Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning from the Past...and the Pulps

How can you move forward when you don't know where you've been? How can you avoid the mistakes of the past when you don't even know what the mistakes were?

These are two fundamental questions one has to ask when you study history, a discipline in which I hold two degrees. For me, history, both past and present, is a living thing and it is something for which I have a lot of passion. Writing is something else for which I have a lot of passion and, you know what? The questions are relevant to writing as well.

This past summer, I read a lot of old adventure and pulp fiction, things most boys read when they're ten or twelve. I'm a boy of forty. Guess it ain't too late. I cataloged them in a week of themed reviews (Adventure Week) on my blog. You can read them if you want. Here's where I get to list a few things I learned from reading these old stories. Here's the list:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1873)
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1875)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913)

Coincidences are like garlic: a little goes a long way

Coincidences. The things that make you go "No way!" could that happen...and they do. You'll roll your eyes and accuse the writer of taking a short cut. In modern stories, coincidences have almost no place. The "Back to the Future" movies are among my favorite example of "everything is explained." The writers may have started with a shortcut ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Marty dressed up like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars?") but they found a way to make it believable (I'll leave it up to you to remember the clue). Same with novels. For as fun as the Miss Marple stories are, seriously, how many murders can one old lady stumble upon?

In these adventure stories, there are a few eye-rollers and one big whopper. The Return of Tarzan is riff with them. Tarzan is thrown off a boat and swims to shore and lands *exactly* where he parents were marooned twentysomething years ago. Whatever! I could do that as a writer...and have a bunch of manuscript pages yellowing in a drawer. Now, in our hyper-keep-it-real-explain-everything world, there's no place for coincidences. The best thing about ERB , as more than one commenter wrote on my blog yesterday, is that the stories are so much fun, you can let the "serendipity" slide. Not so with King Solomon's Mines. Our brave European explorers have with them an African guide Who Just Happens To Be The Long Lost King of the Lost Tribe They Discover. Sure, the African could've guessed where Quatermain was headed and hitched a ride but it could've been better explained. It just landed with a solid thud in the story that had already lost its steam.

Exotica can only get your so far.

All of these stories involve some sort of exotic location. Verne has the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's ship, and all the ports Nemo chooses, like Atlantis or underwater graveyards. Treasure Island features the Caribbean and tropical environs while Haggard and ERB set their stories in Africa. You'd think that having an exotic setting would be enough to drive a story. You'd be wrong. The Verne and Haggard books both have one simple fault: they rely too heavily on the environment. Whether you're reading about Quatermain's trek across Africa or Nemo's journey's under water, the stories have to go somewhere. I think these authors were too content to just let the setting play too big a role in their respective books. I give Verne a bit of a pass since he invented a working submarine in his novel. Haggard just tried too hard to make an exciting story and failed.

Character Counts. Big Time.

This is not an earth-shattering revelation. There's a reason Agatha Christie wrote as many Miss Marple stores as she did: people liked the character. In their books, Stevenson and ERB use their respective exotic settings as a means to tell a better story with compelling characters. I was much more invested in the stories of young Lord Greystoke and young Jim Hawkins...and I couldn't care less where the story took place. Now, the setting helped but I liked the characters. Who hasn't dreamed of finding a pirate treasure map and set off to find it? I won't say who hasn't dreamed of growing up with apes in the jungle but the situation is compelling enough that you want to know what happens with Tarzan. It was fun watching him grow up in the jungle and Hawkins battle pirates in the Caribbean. In these books, the environment was gravy. The meat was in the story and the characters.

Fun is Important

We're now entering the fall season, the time when the Important Books and the Important Movies are released. It's awards season now. We must put away our paperbacks and pick up hard back books that challenge our intellect and make us think. When I started work on my second book, my modern crime novel, I wanted to make it real. I wanted it gritty and urban. I wanted no coincidences. Everything had to be explained. I got so fixated on Keeping It Real that it died in my laptop. It suffocated. I didn't keep it fun.

Fiction, by definition, isn't real. It can be realistic but you've still got to enjoy yourself. Right? HBO's "The Wire" is real and gritty and utterly engrossing but it's the characters that matter. The real-life cop procedures are nice but if we didn't care if McNulty screwed around or if Omar's lover got himself killed, we'd stop watching. We'd also stop reading, were it a book. That's the Keeping It Real part. But how hard did you laugh when various groups of characters got drunk and just mouthed off? Those moments of levity helped me love those characters, even the criminals. Have a little fun. That's probably the biggest lesson I learned.

