Saturday, October 31, 2009

How My Writing is Like the Houston Texans

As I sit here outside Starbucks on a day that actually feels like fall here in Houston (Friday; gray and cool), I’m thinking about writing. Specifically, I’m thinking about my recent output: not much fiction, whole lotta blogging. Reminds me of the appellation that’s been given to me (Blogger) rather than the name I by which I'd rather be known: Writer.

To write means to write. Most of these writing blogs all boil down to the same thing: Write. Repeat. But I’m also cognizant of the mental part of writing, the thinking, the planning, the outlining, the revising of story structure before you put pen to paper. I tend to fall into the Gay Telese, F. Scott Fitzgerald school of writing: plan it all out first, then write.

That’s been my bane in recent months, however, too much planning, not enough producing. Guess I thought I had to get it complete correct and perfect before I even began. You see, the first novel I wrote I had all planned out and it worked brilliantly. The opposite (i.e., everything I’ve written since except my western story at Beat to a Pulp) is a mish-mash of half-assed planning and muddling, leading nowhere. I don’t like to work that way. The muddling scares me.

The Houston Texans are no strangers to muddling. They have muddled through various NFL seasons since their inaugural 2002 contests. For the past two years, the Texans, on paper, were a good team. No Indy or Giants, but a team that should be competitive almost every season. The same predictions were made in August, before the games actually started being fielded. Our record is 4-3 and we’re picked to win this Sunday. I’m hopeful.

The thing is our coach, Gary Kubiak, likes a certain type of offense: use the run to set up the pass. His problem is the running part. For five games, it was all but nonexistent. Three weeks ago, he adjusted. In the second half of the Texans game against the Cardinals, he abandoned the run and went to a passing attack. The Texans almost pulled off the upset. A week later, they did, on the road at Cincinnati. Same thing last week versus the 49ers.

Kubiak adjusted. And it’s paying off. Thus, I’m adjusting, as well, in two ways. One, I’m starting my next book with only Act I laid out. I think I know how the book is going end. I’ll make a point of writing it on a piece of paper, in ink, something I can’t change and can return to when the book is done. I’ll also be channeling Lester Dent, who famously wrote his first Doc Savage novel in less than a month and continued doing so for years after.

The second thing I’m going to do to kick my butt into gear is participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise is simple: write everyday for the 30 days in November with the end result being a 50,000-word manuscript. In the age of gimmicks (yeah, it's a gimmick), why the heck not. My main goal is to create the habit of writing *fiction* every day. My second goal is to have a 50,000-word manuscript that I can then edit, edit, edit into something I can start pitching next year.

Earlier, I wrote the simple formula for writing: write, repeat. I loved the writing process of my first book, all of it: the late nights, seeing the movie in my head, casting it, and planting that last period. Having written a book, it's a feeling unlike anything else. I haven't repeated the process. I want to. I'm going to. I’m putting myself out there. My word is on the line. No matter what happens, I’ll report back in December.

Anyone else doing NaNoWriMo? What gimmicks or tricks have y'all done to kick-start your writing?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Education (or not) of a writer

Russel D McLean

This week I saw Iain (M) Banks talking here in Dundee. It’s the first time the man has been on tour in a long time, and the first time I’d seen him since… oh, I think I must have been about sixteen or seventeen when Song of Stone came out. It was strange to hear him talk, especially when asked about his start in writing, because so much of what he talked about related to the way I had gone about this writing gig.

We’re talking:

Writing fiction every time at school when given the choice.

Constantly writing and not realising how big a novel was supposed to be.

The realisation that you could write AND BE PAID!

Choosing uni courses based on what a writer might need.

Yes, bizarrely* we had the same mode of thought when it came to that. I was sitting in my seat shaking my head because, yes, I too had chosen to do three undergrad courses in first and second year on the following logical principles:

1: English because… well, a writer needs it, right? And it’s a good way to check out the competition.

2: Psychology because…. Don’t characters need a psychology?

3: Philosophy because… a book has to be about something, right?

Weirdly, unlike Banks (or at least he didn’t mention this), I found doing English to be a detriment both in terms of my writing and my reading. Maybe it was the lecturers I had, maybe the choice of books, but I found that my reading for pleasure decreased markedly and that I wasn’t writing so well either when my brain was filled with “themes” and “metaphor” and all those other things that a critic might need, but a writer is better off without.

This really hit home when I did a single honours in Philosophy through third and fourth year. What I found was that I read more fiction when I was not studying English and, strangely, I connected with it more than I had ever done through the course. Perhaps because some of it took a while to rub off on me, but it was thanks to philosophy I realised something:

Studying English (or English criticism) will not (necessarily) help you become a better writer because it teaches you the skills of a critic, a deep reader, not those of a writer. And, yes, they are two very different fields.

The skillsets for studying English, for understanding a text are not the same as those required for creating a text. It took me a long time to realise this and to separate my critical self and my creative self. By freeing myself of pre-conceived notions of how a reader might interpret my work, I think I was able to create more natural stories that worked on levels I might not even be consciously aware of (certainly, some interpretations of both TGS and TLS have surprised and delighted me including a couple of political readings I would never have considered had they not been pointed out to me).

I realised that as a writer, I am not concerned with interpretation so much as I am impact. I want my writing to hit readers in the gut in some way, touch them on an emotional level. Anything else is just gravy and flows naturally from that.

As to the other two subjects, well, psychology was abandoned after first year for history. Partly because I never felt that confident in the subject and also because I confounded some of the department’s analytical computer programs that seemed to diagnose me as a neurotic psychotic.

(okay, get the jokes over with now, folks).

