Saturday, September 12, 2009

In Praise of Audiobooks

I can say with complete honesty that I listen to more audiobooks than I read actual books. I’m to the point now where I prefer audiobooks over printed books. Take Dan Brown’s newest puzzle book. Instead of getting in line for the hardcover at the library, I’ve got the audiobook on hold. Chances are, I’ll get the book by late next week merely because the waiting list for the audiobook is shorter.

I also believe this: if you don’t listen to audiobooks, you are missing out. Fundamentally, every book tells a story, even if it’s a non-fiction book about migratory patterns of birds. And what better way to experience a story than having it told to you the way our ancestors did: aurally.

As a listener, the story comes alive in ways you just can’t get when you’re reading the story in your head. The voice actors almost always do a bang-up job with their narration, providing nuance where there is only black-and-white on the page. For me, at least, these readers narrate faster than I read so I can get through a book faster than if I read it myself.

Some caveats: yes, the voices of the characters in your head are your own creation and the reader’s voice is what you’re hearing. Sometimes, they don’t match well. I’ll grant you that one. And there are times when a reader of one gender has to voice a character from the other gender and it comes out funny. Touche. Not to be sexist but men doing women voices is a shade better (note I wrote shade; not loads) than the opposite. It’s a rare women narrator who can do men well (heh). It’s best when either gender just reads the lines as best they can.

Experiencing a book with your ears and your imagination is a great way to “read” a book and one I’ve come to prefer. As a writer, however, there’s an underrated advantage to listening to an audiobook. You pick up an ear for pacing, one, and dialogue, for another.

Let’s take pacing. When I’m reading a physical book, most of my mental energy is focused on the book and the words and what they mean. Well, duh. But seriously, I sometimes find myself so focused on getting through the words that I don’t have time to ponder the grander meaning of the words, the prose choices, the pacing. It’s not until I go back and re-read or sit and think on the work after I’ve put down the book where these thoughts come to me.

Not so with audio. As I listen, it takes me less energy to “get” the story and, thus, I’m free to ponder all those esoteric topics that my writerly brain likes to think about. Thus, my writerly brain is more actively engaged with a story as I listen to the book without having to stop, re-read, and think on everything later. As a writer, I find this kind of give-and-take essential to making me a better writer. I can easily ask myself “what would I do next?” and then have the answer the author chose given to me. Yeah, I know most writers do this anyway when they read; I’m just saying that, for me, it’s an easier exercise when I listen rather than when I read.

Dialogue. More often than not, it’s difficult for us writers to put good dialogue in our stories. I’m referring, of course, to dialogue that really sounds like people talk. Any of us can write dialogue that sounds like a writer wrote it. That’s easy. But real dialogue, the everyday speech patterns of cops, lawyers, killers, femme fatales, you name it, that can be very difficult to come by and “sound” authentic.

With audiobooks, you get the dialogue read to you by a professional voice actor. It’s the reader’s job to make the words sound real. Here’s where you can tell the gifted writer versus the regular writer. With a gifted writer and a gifted voice actor, the words and speeches of the characters roll out of the speakers and into your ears like sunshine on a warm summer day. It’s effortless. For a less-gifted writer, you can hear the wrongness with the words. Were the narrator an actor in a movie, he’d be able to get a re-write. Not so with audiobook readers. They have to read what’s on the page.

I have found that I pace my stories better and write more natural dialogue as a result of listening to audiobooks. Last week, I wrote about the digi-novel, a new way to experience a novel. Why not go back to oldest standard that has yet to be topped: having a story read to you.

Am I the only one who loves audiobooks?

P.S., In my writing group, we read our chapters aloud. I find that when I read my own dialogue, I often go “off script” and read the line as if I were the character and spoke in a natural way. I always make a note and go re-write the line of dialogue with the extra/fewer words I used. Anybody else do that?

Friday, September 11, 2009

On "f****ng detective fiction"

By Russel D McLean

I wasn’t going to comment on the Kelman fiasco. But I guess some of this has been building in me for quite a while. And, yes, its an opinion piece, not an essay, written from the heart about a genre that I truly love as a reader, never mind as a writer. And yes, it does focus on one particular phrase during what sounds like a long rant, but its a phrase that's sheer dismissive tone really hacked me off.

