Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I Write in Books

Scott D. Parker

I find myself in the minority often but I didn’t expect to find myself in the minority with my fellow readers, writers, and bloggers. The culprit was one of the questions in the recent Reading Meme that went around the blogs. Here’s the question and my answer:

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
Frequently. I'll mark passages, either in fiction or non-fiction, I like, mostly to help with my reviews.

Now, in retrospect, the keyword in the question was “horrify.” It should have triggered that little something in the back of my head, that suspicious part you have when you’re answering one of those “Which kind of cake are you?” surveys and you can tailor your answers accordingly so you’ll turn out to be a bunt cake. Alas, at the time, nothing triggered for the simple reason that I write in almost all my books almost all the time, fiction and non-fiction.

I mark passages in fiction that I enjoy and want to remember. I mark lines in ARCs so I can quote them when I write the review. I underline and make notes in my bibles. Non-fiction is especially prone to annotation. I write notes, underline key passages, highlight others, and bracket still others. I don’t really have a system. Those of you who would choose having your fingernails ripped out rather than mark in a book must now consider me doubly blasphemous. Not only do I mark in books but I do so haphazardly. To the gallows, Parker!

You might be wondering why I do this? Truth be told, I’ve been pondering it myself once I saw all the comments from other bloggers and writers who treat their books with reverence. My favorite was from Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet: “It’s said that a book looks better after I have read it than it did before.” Don’t get me wrong: there are some books that I do treat with high esteem: my Oxford Illustrated Dickens, my two-volume boxed set of Edgar Allan Poe to name but two. Why do these books get a pass? Not sure. Maybe it’s their shelf appeal.

A case can be made that the reader completes the process the writer began. If a book gets written and no one reads it, what is it? Yes, it’s still a book but it’s not really complete. Writers write to be read. Why else do we write? If you take this statement as truth, then I, as a reader, am at liberty to read a book however I want. For me, I want to write in books. It’s part of the conversation the writer started. I’m just answering back in the age-old dialogue that’ll never end.

Metaphysics aside, the more I thought about it, the more the answer came to me, and I have John Adams to thank. My markings in my books are time capsules. They are signposts along the path of life of reading and learning. If I read a book and mark certain passages, I’ll often date them as well. I enjoy returning to old books and leafing through the pages to read what I wrote five, ten, fifteen years ago. I can remember where I was on that particular day, my life experiences up to that point, and determine whether or not I still agree or have changed my opinion.

My bibles are excellent time capsules. When I inherited my grandfather’s bible, I marveled at all the underlined passages and learned more about him and the way he thought than I did when I spoke with him. Reading is an individual activity, a personal one. You can’t really understand what a person is responding to while reading a book unless they tell you (and it often gets lost in translation) or they mark a book. In his biography of our second president, David McCullough noted that John Adams always marked in his books. The Sage of Quincy would disagree with authors, point out things he liked, and, sometimes, even correct his younger self with a second annotation on the same paragraph as he re-read it later in life. How much more do we know about John Adams the Man because John Adams the Reader wrote in his books.

Once I had the habit of writing in books and realized my own notes were my own personal time capsules, I also came to the conclusion that my notations would be insights into my own thinking for my son when he inherits my books. I’d like to think he’d find some joy in reading David McCullough’s John Adams or one of my bibles with my own thoughts and notes annotated throughout. Maybe he’d learn something about his old man he never knew and smile.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Invisible Author

Russel D McLean

I read something fairly radical (well, as radical as things can get in publishing – sometimes its just thinking about things in a way that goes against tradition) the other day that got me thinking. It was a throwaway comment on the blog of John Rickards. John is about to start a new phase of his career under the name Sean Cregan; it’s a reinvention, a whole new angle on his writing (from what I understand – I haven’t read the book yet).

