Sunday, August 14, 2016

I Wish Books Had Theme Songs...

One of the things you don't get when you read a book is the audio component. I mean, sure, if you get the AUDIO book, you get that. But even then, it still doesn't approach the power of a theme song. Movies use this to great effect, but in my mind, TV does even better. If it is a successful, appropriate theme, just a few notes of it can bring all of the emotions experienced during the story raging up to the surface. It can make you sad, excited, angry, inspired...all of which is a good thing, right? Storytelling is all about emotion, after all.

Books don't really have that. Oh sure, some authors and publishers have dabbled in "book trailers", but I've got to say that I've not really seen one that got me excited the same way a good movie trailer does, much less a TV theme. As authors, we just rely on different ways to connect with the reader. It's a completely different medium.

But I love theme songs. The good ones, anyway. So here are my top ten TV theme songs. I based the ranking on overall appeal, connection to theme or tone of the show, how good the show itself was, how hearing the theme song made me feel (then and now), and absolute personal bias.Your Mileage May Vary, of course.

Here we go:

10. Star Trek
To boldy go...yes! I grew up on re-runs of Captain Kirk and his crew. When those first few notes jumped out of the TV, they never failed to set the stage for an exciting episode. Sure, the special effects are dated now. Sure, the writing was sometimes horrid (but often outstanding!). Say what you want -- it was made from '66-'68, so for the time period, they rocked it. But this is about how perfectly this theme meshed with the show itself, that sense of adventure and action and exploration...yeah, pretty much awesome. Honorable mention:  Battlestar Galactica

9. NYPD Blue  

This show was, at the time, probably the most realistic cop drama this side of Hill Street Blues. And it really pushed the boundaries of the time for realism in terms of what would or wouldn't be censored. More than that, the show was character-driven a good percentage of the time, really highlighting what the detectives and officers were experiencing. Sure, it was uber dramatic, but that's what makes successful TV. All I know is that this theme song takes off at a breakneck pace and really sets up the drama to come. Honorable mention:  Miami Vice.

8. Cheers
One of only two sitcoms to make the list, probably because I write dramatic novels, mostly. I mean, there's certainly humor in my books, but that's not the main goal. It's to tell a dramatic story. Humor is part of the fabric but not the focus. But in the case of Cheers, the characters are so well-drawn that we (read: I) became so attached to them that when something dramatic occurred, we (read: I) felt it deeply. Plus, the lyrics of the chorus in this bittersweet song capture elements of our human experience that we intrinsically value. Who doesn't want to go somewhere where everyone knows your name? Who doesn't want to be part of a family?  Honorable Mention:  Friends.

7. Magnum, P.I.
What a great show this was. Action, humor, humility, rascalness...and all of it is caught in the opening theme. Magnum had two episodes I never forgot: The one where he gets lost at sea, treading water for a day, remembering his father, and the one where Magnum acts out of character at the end of the episode, outright murdering a bad guy to avenge his old friend. The theme song brings those two episodes right to mind the instant I hear it. Plus, if you merit a positive treatment in Archer, you did something right.  Honorable Mention: The Rockford Files

6. M*A*S*H
Does anyone not get that bittersweet pang when the opening notes of this fired up? And this was for a comedy, too! But the reality is that it was a comedy that explored a lot of dramatic territory. Much like science fiction, comedy allows extra latitude sometimes when it comes to that. M*A*S*H certainly took advantage of that, firing up plenty of funny along the way. And it always seemed ironic to me that one of the highest rated comedies of all time on television had a theme song called "Suicide is Painless."

5. Boss 
Here's one some people may not be overly familiar with. It was a Starz production that only ran for two seasons. But they were powerful seasons, and Kelsey Grammar as a the fictional mayor of Chicago was outstanding. Robert Plant's re-imagining of the old gospel tune that serves as the series theme song is understated, which contrasts brilliantly with some of the over the top acts that Grammar and his cohorts engage in. And the lyrics clearly match the (barely) subtext of the show's theme about power and corruption.

