Grifting Away: The Big Con

Fascinated by swindlers? I’ll have to confess I am, probably because it is such an alien concept to me. Not only does it require snappy thinking on your feet to steer a mark the way you want, it requires faking empathy and, of course, a complete disregard for others. Myself, I’m more like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: “Check your email, because when I think of a retort, I’ll send it to you!” (Or something to that effect.) I could never be a con-man because I’m not quick enough in conversation, not a good actor and, hopefully this is a more positive trait, constitutionally not able to screw someone like a con man does. But I don’t think I’d make a good soldier either and I do love reading about war, so why not cons?

The grandfather of all books on cons is The Big Con, by David Maurer, first published in 1940, available now as a high quality e-book. Professor Maurer was a linguist who, apparently, knew a lot of con men. He seems to have first approached the subject of confidence games from the argot but the book, while it does have an extensive glossary, is first a story of the confidence games and the con men themselves.

It distinguishes short cons, like the old shell games or rigged card games, where the mark is fleeced for his cash on hand, to big cons, which played out over hours or weeks, and involve putting the mark on the send for more money. We learn of what a store is and how they came to be: they are false gambling, brokerage, or other establishments that are completely stocked with con men and exist only for the purpose of duping the mark.

The stages of a con are also elaborated from the roper’s identification of a mark and directing him to the store to the blow-off where the mark, once fleeced is sent on his way in a manner least likely to cause problems for the con man. Sometimes that is no more than sending him to another city to “square accounts,” the con man never arriving, of course. Other times it has to be more dramatic, as with a fake murder that causes the mark to run and hide. Such a murder might involve a packet of chicken’s blood hidden in the mouth, a cackle-bladder.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like the 70’s movie, The Sting, it should: Maurer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the studio and received an out-of-court settlement in his favor. I love that movie but always figured it was just Hollywood make-believe. It isn’t and The Big Con will show you the ins and outs of this scam and many others.

The book even goes into the bit players, how people become big con players, what happens to old con men, even what type of personal lives they tended to keep or whether any of them ever cashed out while still on top. I can’t say it has given me any immediate story ideas but as an illustration of one aspect of human nature and just a fascinating read in itself, I recommend it.

Be warned, like anything, it is a child of its times. There is some overt and ugly racism in a few places. It is also sexist, although not as much as I expected given the racism. The style is a little slow. Some of the reviews on Amazon claim it is repetitive and you only need to read the first quarter or so. Personally, I did not find it very repetitive chapter to chapter, but rather found a lot of the prose a bit more wordy and repetitive at the paragraph level. The other annoyance is that argot is used throughout, usually with no definition aside from the glossary in the back. In a hard-copy, this would not be too much of an issue but in an e-book I found it somewhat annoying (a better e-book edition would have had a link to the glossary at first use). There are a handful of transcription errors but overall editing was good.

If you liked The Sting, and some of the later movies on cons, like The Grifters, or just like a fascinating true-crime read, and can tolerate its unfortunate bigotry, I definitely recommend it.

Reading Novels Aloud

English: Created by modifying this image Itali...
English: Created by modifying this image Italiano: Creata modificando quest’immagine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.

After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.

Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.

As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.

I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?

Genealogy and the Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I couldn’t resist posting on genealogy as it impacts one of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade (give or take, guess it’s coming up on 10 years old). Some of you may have noticed a recent article about some research on inter-relatedness of Europeans which suggests that anyone in Europe living within 2,000 miles of each other is related within a horizon of no more than 1,000 years and everyone in all of Europe is related if you go back 2,000 years. Hmmm…. 2,000 years puts us back at the time of Christ, and if  you believe the Da Vinci Code, the time when Jesus’ first descendants moved to France. So… unless Jesus had a near-perfectly lineal line of descent (i.e., each generation had one and only one descendant), it would pretty much follow that if Jesus did have descendants who moved to Europe in the first century CE, everybody in Europe would be related to him.

I suppose for the sake of a good story, you good posit a lineal genealogy but that would come pretty close to proof of the divine (or some sort of advanced agency- maybe space aliens had a hand in this!): linear trees are almost impossible over so many generations. As one data point, some studies have shown that the average noble line died out after only three generations due to the failure to provide a male heir. On the one hand, that excludes female descendants but on the other hand, few of those families had just a single off-spring. Suffice it to say if a noble line can’t last 3 generations, how long could a lineal descent from Jesus last, at least not without some outside force ensuring it happened?

