Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Pulp Era Comes to Colorful Life

Scott D. Parker

One of my favorite websites is  Shorpy's. It's a curated website chock full of old photos, mostly black and white. It's a snapshot into our past world. These images are utterly fantastic and I look forward to looking at the new one each day. I have bookmarked a number of them for inspiration for my stories.

One image in particular really captured my imagination. Here it is. 

 Read All About It: 1942

Here is the original link.

On the surface, it's two ladies letting their eyes surf over all those selections of the current pulp magazines. In an era where no TV existed for the public, entertainment via pulp magazines was prevalent. It wasn't until this image was posted that I got a look at what a typical newsstand actually looked like.

But then, the good folks at Shorpy's did something wonderful: they colorized the image! When this image landed in my Feedly feed this week, I literally gasped. How frigging cool is this picture.

Read All About It (Colorized): 1942

Here is the link. 

But Shorpy's didn't just break out a pack of crayons. No, they spent a year researching the actual covers shown in this image. You can read about the research here. The result is stunning, especially for all of us born too late to live through the glory days of pulp fiction.

Be sure to head over to the website and gaze upon the high res version. Then just drool.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Moriarty: The Man We Never Knew

John Connolly’s novella, The Caxton Book Depositary and Lending Library (collected in Death Sentences, edited by Otto Penzler) posits an intriguing idea: that somewhere out there, some literary creations shave become so embedded in public consciousness that they have quite literally come to life. As we are guided through the Library where these creations come to live, we meet Sherlock Holmes, sitting in his room, smoking a pipe and pondering on whatever mysteries he can. But one imagines that elsewhere in that building, there would be a place for his greatest adversary, Professor James Moriarty

Such is the association of Moriarty with the great Consulting Detective that one might easily believe the pair spent decades locked in combat. The rebooted BBC TV series, Sherlock, is obsessed with the character, going so far as to apparently resurrect him a mere three episodes after his alleged death.  But Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss are not alone in obsessing over the “Napoleon of Crime.” The professor’s own story will be told in the new Anthony Horowitz-penned novel, Moriarty (due in October 2014).  He is Holmes’s greatest adversary, and yet he appeared only a few times in the Holmesian canon as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. And one could easily make the case, looking at the evidence, that Doyle was not as enamoured with the professor as others would come to be. Certainly not enough to give the man a consistent backstory or even place within the canon.

When the police went looking, Moriarty wasn’t there…

Forgive the poor homage to TS Elliot, but in many ways – both in the fictional world of Holmes’s London, and on the page of Doyle’s literary canon – MacAvity and Moriarty share this particular trait. The professor is rarely seen on the page. Indeed, Watson – the narrator of all but one Holmes story – only glimpses him in the distance during the Reichenbach Falls incident, where both Holmes and Moriarty plunged to their apparent deaths. Moriarty is a manipulator. He is a source of criminal activity but rarely directly linked to specific crimes. He is a spider at the centre of a vast web, a manifestation of our fears about organised crime. He is a bogey-man. A ghost, if you will. And the very fact that we know so little about him is exactly why he is so appealing. The mystery surrounding Moriarty is tantalising. How can a man be so powerful when we know so little about who he is and what drives him?

Rewriting History

Moriarty first appeared in The Final Problem. Holmes has realised that the wave of criminality he has recently encountered can all be traced back to one mastermind: Professor Moriarty. His influence revealed, Moriarty vows that Holmes will die if he continues to interfere. His appearance is sudden and unexpected. There is the sense that here is an enemy finally worthy of Holmes; someone who could prove to be his equal. Someone whom we had never seen before. That he dies at the end shows that Conan Doyle intended him to be a one off creation. By creating a man who was Holmes’s equal in every way, he was able to create something that could off the Great Detective in an appropriate and resolutely final matter. Moriarty was the mirror of Holmes, right down to the fact that he employed a right hand man to mirror the Watson/Holmes dynamic. The idea was that Moriarty and Holmes were so equally matched that there could be no winner when they met. Neither man could walk away. They were the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. They cancelled each other out. That was how Doyle thought he could ensure the end of Holmes.

His one and only appearance should have been the end. But then, it should have been the end of Holmes, too.

