4 Days in the Russian River Valley

October 4, 2012

As I write this, my wife Lynn is helping can some 30 lbs of the most luscious heirloom tomatoes you will ever see with our host in the Napa Valley house we rent. But my mind is drifting back to four incredibly sensuous days just spent eating and wining in the Russian River Valley. If you want to hear what that was like, come along with me.

If Napa is like a bigtime cabernet—opulent, powerful, with its stunning views and branded, architect-designed wineries and celebrity-chef restaurants, the Russian River Valley over in Sonoma is its demurer, down–to-earth cousin, the feel of farmers not business magnates, garage style wineries and farmhouses, and akin to the terroir-rich wine that best represents it: pinot noir. Though you can drink and eat and open the senses ever bit as dreamily as across the mountain in Napa, with its own beautiful vineyard-scapes, it’s a whole different trip– but one we found equally as rewarding.

We stayed at the Farmhouse Inn in the countryside of rural Forestville, about ten miles out of Healdsburg, which has grown into the style and foodie center of the wine country in the past few years. The inn is a tasteful five-star setting on par with the San Ysidro in in Montecito, with charming casita rooms and a Michelan-starred restaurant. Breakfast comes with the room, but it’s hardly your typical scrambled eggs and bacon, but a sumptuous (and filling) way to start the day: heavenly chocolate croissants and Black Mission fig bread; house made ricotta crepes with peach coulis and grilled maple-pecan sausage. We also ate there one night. I had Beskeshire pork with a trumpet mushroom crust and a green tomato chimmichurri. Lynn had halibut in dashi-gasil butter with a fennel-potato puree. That was after zucchini blossoms and a shared grilled lobster sausage with fennel sofrito to go with a terrific sauvingon blanc from nearby Rochioli. The staff at the Farmhouse is as savvy and knowledgeable as any I’ve ever come across, setting us up at the best, small production wineries and directing us to the best eating places not only in the valley, but in the entire region. The kind of staff you go back to on arriving back to the inn and report back how your day went. They made the place a joy.

Our first day, Thursday, we started out with no plans, other than a one pm tasting at a small, hard to find pinot producer, Small Vines, a contact in Napa had set us up with. After breakfast (whoa, did I mention those breakfasts!) we drove around the winding, country roads exploring, passing familiar favorite wineries like Iron Horse and Merry Edwards, and happened to pass Red Car,

red car tasting room

red car tasting room

a tiny, highly rated winery which is partially owned by a friend in Napa and whose 07 pinot received a 97 Parker rating, which gave them a kind of culty following.

We stopped. The 09’s and 10’s are equally stunning, and the kitschy enamel bracelets for sale, with self-deprecating epithets like, — “My mind not only wanders, sometimes it leaves completely” along incredible, artisan made cigar scented candles—amazing!— were fun to buy. We had lunch down the road in the tiny town of Graton at Willow Wood market, one of those earthy, local main street storefronts with a colorful, handed painted sign where the food turns out to be surprisingly fresh and delicious. It’s hard to find a meal out here that isn’t farm fresh with a cultivated point of view.). A lush, just-picked tomato soup with crème freche and chives along with a yummy Greek salad and a grilled chicken sandwich with farm cured bacon and chipotle mayo. In the afternoon, we made our way around the winding, farm-lined roads to Small Vines, which turns out to be a tiny husband and wife run small-production winery with some of the best Burgundy-inspired pinots I came across. Not even many of the locals had heard of it, and no one could get us there, and their address isn’t even on their website (smallvineswines.com) but the wines have found their way onto some of the most prestigious restaurant lists around the country. Eleven Madison in NY, Charlie Trotter,’s in Chicago, the French Laundry. We spent an hour and a half talking wines styles with owner-winemaker Paul Sloan, walking thru his vineyards, trying three of his pinots. Petting the dog. The pinots belong up there with the best of them in the valley.

That night we went to Scoppa in Healdsburg, a jammed, trattoria we were lucky to get a res at, and had large shell pastas with a fabulous lamb ragu and freshly-made, pillow like raviolis stuffed with ricotta and zucchini. And a luscious panna cota dripped with local fruit we bumped into a local winemaker Greg Mauritson, whose family has framed grapes for generations, and invited us out to his famous Rockpile Vineyard, home to some of the biggest, and most styish zinfandels in the region. Shame that we never made it. To much came up. But it gives us a starting point for our next trip out here next year.

We started off Friday by working off the eggs Florentine with a 3 mile walk run along the vineyards on West side road. We bopped into Healdsburg and “shmyed around” the square, checking out the blend of new art galleries and old antiques, boutiquey hotels, and the surprisingly stylish and urbane clothes shops. We had lunch at our old favorite Ralph’s Bistro: I passed up the freshly ground lamb burger with blue cheese I usually go for a buttery chicken palliard and Lynn had the lamb burger smothered in carmelized onions and Maytag blue cheese. On the way back we hit Macphail Vineyards, another tiny-production, garage-style pinot producer, and tried some of his gems. (Not to mention a very Burgundian style chardonnay—lean, lots of acid, little oak.)

