Saturday, August 29, 2009

George Pelecanos and Stephen King are Brothers

by Scott D. Parker

What, you say? How can one of the masters of modern horror and a master of modern crime fiction be related? King's a lad from Maine while Greek-American Pelecanos was born and bred in our nation's capital. As far as I know, they've never met. One writes about monsters, ghouls, and things that go bump in the night. The other writes about the city, other types of monsters, and gunshots that sound in the night.

Aha! That must be it, you are now thinking. Both men write about evil. King's evil things are often supernatural although there are enough real-life evil-doers (Annie from Misery, anyone?) to fill a Pelecanos crime novel. Pelecanos for his part fills his books with characters that some of us view as evil and fictional (how about Wayne from The Way Home?) and others of us know as real and misunderstood. That's all true and I don't discount it.

Instead, however, I am going to focus on something else: the normalcy in their writings. Fiction, in general, is make believe. You know you are reading a story because you're sitting at home, on your couch, reading. If you like to read science fiction or romances set in the Middle Ages, the veneer of normalcy is non-existent. How can any of us relate to an astronaut meeting an alien for the first time? We can't. Even horror fiction, King's specialty. I mean really? Demonic clowns, possessed dogs, little girls that can make fire? C'mon. That stuff Just Doesn't Happen.

The beauty of King's stories, and what makes them so terrifying, is in the ordinary. One of his underrated gifts is the ability to conjure a world that we know and can understand. Before King, many authors would write the following type of sentence: "Hank sat on his porch, drinking a cold beverage, listening to the ballgame on the radio when the creature emerged from the edge of the woods." Yeah, that's scary. King, however, would write something like this: "Hank sat on his porch drinking a Bud listening to the Red Sox game on the radio when the creature that would have made Lovecraft proud emerged from the edge of the woods." By naming names and being specific with his prose, King grounded his characters squarely in the real world. His readers could easily see themselves in this real world. Thus, when things all went downhill, the reader could relate to the characters as they battled Pennywise (or whatever) and ask themselves if they'd do the same thing. It was the normalness in King's world that made the supernatural that much more terrifying.

As I read Pelecanos's latest novel, The Way Home, I realized that he writes the same way King does. In crime stories, there's a veneer of normalcy but it's often thin and breaks down easily. If Raymond Chandler is right about the detective hero, that he's the one who must go down the mean streets, how many of us would recognize what's it truly like to *live* in those mean streets? Sure, we like to watch from afar but how few of us can actually relate to that kind of existence?

The Flynn family in The Way Home is a normal family, folks to whom we can relate. The son, Chris, spent time in juvenile prison and finds life on the outside not easy. His father, Thomas, considers himself a failure but he's trying to make his business work for his family and his employees. For the bulk of the book, Pelecanos gives us back stories and slice-of-life vignettes. For awhile there, I started to wonder if I was reading a crime story or a piece of general fiction. However, this normalcy is threatened as soon as the bad guys are introduced. Having painted a world we can understand, the presence of evil disturbs us and makes us feel the grown sense of dread. The normalcy is so natural, we ask ourselves "What would I do?" Frankly, it made the book.

Sure, it's fun to read the exploits of government agents, detectives, dazzling heroines, or rumpled archaeologists. It gets our blood pumping and our heart racing and palms sweaty. It's why we read books (or go to movies). But there's a little something extra you get when you can enter a world, recognize it, and then be terrified by something out of the ordinary. Stephen King and George Pelecanos are two modern storytellers who can create believable worlds and introduce evil. That makes them brothers.

Who are some of your favorite authors who can do the same?

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Dear Sir Or Madam, Won't You Read My Book?"

By Russel D McLean

I’ve been trying to remember when I reached the point of no return.

One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked – second only perhaps to “where do you get your ideas?” – is “Why did you want to become a writer?”

The best answer I’ve come up with so far is that I figured it was indoor work with no heavy lifting.

And I admit, that’s part of the appeal.

But it’s a tough question, because for me creating fiction always just been something I did. When I was a kid, playing with army figures and all the rest of it, I have distinct memories of creating narratives and characters. Somewhere my mum probably still has a copy of the “diary” they made us keep in primary school where I wrote week long serials which had clear beginnings, middles and ends and absolutely no basis in reality.

I have always loved stories. Becoming a writer, immersing myself in fiction completely, was probably a natural step.

That’s the best reason I can think of as to why I pursued this gig.

When I was younger, my dad made some money selling short stories that were broadcast on radio 4. What always struck me as strange was the idea that they paid people to make stuff up, to do what I was always doing inside my head; creating fanciful narratives that I knew weren’t true but that I wanted to believe in.