So let’s not directly address Kelman’s dismissal of “f****ng” detective fiction off the bat and instead ask, what is it about crime fiction that I love?

Some days it seems a tough call. I am pretty notorious for my antipathy towards serial killer novels, and a police procedural has to be something pretty special for me to give a damn. And foresnsics novels… I dunno, I’m not about the science so much. And I’m really not about solving a mystery or seeing justice restored. I admit fully that some of crime fiction can be predictable, mundane and conservative. But that is true of any writing. Any genre.

What I love in crime novels at their finest, are the moral and ethical choices that play out on the pages and in the narrative. Not just the predictable ones that create a straight dividing line between the good and the bad, but the ones that struggle to figure out what the right move is, the best way to react to a heightened situation, just what the hell is morality anyway? And who decides?

You see, at their heart, I think all crime novels are social novels. This is why I love writers like George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard – all of these guys deal with people on the street level who are divided not along lines of absolute moral certainty but along degrees of choice and attitude and background.

James Kelman’s recent cack-handed blast at genre fiction targeted not just kids fiction about upper middle class boy wizards but also “f****ng detective fiction” as most of the papers put it. Dismissing both genres as somehow light and frothy and “unworthy” of the grand traditions of Scottish literature. To be fair, of course, he also blasts Robert Burns, but since I’ve never really been a fan of Burns, I’m concerning myself with his dismissal of crime fiction in particular.

Sounds to me like he doesn’t get the crime genre at least. Doesn’t realise that at its best it is more powerful than any so-called “literary” fiction. You know, the navel-gazing shite that never moves, never goes anywhere, never really fucking says anything.

Crime fiction – whether with detectives or criminals or just people caught in a bad, bad situation – can tell us more about the world in which it was written than any other genre. Look at The Wire – a novel for television* – that rails against injustice, bureaucracy gone mad and dares to ask whether we can really provide a solution to the hells that we have created, often through our own good intentions. Or the works of James Ellroy that treat noir as both history and politics, providing a social history of the US through the eyes of the underclass and the worst kind of men.

So what do I love about crime fiction?

I love the questions that it raises. I love the fact that it makes us think about our reactions to events, about the way other people might react. I love that it can make us see the world in a whole new light, expose us to injustice and worlds we might have known to exist but could never quite understand. I love the fact that, as Wittgentstein said, “If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom there’s certainly not a grain of that in Mind**, and quite often a grain in the detective stories.” And speaking as an ex-philosophy student, I will tell you that there is often more ethical and social consideration in a good crime novel than in near enough any detached and analytical philosophical essay.

Yes, Mr Kelman – and I have no choice now but to address you directly – sometimes crime fiction can be nothing more than mere entertainment. And why not? Vecause we all need some of that from time to time. But clearly you’re skimming over the genre – dismissing it entirely out of hand based on some half-baked impressions from half-remembered pulps you never understood – if you believe that is all there is to it. And by the by, the writer that many papers assumed to be your particular “f****ng detective” target – for any faults he may have – has very often gone out of his way to try and reflect something of modern Scotland in his writing, attemping to add a political dimension that the “f****ng” detective story is often uniquely placed to explore.

In short, why do I love crime fiction?

Not just because it’s exciting, engaging and lends itself well to twisting plot and inciting incident, but because it can do all that and still ask questions, directly or indirectly affecting the reader and making them think. Because it can be radical. It can be surprising. It can be downright terrifying and unnerving. It can be almost anything, and it can be written with a power and ferocity to take your breath away at it’s absolute finest.

That’s why I love crime fiction. And if a crime fic novel - especially a Scots crime fic novel - does win the nobel prize, then I'll tell you it won't just be because its been written withing a populist genre. There'll be a far deeper reason than that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009




If I'd had my way, those would have been the titles to my first two novels. The novels that became WHEN ONE MAN DIES and THE EVIL THAT MEN DO... two clearly superior titles, I think.

