Saturday, September 5, 2009

Present at the Creation

Where are you going to be on Tuesday, 8 September? That’s the day after Labor Day where even the most die-hards among us--myself included--have to come to the sobering realization that summer is, in fact, over. Gone will be the mindless books and movies that rule that special time. Time to turn our attention to the “important” books of the fall, the return of our favorite television shows, and the start of the Christmas shopping season.

In the future, the eight of September might also be noted for something else: the birth of the digi-novel. Earlier this week, Anthony Zuiker, co-creator of TV’s “CSI,” did a little presser about Level 26, his new digi-novel he wrote with Duane Swierczynski. What, you may ask, is a digi-novel? Well, it is a book, first. Of that, there can be no doubt. Zuiker wrote the outline and Swierczynski fleshed out the novel. The book can stand on its own.

The thing that makes Level 26 special is the digital component. Every five chapters or so, there will be a break. If you so desire, you can log in to the Level 26 website, enter a code, and watch a three-minute episode, or cyber-bridge, that’ll give you some additional details and a deeper level of understanding about the characters and the novel. How cool is that? JP Frantz, of SF Signal, suggests the next step: digi-novels in an ebook format, say, on a Kindle where the digital experience could be contained on one device.

The idea is quite intriguing. I’m looking forward to seeing how this kind of entertainment is accepted. Let’s be honest: the book will never go out of style. There will always be bibliophiles, paper, binding, the smell of a new book, and the wondrous tactile feel of a book in your hand. But I certainly welcome new ways to become engrossed in a novel or a character. Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos are but two authors whose books have been packaged with CDs full of music their respective characters enjoy. Be honest: who among us wouldn’t want “walk” around Sherlock Holmes’s London, solving crimes with the great detective, or take a cruise with Travis McGee on his ship, Busted Flush? I’m there, baby.

And I’ll be there on Tuesday, too. Will you? Take a look at the trailer and see if you’re interested.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Secret Agent Man (or woman)

By Russel D McLean


What are they good for?

Some people will tell you, like war, that the answer is “absolutely nothing”. Those people, I have found are generally rather self-deluded eejits who talk constantly about John Grisham selling his first novels from a wheelbarrow and complain about “someone else” getting a percentage of their deal, of their “work”. A good agent, you don’t mind paying that percentage. You don’t mind it at all.

I would encourage every would-be writer to find a good agent. And not just because most of the big boys are only accepting unsolicited queries (I got my deal with a UK indy press through my agent) but because a good agent earns their keep.

A good agent is many things to a writer. They are an initial sounding board, a first editor, an advisor and above all a salesperson. Without my agent, I’d still be making some huge mistakes in my manuscripts and probably being ignored by publishers big and small alike. Agents are the people who take you by the hand and help you negotiate the insanity that is the publishing industry.

I believe in agents, not as “Gatekeepers” (as they are described in this Bookseller article about MacMillan New Writing) so much as intermediaries between writers and publishers. As a writer, I am concerned with one thing: writing the best damn book I can. My agent allows me to do that by ensuring that everything else in the process works. He cuts the deals, finds the editors, explains the bits of the contract I don’t understand (and there’s usually a lot in the contract I don’t understand) and generally frees me up to concentrate on the business of working with an editor *on the book* rather than on the less sexy business side of the deal. He also helps me to understand the market and what editors are looking for as well as providing that all important first look at my precious manuscripts. And, yes, he tells me when I’m screwing it up. Pretty brutally, too. But that’s what I need, that’s what I ask for. An agent doesn’t have to be your friend, but they do have to have your respect.

Now, agents aren’t for everyone, I admit. I believe that the very fine transplanted Dundonian author Carol Anne Davis works without an agent. And I know that such schemes as MacMillan New Writing (which has produced some very fine writers, such as Ireland’s Patrick McGilloway) allows writers to bypass that part of the process and there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument about how that works. And then there are tales of the good old days where a genius like (The Artist Formerly Known As Colin) Bateman could submit his novel to the slush pile and be picked up for a nice deal. But the times they are a-changing and for someone like me, really, I just wanna write the book. I don’t have a business brain. I don’t want to think about negotiating royalties, advances, rights, all that stuff. I want someone I know can do that for me and do it right. Someone who’s not going to screw me over. Someone I’m happy paying that percentage to.