But when he posted his cover – marvellous looking as it was (if the book’s half as fine it will be worthwhile, I reckon) – I was intrigued by the comment below from Kevin Wignall (another writer you should seek out immediately):

I think there’s an argument for not having the author on the cover at all. Why? People looking for the book will spot “The Levels”. Casual browsers will see a cool cover and wonder who it’s by. They’ll have to pick it up to find out and getting them to pick it up is half the battle.

Extrapolating* from this, I could see the argument for having (for example) “A Rebus novel” in big print but still not having Rankin’s name so prominent. And it would also take the onus of the current “author as celebrity” thing and allow readers to select books based on whether or not they believe it would entertain them. And yes, as an author, I can see that it’s a blow to the ego not to have your name on there, but what I’m saying is that there is often far too much attention paid to the author as brand when, we should always remember: its about the story, stupid. People joke about Dan Brown just copying down the phone book and it would sell, but the way that we have set up the current system that could possibly happen because the focus has gone off the book and onto the author. And maybe I’m naive or just remarkably ego free, but I would rather people just enjoyed the damn books.

I imagine it might also free up many authors creatively – allow writers to spread their wings more often rather than try and further their “brand”. And perhaps it would free up the reader, too. Rather than relying on branding, they would be reliant on genuinely considering the book based on synopsis, perhaps even the first few pages.

Now I’m not proposing that we take the author’s name away entirely. That would be stupid. They have, after all, put the bulk of the work into the novel. But is the author’s name really so important as we think? Does it need to be so prominent?** After all, so many readers read one book by an author that doesn’t appeal to them and say, “Well, I’m never reading them again”*** whereas by taking the focus off the author and on the title and the book itself, we are inviting those readers to return when the author writes a different book that might appeal more. The branding in this case could be working against the author rather than for them. And I’m sorry, but even my writing heroes have written one or two books I didn’t quite get

Looking at my shelves, I see movies with simply the title on the sleeve (occasionally the star or the director, too, but only the most bankable names and very rarely). On book spines, I see DEAVER is huge capitals and the title in tiny lettering. Same with BATEMAN, BILLNGHAM, MACBRIDE, KING etc etc. The brand of the author overwhelms the autonomy of the book as an entertainment entity in and of its own right. Why would I pick up movies just from the title and cover art, and books because of the author? They are both doing the same job: storytelling. The medium, yes, is different, but ultimately there is not so much difference as some people are keen to make out. It’s all narrative storytelling. Like visual artists arguing over oil paintings and sculptures as the “purer” medium in which to work.

I don’t claim to have all the answers – in fact I suspect there are probably a number of reasons why I’m wrong – but I wonder what would happen if we took the ludicrously large author brands off books, focussed on titles and plot hooks and arranged books by title and not author. In particular, I wonder if it might help newer authors establish themselves (and their books) rather than the patently silly practice that is currently ongoing where, if we put a debut author’s name large enough on the cover we might fool people into thinking they’ve been around for years and are therefore very important.

I don’t know that it would work, but I think its something worth discussing, and it strikes me there might be a number of arguments in favour of detracting from the author and focussing on the book itself when it comes to packaging and covers. It would probably mean an overhaul of the way bookshops work – could you imagine searching by title and/or series? – which means that I doubt it will happen or become practical, but its food for thought in an age where we really want people to start picking up books and thinking of them as equal to other forms of entertainment that occasionally seem to take consumer’s cash with far greater ease.

*See, I learned a couple of big words doing philosophy after all!
** I like that on the cover of THE LOST SISTER, while my name as author is clear, it really is the title that grabs your attention.
***And yes, it happens. I’m sorry. But readers are fickle creatures.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Boys and Books

by Dave White

Men don't read.

I hear that all the time. I'll be at a book signing or at a bar or at a school workshop and I hear two complaints. Men don't read. And the other one is "people don't read." I have no solution for this generation. However, I can trace the origin of the problem. And for a minute, I'd like you to forget the other distractions like XBox, iPods, computers, TV, movies and the like...

