Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview: John Towler

Some of you may already recognize my first guest to Powder Burns & Bullets. For those who don’t, John Towler (J.C. Towler) writes suspense, horror, science fiction, and police-drama novels. He is also a gifted short story writer. He notes that he is “…delighted to write about other people going into scary places and getting eaten; not so keen on that adventure himself.” His works have appeared in e-zines, and his short story “Scales” is featured in Permuted Press' 2009 Monstrous: 20 Tales of Giant Creature Terror (available through this link to Amazon). His crime story “Lottery Winner” will be appearing in L&L Dreamspell’s “Your Darkest Dreamspell” anthology in 2009. Since John also works in law enforcement, I asked if he would be interested in a short Q&A for the new blog, and he has graciously offered his time. Below is an excerpt of that interview. The full interview can be accessed using the “Interviews” link in the sidebar.

PBB: When a murder has been reported, who (departments and function) is called out to the scene?

JCT: I'm afraid a lot of my answers are going to start with "it depends" but that's the most honest answer. With a small department, like the one I work for, it's going to be the detective assigned to the case and whoever is available help him. Uniformed patrol officers might be tapped to help with jobs like canvassing the neighborhood or searching for evidence if there is a large crime scene. More than likely, assistance will be requested from the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to process the crime scene.

PBB: After the SBI processes the scene, who maintains custody of the evidence? Does SBI keep it until needed by the local department, or does SBI send it back to the local department immediately?

JCT: The SBI also runs the state crime lab, so they keep it. After it is processed, it is returned to the local agency unless the SBI has taken over the case.

PBB: Of those called out, is there a general order of who processes the scene?

JCT: The larger agency will have crime scene technicians who process the scene for physical evidence. With the smaller agency, it will fall to whoever is best at whatever needs to be done. If you've got a guy who is a wiz at lifting prints, he'll fill that role. If the SBI is called out, the crime scene will be preserved for the arrival of their experts. The Medical Examiner will need to approve moving/touching the body prior to anyone handling that vital bit of "evidence."

PBB: How does the department decide what is and is not dusted for prints? Is there a general set of givens for prints? (e.g., doors, door knobs, trim work)

JCT: It's not really a departmental policy on what gets processed for fingerprints. It mostly depends on what, in the investigator's determination, needs to be processed. Did the intruder come through a window? Well that window, the sill and anything that he might have used to lever himself through is going to be processed. Will the rest of the windows in the house be checked? Not unless there is some compelling reason to do so. One new and interesting twist on fingerprints: DNA evidence can be obtained from fingerprints. Even a smeared print that would otherwise be useless can be processed to obtain DNA. At this time, if you dust a print to obtain a lift, then you've probably contaminated the DNA and can't use it for that purpose.

PBB: Are you talking about fingerprints mainly on glass, where the detective can see them and knows not to dust? Or does the detective secure the window sill and surrounding areas (in your example) to keep all potential prints from contamination?

JCT: Right now, there isn't really a whole lot of DNA collecting from fingerprints going on. Aside from the difficulty of obtaining a good DNA sample, the fact is the fingerprint database (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System--IAFIS) is much more extensive than the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). You can't have your cake and ice cream too: either your process the print with fingerprint powder or you swab and collect it for DNA. Given the percentages, dusting is usually the prefered choice.

PBB: As a detective, what are your first priorities (duties?) once at the scene? Generally, what do you do in order?

JCT: Assuming we don't have an active shooter or HAZMAT situation: If the scene has not been secured, that's the first order of business. Crime scenes tend to attract their share of "crime scene tourists". These are usually firefighters, EMTs, uniformed officers, neighbors and roommates who innocently hang around but don't realize they could be compromising vital evidence. If there is a suspect identified, that person will be moved to a secure location and either interviewed by myself or another investigator. Identify and isolate any witnesses and get their statements. Once people who have seen the same thing get together and start talking about it, their stories can become contaminated. Document the scene with video and photos. You'd do this before putting down any markers or measuring instruments. Part of that documentation would include making notes and sketches. From there you process the scene based on the priorities of the situation. Is there evidence outdoors and rain is threatening? Is there evidence that might degrade if not collected and preserved? Generally you start with the least disruptive/intrusive processes and work methodically toward the heart of the scene.

PBB: Thank you, John.

Introduction to Powder Burns & Bullets

For those of you just tuning into Powder Burns & Bullets, I am Stephen Book, and this is my blog. This will take the place of my previous blogging under the title "Even The Trees Have Something To Say." While that was fun, it has run its course, and now it is time to get more focused.

This is a place where you can follow my writing career (my successes and near-successes). And while this site will hold almost all of my previous postings from the old blog, it is also my plan to make this a blog where readers can find interviews, book reviews, crime studies, analysis of humorous police blotters, and a variety of other items. I hope you enjoy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Cost-Benefit Rule

Over the past couple of weeks, I have posted entries dealing with diminishing returns--either in the writer over-extending his efforts, or in the writer over-using a technique to his detriment by tearing the reader out of the moment. This next posting, on the cost-benefit rule, regards an issue I've struggled with lately.

To set this up, I'm going to use an anecdotal story from this last weekend. Before my choir director left town on a much-deserved vacation, he asked me to lead the worship service at our church. I had help from other praise team members for the second service, but the first service found me solo. I don't know if any of you have had the opportunity to stand before a crowd of people and lead them in music, but the thought is slightly intimidating, the process even more so. What I find so interesting, though, is how the worship leader can spot all of the flaws in the music service while others in the congregation hand out pats on the back like they were suckers at a bankteller's window.