I find titles to be a key element to a novel. Maybe, intially, THE KEY ELEMENT. When I walk through a bookstore, I scan the titles first. I look for one that jumps out at me, and that's what I take off the bookshelf to inspect some more.

And the problem is... with my third book I just can't find the right title. I've been through four so far. With another 70 pondered and tossed out before I even typed it on the title page. This book has been just out of my grasp for a long time, going through many many drafts... and it might not be done yet. But each time I come up with a title it just doesn't feel right.

It's been driving me batty. I'm at work and I'm just talking about titles to my colleagues. As I run, titles are jogging through my head as well.

I even forgot to post this post on time because all I've been thinking about are titles.

I'll come up with one. I'll pour through a book of quotes or I'll find a phrase in the book I like and it'll speak to me... but until then... I'll just be thinking of different phrase in my head... OVER AND OVER AND OVER...

So two questions...

As a reader, how important are titles to you?


As a writer, how important are titles to you?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Conferences, Festivals, Conventions

John McFetridge

Should you go or not?

The first convention I ever went to was in Boston in 1977 – NewCon Science Fiction Convention – back when sci fi cons were all about books. Well, almost all about books, they did show that blooper reel from Star Trek that could only be shown a few times a year, some propaganda cartoons (incredibly racist) and I think an episode of The Prisoner.

(this is the part where I feel I should tell you kids to get off my lawn.)

But Star Wars had been released (and there was no talk of a sequel yet) and that was pretty much the beginning of people coming to sci fi conventions who’d never read a book. Okay, I’m trying to make friends with this blog, so I’ll stop right now and let Robert J. Sawyer take over. Here’s his view of how Star Wars ruined science fiction literature:

I was in the audience once when Rob gave that speech (GenreCon in Sarnia, Ontario a few years ago) and he starts it by saying he won't take any questions but, man, some guys just vibrate in their seats trying to hold it together.

Anyway, the question here is should you go to conventions or conferences or festivals, or whatever they're called and I say yes, you should go.


If you’re a writer – even a ‘pre-published’ writer – a book conference like Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime or Bloody Words here in Canada is a great way to feel like a writer and to be around people who feel the same way. These are places for people who love books.

Now, these conventions aren’t very good places to sell books. It’s good to make sure there are copies of your book in the dealers’ room, but I mean they aren’t good places for you to try and sell your book to someone. That’s not really what they’re for and no one wants to put up with hundreds of writers trying to sell them a book.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re a writer you're also something else – a schoolteacher or a stay-at-home-Dad (that was me for years), an insurance salesman or a computer progammer or something. And usually the something takes first place in your life.

So, at something like Bouchercon, for four days you get to be a writer first. In a hotel bar packed with people who understand exactly what that means.

You might even learn something at a panel. At Bouchercon in Madison a few years ago Jim Fusilli was on the panel about music in mysteries and he pointed out that if you can't write a few lines as trite as a pop song and need to actually use real ones you're not working hard enough. That hit me because there are music references all over my books. Now, in the book I'm working on I finally have characters who are musicians and I'm having fun writing their sappy lyrics.

You might even hear someone like Rob Sawyer go off on a tangent that starts a riot.

Or maybe I'm just trying to justify the money I'm spendig to go to Dublin for the Books Fest 2009 where I'll be on a panel with Stuart Neville.

Maybe I'll even sell a couple of books...

(filling out the post option to make this come on line tomorrow I notice that will be 09/09/09 -- spooooky....)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bad Habits

By Jay Stringer

I’m here today to talk about an addiction.

It destroys lives, and it has had a hold of me for about ten years, give or take.

Yes. I’m here to talk about Football Manager. That annual package of computer game bliss. It can transport you away from real life, make you feel warm and tingly. It came make you feel like a better man. A superman.
It’s not all good, though. Like with all habits, it is a destructive force. It takes away friends and ends relationships. You can become distant and cranky, living in a fantasy world and forgetting how to interact with real people.
And it eats away whole years of your life; keeping you sat in the dark, jabbering and screaming at the wall. Your real memories become intermixed with fake ones.
Where were you when Michael Jackson died? Me, I was probably giving a half time team talk in the champions league final between Real Madrid and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It’s a sad and destructive tale. I think Irvine Welsh wants to work with me on the novelisation.

