Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writing is a Muscle

By Scott D. Parker

Summer’s almost over and, with it, I sometimes suffer a feeling of loss, of things promised but not fulfilled. Do you get that way? It’s easy to remember back in our school days the eager anticipation of summer. Most of us left school in May and we didn’t have to go back till friggin’ September. Three whole months to do whatever we wanted. The list started growing in the last days of May and it seemed like we had limitless time to do everything.

I haven’t had a true summer in over fifteen years but I’ve never lost the Summer State of Mind. There are just certain things you should do only in the months of June, July, and August. Big giant popcorn films at the theaters belong in the summer. Same goes for blockbuster books like Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me or the adventures of Gabriel Hunt. There’s certain music (old Chicago, Springsteen, Hendrix, Alejandro Escovedo) that sounds better when blasted out of your car speakers as you fly down the highway, windows open, arm extended into the wind. Certain foods soak up the summer heat and taste better when it’s hot, especially when taken directly off the grill and into your mouth, juices dripping down your chin. There’s just a certain “summer” feeling that permeates in the air during the middle of the year that you don’t get at any other time. It’s tangible and, yet, ephemeral. You feel where I’m coming from?

Good. Because for the longest time, I considered writing to be like that: ephemeral, atmospheric, mystical, muse-driven, zen-like, all touchy-feely. I easily envisioned myself *having* written stories, a overflowing portfolio of pastiches, short stories, and always, a novel in progress.

Ah, the ease of the summer state of mind. Ah, the ease of calling yourself a writer. Then the reality: I ain’t got a friggin’ portfolio. And I realized why a few weeks ago: I don’t have the writing habit. I did, once, when I wrote my first novel and then on into my second. I had a clear plan, well-focused, a goal on the horizon.

This summer, I didn’t. I achieved none of the writing goals I set for myself. These past three weeks, as my frustration level rose, I started questioning myself. I started analyzing my life, my habits, my focus. I realized that I have some bad habits that impede my writing life. I’ve got an entire list of things that are obstacles to my writing life and I’ll write about them in future columns here and on my crime blog.

One idea that’s so fundamental and so simple in its vision that I never saw it is this: Writing is a Muscle. All muscles have to be exercised or they will atrophy. I have allowed my writing (not my imagination for I’ve been writing stories in my head the entire time) to atrophy. And there’s only one way to tone the muscles: exercise.

Like a lot of people, I rarely exercise. I sit on my ass all day in front of a computer then, at home, I watch TV, movies, or read. I’ll also log on at night as well. I’m lazy. My exercising muscles atrophied. One night, when our local pool was closed, I made a decision: I’ll start running. I did and I ran two miles. Next night, two more. That was three weeks ago. I haven’t run every day but I’ve run regularly. I’ve already achieved that wonderful internal feeling of *missing* the run on the days off.

Now I’m applying that mentality to my writing. I’ve started writing again (listen to me: I sound like I’m in an AA meeting) and I’ve tied it to my running. I'll expound more on the how at another time. Suffice it to say, I've started to exercise the body muscles and the writing muscles. Together, they’ll take me where I want to go: published and healthy enough for that book tour.

Are there things you tie your writing habit to in order to keep you moving the cursor forward? How do you get back on the writing wagon when you’ve fallen off?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Not The Same... and Decidedly Different

By Russel D McLean

Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel is not a crime novel.

The Scots author has become known not just for his acerbic (and occasionally offensive, to those of a delicate nature) humour but for crafting the kind of crime novels “Agatha Christie might have written if she’d been off her tits on manky crack” – this according to Time Out.

However, Dame Agatha would not have touched this latest novel with a barge pole (mind you, given Brookmyre’s potty mouth, she may have had some difficulty with the rest of his output, too) and some people will be surprised to discover that Pandaemonium features a bunch of Glasgow School kids facing off against Demons from what is possibly the depths of hell. In amongst all this carnage of course, Brookmyre inserts an argument about organised religion and how it can all go so horribly, horribly wrong.

It’s a brilliant book. It moves like, well, a bat out of hell, and it’s screamingly funny and no one else could have written it bar Brookmyre.

But it’s also a risky book.

Because what he’s done is switch genre completely. I mean, there is no crime here. At the day job, we have to put it in the crime section, but I’d be much happier putting it in horror. Its not a predictable Brookmyre book. Oh, sure, its his book. It has his obsessions and his voice and his idiosyncracies, but its not the kind of book we’ve come to expect from him. He’s turned the tables on his readers, and he’s having a ball doing it.

