Thursday, December 31, 2009
Now that Secret Santa is Over
It's New Year's Eve, and you're all out buying Champagne and beer and making dinner reservations, so I'll keep this one short.
The '00s was a hell of a decade for crime fiction.
Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, James Ellroy, and Laura Lippman really showed me what the pinnacle of a mystery novel could be.
Hard Case Crime brought the pulps back and made them cool again.
Blogs were the place to find all sorts of discussions on any subgenre of the mystery.
DO SOME DAMAGE was born.
So for my this decade was fantastic. I've learned so much and can't wait to see what happens in the next ten years.
But the thing that never changes is what a book needs to be successful. Readers.
We here at Do Some Damage want to thank you for keeping up with our blog over the past few months. And we hope you'll stick around for the next few years.
This post is dedicated to you.
Happy New Year.
And, we have a question for you, dear reader. What do you want to see happen to crime fiction in the next decade? How can it change and what will make it better?
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
“If I wasn’t going to write crime fiction, I’d write...”
The last of the Secret Santa topics, “If I wasn’t going to write crime fiction, I’d write...”
I guess first I’d have to figure out why I am writing crime fiction. Or why I'm writing at all.
I wasn’t one of those people who grew up reading all kinds of books. In fact, I didn’t read many books at all. The truth is, I still don’t read a huge amount of books.
I had newspaper route when I was a kid – back when the papaerboy was actually a kid - the Montreal Gazette, and I used to get up at six and deliver the papers. I’d get back from my route and read the paper while I ate my Cornflakes before going to school.
I really liked the newspaper. Later on, I realized what I really liked was the storytelling, the personalities.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Gazette had some great writers. I liked the sportswriters best, Red Fisher, Dink Carrol, (later Jack Todd) and lots more. What I liked about them was the characters they wrote about. Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, Rusty Staub, the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the ‘70’s and the always-underdog Expos. I remember when an American football player, Johnny Rodgers, came to play for the Alouettes and said he just wanted to be, “an ordinary superstar.” I thought that was such a great line. The sports pages were full of great lines.
As I got a little older, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I started to read the whole paper. At that time in Montreal, the mid-70’s, one of the things that was going on was the rise of cocaine as the popular club drug and a mob war to control the supply, a struggle between two families – the family that ‘won’ became known as the Sixth Family, a kind of branch office of one of New York’s Five Families. The newspaper stories were great, full of characters, violence – real stories with great plots. Just like the movies only real, right there in my town.
(a sidenote here, the son of the family that ‘won’ in the 70’s, Nick Rizuto, was shot and killed on a Montreal street in the NDG neighbourhood - where I lived for years - a couple days ago. Newspapers are calling him the boss of the Montreal Mafia. His father, Vito Rizuto, has been in prison in the USA since 2007, convicted in the killings of three Mafia captains in New York – murders that were made famous in the movie Donnie Brasco.)
At the time I thought maybe I wanted to be a sportswriter, but the older I got the less interesting sports seemed to be. The newspapers even seemed to get cleaned up, or at least the stories in the sports section seemed to be full of a lot more innuendo and a lot less of what I’d call direct prose.
It was about that time I found out Hemingway had started out as a newspaper reporter so I thought maybe I should check him out, maybe there was something there after all. That’s when I discovered the clean, declaritive sentence, and I liked it. I liked the sports stories like “Fifty Grand,” and the Nick Adams short stories and what is “The Killers,” but crime fiction?
So, Hemingway led me to Dashiel Hammett and I liked him, too.
Then I started writing short stories, or trying to. I tried to write those Hemingway-esque “young man” stories and thankfully none survive. I tried some genre stories, sci fi and even mystery. In the mid-80’s, after going out to Alberta for a few years and working on construction sites, getting married and having a daughter, I was back in Montreal and in a band called Smiley’s People. The bass player, Michel Basilieres (who would later write the award-winning novel Black Bird) introduced me to John le Carre and I tried spy stories. I sold one to a magazine called Espionage, which was like Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock but it went out of business before my story appeared.
Then the drummer, Alan Taylor, handed me a novel and said, “You might like this.” It was called Unknown Man #89 by some guy named Elmore Leonard. And everything came together for me. The clean, declarative sentences of Hemingway, the crime stories of Hammet and the ‘regular guy’ characters from the newspaper stories. Here they were, all fleshed out, the little things in their daily lives, their relationships with women – especially that maybe – the most realistic, complete relationships between grown up men and women, none of that cutesy romantic comedy stuff.
So, then I discovered this Elmore Leonard guy had a bunch of novels out and I read them all. Some of them were westerns.
And I thought maybe I could get serious about this writing thing. I enrolled in the Creative Writing program at Concordia University – taking night classes and working in a warehouse during the day. I Was in my late twenties then, divorced with my daughter living with me, usually ten years older than anyone else in the class. Still I spent five years at Concordia and it took me another ten to unlearn everything they tried to teach me. It seems literature had moved on from declaritive sentences and stories about real people. Most of the young people in my classes had come straight from high school and were looking at writing as if it was a profession, like law or accounting, something you studied, learned how to do and then did. I’ll admit, I was very intimidated by how many books they’d read, how many literary references they could drop into a conversation so casually. I was way out of my depth.
It looked like this writing books thing was going to be way too hard. There didn’t seem to be any way I could go back to being twelve years old and read all the Hardy Boys novels instead of the newspaper stories about Montreal’s gangland wars. I really couldn’t get into Dickens. I liked Alice Munro, though, her rural Ontario was an awful lot like my mother’s rural Nova Scotia where I spent a lot of summers as a kid. Even the current stuff at the time, American Psycho, Slaves of New York, Less Than Zero, all filled with irony and knowing inside references went right over my head. Most of the other people in my writing classes were basing everything on other books, on other writers’ work.
So, I looked into writing movies. I saw a lot of movies. Another mistake it took me years to undo. But while working on movie sets and trying to write screenplays, I met Scott Albert and he had the idea to enter the three day novel writing contest. We collaborated on a book, each writing stories from the points of view of different people working on the set of a movie. We didn’t win the contest, but we had a decent first draft, we rewrote it a few times and sent it to publishers.
Karen Haughian of Signature Editions published it as Below the Line and I started to think maybe I could write a novel. A few years later I had the first draft of Dirty Sweet.
I didn’t realize at the time it was crime fiction but I liked it and I’ve just continued to write that kind of fiction.
So, if I wasn’t writing this, I guess I wouldn’t be writing.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Secret Santa: What Have I Learned this Year?
By Jay Stringer, consulting detective.
You all know the drill by now, we’ve each been assigned a title at random from another member of the DSD crew. Some idiot came up with this idea, but dammit I’ll make do as best I can. My Gurrl did the hard work of assigning the titles using a super secret random machinery type thing. I saw the machine, it was very H.G.Wells.
So here’s the title I was given;
What Have I Learned This Year?
Well….where to start? Lets see. I learned how many coins you can put in a microwave oven before it explodes (six) and how many body parts stop working at 29 when you mistreated them at 21 (also six). Then there was this cold morning in February when I sat on the toilet and learned……
…..oh wait a minute……
…..oh wait a minute……
The questions says, “what have I learned this year?”
That’s how it was given to me, so it’s not about my own lessons. It’s being asked of me by a fellow DSD scribe. What has this fella learned this year? Lets see. That changes things totally. I need to deduce who has asked me the question if I’m going to be able to answer it.
Sherlock Holmes got it easy. He would have someone standing in front of him with a frayed cuff or a microscopic blotch of ink. OF COURSE he managed to figure these things out. All I’ve got is the sentence itself. So what does that tell us?
What Have I Learned This Year?
Well, it’s not asking about New Jersey or fast food. That rules out Dave. It’s not asking me to write a love letter to Mel Gibson, so I’m also assuming I can rule out Mr McLean. I seem to have eliminated two suspects. That means –and I’ve always wanted to say this- the game is afoot!
Okay. What else can we tell from the question? Let’s see. Think, Stringer, think. Right, get into the role, try and understand the quarry…I mean…the DSD’er. Picture the scene.
I’m picturing a desk and a computer. I’m picturing a cup of coffee. Holy shit this is working. I’m picturing fingers typing on the keyboard….they look just like mine….oh my eyes are open again.
That didn’t work.
What kind of a person would ask this question? It’s probing, it’s straight to the point. It wants to know what the script is. It doesn’t say, “what did I learn this year before stuffing the bodies in the trunk,” so I don’t think it’s Knowles.
Who does that leave?
Now, Scott may be called Parker, but he’s not THE Parker. He’s not Richard Stark’s consummate professional and plotter. He's also not Peter Parker or Parker Lewis. If he were any of those, then obviously he would be my main suspect. But he isn’t, and so by that watertight logic, he’s not.
Confused? Good, because I’d hate to be alone.
Right. Two left.
It’s the type of question that you might want to stop and consider after writing. You might want to pause and stroke a beard thoughtfully, the same beard that you stroke after plotting world domination. They both have full beards, dammit.