Macphail Vineyards

Macphail Vineyards

(Truth is, every chard producer in the valley says, “if you don’t regularly like chards, people say you’ll like mine.” Because they construct it in a leaner, less oaky style that goes well with food.) And you know what, it’s true.

That night, we drove across the criss-crossing, mountain pass to St. Helena over in Napa, to a charity dinner hosted by prestigious Rudd Vineyards, and who put on quite a show. There were ten of us, each guest had been given and had read my books (Eyes Wide Open and 15 Seconds) and the setting and flights of wine and food would have been better suited to entertaining a head of state, than some thriller author. The grounds are created by leslie Rudd and his wife are simply incredible and they guided us through the beautiful gardens and into the mind-boggling 22,000 sq ft of caves with its barrel vaults and tasting rooms. The in-house chef, Jason Rose made an amazing multi-course feast of arancini (Arborio rice balls) stuffed with minced porcini, Hamachi crudo, a salad that had so many rare and just picked greens(my mind sort of vegged out after he listed three of them!) and a main course of lamb done two ways— on the bone in a Rudd port reduction sauce, and then ground with North African spices in a crespelle (crepe). This was all paired with flights of spectacular Rudd wines too— all highly rated, look em up. But their award winning Bacigalupi chardonnay and perfectly balanced sauvignon blanc—my wife is a SB animal and she went crazy– put the whole evening—at which all I had to do was yap a little about my books and the shifting tectonic plates of the book business– over the top. And speaking of over the top… we then had to drive back over the dark, twisty pass back to Sonoma at 11pm. Trust me– no fun, and took all my concentration. But we lived to eat and drink another day!

Saturday, we spent driving to the Sonoma Coast. Nothing prettier in my book—ok, maybe Amalfi in Italy. But not by much. On the way we drove through this amazing redwood forest called Armstrong National Park and took an hour’s nature walk amid thousands of 350 foot giants. Humbling! Then we drove onto the coast for oysters. The staff at the Farmhouse sent us to the River’s End lodge in Jenner set above the Pacific—only a forty minute drive. (We’d previously been to Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, but this was even better.)

Sonoma Coast

Sonoma Coast

It’s a modest looking place, rustic cabins and a wear-worn dining room. But the kitchen is fantastic! We feasted on fresh Miagi oysters done two ways: in a shallot mineunette and baked and BBQ’d, and then a just-caught pacific salmon in a light, verblanc over Chinese black rice. Fantastic! Really recommend this drive and place!

That night we tried a change of pace and took a cooking class on Asian street food at Relish in Healdsburg taught by amazing local chef Mei Ibach, who grew up in a Malaysian fishing village. Fun night, learning how to make Paper wrapped chicken in plum sauce, deep-fried potato dumplings (spiced with green chiles and cilantro), prawn fritters over battered bean sprouts and a classic beef satay. Mei is captivating and leads organized travel cooking tours to Vietnam and Singapore ($2800 bucks, so she claims for ten days of cooking and eating, in 5 star hotels, airfare included. Sounds too good to be true. Check her out if you don’t believe me Malaysaimei.com.)

Sunday. Our last day in the valley. Couldn’t leave without a brunch in town (Healdsburg) at BarnDiva, a very stylish restaurant/art gallery specializing in farm to table cuisine. We started out in the outside sculpture garden with Tuscan bellins of melon and peach extract with lavender. A ten! Another heirloom tomato salad—there’s just nothing like the tomatoes out here in September—it’s half the reason we come! Lynn had more local king salmon and I had a seared, sushi grade ahi Nicoise with a great potato salad and poached quail eggs. Dellicious! And couldn’t resist a side of the Barn Diva double-fried fries in spicy catchup.

Sadly, it was time to leave. Survival depended on it! (I’m wondering if anyone has ever thought of heading to ten days in Napa as a reprieve from too much drinking and eating!!!!!) We made our way down the northerly route, on Rt 128 through the stunningly beautiful Alexander and Knights valleys. One place to stop there is Lancaster Vineyards. Owned by a liquor distribution exec, and with a winemaker recently hired from over-the-top Screaming Eagle, they’re making world class wines (a monster cab and a Grave-like SB). You have to check out the amazing caves too. An incredible place that seems to come out of the blue.

So, so long Russian River Valley, hello Napa. We pull into town, ten days here in the house we always rent high above the Meadowwood Resort and St. Helena. Hope you enjoyed following us on our trip.

TWO STENTS– AND EVERYONE’S A PHILOSOPHER!

October 11, 2011

Observations on being (pretty) young, (pretty) fit, and having a damaged heart.

A few weeks back I went from being a fit, pretty active guy, who didn’t have a medical care in the world to someone with serious heart disease!