A lot of writers these days are pigeonholed by genre considerations. People believe that they want “the same but different” and get nervous when a writer does something unexpected. Like we don’t trust our writers to be unpredictable, even though so many of them are at their best when they are.

In a recent interview with the Rap Sheet’s Ali Karim, John Connolly says the following:

my publishers have adopted a very hands-off approach to what I do, and I’ve been permitted to experiment through books like Nocturnes, The Book of Lost Things and, later this year, The Gates. That’s come at a cost, though, in that the sales of the Parker books would probably be higher if I was producing one of them every year instead of exploring other avenues with every second book. “The same, but slightly different” is the way to top the bestseller lists. So exploring different genres doesn’t help, but I’m comfortable with the balance that I’ve achieved.

The thing that his “experiments” are often among his best books (Although his most recent Charlie Parker, The Lovers, is an incredible and wonderful novel) and allow him to surprise his readers. Which is what all writers should aspire to, I think. And all readers should desire, as well.

A lot of people complain about how their once favourite writers are churning out the same stuff over and over. I think we, the readers, have to take the blame for this as much as anyone for not standing up and saying that although we love what we read before, we loved it because it was unexpected, because it was fresh and what we really want is the same experience – the feeling of not knowing how a novel is going to go, of being carried away by its vision – rather than the same damn book.

As audiences, we have started to believe that somehow if we are surprised or taken out of our comfort zone, this is a bad thing. But I would say that if we can just allow ourselves to open up to the possibility of being surprised, of accepting new and different things even from authors we think know, then perhaps we might just start to remember why we loved reading in the first place.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Dave White

I'm a big fan of Rutgers basketball. I'm an alumni, I have season tickets, and I love college basketball. Three years ago, RU hired a coach (Fred Hill) with local ties, a lot of good will going forth, and a great ability to recruit. In those 3 years he hasn't won a lick. Players transfer in and out, assistant coaches are hired and shuffled around. The team does not win. Fans are irate and want Hill out of town. Academic scores on the team have gone up. Players who once got away with anything are now disciplined. Tuesday a player was kicked off the team for a violation of rules. Somehow, to these fans, the player who violated the rule is not in the wrong. Hill is. Because he doesn't win.

It's pile on time now.

I am also a fan of Spider-man. A year and a half ago, Marvel Comics completely revamped the Spider-man universe, separating him from his wife of 20 (real life) years through magic. As if it never happened. Since then, the Spidey series has gotten strong in terms of storytelling. There are a ton of mysteries in the series that are extremely compelling. Does that matter to the fans of the marriage? No, they're irate. If they're not reading about a married Spider-man, they're not reading Spider-man. They'll complain about every flaw in the story. They'll complain how each story could still be told with the marriage. Even if it's a good story, they'll admit they enjoyed it, but at the same time it sucked because Spider-man wasn't married.

It's pile on time now.

What does this have to do with crime fiction?

A lot and a little, I suppose. There are a lot of bad reviews out there. More than good reviews. That's fine, if the reviews are critical and give reasons. But a lot of bad reviews just give reason for people to spit venom. It is so easy to hate.


Is it because we don't view coaches, writers, directors, or any kind of entertainers as real people?

Or is it because it's always easier to verbalize our dislike? I can come up with 1,000 reasons not to like something. Specific reasons. But it's hard for me to back up why I like something.

I enjoy a lot of things, but often when I do I can only spout out cliches. Edge of my seat. Page turner. But when I don't like something...

Take MAD MEN for instance. When the series premiered, I watched the first episode and hated it. I thought it was too self-aware. There were too many jokes about being in the sixties: whether it was pregnant women smoking, kids playing with plastic dust covers over their face, or the worst one of all... "It's not like we have some machine that will copy for us." It was easy to point out reason when I disliked it.

It wasn't until I picked up the DVDs later on when I became intrigued. I gave the show three episodes and it really started to grow on me. I became intrigued in the characters. I wanted to know more about them. Don Draper was a mystery to me. And I wanted to solve that mystery.

But I could really put the reasons I started to like the show into words. I knew I liked it... I knew I kept watching, but if someone were to ask me why, I wouldn't really be able to say why.

Then I discovered Alan Sepinwall's blog. He writes for the NEWARK STAR LEDGER. And his thoughts on Mad Men were compelling. He was being specific as to why he liked it. Why the show was brilliant. He put into words what I wanted to say about the show.

That's what a good critic does.

Anyone can say why they hate something. Anyone can pile on the hate when things go bad.

A good critic can acknowledge the bad. (Sepinwall, for instance, talks a lot about the jokes I hated.)