And philosophy…

I can never say for certain what impact it had on my writing, because the subjects I write about seem very far removed from what fascinated me as a student (I was never deeply connected to ethics, finding it as a subject too bogged down in details that detracted from the questions that genuinely impacted on day to day life). In fact, much of what I studied seemed more suited to my initial dream of becoming an SF writer (particularly working with the mind/body problem). But then, perhaps something about philosophy – about constructing an argument, creating a coherent and cogent worldview – is more suited to the fiction writer than studying how to critique and take fiction apart.

All in all, of course, I’m happy with the choices I made at uni. And despite some of my misgivings, taking English – even if only for two years – was something that helped me to understand the way my mind worked and the way that I saw fiction and my approach to it as a reader and a writer. And I have to admit that going back to the department last year to talk to current students about my work and crime fiction was a fascinating experience, and one I’m hoping to be able to repeat this year. Because while we work in very different ways, it is a very good thing for writers and critics to keep up a dialogue.

*Although I wonder how bizarrely – after the event, I remembered that I saw Banks do a gig back when I was about 17. Something about the way he told the story tonight struck so close a chord I have to wonder if maybe he told it back then and it wormed its way into my brain, playing a part in my weird logic when it finally came to choosing my courses.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inspirational Therapy

by Dave White

I've heard people talk about psychologists and therapy for years. Most people I know who've gone love them.

You have a problem to deal with? They recommend therapy. You need to talk to someone about something? Anything? Go to therapy.

Excuse me if I'm a little more Tony Soprano about it. "Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?" he says, as he sits in the therapist's office.

I have my own kind of therapy.

It's writing. You can often tell what's bothering me by reading the first drafts of what I've written. THE EVIL THAT MEN DO is about my grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's. "Righteous Son" was written when I wasn't feeling too confident with myself.

I've dealt with 9/11, church, car accidents, break-ups, and a whole mess of other hang-ups through my writing. That's how I get it out. I get it down on paper, and then I twist it. I twist it until it makes story sense. I twist it until the characters become their own people and now just shadows of myself.

And then I try to deal with the problems. How can I make them better? How would this character make them better? And if that character tries to fix a problem, but makes the wrong choice, what happens next?

By the time I've finished writing a book or short story, I usually written the hang-up out of my system.

And then it's time to focus on the next problem in my life.

Wonder if my next book'll be about turning 30...?


Speaking of, it's my birthday... Happy Birthday me? If you want to get me something, but don't know what... you can easily make me happy by supporting the authors in the sidecolumn over there-------->

Pick up some of our books, if you haven't already. We'd really appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Everybody Knows - the paperback

John McFetridge

When we started this blog I was told that BSP (blatant self-promotion) was okay, so we're going to have a day of it today.

On November 1st (this Sunday), Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere wll be officially published in paperback for the first time. It's my second novel, and I think it's pretty good and I don't think it ever really had a shot at getting any sales.

There's a story there, of course, and I'll make it short. Just before the book was to be published in Canada by ECW Press they got a phone call from Harcourt in New York asking about the US rights. Very exciting. Harcourt bought the trade paperback rights to the already-published-in-Canada Dirty Sweet and the hardcover and trade paperback rights to Everybody Knows... (oh, happy day, especially for books from a small Canadian publisher - there was much rejoicing). Harcourt put together a couple of great covers, I thought, both books looked fantastic. I was told the trade paperback of Everybody Knows... would be "stylistically similar" to Dirty Sweet so they would like the loose series they are.

ECW delayed the Canadian publication to have it line up with the US date. Made sense. The book had received a couple of good early reviews in Canada, including a starred review in Quill and Quire. By the time it was being published in the US, the book had also received some good reviews from Publishers Weekly, "Complex... a fun read," starred from Kirkus, "It’s refreshingly hard to tell the good from the no-good in this helping of cops and robbers, Canadian style... Bristling action, a vivid sense of place and nary a plot twist telegraphed. Exceptional work," and Booklist, "Sex. Dope. Immigration. Gang war. Filmmaking. In McFetridge's hands, Toronto might as well be the new L.A. of crime fiction."

Needless to say, there was some excitement in my house. I'd been working for this for years and it was all coming together.

But then, just before publication, Harcourt merged with, or was bought by, or something with Houghton Miflin. My fantasic editor, Stacia Decker, was let go and I'm not sure if either of my books ever made it into bookstores.

Still, thanks to the amazing support from many people online, the word got out and we managed to sell a few copies - pretty much every one a special order, I think, so thanks to everyone who made the effort. I appreciate it more than you can know.

The new Houghton-Miflin-Harcourt (which I still think of as Harcourt-Dunder-Miflin) was no longer interested in my books. Not just mine, they also dropped Declan Burke (I still can't believe that) and Al Guthrie and Ray Banks. Oh yeah, they kept Philip Roth, go figure.

I wrote another book, Swap, that ECW has just published in Canada and I'm lucky enough to have it picked up by St. Martins-Thomas Dunne in the USA and they'll publish it in spring 2010 as Let It Ride.

But it looked like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was nowhere. It looked like a huge flop in hardcover and no one wanted it in paperback.

But now ECW has a new distribution deal for its books in the USA and Everybody Knows... will be available in trade paperback with the Canadian cover.

Most places are selling it for about ten bucks. If there's an independant bookstore near you they may have it and the chain stores should have a copy or two. Of course, there's always online sales:

Amazon USA.

Barnes and Noble USA.

Borders USA.

Amazon UK.

Amazon Canada.

Chapters-Indigo Canada.

I also made a promo video for the book:

Thanks again to everyone for all your support.

And, I'd like to give a copy to a reader of this blog (well, I'd like to give every reader of this blog a free copy, but it turns out this is a more popular spot than I expected). So, Steve has suggested that if you want a copy, leave a comment and we'll assign each comment a number and then pick one out of a hat. Actually he said something about a random number generator but that already sounds too complicated for me, so I'm going to go with the hat.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sam Spade or Samhain?