So, if you think Jesus had offspring but was not divine, either those offspring died within a few generations of his lifetime or they must have ‘hooked’ into the vast web of interrelations that we all are a part of and therefore anyone with a remote connection to the holy land (or France if you buy the Da Vinci Code theory), is related to Jesus. If you do accept the role of the divine, and are also one of the few who allow Jesus off-spring, than anything goes on how broad his tree is since an omnipotent God can do anything he likes with genealogy but in the end after 60-80 generations or so since Jesus lived, it sure seems like it would be difficult to keep his genes in a tiny branch of a really big, interwoven tree.

When Da Vinci Code first came out I observed that Jesus was either directly related to no one (because his line quickly died out or he never had children) or he was directly related to just about everyone with European or near eastern roots. It’s good to see the science to back it up. In the article, they say this was first posited about ten years ago… pretty good chance it was posited as a response to the Da Vinci Code. As for my own thoughts on it, it wasn’t a completely wild guess: when my mother-in-law and a genealogist on my mother’s side showed both families were related to Eleanor of Aquitaine by the time-honored method of finding a “hook” into one of the existing, researched lines, and only having to go back to the 1600s to do so, it made me realize most Europeans were probably related to Eleanor. Of course, she lived 800 years ago and did have quite the large brood which was scattered across Europe thanks to noble marriages, thus giving her a good head start in the inter-relatedness game.

I’ve read a number of different books debunking some of the stuff that Dan Brown presents as fact (of course, in the end he is a novelist, and one should take the preface as just another trick of the trade) but I’ve yet to come across the “plentiful offspring” refutation of the book’s main thesis, unless this study was spawned as a response to the Da Vinci Code.

Da Vinci Code was certainly a fun read but I never did buy the limited decent from Jesus part and as a lover of history, some of the other liberties in the narrative always rubbed me wrong. As a writer, I couldn’t go with a premise like that; for one thing, I’d have to have more explicit reasons for the lineal decent. But then again I’m an engineer who cares about often pointless details and more importantly, I didn’t write an 80 million book blockbuster. So go, Dan, go!

Niggling Characters

This isn’t really about niggling characters, it’s about the two main aspects of the writing craft I learned in the last year. One is “don’t ignore niggling doubts” and the other is the importance of strong characters. Well, the second one is more something that I (think) has really, finally, truly clicked, after all, you can hardly read a writing blog or craft book without the author mentioning it (but what do they know?)

Cover of "Shrek (Full Screen Single Disc ...
Dreamworks made me love an ogre and a donkey…

Niggling doubts are one area that’s a little different for me. There’s always a sentence or a scene or an opening that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Typically, I’m not quite sure if it’s a problem and, more often, I may not be sure what to do about it. So I leave it in, thinking, “Let’s see what the readers think. Maybe they’ll like it.” Bad idea. They never like. Sure, some may not comment on it but someone always will and after they do, it’s time to kick myself, thinking “Why didn’t I just fix it before I sent it out?”

It happened most recently in a revised chapter 1 for SOTA that I put through critters. I wasn’t sure if the exposition was too much in chapter 1. It was. And thing is, before queuing it, I knew it. I should have fixed it but in the end I wasn’t really sure what to replace it with. (Although queuing it wasn’t a total loss, some of the feedback did point me in the right direction.) So, new resolution, never ignore the niggling doubts. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year but I’m done with letting the niggling prose slip through. If something doesn’t feel quite right to me, it won’t feel any better for someone else. Afterall, I’m the author of said prose; if someone as biased as me isn’t sure about it, who will it work for?

Hotel Transylvania
Hotel Transylvania: even a silly movie can hook you with good characterization.

The other thing that finally clicked has to do with characters: characters that appeal to the reader from the first scene but still are changed by the story. Here, I’m sure I’ve got a lot of work to get it right but what has changed for me is the realization that my stories aren’t going to go anywhere without solving that part of the puzzle. Interesting settings and clever plots are nice, and there’s always some author who can get away mostly with that (techno thrillers can sometimes survive with cardboard characters) but I don’t like stories where the characters don’t engage me so why should I write them?