But how do you find a good agent?

That’s the question that people ask me a lot and the honest answer is I still don’t know. Basically, you just have to put yourself out there. Do research online or through books like The Writer’s Handbook (still a must-purchase for me, just to see what’s going on). Read the submission guidelines. Respect the agent as a person and a reader. And accept that not all of them will see the worth in your work. Deal with them professionally. Do not send them books that are not appropriate to their list. Do not send pre-bound manuscripts with glittery covers. Or cakes (well maybe in some cases the cakes will be eaten, but it won’t influence their opinion of your manuscript).

I think getting an agent is a bit like getting a good date. You have to just keep trying and accept that sometimes there is simply no chemistry no matter how good a prospect someone seems on paper. And sometimes, as I found, you might have to go through several agents before you find the right one for you. And, yes, some of them will be awful (but generally your initial homework should have steered you away from them) and some of them will think you awful (once the honeymoon period wanes) and some of them – no matter how well suited you seem – will just be unable to sell your work. But when you find a good agent, you’ll be thankful for them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Big Books

I love big books.

I'm not talking huge, bible sized books. I'm not talking end-of-the-world thrillers (though I do like some of those too).

I'm talking books where the characters go to hell and back. When their emotions are so torn up, their lives are actually in danger, and you feel like anything can happen. I want books to be an event from an author.

Every year a writer has to put out a book. That's once a year for about a week, I get to enjoy what one of my favorite writers put down on paper. What he or she does to the characters he created. I love when characters lives get messed up.

And I even love it in series.

I don't often enjoy books where the author thinks he or she needs to go easy on the characters because they've been through a lot. I don't care, I want to see them go through the wringer. I don't want a small book. (Though some authors have succeeded at the break book. Laura Lippman's ANOTHER THING TO FALL--for one.) I want to feel the book as I read it. I want to be turning the pages.

When your series character needs a break, go write a standalone and let some time pass in the series. I think Lehane did a good job of this when he decided if the Kenzie Gennaro series went any further his two characters would become psychotics. So he put them away. He wrote MYSTIC RIVER, and that was an event. He wrote SHUTTER ISLAND... and that was an event. And then he wrote The GIVEN DAY and THAT was an event. And now, apparently, he's thinking about bringing his two detectives back. I hope they go through hell again. It's only fitting.

When I sit down to write, I want to tell the biggest book possible. In my two Jackson Donne novels, Donne went through hell. I actually got a fan letter after the second one asking me... "What's next for Jackson... cancer?"

I did a book group and they said the two books were gut wrenching.

That's what I want to do. I want to push the characters further. I want to torture them.

Give me action.

Give me high emotional stakes.

Let the characters fall from huge heights.

But then I want the characters to get back up. Because that's the most exciting moment for me. When a hero gets beat up... and then finally... gets back up. And wins.

That's an event.

What kind of books do you like? Do you like small books? Why? And vice versa. What appeals to you about high stakes novels?

The TV Pitch

When we started this blog I thought I'd be writing about books every week. I thought since I've had a few books published and I've been with four different publishers in two countries I'd have somethihng to say about writing or about the business.

But I've also been working in television this past year and I do have a couple of imdb credits (that Shakespeare one is actually a pretty cool movie, shows up on Bravo! once in a while) and I once wrote and directed a super low-budget movie about a couple getting married at a sci fi convention, so I guess I've got some things to say about the fringe of the movie-TV business, too.

The past few weeks I've been making the rounds of production companies pitching a couple of TV shows. The way it works is you put together a "pitch document" which is usually a one page overview of the show, a paragraph or two about five or six main characters and then five or six brief episode descriptions. Everyone involved understands that all of these details are likely to change during development.

