Saturday, October 18, 2008

On The Nightstand

By Gregory Mcdonald

I've always meant to read the Fletch books, but never got around to it. With their tight lean prose and colorful main character, they've always seemed like my cup of tea.

A few weeks ago, I found out that Gregory Mcdonald had died. So I went to the ubiquitous and ordered the first Fletch book. As anyone who has ever worked in a bookstore knows, the minute an author passes away, there's a sudden rush to buy his books. It's an odd phenomenon, but not a bad thing. At least people are reading.

Needless to say, the first Fletch book turned out to be out of stock, so I ordered one of the later books in the series, instead. It was so good that I immediately went back and ordered everything Mcdonald had every written that was still readily available. 19 books in all. They came in dribs and drabs, and in no particular order. And each one was as good as the next.

I have to say, I wish I'd read these earlier. I might have learned a lot from Mcdonald's prose style. He approaches the written word in much the same way I try to -- direct, no nonsense, very few flourishes.

Gregory Mcdonald wrote two series that you can find fairly easily. There are the Fletch books (which are far more interesting and layered than the Chevy Chase films I used to love before reading the source material and wondering why they couldn't have just filmed the books as written and not tried to make it silly), and the Flynn books, which spin out of CONFESS, FLETCH. Both characters are fascinating and worth following.

So, of course, the last book to actually arrive was the first FLETCH, which in the end, is the fourth book in the series. Mcdonald ended up writing 3 prequels. It's good. Very, very good. My one regret is that we won't see any more Fletch books, at least not from the painfully talented pen of Mr. Mcdonald.

I've torn through all 19 books in record time, (19 books in 3 or 4 weeks is fast, even for me). They're quick reads, but full of shockingly well-written prose. I'll be turning them over in my head for a long time, taking them apart to see how they tick. And they all tick. So quietly and smoothly that you never notice how quickly Mcdonald is steering you through the plot. Even the weakest of the bunch -- THE BUCK PASSES FLYNN -- is head and shoulders above most books out there.

Now I may have to hunt down some of his out-of-print books, or at least badger his publisher to bring them back in print. If they're up to the Fletch and Flynn standard, I would really regret not reading them.

On the Borderlands

Come January, I'll be attending the Borderlands Press Boot Camp for writing. This will be my fourth, and probably last, time through the gauntlet of razor sharp critiques from my fellow "grunts" and our star-studded lineup of instructors.

It's a crazy experience. You spend a weekend at Towson University, talking about writing, taking stories apart, and staying up all night working on one of their infamous "secret assignments", which usually involves writing a new story from scratch to be read aloud on the final day, just to show much you've learned.

I attended the very first Boot Camp*, and I've tried to attend every session since then. So far, I've only missed one due to my workload. Still regret it.

This year, the instructors include two big shot New York editors, Gary A. Braunbeck (whose Cedar Hill short stories are well worth hunting down), and Thomas F. Monteleone (editor, writer, and one of my favorite people I've met in the business so far).

For those of you who don't know, Borderlands Press is a small publisher that specializes in Horror and speculative fiction. They've done beautiful editions of F. Paul Wilson's Adversary Cycle, as well as a number of other classics in the genre, including an upcoming edition of Whitley Strieber's THE HUNGER that I designed the cover for, my first real book cover.

They get good people for their Boot Camps. F. Paul Wilson, Douglas Winter, and David Morrell have all taught at the Borderlands Boot Camp, and their thoughts and notes have had a huge impact on my writing.

Last time, I brought a Fade short story**. This year, I'm bringing the Fade novel. I'm nervous about showing it to people, since it's such a personal project for me, but I'm excited at the prospect of getting some good feedback. I've never come away from a Boot Camp without a stack of notes that will help me make my story -- and my writing -- better.

I've said it elsewhere, but anyone who is serious about their writing really should attend one of these sessions. It's intense, tough, tiring, and one of the most rewarding things a writer can do. There are several of us who have attended multiple Boot Camps, and each time I see one of them, their writing is better and sharper.

This week, I started reading the other submissions for this year's Boot Camp, making notes to give my fellow grunts. Looks like a good batch this year, and I'm looking forward to meeting everyone. Have a lot of reading to do between now and then, though.

As I said, this may well be my last session. Between drawing comics full-time and writing on the side, time gets to be a bit of an obstacle, especially if you spend as much of it reading as I do. But I've gotten a lot out of each Boot Camp I've gone to. There's always something new to learn and you never run out of room to grow as a writer.

For anyone out there who might be curious about their program, or interested in attending, visit the Borderlands Press website and see what other people have to say about the experience. This year's session is already closed, but if we're lucky, there's always next year...

* An annoying personal side note -- one of the other benefits of these sessions is getting to meet other writers who take their craft seriously. I've met a number of people I keep in touch with fairly regularly, and a few who have become close friends, including the annoyingly talented Daniel Waters, who took his Boot Camp submission (GENERATION DEAD) and sold it to Hyperion Press. They published it this year to a flurry of good reviews, including a spot on Oprah's recommended reading list. It would be easy to hate him if it wasn't for the fact that he's such a nice guy, overflowing with talent, and endlessly supportive of my own writing.

** Yet another annoying personal side note -- I wouldn't be writing a Fade novel now if it wasn't for the Borderlands Boot Camp. At my second session, F. Paul Wilson (who had seen some of the Fade comic book stories) said he was disappointed that I hadn't brought a Fade prose story to be critiqued. Never one to question Paul, I wrote one and brought it the next time. It went over well enough that I found the courage to finally start a full length Fade novel. We'll see how it goes over.