Category Archives: Thrillers and mysteries

Barnes and Noble, tear down these walls

berlin-wall-falls

Readers and writers need each other, and we won’t connect when there are thick, artificial walls and book covers so filled with testosterone – or estrogen – that you may as well nail up signs that say “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” or “RUN AWAY, MEN, FOR YOU ARE UNWELCOME.”

I don’t want fiction so segmented that it becomes little fiefdoms, or ghettos, with this section for men, this one for women, little kids here, gay literature over there, big kids there, lesbians here, left-handed straight white guys here and right-handed women who are into quilting and cats in this corner. I read whatever Dan Savage and David Sedaris write, though I’d never have found them if you hidden them in a gay and lesbian corner, which is a bit too near a closet.

Good writing is good writing, period.

Here’s a brief plot summary for a novel. Read it and tell me where it belongs in Barnes and Noble.

Hank is an investigator who solves murders. But he can’t stop a new serial killer, at least not officially. Because that killer is going after the employees of his wife, a prominent businesswoman. This is a case Hank can’t touch and can’t ignore. The killer knows it — and he’s getting ever closer.

All too easy, right? This is pure mystery/thriller. You put it next to Lee Child and James Patterson.

Nope. It’s a romance novel. Some stores might get wild and put it in Romantic Suspense. This is BETRAYAL IN DEATH by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. All I did was change the genders of the protag and love interest.

The initials Nora Roberts put in her pen name also tell us something. Why do female authors, even crazy famous and insanely successful ones like Nora Roberts and J.K. Rowling, have to hide behind initials? Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Thrillers and mysteries

Bad Writing: The Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse

Want to become a better writer? Learn from bad writing: how to spot it, how to fix it and how to prevent the disease from happening in the first place.

Note: All writers, including myself, tend to go overboard at times. As a reformed journalist who now writes speeches, blog posts and novels, I will happily say that I’ve committed every possible writing sin at one time or another — and no, this is not meant to make anyone recycle their Underwood and switch to pottery.

So as a public service, here are the Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse:

1) The Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock

This comes from never learning that out in the real world, nobody wants to read blog posts, novels or screenplays written in the same dense style of term papers about dialectical materialism.

How to spot it: There is never a short, simple sentence, not when long, insanely complicated ones will do. Pretentious Poppycock will have sentences flavored with giant German words that are too intellectually sophisticated to be translated into English, though schadenfreude has appeared in low-brow venues such as Newsweek often enough to lose all its previous cachet.

Writers of Pretentious Poppycock are actually offended if the masses (a) buy, (b) read or (c) dare to enjoy their work, because that means (d) it is not dense and sophisticated enough and (e) they have therefore failed via mainstream success and must (f) become an elusive recluse working on a new, six-volume masterpiece that will take 26 years to complete. Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Thrillers and mysteries

How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah, go ahead, google “Wal-Mart parking lot” and “weird news.”

While you’re at it, google “7-Eleven robbery” and “trailer park ninjas.” It’s a thing, especially in Florida, though in Colorado somebody robbed a 7-Eleven with some kind of Klingon sword, and yeah, the clerk who got robbed knew exactly what to call that sword when the cops took the police report.

Great storytelling comes from the gap between expectation and result. Audiences, like kittehs, love surprises.

Your normal day is not a great story because there’s no gap. It is what you expect, and what your neighbor expects. There’s nothing shocking.

So let’s dissect the RV thief story and the rash of 7-Eleven robberies involving trailer park ninjas, to see why those short little stories pack so much punch. The gaps between expectation and result are all over these stories.

First, it’s a surprise for a criminal to prowl the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, or steal an RV, because as a smart person, you think, “If I were unemployed and desperate, and forced into a life of crime, maybe I’d steal a new Mercedes convertible, something I could sell for real money and drive crazy fast if the police chased me.”

You would not think to yourself, “Let’s go to a Wal-Mart parking lot, full of witnesses, and steal a ginormous RV that (a) could be seen from space, much less a police helicopter, (b) would be crazy hard to sell or hide and (c) is slower and less maneuverable than anything short of a logging truck.” Continue reading

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Animals, monsters and monstrous animals, Fiction, Muffin chokers, Thrillers and mysteries

Give me something, something I can read

I’ve got a long road trip and 10 days of no exercise allowed after a spot of surgery (it’s not a tumor!).

