Monday, March 26, 2007

Insurance industry unveils new monument to the elderly.

There are weasels in America and they work in the insurance industry. The latest proof comes from a NY Times story about denying old people's claims until they die. One of the biggest weasels is Conseco, a company that in 2006 took in more than 4 billion dollars in premiums and yet denied assisted living claims made by an old woman who had paid her premiums when healthy and now needed help.

Denied, said Conseco. They said she was healthy as a horse at age 81 and implied the old woman was a malingerer, goldbrick and potential fraud for having the audacity to file a claim.

The nerve.

Then, that tactic not holding water, Conseco said she'd waited too long. Then it said her state-licensed assisted living home wasn't an "approved facility." Jesus, these guys change their stories so often they could work in the White House.

But it would be wrong to pick on Conseco alone. There are, unfortunately, other weasels in the pen. In fact, the investigation by the Times uncovered the shocking fact that insurance companies will do anything to avoid paying. Some insurers prohibit their employees from returning calls from policyholders.

And neglect is one of the more benign tactics. A subsidiary of Conseco, Bankers Life and Casualty, sent an 85-year-old woman suffering from dementia the wrong form to fill out and then denied her claim because she had filled out the wrong form.

I don't know how the executives sleep at night on their 400-count Egyptian cotton sheets.

From the Times article:

“The bottom line is that insurance companies make money when they don’t pay claims,” said Mary Beth Senkewicz, who resigned last year as a senior executive at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “They’ll do anything to avoid paying, because if they wait long enough, they know the policyholders will die.”

That's their strategy. Put off the old people long enough and they'll die. If there is any justice, all these insurance executives will contract a horrible, disfiguring, painful disease and their claims for coverage will be denied.

And don't even get me started on health insurance.

Weasels. Every last one of them.


This is all about the voice. When you write in first person, you're telling that story from one character's point of view, in that character's voice. It's the classic PI perspective and allows the hero to make all sorts of comments on the action, comments that might be out of place in third person.

The first version of Panamanian Moon was in first person and third person because I had no idea how to build suspense when I was limited to what John Harper could see for himself. But I thought that switching from first to third was cheating, so I rewrote it all in first person.

One of the reasons my WIP is taking so long is that I'm writing in third person and that magnifies issues of plot, rhythm, voice and in each scene I risk switching points of view, something that is so easy to do and so hard to fix. The advantages are a bigger book with a wider scope, subplots that are well-developed, and the ability to set things in motion with one character and watch as it plays out with other characters. All good, but it's a lot harder, at least it is to me.

What about you? What POV do you use and why? What do you sacrifice and what do you gain by the choice? And I know several writers who switch from first to third and pull it off just fine, but is it kosher?

Talk to me.

Update: For those interested in the comments, go to Crimespace.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tom Waits knows more than you.

Thanks to my old pal Jerry (aka secretdeadartist), we learn that the Vatican digs Tom Waits. OK, maybe not all the Vatican, but Jesuits, the mensa members of the Catholic Church, think Waits is the man.

This stands in sharp contrast to the Pope who said he doesn't like this new-fangled rock music. He did, however, enjoy a polka or two with Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. "He can cover the dance floor," Benedict said, "as smoothly as he covered up all those buggered altar boys. You got to give the man his props."

In the latest issue of Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuits said that Waits represents “the marginalised and misunderstood.”

I'm looking at you Mr. Banks.

According to the London Times, Father Antonio Spadaro normally writes about literature but is quickly becoming the Church authority on pop music. Spadora said that Waits had lived a youthful life of “drugs, alcohol and sex” and can understand the desperation of men and women who live on the fringe. But out of desperation, Waits finds “capacity for hope and instinct for happiness.”

Damn, I wish I had written that. Capacity for hope and instinct for happiness. I love that.

The article quotes Waits from a 2004 interview: “I don’t know what’s out there any more than anyone else, cause no one’s really come back to tell me. I think everyone believes in something. Even people who don’t believe in anything believe that.”

Contrast this enlightened attitude with the Holy Father's. When he was a Cardinal, Benedict condemned rock music as the work of the Devil. "Except for Fergie. She's fabulous," he said, casting doubts on the notion of infallibility.

Father Spadaro respectfully disagreed. Rock is “not the music of Satan but has great expressive power which reaches peoples’ souls.” It would be churlish of me to point out that this news is about 40 years too late, but hey, it took the Church a few centuries to admit they had that whole sun around the earth cosmology wrong, so there's hope for Mother Church and Benny of the Big Hat yet.
Well I've been faithful
And I've been so good
Except for drinking
But he knew that I would
I'm gonna leave this place better
Than the way I found it was
And Jesus gonna be here
Be here soon

Sing it, Mr. Waits. Sing it.