Everyone who writes columns (like this one?) on writing tends to boil the entire process down to the couplet Stephen King captured best: Read a lot and write a lot. I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't enjoy reading. And I'm a better writer every time I sit down to compose because of the variety of books I read. Classic adventure tales and early pulp fiction continue to grab our imaginations and rarely let go. They also can show us writers how they used to do it back in the day and allow us to question their choices and learn from them. I learned a lot from the adventure tales I read this summer (including a modern descendant, Gabriel Hunt) and I can't wait to get back to Africa with Tarzan or solve crimes with The Shadow or travel the world with Gabriel Hunt. I want to learn some more. And be entertained.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Russel D McLean

Next week I will be talking to Alexander McGregor, a journalist whose book, THE LAW KILLERS, went straight to number one in the Scottish book charts and stayed there… for over ten weeks! THE LAW KILLERS is, of course, a true crime book concerning itself with crimes in the city of Dundee.

And, yes, that’s the same Dundee I’m writing about.

True crime is a strange genre. Sometimes it can feel manipulative, exploiting others’ pain for a few hours entertainment and fascination. But when done well, with compassion intelligence and respect, true crime can be a fascinating form of reportage from the darker side of the human experience.

Carol Anne Davis – a Dundonian author by birth, but these days, I believe living somewhere south of the border – tends to be published under seemingly exploitative titles that disguise her thoughtful, reflective and often illuminating case studies. Couples Who Kill, as a title, reeks of schlock, but then you open the pages and realise that this woman is dedicated not to feeding the shock-horror factor but is deliberately setting out to discover – in a sober and respectful fashion – what makes criminals and killers tick. Her interviews, analyses and reconstructions are gripping and above all unbiased. She is not here to titillate you. She is here to make you think. About the nature of the violence. About who these people are who could commit such acts.

I like Davis’s style, because what fascinates about crime is what it says about the way that people think and the society that could produce such people. It’s why I love crime fiction, and it’s why I love well written true crime.

Joseph Wambaugh, of course, truly fascinates me both with his fiction and his true crime. I think his cop’s eye view of proceedings provided the right kind of distance, and it helped that he could just naturally write up a storm. Moments from his true crime have often stayed with me, particularly Lines and Shadows and, of course, Echoes in the Darkness.

At this year’s Harrogate Crime Festival I foolishly didn’t get up the guts to just stride over and speak to David Simon. I had just come off reading THE CORNER, and as I said to many people, I have rarely felt such anger when closing a book. Not anger at the author or the people involved in the book, but at the way we as a society could allow such things to happen on our watch. And anger that we find it so hard to provide an alternative, to undo this mess that we have created in our cities. I felt angry because I was not reading simply about Baltimore, but about cities all over the world. With variations, regional and personal, the stories of THE CORNER could easily take place anywhere and with the same indifference from authority and society. This was true crime as true social commentary, and it made me mad – precisely the point, I think, of the book.

Talking to Alexander McGregor in advance of our event next week, I’ve been fascinated to hear how, for the new edition, he’s had to update cases as new evidence has come to light, been forced to include new studies that caught his attention and generally had to ensure the book kept pace with the world around it. Because true crime is not written in a vacuum. The players and their situations are always in flux long after a book has been published. He has not abandoned his cases, left his words set in stone. How could he? Unlike fictional thrillers, true crime cases reverberate long after the dust has settled. And in so many cases, it seems that the possibility of the dust ever settling is truly remote.

I don’t know that I could ever write a true crime book. I don’t know that I could do true life tragedy justice. Not many people can, but those who write truly compelling and intelligent analyses of the terrible things we do to each other, making sense of reasoning and motive that can often seem bizarre and terrifying, have my utmost respect and admiration.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

That's a Good Idea...

by Dave White

"Where do your ideas come from?"

Every author gets this question. Most authors I talk to hate it.

I love it.

Why? Well first of all, I get to talk about myself... Let's be honest here. That's one of my favorite things.

But the main reason I love to talk about this is because I love thinking about how ideas grow. I talk about this a lot with my students. We talk about generating ideas, but at the same time letting those ideas mature and evolve.

Where do my ideas come from?

Not one place. Usually most of my novels start with an idea, and I keep adding to that idea picking things out from different areas of life or research.

