Monday, May 30, 2011

Coincidences and connections

First, the connections. See, I know this rock star, totally cool guy who sings, plays the synth, guitar, everything. He's in a band that has ladies screaming and their husbands not minding. And he plays gigs where the special guests get in because their names are on a list at the door.

Which is the connection. I went to his band's gig on Friday night, at Cedar Street Courtyard in downtown Austin. So there we are, my wife and four other friends, and I stroll up to the bouncers and suddenly wonder, "How do I play this?" Because being on the list is cool, at least it is for me, because the only lists I'm familiar with these days are for shopping, witnesses, exhibits and probably a lot of people's sh*t lists. So what's the cool approach?

"Hey guys, we should be on the list."
But what if The List is metaphorical? Or what if there's more than one List? Like people who've been banned for life from the place. . .

"We're friends of the band."
Like no one's tried that approach before. Lame.

"Hey, Johnny said he'd put us on some kind of list . . ."
Johnny who? They'd probably know him, almost certainly, but even if they did then we're back to the list. . . which list did he put us on? What if they think Johnny Knuckles put us on the club's Sh*t List?

So in the end I'm dithering and the guy asks me for five bucks to get in. Behind me is my wife, always a few notches cooler than me, who says calmly, while pointing to the stage, "Hey there's Johnny," before turning to the bouncer, "we're on the list, I think."

He checked, we were. Had a nice drink with my friend, Johnny-The-Rock-Star before he played with his awesome band, SKYROCKET. Here's a pic:

(Left to right: Me; Johnny; fellow ADA Efrain De La Fuente (possibly the greatest prosecutor in Texas); and former APD Cold Case Detective Tom Walsh.)

Anyway, my point is that when we're out of our normal routine, life can be uncomfortable. But being out late (I have kids, it never happens) and at a place like that reminded me of how I used to test myself, drop myself into weird and potentially dangerous situations precisely in order to see what it was like, to see how I'd react. I don't do that any more, certainly not the dangerous part. And I don't mind, I don't miss it.

Or I don't notice not missing it. I suppose we grow up and get older, and usually without realizing it. The circle around our lives shrinks and what used to be pretty normal becomes exciting. Places where we're in charge, experienced, the boss, become like a safety zone so while I'm Mr. Cool in front of a jury, it was fun to widen the circle, just a little. I met Johnny through a recent case, regular readers will know which one, and as a result two people who are the same age but who move in very different circles have become friends. I think that's the coolest thing of all.

Apart from being on the list. That was cool.

(N.B. Due to the length of this nonsensical ramble, the "coincidences" part of this post will be erected in a few days.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Potty by the Sea

My sister visited from England once, to my old house in Dallas. She couldn't get over the size of our walk-in closet because it was the same size as the bedroom for her son. Thing is, that tells you more about house sizes in the UK than the size of the closet which, actually, was smaller than the one we have now.


What that leaves you with over the pond is a lot of very small houses selling for a lot of money. And it leaves you with people paying a crap-load (pun intended, as you'll see) for rather odd abodes. For example, a public toilet. Granted, the view is rather nice (if you like matching gray seas and skies) but the going price was about 50,000 pounds for... well, have a look for yourself. And see how much the chappie paid.

Have a super weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How many cases we plead out

The most common question I get from folks outside the criminal justice system is, "How many cases do you have at any one time?" The answer is, "About 120 or so."

The next question starts with a "Wow," and goes on: "How many of those goes to trial?"
Answer: five or six.

Which means we plead most of them out (on Good Friday we swap dismissals for Easter eggs and on July 4 we exchange them for fireworks--home-made ones only, please!). So, in a non-scientific experiment I started keeping an inaccurate and hap-hazard tally of cases pled each month.