By Jay Stringer

Yeah, okay, so I’m ignoring that big banner above that says “crime fiction.” So sue me. Actually, please don’t, I can’t afford it.

This time of year has always been my favourite. It always felt special when I was young, caught between the myths and stories of Hallows eve and the smell of bonfires that would continue through to the 5th of November.

It’s also a time of year that I link strongly to my development as a storyteller. I come from a family of verbal storytellers, both my mother and grandfather would sit me on their lap, and then t their feet as I got bigger, and tell me tall tales. For most of the year it would be fantasy, magic and adventure. A mix of fantasy books that I was too young to have read mixed in with family traditions and spur of the moment creations. But come this time of year, I’d get the real fun stuff. Bonfires, witches, goblins, gypsy curses and pagan magic.

I never really developed the family skill of oral storytelling, I turned into a writer instead, but I’m sure the foundations of what I became were laid down as I sat and listened to those stories.

I’ve been thinking about Horror lately. In terms of prose, I haven’t really read or written anything that you would label ‘horror’ in a very long time, though my taste for socially driven fiction often strays into topics that could be called horrific. I think fantasy and horror were probably the first few things I wrote when I changed from making comic books to using sentences. Veering between the derivative and the just plan bad; one of the worst tings you can do to a serious adult writer is to show the things he wrote as a teenager.

I do remember the beginnings of finding my own voice, or at least my own view, was a short story I wrote about a boy who found a severed head by the side of the road. He took it home and planted it in a pot, and the head grew roots and started talking. This was probably just before my life was tipped upside down by Keyser Soze, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. It was probably at a time when I still wore all black, and would have listed Tim Burton as my favourite director.

We grow, y’know?

I learned the importance of the phrases groovy and hail to the king, baby. German expressionism had a huge part in my collection, and I did the usual crash course in King, Layman and Carpenter. Werewolves fascinated me, Zombies terrified me, and Vampires bored me. Well, okay, not always. I’m a child of the right age to worship things like THE LOST BOYS and NEAR DARK, and was sucked in by the clever writing of BUFFY (and a shout out to the underrated novel Vampire$ by John Steakley). But overall, they did nothing for me. All that intense, pent up neediness, the repressed sexuality. You know what? As a teenage boy at a mixed-sex state school, and with cable TV in my bedroom, the underpinnings of the vampire myth didn’t really hold me.

Well, maybe Vampirella.

Werewolves? Shit, now that was interesting. Locking away the beast within, struggling to keep control, wondering whether you can trust yourself? HELLO, TEENAGE BOY ALERT. And then getting older, seeing people deal with alcohol and drug issues, that particular myth never lost its relevance.

Zombies, they have become a sign that my version of horror is not always in step with the world at large. They run now, apparently. Which is not scary. Not to me, anyway. If they run, they become just another immediate threat, a shock, a jolt, and a moment of explosive surprise. And that works for people, I get that. But it just doesn’t reach into the part of my brain that holds fear. The shuffling, almost comical zombie? The stuff of nightmares. They’re unrelenting, they’re inevitable. True enough, you could evade them all night in a crowded restaurant by moving from table to table, but that’s sort of the point. The best scary beasties are things that reveal something about ourselves. And the shuffling zombie is only a threat because we are human, we are lazy and shallow and greedy; at some point we will fuck it up and they will get us. That’s terrifying.

And it’s something in the way they move that gets us deep down. Maybe the same place that makes people scared of bugs for no reason. If a zombie runs, well, so what? Lots of things run. But when it shuffles along in some broken gait, there’s a part of us that doesn’t know how to process that. The hidden genius behind the original RINGU films was that making a woman walk in an unnatural way is deeply unsettling.

But enough of all that. Monsters? Piffle. Who cares about monsters. True gut wrenching horror lies in the human, not the inhuman. It lies in the true evil we can act out on each other. And I’ve always found that the things that get me the most are when horrible things happen to normal people for no reason. The Japanese have got this down pat. Something is going to happen to you, for little or no reason, and you can’t stop it. Mainstream horror to often shies away from this, and loses all meaning. The SCREAM films said it all; there is a list of rules and if you play by them you survive. That’s not horror. That’s not scary.

Now at this point I could tie it back into crime fiction. Bad things happening to normal people? Being trapped in circumstances beyond your control? There’s a very thin line between noir and horror.

But no, I’m having too much fun sticking to horror. What else do I find scary? We’ve covered unnatural beasties and silly walks. Something else that is just deeply wrong and unsettling? Normality (or normalcy, as apparently some of you have it, which is also wrong and unsettling.) The mundane routine of every day life is a scary thing. John Carpenter once realised this and made HALOWEEN. There were no spooky castles, no houses on the hill or men with Hungarian accents. There was suburbia, and a few hapless teenagers lost and alone on the most ordinary looking of housing estates. Oh, and a man with a knife and a slightly unnatural walk.

Simple moments like the children counting the gap between the lighting and the thunder in POLTERGEIST. And then twisting that real, believable moment into something truly horrific; the mother on the beach in JAWS who realises that her boy has gone beyond anything she can do to help. The moment in SHAUN OF THE DEAD when the laughs stop long enough for Shaun to shoot his mother.

All of this current horror? The torture porn, the elaborate SAW traps, the gimmickry, the remakes…..If these storytellers want to make me jump? Sure, they probably can. All you need to do to make someone jump is burst a balloon, and all you need to do to make someone cry is shoot a puppy. But to really scare them? To make them wake up several weeks later in a cold sweat? To do that you need to pull back the curtain and show us something we might not want to see. You need to tell a story that flicks switches in our brains, that prods at the things we hold normal and safe. And it seems like so many storytellers have lost that knack.

Unless you take a look at crime fiction.

Where we see generations of children lost to a coldness that can rise up inside of them, where we see married men and women contemplate horrific acts to keep their families together and where poverty means that a kid’s best ambition is to live fast and die young.