This realization has partly come through analyzing what appealed about movies and books I like. Why did I like Shrek so much? I remember hearing the premise and thinking “Donkey and ogre, that’s completely stupid.” It was the characters and, especially, watching Shrek change. Even something as silly and in the end forgettable as Hotel Transylvania was fun. It was predictable yet the characters still had me cheering for them. The Harry Potter series is another example. The setting is amusing and endearing although silly in many ways. The plots don’t always work for me although some of the twists are fun but it’s the characters that grab me, including Hogwarts: it’s more character than setting for me.

TMSO has a great series of posts on how Pixar handles this. I’ve also found Laura Barker’s Discovering Story Magic to be a great way to define the characters in a way that can help shape my stories and (hopefully) connect my plots to characters that engage the readers and have them cheering by the end.

Anyway, it’s off to the next false summit for me 🙂

Happy writing.

Amazon’s Reviews

Image representing Amazon as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase. Amazon & Reviews

A while back, I posted my thoughts on how to use reviews (as a reader, not a writer 🙂 ). Much of that post was devoted to how to tell if a review was honest. That is, how do you tell the honest review from a favorable one from the author or author’s friends? The New York Times has an article on their Sunday front page about Amazon’s attempts to deal with this. I’m heartened that they are taking the problem seriously although their efforts seem a bit clumsy. For one thing, if I ever put a book in Amazon will I no longer be able to review books? I guess there’s always Goodreads for my reviews, not that I post tons of reviews anyway.

But it is a real problem for Amazon. A few months ago they sent me one of their regular fliers with a list of Fantasy books worth a look. I was in the mood for some good fantasy and pulled up the first book recommended. The first one was 5-star rated: cool. Checked the reviews. Only four of them (bad sign). Read the reviews. They were all variations on the same theme. Clearly, every one of them was written by the same person, most likely the author. That was the last time I’ll pay attention to book recommendations from Amazon. One can only imagine that they had some tool automatically pull some high rated books from genres I like. If a human had read the reviews, it would have been obvious. So, for me, it’s back to more proven methods of finding good books (basically from friends and blogs I like, or as in my earlier post, from Amazon reviews when there are enough posted that it’s clear that many are from un-biased readers.)

But for Amazon, they just lost a way to market books to me, thus, their crack down on bogus reviews. While I don’t think their current method is the way to go about doing it (how are they really going to identify shill reviews?) I support their intent. I want to read useful reviews.

However, I think the real way to address it is, essentially, to let the community police it. Allow the community to quash bogus reviews, as many sites do now in their comment section, and just as important, allow the community to identify reviewers worth paying attention to. Here, I mean not just reviewers that aren’t shilling for an author but reviewers who have a decent critical sense. Reviews by people who give everything 5 stars aren’t much better than reviews from a friend. With this in place and the ability to filter so I only see the good reviews, or least the vetted ones come first, reviews would suddenly be worthwhile again.

I hope Amazon’s fumbling effort here starts a discussion that leads to some meaningful Amazon reviews. In addition to their ability to provide the desired goods, their real claim to fame is letting prospective buyers see what others think. So fixing this is at the heart of their business.

In the Fantasy Genre: What is Tolkien?

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark
Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a story Tolkien-esque?

I don’t think there is a single answer. His main published works go from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Ring (LOTR) to The Silmarillion. That’s a children’s adventure story, a fantasy epic, and a mythopoeic work (and yes, I had to look that up; it didn’t exactly roll off the fingers). They are all fantasy, the first heavily so with a lighter, more whimsical touch on setting, the last in some ways mostly setting. Any of these can serve as the model for a reader as to what is Tolkien.

For me, though, it’s the middle work that defines Tolkien-esque: a mix of characters, plot and, above-all, setting. It’s not setting couched as a story (which The Sillmarillion has always felt like to me) nor is it a fantasy story with some setting sprinkled on it (which is more The Hobbit for me, as well as many fantasy classics over the last 30 years).

LOTR is a setting become story: the plot and characters capture and illustrate the setting, one that is deep and whose “bones” go back to the beginning of the world. But the story also illustrates the setting without being subservient to it. The setting is not lost nor inconsequential but neither does it submerge the story and characters. It is this harmonious blend that strikes me as Tolkien-esque and one that is so hard to find on the shelf (or achieve as a writer).