So I need things to read. You know, book-like substances, printed bits of dead trees.

And I want a honking pile of them.

Therefore, good people, my plea is simple. Sock it to me:

  • Nominate a popular book that’s actually horrible and I’ll bleed red all over the first page
  • Tell me your Favorite Book of All Time so I have something delicious to chew for hours
  • Hit me up on Twitter, gmail or the comment sections if you want to collaborate on an insanely creative and secret project
  • Give me a movie or music video you want dissected and taken apart, to see how it works like magic or smashes into the hard, heartless rock named Fail
  • If you’re not a nancypants who’ll wind up in therapy, ship me the first page of your WIP and I may ink it up and whip it back, because EDITING IS CRAZY FUN

Also: You’re right, that headline riffs on a Don Henley song. Here it is, live.

The Red Pen of Doom’s Greatest Hits Collection: 10 Epic Posts

  1. Epic Black Car deserves good owner; are you worthy?
  2. The Mother of All Query Letters
  3. Why every man MUST read a romance – and every woman a thriller
  4. The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
  5. The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
  6. A BOWL OF WARM MILK AND MURDER
  7. 30 achy breaky Twitter mistakeys
  8. Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt
  9. The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
  10. Quirks and legs matter more than talent and perfection

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Red Pen of Doom, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Thrillers and mysteries

Why creativity gets squashed like a bug

Oh, everybody says they want something new and creative. But as this article from Slate shows, even places that are supposed by be hotbeds of artistic and creative genius, like magazines and ad agencies, are often machines built to squash the life out anybody who dares think outside the box.

Now, that's creative. I salute you, random dad.

Now, that’s creative. I salute you, random dad.

You see this in so many places.

Newspapers, which I adore, all did the same thing in reaction to the Series of Tubes: “Hey, let’s not let this train pass us by. How about we innovate by doing what every other newspaper is doing. We’ll put all our stories on this Interwebs for free, then money will pour through the windows from all the banner ads.”

They didn’t question the fact that other papers doing this were bleeding more money than Kim Kardashian on a 12-hour shopping spree.

All these newspapers and magazines did the same thing everybody else was doing. But expected different results.

People who thought outside the box, who said (a) make people subscribe to the paper to read it online or (b) don’t put it online at all, because then people won’t subscribe and advertisers won’t advertise and America will lay off 15,000 journalists, well those people got ridiculed as crazy. They weren’t hailed as creative prophets, avoiding doom. They were seen as nuts and the people in charge ignored them.

PETA and the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams take a different approach. Instead of doing the safe thing, and what everybody else is doing, the guerrillas at PETA and this random nerdy looking man who worked at banks figured out you can’t plan on hitting a grand slam on your only at bat. You can’t even count on hitting a single, or getting the baseball over the plate.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

On paper, getting the gall over the plate looks easy.

Successful creative types are idea hamsters who try dozens, or hundreds, of different things. Because you can’t predict what will be a world-smashing success, and you certainly won’t somehow break through while doing the same thing that 185,892 other people and businesses are doing.

Scott Adams didn’t have a master plan to become a syndicated cartoonist. In his books, he writes about having dozens of long-shot ideas, and that for somebody who couldn’t draw when he started out, being a cartoonist wasn’t exactly a sure thing. He kept swinging for grand slams and kept missing until Dilbert took off.

PETA doesn’t have the bazillion-dollar advertising and marketing budget of corporations like Coke and Ford, or even non-profits trying to cure cancer and such. PETA gets all their publicity from free ink and airtime. Do they guilt magazines, newspapers and blogs into covering their cause? No. They try dozens and dozens of wild, creative long-shot ideas, most of which fail spectacularly. Why? Because the one idea that takes off can get them free press around the world.

I wrote a series of posts about PETA and publicity stunts for about.com, back when The New York Times owned that blog. (Related: I can say that, as a journalist, I cashed checks every month from the NYT, then got fired, though technically all of the contributing writers got axed, so it’s not as romantic as going on strike and getting replaced by the staff of the Lower Kentucky Valley Register, then walking into the editors office and handing in your resignation via a punch to the nose, which every journalist does dream about at one time. I had fun, and they were kind to me, and I learned many things by writing them down.)

Here’s one of those posts showing how PETA makes it happen.