The first month I kept tabs was January (but please do read the explanation/standard disclaimers below).
Total cases pled: 68
Probation: 32
Jail time: 36

I can now reveal the February and March numbers:

Total cases pled: 38
Probation: 23
Jail time: 15

Total cases pled: 50
Probation: 26
Jail time: 24

1. "Probation" includes regular probation and deferred adjudication. "Jail" includes anything from one day back-time, to life in the penitentiary. It's usually somewhere in between. :)
2. Note that these stats do no take into account probation revocation cases, i.e. where someone already on probation is accused of committing a further offense, and their probation is either continued or ends with a jail sentence. They also don't take into account cases from our court resolved on the "rocket docket" in the magistrate's court.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Author interview: John Rector

Finally, another author interview. Good one too, because not only is he a fantastic storyteller but he speaks his mind. Love that.

His name is John Rector and he's a prize-winning short story writer and author of the novels THE COLD KISS (optioned for a feature film now in development), and THE GROVE. He's also the friend of a friend (thanks to author Todd Bush for the introduction) and has garnered the praise of mega-authors like Ken Bruen and Eric Van Lustbader. Yeah. Pretty cool.

By the way, I can say that I have read one of John's books, which ain't always the case with my author interviews. THE COLD KISS is really, really excellent. [Insert cliche about not being able to put it down, and note that some cliches are truisms.]

Anyway, the interview:

  • Did you always want to be a writer, or did you come to it as an adult?

I didn’t think about writing until I turned thirty and decided to give it a shot. I’d always been an avid reader, but English was always my worst subject in school. Writing a book was something other people did, definitely not me.

  • Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I had a lot of support from my wife, and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t care what other people thought, and looking back now, I’m sure a few people rolled their eyes and laughed behind my back, but who cares? Those people are irrelevant.

The sad fact is that when you decide to create something, whether it’s a novel or a painting or a song or whatever, there will always be some little prick standing safely on the sidelines trying to make you feel like shit about it. Art is intimidating to some people, especially to the ones who aren’t creative themselves, and more often than not, their response is to attack. All you can do is recognize them for what they are and dismiss them. It’s not hard to do.
As far as what kept me motivated... It’s the same thing that keeps me motivated today, an overpowering fear of failure.

  • Are you able to write full-time, or are you holding down a regular job, too?

If I was childless, I’d be able to write full time, but with two pre-school age kids running around, I need the security of a regular paycheck.

  • What is your writing schedule?

I’m a slow writer, but I try to get in at least three pages a day.

  • Do you work in a study, all alone, or do you prefer a cafe where there are people to watch (and bug you!)?

I have an office in my house where I can lock the door and block out the world. I could never work in public. I’m too easily distracted.

  • Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I’ve never actively looked for a story, and I’m not sure going out and combing the papers would work for me. Every idea I’ve had has come to me as a whisper. I’ve never had an idea explode in my head where I had to grab the nearest pen and paper and start writing. It’s always something small, and it’s usually visual. If I don’t have an idea to work on I’ll just start typing and see where it leads. I’ll let what I’m writing introduce me to the characters and setting, and if it’s good, it’ll build from there. That’s how The Cold Kiss started. I just sat down and wrote the opening scene off the top of my head. That was the first time I met any of those characters.

  • How on earth did you manage to get Ken Bruen and Eric van Lustbader to blurb The Cold Kiss (if you're allowed to reveal that info)?

Those came about through contacts my agent had, or through the publisher. When you release a book with a major publisher, they’ll usually help solicit blurbs by sending the book to people who might be interested. I’ve since met Eric and Scott Phillips and was able to thank them in person for the blurbs, but I haven’t had the opportunity to meet Ken yet. I hope to soon. I’m a big fan.

  • What are you working on, and when might we see it?

Right now I’m working on my fourth novel, and I hope to have it done by the fall. My third novel, ALREADY GONE, is coming out on October 25th in the US, and December 8th in the UK.

  • How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels, the “art” so to speak?

The majority of my energy goes toward the language. My goal is to make everything I write as clean and simple as I possibly can. I don’t want a single sentence in a novel that will make the reader stumble. I want the prose to be invisible, and that’s a lot harder than it looks. I’ll tinker with one line for hours.

  • What was your favorite novel of 2010?