I was being treated for what I thought was an extended bout of acid reflux– and the farthest thing from my mind or worries was what it turned out I actually had: a 99% blockage of my LAD, the largest artery in the heart, ominously called “The Widow Maker,” and that the pains I felt were actually my heart crying out, deprived of half its blood.

One day after spectacularly failing an echo-stress test– a test I went off to grumbling to my wife, “You realize that there’s zero… ZERO chance that this is heart related, don’t you…!” and then trudged back to an hour later, completely stunned, “Honey, I think you should sit down…”– I was sent up to Yale University Hospital where they inserted not one, but two drug-coated stents to reopen my bloodflow. It’s a remarkably quick and non-invasive procedure, the catheter amazingly conducted through my wrist; one that requires virtually no recovery time, and seems hardly worthy of all the expressions of concern and sympathy that flooded in.

In fact, I was weirdly conscious for most of the time. I remember waking up from the light anesthesia I was administered and hearing the doctors discussing the size of the obstruction: an inch and a half in length and at the very beginning of the artery, even more dangerous. I watched them thread the stents from my wrist to my heart, tears forming in my eyes. When the nurse came around to wipe them, she asked if I was in pain. “No,” I answered, staring at the screen. “I’m just thinking I’m watching you guys saving my life.”

Just five weeks later, I’m back to a completely normal routine: working out, playing tennis, eating smarter, appreciating life. Just with a prodigious line-up of meds to take each day. And the only, non-white-haired member of my local stent club! It all happened so fast, there was no time to even get scared, worry about the consequences; to hug your kids. To remember that chapter idea I didn’t write down. It went by with the speed of TV coming attractions. It was literally forty eight hours from diagnosis to cure.

So I’ve been waiting for that singular moment of profundity; that “a-ha” epiphany of what it’s all about, that always comes to me when I need a plot idea, but fails me now when it’s about my life.

Yet what I do think about is this: the many times I had to put up a hand, doubled over during a workout or on the tennis court with my pro– grabbing at the fence, trying to catch my breath, in pain. I see myself crumbling to the ground, realizing something far more serious is happening; thinking how my grandfather died this way, just off the golf course, and seeing myself, a virtual kid compared to him, looking up at the my helpless pro, tears glazing in my eyes, my mind going on about my kids, something trivial like whether I put the steaks in the freezer; stories I meant to write.

The only NYT bestselling author to ever die from acid reflux….

I would never have even known.

Except in this story I get up. Finish out the set. The coming attractions come on, and thank God, there’s another episode next week! I get to wonder who’s cheated who, death or me? I think about the two doctors I may never ever see again who gave me a new downpayment on life. Who let me pretend I’ve got it by the balls again.

But this time I know– I’m only renting.

Eyes Wide Open, Reviewed “Best Thriller of the Summer”

July 27, 2011

Andrew Gross

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What’s Really at Stake in the Macmillan/Amazon War

February 1, 2010

There’s been so much clutter–some good, some misinformed– about the Macmillan/Amazon dispute that, with a nod to my old biz school days, I thought I might as well weigh in with mine.

Without sounding abstract, the underlying issues of what’s involved result from two economic laws.

First, publishing is pretty much a “zero-sum” game. That means there’s no real growth from any sector of the market–new technologies included– that doesn’t basically just offset some other sector by an equal amount. Therefore, whatever weakens the market suppresses overall growth.

Next, sadly, books are inherently inelastic. Which means a reduction of price does not create a corresponding increase in demand. If the price of a certain book is lowered, say, from twenty to ten dollars, it will no doubt sell more, but not likely twice as many.  That means, lowering the transactional price of books ultimately deflates total revenue. If that weren’t so, it’s my guess publishers, retailers, authors and agents would all probably embrace a kind of 21st century P and L: one with lower margins and reduced royalty percentages, but one with a dramatic increase in sales that would ultimately raise earnings.

But that is not the case—and, as we all know, the channels of distribution are potentially narrowing. And as my agent reminds me, the ultimate determinant of how much people read isn’t in the end price—it’s time!

This “zero-sum” landscape is also pressured by the fact that Borders (roughly ten percent of the market) always seems a threat to close. Add to that the fact that books are not a core part of the sales mix for the price clubs (Costco, Sams, BJ’s) who are filling that gap–and this is the real key here– that the charter of these clubs is to offer the very best value to their customers– not to become bystanders, if not casualties, in a price war between mainstream and online booksellers in a product that’s not even central to them—and those threats are swirling around. If any one of these chains suddenly says, we’re outta here, and vacates the market, the “zero-sum” industry is weighed down that much more!

In a world where the likes of Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Circuit City are now history, it’s hardly unimaginable to think of publishers going that way too.

Yes, publishers have to adapt. They know that. And no, publishers aren’t’ trying to gorge their margins by pushing this new “agency” pricing model for books on Amazon and Apple. (For obvious reasons, Kindle downloads might already be their highest margin sales.)