Social media is the other big area where you FEEL like you’re being creative and different, when actually, you’re doing the same thing, oh, about 1 billion other people hooked up to the Series of Tubes are trying to do. Except you’re expecting a radically different result. While that may be magical thinking, it is conventional, safe and boring–not creative.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Mixed Writing Arts is to writing as MMA is to fighting

Since the dawn of time, writers have spent their lives toiling in their own secret tribes and guilds, each clan claiming to have mastered the One True Art.

  • Copywriters swore their kung fu was far more powerful than that sissy screenwriting nonsense, because if you can’t sell tickets to a movie, the movie doesn’t get made.
  • Working journalists cranking out two stories a day scoffed at poets spending all week on five hippie lines about trees and clouds, while poets saw the mass-production lines of the Priests of the Inverted Pyramid as lacking any sort of soul or art.
  • Romance authors gathered in huge, organized conferences while mystery novelists gathered in small secret groups to put a dent in the global bourbon supply while trading secrets and lies.
  • Speechwriters clutched their tomes with 2,000-plus years of wisdom from Plato, Aristotle, Burke and countless other giants, who were inventing rhetoric and drama and comedy long before Syd Field arrived in Hollywood and Blake Snyder started saving cats.

To me, with a foot in all of these worlds, it felt false.

I got started in journalism and speech, my sister is a screenwriter and I have a great literary agent (Jill Marr!) after writing a novel that won some award.

It hit me, again and again, that I got better as a writer not when focusing like crazy on one thing, but by being exposed to other aspects that often would never have entered my mind as an option. Like hanging out with romance authors and editors, who have made me 100-times stronger as a writer. NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: There is no one supreme writing art.
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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Speechwriting, Thrillers and mysteries

Why this man is joining the RWA

It wouldn’t be a shock for me to join the International Thriller Writers, since I just wrote a thriller that won some award and have done 5.83 zillion profiles of authors for The Big Thrill

And wouldn’t be surprising if I signed up with the Mystery Writers of America.

So why would a 6’3 Swede who writes thrillers pay $95 to join the Romance Authors of America?

Five possibilities:

  1. I secretly write romance novels involving dashing one-eyed pirates and the kidnapped baronesses who love them under the pseudonym Scarletta Bounty.
  2. My wife reads 4.6 romance novels a day and believes she’ll get a volume discount.
  3. Fabio talked me into it.
  4. I have an illness that manifests itself in the random scribbling of checks.
  5. My love of joining things, and going to meetings, is so strong that resistance was futile.

Except none of those are right.

This blog accidentally started because of romance authors and editors. One of them found my silly ad to sell a beater Hyundai, told her friends about it and the thing went viral.

I went on to write a number of things about romance novels, and every one of those posts got more hits and comments than normal posts. Here’s a sample:

So am I joining RWA out of gratitude, or because I’ve made so many friends with amazing writers and editors who happen to be in the romance genre?

No. I’m doing it because it’s smart.

There are plenty of male authors who I’m friends with, and they’re good people. Fun, charming, interesting and happy to help with expert advice when I have a dumb question.

But I’ve thought about this, and it’s no coincidence almost every writer and editor I truly collaborate with is a woman. My editor-of-all-editors, Theresa the Stevens, my beta readers and editors, my literary agent Jill Marr—there’s a long list. (Related post: Some of my favorite editors OF ALL TIME)

The trick is, writing may be a solitary act—but only WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT.

Writing in a world-class way takes more than one man, or one woman, endlessly banging on a keyboard. It takes a team and a plan. Editors for story and structure, line editing, proofreaders, agents, publicists, cover designers, printers, marketers. Doing a book, and doing it right, takes a huge team of talented people.

Female authors and editors, especially in the romance genre, get this team idea better than anybody I’ve met.

The whole thing boils down to this: a dozen of average people, working together, will beat a bunch of geniuses doing their own thing on the football field. Put a team of organized geniuses out there on the artificial turf and hand them a pigskin and they will absolutely crush the lone-wolfs into powder.

The RWA is organized. They put on great workshops and their website is full of useful research and posts about readers and the craft of writing.

So I’m joining the RWA and hoping to hit next year’s national conference, not as a novelty, but because it’s a good play. They get the concept that nobody can or should do this alone. If you only write by yourself, and never get pushed or challenged, your prose will stagnate and die.

The best writing gets stronger—not weaker—when challenged.

We all need that shove, that breakthrough, the new trick that helps you snap old habits. Or the person you just met who’s figured out how to tame the same demon that plagues you.