4. Vikings
The impending fear of fast approaching longships, attacks that are swift and dramatic, a warrior/raider life...does this theme not capture all of that? You can feel it from the side of the invaders and the invaded at once, while also getting a feel for the supernatural that this show weaves in throughout all of the drama.  Honorable Mention: Spartacus

3. The Wire 

This song really fit the theme of the show. "Keep the devil down in the hole..." applied to the cops and criminals and politicians and teachers and newspaper journalists alike. In addition, HBO kept this same song for all five seasons but every season, it was performed by a radically different musician. This stylistic change nicely mirrored how the emphasis of each season was on the cops and...well, something else each year. Lastly, the gritty tone of this song and the evocative lyrics fit the characters and the situations explored in this series.

2. The Sopranos
What a perfect theme for a tremendous program. It is one of the few intros that I doubt gets skipped very often even when one is binge watching. The images this song plays out against is probably part of its success, as well as the abrupt ending. I don't know. What I do know is that..."I woke up this myself a gun...."
Honorable Mention: Sons of Anarchy

And the winner is...

1. Game of Thrones 

What else could be #1? The anticipation that goes along with every new episode is perfectly highlighted by this theme. The tone captures the medieval sense of the show, the danger, the sadness, and the tension that seems to be present in virtually every scene. As theme songs go, Game of Thrones is certainly as epic as the story-telling within. Look, any show that can a husband and wife sitting on the couch humming the theme in counterpoint every single time is nothing short of iconic.
Honorable Mention: Are you kidding me?

So there you have it. Something that TV absolutely does better than books -- theme songs.

All I can hope for is that someday one of my books gets made into a series, and if that happens, that the theme song is super awesome the ones I talked about here.

Until then...bum bum bumpa bum bum bumpa bum...da da da-da-dahhh...da-da-dahh...

Oh, and check out The Short List, my latest release, written with Eric Beetner. This series could have one hell of a theme song...!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Desert that this Blog has become....

November 30th, 2015. Holy Cow. It's been a while since I've contributed to my own blog. I guess it is kind of fitting, given the general focus of the blog -- my writing journey. The journey itself has been a little stalled, and so it follows that the blog that accompanies it would be.

What happened?


For one, I started working as a consultant, teaching leadership in policing for a prominent non-profit organization. Since starting in early 2014 (I went to training in the latter quarter of 2013), I've taught about one week a month, all over North America: Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, Norfolk, Sarasota, Miami Beach, St. Louis, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, London (Ontario). It's an intense, deep course full of behavioral science, as well as newer research. It's been a time commitment to learn and begin to master the material, to travel and to teach it, and to do the deeper, source readings. I love it, because it has been an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to a profession that not only needs, but deserves, the very best of leadership. So in that sense, it has been extraordinarily gratifying, and continues to be.

The down side is, this two years of teaching seemed to either correspond with or have some impact on my creative process. More to the point, my "drive" to explore those writing worlds. Not that I didn't write, or that I didn't love it, but I wrote less, and I felt less driven at times. That's why much of my output over the past two years has been collaborations, I think. In those projects, someone else was counting on me, so I put my butt in the seat and wrote. However, where my solo work was concerned, if I wasn't "feeling it", I had the latitude to just not write. And so I didn't.

If I'm being honest, I haven't even been that great about collaborations. One writer and I have done a little prep work on a zombie novel/series, but that has remained at a standstill with a lot of my solo work. I just wasn't feeling it.

The strange thing is, event though I've felt that way intermittently over the past two years, I could always tell it was a transitory thing. In other words, I knew I was feeling that way at the time, but that it would change. And that it would eventually change back to where I've been most of my life, which is, frankly, rabid about writing.

The good news for me, and for my seven remaining fans, is that I feel like that time is returning. That sense of excitement about my own ideas is there again, and the irrepressible urge to get those stories and characters out onto the page is building.

