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.