And writers need to talk to other humans and to give back. I love teaching writing and speaking to college students. Also, editing folks I’ve met from Twitter and this blog is so fun it should be illegal. My red pen of doom sings songs while it kills words. NOTHING IS BETTER.

I learned all those things from an inspiring group of talented women.

Next year, I hope to learn more.

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Romances; also, novels with Fabio covers, Thrillers and mysteries

OBLIVION swings for the fences and misses

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: OBLIVION is an interesting and beautiful movie that could have been classic.

Why did it flop?

Let’s look at the prime suspects:

5) Tom Cruise fatigue

This is an easy target. Cruise has gone from “Biggest Movie Star on the Planet” to “Incredibly Excited Actor Jumping on Oprah’s Couch” to “Scientologist Who Gets Divorced a Lot.”

As a huge fan of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, I have to say that Reacher is something like 6’5, 250, blond and quietly sarcastic, while Cruise is short, light, dark-haired and loudly cocky.

HOWEVER: I will give the man his due, because Cruise did a fine job of acting in this movie. The average sci-fi apocalypse movie would have a hot new 20-something actor mumble his way through the thing looking stoned while trying to seem macho. Cruise was an upgrade from the typical New Action Hunk.

You could’ve put Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling or George Clooney in this sucker and it wouldn’t solve the problem. Cruise gets a pass.

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, Fiction, The Glowing Tube, Thrillers and mysteries

Top 5 reasons BREAKING BAD was insanely good

The usual reasons don’t cut it.

BREAKING BAD wasn’t great because of brilliant cinematography, writing and acting, though Bryan Cranston deserves an Oscar or three instead of an Emmy.

It wasn’t great because of the gritty subject matter. In fact, it was successful in spite of the topic of meth dealers, which made many people not even give the show a chance.

Let’s dive deep, and dig hard, into what really made this show so different and so flipping good.

Heisenberg's hat.

Heisenberg’s hat.

5) A complete story

In the normal world, 99.9 percent of TV shows cling to life from week to week. The creators and actors are happy if the pilot gets funded and made, then nibble on a diet of fingernails to see if a network picks up the first season.

Then they live in fear of not getting a second season. If they get a second season, they stay up all night worrying about some network executive moving their show to a night and time that guarantees doom, or keeping their show in the same slot only to have it slayed in the rating by some hot new thing from CBS or HBO.

Successful shows have different problems. Lead actors who were nobodies can suddenly do no wrong and start demanding the GDP of Spain per episode, or bail from the silly little show that turned them into a star to make a go at movies.

The ending of a series is often sudden. There’s no time to wrap up the series with a true finale.

Even when a series has time for a planned ending, you often get something muddled and maudlin, like a retrospective. Or the writers do something artistic and ambiguous (SOPRANOS facepalm) or go all the way and pull a LOST, causing us to curse their names for eternity.

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, Fiction, The Glowing Tube, Thrillers and mysteries

The end of BREAKING BAD

The Series of Tubes is chock full of rumors and speculation about some high school chemistry teacher and a junkie named Jesse.

I celebrate this show, because it’s the best thing on the Glowing Tube that I’ve ever seen.

How will it end? My four favorite theories: 

  • Walt uses Lydia to find the lair of Todd and Uncle Jack, and during their meeting, Walt poisons her stevia with ricin
  • After a big shootout with the gang, Walt is mortally wounded and tells the now-free Pinkman to go ahead and shoot him, as long as he delivers barrels of cash to his family
  • Pinkman shoots Walt and burns the money
  • Walt survives and goes into the witness protection program, starting up life as a regular dad named Hal with an adopted son named Malcolm

And while BETTER CALL SAUL is a killer idea for a dark and funny spinoff, why not give Gus his own prequel? It would be epic.

Later, I’ll do a post dissecting what made BREAKING BAD so good. For now, I’ll leave you with some of the best animated gifs from the Best Show Ever.

breaking bad pinkman and walt animated gif

Say my name.

Gus to the cartel: Bring it.

Gus to the cartel: Bring it.

How would you like the pizza delivered? Because we can do it on the roof.

How would you like the pizza delivered? Because we can do it on the roof.

Gus goes out in style.

Gus goes out in style.

More posts:

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This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, Fiction, The Glowing Tube, Thrillers and mysteries