When I hit thirteen or so, I remember reading in Doctor Who Magazine about the “New Adventures” series of Doctor Who novels and how they encouraged submissions from new writers.

At sixteen I worked out how you submit to publishers. The internet – still in its early days, I guess, as a medium for mass communication – helped here. I remember making frequent trips to a cyber-café in Edinburgh very specifically to find Virgin Publishing’s submission guidelines. I learned very quickly that you do not type “Virgin Submission Guidelines” into an internet search engine.

I was also devouring the script columns of J Michael Straczynski in Writer’s Digest, to which my dad then had a subscription, and realising that, wow, people were getting paid good money to make things up. And I figure if they could do it, maybe I had a crack. I didn’t have too many other useful skills and although I was figuring on acting as a career I was never the type to be willingly up front and centre. Being a writer seemed a good way to be creative and still not have to “perform” in front of a crowd. I could sit in the background and take the focus off me. Writing is the perfect career, I reckon, for the extroverted introvert. You get to show off and still retain your privacy.

The point of no return came when I was seventeen. Virgin were no longer doing The New Adventures. My submission was returned unread with a note that said they could not pursue the series any longer due to licensing problems with the Dr Who brand. But they were about to start their own line of SF novels, so, ya know, feel free to submit for that. Took me about a year, I reckon to write the 80k novel, THE STARS OF TOMORRROW, first in a planned trilogy that really borrowed far too heavily from Babylon 5 (with some Star Trek style temporal anomalies thrown in for good measure). But that novel earned me my first positive rejection letter. My first rejection letter ever. It was a form with ticks and comments, but what it told me was this:

I had the voice of a published author.
I could create coherent characters.
My plotting was logical and consistent.


I borrowed far too heavily from established themes and ideas (ie, Straczynski coulda probably sued me for plagiarism)
I relied too much on coincidence to move the story and characters forward.

As far as rejections letters go, it was beautiful. That they didn’t hate it was good enough for me. I figured, I’m young, I got time to get better. I also never told ‘em my age. When I first started submitting, I never did that, because I didn’t want anyone to go easy on me. The writing, I knew even then, had to speak for itself.

So, yeah, that letter was my tipping point. If it hadn’t been for that letter I might not have kept going. Had my first letter been like one I later received, my manuscript sent return postage covered in angry crayon scrawls with a wee note at the bottom of the title page saying, “As you can see, my kids didn’t like it either” or the one that said, “Your work reminds me a little of Ernie Wise and that little play what he wrote” I probably wouldn’t have kept fighting to improve my work and to grow as a writer.

That was the moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer, when I was seventeen. When I realised that it was possible to make what seemed like a daydream become something real if I just put in the hard work and paid attention to constructive criticism (and only later would I learn to ignore the mean spirited stuff). And if I could do that, then maybe I really could achieve the dream of indoor work with no heavy lifting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Emotional Readers

I've been watching the Little League World Series. I always tune in every year and watch a few innings here or there. The play isn't great, but it's fun to watch. The thing that sticks with me, though, is the end of the games.

The kids jumping up and down, excited to win.

And, of course, the kids on the losing side crying.

Now the cynic in me says these kids have watched enough TV to know how to get on a SportsCenter highlight. But my heart says most of these emotions are true. They feel right.

And, to me, that's the key part in writing a novel. Getting to the true emotions of the characters.

You can't write how you think they're going to feel. You can't have someone crying just because they SHOULD cry in that situation. A good reader isn't going to buy that. It's going to take them right out of the book.

No, you have to figure who you character really is. And once you figure that out, you can figure out how he or she is going to react in certain situations.

And if you bear down to a real emotion, if you get your reader to believe that's how your character is really going to react, it's going to make a story even stronger.

You can write a sad story and people don't have to cry, if that's who the characters are. You can write a happy story without having the characters jump up and down.

And, if you do it right, you might get your reader to cry.

Or jump up and down.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writing for TV

by John McFetridge

Okay, a while ago I said it was a bad idea to write a screenplay because after all that work you’re left with a document that has little value on its own. Very few movies are made from original screenplays and once the screenplay has made the rounds there’s nothing left. Even if it’s a low budget indie, it’ll still take a lot of people to turn into a movie whereas a manuscript can keep going to smaller and smaller publishers or you can even publish it yourself or just put it on a blog for almost no money.

Now I’m going to tell you why writing a TV spec script is a good idea even though there isn’t any market for it at all.

I love writing for television. I’ve only done it once and I may very well never do it again, but it was a great experience and I’m very grateful to have had it. I’m a social guy, I like collaborating. The one thing about novels that I don’t like is how solitary the whole process is. TV writing is teamwork.