And thanks, Jerry, for the tip.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Getting High With The High Court

The Supreme Court is firing up a fat one with the first free speech case since Barbara Bush told a veteran in a wheelchair to "walk it off, you big pussy."

OK, I made that up, but it could happen.

It's true that for the first time in nearly 20 years, the highest court in the land is hearing a case about how far a school principal can go in shutting up one of her students.

The facts, if my short term memory is accurate, are these: In 2002, Principal Deborah Morse of Juneau, Alaska let her young charges skip class so they could watch the Olympic torch pass by.

As an aside, isn't that one of the lamest field trips ever? When I was a young boy they let us out of school so we could watch the Vice President whisk past in his limo and that was Richard Frickin' Nixon. We're talking history here, children, not some ectomorph trotting by with a ball of flame on a stick.

Anyway, one of the students, a kid named Joseph Frederick, waited until the TV cameras were almost on him and then unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Immediately Principal Morse got a migraine. Then she suspended Joseph.

Now the Supreme Court is contemplating whether stupidity is protected by the First Amendment or whether school principals can use the Bill of Rights to roll up a big fat doobie and set a match to it.

David Souter, a guy who looks like he's no stranger to a one-hit toker, said, "It's political speech, it seems to me. I don't see what it disrupts."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg added, "And no one was smoking pot in that crowd."

Asked why he did it, Joseph Frederick said he just wanted to get on television. That I can believe.

But Principal Morse has her panties in a twist. She said she suspended Frederick because "bong hits" referred to smoking marijuana. Well, duh. She also said the banner advocated or promoted illegal drug use in violation of school policy although I suspect she was more disturbed by the thought of Jesus firing up than she was anything else. Just a suspicion.

Stephen Breyer, who is named for yummy ice cream, said a ruling for Frederick could result in students "testing limits all over the place," like students don't already test limits in high schools across the land. On the other hand, he also said that a ruling for Principal Morse "may really limit people's rights on free speech."

Can we guess what side the Bush administration is on? Headed by a surly drunk who famously said, "there ought to be limits to freedom?" Is there any doubt that the government is siding with Principal Morse? Not once you see Morse's lawyer is. He's none other than Ken Starr, the guy who started out investigating a failed real estate deal and ended up encouraging a homely girl to tape a fat girl so he could nail the president for lying about a little humma humma on the side.

Starr said that Morse is right for censoring speech about drugs and another government attorney argued that public schools don't have to tolerate a message inconsistent with its educational mission and that makes me wonder if teaching the Constitution is part of this school's educational mission.

Sam Alito doesn't like that line of reasoning any better than I do. "I find that a very, very disturbing argument," he said. He argued that schools could define their mission so broadly that they could suppress any political speech.

Anthony Kennedy asked if Principal Morse had the authority to squelch the banner if it had said "vote Republican, vote Democrat" and the government hack said she did have the authority, so there.

Clarence Thomas asked, "Have you ever really looked at your hand?"

Frederick's lawyer, a guy named Doug Mertz (no relation to Fred) said, "This is a case about free speech. It is not a case about drugs," and asked the court to remember the famous 1969 ruling that said students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech ... at the schoolhouse gate." But that was a different time.

Lately the court has come down more in favor of the hobnail boot ruling that students' right to free speech isn't absolute, interpreting the words, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech..." unless it's about drugs and it's just kids who can't vote anyway so fuck 'em.

A decision in the case is expected by the end of June around 4:20 PM.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bad guys and good writing.

I was doing a bit of research (OK, I was goofing off) following the bread crumbs wherever they took me. I started looking at events in 1941 and wound up reading a review of Saving Private Ryan written by a former soldier of the Waffen SS, those guys in black with the Death's Head on their caps. The guys who ran the camps. Yeah, those guys. Real nice. This old soldier's movie review is written as an open letter to Steven Spielberg and I'm doing fine with it until I hit this:

"...almost all the German soldiers seen in "Private Ryan" had their heads
shaved ... something totally in conflict with reality. Perhaps you were
confusing, in your mind, German soldiers with Russians of the time.

Or else, your Jewishness came to the fore, and you wanted to draw
a direct line back from today's skinheads to the Waffen-SS and other German
soldiers of the Third Reich."