But as so often happens in popular fiction, the readers demanded more. Conan Doyle had already brought Holmes back from the dead. So he returned Moriarty to the page one more time. But not in the way that many might have expected.

The only novel-length Holmes tale to feature Moriarty was set earlier in the Holmes canon. The Valley of Fear – which is perhaps only nominally a Holmes story, taking place as much of it does in the US – finds Moriarty being acknowledged by Holmes as a genius before Holmes himself claimed to know of Moriarty’s existence. Even Watson knows the name Moriarty, despite admitting during the Falls incident that he had never heard of the man before. The Valley of Fear is also the book where Moriarty finally gains a first name.

Many things in The Valley of Fear contradict or sit uneasily with what had come before beyond Holmes and Watson’s apparent foresight regarding the man. For example, when Moriarty is encountered in The Final Problem, he is given no first name, but his brother is referred to as “James Moriarty”. It is certainly possible (but improbable) that both children were called James, but the likelihood of such an occurrence is very small indeed. And while Holmes may allow himself to entertain the improbable, most authors do their best to avoid it.

To modern eyes such contradictions can lead to a lot of headscratching and mental gymnastics as we try to put all the pieces together in a way that allows us to make sense of it all and build a solidly canonical picture of the villainous Professor. And yet, somehow, to so many people, he feels real.  There is clearly something special about the character; something essential that transcends biography and continuity. Moriarty is perhaps not so powerful as a character but as an archetype.

Mirror, Mirror

It is the essence of Moriarty rather than the details of his life that has earned him a place in the public’s imagination.  Moriarty is a twisted reflection of our hero; something he has in common with many of the greatest villains in crime fiction. He becomes a threat because we already know that there are very few people Holmes respects intellectually. In order to earn such a status, a person would have to be very special indeed.

He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the binomial theorem which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it, he won the mathematical chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearances, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London. He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city...

Holmes’s description of Moriarty in The Final Problem is expositional, and yet there runs through it a kind of admiration. One can imagine the excitement in Holmes’s voice as he reaches the end of his thought: He is the Napoleon of Crime. He is a great man. A worthy opponent. And that it has taken Holmes so long to realise this only adds to his admiration of Moriarty.

Like Holmes, Moriarty is described as having a “high, domed forehead”. In Conan Doyle’s day, this was considered a sign of great intellect and again adds to the point of similarity between Holmes and his opponent, marking them as equals intellectually.

Absence makes the heart…

The true appeal of Moriarty, like all great villains, lies in the rarity of his appearance. A villain easily defeated time and again, such as the Daleks in Doctor Who or the Joker in Batman, quickly loses their threat. Moriarty appeared only twice in the Holmesian canon (and both times, mostly off-page). His power lies in the fact that we know so little about him that it becomes almost impossible to predict what he will do. Those who overuse him in the rash of Holmes pastiches and reinventions that have become prevalent in modern publishing do so at their peril.

Horowitz’s new book will be interesting, especially if we see more of Moriarty on the page than we have done before. It is not a Holmes story, of course, but rather a speculation on the truth behind the fate of Moriarty. It includes characters from Holmes’s world, but not Holmes himself. It is not a Holmes novel, but looks set to expand on Conan Doyle’s universe. I do have to wonder, though, whether the book will be able to top Kim Newman’s riotously tongue-in-cheek novel, Moriarty: The Hound of the D’U’rbervilles. In that novel, we saw Moriarty through the eyes of his “Watson”, Colonel James “Basher” Moran, as we explored the flipside of Holmes’s fictional world. The book at once reinforced and punctured the myth of Moriarty. Can Horowitz achieve something similar? Can he make us look at someone whose own myth is greater than their actual achievements with a fresh set of eyes? Can he escape the clich├ęs that have built themselves up around the character? Can he make Moriarty as credible as he was in the original canon? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to finding out. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reviews are not for authors

By Steve Weddle

OK. Look. You don't need me to tell you what to do. You don't need me to spew out a list of nine things you need to do in order to be a writer. Or three ways to deal with bad press. You're kinda awesome, and you should probably be reading some Roxanne Gay or William Boyle or writing something yourself instead of reading another silly, generic list on a blog.