As discussions go, and researching the way to teach reading goes, the new hot theory is this. Kids need to read books that interest them. That's right, the big theory now is groundshaking. Earthshattering. It's a breakthrough. I'll restate it, just so you have it.

In order to get kids to enjoy reading, they need to read things that interest them.


I mean, I can't believe no one thought of that, he says knowingly. And this leads to the crux of the problem, doesn't it.

People don't like to read because it has always been promoted to them as WORK. You have to read a book and write an essay on it. You have to discuss what goes on in the book. In school, you have to pour over every word and find meaning in it. You can't just enjoy the book. So it is ingrained in you that reading is work. That's going to knock a bunch of readers out to begin with.

Reading is starting behind the 8 ball.

And then we move on to boys. Boys read less than girls. Why? Well, let's go back to the big breakthrough. Kids have to read things that interest them. And what interests boys? Guns, explosions, drugs, sex, music, sports. You know, the fun stuff. The stuff the DSD guys write about.

And where are you exposed to reading mostly? (Especially if your parents aren't readers... Which they should be. Speaking as a teacher, PARENTS... READ TO YOUR KIDS)...


And who teaches kids... especially at a younger age?


And, let's face it. Women have different tastes in literature than men do. It's not a sexism thing. Women like different types of stories. Women pick out stories about a boy who's father won't kiss him good night anymore because he's too old. Women read you stories about ducks and supermarket attendants. I know, I've heard these stories. They're not bad stories. Some are actually really well written, and are going to inspire other girls to read. But you know what? That's not what boys want to read.

When I was in middle school I read James Lee Burke, Ian Fleming, Michael Crichton, and Jefferey Archer. I was reading crime and gang stuff. I was buying Spider-man comics up the wazoo. My dad (there's that parent thing) used to buy me Spider-man stuff when I was in elementary school. I went beyond what the teachers wanted us to read because I didn't like what teachers wanted us to read.

I try to get my kids to read. I remind them, every day, to bring in something THEY want to read. We read gang stories. We read mysteries, both old and new. I also try to mix in the stuff that girls would like too. You have to get everyone to read.

That's why I think THE OUTSIDERS is the perfect book for teens. It's got the stuff that boys like: the violence, the gangs, the blood. But it also has the heart and sappy moments that girls that age like.

Does it sound like I'm being sexist? Maybe. But it's also true, at a young age, boys think girls are icky. And when you are taught by a female with female tastes, AND IT'S CONSIDERED WORK, you are turning off boy readers.

What's the solution? Let kids read what they want. Don't look down on comics or crime novels or books with violence in them. Don't look down on video game magazines. They are reading. And a good book will lead a kid to another good book and so on.

And parents, encourage your kids to read beyond the curriculum. Get them excited. Take them to Barnes and Noble. Take them to the comic shop.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why Louise Penny’s Cozies Are Creepier Than My Noirs

John McFetridge

I guess this is a sub-category of Dave’s terrific One Stop Blog Shop “Literary vs. Genre,” topic, the Cozy vs. Noir. Or really, this is about how I learned to stop worrying and love cozies.

People have all kinds of reasons why they like those small village, quirky character, brilliant detective stories we call cozies. They can be like comfort food, spending time with “old friends,” seeing justice served, bad guys (or bad women, oh so may bad women) arrested and sometimes you get a good recipe for scones – whatever they are.

A few years ago Louise Penny burst onto the scene and I seemed to be running into her everywhere – Arthur Ellis Awards in Toronto (she won Best First Novel for Still Life), Bouchercon in Madison, BookExpo Canada – and she was always, as you would expect from a cozy writer, so nice.

Except her books aren’t nice. No cozy is nice. They’re creepy. Way creepier than my urban crime books.

Still Life is a terrific book. The setting is great, it’s a small village called Three Pines in an area of Quebec southeast of Montreal called the Eastern Townships. Pretty much the only rural part of Quebec with a history of English-speaking residents, though nowadays the majority is likely French. Three Pines is a great place to spend time. The people are so wonderfully... quirky.