I've seen a couple of pitch documents floating around the internet - there's a .pdf file of a 79-page document setting up The Wire with more detail than you can imagine - and almost all of it ended up in the show exactly as written, except McNulty was named McArdle and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale (named Aaron in the pitch) are reversed. On the other hand, I've heard stories of shows pitched and bought with only a few sentences.

So, this week my friend Scott Albert and I pitched a show called Quarantine. I even made this promo:

And here's the one page:

On June 10th, 2009 the population of the town of Palliser was 25,000. Three days later only 5000 were left alive. The town was put under an emergency quarantine. As fast as the mysterious virus arrived it disappeared. The survivors are all immune but remain carriers.

Now, a year later, the world has forgotten Palliser and its survivors. The town remains quarantined, cut off from the rest of the world but normal life has returned.

Better than normal. There is no crime, no one ever gets sick, there is no homelessness or hunger. It is the perfect town.

That’s the official story...

But when Travis Clark goes into Palliser he finds out the truth.

Palliser is a nightmare. A group calling themselves The Sherrifs run the town in secret. No one knows who they are or how many of them there are. They enforce their laws with an iron fist. People live in fear, afriad to let the outside world know what’s really going on behind the mask.

After 18 months in Afghanistan, Travis and his battalion take their turn on the Palliser wall. His hometown. He’s on his first patrol when a young woman tries to break out. He does what he’s trained to do. He shoots her. As she lays bleeding, he knows she’ll die if he doesn’t do something right away. Travis takes her inside. He saves her.

And he expects to contract the mystery virus and die. He’s ready, his whole family died in the original outbreak while he was in Afghanistan and he’s exhausted and suffering post-traumatic stress from what he’s been through.

He takes the injured woman to the town’s only doctor, Naija Singh.

And then Travis doesn’t die.

He doesn’t even get sick. Naija is worried for him, tells him to be careful and to leave her office right away. Travis realizes she’s scared of something so he doesn’t press her too much.

Walking the empty streets of Palliser at night Travis thinks it’s quieter than Kandahar after curfew. He sees a figure run by in the shadows and follows. This is like being on patrol. Travis stays hidden, watches a teenage boy, Danny McNair, being chased by men with black hoods hiding their faces. When the men catch him, they tell Danny this was his last chance.

Travis steps out of the shadows and says, “Last chance for what?” There’s a fight. Travis wins and then hooded men run off. Danny tells Travis he’s a dead man now, The Sherrifs will kill him.

Secrecy, conspiracy, fear, danger. That’s life in Palliser...

So, as you can see, it's pretty derivative stuff. In the meeting today Scott was able to think on his feet a lot quicker than I could and answered all the questions about the conspiracy and the secret plans being carried out. If we're very, very lucky, someone will pay us a little money to write a pilot episode.

And, to bring this back around to books, I'd just like to say that yesterday was the official publication date for my new novel, Swap - in Canada, at least. It'll be out in the USA in February and it'll be called Let It Ride.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dr Jones, No Time For Blog...

By Jay Stringer

A couple of weeks ago I commented on Dave’s article that I could write essays about Indiana Jones. That set up a bit of a challenge, I suppose. I grew up as an Indy geek in the same way everyone else was growing up as a Star Wars geek.

But I’m not going to bore you with all the rants and in jokes. I’m keeping this on-topic. Well, as on-topic as it can be.

My obsession with the film has never really won me any punk points. It’s never been a hip film, it’s certainly not a ‘worthy’ film, and it doesn’t re-invent any wheels. But then, I don’t really think that great story telling has to be any of those things.

Breaking down RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK into its component parts is something I’ve done a number of times. It’s a good way to see what works and what doesn’t, and what lessons to take with you. When I was a film student I often used it as the textbook for how to pace and edit, and I outright stole a number of shots. As I turned to scriptwriting, I then began examining that side of the film; the script, the characters and the storytelling. And then, as I started taking the leap to writing full-length manuscripts, I found that I learned more from this film that from almost any other source.

So the main point of today’s blog is to look at a few specific examples of the lessons to be learned from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But before I dive into that, I want to hark back to Dave’s original blog. What is it about Henry Jones Jr that we find so appealing?