However, the question doesn’t allude to a realisation that Wolves are better than Arsenal. That would make me lean toward ruling out the Weddle. Also, he made the classic blunder of giving away his secret on the site yesterday. Thats, like, third on the list of all time blunders. Right behind 'never get involved in a land war in Asia,' and, 'never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.' You showed your hand, Weddle, and for that i'm afraid you don't make the cut.
So McFet it is.
But why is John McFetridge asking me what he’s learned this year? Has he forgotten? Did he write everything down on a bit of paper and then lose it? Maybe I have the bit of paper lying round here, hang on a minute…yes, right, let’s see. This year, McFet has learned;
3 red onions.
3 red onions.
1 clove of garlic.
Hmmm. I’m thinking that must be the wrong piece of paper. Shit, I’m going to have to wing this one.
This year John McFetridge has learned that the cult of Carl Robinson spreads far and wide. He’s learned that the American spelling for the word “Swap” is “Let It Ride.” He learned that the internet crime fiction community is becoming something special, and he learned that it’s still possible to ignore the twitters.
Above all, and this I know without question, he learned that Jay Stringer is probably the greatest Stringer. Far better than that one on The Wire and certainly better than that one who was the lead singer in the 90's band Reef.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Histories, Mysteries: The True Story of How Stark Made Noir
"I know a hawk from a handsaw."
- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2
"How and why did crime fiction diverge from mystery fiction? That is, how did the whodunit and the joy of the puzzle degenerate into crime fiction, dealing primarily with social issues and the aftermath of crime/violence?"
So that’s my set-up for this here Secret Santa idea of Jay’s. I’m kinda thinking someone is using this as an opportunity to write a research paper that he can sell, so I’m going to be very careful and helpful and be sure to get all of my facts straight.
We can hop in the Wayback Machine and watch some Greek tragedies, if you want. I don’t mean the current historical fiction books about how Socrates’ cousin solves mysteries and keeps the streets safe in ancient Parmanatheusopolis or whatever. I haven’t read those books. They could be great or not so great. I dunno. Let’s stick to stuff I’ve read, until I need to seem bright and talk about stuff I haven’t read, kinda like at every party I’ve ever attended.)
Let’s look at those old dudes. Sophocles wrote plays involving mysteries. The Roman Cicero, kinda. Bah, let’s don’t. Long time ago. Mysteries. Murder. Incest. If it comes up at a party, just say, “Dude, it’s all Deus ex Machina, ain’t it?” and then go get another drink. That’s old stuff. Let’s hop up to HAMLET, a mystery of sorts written by the Earl of Oxford on a drunken mead binge between March 14 and March 21, 1601. Who killed the king? Why? Was the wife in on it? Was Ophelia really played by a dude? Wasn’t calling the stage the “Globe” theater kinda pretentious? I mean, geez, talk about your arrogance.
But the so-called “modern mystery” and first detective came to us thanks to newspaperman Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s Auguste C. Dupin turned into Arthur Conan O’Brien’s great detective, Iron Man, who solved mysteries with his half-brother James “Rhodey” Watson. Iron Man, also called Tony Stark, had serious substance abuse problems, snorting up the cocaine and smoking the hash on the way to solving mysteries. This was the first “flawed detective.” (We don’t count Prince Hamlet as flawed, because dressing in all-black used to be cool.)
So Iron Man and Rhodey along with The Scarlet Witch (a detective created by Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Emma Peel formed a group called The Avengers and began to solve crimes in deserted English towns. In the fourth season of their TV show, Rhodey married Emma. The Watsons moved to Birmingham into a house with 18 other family members in which all of the Watsons spent the evening saying goodnight to “John Boy.” Emma Peel Watson, who absorbed the powers of The Scarlet Witch in the ninth season called “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” left Rhodey to join other witches at a pork-processing plant called “Hogwarts.” Stark continued to abuse drugs, solving a few crimes along the way. A notorious criminal called Charles Sheen had stolen his career. Stark defeated Sheen in a loser-leave-town cage match, then joined with John Cryer (a super-hero who attacked villains by locking himself in their bathrooms and flooding their homes) and a Canadian hero called “Puck” in a comic called “Two and Half Men.”
Eventually Stark traded his super-powered suit for a bag of grass, some beads, and a copy of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.” Stark then used his knowledge of crime-fighting to write novels under the name “Robert Ben Parker.” Nearly sued to oblivion by a writer called “Robert B. Parker,” he then changed his name to David Bowie.
Stark, now Bowie, then began working at a McDonald’s in Westlake, Kansas. There he honed his skills writing movie reviews for "Gentleman's Magazine." The queen of Ellery, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, was also working at the restaurant, though she and a man named Arsenio Hall were incognito because her island was under the military rule of Gordon Pym, the Tara King. Seeing Bowie’s talent, the Queen hired him to write commentaries on her island nation’s politics, leading to the Tara King’s overthrow.
Bowie used his social commentary and his own experience fighting crime to write “A Study in Scarlet,” a story of love, betrayal and murder, based on his unrequited longing for The Scarlet Witch. (The third Scarlet Witch, Jean Grey, who had switched back to her red witch outfit after the grey one had gone berserk and killed Eddie Brock.) In the story, mad scientist Aragog Reilly travels to the Hogwarts plant, steals DNA from The Scarlet Witch, then clones her to make a villain called The Scarlet Spider, a being whose creation nearly destroyed the entire multiverse. He is defeated by Smokestack Lightning and Carlos Jackal, two of the first “anti-heroes” who trap The Scarlet Spider in a music store and use violins to get the answers they need by shoving splinters under his fingernails.
The combination of personal, up-close violence and socio-political commentary on the world in which this could take place, led to a new form of the mystery novel – crime fiction. His follow-up to that story was the novel, “Murder at La Roche-Noire,” featuring a character loosely based on his former teammate Puck and a convoluted plot involving the torture and death of teenager Virginia Clemm at a commune in central France. This novel, which is narrated by the girl’s cousin-husband, Henri Le Rennet, led to a run on the torture and killing of people in crime fiction, now called “Noir” fiction. (The final “e” was dropped as publishers were attempting to cut back on expenses.)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Noir Fiction is now the most popular and greatest form of writing.
I hope that this essay is of use to whoever handed me the secret Santa topic. If you are turning this in to a class or selling it to someone, as I suspect, you may also want to examine Poe’s story “The Gold Bug Variations,” in which Richard and Stefanie Powers examine a lost Bach manuscript, discovering that it had actually been written by John Shakespeare, an Avon salesman and butcher near Hogwarts.
It’s no surprise, I suppose, that Poe started the modern mystery. Newspaper folks such as me, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Rufus Griswold, and others always love a good story.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
"No good ever comes from turning a crime novel into a movie."
I’m sure you’re aware that we Do Some Damagers decided to take part in one of the most celebrated, and hated, Christmas time activities—the Secret Santa. Instead of a low budget gift, we all screwed each other with difficult blog topics.
My topic, probably from McFetridge, is a tough one because I’m not a movie guy. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, but movies aren’t something I’m into at the moment. In the last few years, I’ve found a lot of television that is as strong, if not stronger, than movies and I have devoted a lot of time to the little box as opposed to the big screen. But Secret Santa rules are rules so let’s give the devious title provider, McFetridge, his due.
Most crime movies that were once books suck hard. There are exceptions. Dennis Lehane seems somewhat immune. Mystic River was good, Gone Baby Gone was better. Shutter Island has Scorsese at the helm so I figure that will be good too. Another crime novel turned movie I liked was Out of Sight (one of the only really good Elmore Leonard adaptations). What all three of these movies have in common, if I remember them correctly, is that they worked hard to stay true to the source material. There weren’t a lot of add-on characters, change in time or locales, and the events stayed the same.
It’s when filmmakers start making changes that the train goes off the tracks. I’ll give an example, Payback. As a loyal Stark devotee, I was pumped about the idea of The Hunter again coming to the big screen. It wasn’t the book’s first trip to the silver screen—it showed up as 1967’s Point Blank starring the always cool Lee Marvin. Payback didn’t stay true to the book in a lot of ways. First and foremost, Parker changed. The character suddenly had feelings and connections. He liked people. Right away, the movie and the book separated. The main character, and everything that made him who he was, had divorced. Parker is one of the greatest crime fiction anti-heroes. He likes no one, and cares about nothing but his own self-preservation. In the movie, Parker has a girlfriend, and a sort of puppy love thing going on—it could not have sucked more.
The movie did keep a lot of the Stark written material in terms of events and cool scenes, but there were a lot of add-on’s. Some were to deal with the movie’s current setting, other’s seemed to be added on to create more action. The other most significant change was the end of the movie. Parker winds up being tortured and he somehow manages to endure the pain long enough to pull off a one in a million solution that belonged more in a Rambo movie (not the first one, the third Rambo where he fights with the Afghans and blows up helicopters with a bow and arrow) than in a Stark adaptation. Stark never wrote ridiculous scenarios. Parker was a methodical planner. Stark often compared him to a contractor who did a job with no feelings about it. As such, there were never Ramboesque scenes, just Parker getting the job done with ruthless efficiency. The end of the book was way better than the movie, because at the end of the book Parker walks away without the money. The reader learns a mean truth—life is harder and more cruel than Parker. In the movie, Parker and his lady drive off into the night with the money and each other—happy ending (never saw one of those in a movie before). The movie versus the book was like Gary Cherone Van Halen compared to David Lee Roth Van Halen. You gave the former a chance because the latter already proved itself time and time again.