The timing is good. My second Bricks and Cam Job novel with Eric Beetner, The Short List, is coming out on August 1. I have another book, The Last Collar with Larry Kelter, due in January 2017. But outside of that, there is nothing finished or ready.

I am working on a stand alone right now, tentatively titled In the Cut. It's a bit of crime fiction against the back drop of an outlaw motorcycle gang. After I've finished with that (and I'm about 1/3 through it), I am planning a return to River City for the fifth installment in my flagship series.

What else is on the horizon? Lots.

Because I'm feeling it again.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Walking Dead and ‘Glennanigans’: The Importance of Being Fair

*SPOILER ALERT: There are numerous spoilers in this post, including from the recently aired episodes of The Walking Dead. Most of the others are from works at least a year old, but in any event, consider yourself fairly warned.

After the recent writer shenanigans (or, if you prefer, Glennanigans) on The Walking Dead, I have to wonder if the show has jumped the shark for me.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have imagined it possible for this show, but I’m a little upset about recent events. And it has nothing to do with the usual reasons a show jumps the shark -- the story no longer being compelling, or characters becoming stale, or the tone or direction of the show evolving into something I no longer enjoy. Instead, what put me off (and a large number of other people, from the Internet screaming I’m hearing) was more about the writers being fair.

So what happened? Let’s start with Glenn. He’s a fan favorite and for good reason. He’s resourceful, resilient, and probably most importantly, he’s a good guy. He doesn’t give up. He survives. He is loyal. He forgives. He loves. In a very real way, his character is the emotional core of the show, or at the very least, its moral center.

Nicholas and Glenn on top of the dumpster
In a recent episode, he was out on a mission with a newer character, Nicholas (who had actually tried to murder him at one point last season, but Glenn was now trying to help him earn redemption…talk about forgiveness!) and the two of them were cornered by zombies in an alley. Trapped atop a dumpster and surrounded by ravenous walkers, things looked pretty bad for our hero. Nicholas apparently thought so, too, because he opted to shoot himself in the head, and as he fell from the dumpster top, he took Glenn down with him. The scene ended with a shot of Glenn laying on his back in apparent agony while walkers tore into what appeared to be his guts, eating him alive.

Pretty powerful stuff. In fact, I let out an involuntary “Oh, no!” of dismay as it occurred.

Okay. So far, so good. A character I love died a horrible death. Such an event sends a strong signal to the viewer. It says anyone can die. It means that every danger that is presented henceforth has to be taken seriously. The end result is that the tension in the storytelling is increased. And that’s a good thing, right?


So Glenn’s death was a horrible, but good, thing. Right?


Here’s why. He didn’t die.

That’s right. The Walking Dead spent three (three!) episodes exploring other story threads, leaving the viewer hanging without closure. When the story swung back around, we got to see the scene again…only this time, the camera angle pulled back further. We see that when they fell, Nicholas landed on top of Glenn. The zombies are still feasting, but instead of eating Glenn’s entrails, it is Nicholas that they are tearing apart. Glenn scrambles underneath the nearby dumpster and waits hours until the coast is clear.

He survived.

Which is very Glenn, by the way. I love him for it.

But I am angry with the writers. Because they cheated, plain and simple. They didn’t play fair.

Stephen King talked about this at some length in his novel, Misery. If you recall, in that book a crazy superfan named Annie Wilkes rescues Paul Sheldon, her favorite author after he crashes on a snowy road. While nursing him to health, Annie discovers that Paul has killed her favorite character and she demands that he “fix” it. Starting to realize at this point how batshit crazy she is, Paul agrees to her terms. He cobbles together a new storyline that is the functional equivalent of the Glenn situation. Essentially, he cheats, changing what has already occurred in the story the reader has read. Annie goes crazy [crazier?] and calls him on his cheating, refusing to accept this draft. He was being a “dirty bird” and so she forces him back to the drawing board, demanding that he play fair. No deus ex machina allowed for Annie Wilkes.