The majority ingredient is something that can’t be planned or written. It’s that bit of magic that happens between the page and screen when the perfect actor is cast in his perfect role. Harrison Ford has a magic ability to ground whatever story he is in. It doesn’t matter what manner of crazy shit is going on around him, he somehow manages to keep the film, and the viewer, within the realms of some magic plausibility. Maybe it’s his wry smile. Maybe it’s his stoicism. Maybe it’s that he has the photo’s that each of us want hidden and we’ll go along with whatever he says. Who knows?

But there are things that the script does to help us love the guy. As Scott has pointed out before, Indy fails at almost everything he sets out to do in this film. He doesn’t get the golden idol. He gets Marion’s home burned down. He loses the ark TWICE. He lets Marion get ‘killed’. He’s tied up and helpless during the big finale, and he doesn’t get access to the ark at the end of the film. He’s a pretty crap hero, all round, but he keeps getting up off the mat for another go.

Anyway, onto some specific lessons.

That’s a phrase you’ll hear used a lot by crime writers. Hammett spoiled us, really, and we’ve been playing catch up ever since. The art of getting a story across without intruding, of SHOWING what is happening and why, rather than TELLING. I struggled at this for a long time. Hell, I still do. But I’ve got my foot in the door these days, and it was this film that finally gave me the way in.
Sure, there is one glaring moment of exposition. Indy gives that brief Sunday school lesson near the start of the movie where he explains what the ark is to the CIA men (and the audience.) Even then, the film stops short of drawing conclusions. He tells them that nobody knows what’s in it, or what its power really is. Aside from that, the film is a masterpiece of show-don’t-tell. The characters are revealed to us through their actions and conversations. Motivation is only discussed when the story needs to reveal it, and back-story is hinted at in dialogue, but never explained. The bar sequence is a perfect example. With one quick exchange an entire character history is given to us without actually revealing anything;

-I learned to hate you in the last ten years
-I never meant to hurt you
-I was a child, I was in love, it was wrong and you knew it
-You knew what you were doing
-I can only say I’m sorry so many times
-Well say it again anyway

Boom. The characters have told us everything we need to know and nothing more. And it’s done without the writer (or in this case director) stepping into the narrative and dumping a load of back-story on us. There were longer versions of this scene written, but they were not needed. Edit your scenes, be your own harshest critic. If something doesn’t need to be there, get rid of it.
And can’t you just picture that exchange being between Bogart and Bacall?

Another good example is Marcus. His character was butchered for the third film, turned into a comic relief character, but here his entire persona is put across in two simple steps. Firstly, one of Indy’s students had left an apple for him. Marcus picks it up and starts eating it. We’re given right there the relationship between the two. Indy is the teacher to the students, Marcus is the teacher to Indy. No explanations needed. And then in one simple line, “If I was five years younger, I’d be going with you,” we get a back story and a time frame for it. We know that, whatever we see Indy doing on screen, this Marcus fella used to have a go at it himself.

As much as I love all the other Indy stories; the films, the books, the comics, the TV show, they water down what was a perfect story arc. Everything that needed to be said about this strange grumpy character was said in the first film.
That’s it. Done.
In one incredibly compact narrative, we’re given a beginning, a middle, and an end for Indiana Jones that says everything about him.

He starts the film as a shadowy figure, dark and moody. He travels the globe in search of relics, fortune and glory. He can say he’s doing it for the right reasons, but he’s getting paid by the museum to do it, and museums acquiring the history of other cultures is always a dubious idea. Even when he starts on his mission, hunting for the ark before the Nazi’s can get it, it’s not for the greater good. It’s because he has a personal stake in it, because it’s the greatest find in history, and because he’s being paid. Midway through the film this is put to him by his archenemy, Belloq. They are “shadowy reflections” of each other, both “fallen from the true faith.” Belloq says it wouldn’t take much to push Indy to where Belloq is, to that extra degree of corruption, and he’s right. From there the character begins making his choices about who he is and what his motives are. The film doesn’t stop to show us this, it just continues to move. Near the end he’s made his decisions. He knows what, and who, is important to him. He’s refound a relationship that makes him something better, and he’s refound the “true faith” in archaeology.