Plus, a lot of the best writing being done these days is for TV. I can’t find many novels as satisfying as The Sopranos or The Wire or even Mad Men (actually that’s less true these days as more and more really good novels are published. There aren’t very many private eyes on TV and very few TV shows feature the bad guys as the main character the way I like. But still...)

So, you may want to write for TV. And, if you’re going to try and do that, you’re going to have to write a spec script. That is, a script for a show that’s already on the air. You do this to show you can write other people’s characters and use an already established structure (I like to say structure rather than formula – one of my co-writers on The Bridge said that writing for TV was like writing Haiku – very structured. You could also say it’s like writing dirty limericks, but that’s not as classy).

But you can’t write a spec script for the show you want to write for. They can’t read it. Who knows, they may have a similar storyline in the pipeline already. On The Bridge we had dozens of stories we didn’t get to in the first season. We did get spec scripts submitted. They were for Law and Order:SVU or Flashpoint, things like that.

Back when I applied to the Prime Time TV Writing Program at the Canadian Film Centre my spec script was for NYPD Blue. It was challenging and I didn’t get it right, but it did give me a much better understanding of the show and started me on the road to learning to write TV (I still have a lot of road to cover).

Once you get on a TV show the process is also highly structured and this guy recently wrote terrific series of blog entries explaining it all. No need to reinvent the wheel, this is the internet afterall, so I’ll just link to it.

TV writing part one: Setting the Table.

Part Two: The Outline.

Part Three: The First Draft.

Part Four: The Second Draft.

Part Five: Production White and Beyond.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

KILLING MUM and SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie

By Jay Stringer

If there were such thing as a sacred cow in an Allan Guthrie book, it would be set on fire and, quite possibly, raped. There is no holding back, no boundaries that won’t be crossed.

If we take a look back at his output so far, we see a writer who takes the story wherever it needs to go, and who puts ever more trust in his reader. He has taken that trust even further with his latest novel, SLAMMER. The story revolves around Nicholas Glass, a young prison officer who is treading water in a job that's dragging him under. His loyalties become compromised after some of the inmates find his weak spot, and from there it's only a matter of time before things start to get messy. Very messy.

I mentioned the trust that Guthrie put in his reader. It feels like a rare thing. With each book he has played with narration, with the truth being filtered through the voices of his characters. Particularly with his previous two, HARD MAN and SAVAGE NIGHT, where we have been given large casts and multiple narrators. Each voice is giving you their side of the story, and we are trusted to read between the lines. SLAMMER pushes that trust to a new level, maybe as far as it can go. The story is narrated from deep within the head of a single character, blurring first and third person narration, and the story we are being told may not be an entirely accurate reading of the events. If you can't trust the storyteller, who can you trust? It's an interesting device, one that manages to challenge and entertain at the same time.

Hot on the heels of SLAMMER comes the novella KILLING MUM, another twisted domestic epic.

Carlos doesn’t kill people for a living. Not really. He arranges for other people to do it, which is different. The story starts when he is hired to kill a woman named Valerie Anderson and mailed a bundle of cash to pay for it. Valerie is Carlos’ mother, which means he needs to have a real think before arranging the killing.
Who would order the hit, and why? He can only see two suspects, and he’s related to both of them. In fact, he’s married to one of them.

It’s deliciously fucked. Sick and twisted in all the right ways.

You just know this isn’t going to end neatly, but would you want it to? And again, Guthrie is willing to put faith in his reader, some facts are held back because they are not relevant, and because we should be allowed to decide some things for ourselves.

The story is a coda of sorts to SAVAGE NIGHT. It helps to have read that first, but it doesn't really matter because, at 96 pages, this is a good taster of Allan's work. The fact that it carried over some unfinished business from a previous story is perhaps a hint at a larger theme. In all of his books we see where violence starts, but not where it ends. There is rarely such a thing as finished business.

The book is part of the Crime express series from Five Leaves Press. If you're a fetishist like me, you can't help but love these small editions, with their French flaps. You could do much worse than checking out other books in their series, such as the equally great GUN from Ray Banks. They also publish some fella named Russel D McLean. That's a lot of Scottish talent for a midlands based publisher!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Go, Go, Go: The Art of Writing Without Art

By Steve Weddle

Last week, Merlin Mann was back on MacBreak Weekly, over on the network. He’s a bright guy with a book called Inbox Zero coming out next year. He was talking about Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg, which sounded like the kind of book everyone has read or should read. But this was standard fare. He mentioned a writing tool that caught me by surprise.