So what scares you guys?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cowboy Angel Blues: A Comfortable Freshness

"Well, I'm standin' in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck,
Yeah, but you know it's not the one that I had in mind.
He's got a new one out now, I don't even know what it's about
But I'll see him in anything so I'll stand in line."

-- Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, "Brownsville Girl"

By Steve Weddle

I’m kinda picky about what Bob Dylan bootlegs I like. I’m big fan of the talking blues boots from the late 50s and early 60s, when the title of nearly every song he did either started with “The Ballad of.” From “Talking Hugh Brown” to “The Ballad Of Donald White,” each song Dylan covered or wrote was a history lesson with humor, sympathy, and grit.

In the 70s the good stuff comes from the Rolling Thunder Revue, with great stories of cowboys and treasure hunters.

Once we get to the 80s, the INFIDELS album gives all kinds of good concert material. I’m not too keen on most of the stuff from the 90s, but the 2000s saw a great resurgence and some mammoth tours.

The boots I’m most fond of are those that take standard songs and give a new take on them – offering new lyrics for “Tangled Up in Blue” or new music for “Stuck Inside Mobile.” Give me something I’m used to, something I’m comfortable with, and twist it around a little. Not too much. I don’t want a pop version of “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” or a steel guitar version of “Sweetheart Like You.”

But I’m pretty much done with the Greatest Hits. I feel like I should apologize for this, but I really could go my whole life without ever again hearing “Times They Are A-Changin'” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

So something I’m used to, but not too used to. And mix it up a little, but not too much.

And that’s how I like the protagonists in my crime fiction.

I just finished Sean Chercover’s excellent BIG CITY BAD BLOOD. In that book, the “hero” is Ray Dudgeon. You’ve probably already read the book, so you know a little about Dudgeon. He’s a PI who drinks and smokes too much. He gets beaten up a few times. He listens to jazz. He loves his local town and whines about the GAP moving in. He has some demons in his past. He’s trying to do the best he can, but gets in over his head, basically because he follows his own code of ethics. Oh, and he’s having some trouble with his woman.

Even if you haven’t read the book, much of that will sound familiar. Heck, all of it could be used to describe other protagonists in other crime books. And you know what? That’s cool by me. Know why? Because the particulars make the character, not the generalities.

Chercover could have taken a peg-legged boat captain chasing after a white whale and the story would be like nothing you’ve ever heard of. Dudgeon is his own man, inside the book and inside the realm of crime fiction.

When we pick up a book, we look for the familiar and the fresh. We want (Sorry. Am I being presumptuous? Should I switch to saying “I want” so and so? Or are you with me? OK. Fine.) I WANT a character I can identify with, someone I can root for. That usually means someone outside the system. I need someone with internal and external conflict. I need someone with a history he or she is fighting with. I need someone facing tough choices. I need there to be something at stake. I have many needs from the character and the conflict. I’m a needy reader. Fine, I can admit that. I like to read about tough guys and gals who get pushed around.

Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan is like Dudgeon – a former newspaper reporter turned PI. She has her own demons. She loves her Baltimore the way Dudgeon loves his Chicago. And the two couldn’t be more different.

Chercover, Lippman, and so many other great crime novelists work like painters. They take the blue of the main character’s love of music, the red of the hero’s short temper, the yellow of his or her fear of change, and they paint such detailed, complex works that you forget they’re using the same colors you’ve seen ever since you first saw a painting.

I’ve heard many writers who have big ideas – a cowboy on the run in a Bob Dylan song who gets pulled from the lyrics and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. Big ideas. Big, empty ideas. Like buying a big canvas and then not doing anything with it. Because it’s the detail work that gets us, the particulars.

Dudgeon does only what he does, what no one else would do. Yeah, a crime novelist can start out painting “Still Life with Fruit” or playing a version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” But it’s what the writer does with the particulars that matters, the tone, the shadows. And, for the crime writer, how the author deals with what comes out of those shadows.

When you look for a new book to read, do you find yourself drawn to certain types of characters?

When you write a story, how do you make sure your characters exist on their own terms?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Will you write even if you’re poorly paid?

by Mike Knowles

James Ellroy posed this question in a recent online interview. Watch it: here. He mused that maybe the current publishing scene is survival of the fittest. Most of those who write in these times are having to do so even though they are underpaid. They are writing because they love to do it, not because it makes them money. This dedication, he says, gives people a leg up on those who are just out for the dollar bill.

Listening to a dude spout off about how he writes for the love of the act and not for the money is always kind of interesting. Everyone loves a badass who does what he wants to do regardless of what anyone thinks, but the words never seem to have as much meaning when the person who says it isn’t really living the struggle.

Ellroy says he’ll write no matter what he gets paid. Good for him, but I don’t think his world will change if he takes a paycut. He is no stranger to being a bestseller. The guy has written around a dozen books and four of those books have been adapted to film. That kind of track record means he’ll make money if he fingerpaints his next book.

That being said, his heart is in the right place. Most of us writer’s, especially crime writers, don’t make the big bucks. Ellroy said he “got” (which I think means made) thirty-five hundred bucks for his first novel. That doesn't sound like much when you think of James Ellroy, but that was in 81. I used the internet and came up with this stat:

In 2007, $1.00 from 1980 is worth:

$2.52 using the Consumer Price Index

That means Ellroy’s first book would have made him something like $ 8, 820 by today's standards.

Up yours, Ellroy, I made $1500. Back in 81 that would have been something like $595.

Even though it kind of annoys me to hear him whine about how tough it was that he made two grand more than me on his first novel almost thirty years ago in a time when Snickers cost thirty-five cents, I do have to admit I agree with him. Publishing is survival of the fittest and those who write for money are the first to go.

If you’re reading this blog and thinking about picking up a pen to make some money in your spare time let me tell you what’s what about writing.