Which causes me to ask: Why fret over things too much? I further wonder whether or not the same is true when it comes to writing. Is there is also a danger in trying to work a story over and over, to get it just right?

I'm starting to believe a writer can read and edit and re-read a piece of work too much. As a result, he can fall into two traps. First, he can overlook the obvious. He knows what's supposed to be on the page. He has seen it probably a hundred times, and because of that he runs the risk that his eyes will inadvertently gloss over a fatal flaw created by the constant changes.

The second danger is that a story will never look acceptable in the writer's eyes. There will always be one thing that needs changing, and sooner or later--probably later--after the sixth or seventh revision, the writer still has the story instead of a publisher. And yet readers can look at that same story and say how good it was, how it captivated their minds and hearts.

What's the issue? Cost vs. Benefit. In management, before implementing any new strategy a manager has to ask two questions. What will it cost? How much will it benefit the company? If the costs outweigh the benefits, then the strategy is DOA.

A writer has to ask the same question, but in a different light. Will the changes really benefit the story? Will the readers actually know what went on behind the scenes? And will the story risk death because of the constant changes--death either in the form of a fatal grammar or spelling error, or death because it never went out the door?

From this, there are a couple of things I have learned. First, a writer needs a patient and meticulous reader at his side, someone who has eyes like a hawk and is willing to read his story one last time prior to submitting it. There are times when the writer's best efforts at proofing a story just won't be enough. Secondly, there has to come a time when a story just has to go out into the world. Like turning loose of our children, we need to send our stories out and let them go, see what they can do.

Of course, learning is one thing; doing is quite another. I have really got to learn to let go.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Law of Diminishing Returns - Part II

Once again, the law of diminishing returns is that within a given system of inputs, there comes a point where each additional input yields less and less outputs. Let me give you an example from my days as an auditor. As a manager/partner of a CPA firm, one of the questions that needed to be answered before accepting any new job was the firm's ability to handle the job with the given level of staff. After that, the key was to find an efficient use of resources (i.e., staffing) in order to produce the best mix of outputs.

For the writer, then, the law of diminishing returns can apply to taking on that one extra thing. Stretching yourself too thin can be spell the difference between productivity and abandonment.
For me, I faced this issue when someone in my local church said, "Hey, can you write a little something for this [Fill in the Blank]? It shouldn't take much."

Here's a rule of thumb to all my writing friends out there: When somebody who hasn't bled and cried over a piece of writing comes up and asks for your hand in a project that shouldn't take much time, that's your cue to say, "I appreciate the thought, but no thank you." While it would be nice to help out, a writer only has a fixed level of resources. Each addition to the writer's load only means something else has to give. Dirty Harry said it best: "A man's got to know his limitations."

The truth is, it doesn't have to be one more writing project. There are so many everyday issues that can eat up a writer's time. Too many projects--from work to family to social events to writing groups--all running at the same time can cripple the individual writer's productivity. And when the writing suffers, so does the story or the article or the novel.

Do you remember what Ranch Wilder ("Angels in the Outfield") said to his radio co-host? "Less is more." The same holds true for the writer. There comes a time when a writer has to dial things back, or at least learn to disappoint some people, in order to keep their writing life focused.

Coming up...

The Cost/Benefit Rule.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Law of Diminishing Returns

This last week has reacquainted me with two theories of economics and business: the law of diminishing returns and the cost/benefit rule. I'll save the discussion on the cost/benefit rule for another day. For this posting (and the next) I want to focus on diminishing returns.

As simply as I can state it, the law of diminishing returns is that within a given system of inputs, there comes a point where each additional input yields less and less outputs. For writers, this can be re-written as: in a story, there comes a point where too much can distract the reader.

Allow me a couple of illustrations. Back in college, I remember suffering through a class on real estate transactions. The only bright side to the class was that I had to stomach only three hours of lecture time per week. I don't remember much about what the professor tried to teach us--it's been almost fifteen years since then--but I do remember how he consistently applied his mantra: "The point is..." Sadly, I didn't have enough fingers and toes to keep a running count of his worn-out points.

Fast forward with me to just last year. There I was, sitting in a meeting with a group of professionals, and one of the members kept talking about "The Bottom Line". I can still remember looking down in front of the man next to me. On a sheet of paper, he had scratched out the words The Bottom Line. Underneath his header, I saw the following:

After that, I don't remember much about what the first member said.

As writers, we have to be mindful about the impact our choices make. One of my readers is Greta Igl. She's an amazing writer, and she has a fine gift for pointing out my overuse of phrases and unnecessary language. On one of my manuscripts, she pointed out that I had written the same word a couple of times within two paragraphs of each other. The implied argument was clear. Using the word once was fine. Using it twice could draw the reader's attention away from the story, a negative side effect that I wanted to avoid. I killed the first use.

The over-use of an everyday word is not the only way to have an unwanted consequence. In my opinion, using profanity, an unusual word, or even a technical word, that forces readers to stop is a big time no-no, and this applies to both narrative and dialogue.

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule here. The writer can't perform a word search and then say, "Oops, I used that one too many times." Every reader is different. What one reader may pass through, another will put on the skids. As such, it's a gut call on the writer's part. Some of the times she'll catch the potential problems and kill them, and other times she'll need someone to proof the story and point out the dangers.

In my next posting, I'll look at this law of diminishing returns as it applies to the writer instead of the story.

Stay tuned...