I’m sure many might find it curious that the length of LOTR nor its many sub-plots and locales are not critical to me in capturing a Tolkien-esque feel. I do like a long, healthy read but perhaps its all those, very, very long epics since the 70s that seem to end up focused more on a franchise and less on good plot and closure that cause me to omit that from my criteria. And again, it’s my just own opinion. There are many ways to view his works.

The title page, of the book "The Silmaril...In Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy, I commented on my desire as a fantasy reader to find strong fantasy elements in the fantasy stories. This, of course, carries over to what I write. So, too, does the desire to have a “big” setting with a long history that matters to the characters and plot but without becoming the end-all of the book. It’s a delicate balance, one that only time will tell if I’ve achieved.

It makes me nervous to share this because I’m sure it seems arrogant but it isn’t arrogance that drives me to post this so much as self-realization. As I read other blogs and authored my own over the last year, I’ve come to wonder, what makes me write? What do I want to contribute? Well, it’s this Tolkien-esque balance as I see it that motivates me. So there it is 🙂

Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy Fiction

Some contemporary fantasy fiction leaves me a bit cold. Dragons, hidden cities, exotic races, are for me. Maybe another way to look at it is, I look for the fantasy elements to be significant to the world setting and the characters. Fantasy books that are very much like a given time and place on Earth with perhaps a bit of magic don’t feel like fantasy.

The father of all fantasy for me is Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent The Hobbit. It doesn’t feel like “in your face magic” but from the start, you have wizards and exotic races, hints of ancient lore that matter to the story, and dwarves and/or hobbits. As both progress, you get Wraiths, Dragons, talking spiders, elves, lost cities, hidden realms. Every few scenes there is something fun, fantastic and not earth like.

Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson's The Lord of ...
Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Lost cities, former glories seen in the light of a wizard’s staff, goblins and a moving soundtrack. FANATASICAL fantasy.

Contrast with Game of Thrones. No question it is well written, at least the first few volumes, and captivates many but I remember setting it down a third of the way into the first book wondering if this was even really a fantasy series or whether it was more alternate reality. Guy Kavriel Kay looked interesting and I may yet go back to him but that was another case where I wondered if there would be anything fantastic about it. For both of these, I’ll confess an issue which is more a personal quirk: I read a lot of history and some historical fiction. So books like Game of Thrones‘ nod to War of the Roses or Kay’s near-Earth historical setting have two negatives for me. One, I know those periods very well and the near Earth analogies are a distraction more than anything else. Wondering if one of Kay’s towns is modeled on Hedeby (pretty sure it is) takes away immersion for me as does the more obvious modelings. The other problem is, well, if I wanted to read about Earth history there are plenty of good layman’s history books (A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman is a perennial favorite for me; my copy must be pushing 30 years old and is quite worn but I love it) and there are plenty of good historical novels. Why read something that is kinda, sorta Earth history?

For me, and again this is my personal view on it, by all means read and enjoy what you like, if I’m going to read fantasy I want to read about a world where the fantastic is tangible, present and matters. Earth Middle Ages + a dash of magic doesn’t do it.

As a long time fantasy world builder (for gaming and writing), I know the temptation of doing “Earth plus”: it simplifies creation plus you can work off player/reader stereotypes (actually a mixed bag since stereotypes vary widely among individuals so you the author/DM don’t actually know for sure what you are tapping into). I’ve done it for a few D&D campaigns, although usually ones intended to be short. But it feels like a cop-out when carried too far: if the setting is Medieval + a little magic, it doesn’t take that much imagination. And if it is Medieval + a lot of magic, it doesn’t feel right to me: lots of magic will surely change the course of events into something nothing like Earth Middle Ages (and same holds for any Earth historical period analog be it Bronze Age, Seven Kingdoms China, whatever.) That’s not to say a good understanding of history doesn’t help; it certainly does, especially if your take-aways are trying to understand the different customs and mindsets of other places and times.

Where am I going with this? Well, just grousing really but also hoping maybe to tip other writers more into hard fantasy and not into following G. R. R. Martin’s foot steps. Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto on my own writing, for what it’s worth. Here, there will be dragons!

Happy reading and writing!