I think the fault of a lot of crime novels that turn into movies lies in the fact that often no one knows how to adapt them. Think of it in terms of space. The physical universe is modeled on three dimensions—length, width, and height. Movies are a universe presented in two dimensions—sight and sound. Novels, however, aren’t constricted to this concept. They introduce a third dimension of thought that cannot be depicted on film as well as it can on the page. Often in movies, a lot of extra dialogue has to be written by a third party to compensate for the inability to convey the numerous thoughts and feelings expressed by a character on each page.
Crime novels are more complex than most people give them credit for. There are a lot of thoughts and emotions at play and these elements are crucial because they are the motivation for how characters act and react. Often when screenplay writers are confronted with a character like Parker, they are stumped. Without access to the third dimension, screenplay writers feel compelled to recreate the character as something else. Maybe there were countless meetings that went long into the night and the consensus was that the real Parker couldn’t transfer to the screen well. Maybe they thought the movie would never work if it strictly adhered to the book. I doubt that’s true. I think, given a better shot by someone more in touch with Stark and Parker, he could have made a much better character than Mel Gibson’s Porter. Example, No Country For Old Men was a book which involved numerous characters who were not long on talking. But the Cohen Brothers found a way to make everything work in the two dimensions they had. They didn’t screw with the source material, they instead used the two dimensions of flim creatively and they weren’t afraid of a little less talking and action.
I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that what happened with Payback has happened to a lot of other crime novel adaptations. A lot of them were good books that just ended up in the wrong hands. So I guess the person who gave me this topic, McFetridge, was pretty much right "No good ever comes from turning a crime novel into a movie."
Saturday, December 26, 2009
SECRET SANTA: My Fool-Proof Plan for World Domination
Strake: It comes down to magic. Or, rather, the belief in magic. As you know, when a magician has three cups and a ball under one, his hands move so fast you can’t keep up. Thus, when he asks you to pick the cup you think the ball is under, you’re basically just guessing. The same thing applies when he makes the quarter “disappear” from one of his hands while, in the next instant, he “pulls” the coin from your left ear. You’re so busy being impressed that you may not have realized he picked your pocket.
That’s what I’m going for. The Magic of Distraction. My fool-proof plan for world domination will have lots of distractions. Better to keep the attention of Those Who Would Thwart Me off me and onto their own, inane wants and desires.
First, I’ll invent a device. On this device, you can download any type of music, video game, movie, TV show, or, adult entertainment you want. [Dick Norton, munitions expert, sniggers.] People will be able to carry around gigs and gigs of mindless distractions that will fixate them on only things they want. You see, there will be no external speaker on this device. You have to have headphones in order to separate each person from the person next to them. Thus, people will go the entire day in complete isolation, not even caring if they bump into other people.
Louisa Strake [raising her hand]: Honey, can I...
Leopold Strake [covering the microphone]: I told you not to call me that in front of the League.
Louisa: I’m sorry. But the device you want to invent is already out there. It’s called an iPod.
Leopold [looking confused]: Are you sure?
Leopold [scanning the room. Sees every head nod in agreement.]
Leopold [clears throat]: No matter. We will co-opt this iPod for our own agenda. The other part of my fool-proof plan for world domination involves the unlimited availability of Stuff.
Roger Deacon, electronics genius: Stuff, sir?
Leopold [points finger at Deacon]: Yes, stuff. The modern human, especially those in North America, need to be conditioned to a state in which nothing is inconvenient. We need to convince builders to construct drug stores on every corner, huge department stores within a mile of each other, coffee shops in the parking lots of coffee shops, and fast-food chains all over the place like acne on my teenager’s face.
[All heads turn to Lenny Strake. He takes no notice since he’s playing a game, with headphones, on an iPod.]
We will start a campaign to convince the American public (and others around the world) that the only way to true happiness is to buy things. Then, when they’ve over-extended themselves, we, as the League, will step in and rescue them, offering them hope when, in reality, we’ll be tightening our grip on the world.
Louisa [raising her hand]: Leopold, dear, that state already exists in the world.
Leopold [looking confused]: Are you sure?
Leopold [scanning the room. Sees every head nod in agreement.]
Leopold [looks at the sheet of paper in front of him.] Mindless, “reality” entertainment on television?
Leopold [scanning the room. Sees every head nod in agreement.]
Leopold: Overpriced medicine?
Leopold [scanning the room. Sees every head nod in agreement.]
Leopold: Overpaid athletes and entertainment stars who think they’re entitled to do anything they want, reported on by various media establishments, all designed to distract the public’s collective attention?
Louisa [nods, smiling].
Leopold [scanning the room. Sees every head nod in agreement. A few fellow Leaguers don’t make eye contact.]
Leopold [reads the entire list, his eyes dart back and forth. Angrily, he crumples up the paper and throws it in the trash can.] Who is the person who orchestrated this most ingenious plan for world domination? It’s fool-proof! I want to know right now! [He stands motionless, his finger aimed at the entire panel of evil men and women.]
Louisa [rises, pats Leopold’s hand] It’s okay, dear. I’ll still let you rule the Bahamas.
Do Some Damage At Christmas, podcast show notes.
Friday, December 25, 2009
DSD Secret Santa: Crime Fiction and Fast Food
As The Estimable Mister White said yesterday, I’ve been away and working on my tan (yeah, because that’s what booksellers do at this time of year – spend the days out on the beach, especially in Scotland), but how could I overlook the chance to do the Christmas Day DSD Secret Santa Post?
So you know how this works: the evil genius (ie, The Stringer’s incredibly smart girl) distributed random topics suggested by your heroic bloggers to each member of the team. In between moaning about work (as Dave pointed out, I do a lot) I managed to sneak a look at my topic.
So we present, on Christmas Day (in the morning), my reply to the following challenge:
"Compare crime fiction to your favourite fast food restaurant..."
Now, those of you know of my sordid past will also know of my antipathy towards a certain very well known chain of fast food restaurants for whom I worked as a teenager. I will not mention them by name, but let’s say that they were responsible for my general weight gain which I never ever shook off.
But that’s not to say I have a thing against fast food. Oh no, as you may gather I do love my food. And by love, I mean adore.
And I was thinking about this, what fast food places do I like?
And I started thinking about all those pizza delivery places I dig. And the restaurants, too. Now, it’s tough for me to pick an outright favourite chain or anything, but let’s talk about pizza in general as a metaphor for crime fiction.
Pizza, as one of my ex-bosses used to say, is nothing more than “fancy cheese on toast.”. And I think the same could said of crime fiction. In a purely metaphorical way. At the heart of the genre, there is a base of conventions. Some of these are different – you have stuffed crust serial killers and Neopolitan procedurals – but these variations of our fancy metaphorical cheese on toast are only your starting point. I mean, sometimes all you want is a basic pizza, a base and the cheese (and the tomato paste which is the fancy bit).
But then it comes to the toppings. Those little additions that add a unique taste and texture. I like to think of these as equivalent to the author adding their own personality, voice and quirks to the solid base of their pizza. This is where they get creative, where new tastes are discovered, where the “fancy cheese and toast” becomes something different, occasionally even unrecognisable.
So, there you go. Crime fiction as fast food, specifically pizza. Insane ramblings or genuine metaphor? Only you can decide. I’d like to thank whoever gave me this topic, as well, because I used it as an excuse to order pizzas in order to indulge in some top quality… um… research.
Yeah, that’s what it is.
Anyone know if I could put them down as expenses?
Anyway, my dear DSDers, I just want to wish you all a merry Christmas and hope that, even if ain’t a holiday you celebrate, that all the same you have a wonderful day. And I shall leave you with James Brown and his wish that you have a soulful Christmas.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
SECRET SANTA: Chekov's Gun
When you're writing for Do Some Damage you get an inordinate amount of emails. Mostly they're from Stringer complaining about his football/soccer team alienating him. Sometimes they're from Weddle whining about the blister on his toe.
And when you get them everyone hits reply all and answers. Russel talks about work. John and Mike--the reasonable ones--tell us to just ignore them. And they do it politely...(Is that good, guys? Can you let my brother go now?) And Scott... well Scott does love his emoticons.
Anyway, somewhere in the midst of Stringer's 37th foul mouthed email, he started talking about Christmas. And how cool it'd be to do a Secret Santa. (I think it was Stringer. It may have been John or Mike---SERIOUSLY... LET HIM GO!! Oh and Hey, Scott--<@:-) )
He said we should all come up with a wacky topic, email it to his girl, and she would distribute one topic to each member of the DSD randomly. And we'd have to write a post about it. So, for the next week you get to read the official DO SOME DAMAGE SECRET SANTA Blog Posts!
Well, maybe not Russel's... I think he's like... working on his tan... Guess you'll find out tomorrow!
(Steve, just pop the damn thing already...Yuck!)
"Was Chekov's Gun ever actually loaded?"