Let's take my second novel THE EVIL THAT MEN DO. The basic plot of the novel is this: Jackson Donne is asked by his estranged sister to talk to his Alzheimer's ridden mother. The mother had been talking about the past and a murder that occurred there, and Donne's sister wants to know what went on. Meanwhile, someone has started to attack Donne's family with car bombs and hired assassins.

The seed for this novel took place somewhere in 2005. My grandmother had the disease and the more she declined, the more she would lapse into the past. As my grandma spoke to my mother, my mother start learn things about her own grandfather she'd never known. Basically, my mother's grandfather used to work on the docks of the Hackensack River during the Great Depression. During that time he'd get on a boat and drag the river for dead bodies. His work nickname was "Tugger."


I couldn't resist.

So there's my seed for the novel.

The Great Depression idea was great because I wanted to test new writing muscles by setting some of the book in the past.

Next step, the characters... I had Tugger, but needed Donne to have a family. I started to think about writing EVIL around the last draft of my first novel WHEN ONE MAN DIES, so I went back and added a passage about Donne's mother and sister. I also wanted to use some of my friends' names in the book, so I created Bryan Hackett, the villain.

At the same time, I was dating a girl who owned a restaurant. And then she dumped me, right when I started to write the book. So, I decided to blow up a restaurant in the book. (Not her restaurant, mind you. A, um, different, fictional restaurant that happened to be ... okay I'll move on.) Another seed I planted to use later on.

Now I have a bunch of threads to work with.

So I started to write and move the characters around. Finally, when I needed some motivation, I was out with a friend looking at tuxes for his wedding. We ended up in Bayonne, his home town, and he started telling me some cool Bayonne facts about the harbor area. I used those facts for motivation later.

The rest was simple plotting and building on what I already had planted.

I think thinking about where ideas come from is interesting. It shows you how a novel grows and it can help you with the next novel. You think about your own ideas and you realize that inspiration will come. And it will come when you're least looking for it.

I think talking about the seeds of ideas with other authors can give you insight into their writing process. You can learn from how they work and incorporate it into your own. I love hearing where ideas come from. I love talking about it. Often the stories behind the books become just as interesting as the books.

You learn to keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the jokes you make... because you never know... a joke might turn into a great pitch for a book.

(That's how the idea for my third novel began. I made a joke to a friend of mine... An hour later I was thinking about if that joke could become a serious and believable novel... I hope it works out.)


Where do you get your ideas?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Conferences, part two

John McFetridge

Last week I talked about going to literary conferences, conventions and festivals and then on the weekend I was at the Books 2009 Festival in Dublin. I'm still in Dublin, or just outside the city in a beautiful part of the country called Wicklow, as the guest of Declan Burke - these are the rewards of writing for me.

Books 2009 Dublin was pretty much exactly what I was talking about last week. A great place to talk about books, to find new books and for me, to feel like a real writer.

The opening ceremonies to the festival on Thursday featured a reading and short interview with John Banville. I haven't read any of his books yet (I can say "yet" now because I certainly will soon) but I followed the whole kerfuffle with him and Ruth Dudley Edwards (more fun with her later). As expected, the guy was charming and gracious but he was also honest and strightforward - the way I like the books I read to be. He had what I think is a tremendous insight into the writing process when he said;

Writing is not self-expression.

For years I've heard people teaching writing talk about expressing yourself, people taking the "write what you know," too literally to mean the things and events that you know rather than the emotions and about getting your voice right and meaning "your" actual voice. Banville said when he was starting out writing short stories it wasn't until he wrote one that was its own story, removed from him, that he realized, yes, that's right.

Oh sure, there's some self-expression in writing and you're going to draw from some of your own experiences and some of the things you know, but you're going to draw on a lot more sources as well and it's going to all add up to its own story - not "your" story.

On Saturday the conference's crime fiction section started off with a workshop on crime writing by Declan Hughes. At Bouchercon last year Dana King told me that Declan Hughes gave a talk about writing PI stories that was inspirational. His workshop was full of very practical advice based on his experience but yes, it was also inspirational. Especially when he said, "Writing is fun. Well, it's not fun like going to the pub for a pint, or fun like, well, insert your favourite fun activity here ______, but it's fun when it's done." Yeah. A lot of people have told me they'd like to write a book and really what they're saying is that they would like to have written a book. Writing feels good when you're getting it right (though it's very hard to keep that feeling when you finish for the day) and feels awful when it's not working. Declan Hughes makes you feel like it'll be worth it to fight your way till the end.

