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A Noir Novel by Committee

Bill Radke

Marc Sanchez

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L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez
(Gilles Mingasson/Los Angeles Times)
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Bill Radke: This weekend, Charlie Bonner is in trouble. He's dealing with a crooked politician, an exotic dancer who knows too much and his own wife, who's even sneakier than he is.

Fortunately, Charlie is a fictitious character in the Los Angeles Time's ongoing, online, open-source novel, "Birds of Paradise." Every day, readers send in a new chapter -- hundreds of these chapters are coming in, about 600 words apiece. Every day, the judges at the paper choose a winner and it's published the next day.

Times columnist Steve Lopez created the experiment -- he wrote the first chapter and released it to the public last weekend. His problem is, he also has the responsibility of writing the last chapter... He's going to have to tie everything together.

But that's going to be like catching confetti, because this public novel is spinning out of his control.

Steve Lopez: Well, what happened was, I did chapter one -- and in retrospect, maybe I should not have left so many options. I had, I think, three characters... And I had the main character, a TV producer by the name of Charlie Bonner, who had made his name and his fortune in reality television, on his way, mysteriously to the airport to grab a flight to Cabo, where he had an important meeting. And on his way, he's grabbing bundles of cash from the safe at his house and clearly cooking up something for his wife, Genie.

And there's a congressman involved in this. Of course, it's kind of a grubby congressman who has gotten into some trouble at a strip club in Hollywood called Jumbo's Clown Room.

Woman's voice: The place was perfect -- dark and small, and the dancers had just enough tattoos, piercings and missing body parts to keep it interesting. Best of all, he was nowhere near his district, and that meant no one would notice him. And even if they did, they certainly weren't the type to care.

Lopez: We've got this congressman, we've got this TV producer... We're not sure what's going to happen in Cabo. It looks like somebody is going to off the stripper. Not bad, right?

Radke: Good, juicy stuff.

Good, juicy stuff. The problem seems to be that each day people added new, major characters, new major plot lines -- and rather than clarifying or advancing the story, it just kind of got very hairy in a hurry.

Man's voice: Bonner was breathing hard when he hit the sidewalk. The familiar sour taste was rising in his throat as he yanked his cell phone from his satchel and dialed Ernesto's number, cursing as his chubby fingers hit the wrong buttons. After this was over, he thought, diet for sure. And hair plugs. He hit "Send."

I was on vacation when it started, and when I got back my editor, Sue Horton said, "Why don't you write a note trying to push people gently back on track with this thing." I tried that a couple days ago.

Please, people can we focus this thing? Can we have someone be a hero?

Yeah, or can we at least know what are the motives, who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys?

And new characters are coming in, you're reading hundreds of them. Where does our plot begin and end?

See, now you think it's tough for you, and you've only read the winners. When we go to these meetings every day, we've each read through maybe 20 or 25 of these. You're supposed to pick two or three at this meeting as the possible winner. So as you begin this discussion, you cannot remember whether the stuff in your head is from the already published winners or new plot lines and characters that you've just read through in the 20-25 submissions you judged.

So now you're in a thicket Steve. What have you learned?

I've learned that we need a real writer to step in and get this back on track.

Take it out of the public's hands.

Woman's voice: Carmen downed the remainder of her Pacifico and put the empty bottle down on top of a story about a congressman named Falco. The name was familiar. She wasn't sure why.

Suddenly, the apartment door splintered and a tall, blond man flashing a switchblade burst in, lunging in her direction.

"What the..." she cried. She whirled out of her chair and grabbed the first thing she could find to defend herself with: a clay flowerpot.

I will say this: It's been really cool to have hundreds of people, not just entering this thing, but really interested, when you call, to hear your feedback and your comments and why didn't they win. And it's not writers who are submitting, necessarily. The winner yesterday was a guy from Disney. I asked him if he was on the creative end. He said, "No, I'm in marketing." It's been a real surprise, the range of people that are involved in this thing.

And what have you learned about them from the kind of material they're giving you?

There are a lot of sick people out there that are really enjoying going noir.

Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times -- thanks a lot.

Thank you for having me. We're counting on your contributions.

Man's voice: Bonner paused. Falco was famously wary of keeping his personal and professional lives separate; their meetings had always taken place at neutral locations. He could hear a low murmuring in the background, and Falco's ragged breathing, and then -- then the line went dead.

Bonner sighed heavily, weighing his options and his loyalties. "Change of plans," he said. "We're going to Beverly Hills."

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