My first thought was... do they really expect me to research every episode of STAR TREK to find out if he had a loaded gun? Seriously, I'm not doing that. I'm not that much of a Trekkie. I mean, I loved the summer action flick, but I really don't know all the different aspects of the Trek Canon.
So, I'm not doing that. I'm not going on IMDB... I really don't care about Chekov's gun? And even if it was loaded, wouldn't it be set on stun anyway?
Wait, what's that?
The literary device.
In a letter, Anton Chekov once wrote, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
That seems to answer the question, doesn't it?
I mean a close read of that quote shows that the rifle is indeed loaded.
So, if you're asking if it ever really was loaded... then you have reason to believe Chekov was lying. Why is that?
A quick look into the past of Chekov shows why you'd think that...
He renounced theater after the critical reception of THE SEAGULL went very badly. I mean, let's assume that Chekov really hated theater. Hated theater like I hate pasta. What would a man like that do?
He'd go on and on about a loaded rifle... only to have it never be loaded.
But THE SEAGULL was brought back to the theater two years later. He helped bring it back after renouncing the entire genre... and Chekov wrote two more plays AFTER "renouncing" theater...
So, was Chekov's gun loaded?
Not after THE SEAGULL.
No... he kept it unloaded as a cruel... harmful joke. That's how he got his revenge on theater and theater goers. He talks about how we should all expect this gun should be loaded and then GO OFF... but it just clicks on an empty chamber...
And now all of us are paying for it... because we're all trying to find a way to make the gun we put on stage in Act One... go off in the third act...
BAH CHEKOV! BAH!!!
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
There, I said it.
A long time ago in the dark ages of my life I used to talk about literary theory all night. Usually in the Rymark Tavern on Peel after the hockey game ended, drinking pitchers of Molson draft and eating pig’s knuckles out of the big pickle jars.
Then, of course, I realized that literary theory isn’t about literature at all, it’s about the theory – whichever one you’re trying to use the literature to prove. From Marxism to libertarianism to feminism to some kind of realitivism of something, I never really understood.
Back in my day, kids, it was all Derrida and Lacan and deconstructionism – never mind who the author is, pretend this literature just arrived here from aliens if you want, all we talk about is ‘the text.’
Now when I hear someone talk about ‘the text,’ I know it’s time to go looking for a football game to watch (and my Bills are coming back, oh yeah, next year playoffs for sure, you heard it here first).
These days one of the newest literary theories is Darwinian.
I kid you not, Literary Darwinism – Evolution, Human Nature and Literature.
Okay, maybe that does make a little sense, you usually need people in literature and they usually display some aspects of human nature.
A good place to start with this is an article in the new York Times magazine by D.T. Max from November, 2005 available online here.
The theory is new enough that it hasn’t really been genre-fied yet and they seem to be only talking about the classics, but I’m sure Literary Darwinism could be applied to crime fiction.
But first things first.
D.T. Max says that, “Jane Austen first published Pride and Prejudice in 1813. She had misgivings about the book, complaining in a letter to her sister that it was ‘rather too light, and bright, and sparkling.’ But these qualities may be what make it the most popular of her novels... the common reader, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy... On a more literary level, we enjoy Austen's pointed dialogue and admire her expert way with humor... But for an emerging school of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism, the novel is significant for different reasons. Just as Charles Darwin studied animals to discover the patterns behind their development, Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts.”
Okay, it’s getting kind of musty in here, but let’s plod on a little:
“From the first words of the first chapter ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife") to the first words of the last ("Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters"), the novel is stocked with the sort of life's-passage moments that resonate with meaning for Literary Darwinists. (One calls the novel their "fruit fly.") The women in the book mostly compete to marry high-status men, consistent with the Darwinian idea that females try to find mates whose status will assure the success of their offspring. At the same time, the men are typically competing to marry the most attractive women, consistent with the Darwinian idea that males look for youth and beauty in females as signs of reproductive fitness. Darcy and Elizabeth's flips and flops illustrate the effort mammals put into distinguishing between short-term appeal (a pert step, a handsome coxcomb) and long-term appropriateness (stability, commitment, wealth, underlying good health). Meanwhile, Wickham - the penniless officer who tries to make off first with Darcy's sister and then carries off Lydia - serves as an example of the mating behavior evolutionary biologists call (I'm using a milder euphemism than they do) 'the sneaky fornicator theory.'"
So, Pride and Prejudice, in addition to be very well-written and quite entertaining, hits us at a deeper level and confirms some of our most basic instincts as ‘truths,’ maybe even “universally acknowledged,” and that’s why it’s still so popular.
So, what of crime fiction? Do the crime fiction novels that have survived as “classics” also hit us at this deeper level of instinctual truth? Do the moral values held by Holmes and Spade and Marlowe resonate with us? Are the conventions of the genre necessary for its very survival?
The Literary Darwinists might say yes. An important part of their theory is “that literature began as religion or wish fulfillment: we ensure our success in the next hunt by recounting the triumph of the last one.” Or by imagining how we’ll be successful in the next one.
And the most successful “organisms” are the ones that adapt best to changing environments so I would say it’s no surprise that crime fiction is doing so well.
And it’s no surprise that change happens slowly. Crime fiction often walks a fine line between telling stories about really unpleasant people and then offering up satisfying endings. Too much unpleasantness and the ending doesn’t matter. Not unpleasant enough and the story often seems pointless.
A tough balance to find.
The next stage in the evolution of literature is, of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is just a cash-grab, though.
And, like the best academic theories, Literary Darwinism is likely to be successful because it’s vague enough to include just about everything and you can argue about it all night.
In the Rymark Tavern with pig’s knuckles and Molson draft.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Have You Heard The One About The Zen Master?
By Jay Stringer
This one's for Joe Strummer.
One of the very first pieces Russel wrote for the site was about swearing in crime fiction. I want to return and dig away at the topic, but it hasn’t come from any thoughts about craft.
This weekend saw an historic moment in the UK, with the campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to Christmas number one instead of the latest X Factor single. I blogged about it elsewhere, and I’m not going to go on a long rant about it. Suffice to say, it was a fun thing to watch and there was a lot of shouting on both sides.
It got me thinking about profanity (Not that I need much of an excuse, as you can tell from previous entries.) Now, for those who don’t know the song –and I’m sure there are about six of you out there- it builds in intensity until reaching a crescendo, as the phrase Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me is shouted repeatedly.
It’s loud, it’s immediate, and it’s a direct connection to an emotion. I think that whether you love or hate the song, or even the use of the word, you instantly get the message. Job done.
But the fact that the song contains such language, and such angry usage of it, seems to create more debate than the meaning of the song itself. Never mind that the lyrics references police officers who were members of the KKK, or that it uses that link to attack right wing corporate agendas. Never mind on the other hand that it’s still a song on a major label and way overplayed. It has a naughty word in it. A lot.
This seems to make it an easy target. ‘you only like it because there’s a swear word’ is something that was levelled at me many a time in my youth. ‘They just swear to get noticed’ is another. These things are used to weaken the message of the song, or this week, to weaken the message of the chart sales.
I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with defences for this. Some of them have been witty and insightful, and would come with footnotes. Others were short, sharp and snarky. But I’ve come to the realisation that they were all pointless. Why defend something that I don’t think needs defending? And what exactly is wrong with swearing for effect? Anything I say or write, I hope, is for effect.
I had a conversation with some family members recently who were appalled at my potty mouth. They argued that it was a sign of weakness -that I didn’t need to swear when I could make the same point with other words. And they were right; I could have made the same point with other words. But it would have taken longer.
I think a well-placed swear word (or sometimes 14 well-placed swear words) shows far more intelligence than most grammatically correct and verbose speeches. Being able to swear effectively should be akin to reaching the level of Zen master of language, and is not a sign a sign of weakness.
If some crazy war of the words broke out, and I was needed to enlist in an army and fight of the alien invaders through the use of big and weighty wordage, I could hold my own. I’m not the cleverest man on earth. I’m not even the cleverest man in the room (that room currently being empty aside from myself…damn….I had to explain the joke). But I am reasonably well read, I can come across as semi-literate in conversation and I have a few thick books on my shelf.
I guess for many people, intelligence is marked by showing how many words you can fit into a sentence and how long those words are. That’s fine; they’re welcome to that view.
But I’m a storyteller and I need to be quick. My tastes in reading and writing are the same; I find skill in getting a point across in the purest form. And it’s often hard to find a purer way than to swear. Fuck it.
And wear does this whole idea of swearing being wrong or base come from? Is it, perhaps, a hold over from days when the ruling classes controlled the written word? When big words, long words and scary foreign words –spooky language, as George Carlin would say- was used to intimidate, control and marginalise everybody else? If you can’t use the right words, you can’t be in the club. Isn’t it time we moved past these ideas?
I do still believe there are times when the use of profanity in music, books and films is gratuitous. But I come at it from the opposite direction. If the point has already been made, there is no need to force an extra word in. If you’ve found a purer form of language, then roll with it. Don’t add in an extra word just to seem cool, and that includes swear words.
Get in, make your point, and get out.