A good critic can acknowledge that, and still show you why there's good in what you're watching or reading.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


by John McFetridge

When we started this blog we said it would be okay for us to do some self-promotion here.


Now if someone could just figure out how to promote a book.

It seems these days people are trying just about everything. Last year I downloaded a free version of the book Beautiful Children by Charles Bock as a promotion from the publisher. A great book, but I haven't seen another one from that author so he still hasn't made a sale to me as a result of the free give-away.

There was an article in the paper today about Margaret Atwood promoting her new novel with a book tour that will include actors and original music performed live at the events. Sounds like fun, but the article didn't really say anything about the book, The Year of the Flood, which I understand is a sequel of sorts to Oryx and Crake (which I liked a lot). That could be a great publicity-generating promotion, but it's not really something many of us could do.

My Canadian publisher is small and doesn't have much money so there's little promotion beyond sending out review copies and hoping for the best. When my first book came out we had a launch party in my neighbourhood which was really just so I could show all the folks I knew from the schoolyard where I dropped off my kids that I really was going home to "work" during the day. It was a good party, but it wasn't really book promotion.

Because I sometimes like to play around on the computer, I've tried my hand at book trailers:

I think I'm getting better, but I don't think it's realy helping to promote the books very much. I think people who read books aren't fooled by some flashy graphics (if I had those, I mean). So, I try to go against the advice and actually put a lot of words into my trailers. I think people who like to read books are okay with a lot of words. Marketing departments may disagree with me, but I'm stubborn.

So, I have a book coming out in September in Canada (February in the USA) and I'm trying to think of ways to do some promotion.

Give it away free like Beautiful Children?

Stage events like Margaret Atwood?

Blog tours?


Any ideas?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Simple Art Of Truth

By Jay Stringer

This piece has appeared a couple of times now in different forms. It's something of an evolving essay, as each time i return to the point i fail to quite make it.

Obviously i have to think about writing all the time; the craft, the approach, the groupies. Okay, not the groupies.

But I've been thinking out loud for awhile now about social fiction, and my need for fiction that feels true. And it keeps me returning to the old Chandler essay "The Simple Art of Murder." Much of what he write seems outdated, and dismissive of the fact that a great writer can make just about any approach work. But there is a grain of truth in it that i just can't shake, the simple art of truth, if you will.

I'm drawn to trying to decide what kind of a writer i am, whether I'm a realist or a fantasist. I keep coming back to the idea that there shouldn't be too much of a difference between the two. Whether it's a real world or a fake one, it's the job of the writer to make that world feel real.

Now, Chandler seems to have taken a back seat over the last few years. Hammett gets more and more praise, which is great. But there seems to be a need in all walks of fandom to praise one thing by slapping another. You can only like band A if you hate band B. And so it is with crime. You can like Chandler or Hammett. But you can't like both.

That's not really my style though. I don't see the need to choose one over the other, as they're very different writers. It would be like choosing between Steinbeck and Bukowski, or Springsteen and Westerberg. If i had to come up with some simplistic explanation, I'd say the reader in me prefers Chandler and the writer in me prefers Hammett.

In Chandlers essay, he makes certain statements that can be questioned, when taken out of context. He starts with the assertion that 'fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic', which could be taken to town by any well thought out argument, if that was all it was saying.

He gives a great deal of time to attacking the works of certain British crime authors, who's characters and plot existed only to make the crime make sense. The essay rings with such truth, and such passion for the art, that my head is alive with it.

Here's a bit that i like;

“..things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest.”

Here's another;

“There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.”

I'm not going to quote the whole thing at you in chunks. At least not tonight.

The world Chandler lived in and the one we live in are very different. The basic day to day facts of our lives would be the things of speculative fiction to him. But there are things that haven't changed, and will never change, and they are the things that are truest to his essay, to fiction, and to life.

When he said that Hammett 'gave murder back to people who did it for a reason' , he was touching a truth greater than crime fiction. We live in a world that has rules. We may not like or understand the rules, but we recognise them.

I'm not saying good fiction is only that which takes place on some gritty crime ridden streets. I'm not saying that all. I'm saying we live in a world that has a certain dna, certain walls and rules. So for anything to have a feeling of truth to it, fiction has to take place in a world that recognises this.

By this rule, fantasy is okay. It can still, and should still, be intended to be realistic.
Dragons? cool, okay. Dwarves? Magic? Knock yourselves out.
But the story takes place in a world. That world has to seem real. It has to have rules, walls and consequences. No cheap tricks.
No characters doing things for no reason, or things that don't make sense.

