Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home Security?

The Juice drove down the street, keeping the car under thirty, fast enough to draw no attention, yet slow enough to scope out the neighborhood. He shook his head at the white brick with the two-car garage. They had a security sign out front. The red brick showed potential at first, but then he saw the Beware Of Dog sign posted on the fence. Whether the owners actually had a dog or not, he didn't know; but with all the other houses available, he sure wasn't going to chance it. As he rolled by the sandstone with the light green trim, he let off the gas. This was the one. No signs of alarms or dogs. One mini-van out front with a car seat he could see through the windows. And best of all, the bay door of the garage was still up.

He pulled past the house and parked the van at the curb. A glance around the neighborhood told him everything was cool. No other cars in the drives. No nosy ladies with silver hair peeking through the shades. He reached down beside the seat, grabbed the Colt Python, and rolled the cylinder, making sure every chamber had a round. He didn't intend to use it, and odds were he wouldn't, but one never knew what to expect going in.

He shut the engine down, but left the keys in the ignition. If things went down wrong and he had to run, there was no use in wasting time searching his pockets and then looking for the right key.

He took one last glance around the neighborhood. Just a quick in-and-out, he reminded himself. Grab the most expensive stuff and then move on...

A recent spike in local burglaries has given me pause to think. Whether it's a result of the bad economy, as the media has reported, or just the bad guys changing their targets of opportunity, I'm not sure. What I am beginning to understand, though, is that the old maxim holds true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In reading the news articles, it appears that most burglars are looking for easy targets, places that raise their comfort level of getting in and out without interference. As such, it becomes important for a homeowner to set an appearance that might cause a criminal to think twice. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Don't leave your garage doors open.
  2. If you park your car outside of your garage, use a key chain transmitter (or even a touch pad) and don't leave a remote in the car. It's better to have a broken car window, or a jimmied door, than a burglar with a loaded gun in your house.
  3. If you have a home security system, be sure to post signs in the yard.
  4. If you have a small dog, buy a large dog bowl to set out by the back door. Large bowls leave the impression of large dogs.
  5. Whether you have a dog or not, post a Beware of Dog sign on the fence.
  6. When you leave the house, alternate which inside light you leave on. If a burglar sees too much consistency, he'll feel more secure that nobody is home.
  7. When you leave for extended weekends or vacations, tell your neighbors so they can keep watch for you.
  8. Also ask your neighbors to pick up your newspapers (and mail, if you haven't stopped it at the post office) and maybe to occasionally park a car in your driveway.
  9. Get exterior lights with sensors that will trigger with any movement.
  10. If you use an answering machine, leave a message that says, "I can't come to the phone right now" instead of announcing that you're not home.

Of course, this list is not intended to be exhaustive. And I don't suggest that every idea is worthy for every situation. Rather, it's purpose is to cause you and me to start thinking about how we can make our house as unattractive (to criminals) and unaccessible as possible. Feel free to post any additional suggestions you have in the comments.

Of course, as demonstrated above, the writer in me likes to know these things so I can create thugs who look for the weaknesses so they can take advantage and commit the crimes. ;)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Killer Instinct by Joseph Finder

Last night, in a flow of reading that would have been harder to tap-off than Niagra Falls, I finished Killer Instinct by Joseph Finder. Some of you may remember an earlier posting where I discussed reading Finder’s first book, Paranoia. You may remember how I explained that Paranoia was scary in the sense that it opened my eyes to some technological advances that are available—advances that allow people to intrude upon your life, exposing you in ways you might have never dreamed possible. Killer Instinct is just as frightening.

First, an aside: as a writer, I have all but abandoned reading the dust cover of my books. In some ways, I think they give away too much, and I want to be totally surprised by the story line. That was how I approached this book.

The novel opens up with a prologue. Then, with Chapter 1, the narrator jumps the reader back ten months into the storyline. I know how some people feel about prologues. I’ve read enough about how you’re supposed to use them. And while some are put off by prologues, I think Finder’s approach was absolutely necessary. Just like a dust cover, which gives the reader a tease, the prologue in Killer Instinct grips the reader and promises something bad down the road.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns that the narrator, Jason Steadman, is part of a sales team selling electronics. It only takes a few chapters for the reader to see the rivalry between Jason and two other associates on the team, all who are jockeying for position to be the next vice president. Unlike his competition, Jason isn’t as ruthless or political—some might call it aggressive—as he needs to be in order to climb the ladder. But then things start happening. His rivals blow big deals. Jason lands a huge sale he's been working on for almost a year. And while Jason basks in the glow of his good luck, the reader knows that in sales luck is the stuff which only the salesman makes. In Jason’s case, his luck was started by one man: Kurt Semko. As the story progresses, the reader follows Jason as he meets Kurt for the first time, then offers Kurt a chance to work for the company, and finally as he realizes just who Kurt Semko really is. It’s a novel that builds up momentum like a frigate and is hard to stop until the explosive conclusion.

Like Paranoia, in this novel Joseph Finder brings a solid picture of reality in Corporate America, where life is nothing but a chess game. All of the workers, and the company assets, are pawns used so that management can feed their egos and line their pockets. Some may label that viewpoint as “Class Warfare.” Some may say it’s nothing more than a simple conspiracy theory. It can make good fiction, but isn’t based in reality. I don’t know where you stand on the issue, but I can tell you this: while it is not true in all cases (I still believe in the goodness of some people), I have seen a glimpse of how the corporate world operates, and the portrait Finder paints is believable.