But what’s crucial is to stabilize a retail market in turmoil, because the risks of any further erosion (e.g. retailers leaving the game) would be catastrophic to them and to us all. If the price of “books” continues to erode, without some unforeseen jolt in demand, we will all be the losers–readers, writers, agents and publishers. It hurts us all!

Not everything that moves forward is necessary good—especially at the pace it proceeds—or benefits the consumer. Ask newspaper readers in Denver and Seattle. Personally, I am just as distressed to learn that Laredo, Texas, a city of over 250,000, no longer has a single bookstore in it– and to buy one, a real book, you have to drive 150 miles to San Antonio—as I am at what’s going on between the Big Six and Amazon. In this kind of brave new world, we all lose!

What’s Behind RECKLESS

December 17, 2009

At three in the morning on July 21, 2007, in Cheshire, Connecticut, two career criminals broke into the upscale, suburban home of Dr. William Petit, a prominent endocrinologist, and severely beat, molested, and ultimately murdered his wife and two young daughters.

When they went to sleep that night, Hayley, the seventeen year old, might well have been dreaming of starting Dartmouth, where she was headed in the fall; her eleven year-old sister, Michaela, was maybe messaging with classmates on Facebook. Jennifer, Petit’s wife, might well have been reading a novel in bed, all in protected calm and innocence, with no sense of what, hours later, lay in store.

The event always held a haunting grip on me– as it did for many of us who live in what we think are safe communities protected by our good fortune in life– and not so much as an author, but as a husband and father as well.

The fear of being unable to protect those you love. The horror of watching them bound and assaulted in front of you. Of being a witness to their horrible fates.

And somewhere, a person woke up that following morning, and catching the news, exclaimed in horror, “My God, I know that person. That was my close friend…”

That is what Ty Hauck wakes up to on the first morning of my new thriller, Reckless. The brutal murder of a friend from years before and her family. The wife of a successful investment manager. A person who was once there for him at a dark time in his own past.

And though Hauck has traded in his badge for a new role in a global security company, his friend’s murder draws him back to his old world. Not just to solve this heart-wrenching crime, and find out the truth where it leads.

But to avenge it. For her.

Of course, the trail does lead to broader and more horrifying things…

On March 16, 2008, I was flying home from a weekend in Florida, when a friend, who happened to be on the same plane and seated behind me, leaned forward and said in my ear: “Bear Sterns just collapsed!”

For me, these words, and the events that culminated six months later with the collapse of Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and AIG, had much of the same powerful impact of watching the scenes of 9/11 unfold or the collapse of the Berlin Wall. An iconic world crumbling in front of your eyes. The unimaginable happening. History unfolding…

And I thought: what if everything that happened then —as well as the new world that followed– wasn’t simply the result of history’s impartial hand.

So RECKLESS is the story of these two worlds colliding. As in all my books, one world local, human, with tragic and emotional results. The other broader, conspiratorial– with billions of dollars at stake and consequences that affect us all.

And the force that always shakes them together is Ty Hauck. Dogged, undeterred, taking on the “quest” of an old friend into the viper’s nest of power and corruption. Always smart enough to find what he is chasing—though not smart enough to avoid trouble along the way.

A white knight for our times.

And in RECKLESS, he is free of his badge—and not just content to solve his friend’s murder, but to avenge it.

Hope I’ve given you a look into the new book. Have a great holiday. Next month, look forward to the first three chapters!

A Personal Tragedy Shared

August 4, 2009

A writer friend of mine is compiling a photoscape of the world’s saddest places. Scenes of executions, mass graves, military cemeteries, places of memorials, final resting spots. The gates of Auschwitz.

For me, the saddest place has become a giant rock jutting out of the Pacific in the California coastal town of Morro Bay.

Morry Bay Rock

Morro Bay Rock

Last week my 25 year old nephew, Alex, was found dead on the jagged rocks below it on the ocean’s floor.

No one will ever know if it was suicide—likely—or some final, futile grasp at meaning in his turbulent life that led him to walk out of an unrestricted psychiatric halfway house, snowed on heavy amounts of the anti-psychotic, Seroquel, fix on the massive, six hundred foot rock, try to climb his way up, and dulled and disoriented, fall. In either case, his sad end has left two devastated parents for whom he was their only child, and their only hope of a lasting legacy of their own ruined, bipolar lives. As well as a lot of unanswered questions.