My panel went very well, I got to meet Stuart Neville, Alan Glynn and Ava McCarthy. The moderator was a novelist and professor of Italian named Cormac Miller who was very good and gave us the questions he was going to ask ahead of time - I wish my professors had done that back when I was in school.

There's a lot of buzz around Stuart's debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast (in the US - it's called The Twelve in the UK and Ireland and I don't know which title it'll have in Canada) and after Cormac had us read the first page of our books I understand why. A guy by himself in a bar, looking at the ghosts of the people he's killed. If someone was telling me about the book and they said, "And when the ghosts follow him home and scream at him to keep him from falling asleep he says, 'it was worst when the baby started crying,'" I would think there's was a real danger of that book getting too maudlin, too sappy - come on, the baby? But the first two page were so good I could only think, man, if the rest of the book is that good, it'll be fantastic.

Because if there's no danger, what's the point?

In some ways I had the same fears about Alan Glynn's Witerland. Two men with same name (a man and his sister's son) die on the same night. The nephew, a Dublin gang member, is executed in a bar - er, sorry, pub (have to remember where I am) and the uncle in a car accident. But was it an accident?

I'm now 157 pages into the book and thrilled to report the "coincidence" was dealt with early on (for the reader, at least) and the book is excellent. None of the characters are too far behind the curve. Now I feel silly for being worried that the book was going to rely on that coincidence all the way through. This is no one-trick pony.

And the thing about Ava McCarthy's book, The Insider, that I think makes it very cool is that it's a big fat thriller set in Dublin. Computer hacker, insider trading scheme, chases, action - everything you'd expect in a thriller - and with a solid female lead and Dublin.

The final panel was Declan Hughes interviewing John Connolly and Colin Bateman. Unfortunately for people reading this it was mostly a, "You had to be there event." Just to hear John Connolly's rant on Dan Brown (quite the flip-side to Steve's here on Monday ;) and rant on so many other topics and for the sheer joy of Colin Bateman's few, but perfectly timed, words.

It was really the kind of thing that makes going to conferences and festivals and conventions worth it.

At the end of the day we went to a pub (shocking, I know) and I got to hear John COnnelly and Declan Hughes rant some more, but this time they had Ruth Dudley Edwards to keep up with. Some great gossip, there (another good reason to attend a conference) and I also had a chance to talk to Brian McGilloway and I was happy to hear there are more Devlin books on the way.

Oh, and one more thing. Whenever I'm in a crowd I like to blend into the background and not be noticed. Whenever I'm at a comedy club and the person on stage asks questions to the audience, even stuff like, "Anyone from out of town?" I never say anything, I just sit there and hope he doesn't look at me.

And yet, somehow, in Dublin, I ended up in the middle of a street performer's act for half an hour in front of a huge crowd on Grafton Street that ended with the guy laying down on a bed of broken glass and me standing on his chest.

People who know me will think I'm making this up, but I have proof:

The whole story is on my blog.

Now, if that's not a good enough reason to go to a convention, I can't imagine what is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Scalped - No capes allowed

By Jay Stringer

I continue to be blown away by SCALPED.

It’s a shining example of great comics, of what can be done with the medium that can’t be done with film, television or books.

And that’s a key concept, an important one. There’s a dirty secret in comic books, folks. The industry looks down on itself. It has self esteem problems, always wanting to be more like movies and TV, always wanting to hang with the cool kids. In truth comic books are at their best when they’re allowed to be what they are; a distinct art form. A language of story telling that can do some thing far better than any other medium.

Comics are at their best when they’re not redefining themselves as graphic novels, or sequential fiction, or any of the other bullshit titles that get used to make them seem worthy of having a section in a bookshop.

And Scalped is possibly the best example out there right now.

But I’ll get to that in a minute. First it’s worth noting that I came relatively late to the party. I actually flicked through the first couple of issues and….it didn’t grab me. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, I guess. After I heard the growing praise, I picked up the first trade, Indian Country, and it hooked me a little. I wasn’t fully sold on this being the best thing since sliced bread, but I enjoyed it and kept going. It’s now up to its fourth trade, The Gravel In Your Guts, and I’m hooked. I need it. Each time i think i have it figured out, it adds another layer or takes a new turn.