[Jeez, have I become Annie Wilkes?]

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about cliffhangers here. I’m cool with cliffhangers. In fact, I love them. I mean, I don’t love the six year cliffhangers that G.R.R. Martin specializes in, but overall, cliffhangers are powerful. They’re fair. I recently watched the entire Sons of Anarchy series, and several season finales used significant cliffhangers to great success. One season ended with the protagonist’s mother murdering his wife, followed by another club member killing the responding police officer. When the protagonist arrives home to see this mess, he is arrested for the murder of his wife. Fade to black.

Thankfully, Sons of Anarchy didn’t get cancelled before the next season started. We might have had another Southland on our hands.

Going back to G.R.R. Martin for a moment, I’m okay with something he’s done on more than one occasion – that is, the use of ambiguity. When Sandor Clegane (The Hound) knocked Arya on the head with an axe in the immediate aftermath of the Red Wedding, it wasn’t immediately clear if she was killed or merely knocked unconscious. The fact that The Hound was a character of questionable morals and loyalty only made it easier for the reader to worry that she had been killed. After all, Martin had already offed Robb Stark and his mother at the Red Wedding just a chapter before, not to mention killing Eddard Stark way back in the opening novel. Any reader who feared for Arya was being reasonable in those concerns. But Martin was ambiguous enough in the way he wrote that scene that when it turned out that The Hound had knocked Arya out so that he could stop her from running to her certain death, no one cried foul. The reader (most of them), consciously or unconsciously, sensed that Martin had played fair.

The Walking Dead did not, at least not in my opinion. The initial shots painted a picture that pretty clearly told the story of Glenn’s death. Then, several episodes later, they changed what happened. What a bunch of dirty birds.

Now maybe I am hypersensitive to this. I write in the mystery genre. No other genre demands such a high level of fairness from its authors. You absolutely dare not cheat as a mystery writer. It is inexcusable to introduce a critical fact at the last minute to resolve the mystery. Or to keep a critical fact from the reader (without telling the reader you’re doing so). Or cheat in any other way, because mystery readers will call a penalty each and every time. They’ll clobber you with justifiably bad reviews, bad word of mouth, emails to the author, and by refusing to buy any more of your books. Offend the mystery reader’s sense of fairness at your own risk.

And I’m cool with this. It is a high standard, but a fair standard.  It is what the standard should be.

Storytelling is a bit of a social contract, and it dates back to the times of campfire tales, or traveling bards. The storyteller weaves the story for the listener, and maybe she tries to fool the listener at times, but always in a way that is objectively fair. So it is almost hard-wired into our system to expect that fairness.

Someone reading this might be tempted to think I’m made about being fooled by The Walking Dead’s writers. I’m not. I don’t mind being fooled. It doesn’t happen often, but if it happens fairly, I’m actually delighted by it. For example, The Sixth Sense fooled me. That’s right, even though I figure out virtually every movie I see well before the “reveal”, I did not figure out that Bruce Willis was a ghost until the end when Shyamalan purposefully told me so. I was simply too distracted by the intriguing story of that poor kid who saw dead people to do the math, or even to know there was a math problem to solve. The clues were certainly there, but I was caught up in the experience and didn’t catch them. I didn’t even look for them. And when it all came together, my reaction was two-fold. The first was to say, “Wow, that was a cool twist. Well done.” The second was to think, “I should have figured that out.”

Notice I didn’t react with “That’s not what happened!”?

That’s because in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan played fair. He was no dirty bird. In fact, he played exceedingly fair, sprinkling clues throughout the film. A few people I know did figure it out. That’s how fair it was.

Were these recent Glennanigans that The Walking Dead pulled also fair?

No. At least, not to my mind. I wouldn’t have spent 1800-plus words chattering about it if it had been fair. It wasn’t a matter of clever film-making or hiding clues in plain sight or a cliffhanger or even an ambiguous scene. It was a dirty bird play.