Okay, actual blog time.

This is a follow up to my first piece for this site. Back when we started, I wrote about how I don’t believe in writers block. It led to some very interesting discussions. At the heart of it was my premise that ‘writers block’ is actually just part of the writing process. It’s the brain figuring things out.

But there was an important element that I missed out back then. Because who doesn't love a sequel? One of the major factors in the productivity of a writer is distraction. Ever noticed how the comic book industry seems to have a higher number of scheduling delays around the time a hot new XBOX game is released?

People close to me have developed the ability to predict when I’m in ‘writer mode’ because I’ll be spending my spare time building a guitar, or going for walks. Maybe cleaning the kitchen or inventing a new recipe. I’ll be doing something invigorating or creative. At the same time, it’s easy to see when I’m being lazy. Because I’ll be playing that damn computer game. I was joking with a friend about it recently, each trading our game-sobriety tales. “Hi, I’m Jay Stringer and I haven’t played in three weeks.”* I joked that the last time I went any true length of time without giving in to the game, I wrote a novel. And its true.

I think we all have these dirty habits, though they’ll be different for everybody.
Worse still, we know these things destroy our work rate. I know each time I sit down with a fresh pile of comics, or each time I load up “just for one quick game,” that I’m kissing goodbye to productivity for the foreseeable future. Yet we do it anyway. Part of us likes it.
So, to steal a Weddle-ism, here are a couple of questions.

-What are your bad habits? Out yourself. It might feel good.

-What do you do to overcome them? Do you have a way to defeat your demons, or do you like giving in?

*This is blatantly not true.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Frame that Holds the Art

By Steve Weddle

Remember when you read “Heart of Darkness” and it opened with Marlow sitting on that boat with those old guys and how he started telling them that story of how he went up the river to find Marlon Brando?

And how about that book that was letters Robert Walton wrote to his sister about this weird doctor called “Frankenstein”?

And that book Washington Irving put together from that colorful guy called “Crayon” with all that stuff about Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle?
And how Hawthorne “found” those stories in an attic trunk? Or some fake dude Kierkegaard made up found fake letters some other fake person wrote to another fake person?

Since naming things helps to talk about them – and makes teaching easier – we call this gimmick, er, technique the “framing” device. Of course, since you’re so smart and good looking you already knew that.

This technique seems to work along that “willing suspension of disbelief” stuff in much the same way that a prologue-epilogue do.

Don’t tell anyone, but I just recently sculpted a prologue onto my current work in progress. Then I found out all the cool writers hate prologues. I felt like Ted Knight in that scene from “Caddyshack”--

Al Czervik: Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. What, when you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup, huh?
[looks at Judge Smails, who's wearing the same hat]
Al Czervik: Oh, it looks good on you though.

Yeah. That prologue. Does it ever look good? Does it make your book an embarrassment?

Most arguments against the prologue sound something like this: “Just make the first chapter better, slacker.” Um, yeah. Thanks. Is this really a problem of nomenclature? If we called the prologue the first chapter and moved on, would that work?

SHUTTER ISLAND by Dennis Lehane opens with a prologue: “I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years.” The prologue is dated 1993, nearly half a century after the events in the book. The framing technique here is that old doctor is losing his memory to age and needs to get this story down before he forgets everything. Why? Because you need to know.

Why does Marlow tell his story to the men on the boat? Because they need to know, need to understand the darkness.

A good prologue isn’t just a cheat on the first chapter. A good prologue can frame the narrative, in the way that the prologues did in Greek drama. Here’s a story I’m gonna show you. This story I have to share.

A good prologue can match up with a solid epilogue.