What’s the plot? Well like all good things its both very simple and very complex. The basic set up is that it takes place on a Native American reservation. It covers the inhabitants of the towns, the local law enforcement, the corruption, and the building of a brand new casino. It’s every noir tale of corruption and greed that you’ve ever read, but in a new setting that’s so perfect you can’t believe it’s taken this long.

The story starts when Dashiell Bad Horse returns to the rez. He’s angry, he’s strong and he’s trouble. He picks fights with an entire bar full of people and comes to the attention of Chief Red Crow; the godfather of the reservation. Red Crow controls the drugs, the liquor and the sex. He’s the corrupt mind behind the new casino. His main adversary, a woman who is leading the protests against the casino, also happens to be Bad Horse’s mother. She and Red Crow were the love of each others lives until they started hating each other.

Dashiell is working undercover for the FBI to uncover the corruption of Red Crow and the bad guys. So far, so simple.


There are no good guys and bad guys on show here. Soon you start to think that Dash is doing the right thing for the right reasons, and that Red Crow is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Except that theory unravels too. Dash is a bit of an asshole. He's not in this for any noble intentions, rather a mix of entrapment, self hatred and self discovery.

And Red Crow himself soon grows to be the best thing about the book. In fact, he’s just about the most complex character I’ve come across in years, in any medium. He’s both a crime lord and a freedom fighter. He’s a flawed hero and a noble villain. As he himself says at one point;

I’ve killed many men. Women too. And I’ll kill a hundred more, if that’s what it takes to see my vision through. To carve a better place in this world for my people."

In the latest collection we see him trying to reform. He is given the soul pouch of a dead friend to guard over. What that means is that he must live a peaceful and noble life for a year so that the soul of his friend can find peace. If he fails he is condemning that soul to remain restless.

And boy, does he try. But a mans gotta do, you know? I never thought a scene where a middle-aged man says, “I’m sorry.” To a piece of cloth would have me in pieces.

The narrative cuts between the large and the small scale, to show supporting characters becoming entangled in the larger web of the plot. Much like The Wire, we see that the characters are trapped in a much larger game, just as in the old tales where the Greek gods would move the humans around like pawns. You know it’s going to end badly, and they know it’s going to end badly. But they can’t break out.

Dash and Red Crow are caught in a dance, they know one day it’s going to come down between the two of them, but they’re also locked in like family, both defined by the love of the same woman.

So what can this series do that a novel, film or TV series can’t? Why was I so bold with my opening statement?

Could this be a film? Yes. It could be a rushed and violent spectacle. It could cram the whole thing into two or three hours and barely scratch the surface of what this series has achieved so far.
Could it be a television show? Sure. The Wire has proved that this sort of thing is doable. But it would take the very best writers and directors, to say nothing of a cast who would be willing to sit out whole episodes at a time as the focus shifts.
What a comic book can do that doesn’t work on screen is to really get us into the heads of the characters. It can show and tell. And because of that, it only needs to do a little of each to hit home very powerfully.

I’m reminded of a scene in issue 19, The Boudoir Stomp.

Dash Bad Horse and his lover are sharing a bed. We see them have wild passionate sex, sharing part of each other in the most intimate way.

Then afterward we see them lying in silence. They’re both lost and alone, and desperate for company. We get too see both what they actually say to each other, and what they want to say to each other. And the fact that they can’t say the words is heartbreaking.

Could this be done on screen? Yes. With a really clunky voice over. In fact, it would need two separate clunky voice overs; one for each character. Who wants that?

Could this be a novel? Sure. Absolutely. But to do the story and characters justice, it would need to be a seven hundred page epic, it would need to have about ten different points of view, and it wouldn’t be able to show us the simple despair that one panel of art can get across.

And that’s where the real strength of the medium lies, as I’ve already said, in its ability to show and tell. A little bit of both goes a long way. It combines the strengths of cinematic storytelling with the strengths of prose. In the right hands it can become something that neither form can match.

And Scalped is in the right hands. Written by Jason Aaron and (usually) drawn by R.M. Guera, this is a masterpiece in the making.

I don't gush like this often, folks. But you know those books that people look back on? WATCHMEN, PREACHER, MAUS.....wouldn't it be great to have front frow seats as one of those legendary stories was happening?

Well, you can. Volume 5, HIGH LONESOME is due out in November. That gives you plenty of time to catch up.