A week before, his mother had found a hastily scrawled application to buy a weapon in Alex’s room. A 20 gauge shotgun. (Thank God the state administered application period delayed the transaction.) And with it, a lot of manic, suicidal writings. About lying down with the devil, taking other people with him. Terrified—there was a history of violence in the house and Alex had been under psychiatric care before—she contacted the police. When they came, Alex, enraged, took her by the hair and threw punches at her. He was thrown into a van, taken to the state hospital in San Luis Obispo, restrained in a cell, medicated, put on suicide watch, his belt and shoelaces removed, under 24 hour watch. Rounds of psychiatric consultations over the next few days indicated he was depressed, suicidal, schizophrenic, a clear danger to himself and those around him. He was dosed heavily with Seroquel. His parents felt relief their son was finally in a controlled environment. (Over 21, it had been impossible to commit him without the threat of imminent danger.) Back in New York, we felt relief too. It was decided he would be transported to a restricted “transitional” facility, where for as much as ten months he would be among people like himself, unable to leave. Receiving medication. Learning a trade. It was a rare moment of hope in his short, tragic life. And calmer, he seemed to be embracing it too. “Wish me luck, Mom,” he said. The last words she ever heard from him. Maybe one day he would have a platform from which to embark from there. A footing for the rest of his life.

Last Sunday that footing forever collapsed.

Two days before he had been released from the hospital into a small, unrestricted halfway house in Morro Bay filled with aged patients coping with Alzhiemer’s. Dropkicked there– without a medical history or any background on him showing suicidal or violent behavior. The home’s administrator said he was “like a stroke victim, snowed on Seroquel.” But he seemed ready to “work it out.” Last Saturday he said he was going for a walk. She thought that was actually a hopeful sign. She didn’t know any better. When he never returned she called my brother and sister-in-law the next day. Looking to put out a missing person’s alarm. By that time he was already dead. He had been found that morning on the rocks at the base of Morro Bay Rock, a formation that seems to majestically rise out of nothing like Ayers Rock in Australia. A John Doe. Two news stations did reports on the unidentified suicide. My brother and sister-in-law saw them, never knowing, sadly, it was their own son they were hearing about. He was identified by his fingerprints the next day.

And their lives fell apart.

So how was this clearly agitated bipolar kid, two days from suicide-watch at the hospital, released into an unrestricted environment with no medical history or background provided to the staff? Only that he was bipolar and on medication. Lots of kids are bipolar, the facility’s head told me, coping, needing a place to come to. Not suicidal. Not violent. Not on the teetering edge of sanity, only a few days after beating up his mother, wanting to buy a gun, rambling crazily about killing himself and his parents, a threat to innocent people as well.

We viewed his battered body at the mortuary. I held his parents up, their legs weakened, from collapsing to the floor. They pawed over his marked-up face in grief, strangely quiet and peaceful for the first time in years. His voices silenced. Anger stilled. It’s a cliché, but in this case, one that works: Maybe Alex had gone on to a calmer place.

Then we went to the rock. To someone who had not seen it before, it is, stunning, majestic, awe-inspiring, rising out of the sea, nothing else around it. There were tourists walking around. We climbed out to where the coroner’s detective said we would find the spot. Rocks so jagged, they are like the gnarled teeth of the sea, gnashing at you. A cliff, rising above, maybe eighty feet high. How did he ever even get up there? What was in his poor head—to finally end his turbulent life, or maybe look up at last and see some clarity, the sun shining, a deluded, final search for God? Did he fall, climbing? Or, like the detective surmised, do a final, backwards dive onto a mangled resting place on the rocks?

What is the saddest place? Where your heart breaks with sorrow from what has taken place? Where the winds seem to carry a hymn. The world has its many spots, its hallowed memorials, its quiet tombs.

But for us, with the sound of the surf beating against the rocks, staring up into the face of something God must have created with something more glorious in mind, this is it. It’s here.

Thrillerfest Talk on PACE

July 14, 2009

Presented at THRILLERFEST, July 9, 2009

PACE: Ten Surefire Ways to Keep the Pages Turning.

OKAY, HERE’S HOW IT’S GONNA GO. I’m gonna talk about how to elevate the PACE in your books. I’m going to break PACE into two categories: structural, or how you order or organize the book, and syntactical, meaning your sentence structure and prose style. And I’m going do my best and try and say TWO OR THREE smart things in the next forty minutes…That’s all. The rest is just gonna be filler for me to get to the Q and A, where you can say some smart things. And I’m even gonna say those two things up front, so if you’re compelled to leave, to catch someone else’s talk, feel free to go.

And the first of those smart things–I hope—is…There is absolutely no right or wrong when it comes to pace. Slow or fast. It’s only a matter of what you want to accomplish in your book. THE BEST PACE, like a referee in a hockey or basketball game, is the pace you don’t notice. When it never intrudes on your enjoyment of the game. THE SAME WITH PACE.

Another “smart” thing: EVERYTHING IN A BOOK IS A TRADE OFF. A trade off of what the reader will accept and what you  are trying to accomplish. You can layer deeper character detail or richer back story in, have more elaborate scene setting or descriptive passages. You can describe homes in Architectural Digest details, how someone is dressed as if it’s an article in GQ— but everything has a trade-off. And that trade off is - it slows down the pace. Conversely, you can strip down the prose to nothing but simple sentences and robotic, declarative dialogue and action. That may speed it up, but then the book lacks richness and texture. It sounds simple, but it’s about balance. And your goals. If you want pages to turn, really turn, something has to give. SO THE RIGHT PACE IS THE BALANCE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU TO ACCOMPLISH YOUR OWN GOALS.