Oh, and they’re also all cold-blooded, calculating murderers.

Okay, they’re not all murderers, but every single one of them could be. Think about that for a minute.

People keep getting murdered in this small town and the brilliant police detective Armand Gamache has to look at everyone as a suspect.

And that’s where cozies creep me out. Every one of these people, every relative of the deceased, every friend (ha!), acquaintance, neighbour, employer, employee -- everyone could reasonably have committed the murder. Everyone had a possible motive, possible means and apparently, the ability to do it.

And often the murder itself is creepy. Crossbow? Electrocution?

In my urban crime novels murder is the last resort of a business deal. Really, we’ve tried everything, bribery, negotation, compromise, everything, and it just didn’t work so someone had to be killed. And they were just shot. In the head. No one gets strung up in the woods or posed to look like they worship the Devil or anything like that. Characters in my novels would never stop to think about how someone was going to be killed. Oh, maybe they would want them killed in their own home or in their place of business to make the point that they’re always vulnerable because what’s really at stake is power and sometimes people have to prove they hold the more powerful position but if they can't manage that easily enough, anywhere will do really. And the police know pretty much right away who did it – at least which group did it, if not the specific triggerman.

In my urban crime novels the only people who kill someone to solve a problem are professional criminals, people who spend all day everyday breaking the law in one way or another. Even these criminals would be shocked if someone they knew killed a family member in order to inherit an old house.

But that happens all the time in cozies.

So, what do you think? Are cozies creepy?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Devil's Staircase, Helen Fitzgerald.

By Jay Stringer

I met Helen Fitzgerald on the night Michael Jackson died. That interesting fact has little to do with today’s blog, but it lets you know that we both have an alibi.

I was there for a launch of three books; Alan Guthrie, Tony Black and Helen Fitzgerald all gave readings from their books, answered questions about crime and pets, and generally made good conversation. I’d been aware of Helen’s books, and my curiosity had been piqued by a good review by Ray Banks, but I hadn’t taken the plunge.

After hearing what she had to say, both the Gurrl and I were interested in the dark little hardback that Helen gave a reading from, The Devil's Staircase.

I was laid up with a bad back recently and it gave me a chance to catch up on a few things. I cracked the cover to the book, read the first page, and then several hours later I’d finished. That’s a big deal for me. For a number of reasons, I’m quite a slow reader. I don’t read books in a day, but this one I couldn’t put down.

Trying to place Helen as a writer is as interesting as trying to place her characters. We love setting. I myself have spent many thousands of words online saying how important it is to me for an author and a book to identify with its setting. That can lead to a few misleading ideas though, and it can close a few doors. Helen is from Australia originally but now lives in Scotland. She tends to write stories set in Britain. Gets confusing, eh? No, not really. A writer doesn’t have to be part of the DNA of an area in order to explore it. And for every character who is defined by the hometown that owns them, just as many are defined by the home that they’ve escaped. And that is true of The Devil's Staircase.

The story starts in Australia, with the 18 year old Bronny facing up to being diagnosed with a condition that will destroy her life, or to something maybe even worse; a clear diagnosis that means she has wasted half of her life living in fear. She makes one of those great decisions that only the young can make: she jumps on a plane and travels halfway across the world to have a go at living.

That may sound like I’ve dumped a load of the plot on you right there, but in all honesty I’ve not even scratched the surface. That’s just the pre-title sequence. The real plot of the books is there if you want to look for it: it’s in the title, it’s on the dust jacket. But sometimes you really just need to open a book and jump in, you know?

Once the plot reaches London we meet a full cast of young runaways. Each is running from (or in one case to) something in their past. Each has a story and a motivation, but the book lets you discover them as you go along. There’s no rush to dump these things on you. We see them trying to earn a living, trying to find themselves, and trying to get as drunk and as high as they can. For a while the book is a free and simple exploration of youth and love as each of these runaways come together to form their own community in the midst of one of the world’s busiest cities.