And don’t fuck it up.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Consider the Snow Shovel
I’m not a light sleeper, so when my wife starts talking about murder weapons, I pay attention.
“Consider the snow shovel,” she says when I come in from the fourth or fifth time digging out us or a neighbor. I’m resting between another almost-heart-attack. She was out earlier digging, and neither of us is terribly happy about it. Twenty-nine inches of snow can kinda mess you up your weekend.
The Snowpocalypse has me tired, sorta blurry in the eyes and weary. Might be where they got the word “bleary” from. If that’s a word. I don’t know from words much anymore. The snow comes down quicker than we can dig it away. “Need to clear what we can,” my neighbor from Iowa says. “Easier to dig out seven or eight inches at a time.” There’s probably one of those life lessons in there. It’ll come to me after a nap.
“Snow shovel?” I ask my wife as I’m clomping snow all over the kitchen floor.
“’Consider the Lobster’? That DFW essay?”
“No. The snow shovel.”
“OK. Been with a snow shovel all weekend. Consider it considered. Wake me for the game.”
“For your blog,” she says. “Consider the snow shovel.”
“Right,” I say. “Snow shovel.” My boot laces are frozen. I can’t undo them. My fingers, stuck for hours getting damp and cold under my three dollar gloves, are just little pink sticks at this point. I have to get these boots off. I’m trying to think of when the burning in the feet started. Was it burning? How can I tell when it goes from cold to burning? The numb-to-the-touch feeling. Is that a feeling? I keep thinking what I learned in class, “I’m from the Red Cross. I know what to do. Can I help?” I move my feet around in the boots. It’s not really a problem. Just freaking out because I can’t get these sonsuvbitching bootlaces undone. If it’s not frostbite, I wonder what it is when you lose the ability to swear. “Sonsuvbitching bootlaces”? I’m not making any sense.
The ice on the laces cracks off, shards on the floor. Boots off. Socks peel off. Towel. Feet dry. Warm. New socks. Coffee. OK. Now. Snow shovel.
“Consider the snow shovel?” I say when I’m back and brain is mostly working again.
“For the blog?”
“Yeah,” my wife says. “Like a murder weapon.”
“Like holiday murder weapons. Right? A list?”
“Oh, a list. Yes. Holidays. Weapons. List. Perfect topic for a blog. I can do bullet points.”
“That a joke?”
“Dunno,” I say. “Whatcha think?”
“Not so much, no. Start with the snow shovel.”
“Right,” I say, feeling the weight of the coffee cup, the one a student stole for me from Chimes in Baton Rouge. Heavy at the bottom. Diner-style. A pop to the temple. “OK. I got ya. Like that big heavy metal stocking hanger thing one of the kids pulled off the mantel that year and got whacked in the head. That would be a great way to kill someone.”
“Um, sweetie. Don’t mention that.”
“How come?” I say.
“Oh, yeah. OK. What else?”
“You tell me, writer boy.”
“Strangled with tree lights.”
“Sweet. What else?” she asks, pulling out one of those Ginsu-knockoffs to slice another piece of pumpkin bread. “How about stabbed through the eye with an icicle?”
“Nice one. Somebody used ice bullets in a book.” I look around the house.
“Hey, the star on top of the tree? Take one of those points into the Adam’s Apple?”
“Excellent,” she says, walking down the hall to the library, checking our decorations. “And the tree stand? Or a frozen fruit cake someone left on the porch overnight? “
“Hey, remember that time I nearly died after I drank three-fourths of a gallon of egg nog?”
“Yeah, sweetie,” she says, twisting some fake garland in her hands, testing its tensile strength. “That would be great if you could find a victim who is lactose intolerant and has no self-control.”
“Right.” Probably more of a cozy killer, egg nog. “Snow blower. The blade of a sled. Dang, there’s some violent stuff around these holidays.”
“Glass ornaments, too.”
“I bet the blog readers could think of another hundred. I’ll ask them,” I say.
“Cool. Oh, and sweetie?”
“Be sure to tell them Merry Christmas and happy holidays and all.”
“Oh, and the candles in the window, of course,” she says. “The flame top is small but really strong. Right through someone’s ear. Pop.”
“Merry Christmas, babe.”
“Merry Christmas, sweetie.”
Sunday, December 20, 2009
On The Clock
This is an earlier story using the same character from last week. If you are one of the three people who read last weeks story, I will get to what happened to Glen soon.
The car was so perfectly placed I almost missed it. Between bouts of frantically itching what felt like ants under my skin, the car almost stayed unnoticed. The black Audi was such a commonplace model in this upscale area that it blended in like army camouflage. The car was double-parked in front of the TD bank on Hurontario Street.
It was 12:30 p.m.—a time when everyone was running errands on their lunch break. I figured the Audi to be waiting for someone inside the bank. There was a driver behind the wheel in a nice grey suit, and he was checking his watch often as though it were a nervous tick. The engine was running to keep the cold February air from getting inside.
I scanned the street for any Missasagua cops before starting across the street towards the car. I had to force myself to stop scratching as I picked up my pace. I put my hand into my pocket and gripped the taped butt of the revolver. The army surplus jacket concealed the gun while keeping me warm.
I jogged up to the Audi as though I were the person it was double parked for. I said a silent prayer to the twelve-step God and pulled at the rear driver-side door. The door opened and I was out of the cold and into the warm artificial climate.
The driver looked behind him for a second until I convinced him to keep his eyes forward.
“Not for another two minutes.”
“This is a real fucking gun with real fucking bullets. Drive.”
“Not for another minute and fifty-five seconds.”
The driver only had one hand on the wheel. The other, his right, was held up between the seats. He had his suit jacket sleeve pushed up and he was looking again at his watch. It was a large silver timepiece with several dials and hands.
“Drive!” It came out whinier than I wanted, so I shoved the gun harder into the back of the drivers head to make up for it.
“Listen, we got one minute and forty-two seconds left. Then we’re out of here. I’ll drive away from here to somewhere a bit more private and I’ll give you the keys. I promise, but not for another minute and thirty eight seconds.”
“What the hell are you waiting for?”
“My boss. If I move the car before I’m supposed to, he’ll take it out on my ass. Come on you know how it is.”
I looked around the car; it was immaculate. There were no personal items, no wrappers, and no bags. The inside of the Audi looked like it could be a company car. I thumbed back the hammer. “Move the car now, or you’re dead.”
“Listen, this job is important. I promise in a minute and fifteen seconds, max, you will be out of here and on your way to ownership of this fine European automobile, but you gotta wait.”
I was stuck. I wasn’t going to off some chauffeur for a car. I had been sent up for little shit before—there was no way I was going down for killing somebody. I couldn’t just walk away either. The driver would call the cops as soon as I got out. I was stuck for another minute and fifteen seconds.
I gripped the gun harder resisting the urge to scratch. “What’s your name?”
“They call me Glen. How ’bout you? You gotta name?”
“Don’t worry about me. This job worth dying over, Glen?”
“Job’s important because I said I’d do it. I gave my word I would wait in the car for another fifty eight seconds. If I break my word and fuck up here, I won’t be able to find work again. Plus, there’s my boss to consider. He’d kill me.”
“That’s why I’m self employed,” I said laughing at my own joke. “How much time is left on the clock?”
“Forty-eight, but I think we’re done waiting,” Glen said. He extended his arm and pointed towards the bank.
Three men were rushing at the Audi. They were all in matching grey suits with white shirts and no ties. Each man was also wearing matching plastic Batman masks. The three men broke from their huddle and each ran to a different car door. The rear passenger-side door opened and a man with a Batman mask and a huge revolver shoved me into the middle of the backseat. My gun scraped away from the back of the drivers head as I was sandwiched in between two Batmen with bigger guns than mine.
The car rapidly accelerated through its gears. Glen spoke to me over his shoulder as he sped away from the bank. “See, I told you that you wouldn’t have to wait long.”
The Batman up front turned to me with his shotgun. “Who the fuck is this, Glen?”
“I don’t know his name yet, but he’s into taking over the lease on the car—immediately. I said he could have it when we’re done with it.”
My gun was sweaty in my hand, and it was now pointed at no one. The barrel shook as the ants under my skin tried to crawl out through an old hole. I didn’t dare scratch the spot they were trying to escape through. The front seat Batman, on the other hand, had his gun pointed right at my face. His barrel didn’t shake. Even when the car went over bumps, the shotgun never left my right eye.
“Get his gun.”
The Batman on my right put his revolver to my head and took my gun. I didn’t fight it. I put my hands in my lap and decided there was no harm in scratching now.
“Look at this thing. You ever clean it?”
“I… I… never used it yet. Look, you guys can just let me out. I don’t even know what you look like. I made a big mistake and I promise if you let me out I won’t tell anyone I swear.”
“Promise is a promise, pal,” Glen said. “Just like I promised to wait outside the bank, I promised to give you the car. Just sit tight. Okay… I don’t even know your name. Why don’t you just tell me? You know mine.”
“Davey. Everybody calls me Davey.”
“Good money in car jacking, Davey?”
“I know a guy. He gives me a couple hundred for the cars I get. If they’re high-end enough.”