I’m not going to attempt to define what pace is…To me, that’s a waste of time. It’s sort of like pornography—can’t define it, but know it when you see it!

BUT AMERICANS LIKE NUMBERS AND  I HAVE SPENT YEARS WORKING OUT A COMPLEX MATHEMATICAL ALGORITHM THAT DISPLAYS WITH 100% MATHEMATICAL CERTAINTY, PRECISELY WHAT PACE IS. AND I WANT YOU TO MEMORIZE IT AND REFLECT ON IT WHEN YOU’RE STUCK OVER YOUR BOOK AS TO WHAT TO LEAVE IN AND WHAT TO LEAVE OUT:

S (G – B)2

U – N2

WHERE….:

S = speed

G = the point where the good guy stumbles onto a crime

B = the point where the good guy finally kills the bad guy

DIVIDED BY:

U = defined as the writerly urge to use self-indulgent or overly descriptive language, and

Ns = the number of  times he/she gets to have sex in the book.

THIS IS PACE, ladies and gentlemen. Learn to recognize it when you see it!

It is the speed at which the hero first comes on the crime until he follows the clues, solves the puzzle, chases down and kills the bad guy–over, all that stuff that a good editor editor would eliminate minus the frequency of sex.

HELLO. SIMPLE. Don’t laugh, it’s actually true.

Now if that’s not enough, that may tell you what pace is, but it doesn’t really help you because it doesn’t tell you how to actually measure the rate of pace. For that I have another equally timed honed algorithm.

W (A)

Sk – $$

Where, in this formula:

W = amount of Words

Times, A = the number of Actions, or what, ladies and gentlemen, the duration of your plot.

Over:

Sk  = With apologies to Elmore Leonard, the parts that readers tend to skip! minus

$ = the dollar amt if you happen to have one of those old fashioned contracts where you are actually paid by the word. Which you don’t. So don’t worry about it. That was just a joke!

Now in this formula, it’s important to further define Sk The parts readers tend to skip. In its place you could easy substitute in:

I = too much Information. You do not need to take your reader through complex derivative analysis just because you are going to kill off a hedge fund manager. You do not need to show you reader you’re not really a writer, but an arms expert because your hero uses a gun. You can do it. You can give the historical background to the building your character is walking into, but it does what—it slows down the pace. Sk can also be recorded as

SH = showing off. Or,

B = plain old BORING

SH (showing off)  is when you try to slip in some slick and artsy prose for the reviewers that doesn’t really advance the plot, which is okay, but please, not when the bad guy’s hands are tight around the hero’s throat. That creates Ir. Irritating to the reader.

And trust me, you’re not likely to get reviewed anyway.

For those who think more linearly, another way to look at this is the continuum line between P and p.

Big P———————————————————————————-small p

Big P we will call….Marcel Proust.

Small p is James Patterson. Sorry Jim.

THESE ARE THE TWO ABSOLUTE ANTIPODES OF PACE!

PROUST, as we know, took 30 pages to describe the joy of eating a cracker.

With PATTERSON, In the same thirty pages, you get ten chapters, two murders and three chase scenes!

The point is… THERE’S NO RIGHT OR WRONG WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR PACE. It’s all a matter of what they are trying to accomplish.

Without his pace, Proust would never have gotten a trilogy, and without his, JP might still be in advertising.

BUT WHAT IS ESSENTIAL, Smart Point #3…is to make sure your goals and what you want to accomplish are aligned.

If you go for speed, your prose has to back it up. If you’re going for something else, your sentence and structure should reflect that too. It would not work in a mannered, literary novel set in a languorous garden in Yorkshire, for the character to : “I got to the end of the hedge. I looked both ways. I saw no one coming. My heart started to race. I turned, heading under the rhododendrum…”

Now I said pace is both STRUCTURAL AND SYNTACTICAL.

By structure, I mean how your book is organized or its plot developed. This can be a PACE accelerator too.

By syntax, I mean, your writing style.

How does STRUCTURE help create pace?

CRISP, SHORT CHAPTERS.

CULLING CHAPTERS TO SINGLE SCENES STRIPPED DOWN TO THEIR ELEMENTAL, DRAMATIC CORE.

GETTING IN AND OUT OF THOSE CHAPTERS FAST.

A CLOSE-IN, FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW. (Helps make you FEEL what is happening. Creates immediacy.)

And how does SYNTAX help create pace?

Sentence structure should mirror what is happening at that moment in the book. If you’re in a chase scene, don’t weigh it down with turgid, complex sentences. Simple sentences. Short thoughts in the mind of the characters.

It’s sort of obvious except how many times in the heat of a final chase scene, do you come across some endless, weird, overwrought sentence, with a lot of indirect clauses, and by the end of it, someone has a gun you didn’t know even had one, or someone’s lying on the floor I DIDN’T KNOW WAS SHOT!