The rest of the review is more anti-Jewish spew, inadvertently revealing more about the man than the movie and reinforcing all those negative things we thought about Nazis.

And that got me thinking about writing bad characters, the kind of person who would spend all day counting shoes at Auschwitz and then go home feeling like she'd done a good day's work, blind to their role in the evil that surrounds them.

If we're to write these people honestly, we have to climb inside their skin and walk around a bit. We have to know how they were bent as children in order to grow up so twisted as adults. When they say things that we find unacceptable, and there were plenty of things people said in 1941 that we would find grossly inappropriate today, we have to understand the context, right or wrong, because no one except Richard III has ever set out to be a villain. They rationalize. They accept the unacceptable. They twist things around in their heads so that they're right and everyone else is wrong. They're human.

See where following bread crumbs can lead you?

I'm curious how you write villains, if you'd like to comment. But it's Monday, so there's no pressure.

Oh, and I'll cross post this to
Crimespace. It seems to be the place everyone is hanging out these days.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Further adventures in the passive voice.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, known to the president as "Beanie-Baby," channeled the ghost of the Gipper today when he said, "mistakes were made," a favorite GOP locution of near-guilt. That's right. No one actually made those mistakes, they just appeared on the porch of the Justice Department like a flaming sack of dog turds.

Gonzales held a press conference today to explain away the politically motivated firings of US Attorneys. But Congress, now with New and Improved Subpeona Power™, wants to find out just who it was who put the match to the burning sack.

Could it be Karl Rove, a man quite willing to sell out anything, including justice, in return for a slim political advantage? Or could it be Harriet Miers, the gushing former Supreme Court nominee who thinks George Bush is like, the bestest president ever?

We don't know and Alberto the Torture King isn't saying. Because that would require the active voice and no Republican has used the active voice since the Eisenhower administration.

In despair?

Think today's young people are feckless and America's glory days are just a dot in the rearview mirror? Well, think again, Mr. Glass-Half-Empty. As long as we have great young Americans like John Cornwell, our place at the pinnacle of international influence is secure.

John, a recent graduate of Duke University, our high-priced local bastion of beer and b'ball, has invented the greatest boon to college dorm rats since the inflatable doll. John created a mini-fridge that can fling a brewski across the room and into your hand (or at your roommate, depending on your level of hostility and how many Miller Lites you've already imbibed).

With a range of 15 feet, a remote-controlled guidance system, and a 10-beer magazine, you're good for the entire first half of an NCAA Tournament game. Add the
Stadium Pal and you never have to leave the couch.

Beer is not the only projectile Cornwell has launched across a room, just the most practical. I mean, it's great that he invented a potentially lethal potato cannon but, outside of Ireland, how does that add lustre to Western culture? The answer is, it doesn't.

No, beer's the thing, and John is flinging it. Check out his video up there and if you don't know what a Stadium Pal is, click on the link and listen to David Sedaris explain the practical joys of this ultimate sports accessory.

Then raise a glass to John Cornwell, Duke graduate, inventor, entrepreneur and Great Young American.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Ken Bruen Appreciation Day

I don't know what happened, but when the bell rings this old fire horse comes running. Apparently someone with little taste and less sense dissed The Pope (aka Ken Bruen) and I want to go on record by saying that I wasn't anywhere near a pub all weekend.

Sandra Ruttan, being too Canadian to kick the offender in his dangly bits, has asked everyone to show Ken a little love, so here we go.

I don't know Ken. I've never met him and I'm sure he's unaware of my existence on the planet, but he's a damn fine writer. The White Trilogy is so good that I've given away several copies. Right now I think my last copy is on its way to Iraq, so I couldn't look up the page I wanted to quote. It's a scene in a bar between a cop and a snitch and Ken does more in a page and a half than I can do in ten. It's as close to poetry as prose can get, with each word, each sentence, each paragraph communicating so much about the place, the people, and the crime that it takes your breath away. And he makes it look so damn easy.

So here's to Ken Bruen. If it wasn't first thing on a Monday morning, I'd raise a pint in your honor, sir, and express my gratitude for this opportunity to add my voice to the chorus of appreciation.

Friday, March 09, 2007


Until I get up the energy to post something new, I suggest you check out the Demon From Down Under's new hangout called Crimespace.

All the usual suspects.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I'd like to thank the Academy...

The news over at Contemporary Nomad is that Granta's list of Best Young American Novelists is out.

And seven of them have not published a novel.

Which takes a lot of the pressure off, doesn't it?