What you shouldn't be doing, of course, is reading your own reviews.

Recently, with all of the Authors Behaving Badly news, the stalking, the attack on Vine reviewers, etc, you people have kinda gotten out of control. You authors, I mean. You're weird.

So I'm supposed to give you a bunch of reasons you shouldn't respond to bad reviews? Well, I'm torn on that one because you should respond to criticism of your work, but you probably shouldn't be reading reviews -- good, bad, lavender.

Let's go with responding to reviews and work our way back.

Once you put your book out there, you've lost control. Most authors will tell you that. What do you hope to gain by responding to a "bad" review. I mean, having someone dislike a thing you wrote? That's not a bad review. That's normal. The world doesn't exist to make you happy, pumpkin.
I was fortunate to get some great press and some great reviews early on for Country Hardball. And I read the reviews that first week or so. I read reviews in the papers. I read reviews at Goodreads. I mean, I'd worked for a long time on this book. What would The World think of it, you know?
But, if someone in a one-star says, "I've lived in Arizona my whole life and this isn't any Arizona I know. The author has clearly never even been here" -- am I obligated to comment, "Thanks for reading, but the stories take place in Arkansas, not Arizona. Those state abbreviations can get confusing. Cheers."?

Or if someone complains that they gave up on page three, should I comment that things really start picking up on page five?

Or if they say that they hate the book because it says the Fauxville tornado hit in 1931 and they know damn well that it hit in 1932 because that's when Grandpa Hezzie lost his leg, should I post links to news article proving they're wrong?

If you're reading reviews of your own book, what is the problem you're trying to solve? You need to know what people listened to in 1948 Chicago, so you do some research. You want a better word for "transcend," so you grab a thesaurus. What is it that you need to get from reading reviews on Amazon or Goodreads?

Do you need to know that people like your book? Didn't your 13 beta readers like it? Your agent? Your editor? People at Green Gulch Publishing, a division of Simon House? Copy editors? Those people who interviewed you? The nice lady who invited you to her book club? The other nice lady who invited you to read at Ye Olde Booke Shoppe? The guy at Books by the Brook? All those people liked your book, yeah? So you need to make sure everyone liked it? Pumpkin, we've been over this. You could donate eight gagillion dollars to cure cancer in orphans and people would still say, "Hunh. Must be nice to have that kind of money." You ain't gonna be loved by everybody. Hell, there's probably people out there who don't like ME! (I know, right?)

So why are you reading reviews? Are you looking for bad ones? Are you waiting for Them to find out that you're a fraud? Come on, you're supposed to handle those fears in your dreams, not out here.

People like your book. Not everyone, of course. But some folks are assholes, you know? What are you gonna do?

I'm thinking reading "good" reviews are just as problematic.

Someone likes this thing you did? That's great. So there you are, reading along, and the Goodreads review says the reader liked the way you handled Nadia's accent. Hunh. That's weird. You hadn't really thought she'd had an accent. Maybe you should go back and read that part again. Or this nice reader over here said she was hoping for a Marcus spinoff and maybe some more on the backstory of the manicorns. Well, yeah. That's not what you're writing now, but maybe you should set this aside to write that. Or, wait, here's another review that says you're the next Delilah S. Dawson. Well, that's cool. You hadn't thought of this book in those terms. Wonder what the reader meant by that. The worldbuilding? The character building?

Why, in the name of Walt Frickin Whitman, are you doing this to yourself?

Why aren't you writing the next book? The next novel? Why are you reading your Amazon reviews?

I think it's super cool and nice if someone takes the trouble to blog up a review of something I've written. If it seems like a good idea, maybe I shoot that person a quick email of thanks. Some authors post a "thanks" in them comments, which seems a little stalkery to me, though I don't know why. It just kinda has that "I'm watching you" vibe. I dunno. Whatever you do it cool. You don't need me to tell you that.

And some authors troll the internet and set up alerts so that they can RT links to every single nice thing anyone has ever said about their books. Your Twitter followers and FB pals probably already know you wrote a book and maybe they've read it. So I'm not sure what the point is to this preaching-to-the-choir thing. Maybe so they'll RT your RT of a positive review? I dunno.