It makes you go back and re-read the thing and go, what just happened. Which supports my last, obvious but sometimes overlooked thing: If you’re going for PACE, never take your reader out of the narrative.

MAKE YOUR WRITING STYLE FIT EXACTLY WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BOOK

Like I said, everything the writer does reflects a trade-off. Yes, I could have spent more time on the hero’s relationship with his brother. Yes, I could have deepened my back story. But I did what I thought was right—given that what’s important for me is for people to keep turning pages. Not to find a reason o put the book down. On the other hand, it seems fair that three page chapters and short declarative sentences will not get you short listed to the National Book Award or Booker Prize!

NOW, I GO FOR SPEED. I like my books to be devoured in two or three sittings. NOT IN ONE! THREE! I GUESS I DO WANT THEM TO BE SAVORED JUST A BIT.

So here we are. I said I was going to give you TEN SUREFIRE WAYS to keep your pages turning. To create PACE. So here they are:

I said to think of them both in terms of structure and syntax. So in no particular order…

1. SHORT, LINKING, DRAMATIC CHAPTERS. End on a hook that makes the reader want to turn to the next page. Enticing the reader to go further than intended is the surest form of PACE.

2.  THE SCENE. Eliminate whatever does not directly advance the story. Cull it down to its elemental dramatic core. Whether it’s two pages or ten.

3. YOUR WRITING SHOULD REFLECT PRECISELY WHAT IS GOING ON. When the scene calls for speed, write with it! Action scenes should utilize crisp, understandable sentences. Not where somewhere in the middle of some LONG, inscrutable, run-on sentences, someone has pulled out a gun. NEVER pull the reader out of the narrative. Do not make him go back and scratch his head, “Where did that gun come from?” Or, “How did we get over here?”

Conversely, it’s okay, of course, to use a richer, more complex style when the situations calls for it—if you can pull it off.

Or unless it’s about SEX. The goal, gals, as we all know, is try and REMOVE too much pace from sex! :-)

4. DON’T BOG THE NARRATIVE FLOW DOWN by showing off, being boring, injecting an unnecessary description unless it is directly called for. If the reader is turning the pages to find out what happens, give them what they want to read! Give them what YOU would want to read!

5. Which brings us to the following, with all credit to Elmore Leonard, “Try and eliminate the parts readers tend to skip.”

6. PARE, PARE, PARE. Learn that there is nothing more fun than the elimination of all those precious, hard-to-come-by words and paragraphs. Sometimes even a single extra word can stand out, slow a sentence down and draw attention to itself. You know, in your heart, when you are being self-indulgent or trying to show off. We all do it. Well, the reader knows it too. Keep it in the first draft!  Again, Do not take the reader out of the narrative.

7. DO NOT OVERPROVIDE INFORMATION. Make sure what is interesting to you is not boring to the reader. I always find there is too much data. Decide what details you need and maybe cut it in half. I sometimes write about financial things, being that my books take place in Greenwich, and my characters can be hedge fund managers or lawyers with appropriate schemes. But I try and give the reader what they need in ONE PARAGRAPH. Not pages!

8. ORIENT THE READER quickly when you begin a scene. Don’t make them guess. Don’t make them figure out, who’s talking, where they are. What may have taken place. Root the reader in the scene immediately .Anytime they are not—it’s taking them out of the  narrative. Slowing down pace.

9. KNOW WHAT EACH CHAPTER, OR SCENE, IS SUPPOSED TO DELIVER. And don’t try and make it do more. Don’t weight down chapters with too many scenes—I do one_- and don’t weight down scenes by staying in too long.

10. And lastly, the final, surefire way to get those pages turning faster, if all else fails. USE A LARGER FONT!

Hope some of this has been helpful, and here’s to your pages speeding up!

My very first blog entry

June 30, 2009

Well, here it is, my first ever blog, and late in the game as I am, you might think I would opt for the writerly approach and shed some light on my books, where I draw ideas from, the act of writing, etc….

Instead, I’ve decided to run with the topic of mold remediation.

Please, don’t click off just yet. I promise, there’s a plan!

Two weeks ago I came home from playing tennis to a deep rumble emanating from our basement. Left to myself, I might have just ignored it and turned on the news, but since the dog seemed to be getting all agitated and pawed at the door, not to mention the house was rumbling, I went to investigate in the netherworld of pipes and pumps downstairs that I know nothing about, and to my horror, discovered water spewing into the basement from a blown gasket in what I now know as the pressure pump. Not a leak, mind you—more like a fire hydrant left on. Or picture the first release of the Kenebec River Dam in rafting season. Soaked immediately, I couldn’t get myself within three feet of the pump.