That means I can win the Cy Young award without pitching a single game, or the Pulitzer without reporting or

(cue the choir)

the Oscar, without producing a single frame of film.

So, what awards are you lining up for? Accomplishment not required.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Are people who write about murder...

more fun than writers who write about women finding empowerment through quilting?

That's the question of the day.

This came up in a bar, naturally, in a confab of writers - some crime, some literary, and some downright criminal. Ad Hudler, literary novelist, admitted to homicidal ambitions. Why?

Because crime writers, he said, have more fun than literary writers.

I know a few literary writers, like Soren Palmer who's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (you go, Soren). These are kudos rarely handed out to those of us who dabble in murder but Soren, aside from the dour Scandinavian name his folks hung on him, is an enjoyable guy to hang with, as is Mr. Hudler.

So, if it's true that crime writers have more fun, why is that? Following are three theories, the first of which is my favorite but it is almost assuredly bullshit.

Theory #1: We write away our demons. Yeah, it's all like poetic and all, but as much as I like it I don't buy it.

Theory #2: Crime writers are tap dancers. Elmore Leonard isn't wrestling with any deep philosophical conundrums. He's writing about bad people in bad places. Those of us who write crime are, at bottom, trying to entertain the reader, not enlighten them. So it's no wonder that we're entertaining. As long as our standards are low and the bar is open.

Theory #3: Literary writers come, mostly, from academia and everyone knows that academia is a bog of petty politics, back-stabbing, and professional envy. Someone smarter than I am (and we're talking multitudes here, people) said that the politics in academia are so brutal because the rewards are so small. I know one professor at Duke who cannot stand Reynolds Price, mostly because Price is wildly successful by literary standards. So it stands to reason that if you get a group of literary writers in a room together, the similarity to a snake pit is not coincidental. No wonder so many of those books make me want to take a bath with my toaster.

That's what I think. Anyone else want to weigh in on why we have more fun than literary novelists? I'm open for your theories, the more outrageous the better.

Talk to me.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Friday treatise on all that is good about James O. Born.

It's come to my attention that certain members of our community (Karen) think we've been too tough on Jim Born, author of books and nemesis of hombres malo in the Sunshine State.

That's Jim up there, putting a hammerlock on the septugenarian Dutch Leonard so that it looks like Dutch is actually endorsing Jim's book.

I heard that Jim once wrestled Laura Lippman to the ground demanding a blurb, but that could just be a rumor. I don't know. I wasn't there.

But I was in South Carolina this past weekend, thanks to Jim. He wrangled an invitation for me and I am not one to be ungrateful.

Which brings me to a larger topic.

Last Saturday a group of us adjourned to a local bar making the regular patrons wonder if a senior citizens' tour bus had broken down outside.

While in the bar,
Ad Hudler joined us and decided to kill someone. Jeff Shelby suggested he start with Jim Born, but Ad meant to kill someone in fiction, not real life, and after our initial disappointment we asked why. Ad said it was because crime writers had more fun than literary novelists. That surprised me, and it got me thinking. In the next day or so, I'll air my theories as to why that might be.

But for today, I want to publicly thank Jim. He takes a lot of grief, and gives his share, and I'm happy to be his friend and colleague.

Now, can someone take these cuffs off?

Update - Seems Jim's having a good week. I received this note this morning:

Just found out that I, that's right, a Florida redneck, am the recipient of the inaugural prize for best novel (Escape Clause) in popular fiction for the Florida Book awards. Not bad, huh. Nice end to the week.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Why do I love the SC Book Festival?

Yes, I got a chance to hang with Michele Martinez, Jeff Shelby, Bob Morris, Cornelia Read and, because every good experience must be karmically balanced with something evil, Jim Born.

Yes, I met people who had actually read Beneath A Panamanian Moon and seemed to enjoy it (or were excellent liars). Yes, I saw a friend I hadn't seen in 30 years. Yes, I even sold a bunch of books.

Yes, the organizers were all brilliant (and here's a shout out to Paula Millen Watkins, Mary Harris, Paula Benson and Jim and Debby Johnson. They all did their jobs with a casual aplomb that belied the amount of work it took to make the festival roll out so seamlessly.)

Yes, there are many reasons why I love the SC Book Festival. Then yesterday I received a Thank You tin of chocolate chip cookies.

What a class act.

And Mary? I know Jim Born told you scurrilous lies, but if I ever suggested that South Carolina was full of rednecks, I apologize. I didn't see one redneck the entire weekend.

Except Jim Born.