Have you ever heard of the AlphaSmart? I’d seen them advertised in writing magazines, but hadn’t paid them much attention. I don’t need another device. With a Palm Treo, iPod Touch, Palm T|X and a laptop within easy reach, I’m never without a way to create text. Heck, I could probably find a pencil and paper around here somewhere if it really came down to it. So when Merlin recommended the AlphaSmart Neo, I really didn’t see the point. Until he mentioned that by dropping about a hundred bucks on one of these used babies, I could kick my internal editor in the nards. Ok, here’s the deal. This little “keyboarding device” is really just a portable keyboard with a screen that can carry four lines of text.

On the computer, I use full page when I can and Track Changes in Word running down the side. I like to have a big screen where I can see what I just wrote. I like to have the bottom third of the screen blank, to let me know I have room to write. The idea of four not-wide lines filled with text doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

Oh, I haven’t gotten to the good part. Sorry. The AlphaSmart Neo has a mode where you can learn to type, according to Merlin. You just type. There ain’t no backspace. You have to keep going forward. No corrections. No re-thinking what you just wrote. That little voice in your head that tells you to go back and correct the mis-typing you’ve done? Gone. The voice that says you should have put the hero in a blue shirt instead of a black one? Gone. You just run, with no pausing. So you write quickly. Most of us agree that getting the stuff down the first time is the tough part, that the editing and revising is easier. Don’t we? Well, this is an amazing tool for that. Also, there’s no Internet. So there’s no temptation to stray after you’ve reached the end of a chapter. ME: “Phew. That was a tough chapter to write. I think I’ll take a few minutes and check my email.” The AlphaSmart Neo in typing teaching mode is sort of a hardware version of the Write Or Die site that punishes you when you stop writing.

Of course, some folks use the old pen and paper method. For me, this makes a good first draft or brainstorming option. I can get my ideas down and know that don’t have to be perfect. Heck, if my hand is acting up, there’s very little chance I can read my own writing anyway, but at least I’m getting the ideas down. When I write by hand I write quickly and with no forgiveness. I misspell words. I write the most banal, clichéd things. Sometimes I get the wrong character doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. And this is fine. When I start to type up this writing, I can fix it. At that point, I’m typing and editing, not writing. I’ve done the really tough thing, the actual writing.

The cool thing about that MacBreak Weekly show where they were talking about writing? It’s a tech show, about Apple products. And they had the same problems writing that crime novelists have. All writers share the same problem: the writing.

If the techies like Merlin Mann have figured out a way to work around the first-draft editor by hacking a cheap word processor, then maybe we should steal their idea. Heck, we’re crime writers. We know how.

Question of the day:

What tips or tricks do you have for getting that first draft down?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Could it really not be all about me?

by Mike Knowles

I’m a teacher so I have a good deal going in terms of my vacation time. I spend every break from work getting in as many hours of writing as I can. It is a delicate balance managing work with the neglect of my spouse. With all of this time on my hands, I was surprised to find that I had a lot of trouble choosing a blog topic this week. All of the trouble came from what I have been working on lately.

I have been writing something new, a stand alone, for most of the summer. I feel like the longer amounts of time spent writing everyday help me get better at my craft, but there are areas that I focus on even when I am not writing. Something I work on everyday is dialogue. Since getting published I listen closer to everyone talking, I watch more reality cop shows, I analyze text that feels authentic. Basically, I’m learning any way I can.

I think my dialogue writing is getting better, but it is breeding problems. The book I’m writing now centers around a real SOB. With each bad thing that comes out of his mouth, and there are some doozies, I feel a little stab in the back of my mind. Is it too much? Have I gone too far? I burn calories worrying that dialogue that I write will not come off as authentic. What if the way I perceive dialogue, and the way I reproduce it in my writing is not in synch with the way the audience will receive it? I don’t want to be a middle class white kid who comes off as ignorant, sexist, or racist.

I think the conundrum of dialogue lies in the skill of the writer. If the writing is good, the characters are well defined and believable. People will love the dialogue for the realism it brings. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr are great at this in the books they wrote for Hard Case Crime. The books shift from characters of different sexes, races, and cultures seamlessly. Everything each character says, even the profane things, feels natural. Conversely, if the writing is garbage the characters dialogue can, at times, come across more as the author’s feelings instead of the characters. Think of Kevin Smith’s Dogma, the dialogue in that movie came off more as one man’s beef with Religion than a movie about two fallen angels trying to get back into heaven.

I thought about dialogue all week and I came to a conclusion. In the end, you have to remember that it’s not about you. You aren’t in the book. You need to take yourself out of the story and let the characters say whatever they want. They would never censor themselves because that is not natural to any characters existence. Worrying about how your dialogue will sound to a third party only makes you hold back, and holding back is the start of taking the story out of your hands and making it someone else’s book.

So I took the gloves off this week and let the characters go. If down the road you hate the book, it wasn't my fault the characters did it.