I have written two books that have been published. To date I have made $2, 500. I have another book that will be edited this year, and two with my agent. That is a total of five books. Let’s say for the sake of argument I starting writing novels in October 2006. I spend on average two hours a day working on books seven days a week. That is 14 hours a week 52 weeks a year. That works out to 728 hours. Multiply that by 3 years and you get 2 184 hours. Now if you match that against the money I have made, it works out to about $1.15 per hour.

I pull in a big two bucks everyday for what I do, and payday is annually so there’s no splurging for a cup of tea with my big weeks earnings. Writing is about one thing. Love and dedication. I can’t speak for everybody, but I figure we all feel like we have something to say, and we’re not to bad about saying it on paper. We love creating something out of nothing and seeing it turn into something tangible. But nothing is overnight, everything takes time. Time to think, time to write, and time to re-write. Nothing about writing is cost effective.

When I really think about it writing seems less like a job and more like a way for people to punish themselves without having to put on little leather outfits and dog collars.

Whatever reason I write, I don’t do it for money. I do it because I love it. I’m sure James Ellroy, up in his mansion, feels the same way.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How Did You Learn to Read for Fun?

by Scott D. Parker

If you’re here at this blog, you are a reader. Primarily you like crime and mystery fiction since that’s the theme of our littler experiment. Someday in the past, however, either distant or recent, you started to read for fun.

Don’t get me wrong: we all have to learn to read. It’s part of our fundamental education. All throughout our primary education experience, we are assigned books to read, some of which are not good. Even the good ones have their spirits stripped away by over analyticals teachers. The experience can be so traumatic for some students that they never read for fun once they leave school. For everyone else, somewhere along the way, something clicked in our minds: Hey, this reading thing is fun.

Chances are, the thing that helped this reading realization click into place was a person. For students, it might have been a teacher who slips an eager young person a favorite book “off the official school reading list.” For adults who stopped reading when they graduated from high school, it might have been a co-worker who always carried a book and shared the joys of reading. Still others might be intrigued by the Harry Potter or Twilight phenomena and decided to try it out. For me, and, likely, many of you, our reading realization started at home.

My parents are readers. Always have been. Mom reads mysteries; not the violent, gory ones like Thomas Harris or noir gems of James M. Cain but the traditional stories of Agatha Christie, Nevada Barr, and Sue Grafton. Dad reads two main genres: westerns and science fiction. Every night, they wind down with books. If Mom picked me up from school, she’d have a paperback with her. On camping trips, Dad would make sure to bring along a couple of books. As I grew up, we’d always visit bookstores. The fun part of those days was when I saw one of them with a book in their hands. If they found a book, I’d get one, too.

You know what the best part of the education was? Their example. They didn’t harangue me to read, Read, READ in order to pass an exam in school. There wasn’t homework every night that required me to read and answer questions on worksheets. There weren’t standardized tests that forced reading to be quantifiable. We even got to read some books (To Kill a Mockingbird; The Hound of the Baskervilles) that were honest to goodness enjoyable.

As of today, I’m the father of an eight-year-old (where did THAT time go?) and I’m doing my best to show him that reading is fun. My wife is, too. We read a lot to him and he’s starting to read by himself. He also writes and illustrates his own books. He’s done about a dozen or more, way more than me. Hmm, maybe he learned the lesson too well.

How did you become a reader and what do you do to spread the joy of reading?

Friday, October 23, 2009


By Russel D McLean

I figure I been writing a lot about writing lately, and since I’m supposed to be doing the writing instead of yakking about it I figured I’d take a break and let you in on what’s been entertaining me during the down time, the breaks between current redtafts…

My obsession of the moment…

French crime movies (and TV shows). I mean, seriously, its getting bad. The French seem to be writing stuff that hits me where it hurts. And yes, Mr White, I watch ‘em with the subtitles on. No dubbing chez McLean.

It started about a year ago with a random purchase of a movie called 36, Quai des Orfèvres. Billed as The French answer to Heat, I think that’s a strange comparison, but what it does do is take two of France’s biggest stars (Depardieu and Daniel Auteil) and put them in one hell of a crime drama as two Parisian police detectives whose personal war starts to bleed over into their professional lives. Its bloody brilliant as a movie, beautifully shot, wonderfully written and has two barnstorming performances in the lead roles.

It was from there, I started seeking out French crime movies where I could. At the moment, they seem to be on a role at taking what might seem typical Hollywood fare and twisting it round to make it pretty damn smart. Even Le Serpent, based loosely (and I mean loosely) on Plender by Ted Lewis, manages to engage the viewer (unless, like my agent, they’re expecting some faithfulness to the original material) through what is a pretty mental and OTT psycho movie. Its something to do with the way that the French ground the spectacular in the mundane. Their films have an undercurrent of reality that seems to play through the most ludicrous plot twists. Which is probably why Harlan Coben’s Tell No One translated so bloody well, despite a third act that was mostly a long explanation of what had happened before.

And then there was 13, Tzameti.

This movie blew me away. Black and white and foreign, it probably put off a whole swathe of people, but 13 is one of the bleakest and most tense movies I had seen in a long time. Its also tough to talk about without giving things away, but once you realise what’s happening, it’s a terrifying ride to the final shot (and yes, the director is Georgian, not French, but since much of the dialogue is in French and it was produced there…)

From here, I was jonesing, finding a whole swathe of stories I’d never considered before. The French crime fiction scene is a broad church, ranging from straight procedurals like 36, through to noir like 13 and even absolutely insane thrillers like the Jean Reno vehicle Crimson Rivers (a fascinating thriller right until the appalling third act where clearly the producers decided to emulate the worst of Hollywood). Even their social movies are infused with crime. L’Haine is precisely the kind of street level examination of culture I love to see, dealing with Paris’s darker side, and even the bizarre Hidden has much to recommend it, although I still don’t know whether I actually enjoyed or understood it.