Maybe sometimes a prologue is just parts of the opening that should be included in the first chapters. And maybe it doesn’t always fit, but when it does, it’s a perfect match, particularly to a good epilogue that pulls you back out of the story. Maybe sometimes it forms a solid frame that holds the story, much like the way Conrad used Marlow to tell the story. The part that holds the story together.

In that scene in “Caddyshack,” Al Czervik makes fun of the judge’s hat as the judge is walking behind some aisles of other pro shop junk. You know, maybe that hat was a perfect match to the judge’s shoes, one edge complementing the other.

Today's Question: Have you ever read or written a prologue that worked particularly well? Or didn't?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Not Just For Kids Anymore

by Mike Knowles

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t read to me much. I knew about the Cat and the Hat, but I never read it until I was older. I remember sitting in a doctor’s office waiting to go into the examination room and seeing a worn copy of Dr. Seuss’ masterpiece sitting on top of the worn National Geographic’s. I picked up the book, mainly because I had already looked through the National Geographic’s years before on previous visits and because the magazine covers skeeved me out due to the thick sheen of finger grease left from years of being thumbed through by all of the other patients. So I read the book, put it down, and thought to myself: “So that’s what all the hype was about.” The book was cute and I got how it was delightfully different, but it didn’t do anything for me. The only book I could ever remember getting my attention was Where the Wild Things Are. That had monsters, so there was no way a cat wearing a top hat was going to compete with that. I found another Seuss title buried beneath the old magazines and read it just to be sure. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish was even less interesting than the first. I put down the books and was done with picture books, for a while. I figured I just wasn’t a picture book kind of guy.

I am a teacher now and I teach Grade 8. Where I teach, I am responsible for almost every subject, so I work hard to get kids into some good books. I start every year with Ed McBain’s On the Sidewalk Bleeding. Harry Potter it ain’t. There are no wizards or movies about it. It is always something brand new for the kids. McBain wrote it as Evan Hunter and you can find it online. If you haven't read it, take a break and do it now the blog will wait. How often do you get to spend Sunday morning with McBain anymore (Click Here)? Often, this story is the first time kids I teach realize that not all stories have to finish with a happy ending. I segway this story into others like Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter which is another dark story (just in case you never read that either Click Here). From there, I show the kids as many things as I can that will make them learn to see books as more than just a school chore. In looking for things to show the class I was guided by another teacher back to picture books. I was sitting through one of those boring Professional Activity Day meetings wishing I was at home like the kids when the presenter began sending around picture books. The passing ended when the books hit me, because I spent the rest of the meeting reading each one before passing it on. These children’s books were not like the one’s I remembered. There were no monsters, or rhymes, they instead dealt with serious social issues. I read a book on homelessness, one on the cultural devastation wrought by Columbus, and another about the dangers of life in a dictatorship.

After the meeting, I arranged to get each book and sought out several more by the same authors. I couldn’t believe someone had decided to stop treating children’s books like something meant only for a toddler’s bedtime and that I had missed the memo. These books used the medium of picture books to explain and explore topics that young children do not usually come into contact with until they are much older. The issues are presented in understandable terms and are usually centered around a young person’s perspective so that they are easily relatable for young audiences. My students have found them more engaging than a rhyming cat in a chapeau every time.

The book I now break out every year to break the kid’s prejudice about picture books (the same one I had) is The Composition by Antonio Skarmeta and Alfonso Ruano. The story is intense. It centers around a young boy named Pedro who lives in a time of political upheaval in Latin American country. The military begins to cart off the parents of young children for their opposition to the dictator. The situation even begins to affect all of the children in a nearby school when a General comes to class one day to assign a new piece of homework. The children are tasked with writing a report on everything their parents do at night. The fate of Pedro’s entire family is thrust upon him and he cannot hide or run away. The issues in The Composition are serious, but amazingly they are understood by a lot of young kids.

Books like The Composition stop babying kids and give them a chance to read something challenging and relevant. They also opened my eyes to the serious literary work that has been going on under my nose. So the next time you’re in the local big book chain. Take twenty minutes and cruise the kids section past the Seuss and Madonna. Just be prepared to get stuck there for a while.