So what’s the outcome? I mean, if this was a mystery novel or crime drama, we all know what the response would be. Close the book. Ban the author. Stop watching the show. A total freeze out. Playing unfair like this is a death sentence in the mystery genre. But for TV? For the horror drama genre?

Yeah, not so much.

Sure, the relationship has been damaged. My trust has been violated, if you’ll permit me to be a little dramatic. The Walking Dead has always been a show where anyone might die, although as the series has rolled on, a few people seemed to achieve untouchable status. Glenn was probably second only to Rick, the lead character, in that standing. So killing him was a bold move and would have ramped up the tension every time anyone was in danger, including those we thought of as untouchable. Now, those same situations won’t be as tense or as worrisome. With their Glennanigans, the writers have told us (by cheating) that those untouchable characters are probably not in mortal danger. They went from becoming potential Eddard Starks to being MacGyvers. And while you can still have tension in those kinds of situations, it is nowhere near as high as if you believe the hero might actually die. The Walking Dead has lost some of that.

Did the show jump the shark? Maybe.

Will I still watch it? Probably.

The show has built up a lot of credit with me over the previous five seasons. I still care about the characters and what happens next. So I will almost certainly hang around a while longer. But if the show pulls another Glennanigan, I’m probably gone.

One thing is for sure. As an author, you might see some cliffhangers from me. You might see some cleverly hid clues or some that are in plain sight that I hope you miss in the sound and fury of the story. You might even see the occasional withheld (but announced) clues or some Martin-esque ambiguity. But I promise you this…no Glennanigans.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

As promised...

Friend of the Departed will be out on November 19th!

This is the third novel in the Stefan Kopriva mystery series, and features Kopriva helping out someone who has helped him in the past...

When defense attorney Joel Harrity asks Kopriva to look into a prospective client’s guilt or innocence in the murder of her husband, he reluctantly agrees. He quickly discovers that answers to even the simplest of questions are nearly impossible to find. The deeper Kopriva digs, the more no one seems to want him to find the truth behind the death of Harrity’s friend.

Faced with a possible murderer that won’t answer questions, a police department asking the wrong people the wrong questions, and threats of violence from an unknown source, Kopriva forges on, determined to discover the truth….even if it kills him.

You can pre-order this book now for $2.99 instead of the regular price of $4.99, which is what it'll be once released.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On the horizon...

....the third book in the Stefan Kopriva mystery series, entitled Friend of the Departed.

It is currently out to beta readers, and due back at the end of the month...which means that barring a major rewrite, this one could make it out sometime in November/December of this year.

Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crime Cafe Interview

Recently, Debbi Mack (author of the Sam McRae series) interviewed me for her video podcast, The Crime Cafe.

Here's what we had to say...

I didn't realize the camera was going to be on me the whole time, or I would have sipped less coffee!

Thanks to Debbi for asking some great questions and giving me a chance to share my thoughts with the Internetverse!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tremendous Things I've Seen So Far Today...

1.  My beautiful, sleepy wife as I said goodbye for the week...

2. The simple, joyful, unconditional love on the faces of my dogs as I scratched and petted them before I set out for the airport.

3. A massive hawk poised on a fence post, taking flight as I drew near...

4. A doe and her two fawns scampering across the road, only to stop a few yards into the forest and stare at me with those pretty eyes of theirs...

5. Alaska Airlines employees scrambling to solve a delay problem they didn't cause, all the while treating people well, trying to take care of them, and keeping their collective cool in the process.

6. The white-capped peak of Mt. Rainier jutting up through the billowy clouds as I spotted it from the airplane window, looking like an island in the sky.

7. The inside of the Alaska Airlines Board Room, making a six hour delay seem less onerous as I see how the other half lives...

8.  Fifty-five thousand words of finished first draft of Friend of the Departed, the third Kopriva mystery novel...and the invitation of the empty page beyond, with six hours to answer that call.

I won't reach St. Louis, Missouri, until midnight CST. I wonder what else I will see today.