Its funny, but since I started watching French crime movies – many of them on faith – I’ve started taking more chances with my DVD buying. Right down to trusting Daniel Auteille to deliver the goods in a PI thriller called THE LOST SON, which turned out to be a fairly schizophrenic and uninvolving British thriller with a French actor in the lead.

But the crowning jewel for me has to be Spiral – not a movie, but a TV show co-produced by the BBC, which far outstrips any of the BBC’s own efforts. A gritty French drama that takes apart the justice system and exposes its inherent corruption and self-interest while still delivering a commentary on drugs trafficking and illegal activity that could apply to almost any modern country. Spiral is a kind of beautiful mix between the case of the week crime shows that dominate US TV just now and the ongoing arcs of shows like The Wire which tells one story in a way that refuses to tie everything up in a neat little package. And it is Spiral that has cemented my obsessions with French crime fiction, policiers, as I believe they would call the genre (not noir, as some might expect!). We’re nearly finished season 2 just now, and while I loved the first go round, the writers and the actors seem to have suddenly found their rhythm; for the first time in years, last night I was yelling at the screen as events took a rapid… spiral… towards a violent and inescapable climax.

Here’s a thing, though, the name of the show actually translates (I believe) as gears and not Spiral. Its as good a metaphor, though, for the way in which its shows the characters and their effect on each other and of course the analogy for those gears of justice.

Of course, I know I’ve only been exposed to a cherry-picked selection of French crime and thrillers, but on the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, and given the column inches devoted to Scandinavian crime and thrillers of late, French crime fiction – at least on screen – is certainly, tres-bien.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


by Dave White

I have completely forgotten how hard short stories are to write.

Usually, when I sit down to write something, I have a character, or a line, and I just kind of go from there. I can meander through the piece and figure out where I'm going with it. I can play around and see what works. Eventually, a few months and a few thousand words later, I have a completed draft. I, then go into revision mode and find out why, if, and how the story works.

Not with a short story.

For some reason, I always think short stories should be written quickly. A blur of white hot writing and bam, you have a new story that ready to be sent out for publication. But it never works that way.

In fact, short stories might be harder that writing a draft of a novel. You can't meander through a short story. You can't figure out what it's about. You have to know.

And right now, I don't know.

I have a great opening line. I have a character... and then I've got nothing.

Every morning a new idea pops into my head, telling me what the story's about. And by the afternoon I've rejected it.

But it's been so long since I've completed a short story. Not since "Righteous Son" in the Killer Year Anthology. And thinking back... that was almost 3 years ago I wrote that story.

So it's been a while.

Time to get back into the routine.

Time to take a break from the marathon and go back to the sprint. Just to see if I can still do it.

But man, can I feel my muscles burning as I do.

Pain is a good thing, right?

(This will be my last post published as a man in my 20s... Whoa.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Google History Could Get Me In Trouble

John McFetridge

I do a lot of research online. This week it was cocaine smuggling into Canada and I found out that Nova Scotia Power imports low-sulpher coal from Venezuela. And sometimes, there's a little something extra on the freighters.

When I was writing Swap I was digging into the theme of how power shifts in a relationship, how the powerful positions sometimes swap places. It started with how bikers in Canada were used by the Mafia as muscle until there were so many of them and they were so strong they became rivals (and in my books even more, but I may be making that up).

Then I thought it might be fun to take this idea of the relationship swap all the way and I googled "Wife Swapping." The first thing I found out is that people involved in this, um, activity, don't call it that anymore. They call it, the lifestyle. And then I discovered there seems to be a lot of them.

I also discovered on Google that men who go to prostitutes (not on the street, but through escort agencies) called the activity, the hobby.

Of course, I also spend time online on blogs and on book sites, and I have to confess, far too much time on sports sites. If the Maple Leafs don't win a game soon, I may never finish another book.

And on all these sites they have discussion forums which are great for research. I learn a lot in the discussion forums, mostly that no matter what the topic is that gets people there in the first place, they all start to look the same after a while. Politics, movies, sports - there are pretty much the same opinions on the wife swap- er lifestyle sites as there are on the book sites or sports sites. The same jokes get passed around, the same YouTube clips, people are still talking about Balloon Boy.

As weird a place as the internet is (and, wow, it is often very, truly, deeply weird) it's also a good place to remind yourself that there are a lot of normal people in the world. Or, you know, mostly normal given that they spend their spare time with prostitutes or someone else's spouse or explaining in great detail what exactly is wrong with the Leafs' power play and penalty killing.

Lately I have also found bits and pieces of dialogue online.

"A man is only as good as the porn he watches."

Now I can slip that into one of my books easy, I already know which character is going to say it (Felice, a woman who sees many men involved in the hobby ). That came from a fun site called "Texts from Last Night."

Another good site is "F*** My Life" where people post awful things that happened to them. Stuff like, "Today, I watched my boyfriend's band play a gig. I also found out he pulls the same faces playing the bass as he does when we have sex."

I'm not sure who's going to say that, but I'll find a place.

The Overheard sites are good, too. Overheard in New York is my favourite, (Six-year-old boy: Mom, did you know that Elvis Presley died of a drug overdose? Mom: Well, that won't ever happen to you. Six-year-old boy, angrily: How do you know?) but Overheard in the Office is also very good ("How many of these one-a-day vitamins am I supposed to take every day?"

News of the Weird always has some good crime stories.

So, what are some of your favourite places for "research" online?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Guys and Molls

By Jay Stringer

Some debates just bore me. Certain “hot topics” just make me roll my eyes to the heavens and zone out. One of the best examples of my apathy?

Is there a difference between male and female crime writers?