To paraphrase Chandler, which i am ashamed to be doing, he took issue with a certain style of crime writing. One where the sole function of the characters and the plot was to revolve around the crime. Some bizarre, meticulously planned, and overly detailed theft or murder. Something that is only believable because the story exists to make it believable.

Crime fiction should contain characters. That should be the starting point as it should be with every fiction. The crime should grow naturally out them, out of what it is they want to achieve and the simplest way to achieve it.

So with fantasy fiction, the spells, the magic, whatever the drug of choice, should grow out of the characters, and the resolution of any situation should grow out of the characters and their understanding of the world around them. Not whatever magic potion the writer needs to get everyone from z-a for the start of the next chapter.

Film students have a term for it.
In their slavish devotion to French cinema, they call it verisimilitude. It means feeling of truth, and basically amounts to the simple principle; be true to your audience, your characters, and the world they each live in.

Don't cheat, because it cheapens the work. Don't be lazy, because it cheapens the writer.
Art has to have a basic feeling of truth to it, even a totally fictional world needs to feel like one in which we could plant our feet on solid ground. And the people in it -be they humans or small furry things from the planet thangar- need to feel like people we can understand, people who have motives and blood running through them.

Without that feeling of truth, that 'realism', what is the point? And where is the art?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Do authors who Facebook ruin their crime books?

By Steve Weddle

With authors on Twitter and Facebook, what chance would a hermit writer like Salinger have starting out today? Or Pynchon?

Salinger’s books hit the shelves in the 50s and 60s, while most folks consider Pynchon a 60s and 70s writer. One humongous difference is that Pynchon is still publishing books. His “Inherent Vice” just came out, to pretty good reviews and even more publicity. And he’s not on the Twitters or the Facebooks. How do you get good publicity if you don’t have a Twitter account?

Salinger might very well be on the Twitters, under some goofy assumed name, of course, holed up in his Cornish bunker. Remember that story about the school kids who interviewed him for their school paper and he had them to his house and they spun records or whatever? (Kids, ask your grandparents.) For the most part, Salinger has told the world not to bother him. Then, the more the world finds out about him, the more we realize he’s bothered enough without our help. Heck, we all are. How much do you really want to know about your favorite crime author?

So you’ve just finished a book with each of the deadly sins well represented, including the burning of an orphanage and the raping of mid-sized farm animals and you want to sit down to coffee with the author? Really? What kind of freak are you? You want to see this dude’s Twitter stream? (Is it just me, or does ‘Twitter stream’ sound like where you’re supposed to hold that pregnancy test?)

And when you do find out about the author, is it like that Ferlinghetti poem about a girl you meet and learn too much about: “Only the next day/she has bad teeth/and really hates/poetry”?

What happens when it turns out your favorite crime writer is as dull as the rest of us, that he has three kids, two mortgages and a wife he doesn’t even cheat on? In an interview he’s asked where his ideas come from. Rather than make up some nonsensical answer like a character in his books would, he tells the truth. “Well, I was watching my Season Two DVDs of ‘Matlock’ when I got to thinking about this triple homicide I’d seen on the True Crime Network. So one Tuesday when I was helping out at the PTA bake sale, I asked Sheriff Barnes – we’re the tenors in the St. Bart’s choir – for any ideas. So that’s how I ended up naming one of the victims ‘Cupcake.’”

If writers ever had any sort of rock star quality, do Twitter and Facebook kill it? Who is the biggest name in fiction right now? Whoever it is, I don’t want him/her mad at me, so let’s make someone up. Jerri Fakename does not have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. You have to go to the publisher’s site to find her Web presence, a Flash-heavy site that the publisher pays for. Fakename writes books. That’s it. She does interviews via email through her publisher, which means she doesn’t do interviews. She certainly does not update her status. In fact, her assistant has set up a Twitter account in her name. “Jerri is up early to write today. Drafts look super.” Followers 23,467 & Following 7. So Fakename comes to a town within a couple of hours of you to give a “reading/signing.” You take some friends and drive up, wait in line for her to sign the hardback. It’s so exciting, an event. You got to see Jerri Fakename read from her novel. Wow.

Then there’s this guy who teaches a couple of classes at a small college and makes some cash on the side editing technical manuals. His Twitter account is @Jeff_Hines1960. He twatted about a movie last week that you’d also seen. (That sounds weird, too. Is it “twittered” or “tweetered”? Whatever.) You ask what he thought about it, just kinda goofin around. The dude responds and asks what you thought. Heck, the dude responds to just about everyone. He’s following pretty much the same 2,000 people who are following him. He even follows the spammers and makes jokes about them. He has a blog and last Friday complained about how tough it is to get good seafood where he lives, which everyone knows is a little town just outside Wichita. You go to his reading and buy a copy of the trade paperback because that’s the way his books come out. He recognizes your username when you introduce yourself. He even tells you he thought about what you said about that movie and that you were probably right.