If you don't, the guy to the right gets it. And a puppy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Dan Brown Code

By Steve Weddle

You might have heard about this already, but that Dan Brown guy has a new book coming out this week, Tuesday, September 15. My heartfelt condolences to anyone else with a book dropping this week.

The prologue and first couple of chapters of THE LOST SYMBOL have already appeared in print and the book will top the bestseller charts for a long damn time. That’s a given. Also a given is that plenty of ink will be spilled about how Brown isn’t a great writer and still sells zillions of books and how bad he is for the industry because it puts the focus on the blockbuster. Yeah, yeah. I’m not here to bury Caesar. I’m here to tell you how Caesar rules the kingdom.

I’ve read or listened to all of his books so far, and I’ll swing by the bookstore to get this one on Tuesday. Why? Well, I’ll be near the bookstore that day anyway, so I might as well be a part of the madness. Oh, why have I read all his books? Yeah, because the dude can write. I don’t mean he can sculpt a sentence or layer a paragraph. He’s no Richard Powers. He doesn’t create characters that instill daydreams and fantasies in generations of readers. Oh, Mr. Darcy. I'm not necessarily a Dan Brown fan, but I am a writer. I want to understand what this bestselling author and publishing phenomenon does. So what does he do? The dude writes one chapter that gets you to the next. He writes page-turners. And I’m gonna tell you how he does it.

A few years ago, in that whole HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL holy moley lawsuit, Brown filed a “Witness Statement to the High Court” in which he detailed exactly how he writes his books and what “themes” he works into them. “For me, the ‘must have’ themes include codes, puzzles and treasure hunts, secretive organizations, and academic lectures on obscure topics,” Brown said in the filing. THE DA VINCI CODE had plenty of this, as did the one with the icebergs and the one at the NSA and the other one about the Catholic church. Yeah, but the puzzles and secrets are only part what makes the books page-turners.

Early on in ANGEL & DEMONS, Robert Langdon is talking with some scientist who tells him, in passing, that one square foot of fabric can slow a falling object at such-and-such a rate. Langdon says something like, “Little did I know that half a world away 18 hours later that piece of information would save my life.” You’re not going to turn the page now? C’mon. Don’t be like that. You may call it gimmicky, but this sucker moves. And yeah, the plots in Dan Brown’s books have some similar elements, particularly the whole “oh, you mean that guy we’ve trusted for the past 300 pages is actually the bad guy?” kind of stuff. In that court filing, Brown himself lists these similarities between the two Langdon novels: “ the murder, the chase through a foreign location, the action taking place all in 24 hours, the codes, the ticking clock, the strong male and female characters, the love interest.” Take what works, add in some changes and people keep reading the books and can’t put them down. And there’s a simple reason why.

The books Dan Brown writes aren’t great literature; they’re page-turners. The key here is that when you get to the end of a chapter, you want to keep reading. Those old Saturday matinees your grandpa still talks about. That season-ending episode when Picard got taken by the Borg. You want to know what happens next. And the way Brown accomplishes this is piece by piece. In THE DA VINCI CODE, they’re not looking for the Holy Grail as much as they’re looking for the answers to the puzzle that will lead them to the next puzzle that will lead them on to the Holy Grail. Only, that just leads to another puzzle. But they’re closer to the Grail. And the bad guys are closer to them, too. And it’s all closing in on them. Then they’re about to solve the piece and the chapter ends. Heck, you have to keep going. Here's the end to Chapter Six in THE DAVINCI CODE:

"You saw the photograph," Fache said, "so this should be of no surprise."
Langdon felt a deep chill as they approached the body. Before him was one of the strangest images he had ever seen.

Dan Brown tends to end his chapter with the first lines of novels. No, he’s no Richard Stark opening a Parker novel, but that line at the end of the chapter makes you want to know what happens next. And then you’re sucked into the suspense. Yeah, they’re just about to solve that puzzle, so you turn the page. Oh, man. That puzzle was just a clue for the next puzzle. Well, they’ve almost got that one solved. But what could it be? Does it tie in to what that guy said a few chapters ago?

Dan Brown isn’t the only writer to end a chapter with a doohickey that gets you to the next. He’s not the only writer to put little puzzles throughout. He’s not the only writer to create characters solely to advance the plot. But he is the guy millions of people read.