What is truly frightening in this book, though, is the revelation of how technology can be used. Once again, Finder shocks the reader by offering a glimpse of how corporate security can watch you. And listen to your conversations. And spy into your life.

Killer Instinct is a great read, and I suggest it is a worthy addition to your library if you enjoy good thrillers.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Conjunction or Not - A Matter of Style

A few weeks ago I came across an issue in my writing. I had purposely left out a conjunction and a reader wanted to know why. My original instinct was to defend it: I just don't want too many ANDs in the prose; it looks clunky. The next thought was to shrug it off and move on. I had seen it done before, and by far better writers than me. Even this last week, while reading The Thin Man, I noticed where Dashielle Hammet wrote the following:

She started to put on the stocking, stopped. "What's Mamma trying to do to you?"

In this case, it was easy to see why Hammett left out the conjunction. The handling of the sentence allowed the reader to see how a new thought suddenly caused the character to stop what she was doing. But then, what about this next sentence from the same book?

She stared at me for a moment, asked slowly: "You don't think she had anything to do with it?"

There's no abrupt action here, no apparent reason for the missing conjunction other than it was the writer's choice.

After a day of thinking about my reader's comment–knowing how wrong I can be at times–the thought occurred that maybe I should research the issue and have something more to stand on. After looking through Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, and then several different grammar websites, I came up with nothing. Finally, I sent an e-mail to someone I remembered from the Writer's Digest Forums: James A. Ritchie. If anyone would know the answer to this question, I thought, it would be James. For those who don't know him, James A. Ritchie is a published author and was always the Go-To on the forums for questions regarding grammar. You can learn more about what he thinks by visiting his blog On Writing, On Life.

Graciously, James responded. Below is my e-mailed question to James and then his response.

My question:

A recent issue came up regarding the use of a comma splice. Here are three separate examples—one from a published work, the other two from a story I'm writing:

  1. He said he was in Oklahoma City for the Murrah Federal Building, got there just a few minutes after she blew. (from "Fire In The Hole" by Elmore Leonard)

  2. Wade propped his bare feet across the corner of the bed, leaned his head against the chair. (mine)

  3. He leaned one elbow over the counter, showed her how cool he was. (mine)

What is the rule here, and when is it acceptable to omit the conjunction?

Mr. Ritchie's response:

I'll give you two rules to follow that should help. Rule One: Elmore Leonard is always right. Rule Two: Omitting a conjunction in this manner is not a matter or rule, it's always a matter of style. I don't consider these comma splices, anyway. A comma splice is when two independent clauses, either of which can stand alone as a complete sentence, are joined by a comma. A comma splice and a run-on sentence are really the same thing. Neither "leaned his head against the chair." nor "showed her how cool he was." are complete sentences, meaning neither can stand alone. So no comma splice, but a simple omitted conjunction, which is not the same thing. Now, technically speaking, the rule is that you should not only use "and," but should use "and then." Fine. Sometimes you should do exactly this, but if, and only if, it fits the style you want to put on the page. With a fast-moving story, with characters such as those Elmore Leonard draws, "and then" would not only harm the style and slow the pace, it would get old fast. Like everything else, be careful with how often you do this, where and when you do this, etc. But if it's the style you want for the story and characters, for Heaven's sake do not use "and then" just because a grammarian tells you to do so.

Please note that the emphasis in his response was mine.

As a result of my inquiry, two important lessons were learned. First, I learned that omitting conjunctions is acceptable in some cases, and it's mainly an element of style. However, and this was the second lesson, James' warning was a much needed reminder. Even in cases of style, writers should do things in moderation and jealously guard against overusing any one trick from their bag.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Barry Eisler

Okay, I've been a little backed-up lately. I had every intention this weekend of posting the next item on my list, "Conjunction or Not - A Matter of Style"; however, because of my attempts to make sure I have everything covered for that post, and because a nasty virus paid an unwelcomed visit to the Book family over the weekend, life has hit the pause button on some things. On that post, I hope to get a confirmation soon from a resource so I can put the darn thing out there. But until then...

I recently came across the blog sight for Barry Eisler, who is one of my favorite writers. Being the miser that I am, I picked up the first of his Jack Rain series, RAiN FALL, over a year ago while browsing through the specials at our local book store. Let's just say RAiN FALL really juiced my inner need for clandestine plots and violence. His second book in the series, HARD RAiN, was equally stimulating.

In his bio, Mr. Eisler states the following:

"I've been blessed with a variety of interesting jobs: a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations; attorney in an international law firm; in-house counsel at the Osaka headquarters of Matsushita Electric; executive in a Silicon Valley technology startup. These days I write full time: thrillers with a lot of realistic action, exotic locations, and steamy sex. My agency training, my time as a lawyer, my experiences in Japan, and a background in martial arts all inform my writing."[emphasis mine]

His experience resonates throughout his books, and it is because of Barry Eisler that I came to understand the concept of counter-surveillance. Like all good writing, Eisler's portrayal of counter-surveillance came back to me while watching Samir Horn in "Traitor" (played by Don Cheadle) taking several twists and turns through the city, hopping off one bus, only to jump onto another. While his depictions of violence are spot-on, and his painting of espionage believable, his books also give readers a flavorful taste of Japan and Japanese culture.

Suffice it to say, then, my heart leaped when I saw that he has a blog at the heart of the matter, and I felt impressed to share one of my favorite authors with you. Take the time to check him out, both at his blog and at his website, barryeisler.com. Better yet, you might go out and pick up one of his books. Start with RAiN FALL. If you love crime, suspense and violence, I think he'll be a worthy addition to your library.