“Couple hundred for this? Shit, Davey, that is a rip off.”
“Yeah, well, it gets me by. I got habits you know?”
“Don’t we all, Davey. Don’t we all.”
I bounced into the Batman on my right as the Audi cornered off Hurontario on to another street. We did three more turns like that before we stopped. The windows all rolled down and I felt the cold air chase all the heat in the car away. I stopped scratching and held myself tighter to keep warm. Glen and the Batmen got out leaving me in the back seat. I didn’t move a muscle, not even when the clothes began to come through the windows. Suit jackets, shirts, pants, and masks were tossed onto the seats beside me one by one. I stared at the floor forcing myself not to look up. Despite the cold, my ass was wet with sweat. I was sure I was a dead man.
Seconds went by and then I heard car doors opening and closing. I snuck a peak to my right. All four men got into a tan Ford Taurus. The car started and it drove up close to the passenger side of the Audi. Glen yelled out to me but I kept my head down. He yelled again, “Davey! Davey, look at me man.”
I raised my head not at all ready for the shot. I screamed when the car keys hit me.
“Promise is a promise. Car’s yours, Davey. Take it easy.”
I sighed and slid my ass off the car seat. The damp material against the leather made an embarrassing noise, but I didn’t care—I was alive; I had the car, and I was breathing. By nightfall, I would have my fix and I could sleep easy. I could even call Crime Stoppers and earn a little cash with the getaway car description. I laughed as I started my climb over the seats. Things were looking up. It was then that I heard my name again.
I turned my head and saw one of the unmasked Batmen throw a flaming bottle through the open back window of the Audi. It only took a few seconds for my damp pants to catch up with my shirt.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
On Not Writing Fast
I learned something while participating in NaNoWriMo last month: I don’t write very fast.
When I started NaNoWriMo, I had been reading Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Gabriel Hunt stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent made their living writing and writing a lot. Famously, the first Doc Savage novel was written in less than a month. With the type of story I was writing and the reading I was doing, I figured I could blaze through my entire 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
I didn’t. Sure, there were days in which I wrote 1,800 to 2,000 words. Those were good days. It was those days that I wanted to channel more of since the words flowed like butter on a hot roll. It was those types of days I figured I could do every time I sat down to write.
Real life, however, is different. For every 1,800-word day, I had a 800-word day. There were some days, of course, where the writing was less a thing of leisure than a grueling slog. Now, all you professional writers out there know that writing is a job and, like a 9-to-5 gig, there are days when you just don’t want to friggin’ write and, yet, you have to. And you do. You’ll make it up with a 3,000-word day.
That’s not me. Yet. I’m working on a new short story and I know all the contours of the tale before I even began. I see the ‘movie’ in my head and I know the bulk of the action and the dialogue. Yesterday, however, as I was putting pixel to screen, the words emerged from me less like butter on a hot roll but more like syrup in January. A couple of passages were agony, so bad that I had to get up and refill my coffee (Eggnog Spice from Rao’s) just to get some breathing room.
It was yesterday that the realization truly crystalized: I’m not a fast writer even though I think I am. To be honest, I’m not slow either. I’m medium. Dave White, in a previous column, also commented that he doesn’t write fast. He wrote again about it two days ago.
In that realization, I couldn’t help but remember James Reasoner’s recent post that he hit the million-word mark the other day. Actually, it was 1 December. Do the math: 1,000,000 words in 334 days = 2,994 words/day. Yowza! But that’s why he’s a pro and I’m not.
But I want to be. To that end, in the coming year, for every project, I’ll be setting word-count goals (weekly, to allow for life to interfere) to reach and surpass. I may not be able to increase the speed of my writing but I will be able to increase the quality of my writing. I suspect that the more seasoned I get, the better the writing will become and, naturally, I’ll write “faster” since I may have fewer edits.
Elmore Leonard once said that he found his voice after writing around a million words. Well, I guess I’d better get started...
Friday, December 18, 2009
Talk The Talk
(with apologies for the briefness and the flashbacky nature of this post - - the day job has been eating up my time these last few weeks. It happens in retail around this time of year. And I still can’t figure why…)
It came up again recently. Back in 2005, on my original (and still occasionally updated!) blog, I talked about reading a book with dialogue so appalling that I could hardly believe my eyes.
I never read anything quite so bad again.
Until recently. With a book I simply had to finish because I couldn’t believe that every sentence was a cliché, like the author was playing some kind of game to see whether he could actually achieve such banal awfulnesss on such a scale. It didn’t help that the plot was a clichéd retread of every single serial killer novel you’ve ever read and also every movie you’ve ever seen (right up to the appallingly bad in their own right Saw movies).
But it was the dialogue. The unceasing, unsubtle tell-don’t-show dialogue that really made me keep reading. Like, I wanted to see if there was a single shred of human emotion in this book that might ring true.
And as in 2005, I thought about the comics writer, Brian Michael Bendis:
My goals for dialogue come from the fact that I so abhor exposition .Information has to be given to the reader, but I always ask myself if this dialogue I have written is something someone would say out loud.
This is something that runs true for me not just in dialogue, but in narration. A stilted and formal narration has me running for the hills every time. I have to feel like the story is flowing in a way similar to dialogue. Because I love those voices in my head when I read.
Listen to your friends. I mean, really listen. People do not talk in complete, perfectly structured sentences. People stutter, stammer, start and stop sentences in funny places. This is like music to me.
Oh, sing that Brother Bendis.
As I said back then, and as I still believe:
If you want to learn about real dialogue, you should read Bendis’s comic books (Ultimate Spider Man, Powers, the darkly noiresque Jinx, the fantastic run he did on Sam and Twitch where he made two supporting characters from the Godawful Spawn books take on amazing hardboiled lives of their own). You should also read Leonard and Charlie Stella. You should listen to your friends. You should listen to people in the supermarket queue. You should realise that, yes, all written dialogue is artifice, but it shouldn’t feel like artifice! And it shouldn't feel like anyone in the book is trying to tell the reader anything.
Dialogue. Its one of the hardest things you’ll ever write. But if you can get it right, let me tell you, to readers like me, it’ll sing right off the page. And we’ll love you for it.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
When I sat down to write the book I'm working on, I had a great idea.
Write fast and revise a little.
I outlined. I banged away at the keyboard every day 1,000 words. I finished the book. I had someone else read it. I took feedback. I revised.
And now, more than a year later... I'm still revising it.
And with good reason.
The book, that I worked really hard on, that I slaved away at... Just. Wasn't. Good.
But I'm working at it.. and now it's almost done. I think one more round of major plot changing revisions (but not too much) and then some cleaning up... And the book'll be ready.
But I had to learn that. I had to learn that I am not a good writer when I'm writing fast. I can't just barrel my way through a story, dust it up and hand it in. I have to wring my hands over it. I have to think about each and every character and each and every motivation.
I have to write and outline and write and outline some more and then write and character sketch.
And, yes, there are days... weeks, where I just want to put my head through a glass window.
But I realize why I have to do it. I don't want to put out any old thing just to have a book out there.
I want to put out a damn good book.
And I can't do that writing fast. I just can't.
It's taken me two years to come to terms with that. I wrote WHEN ONE MAN DIES in 2 and a half years. And the revisions on that book put it through the wringer. I wrote THE EVIL THAT MEN DO in about 9 months, but it was constant work because I was on deadline. I am always writing and re-writing.
But I want this book to be the best thing I've ever written. And I want my fourth to be the best thing I've ever written.
And sometimes you get a note from your agent that puts a smile on your face... and even that keeps you going. Like this one, from my agent: "Writing's a big steaming jobby, isn't it? You're almost there, pal."
So, if you're a writer, and you're out there struggling with something that's taking FOREVER... take a deep breath... and keep going. You'll get there.
You gotta want it. You gotta want to finish...
But keep working and eventually the end will be in sight.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Have You Heard of this Movie Avatar?
There’s even a documentary, The Candian Conspiracy, about how we’ve been trying to take over the American entertainment industry – it was made in the early 80’s so you’ll have to ask your parents to tell you who Anne Murray and Margot Kidder are (and what that weird Superman movie was all about), but it’s only gotten worse.
But it’s the early years of James Cameron’s career I want to talk about and a guy he worked with who isn’t Canadian but sure seems like he is.
In 1980 James Cameron was the art director on a movie called Battle Beyond the Stars, one of the many Star Wars rip-offs that came out at the time.
On a movie like, say, Avatar, art director is a pretty important position that involves a lot of art. On a movie like Battle Beyond the Stars art director was likely a gopher job given to a guy who owned his own car and could source out or make cheap props.
But the important thing about Battle Beyond the Stars was that it was written by John Sayles.
I have no idea if Sayles and Cameron ever talked to one another then, but they sort of worked on the same movie again the next year. John Sayles wrote the screenplay for Piranha in 1978 (a Jaws rip-off) and in 1981 Cameron made his directorial debut when the director of Piranha II: The Spawning was fired or quit (I’m sure it was over artistic differences, it must have been about the art) and Cameron moved from art director to director (something that really only happens when the movie is being produced by Roger Corman).