You know what? It just doesn’t interest me. The idea itself seems so silly to me. There’s way too much to take into consideration, too many subtleties, too many different tastes and too few hours. To boil it all down to differences between the sexes has always struck me as over simplification. I don't like to simplify an issue, i like to open the can and tip all of the worms out.

Of all the interesting things to be discussed about the craft of writing, and all the even greater things to be discussed about the joy of reading, I could care less what sex the writer is.

(There’s always one)

I’ve been at two events recently where the topic has been discussed. Both occasions it was by female writers, and I’ve heard some well thought out arguments and some poor ones. It’s been playing at the back of my mind for the last few days now, and so I want to get it out of my head and open up the floor for a discussion. I don’t claim to have any answers here, just a few nagging questions. And it seems to flow naturally from the discussion that Dave started last week. It has struck me that this website can sometimes be very much like a panel, there's the guys sat up here with the microphones but it's rally the interaction that makes it work.

One of the arguments put forward was that women are more sensitive to pain and emotion than men, another was that you wouldn’t find a woman detailing the building of a nuclear bomb in the way Tom Clancy might.

I don’t know that this holds true of any of the books on my shelf, but okay. And this isn’t an attack on the opinions of female writers. Men get in on the act too. Ian Rankin caught a hornet’s nest between his teeth a few years ago when he suggested that female writers –and gay ones in particular- were more violent than their male counterparts. I don’t know that this hold true of my bookshelves either.

Maybe Rankin was taking a poorly worded friendly swipe at the British crime fiction market, which often seems to be dominated by female authors who write forensic procedurals. Well, aside from the fact the market is dominated by Ian Rankin...

Just a scan of bookshelves in my nearest store, or during my time as a bookseller, would support both of those generalisations. The route to success as a female crime writer often appears to be to write a series of novels starring a forensic pathologist/psychologist/ventriloquist that mixes grisly murders with a romantic subplot.

But I don’t like to make snap judgements, I like to get into the cracks and see why something happens. If one type of fiction dominates female fiction, isn’t that far more likely down to a bias in the publishing industry rather than an in built difference between men and women?

And that’s to ignore writers like Helen Fitzgerald who I wrote about last week, who writes dark and humorous stand alone books. And it certainly doesn’t cover Christa Faust or Megan Abbot who have been writing some of the best noir of recent years.

And to get back to looking at the flip side; there sometimes seems to be the idea that men are interested far more in glorifying violence and crime, whereas women look to explore the emotional impact. But that seems to ignore writers like George Pelecanos and Ray Banks. Russel's latest book is a great example of choosing to show the consequences over the actions, and yet there's not a single scene of pathology or the scrubs of a forensic scientist.

The market doesn't seem to have many instances of male writers giving more time to highly researched forensic analysis than to the emotional impact of alienation and social dysfunction. But again, surely that generalisation is more an indication of what publishers are looking for than of anything else? (or even of my own limited scope)

There are some differences between us, sure.

Men and Women will definitely read certain situations differently. I’ve only ever been one of the two, so I’m working on guesswork here. But I’d use that guess to say that a woman’s reaction to an aggressive man would be different to a male reaction. It would be a different emotion that comes from a different place. A man can be just as scared of a dark alleyway as a women, but again the fear might come from a different place, a different instinct. And so -following through- the two sexes may react in different ways to many of the trappings of crime fiction. But isn’t the art of writing to remove yourself from the story and let your characters react in their own way? And in that case it shouldn't make a damn bit of difference whether the author has an outie or an innie.

I reject the notion that women writers are pre-programmed to deal with fall out and consequences any better than men. But to the accusation that men glorify the violence? Well there have been more Mike Hammers than Ms Trees, but again that’s surely down to the market?

And is there anything wrong with trivialising violence? It depends on who's doing it and why, of course, but one of the scariest aspects of real life violence is that it can become casual to the battle hardened. I want to read a book that faces up to this and tries to explore it

I can’t see that there should be any differences other than the ones we choose to see. Are male writers sometimes guilty of not exploring the female point of view? Are female writers sometimes guilty of overdoing things to try and prove a point?

Is the only difference that we think there should be a difference? Maybe when someone starts to list the differences between male and female writers, they’re actually telling you more about their own insecurities and tastes than any larger truth?

I don’t know, obviously, but I’m interested. The floor is open, what do you guys think?

And on a side note; I've said it's the interaction that makes this whole thing work. What issues would you want us to write about in future? Any questions you'd like expanded upon?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Community at a Writer's Core

By Steve Weddle

When people say writing is a solitary life, it’s probably because those people are awkward dorks.

This weekend, fellow writer Chad Rohrbacher and I took our families into the mountains to pick apples. Despite the cold, windblown weather, this seemed to be the popular idea. Minivans and SUVs twisted up washed-out roads and people stood on look-out walks to take cell phone pictures of empty landscapes.

There are many things I’m no good at, probably seventeen or eighteen, at least. One of those things is counting. But I’d estimate roughly seven-hundred-million people were walking around the orchards, wearing their Old Navy fleece and pulling their twins in little red wagons, making videos for Grandma and filling recycled-fiber bags with oddly shaped Fuji apples.

Why would people drive up a mountain and pay for the privilege of picking your own apples? Well, the apples were fantastically good. I had three before we got back to the weigh-in station. (I was a little worried that they were going to figure out how to make me pay for those apples by weighing me, too, and just charge me for however far over 175 pounds I was. Turns out having an apple while you’re picking them is totally acceptable, though eating an apple while you’re in line for the weigh-in is scowled upon.)

The reason folks were doing this was for the experience – the idea of getting back to nature and joining a community of like-minded people on a Saturday afternoon. (I’m sure excellent political arguments have been made about middle-class people doing manual labor for “funsies.” Since those arguments are usually made by middle-class professors looking for tenure, I don’t really see any need to debunk them.)