You’re never left far from the main plot though, and just as you’ve settled in to this fun coming of age love story, the book punches you and drags you into it’s dark underbelly, something that has been hiding beneath the surface for the whole story.

The book pulls off something like a magic trick. It has a surface that’s a fun, and funny, story of youth and love. Dig a little deeper and it starts to get very dark indeed. But the trick is that neither of these take away from the real heart of the story. It’s a book that looks at love and loss, at desperation and grief. It deals with real human emotions which, as I’ve written before, is sadly rare in fiction.

I’ll be returning to this theme soon to expand on it, but this is a great example of a book that takes the time to show consequences. If someone dies, then someone is grieving. If someone fails then someone is guilty. There are a few moments late on when we get to see the various different forms of grief or guilt that the characters are dragging around with them. Normally I don’t like it when the narrative decides to tell us what characters are thinking, but if it’s used well it can add just the right note. And this carries over into its twists.

Some storytellers use twists as a way to escape consequences. They can throw in something crazy, or some deus ex machina, to write their way out of a whole. But good twists, good plots, carry the weight of consequences and, sometimes, inevitability. Some twists happen because that’s what needs to happen. This is a book that has a fair few of them, nasty and grisly in turn. Each time you hope that the story will go one way, it reminds you that it needs to go the other. Each time you root for the characters to have a breather, the page turns to remind you that things just don’t work that way.

There are some really good writers working in Britain right now, but the industry doesn’t seem to know how to point them out.

I’ll be interviewing Helen soon. That is, as soon as I get the questions sorted out. In the meantime, pick this up and prepare – I really wasn’t prepared for how good it was.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Devil Is In The Lack of Details

By Steve Weddle

Ever since that jerk John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, everybody has had to fight with the idea of the villains being more interesting than the heroes.

In noir, of course, ain’t nobody wearing a white hat. This guy is less bad than that guy, so he’s the hero. Or, as readers, we have a better understanding of this character, so we identify with her better. Or we have seen more background for this person, so we know where he is “coming from” and root for him.

In Allan Guthrie’s Two-Way Split everyone is a bad guy in some sense. But we follow along with Robin, Eddie, Pearce and some others understanding why they make their choices. Sure they’re bad guys, but they’re our bad guys.

In Charlie Huston’s Hank Thompson trilogy, the former baseball player turned bad guy does plenty of nasty things, but he takes care of his neighbor’s cat. So how bad could he be, really?

But these aren’t the villains. They’re bad guys. The villains are the ones who keep the main character from getting what he wants or the folks who take something away from her. The villains work as obstacle, as conflict.

In one of the dozen or so James Lee Burke books I’ve read, there’s a villain who drips evil the way my stumbling Uncle Danny drips Jim Beam, in huge, unmanageable stains. The guy gets to Dave Robicheaux’s family, threatening and finally hurting his loved ones. If you’re charting this stuff out at home, this is on the other side of Hank Thompson, Huston’s bad guy who takes care of a cat.

You can rob a bank, but if you stop during the getaway to help an old lady cross the street, you’re a good guy who is doing some bad stuff. If you’re the villain and you kill a couple of tellers in the shoot-out, well, that’s what villains do. But if you move beyond the job into something personal, maybe you see a family photo behind the teller and threaten his newborn child if he doesn’t hand over the cash, then you’re an evil bastard. You’ve crossed a line. Your “badness” isn’t contained to your job. Your badness has extended, like a stain that keeps spreading, the edges that keep creeping to the walls. An evil that threatens to take over. Something beyond our understanding. An evil that is bigger than we can contain.

And I think that’s part of what makes a villain different from a bad guy, that terror we can’t see, that evil we can’t quite hold.

We don’t need to know all the answers to what makes the villain a bad guy. We don’t need to understand him. We need to fear him. The monsters in the movie Alien are scarier when we can’t see them, when they are just teeth in the shadows.

