can drive a writer nuts if you let it… because it is just about impossible to get something (anything) 100% right. Facts, as the man once said, are stubborn things…

Years ago, while researching TALES OF THE EASTERN INDIANS (my book of Native-American stories), I’d come across  a recent scholarly article on the Vikings’ first voyages to the “New World” and their meetings with the North American tribes. We’re talking hot-off-the-presses world-recognized-expert stuff. I soon contacted another Viking expert for some accompanying info and during our communication, mentioned this article in passing entirely to prove to him how well I’d done my homework. His response: “Oh, THAT article! Yeah, Dr. So-N-So doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s off by 200 years.” Zoinks!

At the recent Thrillerfest, an author (Anne Rice? Michael Palmer?) recounted how she/he’d constructed a fictional city council based on a real city council known personally/thoroughly and has since received vehement and meticulous letters from a reader detailing how a city council would “NEVER” do this or that. Lots of city councils out there. Michael Connelly, who’d spent years as a reporter in courtrooms, is stopped often by folk with: “I can’t believe how well you nailed X. That’s exactly how we do it.” and “Can’t believe how much you screwed up X. That would never happen.”

There’s always another expert, reader, article, or discovery lying in wait with different info than what you found. I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out when Vikings first landed in North America, and at the end of that life would still have people arguing about and/or altering my findings.

In PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD, I got to research serial killers, cloning, military science, post-traumatic stress disorder, the genetics of violence, and crime. Interesting topics. Did I get everything right? Doubtful. Difficult to do when even something as basic as Ted Bundy’s eye color becomes arguable. “Blue” says one report, “Brown” claims another witness. “Green,” Bundy replies himself in the court transcript. “They change color depending on the light,” says a reporter following the case. They change color??!! <yanks hair> The FBI said blue, so I went with that. The FBI was a good-enough source for me. Might someone who knew Bundy have a better/different fact? Maybe. But I had two books to write and couldn’t spend the next four years of my life deciding what Bundy’s eye color was.

Every writer must come up with his/her own rules on this stuff. Mine are this:

  1. Research as comprehensively  and precisely as you can.
  2. Find consensus between several sources.
  3. Then tell/use the best truth you can find.

Simple, right? Does it guarantee I get everything right. Nope. Even “facts” and “statistics” can change source to source. But, unless I want to spend forty years on each book and still get something wrong, it’s a pretty good start.

Maybe YOUR rules will be different. James Frey (author of A Million Little Pieces) infamously got in hot water for the truth bending he’d used for his best-selling book… but his next book, fictional Bright Shiny Morning, he admitted proudly, “If I saw something , a statistic, I wanted to use but it wasn’t quite right for what I wanted, I just changed it.” (Mark Twain suggests, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”) It IS Fiction, after all.  And I found Frey’s stance quite freeing as a writer (still do), but it didn’t really fit me. So, all in, PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD are some 700 pages, and only once – in a total nod to this Frey interview — do I intentionally bend the “truth” of history to augment the fiction.  The rest, to the best of my two-years research, is “accurate.” Debatable? Of course. Few things aren’t. My father, a historian, recently gathered with other American-diplomacy scholars at Harvard to discuss the conditions leading to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was not, 60 years later and several lifetimes spent studying the topics, consensus on that panel. How’s the adage go? Ask two <insert profession here> a question, and you’ll get three answers.

Best bet is to (a) establish your own ground rules early and (b) accept that you’ll still never be perfect regardless of your rules and (c) appreciate that the world is like your favorite in-law/sibling who has completely different “facts” from the ones you dug up… and just think of it as Thanksgiving dinner all year long. Now, pass the gravy, please…

Liking Jeffrey Dahmer

29 Jun

I’m at ALA in Chicago this week and spending a lot of time talking about Jeffrey Dahmer. It reminds me that a writer should probably “like” his/her main character. Even if it’s simply liking how terrible they are. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long couple months (years!) with someone you don’t look forward to spending time with. Drafting, editing, promotion, discussions with readers… it’s a long-term relationship for sure.

And I still look forward to spending time with Jeff.

In Project Cain, Jeff Jacobson is the first-person protagonist and teenage clone of Jeffrey Dahmer. In Cain’s Blood (the accompanying adult thriller), Jeff is the “side-kick” of the protagonist and still, alas, the genetic copy of this infamous murderer. That’s two books I had to hang with this kid (with one entirely from HIS point of view), so it was doubly important he become someone I wanted to spend so much time with.

Many main characters are some idealized version of the author himself/herself…. Always fun to spend time with. But I couldn’t do that with Jeff Jacobson. (1) My own teenage issues weren’t the “search for self” variety Jeff faces in Project Cain, those many of my students face, or many of my adult friends assert to have faced back in the day. (2) Jeff IS the clone of an actual person, and as this novel is partly an exploration of Nature/Nurture, I’d hoped to explore that nature stuff by focusing as much on the actual person as possible.

So, I went to the source. I went to Dahmer. Filmed interviews. Court transcripts. Memoirs by family and friends. Lurid biographies. In the books’ acknowledgements, I make a crack about one of my sons asking me to “please stop talking about Jeffrey Dahmer.” True story. Because I’d spent months with the guy and wanted to share every new discovery right away.

And, I’ll admit, I started to “like” him…

Yes, Dahmer did terrible things and should 100% have been punished for those crimes. And yes, a hundred times I wished I had access to more information on the VICTIMS; wished I could flesh out their humanity in my own mind and on the page as well as I might with the gobs of info I now had on Dahmer. Yes, thirty-year-old Dahmer comes off as creepy and robotic, dead-eyed and monotone, and you can’t see/hear him without thinking of the god-awful things he’s done.

But I was mostly focused on teenaged Jeff Dahmer.

Fictional Jeff Jacobson is sixteen. Who was Jeffrey Dahmer at sixteen? Midwest kid. Book smart. Boy Scout. Quiet. Interested in science. Enjoyed lifting weights. Shy. Fighting depression with no meds, therapy or parental notice. Crying himself to sleep. Not quite sure how to make friends. His parents fighting constantly, a year or two from divorce. Realizing he was homosexual in a time/place even way more difficult than it can be today.

THAT kid I kinda liked. THAT kid was breaking my damn heart.

Fiction is all about What Ifs: What If Dahmer’s parents had just divorced sooner instead of screaming at each other for a decade? What if a concerned teacher had noticed he’d started showing up to school drunk and actually gave a shit? What if Dahmer were raised in the 2000s and there were a couple more people around to say: “You’re homosexual, huh? Well, there are millions here enjoying a wonderful life and it’s the most natural thing in the world.” What if he’d gotten some therapy, been put on the right depression meds, etc.

THIS is the Dahmer I thought about and Jeff Jacobson ultimately became the “idealized” version of that guy. Those same frailties, temperament, and promise. What, I imagine, Dahmer might have been. Could have been. Should have been. You get the point.

In Project Cain and Cain’s Blood, Jeff Jacobson is horrified to discover he is the genetic offspring of a terrible killer. But he’s thinking only of the adult Dahmer. As he discovers himself through the course of the novel, he’ll spend more time with the teenage version of Dahmer… and hopefully reach — with readers — the same conclusions I did.

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