Mainly, though, shouldn't you be writing?

You should FOR MOST SURE CERTAINLY respond to criticism. To me, though, it makes sense to do this before your book comes out. If a beta reader doesn't like this part or that part, maybe look at that part. If your agent or editor thinks you should work on a Marcus spinoff, maybe think about that.

But trolling around on the internet after your book is out? I mean, what can you do about it then except make yourself sick over it? Turn the internet off and get back to writing the next book, yeah? I mean, after you post a comment here, of course.

A book review is meant to tell people whether they should read the book. Will they like it? Does it have too much humpy-time or thin characters? Is it superballz awesome? Reviews are for people who might read your book. Reviews are not for authors -- they're for readers. Good reviews. Bad reviews. Doesn't matter. For an author, they're all bad reviews because they're not for you.

Anyway, hugs and all. And stop being a dumbass, pumpkin. You're better than that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Womp Womp

by Holly West

I was going to write about blog tours today. Specifically, my experiences with them now that I've launched two books.

Then, last night, this happened:

I'd like to say that I sustained this injury in a knife fight or something exciting like that, but the truth is that I think it's the the result of the increased knitting I've been doing in the lead up to winter. Hand knit scarves make wonderful holiday gifts, but clearly, there's a price to pay.

Since I'm reduced to typing this with one hand, I think I'll save the blog tour post for next week.

Have a good one, dear readers.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saying no graciously

by Kristi Belcamino

One of the challenges of being a newly published author is figuring out how to give back while still maintaining boundaries and protecting valuable writing and personal time.

Let me explain.

I was very lucky to have some writer friends give me blurbs before I had a book deal. I did have an agent, so maybe that helped, but in any case, this is rare. In both instances, these rock star authors offered the blurbs and their help in my publishing journey.

Later on, after I had a book deal, I was told to solicit blurbs, an awful process that our own Alex Segura has written about on this blog. He gives great tips on how to do it graciously and believe me, Alex knows how to be gracious in every situation. So much so, that he was the first author I *asked* to give my book a blurb. He is a class act. Thank you again, Alex.

Along with Alex, I've had many authors help me out on my publishing journey, but before they offered, or before I asked, there was always some type of previous relationship established, even if it was mostly, or entirely, through social media.

I've really been pondering how to pay it forward and yet maintain my boundaries as a published author. I'm hoping this post sparks some conversation about it with other writers, so please chime in if you have any thoughts.

In my case, here are some of the boundary issues, I've come across and the questions they raise:

Writer friends, what are your thoughts on:

* Offering blurbs to writers without agents or book deals

* Reading other writer's manuscripts and offering feedback

* Reviewing other writer's query letters

* Writing your agent or publishers about fellow writers?

* Offering advice on the query process

* Participating in/or writing for fundraising purposes

For most of these questions, my answer depends on two things - my relationship with the writer and the time I have available.

So, I guess the big question for my fellow writers is this: How do you maintain your boundaries as a writer? What do you say yes to? What do you say no to? Is there a way to say no graciously?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Finishing a Manuscript and Asking Why Not?

Scott D. Parker

On Tuesday afternoon, during one of my five-minute breaks at my day job, I put the final period on the first draft of my latest manuscript. On my iPod Touch. Again, as I’ve written about before, I still can’t believe how productive I can be writing a first draft on an iPod. I realized that I was close during my 5am writing session but wasn’t able to finish at home. But that was just as well since…between 40-50% of the first draft was written on my iPod. I went home and copied the new text into Scrivener and then printed it. There it is on the left.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: if you want to write, there are ways to write when you’re just about anywhere. I celebrated by going to rehearsal that night and then chilling later that evening with a glass of pinot grigio. As only writers can attest, there’s nothing like finishing a novel. This one clocked in at 59,000 so it’s officially a short novel. 

I'm not the only one, either. There's a post over at The Digital Reader about writing on smartphones. 

And the next day, in order to keep my writing streak alive (every day since 1 May), I started the next one. But it’s low-key because I have other things to do with my spare time. What, pray tell, are they? Astute readers will likely have drawn a conclusion to many of my side comments in my posts these past few weeks so it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I am starting my own independent publishing company to publish my own ebooks starting in 2015.