OK. Where the heck was I? Making fun of the middle-class families? No, after that. Making fun of the people for making fun of the middle-class families? After that. Oh, here we are. Experience. Community.

So all these families descend (um, ascend?) on a mountain, like ugly on my Aunt Bertha and this ties into writing how? Haha. Funny you should ask.
This past weekend mystery writers descended on Indianapolis for the annual Bouchercon conference. Next month mystery writers in another state will converge on a conference. In addition to national groups, mystery writers have state, regional, and local clubs and associations. They have panels at conferences. Meet-ups. Book signings. Blog tours. Wha? You think this is promotion? This doesn’t count? Writing can still be solitary? Bah.

When I write a chapter, I have a handful of fellow writers I can shoot it off to in order to find out what level of stink it has on it. And while they’re reading my chapter or short story, I’ll be reading what they sent me this morning to look at. Do painters do that? “Hey, I bought this canvas and I can’t decide where I should go after I put the orange streak down the middle.” Yeah. Good luck mailing over your sculpture there, art boy. Writers share their work as much as any group I know. From asking for help on early ideas to passing around ARCs, writers use their work to build community, to work together.

And readers are just as active building community. Reviewing books, linking to author interviews, driving two hours across west Texas to a book signing. Sure, when you read it’s just you and book, but you’re part of a community. Just like the writers. Readers pass books on to each other. “You have to read this.” Readers share their favorite books the way writers share their books – with everyone they can. And readers are more and more becoming writers themselves, thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and review blogs.

So that apple orchard on the side of the mountain kinda reminded me of a bookstore, with people strolling around, browsing down the aisles for something tasty (Did I take the metaphor too far? Sorry about that.) with family and friends. A community of like-minded folks.

Then one of them goes home and sits on the back porch, looking out over the sunset and eating an apple while killing off one of the main characters in the new book. Then hitting select, copy, and paste to put that chapter into an email, he sends it off for quick reads to his writer pals, including the one who just went home with $47 worth of apples.

Then the writer sits back to enjoy the rest of his own unbalanced Fuji apple before tossing the jagged core into the woods. You know, now that I think about it, eating an apple is a solitary experience.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hey, I Hear You Wrote a Book

by Mike Knowles

There are downsides about writing a book. Now I know that when I say this I’m going to get the same kind of looks I would get if I told you that to a teacher there were downsides to getting the summer off. Doesn’t matter if it sounds like I’m whining about my Ferrari being a gas guzzler, there are downsides to writing a book.

The first thing, and this may be only me, is it sounds incredibly lame to explain a crime novel to your friends and peers.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"What’s it about?"

"A career criminal who suffers a double cross and then has to murder several people to stay alive."

"Oh, like that Schwartzenegger movie."

"Yep, just like that. I saw that one too and thought the concept needed flushing out on the page."

"I like that Stallone movie. The one in the jungle. You ever seen that?"

"I have. In fact, that’s my next book."

I’ve yet to find a way to explain what I’ve written in a short amount of time and make it sound cool. Every time I try it just sounds like I'm explaining the rules of Dungeons and Dragons to the hottest girl in school.

The second thing is the book sales itself. For both books, most people somehow get it into their head that I work for Avon.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"Neat, I’ll take one."


There is a long awkward pause here. The pause lasts for as long as it takes me to understand that the blank stare on the face of whomever I am talking to is the face of someone who is waiting for their order. It is the same look a person has on their face while they are waiting to pick up a pizza.

"I don’t have any books."

"You don’t? Where can I get one?"


"So it’s like a real book then?"


"What’s it about?"

And we’re back to the beginning. About four out of ten believe that I self publish the books and sell them out of my trunk. This is completely rational because a lot of people know others who have done this. This leads to my next downside.

There are a bunch of people out there who know other people who have written a book or have written something themselves that ended up in print.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"I have a cousin who wrote a book about plant life in the greater Niagara region. Joe Francisco, do you know him?"

"Yep, I saw him on the weekend at the writer’s meeting. It’s like the Freemasons. I’m new to writing so it was your cousin who presided over my initiation. My butt is still sore."

The answer doesn’t usually faze anyone; they’re too psyched to tell me about their cousin the author. "My cousin is a great guy, he couldn’t find anyone to publish his book so he invested in a laser printer and made his own. Do you have a laser printer?"


"What’s your book about?"

And we’re back to the beginning. This conversation could have gone a couple of other ways too too. I’ve met people who have had recipes printed in work cookbooks, poems in class yearbooks, and opinions in the newspaper that can't wait to spend an hour or two talking about how hard it is to get published.

The last downside I can think of is the readings. I’m from a relatively small city and I write in a relatively underappreciated genre. So when the local author is reading from his new hardboiled crime novel the turn outs are embarrassing. At one event there were two people in a room that seated thirty waiting to hear me read and one of them got up and left after the first three sentences. I have decided to believe that the lady who got up and left thought a hardboiled story was about eggs and figured out she was in the wrong place after I dropped my first F word.

"Hey, I hear you wrote a book."


"What is this reading thing I saw in the paper?"

"I'm going to read my book at the library."

"How much does it cost?"

"It's free. You should come."

"What do you do there?"

"I'm going to read my book and answer some questions."

"You're just going to sit there an read, hunh?"


"How long will it take."

"Half hour."

"Half and hour of you reading a book? I don't know. I might be bored, I already saw that Schwarzenegger movie on cable. I'll come if I can."

They don't, but the next day they will pretend they did because they don't know there were only two people there (I count the lady who left because she showed up and that should still count).

I love writing. I practically do it for free. The downsides are just things I have found I have had to deal with every time my name ends up on a cover. It will happen next year when my third book comes out and I will still be at the empty readings, explaining why I don’t have any books to sell, and trying to explain what my book is about without sounding douchey. I'll do it all and I won't really mind any of the downsides because being a writer is totally worth it.

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.