It wasn’t a novel, rather a collection of novellas, but Stephen King’s Full Dark No Stars was fantastic.

  • If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Get rid of your TV. Pack it up, sell it, whatever you have to do to get rid of it. Don’t just cut back on what you watch, don’t watch it at all, ever. Once you do that, read everything you can get your hands on. Read outside your genre, and read the masters who came before you. They have a lot to teach if you’re open to learn. Then write, everyday.

  • Do you outline your novels?

Yes, but I don’t consider it an outline as much as a roadmap. One thing about writing a novel is that you have to work on it everyday if you want it to be good, and if you’re like me, there are bad days when the last thing you want to do is be creative. If I had to sit down on one of those days and try to figure out what I needed to write and how it was going to fit into the novel, I’d never finish anything. What my roadmap (or outline) does is show me where I am in the book and where I need to go. I don’t care how bad of a day I’ve had, if I know what I have to write that day, I can always knock out a few words.

  • Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

Writing Mystery/Thriller novels is really no different than writing any novel. The basics are the same. If you’re a rank beginner who isn’t sure how to start, Stephen King’s On Writing is the best book you’ll find. If you’ve been at it for a while, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is practically required reading.

  • What is the value of writing conferences -- do you attend, or have a favorite?

I’ve been to a few conferences, and I’ve met some great people, but I’m not sold on their value. Conferences are basically a great way to make contacts and reconnect with other writers who you never see, but that’s about it. Whether that’s worth the cost of attending is the question.

  • What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I think ebooks are great for authors because it’s making everyone take a new look at how things are done and how writers are paid. Right now there is a lot of speculation about the future, but no one really knows what’s going to happen, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. All I can do is keep writing. The format my books are published in doesn’t matter, because in the end, it’s all about content.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My last Royal posting (I think)

Did you guys see this? Is it sans photo shop?! Pretty amazing if so. (It came to me with the subject line, "Disney sues Royals for plagiarism.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Two head-liner criminal cases

I wanted to start the week with a story that I saw yesterday:

The head of the International Monetary Fund was removed from a Paris-bound flight in New York minutes before takeoff Saturday afternoon and was arrested in connection with a sexual assault on a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel earlier that day, police told the Associated Press. (Full story here.)

First thought: Wow. Second thought: he's innocent until proven guilty. Third thought: screw disclaimers, this would made the most amazing start to a novel! Seriously, as a fiction writer I'm always on the look out for tidbits that might trigger the halting, juddering, gap-filled movie that runs in my head -- the way a novel comes to me.

In this particular story there is so much to work with. Political intrigue (this dude was going to run against Sarkozy to be French President), down-to-earth issues surrounding the maid (what's her story?!), and maybe even some serial criminal behavior. Particularly because my first two (unpublished, as yet) novels are set in France.

I hope no one else thinks like this and steals MY idea . . .

Next, a quick congratulations to my colleagues Efrain De Le Fuente and Allison Wetzel for trying an incredibly difficult murder case and getting a quick guilty verdict. I saw the pictures, this was a horrific crime, and I know they were under a lot of pressure, but they did a professional job. The punishment phase begins this week, so that's all I'll say on that.

Except for one thing about the defense lawyers, Alan Williams and Steve Brittain. You know, some cases leave defense lawyers with a very tough job. DNA cases particularly. And sometimes, disappointingly, people who don't work in the criminal justice field associate the lawyer with the client's actions. These two gentlemen are brilliant lawyers and genuinely good guys, the kind of people I'd be honored to break bread with. With whom I'd be honored to break bread. You know what I mean.

So in their honor, I am reposting a short movie I made, my feeble attempt to empathize with some of the attitudes they encounter.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Opening the week with opening statements

I've posted before on the anatomy of a trial, especially on the process of picking a jury in voir dire, but haven't said too much on the phase that comes next: opening statement.

I put my limited Google skills to work, wondering if the commonly-held belief that openings are crucial could be supported. I found a lot of info, including this:

The importance of an opening statement has been established by studies that showed that 80 percent of jurors' ultimate conclusions with respect to the verdict corresponded with their tentative opinion after opening statements. (From here.)