Sayles used the money he made writing these movies to write and direct his own film, The Return of the Seacacus Seven which later, in a reversal of Sayles’ earlier screenplay rip-offs was itself ripped off by The Big Chill (the difference in the treatment of "the outsider" in each of those films would make a great term paper).
Cameron used the money he made from directing Piranha II and the connections he made to write and direct his own film, The Terminator.
Now really, it seems like it should have been the American to go on and make Aliens and Titanic and Avatar and the Canadian who’d go on to make Matewan and City of Hope and Men With Guns but there you go.
Later, of course, John Sayles made some of the most quintessentially American movies, Passion Fish, Lone Star, Sunshine State, Limbo, Silver City and The Honeydrippers. All of them really good films.
So, tonight while everyone I know is going to see my fellow Canadian James Cameron’s giant sci fi movie epic I’m going to stay home and pop in my DVD of Brother From Another Planet, my kind of sci fi movie.
And then maybe I’ll watch The Canadian Conspiracy (“Lorne Greene – green card? You think that’s a coincidence?!?!):
Monday, December 14, 2009
Dime Story Mystery
By Jay Stringer
I shake a lot these days.
I tried to spit three hours ago and my lips are still sore. I wont be doing that again for a while. Rosie says things get better; she says it’s all worth it in the end. I don’t really believe a word she says though, because she died in 1996.
The bed is wet and not very comfortable. Its good though; its warm, and wet is better than cold.
Rosie used to stand on the street corner. I’d see her every Wednesday. She’d always be holding the same bag of sweets, sucking on them between her teeth, telling stories to cute strangers and asking for favours. She was really sweet. I think, sometimes, that I loved her before I even met her. I’d always loved her. There was magic in the way she talked and the stories she told. She carried herself like she was an old movie star. One of the big pampered ones from black and white, when Hollywood meant something more than sleaze and money. The way she went on, it was like it was perfectly natural for someone to be an old time movie star and a young girl on the streets. Like you could be both at once.
We believed it.
Moving to the city was the best thing I ever did. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have done anything. I’d still be back home. My parents would still be asking me when I was going to get a job, and my friends would still be tapping me for money.
But here in the city? Nobody taps me for money.
I moved up with my best friend, Billy. He played bass and had really cool hair. Wore tartan trousers in a way that didn’t look stupid. I tried it once. Looked stupid.
Billy loved Rosie, too. He’d talk about her all the time, and I think his songs were about her. She broke his heart just like mine, but the difference was he came up here to get his heart broken. Its what he’d always wanted; singing songs about girls even before he knew what girls were.
Music does that to you.
There was someone hammering on my door a couple of minutes ago, but I didn’t hear what they were saying and I didn’t move. They always stop eventually.
I remember the first time I spoke to Rosie. She gave me a grin, the sort that she didn’t give to just anyone. She told me all about the films she’d been in and all the rich men who’d bought her jewellery. I told her I was in a band, and she looped her arm round mine and we walked down the street arm in arm. We got drunk on a rooftop and shouted at the sky.
It was great, I’d recommend it.
Last time I watched the news, they talked about how it had never been this hot in the city before, that even in the shade it was hot. I remember they showed someone frying an egg on the roof of a car. I can believe it. I just want some rain. Have you ever got high in the rain? It’s the best feeling. It doesn’t matter what you’re taking, rain makes it better. You can sit and feel it, only you’ll really feel it, you know? Or you can cry about how beautiful it is. Rosie was a crier. She’d sit and cry at most things, when she got like that;
She was crying the last time I saw her. Her makeup was streaked and dark and her dress was torn. She’d been out on the town, but the comedown had been epic, it was showing no signs of stopping.
She said, “Would you believe me if I said I was Jesus?”
I said, “Would you believe me if I told you anything?”
She hugged us both for most of the night and nobody ever saw her after that.
I argued with Billy last time I saw him. He said I was fucked up, that I’d stolen money from him. I don’t know what he was on about, I spent an hour helping him look for that money. If I had taken it, I would have known where to look, wouldn’t I?
I sneezed yesterday and blood came away with it, and I’m having all sorts of problems you don’t want to know about. I spoke to this guy who told me he knew what I was going through. He quoted scripture and Bob Dylan. His hair was matted and I wondered if that’s how people looked when they got saved. All I know is that he said he’d help me if I gave him some money. I had money in my pocket.
He went away after that. I haven’t seen him since. I’ll just stay here until he gets back.
Readin, Bleedin, and Nod
You could see it by the way he swallowed too much. The way he let everyone at the reading get in line ahead of him. The way he mumbled to himself, practicing what he was going to say.
There was going to be trouble.
I was over to the side by the shelves, hanging out, waiting to see if he needed to be tackled – like this was how I wanted to spend my Thursday night.
“To Rodney,” he said when he handed the book to the author. “I’m really your biggest fan.”
“Thanks, Rodney,” the author said, signing, then handing the book back.
“I mean, you probably get that a lot.”
“Always nice to hear. Glad you like the books.” He capped his pen, slid it into his pocket. Started to push away from the table.
“Oh, yes," Rodney said. "You’re what got me into writing.”
Yeah. I cracked my neck, bent my legs to keep loose. This might not end well. I hadn’t put an elbow into anyone’s temple in months, but I wanted to be ready.
The author looked around for his helper. She’d gone to the coffee bar to get him a chai latte. He couldn’t decide whether to stand up.
“Maybe you’ve heard of me,” Rodney said. “I run a Web site called The [something mumbled]-cy.” Prophecy. Contingency. Something like that. The Moon Fart Prophecy, for all I knew. I guess I don’t pay attention.
“Oh, well,” the author said. “Good. That’s good.”
“I thought maybe you might like to read some of my stories. I printed a book. Sold out, too. My teacher said it’s a cross between Harlan Ellison and Jerry Seinfeld.”
“Well, good luck with that.”
“I thought maybe you might like to look at it. I mention you in the acknowledgements.”
“Oh, uh,” the author took the coffee from his helper who’d just gotten back to the card table. “Sure, if you can leave it with,” he leaned over to look, “Marcie here, she can mail it to me.”
“That’s great. I thought you might like to look at it.” Yeah, we got that, Rodney.
The author turned, knocked over a couple of stacks of his books and a poster of himself on the edge of a dragon’s fire, and sloshed his coffee all the way to the back of the store.
Rodney harrumphed at having to give the manuscript to Marcie, who took it, stacked it on about ten more just like it, and walked to the back.
Rodney turned to walk out of the store. “Think he’ll ever look at it?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “But you have to take a shot. C’mon. I’ll buy you a drink on the way home. We gotta be at Mom’s in an hour.”
So I was thinking about the different kinds of folks who come to readings.
The writer: Has written something and wants help with it. Or help promoting it. Just the name of an editor. Or agent. One of those publishing people. Or wonders why your crap gets published while hers is too good for an agent.
The reader: Has read all the books and wonders why in your first book the narrator’s mother was called “Nancy” and in the second book she’s “Nanci.” Or wonders why in this new book that people are just buying now for the first time but that she’s read because her aunt works in publishing, well, why did you make the school teacher be the murderer? That was a completely unexpected twist on page 300.
The wanderer: Heard there was something going on and thought there might be crackers with that soft cheese covered in nut bits.
I was at the Jeff VanderMeer reading in Richmond, VA last week. Most everyone was really nice, though I’ll admit it was touch and go there for a second or two. There was no one there like Rodney. I'd have TwitPic-ed the heck out of that.
Mr. VanderMeer talked about his book tour, gave some insights into writing. Charming. Bright-eyed. He couldn't have been more entertaining if he'd have been juggling drunk armadillos.
Ever since Dave posted here about the folks who come to his readings saying they could stuff write better than his if only they had time, I was thinking about all the other types of folks who come to readings. And why. They’ve spent 400 pages with you and want to see what you’re like in person? They heard your book was cool and wanted to give you a shot? Are you looking for your community? Other fans of Jay Stringer or whomever? What's the point of a reading? The jibber-jabber on the InnerWebs is that readings are dead because they cost too much (thousands) to sell too few books (5-ish).
I've been star-struck at readings of favorite writers and completely dorked it up. No, seriously. I have. No, really. Oh, I see. You're making fun. Oh, haha.
Anyway, why do you got to readings?
If you give readings, what kind of audience do you want?
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Robbing a Bank is Easy
Glen watched the kid creep up behind the armoured car guards from across the street. The kid only got his right hand on one of the bags sitting on the snow-covered sidewalk before a guard noticed. The kid took off, leaving the bag where it was, with the guard in tow. Robbing a bank is easy, Glen thought as he watched the chase. Easy when all you put into it is balls. Glen stood outside Union Station looking at his watch. The Timex Ironman he wore digitally showed him everything: Friday, December 14, 9:57 a.m. The snow was coming down heavy; big flakes fell on his face making him blink to get the cold powder out of his eyelashes. Robbing banks was easy all right, Glen thought, but doing it right took more than balls. You have to treat it like a job, and do that job by the numbers. Plenty of cons have balls. They also have a 6 a.m. wake up call every morning in their cages. Pro’s do the job, get paid, and go home.