Probably the first question you may have is why? My short answer is Why Not? My longer answer is more nuanced and I’ll write about it in the coming weeks.

You’ve been reading about my productivity in completing manuscripts since May 2013. In that time, I’ve written six manuscripts of varying length, eight if you count a couple of short stories. And you will have the chance to read them come 2015.  So stay tuned.

But back to the iPod (or smartphone or whatever device you carry around): Always Be Writing. You can do it. Modern technology makes it unbelievably simple. You only have to want to. And I do.

Do you?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

There’s a Story in Your Voice

“How do you plot?”

The question has bounced around my head since I got an email from Jay Stringer asking me to play nice and join the DSD crew in talking about our craft.

I’m not completely sold on the “to plot or pants” debate, which suggests that either you plot heavily before diving into the writing or you just wing it - i.e., start writing and see where it goes and then edit until you have a book. I don’t think it’s so black and white. I know my plotting, for example, is very gray.

My experience writing Silent City was one of trial and error - most first novels are like that. I started with a blank page and wrote a scene where we meet our protagonist, Pete Fernandez, as he awakens - hungover and regretting his misbehavior from the night before. This scene is still in the final book, but later, and it’s changed from the initial first person to third.

But when I put down those first few words, I had no idea where the book was going. I knew who Pete was - sort of. I also knew that he would stumble upon some kind of case while working at the paper and that it might involve a missing woman.

Pretty loose, right?

I wasn’t ready to handle that. I floundered. I spent time over-thinking the details and less time moving the plot along (or “writing”). I got a few chapters in and Silent City took a nap on my computer. Months passed. Finally, I started jotting down ideas for chapters (including a new Chapter 1). The descriptions became longer and the character mentions evolved into mini-bios. By the end of it, I had a fairly robust outline that incorporated my initial chapters and gave the book direction.

The rest is easy, right? So I thought. While having a detailed outline helped, it didn’t do wonders for spontaneity. I knew exactly what was going to happen - and I felt a little bored by it. So, over a few months, I went to what I see as the two extremes of plot vs. pants: the completely liberating blank page and the cluttered, somewhat recipe-like “detailed outline.”

But then the characters started doing things. One of them ran off with a bag of money. Another turned out to be a bad guy. Most shockingly, one of them died in an unexpected car explosion. None of that stuff - the cool, surprising things people who liked Silent City seem to bring up when I meet them - was in the outline. Thankfully, the outline - detailed as it was - still left just enough room for the characters to breathe. To get up and move around and determine that maybe the roadmap Alex created for them wasn’t that set in stone.

I remember trying to rest in bed, staring at the ceiling, after writing for a few hours and realizing the end was in sight in terms of a first draft. All the pieces were in play and I was going to roll into the epic, final battle that would reveal to the reader who the big bad was.

I couldn’t sleep.

The outline, as it was written, had it all mapped out. But something was missing. There was no twist-before-the-twist, no sucker punch to add weight to the final reveal. Nothing out of left field that still made perfect sense. Then it hit me.

I jumped out of bed and typed out a sentence. I’d would go on to write the actual scene the next day, but that line was enough. I slept soundly.

The sentence was brief, and changed the entire direction of a character’s arc in a way that made perfect sense but I hadn’t considered before. It also made the book more interesting and didn’t disrupt what was already in the outline.

So, the lesson learned from writing Silent City that I implemented most in the writing of my second novel was that while outlines are helpful, they should not be treated like scripture. Tweak as you go. Change. Delete. Let the characters do stuff. If the characters are pushing against the outline, maybe there’s something wrong with your outline. Don’t be beholden to an outline.

I read a great quote from comic writer Brian Michael Bendis this week that supports this. I won’t repost the whole thing, but it basically said that writers worry so much about plot, they forget about character and why they’re writing a story.

Don’t do that. Find the happy medium that allows you to feel like you have a complete story to tell, but don’t prevent yourself from being able to improvise and vamp a bit. Your characters will be stronger for it, and your readers will be surprised more often. If you’ve choreographed something, chances are your readers will be smart enough to figure it out, too.