If true that does seem a little worrying because, after all, jurors are supposed to decide cases (civil AND criminal) on the evidence. But that's a topic for another day, and I raise it just to explain why I myself accord so much importance to openings.

But wait, I hear you say, doesn't everyone? Well, no. I have seen opening statements in major cases where the lawyer doesn't seem to know the facts, and stumbles through them in a general way. My colleague in the DC defense bar, Jamison Koehler, wrote about a lawyer reading a closing argument: I've seen this in openings too, and it's painful.

So here are some DOs and DON'Ts for opening statements.

1. Know the facts of your case. Inside out.
2. Tell a story. Studies show that if you can present something as a story that makes sense to an audience, they will be more likely to absorb and go with it.
3. Focus the jurors on YOU. How? Well...
4. Minimize distractions. Put your pen down, use minimal notes (see point 1), and forget about complex presentations.
5. Move about the courtroom.
6. Modulate your tone. Grab their attention with the outrage in your voice, have them feel pain with a gentle whisper.
And finally, the over-arching rule:
7. Remember that you are limited to describing the evidence and thus the power of your opening comes from its delivery.

1. Promise too much. Jurors are listening, and if you promise something and don't deliver it your credibility can be affected, maybe even destroyed.
2. Stand still and drone. If you're not moved by your case, then how can you expect others to care?
3. Argue. For one thing, you're not allowed to-- this is the time for you to show what the facts will be, not to argue them. It looks bad to have an objection sustained during your opening because some jurors might think, "Wow, he's cheating already?" Even so, don't. . .
4. Be afraid to use descriptive words. If the evidence will show that the victim was "slashed" or "hacked" then say so. Those words make a far better (and by "better" I mean accurate and powerful) visual than "cut" or "injured."
5. Ignore the weak points of your case. Thing is, no case is perfect for either side. If it was, you wouldn't be in trial. Don't try to bury or ignore those because you can bet the opposing counsel will throw them in your face, as he should. In my recent murder trial I acknowledged up front that some witnesses had fuzzy memories, and that I had no physical evidence, no DNA or fingerprints. Why? Because those things were true and I wanted the jury to know that I wasn't afraid of those weak points.
6. Go on too long. You want to sit down leaving the jury eager to hear your case. You do not want them to groan with relief or, before that, start nodding off.

Any of my lawyer friends want to add to the list?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Serial killer info

As we head into the weekend I wanted to link to the post of a friend of mine, a fellow writer, who has blogged some great info about my favorite (in the theoretical) people: serial killers.

After all, you can never know too much about them, eh?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I'll be right back... meanwhile, watch a genius

I have something I want to write about tonight, maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, a short video.

Now, you all (should) know that I'm a huge soccer fan. I play in a league and I watch a lot on the telly. Well, my absolute favorite player is a guy who's small, quick-footed, and never gloats when he scores. Which he does a lot. He's aggressive and has wonderful close ball control, and knows how to pass.

Lionel Messi? Xavi? Iniesta?

Nope, but he wants to play alongside them. . .

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama and the Royal Wedding

It's been a weird week for news what with the Royal Wedding (technically last week, I know) and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Got me to wondering. . .

What do these events have in common?

1. Everyone wants to see pictures.
2. They made the world a happier place.
3. The central figure in each event was wearing a white dress (so I'm told).
4. Shares in retailers like Flags 'R' Us sky-rocketed.
5. No more virgins for one guy, plenty for the other (so I'm told).
6. Shoes. Crazy ones for Posh Spice, concrete ones for Osama.

It's a little odd to see some of the celebrations, to be honest. Bad, nasty dude for sure and not one person on the planet should shed a tear, but to see a young college kid on TV saying "It makes me proud to be a Texan"? What's that got to do with it?

Cheeky bugger was probably trying to co-opt this for his own dastardly ends.

Big day in history, though. Which is why I had to add my two cents.