If you haven’t yet figured it out, I am essentially useless in these situations. My usual plan when calamity strikes (or even when a large, flying insect finds its way into the house) is to scream at the top of my lungs, “Lynnie…!!” (My wife, who happened to be happily day spa-ing in Greenwich at the time.) In seconds, water had crept above the top of my sneakers. All I could mentally picture was our beautiful home tipped on its side and majestically sinking, like the Titanic, into Westchester County. Frantically, I dialed Robert, our plumber, encouraging the answering service with a few choice expletives that this was not an opportunity for voicemail—“this is a fucking disaster! Do you understand!” In minutes, I got him. He instructed me to turn the water main off. I’ve only lived in our house twenty two years. I had no f-ing idea where the water main valve was! Soaked, frantic, twisting every conceivable lever I could find, I finally found the one and the torrent immediately abated. I surveyed the damage. Six inches—over the carpets, the yoga studio, the universal gym, the couch, the fancy large-screen TV. It was the gloomiest possible scene, made even ickier by water filing up my shoes.

Needless to say, upon returning, my wife’s pedicure high was cut short. As it happened, we were leaving the next morning for LA, to visit two of our kids. In a panic, we called Mike, who for years has washed our rugs, our now-deceased, diabetic Westie giving him lots of business. To our relief, he said, don’t worry. He’d handle everything himself. He does this sort of thing. Our savior! Rushing over within minutest, with two gigantic blowers, drying, dehumidifying, squeegeeing. “I’ve seen a lot worse,” he said, confidently. “Enjoy your trip. I think you’re going to be okay…”

Relieved, we set off for the West Coast, a bon voyage story for the kids, everything being well-handled.  Returning four days later, the whiff we met as we opened the basement door, aligned to dead rats, informs us we might have been wrong.

We now hate Mike. Correspondingly, he is no longer a fan.

It’s a disaster. The carpet is still completely damp, the pads, underneath, damper. Ugly brown trails are creeping up along the walls. Calling Chubb in, and their environmental contractor let us know that our aspergillius count, normally 7, is over 3000 now!

In comes the mold remediation people, wearing scary, Tyvek, bio-protective garb. Their big, new air-purifying engines churning. Taping off the basement from the rest of the house, like we’re living on Love Canal. So much stuff down there, potentially affected. They even want to empty the wine cellar.

So why am I sharing this, other than for a grim laugh? I did say I had a plan!

Everything down there, the mold-covered detritus of our lives, the record of our lives before I ever even thought I would one day write, had to be rescued, evaluated, wiped off with bleach and water. Saved or discarded? The memory of twenty five years.

There are books I once loved I never knew what happened to. Thomas Gifford’s, The Wind- Chill Factor, North of Montana by April Smith. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks. E.M Cioran’s, The Trouble with Being Born. Each resonates with a singular moment in time. Toss or save? Sadly, we shake out heads.

There’s a pre-reservation, Navaho chief’s blanket. (Fortunately, insured.) Delicate kachina dolls, a hundred year old set of spurs. From the times we used to head out to Santa Fe every year.

There’s a wedding album we hadn’t seen for years. On our friend’s lake in Vermont. Me in a white summer suit with straggly hair. Lynn, in white lace, proudly looking not much different than today. I say we had all of nineteen people there; my wife insists it was twenty three. Over twenty fives years, we’ve re-counted the guest list a hundred times– and never once been able to agree.

There’s the framed invitation for Lynn’s 40th birthday celebration, a black and white Mardi Gras mask at Paul Prudhomme’s. Even had the famous chef fly up from New Orleans to do the cooking himself. We laugh, recalling the wildly expensive Sylvia Weinstock cake I had splurged for. Prudhomme refused to serve it. We ended up having to cut it up into a hundred servings and drag it all the way home, where it sat in our freezer for the next year. Save!

There’s a file of early rejection letters. Twenty three of them. One, it turns out, I’d forgotten, from an agent in the next office to where my current agent is now! Ha! There’s an Art Monk Redskins football helmet, which, blitzed at a school charity event, I bid over two grand for! There are blankets and sleeping bags, video games and hockey masks and footballs. Each comes with a mental snapshot of one of the kids catching a touchdown pass or getting crunched, wobbly legged, into the boards. We signal thumbs-down. Gone.

We pull out an awful painting of a coq fight my father once brought up one Sunday, when he used to roam the flea markets and buy anything he could successfully bargain down. He claimed it had the touch of a Picasso; we thought the frame would work for firewood. Five years after his death, it makes me tear. One by one, we leaf through the forgotten record of our lives, reliving their importance, then signal to the remediation folk, like Roman royalty, thumbs up or down. A old garment bag, balled up, unfurled, reads Leslie Fay.

So once there was a life before writing. Before I ever conceived a plot line. Before the “me,” the few people reading this now would ever know. One day these images may figure into my books. You will read them, and maybe know where they came from. Nothing will ever be discarded. Because basements dry, clean air is restored. Mold remediation crews in bio-hazard yellow suits leave.

But these relics will never leave. We own them in our hearts and minds.

This painting I once rolled my eyes at, never nice enough to find its way upstairs, yet never discarded, these are our lives.

Hello world!

June 25, 2009

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