He’s travelled so far from the shadowy figure at the start of the film, that he’s willing to take a leap of faith when the Ark is opened, to close his eyes and trust in its power. Maybe heeding his friend Sallah’s warning that the power within the Ark shouldn’t be for mankind. It’s a marked difference from the man Indy was when he first took on the mission, wide eyed at the notion of finding the relic, but not believing in magic.

The opening of the Ark itself was an important lesson for me. How does it work? What it the power? How does it kill? These were all things that were explained in early drafts of the story. And these were all things that didn’t matter one single bit to the story. It had no bearing on who the characters were, how the story moved, and what characters motivations were. If it has no bearing on any of those, you can live without knowing it.

Ultimately this film asks us to accept some crazy, implausible stuff. No greater than the angry box made by the man in the sky that kills Nazis. But it feels grounded and somehow plausible. A large part of this is due to the way the film sets up cause and effect. Violence is shown to have consequences. Yes, sometimes its comedy. A few of the Nazi deaths are casual and comedic. But at the same time, they are at least being shown. If a man falls from a truck you’ll see him get run over. If Indy gets shot in the arm you’ll see the blood and the scar will remain. If the film shows an action, it follows through with a reaction, and that means that the logical parts of our brain can accept what’s happening.

So to sum up, here are the main lessons I take from the film into the stories I write. They work for me. Maybe they don’t work for anyone else.

-Show Don’t Tell. If something can’t be revealed through dialogue or action, then I’m not going to use it.
-Pacing. Come in with the story already in motion. Leave as soon as you’ve made your point. Don’t stick around just to throw in a bit of writing you’re proud of.
-Characters. Know who they are. Know where they are in the scene, and where they are in the story.
-Know what’s important. It’s more vital to me to know that character A will kill character B to get a box, then it is to know what’s IN the box.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The First Line: "Who's there?"

By Steve Weddle

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

You really don’t have any choice but to keep reading, do you?
In this space on Saturday, Scott wrote about using normalcy to bring the reader into the writing. The idea of having the reader identify with the main character in the book is crucial. “That could be me” is a powerful way to pull folks in. But they have to want to keep reading. They have to want to find out what happens next. And that’s part of what sells books, too. The first line.

Hunter S. Thompson’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS pulls you in and won’t let you go until you’re a trembling heap of shakes and day-old vomit 200 pages later.

Gobs of stuff goes into getting you to buy a book. From ads on the sides of buses to blurbs to appearances on radio shows, the machine works to sell the book. But if someone picks up the book in the store and the first line is “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym,” then folks might just pick up their lattes and move along to another book.

“Blood. It was everywhere.” That’s how J.T. Ellison’s JUDAS KISS opens. Gonna keep reading? Damn straight. Whose blood? Why? All those questions in your head. You need them answered. And that’s what the book is – an answer to questions not asked on the first page.

Here’s another opener famous in the crime fiction circles: “I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.” You pick that up in your local bookstore, slap down $7, and you’re walking right out with the book with your thumb still holding your spot so you can read the rest when you get to your car. That’s Victor Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS, by the way.

How about this one? “I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.” Now, Mr. Hammett’s opening to THE THIN MAN has much in common with the openings I’ve mentioned (or the other way around, if you prefer). Like the Gischler opener, this one uses a proper name and a piece of geography to ground you. Like the Ellison, this one leaves you asking questions. What does the girl want? Who are the other people at the table? Did Nora get me anything for Christmas and, if so, how big is the bottle?

Remember how scary ALIEN was when you didn’t know what the monster looked like? The old “There’s something out there” that makes movies scary? That’s the kind of uncertainty that makes all of this work, I think. The monster we don’t know, the one out there that wants to get in here. And that’s what reading is, after all: a search for certainty, for answers we haven’t even learned to ask yet.