That’s the good version. And it doesn’t matter that you don’t think Jeff Hines is as bright a star as Jerri Fakename. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t matter that Fakename is a rock star and Jeff Hines is like a friend of your mom’s who has a book or two out. But what happens when you find out a little more about that author?
What happens when, like the author who gets his ideas from “Matlock” re-runs and PTA bake sales, you find out that one of your favorite authors isn’t cool? Fakename is glamorous. She’s going on the Today Show next week. You’ve got the DVR set already.

But what if you learn more about the author? Does it matter when you find out that the guy who writes your favorite hero is not heroic? That the creator of the toughest, meanest, biggest, most athletic badass in all of crime fiction is a 700-pound hermaphrodite with a substantial lisp and an incontinence problem? That the writing process is “I just read a bunch of novels by other people I like and then put them all together in my head and write”?

When I was a kid falling in love with the Glass family, would it have mattered to know some of the weird stuff about Salinger?

What if you’re looking on the Facebook page of your favorite novelist and find out she’s a flaming liberal who only writes crime fiction to shine a light on the perils of handgun ownership? Or that he’s trying to hurry the new novel out so that he can fund his lifelong dream and finally afford those calf and pectoral implants?

“News” floated around recently that Thomas Pynchon unhermitted himself to record the voice-over for the book trailer to his new book. Um, big deal. Let me know when he’s coming to the Barnes and Noble near me. I’d like to know what he thought about that latest Star Trek movie. If he thought it was anything other than crap on a stick, then I’m done with him.


Today's Questions:

Are Twitter and Facebook good for authors?

Do you want to know more about the authors you love?

Does it help you as a writer if your readers know more about you?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Men Your Mother Warned You About

By Mike Knowles

This summer I embarked on a pilgrimage. It was nothing new and nothing spiritual (at least to no one but me). For the last few years, I have celebrated every summer and every Christmas with 100 Bullets. It has nothing to do with shooting, I set everything I am reading aside on the first day of my vacation and begin reading Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s masterpiece cover to cover. Reading 100 Bullets is my It’s a Wonderful Life but instead of angels saving businessmen, I get Minutemen and the Trust killing one another off in a violent race to be the last one standing. This summer was the best pilgrimage yet because the series ended a few months back and I finally got to read the whole run from beginning to end. I was able to find things I had missed and fell in love all over again. Finishing the series as a whole for the first time got me thinking. There are no white hats in the books. None. Everyone is mean, violent, and unapologetic. 100 Bullets also got me thinking about all of the other characters I have loved in books. Almost every single one was bad man, not steal your lunch money bad, but rather steal your lunch money and leave you in a shallow grave in Mexico bad. Parker was bad, Mike Hammer was on the right side of the law but clearly a sociopath, Joe Kurtz was bad, John Rain was bad, etc.

These books are huge sellers, so it can’t just be me who is into the bad guy. What is it about the bad guy that people love so much?

I know I write about criminals because I find them inherently more interesting and complex than any other type of character. A reader has few ways to anticipate a characters next move if they use a different moral compass, or no moral compass at all. A situation as normal as drinks in a bar can turn into something insane when a maniac is at the wheel. Think of the movie Casino. Whenever I think of that movie, I think of Nicky (Joe Pesci) repeatedly stabbing the guy at the bar over an argument about a pen. The scene was terrifying the first time I saw it because I never saw it coming. DeNiro’s character, Sam, watches the scene frozen and explains his friend to the audience.

“While I was trying to figure out why the guy was saying what he was saying, Nicky just hit him. No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him because he'll be coming back and back until one of you is dead."

Nicky was an animal, but I never hated him in the movie. It seemed like it was his nature to be a violent sociopath. It fit him like it fits a tiger to be a killer. There is something predatory about villains and there is something supremely cool about watching a predator hunt and survive. I think people watch animal documentaries for the same reason they read crime fiction. People enjoy being along for the hunt. Watching animals take what they want to survive at the expense of others. There is something primal and interesting about something that lives by its own rules and thrives because of it. And I think that is what draws readers by the millions to the bad guy.

In real life people hate bad guys. Bernie Madoff is not on a poster in some kids room, no one rocks a Hitler stache, but for some reason if you put a character in a book who breaks the law I will read it and probably root for the black hat the whole time.

In case you never saw Casino. (If that is why you click this you have homework this weekend).