The reason people read Dan Brown because they HAVE TO FIND OUT. His books are tons of fun because they’re not about the characters or sentence structure. His books are all about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

And for Dan Brown, what happens next is selling another zillion books.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Books - Not Just For Reading Anymore

by Mike Knowles

No, you're not seeing the same thing twice. I picked audio books this week too. You figure seven writers, seven voices, we'd overlap a bit from time to time. This just means, loyal reader, you just don't have to pay as much attention the second time through.

A few weeks ago, my Creative brand 512mb MP3 player began to malfunction. This was not an inconvenience, but a tragedy. I don’t use the MP3 player for music at all. I listen to music the way God intended— in my car with the windows down so everyone can hear me sing along to Johnny Cash and the Police. The MP3 player is for books only. Period. The local library has MP3 downloads and my cheap MP3 player is always loaded with three or four. Everyday, well it used to be, I walk my dog at 5:45 in the morning and 5:45 in the evening listening to one book or another. The library doesn’t have the world’s largest collection so whatever I am listening to is usually not something new. I have been through the works of Barry Eisler, Lee Child, and Robert Crais more than once.

In August, my MP3 player started to go down. But, if I held it in my left hand and squeezed it as hard as I could it would play for at least ten minutes. After ten, minutes the player would spontaneously shut down and I would have to stop the walk, get the dog to sit, and pull apart the player so that I could blow on the circuit boards inside. I would then reassemble the player, stretch my hand, and squeeze the player again while I fast-forwarded to my last place. Usually the MP3 player died while fast-forwarding two or three times and I had to repeat the process. I did this for a month until the last book I was reading came to an end. I don’t know if Eric Van Lustbader knows about the lengths I went to in order to hear about what happened at the end of The Bourne Deception, but if he reads this he better be flattered.

I love audio books; they have never replaced the physical act of reading, they have only allowed me to put more reading into the day. Audio books are unbelievably great in the car on a trip. I had Walter Mosely playing in the car while I drove 20 hours home from PEI this summer and I was grinning ear to ear while my butt screamed in revolt. Even though the Mosely has consistently ignored my fanboy e-mails and requests, I love him and know that one day he will come around and love me too.

I can listen to any subject and be perfectly content, most of the time. The only beef I have ever had with audio books is the narrator. Whenever I think about bad narration, I think about George Costanza from Seinfeld becoming frustrated with the book he was listening to because it sounded too much like his own voice. His neurotic concerns were dead on— the voice is everything. Two examples of narration ruining something great come to mind. I love Mickey Spillane enough to get in a fistfight with someone who slags his work. I was over the moon when I found out his last novel was available for download. I stopped what I was listening to, downloaded The Goliath Bone, and got the dog out for a walk. It took ten seconds for me to become enraged. Mike Hammer, the baddest man on the planet, was voiced by Stacy Keach— the guy who played Mike Hammer in the television series. If you don’t know who he is Google his name and check out the picture of him in a beret— nuff said. People might of like him in the televised role, Spillane might have even liked the show, but his voice was nothing like what I thought Mike Hammer would sound like and it drove me nuts. I didn’t stop listening, it was still Spillane, but I didn’t want to keep going.

Another writer that I loved growing up that I can’t listen to at all is Robert B. Parker. I devoured the Spenser novels growing up and was really into the idea of revisiting them on my dog walks until I heard the voice bringing my favourite introspective, donut eating, detective to life. Joe Mantegna was the voice of Spenser? Come on. I know he played him in TV movie, but seriously, close your eyes and think of all of the things you have read about Spenser doing. The descriptions of what he did in the gym on a full stomach of fast food, the constant handing out of ass kicking’s, and all of the women who have thrown themselves at him like they were front row at a Tom Jones concert. Joe Mantegna could not be any less Spenser like. The narration suddenly made Spenser seem cheesy and lame. Mantegna owes me for taking the fun out of Spenser. The other thing that killed the Robert Parker novels for me was the number of times the author includes he said. Every other line is peppered with it and it becomes like water torture to listen to six hours of it. Even in the Parker westerns not narrated by Mantegna, the he said’s show up and piss me off. I can honestly say I seriously consider every he said I write because of those Parker audio books.

The two disappointments, and they are huge disappointments, don’t matter much in the end. I know the Spillane and Parker books make me mad, but I still listen to them anyway. They could be better, but they are miles ahead of holding a paperback in front of my face while the dog tugs me along. Audio books are like pizza when they’re good, they’re damn good, and when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good.