As Scott wrote on Saturday, we need to identify with the main character—we need the details from that life to be able to match them up with our lives. The main character is a salesman at Sears? I’ve been to Sears. She went to college at Vassar? My wife’s uncle taught at Vassar after the operation. Whatever the character, Scott argued, having the details helps readers connect.

Agreed. So what do you do with that connection, that string between main character and the reader? You know that thing where you tie one end of the string to your tooth and the other to the doorknob and then slam the door? Yeah, don’t do that. It frickin hurts like a mofo and it never works. I just thought I’d mention that.

As for the connection between character and reader? When a writer makes that connection, readers follow. But that connection has to be made on the first page, sometimes in the first line. And once connected, the reader has to have a reason to follow. You want to find out why something happened or what is going to happen next. I just finished TRUST NO ONE by Gregg Hurwitz, a book that keeps moving because the reader wants to find out what’s going on, why these things are happening and what it all means.

We read because we want answers, because we want to know what happens to these characters. Some of the best books have answers that lead to more questions.

You’re 10 chapters in and, even though you know who the bad guy is, you have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing. It doesn’t make sense. So you keep reading. But you wouldn’t have started if the first line hadn’t been: “Nathan Morris was already late for his dental appointment in Hicksville when he decided to strangle the waitress.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

All That Jazz

by Mike Knowles

Sometimes when I am reading a book and I come across a song being played in a scene, I get an urge to stop what I am doing and play the song. I usually go to Youtube and find what the writer put in the book and sit back with my eyes closed listening to the song. For a few minutes, I feel like there is some kind of connection between me and the song that wasn’t there before.

When I first read McFetridge’s Dirty Sweet, I was at my computer all the time listening to different classic rock songs that I forgot I knew the words to. It felt different listening to bands like T-Rex and thinking of what was happening in the crime novel I was reading. What felt different was the genre of music. Usually, I don’t find a lot of rock in crime novels. Usually, I find Jazz.

Michael Connoly’s Harry Bosch loved Jazz, Dan Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was into it, Barry Eisler’s John Rain went to jazz clubs when he wasn’t killing people, even Andrew Vachss’ Burke was a Jazz aficionado. Every time I read one of these books, I came across cops and criminals all into the same thing: Jazz.

I took breaks from reading all of those authors to listen to the music they wrote about, and I liked it. Hearing the music brought me deeper into the book; it was even cool to listen to while reading. But a while back, I decided to go deeper. I had to know why the music was showing up in crime novels over and over again. I had to understand Jazz. I put the Jazz stations on the satellite preset in my car, and I took severe advantage of the public library borrowing all the jazz I could find. I began listening to the music hard and it wasn’t until I began hearing the live tracks that I began to understand why the music was showing up in the books I was reading. I found a link between writing and Jazz. explains Jazz as a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part. In most jazz performances, players play solos which they make up on the spot, which requires considerable skill.

Musicians changing the songs that came before them with their own unique takes on the tune. How much different is that than writing crime fiction? There are regular themes that most crime stories center around like theft, revenge, justice, etc. These are all ideas that have been around forever. What makes the themes new, what makes them stand out as something interesting, is the different individual changes each writer brings to the page. The unique improvisations that make a story about something you have read about before suddenly different and original.

When I write a story, I get the characters in my head and an idea about what is going to happen and I start writing. I don’t nail down anything, most of it happens on the fly. It is by no means a perfect harmonious process, there are times I have to stop what I am doing because I have written myself into a corner. But most of the time, the best things I come up with, the things I think are clever, happen while I am writing without a plan.

I haven’t completely understood Jazz yet. I don’t think anyone can break it down into a definition. Jazz isn’t something that can be contained. It is about taking risks, about challenging the old with the new. And just when you think you know it, it surprises you by becoming something else. I think Jazz shows up in crime fiction over and over again because writers are after the same thing: to change the old by turning it on its head and showing a different side of an old idea. We improvise, and alter, generating new ideas that will one day themselves be changed. Jazz and writing are similar animals that refuse to remain caged. They find each other like stray dogs who share a mutual desire to find new places to roam and explore.