The light went green and a crowd of people began to build up beside Glen at the curb. Everyone held shopping bags in their gloved hands. The slush on the ground was too thick to splash, so everyone crowded close to the street waiting for the blinking white man to tell them they could cross. Glen watched a cab accelerate over the slick pavement trying to beat the yellow. He positioned the box he was carrying under his arm and put a gloved hand to the watch. He accessed the stopwatch, and hit start. The numbers sped by in milliseconds as Glen’s foot found the ass of the best-dressed shopper holding the most bags. By 00:00.75, the woman was in front of the cab. By 00:00.85, she was under the wheels.
There were screams, panic, phone calls, and accusations, but Glen didn’t pay any attention. He was already at the stairs. Glen took the stairs two at a time down to the subway platform.
At the bottom of the stairs, Glen caught sight of Terrence standing in the corner of the platform. There was a ten-foot radius of space between Terrence and the rest of the crowd waiting on the concrete. The men and women on the edge of the circle forced the other people towards the waiting train like Spartan warriors. The smell coming off Terrence was a fate worse than death. He saw Glen and walked in his wake towards the waiting Train. He caught up easily, people parted like puddles in front of Moses when they caught sight or smell of the bearded man. His coat was a seasons old puffy winter ski coat with several holes leaking down. His shoes and gloves were wrapped in duct tape, and a smelly toque was stretched over his long filthy dreadlocked hair.
“Good to see you, Terrence,” Glen said as they boarded the train. He glanced at the Timex and saw that it read 00:45.15. By 02:00.00, the first cops would be on scene at the accident on the street above. More cops would stream in every minute after as the calls to 911 set off chatter all over the police bandwidth.
“I hope this female is as fine as you say ‘cause my time be worth money, Charlie.”
Glen had told Terrence that his name was Charlie when he befriended him over a week ago. “I told you; she’s just back on the market, and she has a thing for bad boys.”
“Well, they don’t get badder than Mr. T. She probably just pity fools like you.” Terrence laughed at his own joke while the subway car shifted away.
“Here, this is two dozen long stem roses. She loves roses.”
Terrence accepted the box and examined its four sides. “You start a bitch on roses, you can’t end with dandelions. She gonna haf’ ‘pectations from this.”
“She won’t. Now leave the box alone, it’s classy if they come in a box. Chicks dig classy.”
“I be a classy gent, Charlie.” Terrence laughed again, but Glen didn’t think he got the irony of his own joke.
The train came to a second stop, and the two men left the vacant part of the train car they stood in. As they walked away, Glen saw the people file into the space they had left open for Terrence and his smell.
They climbed the stairs together while Glen laid out the plan. “She might not be on break yet, so wait by the doors until I tell you to come over. I don’t want her boss to get upset; it will ruin your chances.”
“Once she gets a load ‘a me and these here flowers, she won’t care what her boss gots to say.”
“Just wait, okay? Be patient.”
“Whatever you say, Charlie man. But remember, I got plans. I got to meet with my many associates today.”
Glen led Terrence into the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. He took him by the shoulder and stood him to the side of the doors. “Stand here. Hold the flowers up so when I point you out, she sees them.”
“Okay, player. Do your thing. Do that voodoo that you do so well.”
Glen got in line and looked at the Timex – 4:57.28.The two local squad cars would already be at the accident scene four blocks away. The ambulance would be another minute out on a good day, but the snow, combined with the traffic that had instantly started building up around the accident, would grind everything in an eight-block radius to a halt. Response time for the wagon would be in the double digits.
Glen got in line behind three old women. The bank had opened less than two minutes ago and there was a backup already. The time of year and day was a bitch for bank tellers. They had to be ready early with three times as much cash in their tills to help every grandmother, who was still petrified of the ATM, fill their grandchildren’s Christmas cards with crisp twenties and fifties.
Sweat built up under the two coats Glen was wearing, but he kept his head tilted down and a smile on his face. The outer coat was a leather Harley Davidson motorcycle jacket; it was adorned with several orange and silver crests and a huge eagle emblem on the back of the coat. Over his shoulder, Glen had a Harley Davidson duffel bag he bought at the same store he picked up the jacket in.
“The snow is coming down so hard today. I’m glad I wore my boots,” an old woman said gesturing to her tiny feet.
“Yes, ma’am, the snow is stacking up, but I’m gonna shop anyway. My boys need their toys.”
“The toys change every year don’t they?”
“Only the money stays the same.”
“Nothing. You’re up, ma’am.”
She turned her head to see an exasperated teller with a vacant spot in front of her. “Oh, I’m sorry. Merry Christmas.”
Glen checked the camera pointed at the head of the line with his eyes only. Chubb security cameras were old school these days. Their images were grainy and poor under the best conditions. Most new branches opted for more current technology, but the older branches subscribed to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. He could smile right up at the lens and they would not be able to get more than an image that could be almost any male between the age of twenty and fifty. Glen stopped thinking about the camera and put his right hand into his pocket around the Walther PPK. The small British Gun served secret agents and James Bond well; it would do just fine in the bank.
“Next customer, please.”
Glen walked to the teller who called out to him. She was a young woman in her twenties, fresh faced, blond, and fashionable. She wore a colourful shirt with a daring neckline for the bank she worked in. She accessorized with chunky retro earrings and a matching ring. It looked like the sombre winter weather never touched her.
“How can I help you?” She asked.
Glen put an arm on the counter and looked back to Terrence.
“You see that man over there?” Glen said tilting his head towards the doors.
“The… um… gentleman by the entrance?” The teller said, choosing the word gentleman with care.
“Yeah, inside the box he’s holding is a shotgun; one of those big loud ones that you have to pump. You say a word out of turn and he will let loose with it.”
The girl looked confused and startled. Glen brought the pistol out from his pocket and put it under his palms on the counter so that the teller was the only person who could see it.
“Wave to him so he knows you understand.”
The teller waved and Terrence smiled. He lifted the box to show her the flowers and she winced as though he was showing her a dead rat.
“You been robbed before?”
She shook her head.
“It’s easy. Nothing to type in, you just load the bag with all of the cash in your till, no bait money, and we leave.”
The girl stared at Glen, then at Terrence. A single black mascara tear ran down her cheek. Glen looked over at Terrence. He saw him look, smiled, and began to walk towards the teller.
The teller saw Terrence moving in on her and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it.”
Glen put out a hand and stopped Terrence before he got ten steps from the door. He looked disappointed, but he stopped and went back to his spot.
“Just load the bag fast, and my friend stays where he is,” Glen said.
“Something wrong, Denise?” The older teller on the right had finished with her customer and she was looking warily at the bag on the counter, and at Glen.
“Tell her,” Glen said.
The young blond put her face to the older woman’s ear and whispered out a stream of words that caused her body to shake. When the older teller looked at Terrence, he beamed and raised the flowers. Glen nodded and mouthed the word, “Classy.” The bum smiled back and nodded his head.
“I’m going to need the money from both tills please,” Glen said.
By 7:32.41, Glen had a duffel bag full of money. “Now, I don’t have to tell you two to stay calm until we leave. None of us wants to see what’s in that box,” Glen said nodding towards Terrence. “After we’re gone, you can scream bloody murder. Okay?”
The two women nodded.
“Merry Christmas.” Glen said.
The younger teller actually returned the festive goodbye. Glen got to Terrence and whispered in his filthy ear, “They can’t wait to meet you, big guy. Keep it classy.”
“You know it, Charlie.”
The bum hustled towards the two women while Glen moved outside. He heard their screams from the street. The snow was still falling hard and it was collecting on the gridlocked cars in front of the bank. Glen checked his watch—eight and change. The bank job had taken three minutes and the nearest cops were four blocks and at a quarter of an hour away. Half a block away, he went down a flight of stairs leading to the subway and walked straight into the washroom. He pulled off the Harley Davidson jacket and took the empty backpack he wore underneath off his shoulders. He loaded the money from the duffel bag into the backpack and put it back on over the navy blue peacoat. Glen left the Harley Davidson coat and bag in one of the bathroom stalls and walked onto the waiting westbound train.
Rick got on the train behind Glen and stood behind him holding the overhead rail for stability as the train pulled away. In the tight confinement of the subway car, he could smell the stick-up man’s aftershave. The knife he was carrying was unfolded and pressed against his thigh. Rick had seen the teller’s face while he was in line at the bank. He knew the look on her face well. It was a look he had planned to put on a few faces in the bank himself. That was until the bastard in the two coats got to the teller before him. Rick watched the man gesture to the bum, watched the bag get filled, and he watched the thief leave—but it was from outside the bank. He left before the stick-up man and waited in an alley outside. He waited again outside the bathroom while the guy changed coats and bags. Now on the subway, he would wait a little longer until the packed train car was pulling into the next station. He’d slip the knife in under the stick-up man’s ribs and rip it across his back. His lungs would fill with blood while he cut the backpack straps off his shoulders. Rick figured he would be off the train and up the stairs by the time any of the busy Torontonians gave up their practiced vacant subway stares to notice the body. Robbing banks is easy, Rick thought, easy when someone else puts it all on the line for you.