When we understand the devil we can identify with him. And when we can’t understand him, when there’s something dark and twisted and evil that keeps him chasing us through the hallways of our house at three in the morning, all we can do is run.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sometimes a Goat is Just a Goat

by Mike Knowles

I finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy this week and when I put it down I said to myself, “Wow.” I wasn’t impressed with the depth of the book, the beauty of the language, or the Pulitzer winning genius of the author. I was amazed that such a good story could be muddled down and diluted by a bunch of navel gazing on the nature of man. It was pretty much the same reaction I had to No Country For Old Men. That book was a crime novel with most of the sharp edges sanded off. The movie tried to push the pace a little faster and even then I thought it could have been a better movie if they just had some more scenes where something actually happened.

Like most writers, I have an English degree. All the degree really means is that I was fed a steady diet of classics from around the world for four years. I must admit that most nights I wasn’t giving Jane Austen my full attention. Most of the time in University I was discovering Elmore Leonard or rediscovering Richard Stark. I tried, I really did. I bought every book on the syllabus and sat down to read with a highlighter in my hand. I finished every book but one. The only mess I couldn’t get through was Shamela (don’t look it up or buy it, you’ll just end up resenting me). The high brow stuff was never for me. I hated the way the professors talked about it in class. I hated the way the writers took forever to say one thing. I hated the themes that people swore they saw in the pages like other people swore they saw Jesus burned into their grilled cheese.

What I hated the most about the high brow stuff the University forced down my medulla oblongata, was the professors insistence that every page was brimming with symbolism. I would sit there and listen to how a chair was not a chair but rather a symbol of the uncomfortable oppression that women had to endure in the kitchens they were tethered to and I would think there is no way anyone thought that much about a chair. I knew there were obvious symbols that writers threw in. The kind that jump off the page at anyone who reads the books, but the professors spent days digging deeper into the pages finding clues that they thought led to a holy grail of deeper meaning and wisdom.

I called bullshit a number of times and was harshly rebuked and then stared at by the rest of the class like I was the village idiot. I was the meathead who must have signed up for the wrong class. That was until the day a contemporary playwright showed up in my third year English class. Before this guy walked in the door, we spent weeks dissecting his crappy play. The professor spent a full day on the symbolism of a goat mentioned in about three lines of one scene. A whole day for three lines in a single scene. The goat was a symbol of evil, of the land, of repression. The only thing I ever learned from that lesson is that you can blame almost anything on a goat and people will buy it. I kept my mouth shut and doodled while the goat got labelled an anti-Semite for seventy five minutes. But when the author of the play came in, I was waiting with my pen down.

“The goat is a heavy influence in your work. Why a goat?” I said.

“Goat?” The playwright said. “What goat?”

“In act two scene three.”

No response from the playwright.

“On the farm.”

Nothing from the playwright. Not a peep.

“He was eating garbage.”

“Oh, yeah, there’s a goat there. I had a goat on the farm I grew up on. He was sort of a family pet for me. I just can’t see a farm without a goat.”

I nodded my head, shut my mouth, and spent the rest of my time in class trying to make the professor meet my eye. He wouldn’t look at me because he knew what I knew. The goat meant nothing. The goat was a goat. That kind of stuff ruined a lot of the classics for me. It made them no fun. It was like playing sports with your dad — you just wanted to play and instead you had to sit through discussions about every rule and nuance of the game.

Every now and again I read something like The Road just to make sure my tastes haven’t changed — they haven’t. The books I like are the ones I have always liked. Everything a character says means something, things happen, descriptions are limited to half a page at most. I’m not high brow. I don’t want to decode my books, I want them to speak to me. I want the places in books to appear in my head and I want the characters to become as familiar as old friends. Hardy was never my homeboy — he drinks tea with his pinky pointing out. I’m more comfortable in the streets with Stark.